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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
the Kettle On... Here Come The Prophets
It was a wonderful moment. I was hosting a Songwriter Circle at The Greenbelt Arts Festival and two of my guests were Cathy Burton and Dan Wheeler and I was trying to provoke in them a response to the purpose of their songs. Did they write in order to change things? What impact did they think their songs could make? Knowing Dan and Cathy’s gentle modesty and unpretentious demeanors I should have not been too taken aback by their quiet shrug of shoulders and “I don’t know…hopefully!” responses. I was though. So I turned to my non-musical guest, the ecologist and activist Alistair McIntosh, and asked him whether he thought music could change things and as his wonderful want – he went off on one.
I had noticed him jot down some notes during the songs Cathy and Dan had been singing. He reached for these notes and quoted back to the performers their lyrics and concluded, “There is a profound prophetic nature to your work. You are bringing together the integration of the head, the heart and the hand in the tradition of Celtic Spirituality and you are in the line of the bards in the powerful way that you can transform society.” I looked across at my humble songwriters and their mouths were wide open and their eyes were popping out of their heads!
Burton and Wheeler have quite a pedigree when it comes to their art. Both are songwriting partners of number 1 song writers. Wheeler has been writing with Paul Field who sent Cliff Richard to number 1 with "Millenium Prayer" and Cathy could actually be described as a songwriter-in–law of Britain’s biggest thing in 2005, James Blunt, as both have co-written with Ricky Ross who of course himself knocked Madonna off the top of the album charts in 1989 with his band Deacon Blue.
How does that come about? Dan’s diffidence raises its’ head again, “Paul and I met on a recording session and, knowing his track record as a songwriter, I nervously handed him some demos on the second day. He must have taken pity on me or decided I wasn’t a total write-off because we later fixed-up a writing day together and it worked out really well.” It has worked so well that maybe the best song on Field’s new album is one of the songs written during that session, "Bringing It Round Again." “The thought behind the song is finding something unchanging in all the changes.” Of course, those who know where Wheeler is coming from will know that the love is God’s love. Wheeler’s raison d’etre could be seen as a search for belonging, meaning and healing and the answer is always love whether that is God’s love or the many ways that God allows us to experience and give love in our every day living. You always feel that you are getting the joys and struggles of a real flesh and blood life.
What we have is an authentic journey of life. These are the thoughts of a man with the compass of faith in his hand, trying to read it and then honestly share it to help all of us read our own compasses better. It is a sharing of authenticity and that is such an important contribution inside and outside of Church life. And yet when I asked him what he hoped people would take away from his album Long Road Round he answers, “Ideally I’d want people to put the kettle on and take another listen!”
That title track was co-written with Burton who when asked how she got hooked up with Ricky Ross we find ourselves back at the very Songwriter Circle at Greenbelt that started the piece. “We met at Greenbelt on The Rising and I approached him. We met in London for a writing day.” What did he bring to the table? “He brought a mature simplicity to the songs I’d sent him. I think I was busy-busy, busy with lyrics. He seemed to just bring in a purer version of what I was trying to do.”
Is there a danger that Cathy feels under pressure to preach in that “purer version” of what she’s trying to do? “I do feel a pressure. I feel that being in the public eye I need to be saying more than I do. I'm very aware of it. So I'm trying to grow in my writing and be more up front with the message of Jesus without scaring people of with a brush that tars us of being accused of doing "religious music." I think the Jesus stuff of Grace, Forgiveness and Love is what I'm thinking of whilst writing for this next album. I hope I get there!”
So do we. I ask about McIntosh’s comments and that prophetic role. She’s done some thinking in the interim. “Well I've thought about it often. I do think music that is written out of our being can be prophetic. I think it can communicate God in a way that nothing else can. I just think it's kind of embarrassing and big-headed to go around focusing on it. So I try not to think about it for fear of loosing any gift that God has potentially given me in thinking I'm some kind of big important prophet.”
Of course! Humble but purpose driven. It’s why we love these two south coast singers. We need them. The powerful of the song should never be underestimated.
Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian
Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community
with 88 students. He has written two books Walk On; The Spiritual Journey
of U2 which he is currently updating and The Rock Cries Out; Discovering
Eternal Truth in Unlikely Music. He dabbles in poetry and songwriting and
he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster (listen anytime of day or
night @ www.bbc.co.uk/ni/religion/rhythmandsoul). He has his own web page--Rhythms
of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org . He also tries to spend some time
with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine.