Michael Gallaugher is my friend and compatriot in Columbus, Ohio. Worshiping under his lead and watching him lead people into worship pretty much taught me all I know about that art; I’ll probably be returning to his songs from that period for my entire worshiping life. He’s been involved in worship and worship songwriting for about 14 years, beginning at Joshua House, the young adult ministry at Vineyard Church of Columbus, and continuing on at the church’s main services. Six years ago, he was sent out with the team that planted Clintonville’s Central Vineyard, and is now the worship pastor there.
Michael has been recording his own songs under the label robberfly music since the turn of the century. In 2006, what was essentially his microlabel expanded beyond his own recordings and is now home to three additional artists. Michael sees his label digitally releasing predominantly worship-related artists, and giving away all proceeds to non-profit organizations seeking social and economic justice. Robberfly music’s most recent release is Michael’s new project, Unleash Hope, a surprise to him and a welcome addition to his rich history in songwriting. A new set of songs from Michael is always an event in the Neds-Fox household, and I had the distinct pleasure of debriefing him about this album, his songwriting, his label and his plans for the future.
JNF: Last year’s EP, Taking Flight, was your first return to new songs in a number of years, and your first since you decided to make robberfly music an entirely digital label with the “name your price” distribution model. Talk about what precipitated your return to writing and recording?
MG: I suffered a severe bout of writer’s block for many years. I’m not sure if it was due to having children or not, but I guess I was unmotivated to write new material. I definitely didn’t have time like I used to, just to sit down and see what came out. When I did write something new the results weren’t very good. I had taken a definite break from doing original songs in worship for a year following the release of The Cross back in 2002, so when that happened the writing stopped as well. I had a large backlog of material from songwriting sessions with my friend Jim Zartman over the years as well as from my own personal songwriting, so I would borrow from those sessions when doing new songs; which although partially successful caused me to rest on my laurels and not try and write new songs. Most of this material remains and probably will remain backlogged. Some of it was brought to light on the Sing Your Praise live album in 2005 and the Central Vineyard Worship album in 2007.
I think of the Taking Flight EP as being a transitional recording. It marked the first time I had written new material in several years that I thought was worthy of being used in a corporate worship setting. There was also some backlogged material that we’d done at Central Vineyard, as well as some older songs (one being over 10 years old) that finally saw the light of day. Even while in the middle of recording, some new songs started to be written (“Lose my life,” “Mercy,” “Unleash Hope”) that I had planned on putting on the EP, but it quickly became apparent that the new songs had a voice and a place of their own and were supposed to be on their own project. Not to mention that the new songs had a special favor on them in corporate worship. So Taking Flight is really like a bridge between the old and the new; almost like a postscript to a chapter before a new chapter begins. It’s hard for me to imagine these new songs existing if Taking Flight hadn’t existed before them.
JNF: What happens to a song after you write it? Does using it in a corporate worship setting change it in any way? Does the song’s use in worship influence what happens in the studio?
MG: Typically I try to let my songs sit for a week or two and then if I’m still excited about it when I listen back, I’ll probably think I’m on to something. I will try to show it to a songwriting friend or two and see if they have any ideas to improve it. I think my confidence in songwriting is coming back – typically I think my songs are generally good, they just need someone to take a look at them and give some feedback. Our pastor Jeff Cannell compares it to the John Lennon-Paul McCartney songwriting relationship, where one person would write a song and the other would suggest changes to improve it. Ideally, I’ll test run a new song in homegroup before doing it on a Sunday morning and see how it goes. Are people able to easily sing it? Do people catch on to it quickly? I think in previous recordings I would try and make the recordings sound as close as possible to the live worship version. This album was different. Although I wanted the core of the song, the melody and chords, not to change, I also wanted to be as creative as possible and to use the studio as a room to experiment without losing the core of the song in the process. So this album had the opposite effect: instead of being influenced by the live worship version, it was the one doing the influencing.
JNF: What makes you feel like a song is going to work in a worship setting?
MG: I’ve been writing worship songs for a long time now, in fact it’s the only kind of song I write pretty much anymore. I think I’ve forgotten how to write differently. Because of this, when I write, whether intentionally or unintentionally, I think I’m always crafting a song to hopefully work in worship. I try to use themes and lyrics that most people can identify with and grab a hold on. I try to pick melodies that are memorable and easy to sing. There are a lot of songs that never see the light of day because they just don’t work for whatever reason. I feel like this album displays a lot more maturity in songwriting than my previous full-length album of original songs, The Cross.
