The wisdom that Themistocles the Greek general expressed, “Big things have little beginnings,” surely applies to Hillsong Church and Hillsong United band, both of which started in a small country church in Australia with about 60 people over twenty-five years ago. Hillsong church has now grown into a global phenomena with satellite churches dotting all of Australia (there are campuses in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Newcastle, Gold Coast and Noosa, etc.), and in cities like NYC, LA, Paris, London, Kiev, Moscow, Pretoria, Copenhagen, Marseilles, Barcelona, to name a few.
A reported 30,000 members attend services weekly. The Hillsong United band with its worship and praise music are the underlying thread that uplifts the worldwide membership with tours and Hillsong conferences that are nothing short of mind blowing, depression shattering, addiction obliterating. Hillsong music uplifts folks who attend their concerts/conferences because it captures their hearts with God’s love and grace reaching out to everyone, regardless of how small and repulsive, regardless of how rotten.
The band, like the church, are NO JOKE. Check out these stats:
- Hillsong UNITED’s single “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” topped Billboard’s Christian music charts for 45 straight weeks, with 59 non-consecutive weeks at No.1.
- “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” has sold more than 1.4 million copies resting in the Top 5, for more than 111 weeks.
- Hillsong music has sold more than 16 million albums, kind of like Beyonce (16 million).
- The group’s 2013 album “Zion” debuted at No. 1 on iTunes’ overall album chart and cracked the Billboard Top 5 in the U.S.
The filmmaker Michael John Warren (director “Jay-Z: Fade to Black”), got struck by a bolt of lightening when a friend brought the non-religious director to a Hillsong concert/conference in LA. Captivated, he felt the urgency to tell the band’s story and film the theatrical-musical concert experiences of the band and audiences in his film “Hillsong: LET HOPE RISE.” Ahead of the film opening in August, I had the opportunity to speak to band members Jad Gillies, Dylan Thomas, Taya Smith, and JD (Jonathon Douglass) with colleagues at a press conference at Langham Place in NYC. The interview has been tweaked grammatically.
J.D. We put all the songs in a hat. (We laugh.)
I knew he was a trouble maker. He didn’t get his hair cut. (laughter)
J.D. That’s right.
Is it that who writes the songs sings them?
J.D. Well, when we write the songs, then it’s obvious. But we’ve been doing this for a while together and the beauty of what we do is that we’re really good friends which I think is really the strength of the band outside of the obvious things (their faith in God). And when we write a song, it happens really quickly. And we’re like ah…we can just hear Jad singing that or Taya. And often we’ll get a few of us to try it when we’re in the studio. And often a song will have two names on it. Like the first song we ever got Taya to do a project on was a couple of albums ago. We brought Taya in and said, hey, can you do the backup vocals for this. But it was the melody. We didn’t want to break her heart. It was a trial to do the lead vocals and it ended up that her backing vocals part was the lead on the album. We thought, we’ll have a go and if it sounds crappy, we won’t put you on. (laughter) It’s a pretty organic process.
So it’s really like a constantly evolving process which is phenomenal.
J.D. and Jad: Yeah.
You’re crediting it to a combination of factors. How did you get here, besides the fact that God ordained this before the foundation of the world (Biblical reference)? (laughter)
J.D. Love it. I was going to say an airplane. (laughter) I’m going to stop talking so someone gets the real answer. (laughter)
We saw the film. Is there anything in the film you could add to in terms of how the film evolved about how you evolved to this place and this time?
Dylan What’s crazy with the film is that we didn’t set about to make it. It was an idea from someone had who came to an event that we did in Los Angeles and he brought a friend of his who was a movie producer, a non-Christian guy. And he had an experience that he couldn’t explain and he wanted to portray that and put that experience into film. For us the whole experience is like, “I can’t believe this is happening.” And Tara and I were joking about that earlier. We were in the studio starting to record Empires and all of a sudden a bunch of cameras showed up and we were like, “Ahhh!!! They’re actually making a film. OK this is happening. Let’s do this.” And one thing happened after another and we went to the film screening for the first time and it was like, “This is the real thing.” And we never planned it. It wasn’t, “Hey let’s make a movie.” It just happened. And we’re here now and pitching it.
