Joe Day is a web designer by trade and a musician at heart. He is a Deacon at Mars Hill Church in Seattle and has written many songs which are song at the church where he has served for nearly a decade. After moving to Seattle in the late 90′s, Joe began to find himself in the interesting place of playing clubs on Saturday night and leading worship on Sunday morning. Yet, rather than providing tension, Joe found that this helped sharpen his songwriting for both contexts.
His debut solo album Grace comes out today on the Re:Sound imprint and featured eleven songs of faith and worship. To celebrate the album’s release, I recently caught up with Joe:
Were you raised in a musical home?
Not really. Although the guitar featured on the song “Passover,” and actually all of the album, is definitely my parents’ guitar. But we weren’t an overtly musical family, no. That guitar was underneath my bed, being stored there, collecting dust, which is how I got my hands on it.
I always had an ear for it. I just always had a connection with music. I remember listening to it critically at a very young age. “Critically” meaning that I could pick out various things and clue into them and call them out. For me, music was always there, though I never took music lessons. I think the thing that really got me going was the grunge scene and particularly Nirvana. That really sparked my interest in actually writing and playing music, just seeing what those guys did with so little.
Do you have a typical songwriting process?
Yes and no. For me, songwriting has always come out of time alone with my guitar. Oftentimes with my Bible or just with a notepad or something like that. I just sit down and start playing and capture what comes out. When I was younger, I had a lot more of that time. Now that I’m married and have kids and a job and all that, that time is much more sparse. What’s different now is trying to capture the small moments and redeem the small moments and make sure that I’m keeping those regular and not letting other distractions get in the way of that.
Tell me about your salvation experience.
I think, for me, the experience that I think is most likely my salvation experience occurred when I was five or six years old, something like that. My Mom sent me upstairs to get something for her and, on my way back, I just remember being struck by a desire to be on Jesus’ team. I remember, I stopped and prayed: “Jesus, I want to be on your side.” You know, I don’t even know what caused that; I think the Spirit caused that. I don’t think I would have said that in and of my own strength. From that point on, it’s really been a lot of trying to learn the difference between Jesus and religion. I learned more religion growing up. It’s not that Jesus was absent, He was just harder to see through all the legalism and rules. I think that, for many people who grow up in the church, it becomes critical to see the difference between Jesus and religion. I’ve seen a lot of people who haven’t seen that difference and they just write Jesus off as religion and run away from the church. I’m grateful that that hasn’t been my experience.
How have you worked through that transition of “Religion to Jesus”?
As a musician, especially at a young age, you sometimes found yourself on the outside anyways, or, at least it’s easy to be thought of as rebellious. My first band was a Christian metal band. Not the most accessible, especially if you’re someone who thinks that drums are from the devil. From an early course, I just wrote off the religious stuff. But I think that part of that is bound up in just reacting in a youthful way and the deeper stuff comes down to how you live. When you see that Jesus is better than religion.
For me, it was seeing that Jesus isn’t as much concerned with the fidelity with which I obey His rules but it’s about my heart instead of just wanting to do something. That can be really subtle. Those desires can really get twisted and turned and I realize that I often do things out of duty instead of a heart to love and serve Jesus because He’s good. Being in a community where the Gospel is being worked out in a day-to-day basis is huge. A love wife who helps me walk through that is huge. God has blessed me in both of those ways and being in a church where that’s the heart of the Gospel and the Gospel is preached every week and we work that out every week, that’s been it. It seems so obvious.
How did you go from Christian metal to leading worship and do you even see those things as separate?
I was in that band for a couple of years. I moved away from home and did a stint with YWAM. I ended up in Lakeside where they have a recording studio. People out there weren’t into metal but they were into rocking out so I was cool with that. We formed a band that would play at the pizza shop down the street every Friday night just to blow off some steam. I had never led worship before. In fact, I started out as a drummer, but we needed someone to lead worship while I was there and that ended up being me. That was when I first started leading worship and music played a bit role in our outreach when we were in Europe. We played in some clubs in the Czech Republic and Ukraine and I was really able to see how music could powerfully move people to see Jesus.
