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Behind the Song: “Church”

“Church” (Words & Music by Robert Sterling)
from the CD Sounds Crazy.

Some songs burst out in a creative rush. Others leak out over a period of days. If you look only at the time I spent actively writing it, “Church” arrived in a matter of three creative bursts in three days. It just happens that those three few days stretched out over a period of ten years.

A Quick Start

In 2005, I wrote the first verse and chorus of “Church.” They came rather quickly, in a day. Both the words and melody sprang from these opening lines:

Life has a dark little habit I’ve found
Of building you up and then knocking you down,
And telling you lies that all sound remarkably true.

This “opening line first” approach is somewhat unconventional. Frankly, I don’t recommend it as a practice, certainly not if you hope to make money from your songs. Why is that? Songs written in this manner are often not as commercial as those written from a memorable hook line. But I admit to using this method from time to time. It suits me for some reason. (Probably because I’m weird.) Generally, songs born from this approach are somewhat conversational, and “Church” is certainly that.

Unfortunately, after the first verse and chorus emerged that day, the creative juices turned off like a faucet and refused to turn back on. All I needed was a second verse and the song would be complete, but I had nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero. And I hate not finishing a song.

Maybe a Co-writer Might Help?

I figured if I couldn’t finish “Church,” maybe someone else could. I showed the song to my friend, Karla Worley, a terrific lyricist and wonderful singer. I hoped she would connect with the “musical theater” vibe of the song. She liked it and held on to it for a few weeks before coming back to me without being able to write a second verse. I didn’t fault Karla for this. It is brutally difficult to step into another writer’s half-finished song, with the melody already fixed in place, and write a single verse to complete their incomplete thought.

Give it Some Time

At that point, I set the song aside, though I hated doing so. I moved on to whatever project came next, and “Church” sat untouched for a year. Then out of the blue, the faucet turned back on, and I have no idea why, or how, it did so.

The second verse emerged with little difficulty. According to my notes, I “finished” the song in October 2006.  I put “finished” in quotes because there was a crucial line in the original chorus that had always bothered me. The original chorus lyrics were these, with the troublesome line in bold.

I think I’ll go to church, and find a well-worn pew,
Bury my face in my hands and pray for an hour or two.
Soak up the quiet. Block out the noise.
This time I’ll listen, really listen, for Your still small voice.
There’s no guarantee I’ll find what I need while I’m there.
Still – I think I’ll go to church.

Depending on how one reads that fifth line, it either sounds overly melancholy or, worse, flippant. Plus, the line before it had introduced the “God” pronoun – Your – somewhat out of the blue. So, I took another stab at the chorus, and came up with this:

I think I’ll go to church, and find a well-worn pew,
Bury my face in my hands and pray for an hour or two.
Soak up the quiet. Block out the noise.
This time I’ll listen, really listen, for Your still small voice.
What I really need is simply to be there with You
So – I think I’ll go to church.

It was better, but I still didn’t think it was right. The sense of melancholy was gone, but the new line wasn’t all that satisfying. Plus, the unexplained introduction of You/Your was still there. My desire to be finished with the song got the better of me, and I convinced myself the new line wasn’t so bad. I demoed the song, and sang it in a few churches. Nobody complained. (Not to my face, at least.) So, I told myself the song was “finished.”

Because “Church” wasn’t the sort of song mainstream Christian artists wanted to record, I accepted that it would likely never be heard by anyone other than the handful of folks that might hear my demo recording, or hear me croak it out in a rare church setting. But in 2015, nine years after I had “finished” writing it, I heard from my old friend, Luke Garrett, who was planning to record a new CD.

For those who never had the pleasure of hearing him sing, Luke was truly a unique artist. No one sang like him. Few singers had his range of notes or range of expression. Luke was a little quirky, and he liked to sing songs other singers would never consider. And Luke loved “Church.”

In July 2015, I went in to the studio with Luke and the remarkable pianist, David Hamilton. Just as we were set to record “Church,” Luke told me he loved the lyric, except for one line in the chorus. You can guess which line it was… the fifth line of the chorus.

Here’s a lesson for all you songwriters: It’s better to fix a song’s problem spots before the embarrassment of having them pointed out by the artist in the studio.

I asked for a few minutes to think about it. I don’t know whether it was the pressure of the moment, or hearing the song anew through Luke’s voice. Or maybe it was the Lord taking pity on me. All I know is that there in the studio control room I had a flash of clarity, and a new line emerged. Not only was it an improvement, it was the right line – the line I should have come up with ten years earlier. The “God pronoun” problem disappeared, and a lovely little metaphor now completed the picture I had been painting from the top of the chorus.

I think I’ll go to church, and find a well-worn pew,
Bury my face in my hands and pray for an hour or two.
Soak up the quiet. Block out the noise.
This time I’ll listen, really listen, for that still small voice.
Let it whisper to me like the hush of a breeze in my ear.
Yes – I think I’ll go to church.

Luke recorded the song brilliantly. Sadly, he died of sudden heart attack before we could finish the project. You can hear his version on the EP we assembled of his final four recordings.  When I chose to put “Church” on my solo CD, I sang to the same track we recorded for Luke. It was a way for me to reconnect with my old friend.

People ask me what is the right way to write a song? My answer is always, “whatever way gets the song written.” “Church” is the result of bursts of inspiration, a whole lot of waiting, and the pressure of a recording session – spread over a decade of time. Because it was never musically in style, it will also never be dated. I think maybe that makes it timeless.

Yeah.  I’m going with timeless.

(A YouTube video of “Church” is here.)

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