by Sam Robinson
Page CXVI today release their second album written to soundtrack the church calendar. Following up Advent to Christmas, this new album Lent to Maundy Thursday is a beautiful soundtrack to the season we’re about to enter that takes us all the way up to Easter. Read my review of it here. I got to catch up once again with Latifah Phillips from Page CXVI to discuss a number of the songs on the album, what the period of Lent is all about, and also discover some secrets about the forthcoming final album in this series.
SAM: It’s been a few months since we last caught up, what’s been happening in that time?
LATIFAH: Well all the holidays passed, which for lots of people means lots of family, food, extra weight [laughs]. It’s been good. I’ve been really slaving away on the last two records for the calendar project, Lent to Maundy Thursday, which is what you’re featuring. And right now I’m listening to final masters of Good Friday to Easter. So I’m still not quite finished. It’s always strange to be releasing a record and working on the next record at the same time. Some resting, I wish a little more resting than I had. And I had a run-in with a cactus and hurt my finger and had hand surgery, the day after Christmas!
SAM: My goodness. Well we’ll talk about that a little later, but we’re in the middle of these three calendar records. For those who might not have read our chat last time, can you give us a brief run-down on what those three calendar records are about?
LATIFAH: Yeah, so the whole project is basically: how do we with music walk through the liturgical church calendar, in essence pulling ancient themes of faith forward through music. Which we do a lot in writings and theology, but I haven’t seen as much of it happen in music. So we really wanted to have worship and music elements to offer ourselves, and our communities and the church, so they can celebrate these seasons not just with sermons but with songs. So Advent to Christmas is about anticipation, and the expectancy of waiting for Christ. Christmas is the celebration of his arrival, the fulfilment of his promise. This record, Lent to Maundy Thursday, is basically remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ, a time of repentance and prayer and gratitude, and Palm Sunday which is commemorating the memory of Christ walking and being celebrated as King. What’s crazy to think about is he knows what’s coming, but those around him who are saying ‘Hosanna!’ don’t. And then Maundy Thursday is ending the second record, which is commemorating the last supper. And so you gather with your friends and you discuss what you love about Christ, and remembering Christ. It was a really fun record to work on. And the next one, Good Friday to Easter, obviously Good Friday is the death of Christ on the cross, and we spent a lot of time on that record focussing on what mourning and grief look like through song. In that moment, they don’t know he’s going to raise from the dead three days later. Their friend, their son, their Messiah has just died. So we try to really go there. And then Easter – yay! Christ is victorious! He’s defeated death, we’re no longer in bondage of our sin! We spend a lot of time celebrating in song. It’s just an idea of carrying liturgical themes through hymns, through some original songs we’ve been doing on these records as well, so we can walk through the counsel of God every year together with music. That’s the scope of the project.
SAM: Cool. And it’s been about two months since Advent to Christmas was released, what was the reaction like to that record from fans?
LATIFAH: I think it was really positive. The good news is that if someone hated it, they didn’t email me directly this time. [Laughs]
SAM: [In an angry voice] We shouldn’t celebrate Christmas!
LATIFAH: I know! [In an angry voice] You’re terrible! You’ve ruined Christmas with music!
SAM: [Laughs] No-one can see but we’re on Skype doing angry keyboard typing motion!
LATIFAH: [Laughs] I know! It was really positive. I was really proud of the record. It’s fun to be in a season of making music where you can really enjoy the process because your abilities have started to match your vision. When you’re young and you start making records it’s a learning curve and a learning process. And you might have a great big vision but you don’t have the skills set to accomplish all that you want. So it’s been fun with the team we work with, like Dave Wilton and Dan and Reid and I all together – we’ve been growing in our skill level so it’s really fun with these records that our skill level and abilities are matching the vision I’ve always had. It’s really a blast to feel proud of the music and the final product in a whole different way. I think the response has been really positive. People were not offended by the changes we made, or at least overtly offended. And there’s a lot of people who didn’t know certain songs, like Awake My Soul, My Tongue which we did. We did that new one, Comfort, Comfort… so it’s fun to also bring new songs forward that are based on Scripture and psalms and maybe some hymns but that are new melodies. I think it was good. If it was bad, don’t tell me!
