Worship artist and songwriter Phil Wickham recently released his latest project, the fourth installment in the Singalong series. This time, the album features collaborations with fellow worship leaders Jenn and Brian Johnson, as well as Matt Redman.
And there’s a reason why this sounds different than most worship albums. There is no backing band. The singer’s vocals are the same level as the audiences and there is only one instrument: an acoustic guitar.
We recently spoke to Phil about the approach to making worship albums and why the stripped down Singalong setting is so powerful.
Tell me what the inspiration for the Singalong series was.
When it first started out, I was out on this tour—man 10 years ago probably—with David Crowder. My second record just came out. It was called Cannons, and Crowder had asked if I would come out and just play with an acoustic guitar and kind of be the middle solo guy in between him and another opening band.
You know, I felt ill-equipped for that, but just kind of got my little set together and made it happen. And unbeknownst to me, some of these songs off this record were already kind of seeping into some churches and some different communities around the country. So, even though it was just me and a guitar up on these stages throughout this tour, there were some really special moments happening where people would really start singing out.
There’s something about the simplicity of it and how different it was from these big studio band recordings I was doing where I thought “Man, I wish I could capture this and just put it out.”
So we did that with the first Singalong. We did not put much time or effort or money or anything toward it. I just looked to the next thing on my calendar of where I was going to be playing—just me solo on stage—and it was in Portland. So we just mic’d the crowd and pressed record and didn’t fix a thing. I figured ‘This was so quick and easy no one’s actually going to want to pay for this, so let’s just give it away for free.’ And that was before, like, Spotify. About 100,000 downloads later I figured ‘Well, maybe there’s a place for this.’
So since that Singalong, every three years or so I’ve put one out.
The heart of the whole thing is keeping it super raw, very real, no overdubs, no recutting of vocals and just capture a group of people singing out to God together. In the mix, the audience is pretty much as loud as [I am], so people feel like they’re kind of a part of it too.
That’s what Singalong 4 is: Continuing that idea of putting out some worship songs in a really simple, stripped-down way to hopefully help people connect to the heart of God.
What does that really simple atmosphere actually do for the worship experience for you?
There’s something in honesty, and in me not being to hide behind anything—all I’ve got are the chords I’m playing on the acoustic guitar and in my voice. Something about that I think is like disarming in a room.
If I’m at like a worship experience or concert or whatever then I just love taking it all in. I want to see what’s on the video screen. I want to check out what the lighting guy is doing. And then “Oh the bass player did something awesome just now” and their drummer … It’s all awesome and emotional and adds to it, but sometimes I know for me, in those situations [I’m] like, “Oh, I forgot to join in. I was so excited about what was happening.”
So sometimes, we need to break it down. There’s nothing really worth looking at. There’s just me on stage. Their attention [isn’t] going anywhere else other than these giant lyrics on the back of the screen.
There’s something special—especially when people are used to the free-for-all fireworks going off thing, which I love—there’s something kind of shocking to the system when you’re like shoulder to shoulder, standing room only, in this room and all that’s happening is some guy strumming an acoustic guitar and we’re singing out “Jesus, the anthem of my heart, Jesus, the anchor of my soul,” and the only thing to grab your attention is that lyric and that melody.
There’s something that happens in a room, I think, that breaks down that thing that I have to work to break down so much. Sometimes that takes 30 minutes to 45 minutes to kind of get a group of people in that place where we’re all in it together, but on those Singalong nights, it’s like I strum a chord and they’re just ready to go.
There’s probably a number of reasons behind that, but something about just simplifying and kind of shocking the system into like, “Oh yeah, all it’s about is what we’re singing about.” And everything else, and all that we can add, should kind of work toward getting people around this common thread of “Jesus, the anthem of my heart”. So the Singalong things can help get there faster sometimes.