Keith Getty – The Composer with a Succession Plan

Kristyn and Keith Getty

“You must understand,” stresses composer-pianist Keith Getty, “I have never thought of myself as an artist; I think of myself as somebody who wants to change the world by helping build deeper believers through song.”

Get that line and you get the whole ethos behind the work he shares with his wife Kristyn and their team. It explains why these musicians have a five-year plan, why they are starting to come across as a brand, and why there is even a succession plan, should he find himself in a fatal accident.

Such serious intent may also be behind his becoming Keith Getty OBE, an honour presented to him in July, in recognition of “his contribution to music and modern hymn writing,” which includes starting the Irish Arts charity, as well as initiatives promoting hymns.

“We don’t take these things for granted,” he tells me. “We’re very thankful; we’ve been able to play twice in the UK Houses of Parliament for the prayer breakfast, which is absolutely fantastic.”

I was surprised to see on the Getty Music web site mention of their five year plan, a device more often seen in the boardroom than the rehearsal room, but Keith explains, “Really, it’s much longer than that. The movement and vision is to reform congregational singing around the world; to get a new generation of believers singing again, but to get us singing deeply and build deep believers – but not only that, but to have a higher view of the arts in what we do.”

Setting yourself up to do something well and with passion can often be a reactive drive, and there are plainly problems with contemporary worship to provoke him into action. Not all writers put in as much care as the Getty team does, and many cheapen worship with trite lyrics. I seem to have struck a nerve, when asking Keith whether he finds that frustrating.

“It is a huge frustration – at many levels,” he replies. “Firstly, when we contemplate the breadth of the sung worship of God, the words should both be God focused (as opposed to man focused) and also explore the vast truths of God found in scripture and displayed in creation around us.

“Secondly, the effect on congregations is devastating. The thinning down of lyrical content, the narrowing of musical expression and the challenges of singability in the modern worship movement have probably caused more division in churches than almost anything else in recent years. When we sing, are we really serving our congregations if we only dabble at the edges instead of wading into the depths of the truth that ‘sets us free’?

“Thirdly, to be biblical is to have high expectations and aspirations with art, whether poetry, music or anything else. Evangelicals have through the years tripped up on this by not always providing a positive, dynamic, rich theology of the arts. When this isn’t there you are either left with suspicion or low expectations of creativity. Good art is good evangelism.”

The supercharged engine driving their success is the 2001 song ‘In Christ Alone’, which was the first that Getty composed with Stuart Townend. Remarkably, within four years, it had been named by a BBC Songs of Praise survey as the UK’s 9th best-loved hymn of all time (rising to no.2 by 2013).

By the middle of the ‘noughties it seemed de rigueur for any compilation to include ‘In Christ Alone,’ originally released on Getty’s New Irish Hymns. Clannad’s Maire Brennan, Margaret Becker and Iona’s Joanne Hogg were the singers, but from the second volume, Brennan was replaced by Kristyn Lennox, who became Getty’s wife and regular co-writer.

The two Gettys’ skills are complementary. In his teens, when involved with his youth band’s worship, Keith introduced strings, wind and brass. Although he began with guitar, he moved on to play flute, taking a master-class from Sir James Galway, who noticed his piano arrangements. Now, with over 200 orchestration and arrangement projects under his musical belt, he is as prolific in that field as he is composing hymns.

Kristyn has a beautifully clear soprano, coloured by her Irish accent. Having studied English literature at Queens University, Belfast, she also brings lyrical understanding to the partnership.

Stuart Townend has continued to write with them. I wondered what makes the partnership work so well. While Keith declines revealing their magic ingredient, he explains how, although the process organically changes to suit individual songs, “For the most part, Stuart is the wordsmith and I write the melodies.

“‘Come People of the Risen King’ began as a slow song Kristyn and I wrote when we lived in Switzerland. We weren’t happy with it, shelved the idea and then brought it back out in 2008 as a more up-tempo gathering song for worship. Stuart joined in helping to add a chorus and with the lyric.

“’Creation Sings’ began as a melody Kristyn sang while driving on Highway One on the Pacific Coast. We brought the line “Creation sings the father’s song” back to Stuart and the three of us contributed to words and music, throwing ideas backwards and forwards for six months before completing the song.”

The trio has become a bigger team, which dreams of writing “the next generation of great hymns for the faith, and I think… it will become global. That’s our hope.”

It will become global – that’s our hope.

“For the first ten years we wrote hymns in our spare time and I was in the music industry to pay my bills; for the next ten years we moved to America and I was able to create all these things that expanded the hymns. Now I’m in my third decade and Getty Music is a company with a whole wonderful family of writers, a team of six of us, but we hope by next year it will be a team of a dozen.

“We even have a succession plan for our organisation if a plane goes down. So if something happens to me and Kristyn, here’s where the leadership structure will go to for our organisation, executive leadership and a team of writers, a full staff and a salaried band. All these people are involved in this organisation, but it’s very much a vision; it’s not about me.

As if to prove the point, he suggests that the best songs from the last two years (‘His Mercy is More’ and ‘He will Hold Me Fast’) were both written by other members of the team, and then lists the new people with whom he is collaborating. The night of our interview, the band is working with a hip-hop artist for the first time; the previous week he played with “the world’s greatest Venezuelan wind player, Pedro Eustache; and then next summer, I’m working with a lot of High Church musicians.”

The Gettys place their projects under the umbrella title of “Sing!” Part of this is a global hymn sing; another part is their annual Sing! Conference, held in Nashville and attended by 7,500 (but also with impressive resources available on their web site).

The project’s latest expression is The North Coast Sessions, which is just the start of a five year project to create church-friendly psalms.

“Honestly,” admits Getty, “It was just the best psalms I’d written. I worked at a psalm every day – I think it’s a healthy thing to do, good for the soul.”

The collection (reviewed here) also includes a more contemporary lyric in ‘Inishowen’. Getty says, “In one sense, everything is to do with the psalms, but it’s labelled as a bonus track, because it’s not exactly a psalm.

“We took all the band to the north coast of Ireland. Inishowen is the most northerly point. Kristyn and I love to go to this little fish restaurant called Harry’s Shack, down by our beach, sit in the seat that I love to sit in and look across to Inishowen.

Inishowen (image via http://www.ireland.com)

“Kristyn wrote the lyric originally as the closing music for a documentary on her uncle, John Lennox. He always used to say to Kristyn, ‘In Christianity, you follow the evidence to its logical conclusion. You don’t listen to what your parents say, or the church says on one level, necessarily; nor do you listen to the voices of the media or the academy. But actually, you ask the question, “Where do the evidences lead?”’ So that’s why she wrote that.”

Getty is keenly aware of the dangers of producing material that begins to sound samey, and the team approach aims to prevent this.

He notes, “The reality of a composer is, whether you’re McCartney or Stevie Wonder, you give your life to composition. You work all the time, your M.O. isn’t large, but a significant part is established in the early songs, but your respect and the depth of what you do is brought out by how you grow.

“So while ‘In Christ Alone’ opened the floodgates for a modern hymnwriter to even exist and have recognition, actually, I think my five years working through the psalms will give our catalogue a wonderful depth, usefulness and longevity, and will keep people’s interest in what we are doing.

He laughs as he notes that few are likely to be as popular that song – “It may be the most popular hymn in the last half-century. My whole life stems from that tune, written on the back of a Northern Ireland Electricity bill when I was twenty-five!”

This is from two interviews with Keith Getty over ten years, with material mainly published in The Church of England Newspaper

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