by Sam Robinson
Last week, Mars Hill Music band Ghost Ship dropped a surprise, new live single named Christ is Risen. Originally written and recorded by Joe Day, it’s an exciting song focussed on the joy of the resurrection. Ghost Ship are an important band in relation to Reel Gospel – not only were they our first interview, but they also were the first band to be awarded Reel Gospel Album of the Year for The Good King. Last week I caught up with lead singer and worship pastor Cam Huxford to talk about the new single, the resurrection, and what to expect from Ghost Ship’s forthcoming sophomore release.
SAM: It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year since we last caught up – what’s been happening in that time?
CAM: Oh man – so the past year we released the record back in June, we did some events over the summer, and we did a conference here in Seattle in the fall – the Resurgence Conference. Actually, we were in Florida for that. But that conference was spread out in four different locations. But we’ve really been mainly focussed on leading worship. Ghost Ship leads worship every other week here at Mars Hill Downtown Seattle. It’s been a really fun year. It’s cool to see how it’s played out with making that record, because it’s been a really fun year of leading worship, to be singing all those songs at church and talking about theology and talking about the passages those songs are based on… Man, the band really bonded a lot through making that record, and as a church we bonded through singing those songs. That’s one thing that’s been really cool, continuing to lead worship together.
SAM: The Good King came out – an amazing release. As you look back over the year since it was released, what have you seen that album do?
CAM: Well we’ve seen it reach a lot farther than I expected it to. To me it’s cool, I get messages all the time about people who are singing the songs at their churches, and a lot of times those churches are in different countries. Whenever I get a message like that it’s like – it’s so cool that we can sing the same songs about Jesus as a part of the global church together. The idea of our church here in Seattle and a church in Australia or a different country singing the same songs together, that’s just a picture of the body of Christ spread out across the world.
SAM: Now you’ve just released a new live song – Christ is Risen – would you call it a single?
CAM: Yeah I would just call it a live single. That was the idea. But we did it really quickly. About a month before Easter, we were practicing for Easter and that song, Christ is Risen, is written by Joe Day and I think it was written over ten years ago, but I’ve been at Mars Hill for seven years and for the last seven years we’ve sung that song every Easter Sunday. The song has been a huge blessing to me, it’s been so cool to sing it for the past seven Easters. About a month before Easter when we were preparing our Easter music we were thinking – ‘Man! We should totally just record this and do a live single!’ We had a volunteer in our church named Kevin Matley who’s a really gifted producer, and we had a few different guys engineer it. Kevin really captured the live energy – that’s one of my favourite things. Just hearing people sing at church. So we wanted that recording to sound like that. Sound like it would in a church service. We took a few days to do it, and it’s been cool to see how far it’s reached even as a simple single like that.
SAM: You went to a lot of effort to record, produce, mix this song. And you’ve released it for free. Why do all this… for free?
CAM: Our heart behind it was really for it to be an encouragement to the church. We wanted to release it a few weeks after Easter because I’ve seen year after year that Easter is this huge celebration, an epic party, you’re seeing people get baptised and you’re just seeing all these miraculous things happen. Then you go back to normal life and have some hard days in the weeks after Easter. You’ve been on this high and you go back to living in a land of death pretty much. Back to day-to-day life and it can be discouraging. We just wanted it to be an encouragement. Put it out a month after Easter and say to our people and anyone else who would listen: ‘Hey let’s remember what God has done.’ I guess in a way, we wanted to make the song an Ebenezer – a reminder of what God did on Easter Sunday. So our people could look back and say, ‘Remember when we saw children get baptised, and families be reunited, and saw God do miraculous things! He’s doing miracles all the time, so let’s remember that.’ That was the idea behind it.
So the single – we’re going to put out a video explaining it – it’s actually not a live song. We actually made it to be live. We recorded it on our stage and our goal was: how do we recreate what’s going on Sundays? We’ve always had technical limitations with capturing an awesome live song. So we were trying something new, which is a cool idea. Really – it’s almost a hybrid between a studio track and a live track. We’re trying to make something live that sounds as good as a studio recording but it really sounds live. That was a fun little experiment. Some people have asked ‘How did you do that?!’ and we’re like, ‘Dude, just went on our stage and recorded a song.’
SAM: Magic! You should have just said it’s magic!
