Rachel Redeemed interviews UK singer-songwriter Michael J Tinker about his forthcoming 10th Anniversary Children’s Double Album, the vision behind his music, and what he has learned over the last 10 years of creating songs for families. Order the album here.]
Rachel Redeemed: Hello Michael J. Tinker! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background as a Christian songwriter for those who aren't familiar with you?
Michael J. Tinker: I’ve been making music professionally since 2011, when I basically found myself unemployable having got a theology degree and I've been working at churches for seven years! So I turned to making music. I've done six children's albums and four, what I refer to as, "grown-ups" albums.
RR: Nice! How did it all begin for you?
MJT: I wrote a couple of songs for a holiday club in 2013 and they seemed to go down well. I also had a ready-made children's story that I'd written when I was 17 as an Easter Sunday talk called ‘Inspector Smart and the Case of the Empty Tomb' which was essentially exploring the evidence for the resurrection in story-form. So, I approached a publishing company called The Good Book Company to do both the book and the album, and they kindly agreed! After that, I started touring a show and it seems to have blossomed since then.
RR: How has the vision for your music changed over the various albums you've produced?
MJT: I’m not sure my vision has changed. I always wanted to write fun music for children that got them to the heart of the gospel and also dealt with difficult issues that children would be facing. I also wanted to do that in a musically interesting way. That's the great thing about writing children’s music - you really can pick any genre you like and have some real fun with it. One fundamental thing I've been keen to do is take children seriously, both in what they can understand but also what they're dealing with. You know, they're having to deal with pretty much all the things that adults have to deal with - loss and sadness, struggle and joys and happiness and finding their place in the world - but they often don't have the everyday language, let alone the gospel language, to be able to understand and navigate all of that. So, I want to give them that language, those gospel tools, to help them through life, and I find one of the best ways to do that is through song.
RR: Can you tell me about one person who has particularly shaped your music or your approach to songwriting or recording?
MJT: In terms of kids music, the Australian songwriter Colin Buchanan springs to mind. He has been making music for children since the early 90s and particularly my younger brother enjoyed his music as a child, so his work became a bit of a template. He had a really fun approach to music, but he was also theologically rigorous. However, he did everything with an Australian accent and with lots of references to kangaroos and Coolaroo etc, which we didn't really understand, so I thought it was about time to have an English voice doing that kind of thing as well. In terms of style, I listen to lots of different music and you'll hear hints of that in the songs. There's a bit of Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Queen, Bon Jovi, Paul Simon, Funkadelic. There's some Parisian jazz in there, even some dubstep.
RR: And who is one person you've met at a gig or interacted with online who has encouraged you to keep going?
MJT: Again, Colin Buchanan has been very encouraging, especially earlier on when I was setting out on this journey, and he encouraged me to keep Jesus as my treasure. It was great advice because it's so tempting in any sphere of work, but especially in music, to want glory for yourself, to find the treasure in popularity, in how many people are listening to your music. But it is so important to keep Jesus as the treasure, and then those other things - they can come and go, and it doesn't matter because ultimately I'm serving him.
RR: Can we have a sneaky window into your creative process? What has crafting an album started with, looked like, and felt like for you?
MJT: For my children's music, what’s driven most of the songs is my own parenting. My children might be dealing with a particular issue or worry or struggle, and I think ‘I need a song about that!’ It’s the best way to embed truth in the heart.
A great example of this was when my daughter was struggling with a worry about something she had done wrong, and her little brother came in, he must have only been 4, and whispered to his mum, "Tell her - 'As far as the east is from the west…’" It was in a song I had released not long before and that truth had got deep into that little boy's heart, ready to pop out when it was needed.
Sometimes it's an issue I'm struggling with and I need a song to remind myself of Gospel truth. I think you'll probably trace the age of my children through the different albums as well. For instance, on the first album, there's a song about contentment and getting upset at a party or a trip to the theatre - things not living up to our expectations. On the most recent album, there's a song about hormones!
Discipleship has generally driven the songs. Sometimes it might be hearing a great line in a sermon. I think songwriters are magpies always looking out for some shiny scraps of lyrics and ideas and themes and grabbing them and turning them into a song. If there's a great line at the end of the sermon, I'm gonna nab it and put it into one of my songs!
Other times, I want to have fun with a particular style of music and so we start there. We write the tune and then I find a Bible story or theme that really fits that feel.
RR: When you've hit a roadblock in your journey as a musician, what's gotten you through? What did you do next?
MJT: I hit roadblocks all the time.
Some songs come very easily and roll off the tongue. ‘It's All About Grace’ was one of those easier songs. I was teaching through the Bible using the Jesus Storybook Bible and the theme of grace kept coming up and I thought ‘I need a song about that’, so I wrote that one very quickly.
Others have been a lot harder, sometimes because of the music. There's a song called ‘This Is Faith’ which we wanted to do in a Paul Simon, ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Shoes’ style and I was trying to fit Hebrews 11 to that music.
Other times, it's about finding the right words - you have the idea but fleshing it out can be really difficult. The main thing that's got me through is tenacity - just keeping on writing, writing, writing, writing, and then at some point it clicks.
It's a bit of a mysterious art really - who knows where it comes from? Well, I think it comes from God and he gives us the words and out it flows. But sometimes it can take hours, days, or weeks sitting and staring at a piece of paper, trying to make sense of the idea you have, and turning it into a song.
The other thing that's helped is working with other people. When I started, I thought it was a bit of a failure if I needed to have other people involved in the process. Surely, all these great songwriters did it all themselves? But the more that I've written and the more I found out about other songwriters, the more I realized that great songwriters work with other people. We're not meant to do it alone. So that's got me over some roadblocks. Just getting a fresh pair of ears or eyes onto the song, and they can just take it in a new direction and then it all flows.
RR: If you could go back and talk to yourself at year zero, what advice would you give?
MJT: Find other songwriters to work with and get over yourself!
RR: What advice would you want to pass on to someone keen to hone their craft of songwriting?
MJT: Just keep doing it, keep writing. I always say you gotta write 100 songs and one of them might be really good. Find people who are slightly further down the road to get their thoughts on your songs. It might be just changing a couple of lines that makes all the difference. You might be great at coming up with a phrase, but somebody else is great at making that scan and flow musically.
One of my songs is called ‘You’re Loved’. I sent it over to Ben Shive to write the string part and to give some thoughts on the song, and he suggested just a slightly different emphasis on the first couple of words in each line, and it makes the song flow so much better. Don't be afraid to ask for advice.
RR: A big finish, but let's do it... what have you learned about God in this 10-year journey of growing as a musician and songwriter?
MJT: That He is so patient and I am not! I want things to happen very quickly but songwriting has taught me to be more patient, to take time to work hard and something beautiful comes from that. God is so patient with us - he takes so much time in honing us as his artwork and he creates something beautiful.
RR: We're thrilled to hear you have a 10th-anniversary collection of songs in the works - there'll be details below for folks to support the Kickstarter for that, but tell me about one song on the album that has a special resonance for you in this season.
MJT: The newest song on the album is called ‘A Simple Faith’ and after 70+ kids songs, it really does boil down to that. It's about a simple faith, a simple trust in the King. We can dive into theology and in trying to understand God better and that is a wonderful and important thing to be doing. But to know God, to be in a relationship with him just takes a simple faith. Look at the thief on the cross! He didn't understand much, but he had a simple faith, and Jesus said, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’.