GRACEFEST with Newsboys

Newsboys

Since arriving on the scene in 1985 in their native Australia, the Newsboys have taken Christian music by storm. Nearly three decades later, the iconic band is an undisputed industry leader, garnering six gold albums; 8 million units in career sales; 33 #1 singles; multiple GRAMMY® and American Music Award nominations; and signature hits ranging from “He Reigns” and “Born Again” to their recent 15-week chart-topper, “We Believe.” Expanding their reach into film, the band appeared in the 2014 Pure Flix hit, “God’s Not Dead,” inspired by their song of the same name. Currently comprised of drummer Duncan Phillips; lead vocalist Michael Tait; guitarist Jody Davis; and keyboardist Jeff Frankenstein, the Newsboys’ latest recording, Hallelujah For The Cross, marks their first-ever collection of hymns.

It’s no secret that the Newsboys spend a lot of their days on the road. They’re constantly challenged and driven to make powerful, intriguing music that will continue to bring their message of faith to anyone who will listen. They’ve been doing it for almost three decades now. That’s a long time to consistently make new and exciting music but they’ve continued to do it with fervor and drive, allowing them to stay at the top of their game in the process.
Keeping things fresh can be a challenge in all aspects of life. Old things can seem stagnant and past their “due date” and we get caught up in the glitz of what’s fresh and unchartered. And then there are those things in life that just become more poignant, more meaningful and quite simply, more needed as time goes on. Their depth and power never seem to lose their luster.
So, when the Newsboys decided to unveil their first ever hymns collection HALLELUJAH FOR THE CROSS, this was their first challenge. How do we take these powerful, foundational hymns, that for hundreds of years have managed to stay valid and not become redundant even though they were written so long ago, and refresh them for today’s listener? The hymns don’t necessarily need to be rescued but a new audience needs to hear them.
Old hymns don’t get much press these days but they haven’t lost their punch. Newsboys manager Wes Campbell knows this well. “There’s a lot of truth and power in those old hymns,” he says. “We’re not saying we’ve redone them completely but we have gone and taken that nugget from these hymns and made them accessible to a new generation. Our hope is that people will then go back and explore the full lyrics and learn the story behind them. They’re pretty powerful.”
Overall, there was a purposeful effort to keep the integrity of the original hymn but to modernize it and make it palatable for today’s audiences, so taking some creative license had to be employed. “We took a bit of a modern worship approach to these old hymns,” Wes said. “We kept the verses in there and it really does open a pathway to where these songs came from and sheds some light on the songs for people who’ve never really sung hymns.”
Lead singer Michael Tait agrees. “Hymns are important to me. Wes Campbell, producer Seth Mosley, and myself sat and picked through songs that went way, way, way back into my past and my dad’s Baptist church. I love modern worship but I just love that old stuff because they were written in such desperate and perilous times, and out of great pain comes great resolve, I think. When I sing them, they go deeper in ways to me than a lot of things I reach out for when I’m in that spiritual drought,” he adds.
Michael has some favorites on the album. “It Is Well,” I love,” he continues. “I just love that story. The way I chose to sing it and arrange it with Wes and Seth was done not so much in a haphazardly, happy way but more like a victory call, with resolution. Really saying, ‘It is Well!’ with a power behind it. No two ways about it that this was one of my favorites.”
The group deviated a bit with the album’s title cut and debut single, penned by Ross King and Todd Wright but overall, held closely to the goal of reaching deep into that ancient well of songs that used to be the foundation of the Christian faith.
Produced by Seth Mosley—who helmed Newsboys' RIAA Certified Gold Selling record God’s Not Dead —additional highlights of Hallelujah for the Cross include “Jesus Paid It All”; “Holy, Holy, Holy”; and “All Creatures of Our God and King.” The album also features a new arrangement of Newsboys’ classic “Where You Belong/Turn Your Eyes.”
Each song on the list had to be fleshed out to see if putting a Newsboys interpretation to it would work. “Some of the older hymns didn’t lend themselves to modernization,” Wes recalls. “If you adjusted the rhythm or structure of the song, it would fall apart so that helped us narrow the list a bit.”
After all these years, the band finally found a time period when they could gather and do this album that they’ve wanted to do for a while but the timing just hadn’t presented itself yet. “Obviously you want it to be successful but this project wasn’t done for the big sales thing,” Wes stresses. “This was something we just really wanted to do. We really want people to be introduced to the power of the lyric. That seemed lost for a time but I think some of the modern worship music today, of late, are songs that I’m starting to notice more depth and power coming back in them. For a minute there it got to where everything seemed distilled down so this seems like the perfect time to release these older hymns and have people really get them.”
“This album is a nice detour to a place, by today’s terms, less traveled,” Michael adds. “I won’t say unchartered because I’ve been there in the past but this is not my usual fare. For me, as a seasoned musician, I like the fact that we could bring something, still intact, that might usually be left to an older generation, to the forefront of where we are today with CCM and music period, and make it new again.”
Wes adds, “The guys all grew up, especially Michael, singing hymns in the church. There’s a lot of truth and power in those old hymns. Our song, “We Believe,” had deeper meaning and I think gave us the confidence after going #1 for 15 weeks with such deep lyrics, that maybe this is the time. Let’s point back to the past. Let’s point back to where we came from. The lyrics in hymns are a message. The circumstances that the people were in when they wrote the songs were incredible. ‘I’m blind but now I see?’ That was literal. For our fans, I think it will be timeless. These songs aren’t going to go out of style anytime soon.”