CAM: Yeah! It’s magic. Can’t tell you our secrets.
SAM: But you just did…
CAM: [Laughs] Yeah. That’s the secret right there!
SAM: Yeah! Now, because this song is tied up with Easter and the resurrection, what can you tell me about the message behind the song? I know Joe Day wrote it, but for you, what’s the message behind Christ is Risen?
CAM: I think with a lot of our songs… What I really like in worship songs is when a song clearly articulates the gospel in a clear and compelling way. And it just points to the person and work of Jesus Christ. So my favourite songs that find a way to just articulate the gospel very concisely. I find one of my favourite and most concise statements of the gospel in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul says, ‘This is the thing of first importance: That Christ died, that he was buried, and that he rose again.’ The thing I love about the song is it kinda does the same thing. It states the gospel in a compelling, creative way but it’s also very concise. Jesus died for our sins, he was buried, and then he walked away from the grave. I kinda think the song is written in the style of John the Baptist. He’s always been one of my heroes because he was pointing people… John 1 he’s like pointing people to Jesus. ‘Hey! Look! There’s the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!’ I love the verses of Christ is Risen because it’s been written in that same kind of style. Hey, just shout ‘Oh! Look at the tree!’ Hey everybody – look at the cross, that’s where Jesus died to save us. It’s a great song where we’re calling our people to look at Jesus, who he is, and what he’s done. It’s the gospel! Jesus died for your sins, and he rose again. That’s what it’s about.
SAM: What is it about the resurrection that hits you hard?
CAM: Yeah that’s a great question, because every time I’m involved in an Easter service I’m struck by the resurrection in a different way. This year I was struck by the fact that because Jesus is alive, we can have life. Watching people get baptised is amazing because you’re seeing people identify with Christ in his death and his resurrection. So it’s amazing that in Jesus’ death our sin can actually be put to death. And in Jesus’ life, we can have life. I just felt like this year I was meditating on that. And as I was watching baptism I myself was identifying with Jesus’ death and resurrection and just rejoicing that – ‘Man! Because he died sin and death could die. And because he rose, we could all be alive and have eternal life!’ That hit me hard this year.
SAM: And on the song you do a little preaching – bringing the Scripture into the song and clearly stating part of 1 Corinthians 15…
CAM: Yeah that’s one thing. Exhortation during our music at our church is one thing that God’s been guiding me in. And through other leaders and through learning he’s been helping me grow in my ability to articulate the gospel while leading the music. Because I really think what drives me… The thing behind me doing the job of a worship leader or songwriter… That role is a prophetic calling. We spoke about John the Baptist a second ago and you see what Paul’s doing in 1 Corinthians 15. The prophetic calling to just proclaim the gospel as clearly as you can, as loudly as you can, to shout it and call people to look at Jesus. Call people to respond to Jesus. That calling is what drives everything I do. So I’ve been leading worship for ten years and I’ve just started to notice that the longer I do it the more I end up just exhorting our people and just saying the gospel during our songs. It’s like I’m trying to find any means I possibly can to articulate the gospel during our services. It’s like we’re singing it – that’s great, we have instruments backing it up so we try to create songs that state the gospel in a clear and compelling way. Sometimes we’re shouting something. And sometimes I’m just preaching it, or saying ‘Look what Jesus has done!’ I just love that I get to participate in that. I love the fact that God has called me to it, and lets me participate in proclaiming the good news. I want to do that in any way I can, as loudly as I can. In as many different ways as possible.
SAM: And that encourages me to be excited about the gospel – to shout about it! So you’re encouraging your listeners to do just that.
CAM: Yeah. I love the way our people respond to the gospel. To me that’s one of the coolest things you ever get to see: what happens when someone responds to the gospel. The way I look at it is that our job is to proclaim the gospel, but the Holy Spirit empowers us to proclaim the gospel, but then He leads people to respond. Sometimes I look at it like – proclaim it, then watch the explosion happen as the Spirit does His work. That’s been cool to see in our gatherings on weekends at church. To just see how people respond to the gospel. That’s where the power is: in the message. You see people respond through singing, through dancing, through shouting. It’s amazing to see the power of the gospel work itself out in church services.
SAM: A reader of Reel Gospel named Mark has a double-pronged question for you. He asks: Has your songwriting changed or evolved since The Good King was released; and did you learn any lessons following making that album?