JNF: Talk about how Unleash Hope came about.
MG: This whole album has been a bit of a mystery to me, and I believe God has been in it from start to finish. In May 2009 I attended the national Vineyard conference, and it was there that I went up for prayer during one of the ministry times. At the time I was deeply engrossed with what would become the Taking Flight EP, and had come up with all sorts of plans for what that EP would look like and essentially how I would be making it “happen.” When I got prayer, the guy praying for me said “I feel like you are holding on to something, and God is saying that if you lay it down at the cross He will give you something better” (which is another reason why I like the new version of “Lay It Down” being on the recording). Immediately after he said that, I thought of the recording I was working on and I consciously said to God, “I give this to you. Do with it whatever you like.” I gave up all plans to do anything with the EP and shelved it.
I had told our pastor Jeff about it and I don’t think he told me at the time, but he had felt like God told him to give me the opportunity to make a recording. I had met with Sheila, our church’s counselor/spiritual director, to talk about something completely unrelated, and we ended up having a conversation about the word the guy had. She got a prophetic image about a volume being taken off a shelf in heaven with the number “12” on it, and it representing my album. I remember thinking at the time that the words/images were nice, but I had no idea how it was going to happen. I had asked her if she had the impression that these songs were unwritten, and she thought that the bulk of them were. When this happened, I felt led to complete work on Taking Flight and get those songs out of the way in order to make room for the new material.
A few months later, Jeff started talking about doing a new Central Vineyard CD to give to visitors, since we were starting to run out of the previous one we’d done. He was especially interested in using some of the new material at the time (“Lose my Life,” “Mercy,” “Unleash Hope,” “Weakness”), and it was looking like it would be a 4-song EP. When those plans started happening, I changed plans on Taking Flight and decided to finish it as a 6 song EP and try and get it completed quickly, and it was released in August last year as a digital download; the focus of the new material was so different from the material on Taking Flight that I wanted to keep the two items as separate as possible. I had talked to different studios around town about doing a live studio recording of the new material and most of them didn’t return my emails. Jeff had come up with the idea of having John Reuben produce it, which I hadn’t initially considered but was a great choice since he is part of our church and is a successful artist. I think John and I met one time to discuss doing the EP, and he was very interested.
In September 2009, my wife and I attended a justice conference in Maryland. I remember that really being a breaking point for me. We had gone representing two organizations that our church is involved with, Asia’s Hope and Justice Gardens. Towards the end of the conference I remember being so overwhelmed with injustice in the world, and saying out loud “what the heck am I doing leading worship?” It felt like it was a waste of my time and wasn’t doing anything to alleviate suffering or help the helpless. And it was in that moment of complete surrender, that things really started happening.
When I returned from the conference, Jeff felt like we were supposed to do a full-length album and that it should consist of a mix of new and old material, mostly because he felt my older material had never gotten the recording quality that they should have. The songs just poured out of me like never before, and I almost supernaturally knew what kind of songs this record needed to be complete. I knew that the theme of justice should be a big focus on the album and I needed another song about justice (“Love & Justice”). I knew that I needed a song about choosing to worship God even though in the midst of suffering (“Trust You”). I knew I needed a song about the relationship with God as father and what that mystery means (“Father me”). And I knew I needed a song of worship to God about how great he is just because; there’s so much about “us” and “others” and relationship on this album, which is great but I needed a song that didn’t even talk about us at all (“Hallelujah”). Those four songs (plus “Truth”) flowed very quickly after the conference and only left room for three older tunes to get re-worked.
John and Seth listened to all of my older material previously released (and some unreleased) and they both thought that any additional older tunes would need to be pretty much re-written in order to match up with the quality of the newer material. So even while initially discussing the album, the new stuff was pouring out and making its place on the album. All in all (with the exception of the older tunes), the new songs really are new: “Lose my life” was written in November 2008 and is the oldest of the bunch, with the rest following in its footsteps over the course of a year. I think it is also significant that the album is being released at the Regional Vineyard Conference almost exactly a year after I got the word at the National Vineyard Conference.
JNF: Tell me who you’re working with on this album? You’re in John Reuben’s studio, right? Who is producing? Who are your collaborators?
MG: Yes, John (Reuben) Zappin and Seth Earnest co-produced the album. Seth is John’s drummer and a consummate musician. He played all the instruments on John’s last album, as well as co-produced that album with John. We recorded in John’s studio, which is actually a guesthouse converted into a studio, but John’s made several of his albums there. It was great working with both of them, primarily because they are both artists, and they both make their livings as artists so they definitely have a creative view on the songs, and know what they are doing.