Hawk Nelson

Some musicians who have played together for nearly a decade, released five albums and played countless shows on countless tours, could turn to album six and toss it together in their sleep. They are pros. They've been doing this a long time; autopilot would actually produce some pretty good music.

But what if those musicians who had written and played together for years didn't switch to autopilot and, instead, became more intentional in their music than ever before? Theresult would be a set of songs that sound, lyrically and musically, like each note and word were precisely paired. The result would be Hawk Nelson's sixth studio album Made, releasing April 2013.

In many ways, Made reflects the journey Hawk Nelson has been on since Crazy Love released in 2011. Since then, the band has found a new label home with Fair Trade Services, longtime guitarist for Hawk Nelson, Jonathan Steingard, has transitioned into the role of frontman after Jason Dunn departed to begin his solo career, and the band of four is now a trio of him, Daniel Biro (bass), and Justin Benner (drums). Many changes. Even more unknowns. But one thing is for certain: Something has clicked, and this album is the proof.

Biro, who founded the band ten years ago, has grown with Hawk Nelson this last decade and believes all of the change has resulted in an honest and God-breathed product. "This time around," says Biro, "we're going through all of this emotional change, physical change, and God breathed some new songs that channeled all those feelings and doubts and emotions into these lyrics."

As much change as Hawk Nelson has undergone in the last year, new lead singer Jonathan Steingard explains the DNA of the band is still the same. "We're still that high energy band that a church or youth group would book if they want to have a fun youth night," says Steingard. We want to take what we've been and not leave it behind, but grow it a little bit and hopefully be a lot more intentional about what we're saying."

This intentionality shines through the two central songs on the album: "Words" and "Made." Steingard wrote "Words" with Matt Hammitt (Sanctus Real) and Seth Mosley, the producer on the album. The song, and first single, is product of a conversation Steingard had with Hamitt and Mosley. "We were talking about how easy it is to forget how impacting we can be in the lives of the people around us just with our words," says Steingard. As the lyrics explain, Words can build you up; words can break you down. / Start a fire in your heart or put it out.

"Words," which features vocals by Bart Millard (MercyMe), is a response to "Made"—a building song, layered with fast-tempo strings, that speaks boldly to the listener during the chorus: You're beautiful, wonderful, perfectly made. "The idea behind that song," says Steingard, "is that when something is made instead of just happening, everything about it is on purpose and intentional. If we didn't just happen, if we were created by
someone who loves us and cares about us and has a purpose for our lives, then when we look in the mirror, we should be satisfied with what we see."

So "Made" tells us we are on purpose, and "Words" encourages us to live life purposefully.

The lyrical intentionality runs throughout the album but it does not, of course, replace that unique, I-just-can't-sit-still-right-now, fun, contagious, signature sound of Hawk Nelson. Songs like "Elevator" and fast and loud "Anyone But You" will leave the listener with a strong takeaway message while they dance along and jump up and down, as Hawk Nelson fans do.

Hawk Nelson will also be intentional with the philanthropy aspect of their spring tour for Made. They have partnered with Food for the Hungry to support one, specific city that is in need. Many bands go on tour these days and raise sponsorships for kids through various non-profit organizations, but by focusing on one place, Hawk Nelson will bring sponsorship to a tangible level. "It doesn't seem as grandiose as 'We need to get all these kids sponsored,'" says Justin Benner. Their goal is to raise enough sponsorships for one village to be self-sustaining by the end of the tour. "Then," says Benner, "you could say 'I contributed to that—that specific thing.'"

Fan involvement is Hawk Nelson's specialty. Further proof of this is in how they raised funds for Made. It was a Kickstarter project—an online fundraising tool now often used for producing new records. Biro believes the Kickstarter success proves the power of the relationships this band has built with the industry and with fans over the years. And despite the new look of Hawk Nelson, he says, "Real relationships span the test of time, and those relationships have stayed in tact and those people have showed their support."

No doubt Hawk Nelson has loyal fans. They are known for a rigorous tour schedule, working on albums while on the road and playing in front of people as much as possible. Hawk Nelson does well reaching the younger demographic that can be so difficult to get through to, but now, as their music is maturing, they hope to broaden their reach. With more mature album themes like living purposefully and more challenging lyrics, they surely will.

With the success of Crazy Love, which was nominated for numerous GMA awards, you would think these three are feeling the industry pressure with Made. But the band members are confident in this new phase. "We just all believe in it," says Benner. Biro, agrees and sees the challenges as the exact preparation the band needed. "When you're in those valleys, those are the times you grow," he says. "I'm really proud of the
guys for sticking around because it is a brand new thing. It's a new identity, and I'm excited about it."

Steingard has felt peaceful about the transition before the transition even officially happened. In spring 2012, he was in a hotel room in Australia on tour when he played for Biro what is now the upbeat, lead-in track on Made called "What I'm Looking for." The chorus chants What I'm looking is for is more than a feeling / What I'm looking for is something bigger than me. It's that belief in something bigger that Steingard clings to. "I don't feel pressure," he says, "because from the get-go, this has felt like something God's been sorting out for a while. It feels like there's something going on that's bigger than any of us." With this type of focus on the bigger picture, anything is possible for the new Hawk Nelson.

Ryan Stevenson

Graham Saber

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