Keeping the faith

Chris Llewellyn

Shelley Marsden talks to Rend Collective’s Chris Llewellyn about Christian music, meeting his wife on the road and the brilliance of American fried chicken…

The Art of Celebration, the fourth album from Irish worshippers and modern day psalmists Rend Collective came out on St Patrick’s Day, and soared to the top of the retail charts internationally, hitting No. 13 on the Billboard Top 200 and reaching No. 28 on the overall UK albums charts.

Their exuberance and wholly new brand of worship, pushing artistic boundaries, is amassing them followers across the globe, and their joyous new album is hard not to like ­no matter what your preconceptions about ‘Christian music’ might be.

Hailing from the coastal town of Bangor, County Down, the band’s Chris Llewellyn takes a break from a hectic schedule of touring in the States to give an insight into what they’re all about…

How did you get together?

We actually began as a collective of confused people just trying to work out issues related to faith and God, life and community; trying to work out what life’s all about. A lot of us had grown up in church and the kind of things we had learned in our youth groups were beginning to become a little challenged by the time we’d become young adults. We really wanted to keep ahold of the faith that had got us this far in our lives while trying to make sense of all the questions. I guess that’s where our music sprung from.

We were all artists of some sort in the collective… be that video, visual arts or music. And we really wanted to grasp something of our journey of faith, to journal that into an album. So we did, and it was called the Organic Family Hymnal. It actually is that. These were the songs of faith of our family.

What’s it like to be from a tiny island and travel somewhere as vast as the States?

Northern Ireland is different from the United States in so many ways. One small example… we’ve fallen in love with the fast food chain Chick-fil-A. Unfortunately, it’s added about 25 pounds to our waistlines and about 400 pounds less from our wallets. But I think the thing for us that we’ve loved is that it’s given us such a breadth of perspective on life. We’re getting to see people whom we’d otherwise never see…  in different walks of life and from such varied backgrounds. It really opens up our perspective on life, and faith.

Chris with his bandmates

And the weirdest and most wonderful American experience goes to..?

Me actually meeting my future wife on the road! We were playing in a little coffee shop in Madison, Wisconsin of all places (it’s just about as remote as Bangor). And I started talking to a very pretty girl who would eventually become my wife … I guess that journey of moving from stranger to spouse is a crazy one for everybody. But it’s even stranger when you have to travel across the Atlantic to accomplish it.

Do you prefer people not to label you as a ‘Christian band’ or do you embrace the label?

We are a Christian band and all of our music deals with faith and the stuff of life and spirituality. But at the same time, I’d say that we attempt to be as unreligious as possible in our approach. Meaning that we want our music to be for everybody. We have all the same desires as every human… we’re reaching for hope, for joy. We want to learn how to be people of celebration who can get the most out of life.  Our difference is that we have found that faith in God has been our path to that.

Do you find people have preconceptions about you when they hear your music reflects your Christian beliefs?

Definitely. I imagine, for a lot of people, it conjures up some sort of an image of a person sitting at an organ signing hymns. And maybe for somebody else who’s slightly more aware of Christian culture, it might conjure up images of guys who are about five years behind the trends in terms of fashion and music, playing like a Kings of Leon cover band but with Christian lyrics and doing karaoke.

Christianity must be such an odd world to look in from as a normal person who’s not a Christian. We’re trying to change those preconceptions. We want to be, first and foremost, artists who are writing music that connects with the hearts of people irrespective of whether or not they’ve got a Christian background. We’re trying to write our experience just the same as any other artist wants to, not to sermonize or preach.

Do you prove that Christian music can go beyond the Church and have commercial appeal?

I’m not sure, because we really exist to write songs for churches to sing. That’s fundamentally what we actually do. The cross-over aspect is secondary for us. I guess that’s what makes us a little bit different from the ‘normal’ band.  For us, it’s about other people grabbing hold and singing our music. So I find it hard to imagine a context outside of the church where people are going to gather around and sing our songs. I wish it would happen… but I don’t think it will. But I hope we’re changing the perception of what congregational church music looks like, showing that it can be something that’s vibrant and on the cutting edge of the music scene.

Conversely, do you reckon people who don’t go to church might be tempted to if they heard more music like yours?!

I hope so. The answers to the greatest questions that are at war inside of us are fundamentally best dealt with in a community of other people, struggling and reaching together. And that’s what the church is supposed to be, a group of people struggling with their faith, wrestling with the realities of life and dealing with their sorrows together. That’s a beautiful thing.

For the full interview, see the April 26 Irish World. 

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