So how did each of you get involved with the group? We were hearing in the movie about the evolution of Hillsong, but how did each of you become involved? Talk about that process and how each person came to it.
J.D. In a nutshell, I grew up in a Christian home and my family started attending Hill Country Church when I was four years old. And I went to Sunday school in the church and grew up in the youth ministry and was always encouraged to use whatever gifting or talent that I had to exalt the name of the Lord and encourage people in their relationship with Him. So, for me, that was singing the music. So I started singing in their youth ministry as a thirteen-year-old young boy having no idea really. I didn’t really enjoy it because I was so nervous to sing in front of twenty or thirty people. It was like I was almost ready to throw up.
And that’s kind of part of the journey. Being faithful and trusting in God in that journey, we started writing songs. We’re like 15 years into the journey and Hillsong United church is thirty years into the journey, so it’s been a really authentic process. But I think just through that our story has been about bringing out who we are, with all the insecurities and all the rest of it. We’ve kind of felt we don’t have all that much to give and we’re just holding on during the ride and watching God do His thing.
Dylan I started going to church when I was 10. I was taken to church. And bit by bit I got involved and I started playing music. I started playing in the kid’s church and that evolved and I grew out of playing in kid’s church and I started playing in youth ministry. And I think that Jad was the first to ask me to play on the first United album which is in 2005. And you couldn’t script it out and say I planned to do this. I just enjoyed playing music and wanted to play in the youth band. And the way it’s been, God’s just taken us on this journey. I would never sit here and say I planned this. Because I don’t think anyone of us would imagine doing any of this kind of stuff. Yeah, I just got involved. In my first tour I was the guitar player which was not very glamorous. I didn’t even know what to do. I was clueless. I didn’t even know how to set up a drum kit. And then I wasn’t the guitar player anymore. I was just trying to figure out what to do and things evolved.
Jad I grew up in New Zealand. And when I was twenty-one I moved to Australia to the Bible School in Hillsong which is called Hillsong International Regional College. Immediately, I got involved with the youth ministry and I basically was running a small group…a group of young kids. One day the guitar player couldn’t make it and asked if I could play. I said, “Yeah, whatever.” And then that kept happening. And then a few months later, I was asked, “Hey can you roster the band.” I was like, “Yeah, whatever.” And then I was asked to sing a song and I sang a song and then they needed somebody to do something else, I did it. That’s pretty much how my involvement started. And here we are today. That’s not glamorous, is it…? (laughter)
Save the best for last, Taya.
Taya Yeah, it’s a similar story how this happened, not planned at all. I grew up in a Christian home, small country town. Moved to the city about 6 years ago, thinking I was going to do secular music. Though I was a Christian, I always wanted not only to attend church, but serve in the church. I made Hillsong Church my home and became planted in church and got involved also with the youth ministry and became a youth leader and was discipling six young girls. It was
crazy and amazing and I learned how to pastor people. And it was like the best experience ever. From there I got involved with the worship community’s youth ministry and then church. And then I was asked to come along and do backing vocals for one of the United projects. It was the craziest thing and that’s when we recorded Oceans. And if I’m honest, I probably told two people that I had something to do with that project because I didn’t even think the songs would actually make it onto the album. I didn’t want to be like, “I’m on the album…” and then it’s not there.
So then, yeah, a month later I had the best lunch of my life with our global creative pastor, Cass Langton. She said, “Hey. Would you quit your job?” I was doing retail at the time. I was like, “Yeah.” She was like, “Would you quit it today?” I was, “Yes.” She said, “We want you to come on staff at City Campus, and look after the vocals. You need to quit today because you’re going to be in South Africa next week with the United boys going on tour. I was like…balling my eyes out. Best day ever. It’s been the God journey the whole time. It’s been crazy that we’re here and there’s a film made about our church Hillsong United and we’re as astounded as anyone else. So yeah, it’s pretty cool.
For each of you, if there were a bio-pic on your band, which actors do you imagine portraying you? (laughter)
Russell Brand? Katherine McKinnen (from Ghostbusters)
Taya: I’ve heard that.
Brad Pitt (laughter)
Christopher Walken (laughter)
For Jad, a younger Stephen Bauer?
I went last night and it’s amazing how you hold the audience. Were the lyrics always shown from the beginning? Because that really cements people’s involvement.
Jad, JD, Dylan, Taya Yeah.
And was Hillsong as a group defined by the fact that the church had a tremendous audience and then you were able to pull the larger audience beyond the church? Or do you think the interaction beyond the band and the church grew both?
Jad We’ve always put the lyrics up. It’s intended to be inclusive. It’s intended to be interactive. We want people to sing. The songs were written for people to sing. And we like to think that we’re not performers. We want to lead people to a place where they can express themselves, where they can use the songs that were written to draw closer to God, or to gain encouragement or inspiration or whatever. So we’ll always put the lyrics up and it also helps people understand what they’re singing, what we’re singing, to process it. It helps people to express what they believe. With regards to Hillsong, thirty years ago, Hillsong was 65 people in a school hall. A week later, it was 50 or so people and a week later it was 48. And Pastor Brian figured out in the next six weeks there would be no people there. All that’s to say that it was small beginnings. What’s happened over thirty years is just a story of perhaps God doing amazing things with some pretty ordinary people. I mean if you were to ask about the global reach that Hillsong has now… thirty years ago, we would all be thinking you had rocks in your head…especially Pastor Brian and Bobby (his wife). They were just trying to do something significant and plan a church and do something with what they had. Years later with the opportunity that we see now, it’s all because of the fact that it came out of a local church. And that’s the truth of it.
Someone asked about the title of the church. It reminds me of a scripture that says something to the effect that Christ and Christians, should be like a city on a hill, shining their light. I have to say that’s what you do with songs. You allow the Lord to come through you, shining His light. (Matthew 5: 14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 5:16, Let your light so shine before men so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven).
JD Well it definitely works for that…like in Matthew 5; it talks about put your light on a hill so that it will shine. The truth is the church was called Hills Christian Life Center when it started, there in the hills area in the suburb of Baulkham Hills, New South Wales. It was Hills Christian Life Center. When we started to do music really early on, it started to be Hillsong music. And the truth is that music traveled, though on the cassettes it still said Hills Christian Life Center. Then people just started identifying us as “that church from Australia, that Hillsong church.” It was over twenty-five years ago, that people identified us with Hillsong Church. And we said, they’re calling us Hillsong Church anyway so the title came about. But you know the way that God works is through paradox in so many different ways. That’s kind of how it happened.
We know what goes into the process of your creating music. What goes into your process of writing the lyrics? What is that experience like?
Dylan It’s different every time. I wish there were a set way to make music and create the songs. We work really hard on making sure that our lyrics obviously line up with scripture. And we have a couple of people in Sydney who make sure that theologically it’s true and that kind of stuff. We work really hard in making sure that we’re progressing both lyrically and musically so that we’re always listening to so much music. But we all get in a room and jam out a song. If it feels right we keep working on it and if it kind of flops we’re on to the next one. No one’s too precious about anything. It’s a pretty fun experience. And we’re such good enough friends now, that there’s not really any egos in the room. We shut each other down and encourage each other and we’re all friends at the end of the day.
Could you talk about the different kinds of songs each of you sing? You have a song that you know how to bounce to. You have a different tone that you’re singing and you have a power poppish song that seems to get the crowds going. Seeing you live was impressive.
Taya The strength of our team Hillsong United is actually the strength of each different person. I feel like we each bring different elements. In places where I would be weaker, people step in. That’s the best thing about our team. It would be weird if we were all exactly the same, doing the same things. I think we read things differently, also.
Jad A lot of people’s personalities go to create and embody the songs as well. So you know J.D. has a lot of energy and whatever he kind of flies that to, that becomes the song and the personality of the song. Same with Taya; she has enormous passion and range and so when she applies that, that becomes the song, just as much as the lyric and the music. That’s the cool thing. When you really invest yourself into a song, it takes on more of a life of its own.