Local songs for local churches

On the 1st September 2022 a new season of the Resound Worship ’12 Song Challenge’ starts. This set of monthly songwriting challenges – and the amazing online community which has formed – is “working together to grow in their creative gifts and serve their local church”.

I’ve been a member of this community for a couple of years, and find the people incredibly generous with their time and talents, wonderfully supportive, and truly gifted in the songs they are writing for their local churches. Of course, I’ve signed up for the new season.

But what does that mean: ‘songs for the local church’?

What is ‘the local church’?

For the purposes of this discussion the local church refers to a gathering of worshipping Christians in a localised geographic area. Often this will be centred around a specific building – but the building is not the church, the people are! – or a collection of related fellowships.

Crucially, the local church is made up of people who know each other – who are involved with each others’ lives on a regular basis, both during scheduled worship times and during the rest of the week. The extent of that involvement will vary from church to church and person to person, but we’ll see later why this ‘knowing one another’ is important.

Also, before we move on, I should point out that the slightly tongue-in-cheek title of this post (which is, of course, a reference to ‘The League of Gentlemen’) is meant with no disrespect!

What is a song?

In our discussion a song is lyrics set to music for use in congregational worship. That is, words written for the church to sing together. The only limits for these songs (past the obvious ones of theological accuracy and singability) are practical, based on style and arrangement. Each church is constrained by the musicians and resources available to them. A song which only works with a string orchestra won’t sound great with two recorders and a banjo, so in my experience churches have to be incredibly resourceful in how they use what they have.

So, what are ‘songs for the local church’?

We’re talking here about songs written by and for the local church. Songs written by members of the local church, for use in their own worshipping context (although some songs may get more widely shared).

The by and for bits are important: these are songs which reflect the life, struggles, hopes, dreams, prayers, and vision of the local church. They are songs which, while they may not name specific people in the fellowship, are about subjects familiar to the local people.

Here are a few examples of subjects local songs may tackle, although there’s no limit to what local songs can talk about, and human experience is often very similar across the world.

  • Social issues experienced locally: e.g. poverty, deprivation, crime
  • Particular physical or mental struggles experienced by church members: e.g. grief, depression, cancer
  • The aims of the local church: e.g. to reach out to the hurting, be a place of hope, plant more churches in nearby areas
  • Express aspects of worship relevant to the local church: joy, wonder, confusion

The bottom line here is the songs should be representative of that local church – even if the song is equally applicable to other local contexts. After all, a song named “Praise the God of creation” might represent a congregation with a focus on ecology as well as many other fellowships.

Songs in the Bible

If we look in the Bible we can see dozens of examples of songs which were written specifically about local issues of the time. The very first song in the Bible, in Exodus 15, was a song of thanks and praise after the Israelites had been delivered from Egypt. In fact, it almost looks like it’s a co-write between Moses and Miriam. The song names specific things about what happened – the waters closing over their enemies – amongst exclamations of praise and wonder, and declarations of the power and nature of God.

The book of Psalms is also chock-full of context-specific songs. We can see that by the inscriptions given to many of the chapters. Some of these are specific to the writer:

Psalm 3: A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom.
Psalm 102: A prayer of an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the Lord.

Some are about specific events or times in the life of the community:

Psalm 30: A psalm. A song. For the dedication of the temple. Of David.
Psalm 92: A psalm. A song. For the Sabbath day.

And many are for specific people in the fellowship:

Psalm 85: For the director of music. Of the Sons of Korah. A psalm.

I’m no Bible scholar, but I suspect many of the Psalms reflect what was happening to the writer, or in the context in which they lived, at the time of writing. That’s to be expected: songs are mainly written from the personal perspective of the writer. As humans we have to work hard to see other perspectives to our own.

Before we look at the New Testament, there’s another example of local context-centric songwriting. In Judges 5 a song is sung by Deborah (who sounds like a formidable lady) which is utterly full of specific references to events that have just happened. The words in this song, like so many others in the Bible, may have meant something quite different – and probably a lot more personal – to the people hearing them at the time, than they do to us.

In the New Testament we are also encouraged to use music in worship. Both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 are clear that ‘psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’ are to be used for the benefit of each other. While the early church had the Jewish scriptures to draw on, I suspect there were new songs being written at the time which expressed the fresh truth about Jesus. Those songs would have been almost exclusively written and used by the local church – there wasn’t much of a publishing industry back then!

Sing a new song

We are also exhorted in Psalms 33, 96, 98, 149, and in Isaiah 42:10 to “sing to the Lord a new song”. Even in the book of Revelation new songs are being sung (Rev 5:9, 14:3). It’s clear we shouldn’t rest on the laurels of previously-composed songs.

But why? Does God have a short attention span, constantly needing something fresh to liven up the boredom of being eternally worshipped? Of course not. I believe new songs are required for us. Writing new songs encourages us to remember what God has done for us, to put it into new words, to dig deeper into our understanding of his nature and love for us, and to express the full range of human emotion in ways that keep us sharpened.

New songs – particularly new local songs – help us to re-connect with ourselves, the world around us, and with God. So I believe that new local songs are vital for the worshipping life of a fellowship. I have three specific reasons why.

Why we should encourage local songwriting

First, it’s Biblically appropriate. We have seen many examples in the Bible where songs were written to celebrate specific events, express deep emotion, or draw together a worshipping community in vision and faith. It seems clear that songs written within the context of a local worshipping community can do the same today.

Second, local songwriting is culturally authentic. We don’t have to use songs where the musical style or language doesn’t suit our local context. We can write songs which are by us and of us.

Thirdly, it is pastorally encouraging to give people in a fellowship the opportunity to write songs which will be used in worship by that community. For some of us, songwriting gives us a way to engage with the Bible, our own beliefs, and with our context at a deeper level than thinking alone. Sometimes the fruits of that writing can be beneficial for the wider congregation.

It’s “and”, not “instead of”

None of what I’ve said is meant to be taken as a call to “Reject Redman!” or “Boycott Bethel!”. Worship leaders should draw on the best songs that meet the needs of their congregations, whether they were written by professional musician in a Californian mega-church, or by a teenager in your local church. Likewise, we shouldn’t be constrained by the age of the song – we have hundreds of years of history in writing music for worship, and we should draw on it all – whatever is appropriate to our local context.

We should also take care to ensure the quality of songs – whoever they are written by – is high. By quality I mean ensuring that they are theologically accurate, linguistically coherent, and musically pleasing! There is also a direct and sobering warning in Amos 5:23 that God will reject sung worship if the heart of the worshipper is not set on the right things. Encouraging local songwriting is not an excuse to pander to dreams of international fame.

What does seem strange to me is the common assumption that we should only use “proper”, published songs in our churches. While there are undoubtedly anointed songwriters who work professionally in the Christian music industry, deferring to only using their songs should be as strange to us as a world where we only use prayers centrally published, or only give sermons written by celebrity preachers. Let’s unlock the potential in our local churches to use songwriting as a way to express ourselves to God, and to share His love with the people around us.

Making the ShopTalk Show theme tune

I’m a regular listener to the ShopTalk Show podcast, a really great show about web design and development hosted by Chris Coyier and Dave Rupert. A couple of years ago, not long after the show started, I offered Chris and Dave a very rough piece of music as a theme tune, and they’ve been using it ever since.

But the time has come to refresh the theme tune, and the guys asked me to record a new version. Specifically they wanted it “rootsier”, and around 20 seconds in length. Here is the new version:

If you’re interested in how I recorded it then read on!

Chris and Dave wanted me to incorporate a recording of a crowd shouting the show motto “Just Build Websites”. I heard in my head exactly how that sample could be used at the end of the tune, so I knew what I was aiming for.