SAM: No! Actually, have you heard whether churches have picked up these arrangements and used them across Christmas time?
LATIFAH: Yeah, I had a lot of people have a great response to Silent Night. A lot of people use Comfort, Comfort… in the season of advent which is really fun. We make the chord charts for free and accessible online. They’re a little PDF you can click on under each record, and so the idea obviously is for people to take these into their church communities and use them. They’re not just for us. There were a couple of songs on the record that might be more of a challenge to do on a Sunday morning, but I still think the songs are strong enough that even if they change some stuff up the songs will still be fun to sing together. Your hope is that they do make it their own. I actually got an Instagram from a friend last night and her little two-year-old little girl will not go to bed without them singing the bridge tag that I added to Silent Night [sings] ‘Alleluia to our King, for Christ our Saviour is born, is born’. So she makes them sing that on repeat every night. She’s like, ‘Daddy! Sing!’ So I know it’s putting one child to bed!
SAM: That’s great. Well we are featuring the next record, Lent to Maundy Thursday. Was it harder to find hymns that fit into this time period?
LATIFAH: Yes. It was harder. Mostly because we don’t think a lot about the songs we sing with these seasons. A lot of people think about the songs they sing at Christmas. You have a tradition with Christmas carollers. People come to your doorstep and sing Christmas carols. People associate music – there’s whole radio stations dedicated to Christmas music. So we don’t necessarily associate the season of Lent with music already, culturally in the church. So there isn’t as much written as far as hymns go. So there were a couple of songs, one in particular Fast From, Feast On. I know for Lent that fasting is a part of it. When I was a little girl, Lent was about people showing up to school and saying ‘I’m not drinking Coca-Cola for a month!’ ‘I’m not eating chocolate!’ ‘I’m not playing video games!’ And there was kind of this arbitrary, ‘I’m just going to give up something because that’s what we do for Lent’. Kinda like giving presents at Christmas, because that’s what we do. And I am terrible at fasting food because I love it too much. So I started thinking about the ideas of fasting, and it’s basically a physical discipline to hone a spiritual discipline. And when you think about Christ fasting for forty days, really what it’s about is sacrifice. Tuning our minds so we have a position before God that’s repentant and reflective and vulnerable and obedient. All these things. So I really wanted a song to discuss the concept of fasting but not in the way of ‘I’m fasting from food’ but ‘I’m fasting from untruths. And what I’m putting in my heart and my mind are truths about who God is. That’s what I’ll feast on. The truth and grace and power of God in the gospel’. So there just aren’t any songs that I’ve found. So Dave and I were talking about it because I do a lot of writing with him. And we found a poem that a monk had written that was about these concepts, so we ended up using that poem as an inspirational starting point for the song. And the song talks about: fast from discontentment, feast on the joy that he brings, fast from the swelling darkness, feast on the power of his light. It’s basically a juxtaposition between untruths with truths. That’s one of my favourites and ended up being an original song that I really loved. Other songs like Were You There – that’s like a great old hymn that people have sung for a long time that I combined with an old hymn The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus. It was really fun to do that, putting two hymns together to make one concept for Lent. Maundy Thursday was really tough. Palm Sunday weren’t a lot either. So we were pulling from Scripture and writing two original songs. So this record has more original music than the others.
SAM: The first track is And Can It Be That I Should Gain. That’s a classic hymn. Why open this seasonal record with this song?
LATIFAH: I think the idea of focusing on Christ’s sacrifice for Lent is a really good starting place, because I don’t feel compelled to fast or compelled to gratitude if I don’t know what I’m focussing on, or what I’m thankful for. So And Can It Be That I Should Gain is kind of that – ‘Wow! I’m so undeserving but you’ve given me this incredible, generous gift.’ And that’s a really powerful thing to start… to position the record from a place of gratitude first, so that we can go into those other focuses of Lent in a good way. So that’s why we chose that hymn. And it’s really different from the original! But it was so fun to do!
SAM: Yeah, and it’s got a real soft rock sound to it, are you pleased with how the arrangement turned out?
LATIFAH: I am! I really like it. It feels hip and fresh to me, and fun and exciting because there’s a gravity with gratefulness, but there’s also a joy. I think this song has a joyous, fun feeling.
SAM: Lent can be a bit of confused time in the church, you mentioned before it’s quite “religious”, giving up things because we feel like we should. But in your preparation for this album, what did you discover that Lent is all about?
LATIFAH: Gratefulness is a word that I keep coming back to. Gratitude. Because when you focus on what Christ sacrificed, it really compels you to be really grateful. And when you realise what he did, what he accomplished, and why he had to go, I think that makes you really thankful. So I think there was a spirit of gratitude that I wasn’t anticipating because we think about Lent culturally about what we’re giving up, as opposed to what we’re gaining. And that’s another reason why I love to start the record with And Can It Be That I Should Gain. You realise it’s not about what you’re sacrificing, it’s about what Christ sacrificed on your behalf. So for me, that’s what I realised. The idea of focusing and feasting on the principles and truths of God as opposed to the things I get distracted by: my fear, my insecurity, my selfishness, my desires versus what God has for me and trusting that that’s better. I think it’s really about tuning your heart to who God is and what he has for you, as opposed to the other things we can so easily get distracted by and want to tune ourselves to.
SAM: And traditionally, people – even non-Christians – give up things at Lent. You mentioned you’re not into giving up food, is there anything you give up? Or perhaps – what do you gain, or do instead?
LATIFAH: That’s a really great question. This year, because honestly, I’ve been learning about the calendar as I’ve been preparing for this record, and Lent was something I didn’t participate much in prior to doing this record. It might sound really small, but I was trying to focus every day on what I’m grateful for, because of the gospel. And it’s funny how when you think through every day – and I’m a verbal processor so I have to say things out loud. So I’ll say in the shower, or the car, or whatever. Focussing on the many things I’m grateful for that God has blessed me with. That really positioned my heart and attitude in a way that was really different than other seasons. Like when you think about winter, we get a lot of snow here in Colorado. So you stay at home a lot, the sun goes down sooner, and it’s easy to get depressed and close yourself off and focus on things that aren’t as positive. So it was a really cool juxtaposition at Lent to open myself up and be grateful and thankful for things in a season that is in some ways swallowed and darker. I think that’s what the difference was for me.
SAM: The hymn Were You There is such a familiar song at Easter time, and here you’ve kept the melody but added a slinky groove to it. What can you tell me about why you chose this song, and maybe about the arrangement you’ve put together for it?
LATIFAH: I chose this song because it’s a good exercise for us who love Christ to imagine putting ourselves in that position. If I had a friend that I really loved that was really someone who influenced me greatly and taught me about God, and changed my life, and they died for me – what would that feel like? If we actually do the exercise of walking through that empathy, putting ourselves in that position, again it makes us have a deeper sense of gratitude for who Christ is, and we think about the fact that he really was a person who really came, not a mythological idea, it becomes even more powerful! I think this song in regards to Lent is a great choice. Adding then The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus – the idea of saying Christ died, he sacrificed himself, why? Because he loved us. It felt appropriate to insert that other song: ‘The deep, deep love of Jesus / Boundless and free / Rolling out of the mighty ocean over me’. That’s the answer: he did it because he loved us!
And the reason we did that groove… there’s something really soulful about Were You There, something really reflective. And it’s really repetitive, there’s not a lot of lyric change. The melody itself doesn’t grow or drop a tonne, it kinda stays in a particular range, so it just felt right to have this soulful, meditative groove to it that makes us think about it. It just kinda happened that way. I remember sitting down at the piano pounding the keys and it just started happening. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Norah Jones’ Little Broken Hearts which is in the same vein. That whole record is super simple and straight-forward and beautiful. So I’m sure that it influenced some of that song idea. It felt really right, really appropriate.
SAM: The song Fast From, Feast On – you mentioned you found a poem written by a monk. Can you tell me more about that?
