Over many years, Reuben Morgan has been incredibly devoted and distinguished within our team for writing congregational songs of worship. He is passionate about encouraging and raising up other songwriters in their craft. In a recent interview, Reuben shared his heart about his journey serving God with songwriting.
Q) How did you get into songwriting, and what was the first song you wrote?
I started writing when I was about 9 years old, and the first song I wrote was an instrumental on guitar. I don’t even think you could record back then. I was in New Guinea at the time (where I lived for the first 10 years of my life), and learned guitar from a lady from the Leprosy Mission. That was my first song.
Then I started writing lyrics as well. I’d have friends over from school, and write songs with them even if they were completely non-musical, because it’s what I liked to do. I would write about anything and everything – Milo, breakfast – honestly, that random, just whatever.
Q) When did you think “I want to write a worship song?”
It didn’t occur to me until I started going to Hillsong Church. I moved from Melbourne to Sydney to study Jazz at The Institute of Music, and started going to church here. I grew up in a really great Baptist church that was big on the Word, personal devotion, and gave me a really great heritage.
When I started going to Hillsong Church, it’s like the worship atmosphere all opened up to me. I thought, “I’m going to try writing worship songs” – and I did, and I still do.
The first couple of songs I brought, I was a bit shocked that they worked, really. Because they worked, I thought it was something that I should keep doing, I never imagined that writing worship songs would be one of the main things that I would do in life. I never imagined being a worship leader or pastor either, never… but it’s interesting how you stumble into what God had already planned for you to do.
Q) What do you wish you knew back then when it comes to songwriting, that you do know now?
I think all the seasons are really different, and you have to piece it all together at different stages.
The first 3-4 years of writing worship songs was a really cool season, because it was so devotional. I wrote out of my quiet times, and the songs were really personal and honest. When I look at them now, I think, wow, they’re so honest – almost too honest.
I have books of songs written alongside my journaling – writing prayers and things like that. They’re in boxes that I was looking through a couple of months ago, and it shocked me seeing the prayers and right next to them, different songs we’ve done over the years. It was such a cool season.
I don’t write like that any more, I use my phone, or iPad – it’s really different. The early process was probably unrefined, but it was what it was, and I’m OK with that.
When I got married, and had been writing like that for a few years, I had to change and work things out to grow. I only wrote on my own in those first few years, so I brought other people into the process to keep growing and learning.
I discovered that I needed to get better if I wasn’t going to just keep writing the same song over and over again. I had to enlarge my world, seek out other possibilities, read, up-skill, and keep getting better. That journey has continued until now.
I started ‘grass-roots’, but to sustain something, you really have to bring in the disciplines and other things into it to keep it going. In some ways it’s the same as always, in other ways it’s kind of different.
Q) Have you ever had seasons where you can’t write? Has it scared you, and how have you counteracted those seasons of ‘writer’s block?’
It just got real. I have definitely had that, and I’ve had seasons where I’ve had to stop. I think if you’re going to be outputting all the time, you’re making sound and noise, and there needs to be silence to counteract. I’m reluctantly learning to put it down, because I realise that I have to. Sometimes you need to just listen to that process and say “OK, I’m not writing for a few months.”
If I’m honest, by nature, I can be an incredibly controlling person. To not be in control, is something I’m learning. I have to put it down, let it go, and that’s alright. Usually the result is something far better.
There’s been different seasons where I’ve found myself heading towards a rut, and I’ve just had to change my approach. Bring different people and teams into the process. You need to be strategic about it at the same time. If you’re struggling, find a way to make it fun, do what you want to do or stop completely and reassess. Fuel up, go and see some concerts, art galleries, and things like that.
Q) Do you have any specific books that you’ve read throughout the years that have been the most inspiring and developed your skill?
I have a few. Anything by Pat Pattison. There’s one called Writing Better Lyrics, another really good one is Popular Lyric Writing (Andrea Stolpe). Another really good book is, How to Be a Hit Songwriter (Molly-Ann Leikin).
Q) When it comes to writing, it can be really hard to focus. What are your motives and intentions for writing a song?]
Like everything, you want to be going after God with it. If I’m writing for Church, then my motive is to help Church. I want to write something that’s going to be a strength to the Church.
It needs to feels like you’re singing the Bible – people want to sing truth, so I want to be putting truth in the mouth of the Church. I would pray for that – to have the wisdom to write something that’s going to help us. In the middle of worship, it needs to be something that strengthens me to my soul. We sing these songs a lot, we tour with them, have 4-5 services every Sunday. Some songs you’ll sing 6, 7, 8 times on a Sunday – you want it to be strong in the Word, not empty words.
If you’re just singing a really good song with well put together words, but it doesn’t really feel like the truth, and isn’t building you, I think that’s such a waste. Why not create something that’s like a rock and will build iron into your backbone, and strength into your soul? “This is helping me get better every time I sing it, I’m building myself up, I’m getting stronger.” We really can do that for people, and if you have the choice, do that. That’s my motive.
Q) How do you go about facilitating collaborative songwriting?
I always think it’s good to come prepared. Have ideas about what you could write about, even if you don’t use them, and go with someone else’s idea.
A page somewhere in your notes of titles. Possible song ideas that you can go to.
Go with a chorus, or a half-chorus, or a few fully-written songs if that works for you. Present them as “let’s work on this together.” Bring it, be open. I would just say come prepared.
In a co-writing session I like when we decide together on what we’re going to write. What are we going for? Is it an up-tempo song? Is it a worship song? Is it like a ‘song 1’, a ‘song 4’? Get specific, even with a bit of a brief – does it want to sound like this song? Like that song?
The more you can frame what you want it to be, the more likely you are to hit it. You’ll get into a time when you start creating, going for different melodies, and auditioning ideas. It’s not just a good idea that you want to go for, if it doesn’t fit what you’re trying to write, then get rid of it.
Create a goal, and then go for that goal. When you hit it, it’s going to be fantastic.
You can go past really good, even great ideas, but if it’s not what you’re going for, forget it. It doesn’t matter. You come up with another idea until you hit the goal. I like doing it like that anyway, it seems to work, and you’re on the same page. One person can be coming up with the ideas, and you can say together “that doesn’t fit the brief, this doesn’t fit the brief, that‘s killer – and that‘s where we’re going.”
If you’re interested in hearing more from our team about songwriting, we’d love to invite you to join us for Hillsong Conference this year, as well as our first ever Hillsong Worship & Creative Conference! Click here for more details!