I Asked Hillsong UNITED for Worship Advice

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This interview ended up being about 3 or 4 times longer than most. Here’s why.

I lost my marbles when the Observer asked me to set up an interview with someone in Hillsong UNITED. I sing and play their songs on a weekly basis. I’m a worship leader at my church, so I can’t count the amount of times I’ve sung or led a congregation in singing Oceans, The Stand or Hosanna. To say that worship has had a huge impact on my life is an understatement (though I’ll probably write more on that in a later post). I spend hours a week rehearsing worship songs, or singing to God on my own or with friends, especially my boyfriend. I’ve sung at churches around the country, and so much of what I play is from Hillsong. Not everything, but a lot. Most of the song requests I get are Hillsong songs. And I know some people bash them for having songs that sound the same or whatever, but all I say to that is “let’s see you do better.” Is that mean? Whatever.

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I respect Hillsong United so much because of how well they’ve been able to create music that is cool and accessible to youth while holding on to the heart of what worshipping God should be about. So when I got a call from JD, one of the OG members of Hillsong United, I lost it. I mean, the guy gets to sing to God for a living.

(JD is the guy in the video with long hair and glasses.)

It was early in Australia but late afternoon where I was answering the call. After my initial gush of “omg I love worship too” super professional intro, we dove in with some intro questions like what’s the difference between UNITED and Hillsong Young and Free, and stuff like that.

Some things I learned?

  • JD was 13 when he and his youth group friends started writing songs and formed Hillsong UNITED.
  • When they’re not on tour, they’re part of their worship teams at home and participate just like any other volunteer.
  • Hillsong UNITED is the “original” band, with Hillsong Young and Free being a band that started to focus more on the youth. And Hillsong Worship is their actual church’s worship.

Here’s some snippets from the interview:

JD: Thursday nights we do rehearsals we call team nights and we come together and do devotions and pray and rehearse and then be a part of Sundays. Most of us are, like I’m one of the worship pastors here in Sydney so we just help out. Make sure the church is happening on weekends and there’s a lot of people not in United that are making it happen as well and I just work alongside them.

Isabel: Because worshiping God and playing music is in a way a job, how do you balance that? …

I think what’s been amazing about our journey is we never set out to make a job out of it or that it would become what we do with our lives, we’ve always kind of viewed it as our service to God and our volunteering and involvement of church. The truth is all of us were doing this for years and years before it ever became a job and we’d be working- I remember I did everything from working in McDonald’s and working in cafes and then leading worship and doing our youth ministry…. None of us started this to get a job out of it but it’s been amazing and we’re amazed at God making these opportunities for us. And I think United is really a family and a strong community so we make sure that if anyone’s feeling down we’re able to pick them up and if anyone starts to be a little too high we can pull them down, it’s the great thing about  I think church or family or cumminty. If someone’s going to get a big head then there’s plenty of brothers and sisters there to help that head gets small but more importantly when people are down or struggling we’re there to lift them up and it’s an amazing dynamic.

That’s awesome. So what do you think makes a good worship band?

I think skinny jeans and long hair.

That’s true!

I’m glad you’re laughing.

But I think going off of what I just said I think the desire to bring glory to God, the desire to establish God’s truth here on earth and tell everyone that we can that we have some really good news and that is that God sent his son Jesus so we wouldn’t have to be lost but that we could feel comfort in our pain and the greatest gift of all is salvation. So I think in my mind it’s great to have big dreams and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to write songs that people around the world will sing or people want their songs to travel to millions and billions of people and to go and travel the world to large crowds and that’s great but to be honest that’s the least important thing when it comes to having a worship band. The most important thing is that our lives will bring honor and glory to God. Paul writes in Timothy that we need to live a life worthy of the calling that God has for each and every one of us….

I eventually started asking him questions about their upcoming tour, his musical influences… the typical things you ask when you interview an artist. But right when the interview was reaching to 3x longer than what’s unspokenl-y expected, I ventured to beg for a couple more questions.

Alright, I only have two more questions for you. I could honestly ask you questions for hours but I won’t take up too much more of your time

All good. That’s fine, I wish I had hours as well! I’m glad to talk to someone as passionate about it!

So my worship team is practicing tomorrow night, and I was wondering if you had any advice for a worship band, worship team? Any words of wisdom?

Ugh. Gosh, I could talk for hours on this because I love it and I’m on this journey myself of trying to do the best I possibly can but I think that in what we do as a worship team there’s two elements. There’s obviously the spiritual side of trying to lead people into the presence of God and getting people’s eyes and attention to God and there’s also the practical and physical element of trying to make the songs sound as good as they can and not stuffing it up, singing the right words, hitting the right chords and all that and staying on time and all the things that come. So there’s always this tension of, can I keep up? It’s one eye on God and one eye on the people type thing. There’s that balance of actually worshipping yourself but also making sure all these elements are lining up as well as possible to get people to go to God with as much ease as possible. So I think my biggest advice would be from my journey of doing this is that that’s all important and we got to do it all as best as we possibly can but never, ever, um I would say never ever- I’m trying to word it best as I can but never ever take the focus off trying to honor God and worship who he is ourselves. I think the greatest way we can actually lead people into worshipping God is to worship God. And so the temptation is to perform or the temptation is to sing a song really well or for people to think the service is awesome but to be honest it’s great to do all that stuff but as long as it becomes a very long second to when we’re on that platform in a worship sergice actually worship God for who he is. People see that and that’s contagious. And that’s attractive. And so keeping that pure heart of okay we’re going to worship God first and foremost. You can’t ignore all the other elements otherwise we’ll lose people but don’t get it around the other day where we do everything to set it up to be amazing and then we try to worship God. No, you start with trying to worship God first and people will see that and if you lead someone in worship worship God first.

