Where King David worshipped with flutes and lyres, Rend Collective uses banjos, accordions, mandolins, ukuleles, and something called a “Jingling Johnny.”“It’s crazy loud, but it sure is celebratory,” lead singer Chris Llewellyn said of the instrument that resembles a pogo stick, but with some pie pans and a bell.
The band from Northern Ireland has swept the United States with its foot-stomping, Mumford-y worship music. The Rend Collective recently released its fourth album, The Art of Celebration, which hit No. 1 on iTunes charts, as well as No. 13 on the Billboard charts. I spoke with Llewellyn about how his band formed, the purpose of its new album, and creating music for the congregation.
How did Rend Collective come about? We began as a Bible study and church movement for college-aged people. We were just chasing after community and faith and God. Together, we studied the Bible, we went out and did evangelism; it was a very simple movement. We didn’t play any music, really. We didn’t write our own songs. We realized five years in that we had gathered quite an amazing collective of artists, and really it was a waste of talent not to come together and do at least one project. We put together what we called the Organic Family Hymnal. It was, remarkably, picked up by a record label, now known as Integrity, and we toured that for a little while in the U.K. and the island. And all of a sudden we got an email from Chris Tomlin asking if we want to tour with him.
How did the idea for “The Art of Celebration”come about? There was a bit of a backdrop of celebration in the group. During the writing, I was engaged and looking forward to my wedding celebration, and Gareth and Allie Gilkeson from the band were looking forward to the birth of their child. I supposed against that backdrop we were saying, there’s so much to celebrate in this season of our lives. And we’re really good at it right now, but were we always good at it, even through the sorrows, even during the difficult times in our lives? Really we should always be this thankful. God’s grace is always there as a backdrop for us, and I guess we wanted to communicate that as a record.
Why do you think this message is important to the church? We realized that seriousness isn’t a fruit of the spirit, but joy is, and that’s the one we need to work on, that’s the one we need to cultivate. Joy is actually a discipline. It’s a spiritual discipline we need to develop in our lives to the same extent that we need to develop our prayer lives. I felt like that’s a message that’s been left out within the church a little bit. So we wanted to capture this lost art of celebration and see how that would look musically.
Some bands resist the label “Christian artist.”How would you describe the type of music Rend Collective makes? We’re a worship band through and through. We’re all about the church, so I don’t think we can avoid that label at all. I don’t even think I would want to, necessarily. I guess we’re a celebration worship band, much more than we’re a folk band or a folk-rock band.
Which of your songs is most often sung in churches? We quite often get told that people are playing our song “Build Your Kingdom Here.”I think people really gravitate towards that song in the sense that it’s a real revival prayer and it’s got that Irish flavor. I think a lot of people in the States have that in their blood; they just don’t know it. A lot of worship leaders have been using that song, and we find that a real triumph in terms of songwriting because we work so hard to make it congregational, yet still challenging.
How much do you have congregational singing in mind when you write your songs? The songs are changed a lot with that idea in mind. If we get to a point of the song and we realize the melody’s gotten too high for the average person to sing, we’ll start again from scratch. It’s that important to us. We think that music exists to serve people and not the other way around. Art is important, art is great, but it’s made for people, and we want people to be able to catch on to it as much as possible.