LATIFAH: Yeah Dave and I wrote it together. We found a poem from a monk online that was beautiful and focussed on those ideas of fasting from untruth and feasting on the truth of God. It came out pretty easily when we started, as soon as we found that we were like ‘This is it! This is the concept we were looking for.’ And it’s one of my favourites, it’s a really great song. We’ve played it out a few times in the last few months even before the record released, and it’s really singable which is great. People really identify with it.
SAM: Now you mentioned briefly before that you had a mishap with a cactus!
LATIFAH: I know! A week before Thanksgiving I was on a walk with my dog, and I literally brushed a cactus with my right index finger. Long story short after four weeks of trying to work out why my finger was so swollen and wasn’t getting better – and as a piano player you can imagine how frustrating it is – it turns out that the tip of the cactus had gotten lodged in my joint cavity. And your skin will expel foreign agents, but if it gets in the joint capsule, you have to go in and get it. So I found a lovely doctor who understood that I’m a musician. I mean, everybody’s hands are important. And the day after Christmas I had surgery and he found a two millimetre thorn in the joint! Which is tiny! But in the joint, it’s very big. He got it out, but I still wear what I call my knuckle sweater – it’s very hipster – to keep it warm! It’s going to be another five or six months until I’m at full recovery. I had a few gigs where I played without my right hand and I’m still not quite up to par, but I’m doing my exercises and hopefully I’ll get better. But when it’s done it’ll have been a nine month process for two millimetres! At least it wasn’t a thorn in my side, right? [Laughs]
SAM: This is a good community service announcement: don’t brush cacti!
LATIFAH: No, and why do we give them as presents?! What a terrible gift!
SAM: I know! We do! I have some in my backyard, only small ones, but I’m not going to touch them. That’s why they don’t need watering, because nobody wants to go near them!
LATIFAH: It’s funny, when I was Googling it, other people who this has happened to are all gardeners. And all of them needed to get surgery. It’s the oddest thing.
SAM: Back to the album, I’m unfamiliar with the track This Blessed Day. Is it an original of yours?
LATIFAH: Yeah. There’s hymn that I found that I basically grabbed some sentences for the verses, but then I reconstructed them. And basically same thing: took the concept of the song from the chorus and all those things straight from Scripture and looked at the stories in each gospel account of Palm Sunday. It’s original in the sense of the tune, the melody, and most of the lyrics. It’s one of my favourites though, it’s a real party at the end. Get excited for it!
SAM: Is there a key message or big idea to this album, other than the seasonal period?
LATIFAH: I think the key message to the record is honestly gratefulness. It’s seen in the track I Love the Lord, and the theme of Lent. Even Palm Sunday, I touched on it a little bit. I found myself taking myself to the scene and the place of Christ riding on the donkey and people waving palms, singing ‘Hosanna!’. And then thinking about Good Friday, what he had to go through. And what the people who loved him had to witness and go through. It blew my mind, I remember being in the studio singing This Blessed Day and ‘Hosanna!’ and it occurring to me for the first time that Christ knew what was coming. That these people who were praising him as King were about to crucify him. But he loved them, and let them celebrate him! That was an important part. It made me so grateful. I really think the theme of the record is gratefulness, outside of the larger theme of honouring all the seasons. I really love the record for that reason.
SAM: Let’s talk about the next record, Good Friday to Easter, how is it progressing, and can you give me any scoops as to what we can expect on it?
LATIFAH: Ooh. Well I just got the first master of references back so the mixes are finished, and we’re close. There are a few tweaks – I’m obsessive, and it’s the tedious part of the record, making sure everything’s just right. I think this actually turning out to be my favourite album. I know I say that with each one, but I really mean it. I think what’s really fun about Good Friday to Easter is it really feels like a dramatic piece. It takes you from the really mournful, dark, hard place of the reality of Good Friday.
