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Songs of Biblical Proportions Found in "The Message: Psalms"

  • Dave Urbanski CCM Magazine
  • Published Feb 21, 2006
Songs of Biblical Proportions Found in "The Message: Psalms"

Phillip LaRue felt a bit sheepish as he dialed the toll-free customer service phone number for NavPress Publishing back in January 2004.

It was an understandable sensation. He wasn’t checking on an order or filing a complaint. The young singer/songwriter was looking to speak to someone in charge about an idea that he felt God put on his heart – a musical project to accompany the Psalms as penned in "The Message," Eugene Peterson’s popular paraphrase of the Bible.

Not your everyday customer-service query. But with no high-powered agent moving heaven and earth to arrange a meeting with the high-powered Bible publisher – and no experience launching such a venture with cool savvy – LaRue took, umm, a grassroots approach.

“My wife and I had just moved to Florida, and we didn’t have Internet access,” LaRue explains. “So I was at my in-laws and used their computer to send NavPress an e-mail in the morning. But all I could find on their Web site was the 800 customer-service number, so I called it that afternoon. I felt kind of foolish. The operator answered, and I said my name’s Phillip LaRue, and I have an idea and I’m not sure who to talk to. I was feeling pretty stupid when she put me on hold.”

Turns out LaRue had little to worry about. The next voice was music to his ears – folks at NavPress loved his idea.

“The next day [NavPress marketing director] Mike Kennedy and I were dreaming and envisioning the concept,” LaRue recalls, a palpable sense of wonder still evident in his voice. “They loved that the idea came out of my heart — a natural place — as opposed to it coming from a record label.” And the fact that NavPress was looking to relaunch "The Message" with a new verse-numbering system didn’t hurt, either.

Fast-forward almost two years later to the birth of "The Message:  Psalms" (eb+flo Records) – a 16-track collection of organic triumphs and laments from an unimaginably eclectic mix of artists, including indie stalwarts Over the Rhine, pop queen Rachael Lampa, electronica/dance trio Venus Hum, singers/songwriters Chris Rice, Ginny Owens and Kendall Payne, rockers Building 429, and LaRue’s sister Natalie (with whom he formed the pop duo aptly named LaRue when they were teenagers).

“A strange brew,” LaRue concludes.

For LaRue – who co-produced the collection with friend, mentor and acclaimed producer Monroe Jones – "The Message: Psalms" tackles what he sees as lacking in Christian music of late.

“It comes from the depth of what it means to be a Christian,” LaRue notes. “In the Psalms are all the highs and lows. In Christian music we sing and write about a lot of the highs – the mountaintop experiences – but not about the desert seasons as much. Yes, there’s joy, but there are also times when we’re just holding on, when we cry out to God. We hear a lot about God being right there, but not as much David’s cry of ‘Don’t remove your Spirit from me!’”

To capture those emotions, LaRue and Jones made sure the artists stuck as much as possible to verbatim treatments of Eugene Peterson’s translation for the lyrics. The moody, acoustic-based, often contemplative music fell together into more of an organic, seamless whole than anyone was hoping for – but that was ultimately the secondary concern to those behind the studio glass.

“I wanted the music to stay vulnerable,” LaRue explains. “If the sound got too big, we’d lose the content of the lyrics. If anything was going to stand out on this album, it was going to be the lyrics. We wanted to lift up "The Message" for what it is.”

Another key to the cohesive feel of the album, LaRue says, was the commitment coming from each artist – both to composing the songs and to the message of "The Message."

“Everybody really owned what they were singing about and had a wholehearted belief in 'The Message,'” he notes. “This compilation felt special because everybody was really excited and dug deep for their favorite psalms.”

Or at least psalms that reflected where they were in their spiritual journeys.

“It was a bit of a challenge for me to write because my songs are usually born out of my own life experiences,” says Sparrow recording artist Shawn McDonald, who put music to the words of “Salvation (Psalm 71).” “However, even though it is straight from the Psalms, it’s straight from my heart. In fact, when I read over this section of Scripture, I felt like this was the song God was leading me to write. We live in a time when evil is so prominent, so it seemed right to focus on the salvation of God.”

Jason Roy, who sings Building 429’s rendition of “Come Close (Psalm 69),” couldn’t agree more.

“At the time we were writing this song, something really resonated with me when I read, ‘Come Close, Answer with love, Answer with salvation,’” he explains. “Difficulties never cease, the winds of change toss us about and the voice of God at times seems oceans away. Funny isn’t it that 2,000-plus years have passed, and today we still live in a world where one second we rejoice and the next we cry out for a touch from our Savior? Just like the psalmist I’ve prayed, ‘Come Close, Answer with love, Answer with salvation – and remind me that I’m yours, Father.’”

This being LaRue’s first foray into the world of big-time production, the 24-year-old admits the process was a bit intimidating at times, but having Jones by his side made everything much easier – and much more humorous.

“Monroe would make fun of me,” LaRue recalls fondly. “‘What’s a punk kid doing working on a record like this?’ But I was so excited to have Monroe to grab arms with and work with. I learned a lot working with him on LaRue’s last record – he’s great about making a creative atmosphere in the studio.”

After the complex, roller coaster, year-and-a-half journey making "The Message: Psalms," LaRue’s hopes for the project have become quite simple: “I just want it to be an overall daily encouragement for wherever the listeners are at with their walks with the Lord.”


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