It was also great to be able to take time on this album. I now see my previous works as demos — usually one take and then done. The entire first month was spent talking through each song deciding what identity we wanted to give them and what approach to take. The nice thing about having Seth there is that he was able to come up with several different drum ideas for each song, and then we’d be able to pick which one we thought was best. Seth also played a lot of the instrumentation on the album including keyboards and most of the bass, so having the producer also be a musician helped in capturing the feel we wanted. It also helped having two guys who work primarily with rap music provide an interesting counter-perspective to mine. I think it helped the collaboration be richer than it would have been if I were working with someone who thought more similarly to me.
Songwriting-wise, this album has the most diverse collection of co-writers on it. Although I did write most of the material by myself, it was invaluable to have John and Seth listen to the songs and provide feedback. Most of the time, they didn’t want to change the lyrics, melodies or chords but instead suggested minor changes to improve the song. One example is “Hallelujah” which I had initially written as an upbeat happy-clappy praise song, because I didn’t think the album had enough upbeat songs on it when we first started talking about it. John and Seth suggested slowing it way down and giving it a more reverent feel which improved the song 1000%. Another song, “Father me”: I initially wasn’t sure the quality of the song was good enough, but they loved it and Seth came up with a very cool instrumental track, and now it’s the first song on the album.
JNF: ‘Father Me’ is already better than anything on Taking Flight.
MG: I wanted to start the album with “Lose my Life” since all the other new songs came from that song, but John thought “Father Me” was a much stronger opener and I believe he is right.
The three of us co-wrote “Love & Justice” which was just a handful of ideas when I brought it into the studio. Working with John and Seth made me realize how to improve my writing. I tend to operate mostly in the right-brain, very artistically but then without warning would shift over to left-brain using a lyric that John thought was very scientific. With their help, I was able to tone that down keeping more in the heart side of the things and less with the brain.
There are also collaborations with other songwriters. Noelle Shearer co-wrote “Unleash Hope” with me. Eben Brusco co-wrote “Mercy.” “Lose my life” was initially a prayer that Dave Nixon had for our church that I put to music. And of course, “Sweet Jesus” [from Michael’s first album, Enraptured] makes a return appearance and that was co-written with Jeff Anderson, although I wrote a new verse for the new version. Musician-wise, besides Seth, Peter Shumaker (who plays bass in my worship band) played bass on 4 songs. Nathan Laing (another consummate musician) played guitar on several tracks, and I played guitar on several tracks as well. Amanda Anderson (another Central Vineyard worship leader) and Sarah Higgins (an old friend from Vineyard Columbus) did a lot of the backing vocals. We also had group vocals on this album, which was a new and very rewarding experience for me made up mostly of Central Vineyard worship team people, but also some old friends as well.
JNF: So “Lose My Life” was the first new song. What’s the story there?
MG: Yeah, “Lose my life” was the song that all others flowed from. Dave Nixon is part of Vineyard Central (not to be confused with Central Vineyard!) in Cincinnati, and also a mentor to many people of our church. Dave had come up preach at one of our Sunday morning services in November 2008. It was at that service that he gave us a simple prayer in order to help us with getting into the rhythm of fixed hour prayer. And that prayer was just a very simple one that [became the lyrics to the song]:
My Lord, open my mouth to speak to you.
Open my heart to love others.
Open my eyes to see and engage suffering.
I want to lose my life and find it again in you,
Whatever the cost, through Christ amen.
I was struck by the simplicity of the words and yet how powerful of a prayer it was, and being a music guy immediately thought I could learn the words quicker if they were put to music. So within two minutes, the melody and chords and been attached to the words and I started doing it in church I think the following Sunday. Our church grabbed onto it, and I think it helped open up new doors for our church in worship. My previous experiences in worship songwriting had been largely limited to what I like to call the “God you rock” songs and the “God I suck” songs. This helped open a doorway for new material and new expressions of worship that were no longer as limited.
JNF: Talk a bit about the new material. What was your experience co-writing with so many people? With your producers (on “Love and Justice”)? How was it different from your sessions with Jim Zartman? Where did some of these songs come from? Where do you see them going?
MG: Back in the day co-writing with Jim Zartman was definitely a great experience and you got immediate feedback on ideas. Typically we would meet twice a month, most of the time coming together with nothing but two guitars and a blank piece of paper. Usually we’d write something from scratch, but since I wasn’t doing any new originals at the time most of the material got backlogged and still hasn’t seen the light of day. I’ve long toyed with the idea of doing an album of the best songs from that period, but it’s been so long now that they will probably remain unrecorded and unheard.
