Singing the Psalms: Interview with Songwriter Wendell Kimbrough

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I got the chance to host Wendell at our church for a hymn sing concert. His gift for writing singable, artistic music for the church is incredible. His latest album, entitled “Psalms We Sing Together,” can be purchased online through his Bandcamp store (click to visit). I got the chance to interview Wendell about the album, as well as his passion for singing the Psalms.

What is your current position? What does a normal work week look like for you?

I am a worship arts director and artist-in-residence at a small Anglican church in Fairhope, Alabama. My week is a combination of planning Sunday worship (selecting music, leading rehearsal with a volunteer band) and writing/sharing music with our congregation and the broader church. I currently write a refrain to go with our Psalm reading every week, so that keeps me on my toes. And because I released an album a couple of months ago, I am now hitting the road pretty frequently to play hymn sing concerts at churches every couple of months.

When writing a song for the local church, what are some of your guiding principles? How do you balance artistry and beauty with function and utility?

For text writing, I try to balance faithfulness to God’s word with meaningfulness to modern ears. I don’t want to write songs that only someone with a Biblical Studies major will find compelling. I’m basically trying to do what Eugene Peterson does in the Message–get the original meaning of the text to read/sing so that it impacts modern listeners like it would have impacted its original audience.

For the musical side of songwriting, I try to focus on singable melodies. Here’s a simple test I use: if it holds together pretty well when I sing it a cappella, then it usually stands a chance of being congregation-friendly. But there’s no substitute for actually singing the song with a group of people and seeing how quickly and how well they pick it up. When I want to add complexity to the music, I usually do that through the harmonization. I love early jazz–Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and guys like that. And I use chords from that beautiful style of music, which may seem complicated compared to some modern worship music. But I think it’s okay to make the band work a little harder, as long as the congregation singing along finds the melody to be singable and easy to remember.

What were some musical influences for you while you were writing this album? Where does the style and sound originate?

I love early 20th century jazz. I love Motown in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I love 1970s Gospel music. Those are all influences. When we went into the studio, a frequent reference was The Last Waltz, the Martin Scorsese documentary about The Band and their big concert with Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and other greats of the ‘70s. It’s a fun documentary, and it formed a reference point for us as we talked about the sounds and style of music we wanted to create.

What did you discover about the Psalms while writing this new album? How was this album different from your previous work?

I found that the Psalms can help me grow into emotional wholeness. The Psalms call us to bring all of life–including those parts we would rather hide, like anger and fear–into God’s presence. In writing and singing new Psalm arrangements each week with my congregation, I’ve been forced to wrestle with things like “How do I express anger and fear in church?” This is not something I would typically do during worship. So the Psalms are calling me (and my congregation) to be more honest and real with God.

This is my first album of all original songs written for church worship. I’ve done an album of traditional hymns with modern folk arrangements, and before that I released 2 albums of singer/songwriter material, more in a James Taylor vein. I’m proud of all my albums, but each is quite different. The thing that’s been consistent is my voice, and the sounds I love–beautiful acoustic guitars, brass, a motown/soul vibe.

Why do you think it is important to sing the Psalms in church?

Paul in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 tells the early church that if they want to be “filled with the Spirit” and to have “the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” then the prescription is to sing Psalms, Psalms, and more Psalms. The 3 words translated “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” are 3 words that were used as categories of Psalms in the Septuagint translation that would have been the Scripture of the day. So Paul’s original audience would have understood that as, “sing Psalms, those other Psalms, and the other kind of Psalms.” So I think it’s pretty clear that Psalm singing was important to the spiritual formation of the early church. It would have been a big part of Jesus’ own spiritual formation, as well, as a good first century Jew. So if we want to be formed into emotionally mature, Spirit filled people like Jesus, I think it’s pretty important that we sing the Psalms.

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