I busked a quick bit of music in the style they wanted. I grabbed my guitar, started strumming an A chord, and very quickly had a chord progression I was happy with, including the ending that could include the “Just Build Websites” sample. I wrote the music down on the back of an envelope (as that’s a traditional thing to do) and added some ideas for an arrangement:


Now I could start recording. I used the fantastic free Audacity software, as I wouldn’t need any fancy effects. It handles simple multitrack recording, and is really easy to use.

Click track

First I laid down a click track, to ensure I was keeping in time with myself. I recorded enough bars for a lengthy click intro before I start playing, and of course enough bars to go right to the end of the recording. If you’re playing along to a click track like this it’s a good idea to have at least 4 bars before you start playing. It gives your hands time to get from the keyboard to the instrument, and lets you settle into the tempo.


Acoustic 1

Then I grabbed my trusty Line6 Variax 500 and chose the Martin D-28 6-string acoustic guitar sample sound. That’s the main guitar you hear at the beginning.


The Variax is great as it gives a really good impersonation of a real guitar. Yes, anyone with a good ear can hear it’s not a real Martin D-28, but then it didn’t cost ten grand. Plus it comes with a massive range of other stringed instrument samples, a couple of which I talk about below.

The first acoustic took a few takes to get right, but I wasn’t happy with the sound, so decided to add a second acoustic guitar.

Acoustic 2

This time I chose a Gibson J-200 and double-tracked the first acoustic, but using my fingertip instead of a pick. I panned the second acoustic to the left and pulled the levels down. This gave me a nice stereo spread of sound.


I knew for the main body of the piece I wanted a ringing guitar sound, probably double-stringed and higher than the guitars. I don’t have a bouzouki (although I think that will be my next instrument purchase; Jeremy will be pleased) but by choosing a Martin D 12-28 12-string guitar sample and putting a capo up on (I think) 5th fret it was a reasonable rendition.

This took quite a few takes to get right as my fingers didn’t want to do what I told them. Sometimes that’s just the way it goes. Here are the two acoustics and bouzouki tracks.



The time had come to lay down the Groove Machine. Ahem, I mean record the bass. I’ve got a beautiful 1978 Fender Precision bass, and a couple of takes later I had it done.


Bass almost always needs come compression to even out the levels. I applied some basic compression to the bass track:


And ended up with something looking much fuller, although a couple of peaks were uncomfortably high:


Here’s a simple trick. If you see a peak which is really high, like the ones in the red circles above, it’s likely that there are just one or two waves which are high. Zoom right in and select the high waves:


Then pull the levels down by a notch:


This is before:


And this is after:


I’ve found that this doesn’t affect the sound in any noticeable way, but help to stop clipping.


To round out the “rootsy” nature of the recording I added a banjo part, using the Gibson Mastertone sample in the Variax. It’s pretty low in the mix, and it’s not complicated, as I ain’t a good finger picker. But it’s a nice little addition to the piece, particularly at the beginning.

When I say I’m not a good finger-picker I mean I’m really awful, so getting this banjo part OK was Hard Work. I lost count of how many takes it took, but it was well over 20.

Just Build Websites (JBW)

Now I was ready to add the JBW sample. The problem was the words are said faster than the tempo of the tune. When I was busking the chord progression I tried playing the music fast enough to fit the speed the words are said, but it sounded manic.

You can see here the peaks of the JBW track don’t match with the peaks of the bass track above.


What I needed to do was cut the words apart, so they are spoken at the same tempo as the music. I toyed with stretching the JBW sample, but it sounded awful.

Cutting the JBW sample into parts was easy, but then I got a horrible “clipped” effect after the first two words, because there was artificially-inserted silence. What to do? Add reverb? Nope, that sounded horrible and false. Instead, I copied parts of the sample and shifted it along to mask the gap. Here you can see how I lined the words up with the bass notes, then covered the gap with my fake echo:


I pulled the level of the fake echo down until it was reasonably unobtrusive, but still masked the gap:


Next I used my Alesis DM5 digital drum kit to lay down a drum line. It’s mostly pretty simple, but I did do a sweet triplet fill before the last two notes:

The drum sound was a bit dry, so I added some small room reverb:



As the levels were getting set as I added the tracks there wasn’t much to do in terms of mixing. I did find the bass got lost, particularly in small headphones. By the way, it’s a good idea to check your mix not just on studio monitors, but on headphones. I used Grado SR60 and RHA MA350 (I think) in-ear headphones. A bit of EQ on the bass soon made it pop out again:


After exporting my mix to 2 tracks I “topped and tailed” the resulting file to remove empty space at the beginning and fade out nicely at the end. Then I encoded to MP3 and emailed it to Chris and Dave. Job done.


