I started dreaming about the theme of my next album just before 2020, and found myself drawn toward the Psalms. So in my personal devotion time, I began studying and meditating on a new Psalm each day, praying them back to God and letting these ancient prayers shape my own. Little did I know how difficult the next few years would turn out to be, or how the Psalms would end up giving me words to pray through a worldwide pandemic, my own ministry burnout, and the unexpected death of my dad after heart surgery.
Psalms: The Poetry of Prayer is the fruit of those years praying the Psalter, its songs giving voice to trust, joy, confession, thanksgiving, lament, and more. The tracklist is ordered intentionally, loosely patterned after the A.C.T.S. model of prayer or the flow of a church service. I also attempted a quasi-chiasmus structure, with the first and last song being about God’s Word and the center song being the only one that names Jesus explicitly.
My hope is that these songs will give listeners the language to sing, pray, and converse with God through all kinds of emotions and circumstances.
01 – “Like A Tree (Psalm 1)” Psalm 1 serves as an introduction to the Psalter, so it felt right to have this song kick off the album and set the table for the rest of the tracklist. As I pray/sing in the chorus, I want to be like a tree planted by God’s river and rooted in his nourishing Word and presence… even when the sun gets hot and the winds pick up. Musically, producer Paul Demer and I had a lot of fun with this one – the echoing gang vocal was his idea – and I love the rootsy (get it? A rootsy tree song?!) sound we captured: part Americana foot-stomper, part spiritual.
02 – “No Place Better (Psalm 84),” co-written with Wendell Kimbrough This was one of the last songs added to the tracklist and, to be perfectly honest, I only started writing it because I felt the album needed another upbeat moment. But now it’s one of my favorite songs on the record. This one is super-visual for me: the drum rolls, hand claps, and trumpets conjure up the image of a marching band on parade, pilgrims joyfully making their way through the wilderness, all the way home to Zion.
03 – “Better Than Life (Psalm 63)” I hope this song serves as a worshipful prayer for those longing for God; but I also hope it gives words to the person who doesn’t feel much desire for God, yet wants to want him even still. David wrote this Psalm in the wilderness, where he allowed his physical thirst for a sip of water to point him to that deeper, more fundamentally human thirst for God Himself, the only one who can truly satisfy. I have a clear memory of writing this one: it came almost all at once while I was on a solo hike in Chattanooga before a concert.
04 – “Have Mercy (Psalm 51)” Psalm 51 seems to be the penultimate prayer of confession in scripture, so I knew I wanted to write a song from it for this project. I love that David acknowledges both the dark severity of sin and the bright hope of forgiveness in this Psalm, knowing his appeal for mercy is being heard by a God who has revealed himself as “rich in mercy,” a God who will not turn away a broken, contrite heart but runs out to meet the prodigal. I’m hopeful this song is congregational enough to find a home in Sunday morning worship, and the male vocal singing an octave down is a nod to the idea that we can confess both individually and corporately.
05 – “Like A Child With Its Mother (Psalm 131),” featuring Jess Ray I wrote this song in a season of melancholy and worry, when a complex, lose-lose situation in our community left me feeling disoriented, misunderstood, and questioning how God could possibly make things right. As I’ve struggled with bouts of anxiety over a number of things in recent years, this image of a weaned child calmed and quieted in her mother’s arms has been one I have returned to again and again. This song is both a prayer and a heart posture. My self-sufficient pride, anxious wrestling, and emotional upheaval are all regulated by God’s loving presence and sovereignty over all things. Musically, Paul Demer’s production and Jess Ray’s beautiful voice invoke these same themes: peace, rest, and quiet trust. This is another favorite on the record.
My self-sufficient pride, anxious wrestling, and emotional upheaval are all regulated by God’s loving presence and sovereignty over all things. Caroline Cobb
06 – “Shepherd, Walk Beside Me (Psalm 23)” The only track that explicitly mentions Jesus by name, I intentionally placed this one at the very center of the album: a chiastic nod to the idea that Jesus is central to the story of scripture and to our ability to access God in prayer. Hundreds of songs have been written from this Psalm, but I hoped to take a unique angle by addressing the Shepherd directly and then pointing to Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John 10) by the third verse. To me, even the music feels “pastoral” (in the agrarian sense), with its three-part harmonies (Paul & Trisha Demer) and the pedal steel from Aaron Fabbrini rising and falling like the hills in the countryside. I’ve loved singing this one as a corporate worship song.
07 – “Good To Give Thanks (Psalm 92),” co-written and feat. Wendell Kimbrough Wendell, Paul, and I had a ton of fun with this one. We were able to “paint” with a lot of different sounds throughout: stomps, claps, trumpet solos, and a call-and-response vocal in the outro. A worship song with major kid-song energy, this track reminds us that it’s good, right, and life-giving to give thanks to the Lord using all musical instruments we can find. It made sense to me to put this song right after the song about what Jesus has done for us, and my hope is that it will help listeners dance and laugh like kids again—for “he has made us glad!”
08 – “My Refuge, My Fortress (Psalm 91),” featuring Paul Demer During the pandemic of 2020, two separate Kickstarter supporters commissioned a Psalm 91 song. I struggled with the theological tensions this psalm contained: it says “He will deliver you from the deadly pestilence…it will not come near you,” and yet we know God does not always physically protect us from pestilence like COVID, from suffering, or even from death itself. In writing this song, I tried to hold this seeming contradiction together even as Jesus did when he prayed both “take this cup from me” and “thy will be done.” I hope this song becomes a simple hymn for the suffering, a prayer of trust on hard days.
09 – “Don’t Hide Your Face (Psalm 102),” co-written by Rachel Wilhelm Old Testament scholars estimate that laments make up two-thirds of the Psalter. And yet, as I neared the start of production for this Psalms album, I realized the working tracklist did not yet include a true lament. A few months before, our close neighborhood friends had lost their young daughter Lily. My friend Kathy, Lily’s mom, had posted online about how Psalm 102 had given her words in her grief. So, with their story heavy on my heart, I sat at the piano and started writing. My friend Rachel Wilhelm – a songwriter known for her work in lament – helped me finish it, adding even more ache and really unique chord choices.
10 – “I Love Your Word (Psalm 119),” co-written with Anne-Claire Cummings As I sat down to put the tracks in order, I intentionally chose to bookend the album with songs about God’s Word. In writing this track, my hope was to condense the famously-long Psalm 119 down to its core message: we love and desire God’s Word because we love and desire God. My prayer is that this is a song someone could use both in their alone time with God—say, at the outset of a “quiet time” in the early morning—and in a corporate setting—say, the song a congregation sings just before a Sunday sermon. I really, really love this one and I’m grateful my friend Anne-Claire would help me take it across the finish line.
11 – “Selah” We had recorded a long instrumental at the end of Psalm 119, but decided late in the game to make it a solo track. There were several reasons behind this choice, but one was to make sure Psalm 23, the Jesus song, sat at the center of the record. My friend and fellow singer-songwriter Graham Jones had the idea to call it “Selah,” an idea I loved right away. The word “selah” occurs 71 times in the Psalms. Though its exact meaning is difficult to nail down, many believe it’s a musical term directing us to pause and praise God for whatever was just prayed or sung in the previous verse. On this album, this song offers a moment of rest, a moment to pause and praise God after all we have covered in tracks 1-10. It feels like a perfect ending to a Psalms record.