While praise and worship groups have been nudging out the old Hammond organ since the 60’s, relatively few of them write their own material or produce albums. But the worship team at First Free Church in Onalaska is part of a small but growing number of groups that do both.
The worship team will launch its first 11-track album, Awake//Alive, Friday (Dec. 1) at a special 7 p.m. service at First Free church. A labor of love by four collaborators who speak the language of the post baby-boomer generations, the album wraps up nearly two years of creative and technical work.
Co-producer Aaron Luttenegger of Holmen believes that music is a language, and says the First Free group writes in a style that speaks a modern language.
“Everybody, including us, wrestles with stuff and this is a way of processing it,” he said.
Luttenegger’s wife Elizabeth, a vocalist who got her start doing musical theater at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, writes most of the lyrics and said the music is “full of this messy, real-heart cry,” of human emotion.
For example, from the song, “My Hope” comes: When my heart is overwhelmed/When all I know is fear and doubt/ I will stand on the promise that you made/You won’t leave, you won’t forsake/I’m covered in your love.”
Cody Jensen, worship leader at First Free’s sister church in Winona, agrees. “We offer people a vocabulary for reality,” he said.
Also, unique to younger writers is an eagerness to explore areas formally reserved for clergy; communicating God’s message to a church. They see worship as a two-way street.
“We’re not interested in just making another worship album,” said Luttenegger. “We want to see what God has to say to First Free.”
To that end, the team relies heavily on collaboration. Jensen confesses that at one time he was a sort of “lone wolf,” but quickly grew to appreciate the “value and beauty of collaboration.” Luttenegger firmly believes that “it culls greatness and adds to creativity.” Besides, he says, “Melody comes from friendship.”
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Songs come together when the team connects; often in a variety of venues and situations. The group meets at least once a week for intentional song writing. Inspiration often flows from jam sessions or as Elizabeth says, “just diddling around where you find nuggets,” of ideas. But creativity can strike at the oddest times.
Elizabeth recalled a time during a shopping trip when their phone rang as they pulled into a parking lot. It was guitarist and co-producer Justin McGrath of West Salem. “Justin had a melody,” she said.
So, they listened and began to flesh out a song. “We walked around that parking lot for 20 minutes,” Elizabeth chuckled, adding, “collaborate with passionate people long enough and you’ll have something.”
While the team sometimes sifts methodically for creative nuggets of inspiration, others pop unexpectedly as in, “Forever You are God”, the song that initially sparked the idea for cutting an album. Justin had a chorus and a bridge, but it had been buried for some time, explained Luttenegger. But once the team began work, within a half hour they hammered out a song.
“The first time we played it, it resonated with the people,” said Luttenegger. “They didn’t even realize it was our stuff.”
Often the group will draw on ideas expressed in the Psalms, which are ancient songs and poems—many of which were written by King David of Israel a thousand years before Christ.
“David is the epitome of what a worshipper looks like,” said Luttenegger.
The song, “Trust” evokes images from David’s personal life that mirror the human experience: I will trust you Lord/In my darkest hour/I will trust you Lord/Even in the fire/O my soul rejoice/And know that the Lord is good.
“You get an idea of the Biblical way of dealing with doubt, fear, and despair – you get honesty,” said Jensen. “It’s the power of singing truth into your experience and truth is the Word of God.”
The album, Alive//Awake can be pre-ordered on i-tunes after Dec. 15, or after the official release date of Jan. 12, on the website firstfreemusic.com.