HOW DOES A REVOLUTION STAY REVOLUTIONARY? It’s the question and curse of anything that becomes a big deal. For every Spotify, there are a dozen Napsters. For every Billy Joel, there are 50 Barry Manilows. It’s the rare sensation that gains its sea legs to weather the storms of time and short public attention spans. Rarer still: the sensation that learns how to self-replicate its success.
But Hillsong Church, Sydney, Australia’s worship music giant, seems to have cracked the code. In 1998, following a decade of setting the global standard for contemporary praise and worship music, they launched Hillsong United—a band made up of feisty young upstarts who had been dyed in the Hillsong wool but brought a fresh perspective and savvy ear for newer trends in the mainstream music industry. And since one good turn deserves another, 2012 saw the next iteration: Hillsong Young & Free.
“We battled throughout a lot of things when we were starting Young & Free,” says Aodhan King, the band’s worship leader and songwriter. “With Revival and the last album we did, there’s always a conversation. How are we going to be different? What are we going to bring?”
The answer to that question is both complicated and simple. Complicated because we live in complicated times, and King understands that. But the solution to writing worship during times of division and turmoil might not be that complicated at all, he says.
“Obviously the Christian genre is pretty boxed in music-wise,” King says. If you listen to a lot of Christian music, you know what he means. There are still a lot of well-meaning Christian bands out there making music that sounds like overproduced Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay. Hillsong Young & Free gets around this trope the organic way, bringing in a lot of members with a variety of music tastes and giving them a voice in how the songs come together.
“We’ve got people who love hip-hop, right through to liking rock,” King says. “I think you just gotta bring what’s real and that’s just how we’ve overcome that.”
King talks about staying “real” a lot. It’s something he says the band works hard at, and if you listen to the band’s latest album, III, it shows. There’s a wide variety of genres at work, including tons of the sort of dub-y samples that have become commonplace in clubs and music festivals but still send a lot of church worship bands whining about kids these days. And that gets at something else that sets Young & Free apart—something deeper than just stylistic flourishes.
“When we started Young & Free, we were a lot younger,” King says. “And so I think a lot of our songs were quite lovey- dovey God songs, which are amazing because it was true to us at the time. That’s five years ago. We’ve gotten older and I think we’re starting to realize that life actually is crazy and has highs and lows. It’s this wild journey. You don’t understand that when you’re young.”
And that’s the trick of being “young and free.” What do you do as you start to grow up and realize a lot of the things you believed when you were younger are actually more complex than you thought? This is especially complicated for bands of the Hillsong variety, singing about something as vulnerable as their collective faith journey.
“We want to remain open to what God wants to do,” King says. “That in itself sounds cliche, but, you know, we don’t have to write albums. We don’t have to put out another record. We didn’t have to put out this record! There’s no one banging on our door to do it, but we still are compelled to do it because we had something to say.”
King’s being a bit humble here. People are banging down Young & Free’s door. Their 3 million YouTube channel subscribers aren’t there out of pity. But his point is there’s no point in creating a worship album if you’re not finding new truths to articulate.
“I don’t want to write a song that I don’t feel like is a story that was real to me,” he says. “So I do think [we have] some sort of responsibility to bring worship music to the young generation. That’s what we feel called to do and within that, I feel like we need to teach people what we’ve learned on the journey.”
“This is more than just us bringing our cool songs and our stories,” he continues. “We do feel like we’re called to reach young people.”
So this is how a revolution becomes a legacy. Not by overextending its own relevance, but by passing its relevance along to others who feel called and committed to do right by it. It’s not easy and it takes some humility but if you can pull it off, you might wind up with a band like Young & Free.
“I think as we’ve grown older, we’ve understood God’s faithful through it all,” King says. “I think the coolest thing about [III] is I can look at the songs and go, ‘I know who wrote that because I know what they were going through last year, and I know this is a prayer answered or a prayer for a season they’re going through and maybe the next record will be a prayer answered shown in there.’”