Last month I reviewed the newest album from The Psalms Project, Volume 4: Psalms 31-38.
Today I’ll share an interview I did with the creator of The Psalms Project, Shane Heilman about the process of writing songs that follow the words of Scripture, how the Psalms speak to us today, and his favorite songs.
You’ve been writing songs based on the Psalms for years. What has been the most surprising thing about the project?
How invigorating and fresh the project still feels, even after eleven years. When I started, I figured I would eventually enter another season of writing, or the Psalms would begin to sound the same, or the long Psalms would begin to wear me down. Just the opposite has happened. The creative process of studying these Psalms and interpreting them creatively through music has only become more exciting, and opened up more ideas and possibilities. I’m honestly obsessed at this point. I don’t think I could stop if I tried. I’m having a total blast. Even the long Psalms, like 18 (50 verses) and 37 (40 verses) haven’t slowed me down much at all. Those were really fun Psalms to write, and two of my favorites. There’s something really epic about the longer Psalms that makes writing and recording them especially satisfying.
What are your favorite songs that you’ve done and why?
What Psalms are you most looking forward to and why?
I’m honestly really looking forward to Psalm 42, which I’m just about to start. Most people think of “As the deer pants for the water…” when they think of Psalm 42, but that psalm is really about spiritual depression, and visits some really dark and raw places while never losing hope. It’s such a powerful psalm. I’ve been looking forward to that one for a long time. I’m also really looking forward to Psalm 57, which is one of my favorites because of how focused David is on worship and God’s glory even when he’s been forced into hiding by his enemies. You see how worship really was his lifeblood during those times. I might even skip ahead to write that one. I can’t even wait.
How has this project impacted you spiritually?
It’s absolutely increased my joy in God. It has also greatly matured my understanding of two things: 1.) God’s sovereignty and 2.) the Psalms being about Jesus. God’s sovereignty over life’s struggles is all over the Psalms. The Psalms club you with it over and over again. You can’t miss it. This has been an enormous comfort to me during stressful times, seeing how the psalmists dealt with situations much more stressful than mine by declaring God’s sovereignty and promises. It was their bulwark through those times, and even transformed their outlook to celebratory by the end of the psalm. They know that nothing will happen to them that God does not decree for His own purpose and glory, and that’s a tremendous joy to them. Also, it’s been impossible to miss the degree to which the Psalms speak about Christ and reveal his character. Even besides the Messianic Psalms, which clearly speak of a future reality beyond David’s situation, we see the psalmists taking their grievances to God rather than seeking petty retaliation or vengeance. In Psalm 3, David prays for blessing upon Israel even while he is being driven out of his palace by his own son’s rebellion. Even in the darkest imprecatory psalms, like Psalms 35 and 109, David declares that he loved, prayed for, and even fasted and prayed for his enemies. That is an ethic much different than the world’s ethic for how to handle mistreatment.
You have a unique approach including many different artists (including many award winners). Why did you decide to take that approach?
I wanted this music to be as God-glorifying as possible, and that meant humbling myself to allow other singers and musicians to step in where they could achieve the sound that was needed better than I could.
Initially, the main reason was because I thought the project would be much more listenable and appealing if each psalm had its own “voice,” it’s own lead singer that was right for that psalm’s message and style. I knew that if I sang every Psalm, it wouldn’t make the Psalms sound as diverse as they really are. Plus, getting amazing singers on the albums that are much better vocalists than I am is always a good thing! Along with that, I wanted this music to be as God-glorifying as possible, and that meant humbling myself to allow other singers and musicians to step in where they could achieve the sound that was needed better than I could. I’m not sure to whom this quote should be attributed, but it sums up my leadership style: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.” I didn’t want any glory for this project – I wanted all the glory to belong to Him. And I think incorporating the very best gifts and talents in the church that God would bring my way is a powerful testimony to the unity of the church and the diversity of gifts. In my opinion, it’s the way the church is supposed to operate. I love that we’ve had 70 musicians and singers contribute to these albums, all playing and singing as one, despite any disagreements we may have in secondary areas. The pure Word of God unites the church. It was awesome to see so many incredible musicians jump behind this project. It’s so clear that they see the vision and believe in it. And it has been a huge thrill to work with Jeff Deyo and Phil Keaggy, two musicians who have greatly impacted my walk with Christ.
I appreciate the care you take of matching a song to the Psalm’s tone. Certain Psalms change tone throughout (Psalm 22 and 31 for example). How does the change in tone affect your songwriting process?
The drastic changes in tone within the text make songwriting more fun, in my opinion. It pulls me out of the box. It allows us to switch keys, tempos, or arrangements mid-song, without completely abandoning where we’ve been. It’s very unlike modern songwriting style, which rarely takes a song through several complete turns emotionally. But that’s the way life with God is sometimes – we can be on the brink of depression one minute and exulting in His presence the next. It’s real. It’s not manufactured. And His deliverance can be sudden and forceful. You don’t hear that in songwriting very often. Usually it’s either someone struggling with no answers, or sounding like they’ve never struggled and have all the answers. The Psalms take us through all that in the course of one song. I think it’s fascinating, and a great songwriting challenge.
How do you think the book of Psalms uniquely speaks to our secular culture?
Wow, so many areas. First of all, the Psalms proclaim a message of hope and joy that our secular culture sorely needs. They present a vision of having fullness of hope and the fullness of joy despite truly horrific circumstances. That’s a unique and revolutionary message. The Psalms give real answers without in any way minimizing the profound misery that this life can bring. There is no document more honest, and also no document more joyful and hopeful than the Psalms. The fact that those two realities can live side by side without being contradictory is a powerful message. Also, the Psalms speak primarily about justice. Over and over again in the Psalms, the speaker is pleading with God because of an injustice he is experiencing, and he is trusting that God will vindicate him. In a world so rightly concerned with justice, the Psalms present to us a God who loves justice (Psalm 11:6) and will work justice for those who are mistreated in this life. Also, and perhaps most importantly, the Psalms point powerfully to Christ and the work He will perform to reconcile the world to Him and establish justice. Psalm 16, Psalm 22, Psalm 110…these Psalms add important validation to the Gospel by predicting what Christ would do thousands of years before it happened – die for our sins, rise from the dead, and ascend to subdue all enemies under His feet. As Jesus says at the end of Luke, “All things which are written about Me in the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). The Psalms are ultimately about Jesus, and the hope of justice that only He can bring.