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No Egos Required

  • Christa Banister Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2008 3 Mar
No Egos Required

Back when Michael Jackson was the indisputable King of Pop, he and fellow hit-maker Lionel Ritchie recruited an impressive list of pop music's royalty to help raise money for starving people in Africa. The instrumental tracks for what ended up being the iconic hit "We Are the World" were sent out ahead of time for pop/rock icons Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, and many others to rehearse to, with a friendly reminder to "check their ego at the door."

To underscore that simple request, there was a piece of masking tape on the floor for each person to stand on—one piece no larger than the other. Following the American Music Awards in 1985, the artists entered the recording studio and were neatly arranged in a semi-circle around six microphones. The strategy apparently worked, or else there would have been some juicy media coverage on how the charitable collaboration generated a series of diva fits.

Imagine if Paul Simon had suddenly decided he wanted to changed the lyrics, or if Diana Ross wanted to sing a line in the first verse rather than save her entrance toward the end. If an opportunity for constructive criticism had been available, would that have changed the artistic camaraderie? I'm guessing so.

Which is precisely why the recent Compassionart retreat in Perthshire, Scotland was such a unique all-star collaboration. Sure, there were plenty of big names from Christian music involved, featuring Martin Smith and Stu Garrard of Delirious, Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Israel Houghton, Darlene Zschech, Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, Paul Baloche, Graham Kendrick, and Andy Park. And much like the USA for Africa event, the artists came together for a greater cause than their own celebrity.

But the Compassionart effort had another interesting component. These artists were interested in true community—an experience where honesty was encouraged for the sake of the best possible songs. Egos weren't just checked at the door for an hour or two. They were forced to take a backseat for several days.

Instead of two benevolent co-dictators having artistic control over the final product, the fruits of the artists' labor at Compassionart were a true collaboration where every artist's opinion was considered. The results yielded the start of 22 songs, none of which any of the artists could claim sole credit for.

It All Started With …

Events like this usually start with a song, as the cliche goes, but Compassionart began when Martin Smith and his wife Anna came up with a whopper of an idea. One so ambitious, it almost seemed impossible to execute.

Inspired by Delirious' travels in recent years to poverty-ravaged locales like India, Cambodia and various African countries, Martin and Anna began brainstorming ways that the Christian music community could help. Ultimately, they knew they wanted it to be more than a one-time Band Aid-styled fundraiser concert. They wanted something that could help the poorest of the poor for many years to come.

After fleshing out their ideas and a year-and-a-half of careful planning and research, Compassionart was born. To pour resources into the causes that these artists cared about the most, they would raise the bulk of the funds through the collective songwriting efforts of a week-long retreat. And to ensure all the money was going where it needed to, contributing a portion of the proceeds simply wasn't going to cut it. In Martin Smith's mind, Compassionart's success depended on donating 100 percent. And it was equally vital that all the participating artists had an equal stake in the songwriting credits, rather than quibbling over who wrote which line.

Of course, a healthy shot of realism goes in to every big dream, and considering the potential for legal red tape, the Smiths knew that Compassionart would not be an easy feat to pull off. With a slew of popular artists in the mix, there would also be a slew of busy schedules to coordinate.

When Smith started making some phone calls to his peers, he was immediately encouraged when one artist after the next agreed to be a part of the Compassionart effort. That, along with several successful business meetings throughout the planning phase, gave Smith hope that the dreams could indeed become reality. Before long, a date for the retreat was officially on the calendar. A total of 11 artists would arrive House of Cantle in the quaint little Scottish city of Perthshire on January 6, 2008 for a week they wouldn't soon forget.

How Sweet the Sound!

About six weeks before the event, I also became personally involved through a surprise phone call from Martin Smith. After bringing me up to speed on the Compassionart concept, he explained that they wanted a writer onboard to be the proverbial fly on the wall. Not only would I be a part of the daily critique sessions when the musicians played the latest songs they'd been working on, but I'd be blogging about everything I was experiencing firsthand.

Given the event's premise—and that traveling to Europe was involved—it admittedly didn't take much arm-twisting to get me to agree. But as a journalist, my curiosity immediately went into overdrive. How would a group of musicians—seasoned veterans, no less—accomplish their goal of 10-12 songs in less than a week? Wouldn't artistic differences inevitably get in the way? Could they truly collaborate constructively, or would they be content with mediocrity for the sake of being polite?

After nearly 24 hours worth of flights from Minneapolis to Chicago to Manchester, England, and eventually, Edinburgh, Scotland, plus another hour-and-a-half in a car to Perthshire, I'd have my answers. I arrived on Wednesday, just in time for lunch with a serious case of jetlag, but it was hard to stay sleepy for long. The artists had been working for two full days, and the dining room had a cheery, summer camp feel about it. Everyone was chatting up a storm and clearly excited about their recent songwriting session. As I eavesdropped on a few conversations, it seemed their progress was even better than they expected.

It turns out that each day artists were paired off into groups of two and three. And while everyone was told to come to Perthshire with a bunch of ideas so they could hit the ground running, even a veteran like Steven Curtis Chapman admitted he was a little nervous in the beginning. But eventually the shared experiences and instant camaraderie made the process easier for everyone involved—and the song ideas were coming together at breakneck pace.

Yet as any experienced artist knows, significant output doesn't necessarily equal quality output. So that's where the daily feedback sessions came in. A couple of hours after lunch, we all crammed into a room with a piano and an enviable stash of guitars. Since I was new to the festivities, they explained the ground rules. After a group played a song they'd be working on, the floor was open for feedback. Sounded simple enough, but how honest would they really be? Considering their collective past accolades, who would dare to tell legendary artists like Matt Redman or Michael W. Smith that their songwriting contributions stink?

Yet that was the most surprising element of the entire event. Even when a song sounded nearly perfect, these artists still weren't afraid to speak up and say that the guitar part needed more punch. Or that the melody was something that's been done ad nauseum. They sounded like … well, music critics.

Also lending valuable feedback on the theological ramifications of each worship song was Bishop Graham Cray, who challenged the songwriters to write tracks that focused on God's greatness, rather than how he's blessed us. When a line sounded a little too trite or incorrect, Cray never hesitated to say so and offer another suggestion.

While the set list for the forthcoming CD is still being determined at press time, the music written during the Compassionart event was part congregrational worship and part pop songs with social justice themes. The majority of tracks are accessible enough for Sunday morning services, like "So Great," a piano-driven collaboration between Michael W. Smith and Israel Houghton that will appear on and upcoming WoW collection in April 2008. Others like "Friend of the Poor" focused on bringing awareness to the very social issues the artists hoped to raise money for.

Outside of the songwriting sessions, another way community was fostered was through corporate worship and devotions each morning and the lively conversation at meals. Regardless of whether it was bright and early over breakfast or the 7pm dinner, there was never a shortage of subjects for the artists to discuss, musical and otherwise. And at the beginning of a new year, many of the artists said the retreat was "just what the doctor ordered." Michael W. Smith even said it was "one of the most significant weeks of his life"—quite the statement, considering his storied 25-year career.

Though the pace was nearly non-stop since the beginning of the event, the excitement in the studio didn't fade. These artists clearly enjoyed working together, and the challenge of accomplishing so much in such a short time seemed to invigorate them—that and the sense of community. While most of those participating were already professional acquaintances of his, Paul Baloche teared up when talking about the deep friendships that had been forged. "I can't even tell you how rewarding it was to hang out with people who really get you and what you're about," Baloche says. "It's a great way to start a new year, that's for sure. That deep connection has made all the difference in collaborating together."

The Future's So Bright

When all was said and done at the Compassionart retreat, the artists surpassed their songwriting goald, contributing a total of 22 new compositions, a feat that still surprises everyone involved. A month later, several of the songwriters headed to London's famed Abbey Road studio to record some of the new material; those that couldn't make it yet to due to scheduling conflicts have already made future recording arrangements. Though he was unable to attend the event in Scotland due to health reasons, Chris Tomlin is joining the others in studio for the recording sessions at Abbey Road.

If all goes according to plan, an album will be released in the fall, with one half of the monies received over the songs' lifetimes to go to each songwriter's charity of choice. The other 50 percent will go to a charitable project agreed upon by all the songwriters involved.? Additionally, all the songwriters, publishers, managers, copyright institutes, and agents involved have all waived their rights and are donating their efforts on this project to Compassionart, just as Martin Smith originally hoped.

Though it was certainly remarkable to see Smith's big dream accomplished, the event got me thinking about the strength of collaboration in numbers. What would Christian music sound like if more artists teamed up with their peers rather than working as lone soldiers? And what if artists were more comfortable with critiquing and challenging each other in the pursuit of great Christian art that ultimately makes a difference in the world? Seeing these artists in action was not only exciting, but inspiring—a snapshot of what happens when art, ministry, and community collide. Instead of copying what's been done before—what works, what's popular—a new Spirit-led path was paved.

It's also more than simply providing a new album for the masses or new songs for the church—after all, there are plenty of both around. These artists hope that joining together will inspire other believers in Christ to collaboratively use their gifts to make a difference in the world, no matter how great or small. Music itself won't change the world, but rethinking how we can use our gifts to serve others just might.

Copyright © Christa Banister subject to licensing agreement with Christian Music Today. Click for reprint information.