An Irish Christmas: A Conversation with Keith & Kristyn GettyFriday, December 2, 2011
Recently, I sat down with Keith and Kristyn Getty to talk about their new Christmas album, Joy: An Irish Christmas. I’ve long appreciated the Gettys for the way they serve the Church through their hymn writing. Reading this transcript, one can sense Keith and Kristyn’s heart for evangelism, for the Church, and for praising the Lord who took on flesh to save us.
Trevin Wax: How do you go about choosing songs for a Christmas album? You probably have so many favorites.
Kristyn Getty: It’s a long, long process. Was it two years ago when we first started thinking about a Christmas album?
Keith Getty: Yes. Judson Baptist in Nashville asked us to do a Christmas show. And we didn’t have one.
Kristyn: That’s right. So we had to put some songs together for it, and that was the beginning of the sorting process. Then we developed the Irish theme with an Irish friend of ours who is fantastic at arranging music with an Irish side to it. Then, for the album, we brought out a few songs we wrote many years ago for a project that we did at home in the UK called Incarnation.
Keith: So it was basically a mixture of those three things: the older carols we’d written, the new carols we’d written, and carols that we loved that other people had written.
Kristyn: It was quite refreshing, actually, because for all our other albums, we have tried to write everything. It worked out well that in the year we were having our first child for us to take on a project where we didn’t have to write as much.
Trevin: Do either of you have a personal favorite Christmas song on the album?
Keith: My favorite Christmas song isn’t on the album because it didn’t fit the style of where we were going – “Once in Royal David’s City.” I love the melody, but it really doesn’t fit an Irish approach.
Kristyn: I enjoy singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Our arrangement with the band has a lot of energy.
Trevin: How has having a baby changed Christmas for you?
Keith: Well, we have a song called “How Suddenly a Baby Cries,” and it’s true that things are forever changed.
Trevin: Your song “Jesus, Joy of the Highest Heaven” has some lines about the glory of the incarnation. When I first heard that song, it reminded me of when we had our first child. He was six months old at Christmas, and I remember thinking about how helpless a baby is. And the glorious mystery of the incarnation hit me like never before…
Kristyn: You taste it in a new way. You know, you understand it before, but life experience helps you understand it differently. You view childbirth differently too. In one of our songs, we had a line that described Mary as “frail.” And after I’d given birth, I thought, Frailty has nothing to do with the process! So we changed the word to “young.” The song “Magnificat” has been meaningful to us because we’ve sung that song through the journey of the struggle to conceive, waiting for her to come and then now that she’s arrived.
Trevin: Whenever I hear “Magnificat,” I think of SBTS professor Chip Stam. There’s a YouTube video of you all at the hospital singing the song for him.
Keith: Chip was a good friend of ours who died this year of cancer. Track 9 on the album, “O Savior of Our Fallen Race,” is dedicated to him. That hymn melody is actually called “Stam.”
Trevin: Thinking about Chip and other men like him, are there some particular authors or worship leaders you turn to when you are looking for inspiration in the hymn-writing process?
Keith: The Bible is the primary inspiration. We read the whole Bible every year systematically. Likewise, our church focuses on expositional Bible teaching. In the last two years, I’ve been inspired by the whole history of Christian verse, especially poetry in English language. So I enjoy that. Authors? Tim Keller and Don Carson are two of the people who we’re closest to in terms of understanding theology. They’ve got a broad vision of understanding the gospel but in a sense that’s culturally relevant and artistically fulfilling.
Kristyn: Also, my uncle, Dr. John Lennox.
Keith: Yes, Professor Lennox introduced us. I had sort of a skeptic phase, and he helped me.
Kristyn: He’s one of those people whose strong faith makes you stronger. Whenever I’m with him, within a few minutes, either in conversation with myself or other people, he’s talking about the Lord and trying to find a way of communicating the gospel. He’s a phenomenal evangelist and a great Bible teacher.
Another person who has inspired me is Joni Eareckson Tada because of the contagious joy that she has, her unbelievable cheerfulness, and her deep faith that has been tested and shines brightly. Regarding some of the gentler songs that we’ve done – perhaps not an individual line – but the thought of her sometimes informs my singing.
Trevin: Does the fact that churches immediately grab on to certain hymns surprise you? Do you ever expect a hymn to take root quickly and then find it didn’t become as popular as expected?
Kristyn: Well, everybody’s different. And different denominations, different groups, link on to different things.
Keith: But I think different songs have different value. The last song we wrote is always the one we’re most excited about. Take two songs on the Christmas album: “O Savior of Our Fallen Race” and “Jesus, Joy of the Highest Heaven.” The second one, a children’s hymn, is useful and timeless, but has a sense of immediacy. The first one, “O Savior of Our Fallen Race,” is probably one of our best melodies ever, but it will be a gradual build, as it’s not in the style for the popular evangelical church. So different songs find different homes.
Trevin: One of my favorites is “Jesus Is Lord,” but it’s not on any of your American albums.
Keith: It was the closing hymn at Chip’s funeral, actually. He wanted his funeral to finish up with the theme of Jesus as Lord.
Kristyn: I like that one too, but it’s not one we do with the band very often.
Trevin: Looking beyond to other singers, bands, and artists… are there any particular songwriters or people you look up to or respect?
Kristyn: There’s Stuart Townend and then everybody else! After him, I loved Vikki Cook’s melody to “Before the Throne of God Above.”
Keith: Graham Kendrick pioneered the way. “The Servant King” is pretty unsurpassed.
Kristyn: Our worship music diet growing up was Graham Kendrick…
Keith: And deserved to be because it was head and shoulders above everything else.
Trevin: What’s your impression of the other side of the modern hymn movement – the practice of taking old, obscure, forgotten hymns and giving them new music with a band and things like that? Sojourn, Red Mountain Church, etc.
Kristyn: I think it can be very, very good. The only thing I would say is that if the original melody was greatly loved, I’m usually disappointed unless the new melody is incredible. But the way these groups are taking more obscure texts that people don’t sing anymore and composing a beautiful melody for them is fantastic.
Trevin: How do you recommend people approach this Christmas album?
Kristyn: Carols are a further opportunity to help tell the gospel story. It’s incredible that you can be in supermarkets and malls and street corners and hear songs like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” We pray that the songs that are old will be heard in fresh ways and that the new songs will be an avenue for the gospel to reach into people’s lives.
Keith: Christmas in our culture is our biggest chance. Once a year, the culture determines that it’s okay to bring your friends to church, to have the gospel presented in songs and sermons and on television. This opportunity probably won’t be around forever, not to the degree that it is now. So it’s a huge opportunity. You’ve got captive audiences every time. We’ve got to be strategic about these things.
Kristyn: If a little bit of Irishness might draw some more people in, that’s exciting. Christmastime is also an incredibly difficult time for people. Our culture creates a sentiment, and the expectation is that we all have to tap into it somehow. Yet many people feel outside of that sentiment because that’s not where they are. That’s an opportunity for us to present the gospel story that gives people answers to their deepest longings.
Trevin: Thank you both. That is good counsel for church leaders and church members who want to reach out during Christmastime. And thank you for your service to the Church through your hymn writing.