Listening things into being
I love to listen because you learn a lot about people; I listen to the space between the notes.—Roy Salmond
You’re likely familiar with Canadian recording artists Carolyn Arends, Steve Bell, Brian Doerksen and Jon Buller, but you may not have heard of the “ear” behind the music. For the past three decades, Roy Salmond has recorded musicians and poets, the past 16 of them at his Whitewater Productions studio in Surrey, B.C.
A producer, percussionist, guitarist, keyboardist, pianist and singer, Salmond received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 37th annual Covenant Awards in Nov. 5, 2015.
“[Roy] can play virtually any instrument,” said Arends in her congratulatory video greeting. “You have more production and engineering knowhow in your little pinky than most people acquire in a lifetime…but…you are getting this award for a lifetime spent…[to quote Eugene Peterson:] ‘listening things into being.’”
MB Herald copy editor Angeline Schellenberg talked with Roy about hearing God in unexpected places.
I remember your folk rock duo Salmond and Mulder from the ’80s. Why did you switch from performing to producing others’ work?
I love young people: they’re filled with questions, opinions they’re sure of and an idealism I enjoy.
But they can get beaten down by disappointment in life, relationships and career. When I’m working with artists wrestling with demons, not sure they can write about them, I tell them, “If you don’t acknowledge those dark places, what are you confessing to God?” The Psalms are full of lament.
When we go into those ultimate left turns in life, we find what Chesterton calls “the permanent things.”
You said once that you don’t like the term “Christian music.” Why not?
There’s no such thing as a “born again” note. I’ve never seen a bar on a piece of staff paper that’s been redeemed.
What makes something Christian is the Spirit we bring to it and whether it illuminates something beyond ourselves.
This may get me into trouble, but I’m not sure a lot of worship music is Christian; it reinforces what we already believe to keep us safe and secure, and it doesn’t point us outside ourselves.
Unfortunately much musical art, even in the church, is geared toward emotional results; worship becomes exercise in mood management rather than an engagement in the mystery. To quote Tom Waits: “Bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.”
So what does the church need more of?
This sounds simple, but it’s not simplistic: the church needs more Jesus. And the freeing, engaging, centring love that helps us to be more true to ourselves and more welcoming of those who are different.
What does that look like in worship music?
It’s adventurous. And affirming. It pulls us forward rather than back. Sometimes making music – I’ve been guilty of this – can become an exercise in nostalgia that celebrates the past at the expense of the present. In all good worship music, there’s a sense of engaging in the Spirit of God who pulls us forward into a life of service and compassion.
Can you give an example?
Every six weeks, I play music in a retirement home. I love to watch them engage in singing, in a transformative sense, to see their eyes light up. There’s a warmth and touchstone that make what we’re doing more purely altruistic than big productions in churches. It’s where I want to be musically: to put whatever I’ve got into the quiet, tender, small moments – they’re the ones that matter.
Is there scope for the gospel in secular music?
Absolutely. Once a year, I lead a service at Cedar Park Church (Delta, B.C.) called Story and Song, where we invite people to share their favourite hymn or spiritual song, and say why it’s significant. I encourage people to look for spiritual songs; God is not limited to what we consider Christian music.
One fellow pointed out how a song in How to Train Your Dragon evokes the feeling of trust. Someone shared how James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” led him to church. We can attune ourselves to hearing God in the marginal places; he is there.
What is the power of a good song?
Beauty feeds the soul and has its source in God. “Everything comes from him; Everything happens through him; Everything ends up in him. Always glory! Always praise! Yes. Yes. Yes” (Romans 11:36, The Message).
The trouble is we want to catch beauty and package it and market it. Where are the artists who will affect change? A song about truth and goodness that helps someone lift their head up and believe for an instant that God loves them is harder to measure than a base week salary.
Music can push you and stretch you. The trick is most people are afraid of change. But change is crucial to growth. Following Jesus is not about safety. To quote C.S. Lewis: “He’s not a tame lion, but he is good.”
You’re obviously a man of quotes. What’s your favourite quote about worship?
Henry Ward Beecher: “I never knew how to worship until I knew how to love.”
When we make a habit of choosing to love, that affects deeply our ability to worship; you can’t worship without a self-emptying.
It’s more than an emotional response to a cool song. When you have that sense of relinquishing control of your own appetites and tastes, the Holy Spirit has a chance to influence the eyes and ears of your heart. Loving God with heart and soul and mind leaves no room for ego.
The great thing about love is that, when we are loved, we feel free to be ourselves and let our guard down. You will feel hurt more deeply, but you will also feel more whole and human, and it takes less work than keeping demons of life at bay.
Any advice for artists just starting out?
There’s one thing I’m sure about: your life is not going to turn out the way you’ve planned. If you can embrace that and hold it in healthy perspective, you can see life as opportunity to learn and grow.
To quote Malcolm Muggeridge: “Only dead fish swim with the stream.”
What opportunities did you have that artists don’t have anymore?
I was lucky. I sang at youth events in downtown Seattle, someone there said, “Would you sing at my church?” and it grew from that. Now with inexpensive recording platforms and social media, we can hardly keep up. Does that mean people don’t have opportunities? No: cream still rises to top.
So how can artists get their work out?
The trick is to have something bigger to say than “Look at me! Aren’t I good?” It’s easy to step into the same values as the secular music industry where success measures your validity.
That’s backwards to the gospel: how do you lose your life to find it if you’re scrambling to be successful?
What unique opportunities does music offer the gospel message?
The poet Emily Dickinson said, “Tell the truth and tell it slant.” Through lyrics, you can take people on journeys where underlying truth shows up. The gospel is love ultimately, but his love comes in many shades.
Tell me about your new initiative.
I started partnering seven or eight years ago with IncarNATION Ministries. They invested with me, so I can dedicate a significant part of my time to helping artists communicate the truth of the gospel into deeper corners and darker places than the gospel music industry.
What role has music played in your faith journey?
I’ve always been attracted to good lyrics about faith. My growing-up years in the 70s and early 80s, I was pretty engaged with the Jesus movement. I gravitated to Larry Norman, Mark Heard,
Randy Stonehill – where the songs weren’t explicitly religious but communicated things that were deeper, things that mattered.
In my late teens, I wrote a song inspired by Salvador Dali about how I saw light in the shadows. That has always pulled me forward: exploring shadows and not being afraid of them.
Your award was called “a lifetime achievement” award. What would you say is your greatest achievement so far?
To quote Frank Lloyd Wright when he was asked to name the favourite building he designed: “The next one.” I don’t spend my time measuring what I’ve done.
The Lifetime Achievement Award should be renamed “those too stubborn to quit” award! [He chuckles.] I keep getting opportunities to engage with artists and pastors. I’m a lifer.
Roy’s top 5 mainstream songs that point to God:
1. O Nata Lux – Morten Lauridsen (Choral)
Filled with a longing that draws me into the divine mystery. I don’t know what “holy” sounds like, but this comes close.
If church could be this joyful and celebrative!
Redemptive melancholia. Spiritual exhaling. Makes me want comfort that is deeper than “feeling good.”
The greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Discovering the depth of release with forgiveness.
See also Roy’s series of columns on discerning music: