An Interview with John Van Deusen
During the long pandemic months, my husband and I began streaming John Van Deusen’s music. The stillness allowed us to reflect on his lyrics during long car rides to our favorite hiking spots.
The song “With Every Power Wide Awake” struck me. We need music like this, I thought. We need permission to admit our hearts are hostile. Because isn’t that true about us all? Apart from the gospel—before we knew Jesus—our hearts were hostile. We didn’t love God. And yet, God loved us.
The stillness of those pandemic months made room for many of us to reflect on faith and life, and many of us embraced the outdoors and creative life—to dabble anew in the arts.
The art of songwriting intersects with the craft of writing. For example, Van Deusen’s lyrics display excellence in storytelling, imagery, and theology—qualities we writers desire to embody in our articles, poems, blog posts, or novels.
Another quality to emulate? Faithfulness. Van Deusen lives Ephesians 2:10, an artist emboldened and marked by God’s grace in Christ Jesus. With faithfulness devoted to carving out time for creative output, Van Deusen says his best ideas emerge after time spent in prayer or reading God’s word.
Please enjoy this interview designed to encourage our endeavors in the creative life—and give John Van Deusen’s music a listen if you haven’t yet.
[Timarie] Thank you, John, for collaborating on this interview for Fathom.
Your career took a recent turn—you began writing hymns and congregational music full-time. Tell us a bit of your story and your hopes for 2023.
[John] Yes, my career has been changing so much over the last few years. Truthfully it all boils down to my Christian faith becoming central to my life and starting a family. For many years (since 2004) I’ve been writing songs that focus inward; I’ve used songwriting to process my emotional reality. It wasn’t until 2014 that I started openly singing about my faith, which at that point was in its infancy. As I’ve grown more connected to Christ, I’ve found a deep joy in worshiping while writing and recording music, which results in my own brand of “worship music.” Though I still write songs that many wouldn’t classify as “Christian,” I’ve found myself writing more and more songs that are focused on Christ. It’s difficult to explain the spiritual bliss I achieve while writing modern hymns and worship music. Last year I signed a publishing deal to write worship music, and I’d love for it to become my full-time job.
Want to Listen to John Van Deusen
When you write hymns, do you start with a theme and then arrange prose or verses? Explain briefly what this process looks like.
[J] The ideas that “stick” usually happen on days when I’ve had a very productive time of prayer and scripture reading. The songs then usually flow in a more effortless stream of words and melody.
I typically begin with a chord progression and a hummed melody while considering what it is I’m hoping to “say.” Sometimes I’ll sing gibberish until words begin to form. I then spend time working through the lyrics. Many hymns offer three to five verses that span much of the gospel message in scope. So, I’m learning to consider the first and last verses and how well I’ve summed up the basic theological truths I’m trying to instill. In my opinion hymns are one of the best ways to catechize and communicate basic theology. So that’s important to me and it’s something I want to get better at.
Lately, I’ve been trying to find new words and vocabulary to express these truths. It can be difficult to avoid platitudes when writing modern worship music, so a thesaurus is extra helpful in that regard.
How do you integrate creativity into the art you produce? Is it scheduled or sporadic, contemplative or slogging?
[J] I have scheduled days of the week when I’m in the writing studio. I have my writing process pretty dialed in, so once I’m alone in my space it’s off to the races. My phone, as much as I hate it, is the best tool I have for capturing spur-of-the-moment creativity. Voice memos and notes are my favorite apps. Today I used my voice memo app for nearly five hours while writing a song away from my recording space. Also, if I’m working on something new and nothing good comes quickly, I usually stop within ten minutes. I’ve never enjoyed forcing the creative process like I was practicing free throws or doing homework. Some people can buckle down and make it happen. I usually need to ride a wave of creative energy and inspiration. If it’s not there, I don’t force it.
Repentance is a theme often found in the lyrics you’ve written. When did the gospel of Jesus become life to you?
[J] Yes, I’m glad you’ve noticed this! I lived a fairly chaotic and selfish existence for most of my adult life. I was raised in the church but left my cultural Christianity behind as a teenager. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I became a Christian, and at that point, I’d left a lot of pain in my wake. I think I’m still amazed at how much my life has changed, and I’m blown away that God loves me. This theme frequently shows up in my songs. It’s important to me that I sing about messing up, being angry, doubting, struggling, etc.—Christian music often seems to leave out those parts of the human experience. If you don’t sing about struggling with sin and brokenness, the songs about forgiveness seem to lack potency. That’s just my opinion.
In writers’ lingo, your songs qualify as storytelling with a “show-don’t-tell” method. For example, you portray many of your own struggles, allowing the listener to catch the message of the gospel. How has admitting your own shortcomings been both freeing and challenging in today’s culture?
[J] It’s always nerve-racking to share your struggles with people you don’t know. I continue doing it because I’ve simply had way too many people tell me how much strength they draw from those vulnerable songs. Also, I think many Christians and people raised within Christian culture have felt like they can’t be honest about their struggles. It is incredibly liberating when you realize that God doesn’t need you to be perfect and that it’s okay to talk about it.
True, only Christ’s perfect life, death, and resurrection placed us in a right relationship with God—we could never be perfect in our own efforts. Your lyrics help remind us of this truth. What are some unhelpful things people have said as you’ve created art?
[J] I can’t think of anything unhelpful someone has said to me directly. However, there have been times in my life when I’ve collaborated with people who are very concerned with creating something “cool.” This was always unhelpful and looking back I wish I had been more comfortable in who I was as a creative. I think I needed help discovering who I was when I was younger, and I could have used someone to help me understand that my likes and dislikes were unique to me and weren’t weaknesses, even if they weren’t “cool” or in step with cultural trends.
What advice might you give to the artist who wants to steward creativity with faithfulness, yet struggles to carve out the time?
[J] I would probably tell them to carve out a couple of hours a week—or even one hour—where they write and create. I’d encourage them to take baby steps towards finishing something, whether a book, album, painting, poem, song, etc. and put a low-pressure time limit on the project. I’d then encourage them to put that finished product into the world for others to interface with and to set a low bar for what a “success” would look like. My bar for success is simply asking myself, “Do I like this?” That’s a really good place to start.
If you’re in desperate need for a creative output but you don’t have the time, you probably need to say no to something to find that time. Maybe it’s only watching TV shows on the weekends so that you can create on a weeknight.
Redefine what success and productivity look like for you within the framework of your life.
And remember that God brings seasons. Some seasons are for creating. Some aren’t.
[T] Thanks, John, for responding thoughtfully and for encouraging us as we create art.
Cover image by Kelly Sikkema.