The second acoustic was slightly out of tune one one or two notes, so I re-recorded that. And I wasn’t happy with two of the notes on the bass as well, so I re-recorded that. Dave also made a great suggestion of adding a little banjo intro. My amazing (not) finger-picking skills once again saved the day:

As this banjo was stuck out on its own I added a touch of reverb to beef it up.

Now, listening to the individual parts you may thing “hmm, these are a bit raw”. You’re right, they are. As part of that “rootsy” feel I didn’t want to overall piece to feel too polished – I wanted it to sound like a bunch of guys messing around with some recording gear late one night after a few beers. Hopefully I’ve achieved that, and hopefully the listeners to the ShopTalk Show will like it. I certainly enjoyed recording it.

Wow! Caching is the cure for what ails yer!

I run a site which has been performing very badly recently – lots of crashes, memory exceptions and the like. It’s hosted by the wonderful Dreamhost and I contacted them to see what the problem was. Basically the site was using too much memory. Ho hum.

So I took a quick look around and found this article on improving BuddyPress performance written by my friend Andy Peatling. Basically I just turned on wp_cache in my wp-config.php file and enabled XCache and look:

Caching makes the world faster

If that’s not a fantastic result I don’t know what is.

So if you’re a DJ and you’re looking for free mix hosting, BeatsBase.com is now working again!

I’m also rewriting the site to have some more Web 2.0 Social Networking features (using, you guessed it, BuddyPress) such as cool member profiles, groups and friends, on-site messaging and more. I also aim to get some kind of integration with Facebook and Twitter going, but of quite what nature I’m not sure yet. This is all dependent on time, of course.

New BeatsBase mix widget

I’m currently working on a widget for BeatsBase.com, the social networking and mix hosting site I developed for my friend and client Robbie a couple of years ago. The widget will allow you to have a Radio BeatsBase player on your website, just like this:

That one shows the latest mixes added to the site, but if things go according to plan you’ll also be able to have a player with just one users mixes in as well. If you’re into dance, trance, techno and other styles of “young person” music take a look.

Metro View from inside: Michael Franti on why music deserves to be shared

CD sales are down. Downloading is up. The future is coming. Don’t be afraid. Despite the fact the record industry dinosaur is sucking on its last barrel of oil, the goddess of music is more alive than ever before. I remember a time when an average fan had perhaps 50 CDs in their collection and most were from one genre. Today, nearly every listener has thousands of songs tucked away in their shirt pocket and everyone’s got their chill-out, rock-ou and make-out playlist among them. Did they pay for all of them? Unlikely. Are they inspired by all of them? Definitely. Some songs only inspire us to click delete but even that churns up to delve deeper into the vast sea of supply that is feeding the world’s insatiable desire to move and be moved by music.

So from an artist’s perspective, what good can come from people sharing music? When I turn someone on to new music I’ve discovered, my reputation as a tastemaker is on the line. I recommend a couple of duds and suddenly I’m “DJ non-grata”. The absolute best promotion any band could have is word of mouth and the internet is the music world’s blowhorn.

I cannot count the hundreds of times I have heard from fans after shows say “My friend burned me your disc and that is why I am here tonight.” Playing music on the streets of Baghdad in 2004, one man said: “I have seen you on the computer.” It really was an awakening for me to witness the power of song in the world today and the beauty that it’s reaching more people than ever before.

Michael Franti and Spearhead’s latest album, All Rebel Rockers (Anti), is out now

This was originally published in the Metro free newspaper.