So I started thinking through those things and, fast-forward, I was in a band called Mindhead for seven years and put out a couple of albums. We’d be playing here in Seattle, playing the Crocodile on Saturday night, we’d get up early and lead worship at our church in Mount Vernon. At first, it seemed like there could be a lot of tension between those two things but what I learned over time was that you learn how to write for a corporate worship gathering; that’s a very specific gathering where there are specific goals and that is encourage a group of people and lead them in giving their heart and affections to Christ whereas when we were playing Saturday night at a club, we could really be doing anything. You learn that there’s less rules there, you can be more abstract. So for me, rather than those two things working against one another, they work with each other really well. That has had a lot to do with why this album is not going to sound a whole lot like things that come out of Nashville. The approach is very “Seattle.” It’s a bit more introspective and darker but really wants to be more optimistic. These songs capture a lot of that feeling as these songs were written over the past ten years.
How did this album come about?
Me and Seth, my drummer, we’ve been playing together for eleven years. He was in Mindhead with me and we’ve been trying to make this album for about that long. It just seemed like every time we’d get close, the door would shut. More time would pass and the door would shut again. Having been at Mars Hill now for almost six years and having these songs; a lot of these songs have been sung at Mars Hill for ten years, it just seemed like the right time to make a record. Pastor Tim Smith and Joel Brown and I have talked about it off and on again for a few years. A little over two years ago we started making this record. It just took us a long time. The process was nights and weekends for two years. Seth and I don’t work at Mars Hill, we don’t do this for a living, he’s a nurse and I’m a web designer, so this has been a labor of love in addition to our duties on Sundays. We lead a band on Sunday, we’re family guys, we’re working and trying to put this album together so it makes sense why it took two years.
Why do you think it’s important for local churches to write original worship songs?
Songwriting has a voice, songwriters have a voice. When you’re in community with people, your leadership comes out of that; they know you, they know where you’re coming from, so when you write songs, people feel a connection and maybe even a little bit of ownership in that because those songs may have come from conversations with people you’ve been in community with, wrestling through life. I think you really capture the voice of a people in a place. It’s always God’s people in a certain place in a certain time. There’s always people there to capture that, whether it’s with preaching, writing books, writing songs or whatever else that is. We’re all born into a pre-ordained context and we have a purpose there. Songwriters in their local communities play a big part in that.
Christians were once at the forefront of cultural creativity – what do you think happened?
That’s a huge question that I’ve been asking for 15 years and I don’t know that I have a good answer. I think; there’s so many factors that play into that. It’s easy to think of worship music as a very utilitarian thing and that’s not the right way to think about it even though we come together for a very specific purpose, which is to raise our voices in song as a Body and proclaim the glory of God. That doesn’t mean that we have to be as formulaic about it as we have been. There is room for innovation but that’s really hard. It’s safer and it’s easier to revert to what is and what has been because there’s a language that we speak that we can quickly jump into. I don’t think that’s all bad but it’s also not all good.
I think there is also the crazy, weird religious legalism that has developed in America over the past 300 years that culminated in an unhealthy understanding of what it means to be separate from the world. That plays itself out in things like: “Never listen to ‘secular’ music,” or “anything with drums is obviously satanic” and things like that. The church adopted many of those methods and we’ve created a culture based out of much of that culture in Christian music. The resulting Christian music is often ten to fifteen years behind. Look at the stuff that’s considered innovative today and take the “Christian” label off of it and put it out in the larger marketplace, out in the wild, it doesn’t seem all that innovative any more.
How do we recapture that?
I think we just need to create. We need to look at people like Bach. We need to stop trying to create Christian music. We need to start creating music that non-Christians are going to listen to. One of the sad things about Christian music is that the only people who listen to it are Christians. There is a purpose there, but it’s certainly not a missional purpose, it’s edification. That’s fine, but we need missional as well.
