Josh Baldwin cut his teeth in the Southeast, where he grew up on the traveling band circuit — traveling with other artists while slowly building up a small repertoire of his own work. But in 2014, he moved to Redding, California and joined Bethel, becoming a worship leader for one of the most influential worship music outfits in the country. Since then, he’s gotten pretty good at having a foot in both worlds. On the one side, you have the rootsy, Americana-inspired singer/songwriter. On the other, you have the worship leader who helps usher congregations into the presence of God on Sunday mornings. Baldwin sat down with RELEVANT to talk about living in that tension, managing his many influences and his new live album Live at Church. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
RELEVANT: So how’s worship via Zoom been going?
Josh Baldwin: It’s been weird, but it’s actually been good. I was talking to a friend today about it. I think I was just shocked at how good it’s felt. When I’ve led worship in church at Bethel, we get up there on stage and we’re all kind of spread out and then we actually just lead worship — just go ahead and just do it, lead worship, but there’s nobody out in the audience. I thought it would feel weirder than it does. It’s actually felt a little more freeing in a weird way to not have people there.
I didn’t realize how much I was focused on the people. When they’re not there, you’re just like: let’s just go.
The freedom of not having a spotlight. Have you been writing more on lockdown?
Not as much as I thought I would. I actually thought, oh yeah, this is going to be great. I’m going to just finish some songs. Yeah, right.
The thing is, I’ve had to homeschool my kid. I turned into a second-grade teacher. I mean, actually it’s been really amazing to just be home. This is the most I’ve been home in five years. My kids love it. They love doing school at home and being done with it early and then they just get to play.
So I haven’t done as much writing. I’ve tried to finish up a few things because I’m recording now, but I’d already finished up a lot of that for this.
What is songwriting like? I think a lot of us non-songwriters assume that writing worship music itself is a spiritual experience. Like, you’re levitating and maybe there’s a ray of sunshine coming down from Heaven.
Oh no, definitely not. I found that I just naturally gravitate towards songs turned into worship songs. They’ll start out and I’m not necessarily gearing them that way; they just somehow morph into something that could be useable for a corporate church.
Now, you have those moments where you just know something’s special and all the atmosphere feels electric and like, OKK, this is going to be something that I know really feels special. Most of the time it’s just like, maybe you have a spark or an idea that feels special. And the actual writing part is just work. Sometimes you go to work and it just feels like work. It doesn’t necessarily feel amazing. But then when I’m actually done with a song and I’m actually singing it or I’m singing it for my wife or friends or at church, that’s when I really feel the weightiness of what might be on that song in that moment. I wish it was like that all the time.
Are you ever surprised at how well a song lands? Maybe it felt like a real struggle to write and then when you play it at church, it makes a bigger impact than you thought?
Yes. Yes, it does. The song “Let the Redeemed” — the single that I released. We worked on that song for a little over a year and had started out feeling like, going in one direction and then went another. I mean, I knew it was special. I knew that chorus felt like there was life on it. But we were singing it a totally different way and a different style and vibe, and just could never find verses that worked or a bridge and it was just one of those that just, even when I think about finishing it, it wears me out to even think about it. I just would push it off. I kept pushing it off.
And then finally one day, we just hit a stride with it. We changed the whole vibe and it went the way that it’s going now. That just opened up everything. And then these verses just came. The first time I sang it live, I remember, OK, wow. This feels amazing.
It’s been interesting to watch the list of acceptable musical influences for worship music expand in recent years. For a long time, everything had to sound like U2 and Coldplay. Then Mumford happened and that had a big effect, but it was still very “four white guys with a guitar” stuff. But lately, you see a lot more musical diversity. I’m curious if you think there will ever be a time where lyrical influences for worship music become more diverse along with the actual sonic palette.
Definitely. I’m actually wearing my big Tom Petty shirt today
[Baldwin stands up on the Zoom call to show off his tee, which is indeed a Big Tom Petty Shirt]
I’m from North Carolina. My rootsy, Americana country type influence comes through as much as I can get away with it. I think my music is mostly influenced by that. And lyrically, I would love to think that I’m influenced by those people. But then, I love Martin Smith [lead singer and songwriter for Delirious?], just the way that he writes. It felt like everyday language that [Delirious?] was writing. You didn’t hear Christian music and worship songs actually saying those things. And then they packaged it with this music that wasn’t really Christian or worship music at the time either.
Lyrically, I’ve just tried to keep it like: how would I say this? How does this move me? I think the more that I just try to keep it to my everyday language, then the more people can gravitate towards authenticity. It might not be the first time you’ve heard it said that way, but I feel like if I’m being true to who I am and saying what I’m really feeling, then that’s going to reach people.
I would imagine your head starts spinning from thinking about how this is going all over the world. My grandma’s going to sing this in her little church out in Nebraska, and they’ll be singing it in New York City, Paris and Sydney.
It’s definitely a responsibility. To be true to yourself, say what you’re feeling inside but then also remember that a lot of these songs are going to be sung by people who… I think a lot of times you can get caught up in trying to convey so much of what you’re feeling. But I want this to reach everyone. I don’t want it to be so inwardly focused that some people can’t relate to that it all.
But then you look at the actual Psalms and it’s interesting. David will sing about wishing his own personal enemies were dead. If that wasn’t already in the actual Bible, it probably wouldn’t occur to any of us here today to consider it divinely inspired worship music.
There’s definitely a singer-songwriter type in me that comes out. I’ve had some of those songs on my albums. They’re a personal, inward kind of life stuff that I’m not necessarily going to get up on Sunday morning and sing it and share it, but it’s important. And those songs are honestly the songs that I get the most feedback from.
I had a song on my last album called “Abraham” and I got more feedback from that song than almost any worship song that I’ve ever written. And it was because it met them in the situation and they really felt like, oh yeah, you’re talking about something that I go through all the time.
And those songs are important. And just because it maybe doesn’t work as well on Sunday morning, that doesn’t mean it’s not important. We have our Bethel live albums that are just geared towards corporate worship. We’re giving these songs out for the church to just run with and to bless the Church. And then, I think that’s the beauty of being able to do these solo albums that we do, where we can take those other songs that aren’t going to go on our big live worship albums, but we can make them our own artistic expression of what’s going on with us. I feel very blessed to have those two different avenues to send those songs out, so that’s pretty special.