Since that time, Jim has moved to Cincinnati where he is on staff at a church there, helping out with worship. So, we’ve written some things via email, which does work but not as easily as being in the room with another person as was the case writing with Seth and John on “Love & Justice.” The songwriting-via-email method was how the songs “Mercy” and “Unleash Hope” were written, with Eben Brusco and Noelle Shearer, respectively.
“Mercy” was an interesting case in that the writing process took several years and multiple re-writes before it was finished. Eben and I had talked about doing a benefit album for a non-profit group called “Hear the cry,” where artists would contribute a song but at the centerpiece of the album would be a “We are the world”-ish type of song where everyone sang, with a big anthemic chorus. “Mercy” started out as that, and was initially called “Hear the cry”. But Eben and I were never happy with the results, and couldn’t agree on it so eventually the “Hear the cry” benefit album idea was scrapped and the song was shelved. Several months later a friend of mine was diagnosed with colon cancer while pregnant with her 3rd child. When that happened, I took the words to “Mercy/Hear the cry” and a new melody and chords came out. With her as the focus, the song came to life even though the words didn’t change. “Mercy” was the second song to be finished after “Lose my life,” but it definitely took the longest to write.
Other songs pursued more themes of lament, relationship or justice. A guy in our congregation was diagnosed with stomach cancer and “Trust You” was written out from that. “Love & Justice” is like the sibling to “Unleash Hope,” both of which explored the ideas of justice, more than anything getting our hearts and minds to match the heart of God on this issue. It’s also something that our church has been exploring and is extremely important to our identity. Other songs like “Weakness” and “Father me” are really born out of relationship with God and realizing our brokenness. And the song “Truth” came out of the idea I’ve thought of for a long time about choosing to worship even when you don’t feel like it.
I’m especially excited for the newer material because for me it’s a whole new world of songwriting, and I’m realizing how many things there are for us to sing about in worship. I’m excited to see where they go and what happens to them. I’m optimistic especially within the Vineyard movement, because the ideas about justice are where our movement is going but I don’t think we have many songs about it.
JNF: Has this been a temporary unblocking or are you continuing to write? What do you see happening next, both with your output and your label?
MG: It’s funny you should ask. During the whole process of making this album I haven’t written anything “new.” I’m not sure if this is due to focusing all my creative energy on the recordings or what exactly. I am planning on being purposeful in taking time to write again when this album is released. It is a good habit to get into and I want to take time to try to write regardless of what comes out. That being said you can’t sell short the power of the muse, and writing out of the overflow of the heart. I think songwriting is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Although it is important to work on the habit of songwriting, without the inspiration you’ve got nothing to work from. When writing a lot of the songs on this album, I took a new approach of researching a topic I wanted to write about and coming up with lots of ideas before trying to put those ideas into words.
In terms of the label, I’m glad to have found like-minded folks who want to bless others with their music. I still want to provide opportunities for other artists to have their music online. I’m looking at other ways to make this work better, but robberfly music is a small fish in a big pond. I don’t think we’ll ever be much larger than we are now, but hopefully God can do something big with our little offerings. I know Eben has been working on a new album with his church; he now is the worship pastor at the Hyde Park Vineyard in Chicago. I’ve been especially excited to hear what they are coming up with, as it truly is a blending of diverse worship styles. It should be amazing when it is finished. And I know some of our other artists have been talking about doing new recordings as well.
There is a ‘prayer of confession’ that I’ve been wanting to put to music, so that is my next plan of attack in terms of songwriting when this is finished. I think my overall approach is to live life and see what songs come from that, and write songs based on the topics God is bringing to my mind.
In terms of what I see happening next, working on this album really has caused me to realize that less truly is more. It may be weird to say this, especially on the verge of releasing a new project, but I know now the value of true quality. I know now that I shouldn’t feel any pressure to release material just to release something. I know I’m not on the same level as a professional artist, and I don’t need to make something happen but rather be led by God to release material when the time is right. If I look back at the all the albums I’ve done, they have all happened because of God opening the doors and allowing them to happen, so for better or for worse those were the albums they were supposed to be. However, I now have a taste for quality over quantity, and I have no plans to make another solo album until when and if the time is right. That being said, I do hope this isn’t the final chapter and I really hope I get to work with John and Seth again! But if these are my final recordings, I could die happy knowing that.