Does Jesus Like Dream Pop? An Interview with Jonathan Ogden of Rivers and Robots

The main thing we want to do through our music is reveal the person of Jesus — Jonathan Ogden

Among contemporary worship artists, following a certain pattern designed to cultivate a familiar “worship feel” seems to yield more reward than artistic innovation and creativity.

That is, if you’re not Rivers and Robots.

Since 2012, the U.K. based worship band has pushed the boundaries of what worship music “should” sound like, pairing Scripture-laced lyrics with dreamy, synthy pop beats.

We hope our interview with lead singer of R&R, Jonathan Ogden, about Discovery, the group’s newest album, will inspire and encourage our readers to explore the contours of their creativity for the glory of God.

Discovery has the devotional, prayerful, straight-after-the-heart-of God lyrics listeners love from past works, but with an ethereal pop rock twist. What was the motivation behind the album and musical direction R&R took in Discovery?

With every Rivers & Robots album we do, we’re always looking for ways we can push things further and try out new ideas. We never want to make the same album twice. This time we had a line-up change so a lot of the musical changes were natural. Having our new drummer Caleb come in and help with the arrangements was definitely a big bonus for us. He’s currently studying pop music on his course, so he brought some different influences to our usual style, particularly on songs like Satisfy and Author/Perfector.

R&R excels at making scriptural themes, stories, and citations the center of the music (Forevermore is a stellar example of this). What does the intersection of your musical creativity and the teachings of Scripture look like?

The main thing we want to do through our music is reveal the person of Jesus, and we’re always looking to do that through our lyrics.

One of my favorite things as a writer is when I’m able to get a passage of scripture into a song’s melody almost word for word. A lot of this comes from my background of leading worship at Manchester House of Prayer. We have a model of worship called ‘Worship and the Word’ where we take a passage of scripture and sing through it (often a psalm). Quite often, choruses of our songs will come out that way, and then I’ll go back to that passage for writing verses, too.

In terms of the musical creativity, I just decided early on that I was going to write the kind of music I was excited about and the style that came naturally to me, and not worry so much about whether it’s suitable for a congregational worship time, or if it would even be popular. It was quite a freeing moment.

I guess it’s a strange combo to essentially be singing through scriptures and attributes of God with Indie/Dream Pop/ Electronic music, but it seems to have caught on!

Artists of all stripes straddle the tension between what they want to create and what their audience will actually engage with. How does R&R balance the demands of the market and “giving people what they want” with staying true to core principles?

Honestly, we try not to think about it. I think people are drawn to honesty and to genuine art that is created out of a place of passion. And the only way we can really do that is if we create what we’re passionate about and not what we think people want to hear. It’s definitely a factor, particularly when it comes to picking a single or the flow of an album; we’re thinking about how it’s going to come across to the audience and how we can introduce them to new ideas and have the album flow as a journey. But in terms of writing, we just enjoy the process of writing and pick the songs we’re most excited about.

In the chorus of Brighter than the Sun, you sing “You are the river The fountain, the stream. You go beyond all that we can conceive. So, open my eyes Father I want to see.” How does one put words to glorious truths beyond our very conception? As content creators, how do we open ourselves up to be conduits by which people can see the glory of God in our work?

This is a journey I’ve been on for a while! I want to point people to attributes of Jesus and reveal Him to people through our songs, but at the same time, I’ve had to embrace mystery. I think we have to when we’re referring to God because we’ll never fully grasp who He is and understand Him, but at the same time, He wants to reveal Himself to us and have us understand things.

That’s a big theme of what Discovery is about: following the call to Discovery the knowledge of God, while at the same time embracing the fact that we’ll never reach the end and never full know all that there is to know. We try and write out of a relationship of getting knowing God and singing about the things that He reveals to us through the Word. And I think if more people are doing that, we’re going to get a more complete picture by hearing about all the different ways that God has revealed His character and nature to each one of us.

Focusing for a moment on the sound of your music, what practical advice do you have for musicians who think “I want to make music like these guys”? Who are your musical influences? What editing software do you use? The classroom is yours!

We draw from quite a wide range of influences. Living in Manchester, it’s a big music city and we get to see a lot of live music which is always good for inspiration. Some of my big influences musically have been artists like Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Toro Y Moi, Grizzly Bear, Paul Simon, Beach Boys. I think the thing I’m most drawn to as a writer is melody. So that’s usually the starting point, singing a melody into my voice memos on my phone and then writing music around that.

I use Ableton Live to create a lot of the demos and the initial ideas for songs, and producing and arranging the song kinda happens at the same time as writing. I’m not the kind of person that just sits with a guitar or piano and writes a song. I like to pull up a bunch of synth sounds and drum loops and create these whole sound-scapes and then think ‘ok, what melody can I put to this’.

I guess the things that are pretty consistent in our sound is our vocal style. We like a lot of layers in our vocals. And I also love to create mood through textures. Maybe it’s little percussive sounds in the background or the loop of an acoustic guitar finger-picking, I just like to create a nice warm atmosphere.

As you look at the long-view, what kind of impact does R&R want to leave on its listeners and the worship music genre?

I’m really passionate about seeing people embrace creativity in their music, and also to understand that each of us are created uniquely, and that nobody else can write the songs that you can write, or create the things that you can create.

I see too much imitation happening at the moment with people trying to sound like somebody else, or try and get ‘the worship sound’ which shouldn’t really be a thing in my opinion! I love mainstream worship, and I sing a lot of those songs on a Sunday morning. But I also think the scope of what worship music can be is more than just what we sing on a Sunday morning. I’d love to see more diversity, and artists being confident in their own style and sound.

I have to ask: the sound of the music being submerged and coming up again out of the water in Forevermore, is there anything more to that?

We did that on one of the last days of mixing the album. The song originally just played out for a long time, and we felt like it wasn’t really going anywhere. We played around with different ideas, like fading it out, but it felt like an easy get-out. I was thinking about the whole theme of Discovery, and in a lot of the lyrics I talk about the knowledge of God being like an endless ocean and wanting to set out into discovering Him.

I had a friend of ours Ryan Pernofksi take a photo for the inside of the album art of a person diving underwater and I always loved that as a picture of diving into the discovery of the knowledge of God. And so we decided to create an audio version of that. We originally just had it go underwater and end, but it kinda sounded like you’d gone underwater and died (haha)! So we created the effect of resurfacing again at the end.

I wanted to switch the track to something else when the listener came out of the water, like you’d discovered something new. We ended up using a track that I was originally making for the intro of the album, it was this moody soundscape that introduced the theme of discovery, but it didn’t make tracklist, so we sampled that demo and used it to end the album instead!

So what do you do after a big release? Is it on to the next thing or is it time for a creative re-charge?

Our focus is on the live side of things now! We’re looking to tour with these new songs and worship together with people. We’ve done a UK and Europe tour, and also Singapore, Philippines and Japan. We’re hoping to do a bunch of trips to the States in 2019 and see what other opportunities come up. And then we’ll probably start writing again.

Where can people learn more about you and/or purchase Discovery?

All the info is available on our website riversandrobots.com – we’re also on Twitter and
Instagram as @riversandrobots

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