Now here’s a scoop. All our records, from Hymns I, everything’s been seven songs in length. And we’re intentional with that for a reason. But this record, I realised that we had two songs for Good Friday, and then we jumped right into an original song we wrote about the stone being rolled away and then discovering Christ, that he’s no longer dead. And it was really hard for me emotionally, to adjust when I was listening, from this really dark… the lyrics end on that last song for Good Friday with ‘He wept, we wept’ and it’s got a lot of Arabic scales in it so it’s interesting and moody. Then suddenly there’s this crazy, bright ‘Christ has risen from the dead!’ So transitionally that was really tough for me and so two weeks ago I ended up writing a little original piece and I named it Three, because of the three days. It’s about what was happening, and trying to transition us musically as well, from theme to theme. And it’s got a lot of mystical sounds happening, and a lot of reverb on the voices with a different mic that was lo-fi. It basically has no lead vocal. It’s all these different ideas of ‘lay his body down’, ‘swing low, sweet chariot’, the idea that he’s dead and we’ve buried him and are grieving. But then this song has this breath moment and it shifts, and then all of a sudden we’re talking about the angels singing. When you think about those three days, there is some mystery, when we think about God conquering death in bondage. I mean, it’s just a song, but it was really fun to do. So now, this record is eight songs! And it’s throwing everybody out!
SAM: Whoa! Eight songs?! But that’s extra value for money though!
LATIFAH: [Laughs] That is extra value for money! I told that to my husband Reid who’s also in the band and he’s like ‘Let’s just tag it on the second song and make it an extra one so we keep to the seven songs’ and I was like ‘No! It has to be separate, because it’s separate.’ Thematically, and intellectually, it has to be eight songs. There’s no way around it. And Reid’s just like [hesitantly] ‘okay!’ So there’s your scoop, nobody knows that and now you do.
SAM: That’s exciting! I’m looking forward to hearing all eight tracks. And it’s only a month away, right?
LATIFAH: Yeah that record will be released the Tuesday before Good Friday which is April 15th. Just a month after Lent, here we go!
SAM: Well we’ll catch up again when that comes out and talk about it. Now the last track on the album is I Love the Lord, and you told me last time we talked that it’s one of your favourite hymns. What can you tell me about how it came about?
LATIFAH: It’s one of my favourite discovered hymns. I didn’t know it until I found it. At the community we were part of a couple of years ago, the way they celebrated Maundy Thursday is they would encourage everyone in the church to go to dinner, or have people in their homes – eight to ten people. And they would go round the table and talk about what they love about God, and what they love about Christ, and remembering Christ. Things he’s done in their lives, and we shared. Sharing this meal together, y’know?
So I had to think hard about what am I really thankful for, specifically when I’m remembering Christ and how he’s ministered to me specifically. So when I found this song, I Love the Lord, it’s an original melody – he hacked up the hymn I found, of course, and put it back together a different way. But the chorus is: ‘I love the Lord / He chased my griefs away. Despair no more / and use this breath to pray’. […] I’m really thankful – that idea of despair no more: sometimes it’s easy for me to get lost in despair. And what is despair? It’s grief with no hope! It’s hopelessness. And Christ is hope! He gave us the Holy Spirit – all these things that we can have to cling to to have a hope and trust in him. So that line is reminding me: don’t despair. And instead of despairing, why don’t you spend some time talking to God about it? And he does chase your griefs away in that eventually he will right every wrong. I don’t want to diminish anybody’s pain or reality – suffering is real and our world is broken – and those are hard realities to deal with. But it’s comforting to me to know that ultimately he will right every wrong and make things what they should be again, even if I don’t see it in my lifetime. And that is what I am most thankful for. So the song – the words alone I love but I just love the melody too. We used beautiful strings, we had these great string players that came in and just added everything. It’s just lovely. So it’s my favourite song on the record and I can’t wait for people to have it. And I hope it encourages them. That’s the intention behind the song, that those of us who maybe are having a hard time, understand God’s goodness in the midst of pain and suffering that hopefully this song will be a reminder to continue to have hope and not to despair.
SAM: Thanks for chatting with me again Latifah. We’ll talk to you again next month when the last seasonal record is released!
LATIFAH: Deal. Sounds great. Thanks for having me!