I don’t know how Christian music can reclaim that, I think we need guys like Aaron Spiro, a worship leader at Soma Communities in Tacoma. He does these songwriting showcases where there are both Christians and non-Christians. The rule is that you come and share your song. I think we need more stuff like that. We don’t really need the campiness of Christian music, that doesn’t do us much good.
How do you lead worship?
Let’s define that; it’s one thing to stand up and play music in front of people who might be worshiping. It’s another thing to be worshiping and to stand up and play music as a continuation of your worship. I think worship has to involve everything we do because that’s the reality of a Christian life. We’re either worshiping Jesus or something else. Leading worship has to be a continuation of worship throughout the week. For me, that looks like working hard, loving my wife and my kids, and things like that. The question I’ve been asking myself lately is where am I seeing God’s grace in the little, everyday things? Where am I calling that out and where am I not calling that out and what does that even look like? Am I making the most of my time, to put it in John Piper terms. I think of, in Ephesians, and I think of this verse often because it has my last name in it: “Watch how you live, because the days are evil.” There really is nothing here working for us so worship is understanding that every moment belongs to Jesus and enjoying offering that back to Him.
What’s the most difficult thing about leading worship?
For me, the most difficult part is when something in there isn’t working quite right. So, if I have unconfessed or I haven’t taken time with just being, I’ve been doing a lot of doing, and not as much being. It’s easy to stand up on stage and sing a song and be thinking about who knows what, my latte or whether I should buy a Volkswagen or a Ford, it’s a constant battle. The outer package may look like my eyes are closed and I’m singing passionately and that is often the case, but sometimes there’s just a lot more going on under the surface. I imagine that’s the case with everyone out there as well. Really focusing on the Person and Work of Jesus and allowing the Gospel to permeate my heart, even while I’m singing.
What do you want people to know about the new album?
I named it Grace, because that’s the story behind it. By lots of measures, as a musician, I’m pretty much a failure. I’ve had lots of record contracts fall through, I don’t do this for a living, yet, ten to fifteen years into, I’m realizing how much of that is God’s grace. Not that I don’t want to do it for a living, but the way that God has led me through it, that’s often not the way I would have chosen but it really is His good and perfect plan. In frustrating many of my efforts, God has actually dealt with some of the darker areas in my heart and in my life. That has led me to depend on Him more and see that it was actually His grace. That’s the work of a loving God. I feel very much like He has called me to write songs for the church and that’s always been the case. Whether or not I do it for a living is secondary. You don’t have to do it for a living to do it in a significant way. The glory of being a rock star really pales to the glory of Jesus Christ. The whole thing for me has been grace and I really want people to catch that story. That’s why “grace” is huge on the cover and my name is tiny. From a business sense, that may not make the most sense for a debut album but the bigger story is God’s grace.
Anything you’d like to leave people with?
Maybe if we could talk about publishing for a minute? This album is published under Creative Commons. This is something we’ve wrestled with at Mars Hill a lot over the past few years. It comes down to a couple of things: most people aren’t aware that when songwriters write for the church, they have a choice of how they can publish. They can opt into the current system of CCLI and they can actually help you get your song heard to a wider audience but CCLI also requires churches to purchase a license which costs money and money is a valuable resource we have to steward in the church. The second thing: the reason CCLI exists is U.S. copyright law that covers intellectual property. By default, the music you write is copyrighted under “all rights reserved” meaning that you reserve the right to exploit that intellectual property any way you want.
Where I’ve landed is that, in serving the church as a songwriter, the best thing to do is gift that music to the church. That means not going “all rights reserved” but “some rights reserved” and Creative Commons allows that. So, churches and worship leaders can share the songs with worship teams. You can print out as many chord sheets as you want, display the lyrics on Sunday and sing it on Sunday and you don’t pay me a dime to do it because I’ve said I want it to be available for that use. That doesn’t negate the market side of things but that’s different than the ministry we’re doing in and for the church. My vision is to see the church write better songs and have greater access to those songs.
• Visit Joe Day’s official website