CAM: Yeah. That’s a good question. I think yes to both. I have learned a lot since making that album. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that I think with what we’re trying to do with what I’m called to, the best thing I can do is write music for the church, to be sung in churches. I learned a lot about that specific part of it. I came into the project knowing broadly what I’m called to do: proclaim the gospel through music. But then I learned a lot about how you do that where people can actually sing it in churches. A lot of people, their favourite song is Where Were You? – a song about Job. And it’s one of my favourites as well. But that song is hard to sing in church. I think it’s OK to be writing both songs that are what the Bible calls spiritual songs, ones that you sing to express something; and also songs that we’re all singing together. But I’ve definitely learned a little more about how to write songs specifically for congregational singing, and I think on the next record I’ll probably be a little more focussed on that. A little more focussed on thinking about people singing these songs in their churches. I’ve been surprised by some of the songs that churches sing. Some sing Son of David where I was thinking it of more of a story song. I’m kinda bent that way with songwriting, to tell stories. I used to think that specific medium of storytelling songs didn’t really work well for congregational worship. But now I’m seeing that it does. Amazing Grace is a story song. I think when Amazing Grace came out people were probably like, ‘This is a folk song! This is a guy telling a story about how he used to be blind and now he could see!’ I think storytelling has a place in congregational worship for sure, but through the process of making that record, and through the past year, God has galvanised my focus on writing music for the church. That’s one of my biggest joys. Seeing these songs sung in churches and seeing what happens when you sing the gospel at church. I never personally thought that I would hear people say after a church service, ‘I heard the gospel for the first time in one of these songs and Jesus saved me,’ I never thought I would hear that, but it’s been amazing.
As far as whether my songwriting has changed or evolved… it has over the past year in one specific way. It’s become more personal. All the songs I’ve ever written have come out of my devotional life. Like the time I spend reading the Bible or in prayer, spending time with Jesus. That’s where every song has come from. But I’ve noticed that it’s a matter of where I was at a year ago… A year ago the songs were still coming out of the devotional times but I wanted to explore theological concepts. Like: Isn’t it cool that God is both sovereign and good? Isn’t it cool that we get to see a picture of that in the book of Job? We see his sovereignty in arranging the constellations. We see his goodness in that he speaks to us. I was enamoured with those theological concepts and wanting to explore it. The whole record was exploring that concept – how can God be sovereign and good? That’s amazing! I think I was almost wrestling with that in my own life. At that point in my life, it was easy to say that God was sovereign and in control of everything, but it was a little harder to say that he’s also good and everything he is doing is good for me. So now a year later, the stuff that I’m writing is not so much talking about theological concepts as much as it is talking about how those theological concepts come to bear on my life personally. The songs I’m writing now are much more personal. This is how the gospel comes to bear on me. I look at it as that’s kinda the way I lead my wife. I don’t lead her by teaching theology all the time – sometimes I do if she has a question and I need to explain something. But most of the time I’m leading her by showing her day-to-day how the gospel comes to bear on my life. That’s something I want to do with the next record. And as a pastor at a church, I’ve felt compelled to talk about that and write about that. Hey, here’s how God’s sovereignty is coming to bear on my life now; here’s how his goodness is coming to bear on my life right now.
It’s been cool to see that some of these songs are personal and some of it’s coming out of pain I’ve experienced in the past year. As a confession, one thing I’ve wrestled with this last year is discontentment. So the first song I wrote for this next record, I was reading Proverbs 30. It’s this king talking – I can’t remember his name, he isn’t a well-known king. But it’s a prayer. He prays: ‘Give me neither poverty nor riches, give me just the food that I need. Because if I became rich I’d forget you, and if I became poor I’d steal.’ I was reading and that hit me like a tonne of bricks. When I’m reading that, the gospel came to bear on my own discontentment. Thank you God for speaking to me and reminding me that you know what I need. In the midst of discontentment, you know exactly what I need. You know that if you gave me too much I’d forget you and if I was poor I’d steal. He knows what we all need and what we can all handle. He knows how to provide for us. That’s an example of how the songwriting is working right now.
SAM: Mark also added a note that he’d love to hear more banjo on the next album as well.
CAM: Yes! That’s a great idea. I totally agree. We’ll keep doing the banjo. Our banjo player Jamison he actually got a second banjo so he can have two different tunings in the same set. We’re doubling the banjo! And a side note on that is when we were recording the last record Jamison had just bought a pedal steel. So on the last week of tracking, he started playing the pedal steel, and we were all, ‘Dude! How are you so good at that?!’ He put some pedal steel on Jude Doxology and a few other songs. We didn’t have time to track much of it, but man, over the past year he’s been going crazy with the pedal steel. You can hear it on Christ is Risen. We’re looking forward to experimenting with that as well.
SAM: Now I’m curious about the next album. There’s been a few pictures of you guys doing a few bits and pieces around the place. Are you working on the next record?
CAM: Yeah, we definitely are. We’re in what I like to call pre-pre-production. We’ll spend the next few months writing really heavily. We haven’t actually set a date that we’re going to start recording, and we haven’t set a release date, but we know it’s going to be soon. We’re in the few months prior to pre-production right now. I always love this season. The few months of heavy writing time before you actually start pre-production.
SAM: That’s exciting to hear that it’s on the way at some point.
CAM: Yeah it won’t be too long. It’ll definitely be soon.
SAM: Can you give us some clues as to how the pre-pre-production is going, what kind of things we might end up hearing on this album?
CAM: Yeah. One thing that has been really cool is that we last year, a year ago, we had just picked up two new members. Our drummer and our bass player. They came on not too long before we made The Good King. But all seven of us who recorded that album have all been playing together every other week for a year now. It’s really cool to hear how we’ve gelled a lot as a band. We’ve got better at writing collaboratively and we’ve been finding our voice a little bit. Bands that I like function a little like Radiohead. It’s not one genre, it’s five different things coming together, and when you put it together it creates something weird. So our rhythm section is total motown, soul, old R&B guys. Then me and Jamison are coming from alt-country and folk. Shay, our keyboard player, brings his own Jeremy Enigk vibe. Fancy and Chae come from more of a heavier rock background. But we’ve seen over the past how all those things gel together. I’d still say that we do Americana, alt-country, folk sorta stuff if you had to put a name on it. But it’s become less of that specific genre and more of a unique thing that’s the combination of the seven of us. It’s its own weird little genre. [Laughs] It’s what happens when you mash together rock and folk and old soul music.
SAM: I was just reminded of how the new Citizens single is quite electronic and was a surprise to a lot of people. We’re not going to see any electronic sounds from Ghost Ship any time soon?
CAM: Well, that’s definitely not off the table. It’s funny you bring that up. Over the past year I’ve been experimenting… I just love experimental sounds. I like to record some weird sound like a skillet laying on a snare drum and mess with it. So I wouldn’t say we’re adding electronic elements, but we’re adding more experimental stuff. A year ago we had this idea that it just has to be the sounds we can make acoustically. And through exploring and writing together we realised we didn’t need to do that. If something sounds good, we’ll use it.
SAM: Well if you want to experiment with any Australian instruments let me know.
CAM: What do you call the one that’s something on a string that you spin around? [Pauses] Why can’t I remember this. I’ve seen people spin it and it makes a weird wind sound.
SAM: I don’t know what it is… Have you heard of a lagerphone before? That’s a classic Australian instrument. And it probably wouldn’t go down too badly on a Ghost Ship album. It’s basically a stick that you put nails into and then you put metal bottle caps onto. Then you hit it on the ground and all the bottlecaps shake and rattle. We use them at bushdances, which are kind of Australian barn dances. You hit it to the beat.
CAM: Dude! We’re going to build one of those.
SAM: I have one in my shed actually.
CAM: Dude – let us borrow it! We’ll mail it back to you. I gotta write that down…. [Types] Oh and that other instrument is called a bullroarer. It’s an ancient Aboriginal instrument.
SAM: Really? That’s amazing that you know about that and I didn’t. I feel like I’ve missed out on something!
CAM: They sound amazing. I might actually try and use one of those.
SAM: That’s awesome. I’m looking forward to hearing all these potential instruments on the next record. Cam, thanks so much for your time today. We’ll chat again closer to the album release!
CAM: Thanks for supporting us. Appreciate your time.
Christ is Risen by Ghost Ship is available here as a free download. Their first album, The Good King, is available on iTunes. For more news on Ghost Ship’s second album as it comes to hand, follow Reel Gospel on Facebook and Twitter.