Thank you so much for that. I know, I said two more questions, but can I ask you one more? I’m so sorry this is taking so long.

That’s alright I’ll give you one more.

I was wondering what your convictions are on the pairing of music and faith and why music is such a key part in worshipping God. I know it’s a big question.

It is a big question and I’ll answer as quickly as possible but it’ll be, number one, because God created it. God created everything to bring glory to worship himself. The Bible talks about how even the rocks will cry out. God created beautiful creation, I think we see even a sunset and a beach, God created that. And it reflects his beauty. Everything reflects it…. I think we can take God’s creation like a mirro… Music in its purest form was created to glorify God. That’s why we all love it and some people out there aren’t using their music to glorify God but even those songs  in the mainstream like big anthems everyone loves that’s a big extension of God’s creation. I think, number one, it’s so powerful because God created it, but I think secondly if you read all scripture it teaches us to sing. It teaches us to break into song. And I think we’re also instructed to use whatever we have to show people who God is. Music is one of those but it’s also kind of a universal language. I can’t remember who exactly said it but it’s that music has a way of entering your heart without asking permission. So I think that if that’s what we love and with UNITED and we sing songs and travel, my favorite is when we hear people who have never set foot in a church or don’t have anything to do with God or maybe had a bad experience when they were younger or have disbelief but somehow someone will play them one of our songs through the beauty of streaming with Spotify or Apple Music and all the rest of it, and our songs find their way into random playlists and people listen to our music without even realizing that it’s worship or Christian. And the testimonies people email us like, I didn’t want anything to do with God or church but there’s something about this song that makes me cry or gives me peace. I think that’s the power of music. And it’s powerful because God created it and it’s at its purest and best form when it’s giving him glory or telling the glory of who God is or what he’s done.

That’s awesome. Wow. Thank you so much for your time.

No problem, it was fun. It was good to talk to someone who is so passionate about worship!

There it is, folks. To be honest, I almost didn’t want to share it because it was just something so special to me. Sure, a lot of Hillsong songs sound similar, or whatever people wanna say about it, but their songwriting has gotten me through a lot and has helped me in my spiritual and emotional connection to God. And for that I am forever thankful.

Click here for the article!

Hanging Out with Bobby Sessions (and Presenting at an Awards Show)

They had my face huge on the screen.

“Once the drag queen comes out of the cake, you’re up.”

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I nodded to my editor and a fellow Dallas Observer writer and I walked onstage, envelops in hand.

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The Canton Theater was full of local artists and Dallas music enthusiasts. All eyes were on me as I read out the nominees to the Dallas Observer Music Awards and then did the whole “And the winner is…” while opening the envelope.

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One of the names I read was “Bobby Sessions.” He was nominated for a few awards throughout the night, and won 3 of the biggest ones.

The next day, my friend Yani who works for the Universal Music Group asked me to photograph her interview with him.

I arrived at a management studio in Deep Ellum. Bobby Session’s manager, Vince, came to the lobby to get me. When we came up the elevator, Yani and Bobby were sitting on a black leather couch. They both got up to greet me.

Bobby Sessions sang the title track for the new movie featuring KJ Appa, Amanda Selberg, and Common, The Hate U Give.

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I took some candid shots of Bobby and Yani as he spoke about his career, his life and his personal connection with the issues in the movie.

Once the interview ended, Yani and I just kind of stayed and chilled in the room with him, his manager, and his girlfriend. We just got to chatting. We talked Kanye West, SMU, and other random things.

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Here’s where I took advantage of the situation. I asked him about interviews he’s had with people and what has made a good and bad interviewer. He told me a few key tips:

  1. Be genuine, but don’t sound fake.
  2. Be genuine, but don’t sound disinterested.
  3. Ask questions you genuinely want to know, because the interviewee can tell if you do.

That’s it. Then he took us to the roof of the studio where he often hangs out and thinks. It had a breathless view of downtown Dallas.

Bobby Sessions is a deep thinker and an artists through and through, but he’s also just a chill kid. Almost everything he said was profound, and it was cool to get to know him just as his career is taking off.

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Josh Groban Laughed at Me

Okay, fine. I made him laugh.

On my quest to conduct interesting and unique interviews, I’ve added a couple “experimental” questions. I’m trying out a couple different questions outside of the typical “how would you describe your musical evolution,” or “what’s your tour going to look like?”

I asked Josh to describe himself, which I know is a weird question to ask somebody who has been famous as long as I’ve been alive.

He laughed.

“Just in general? Well, I’m a pisces…”

The rest of his answer is in the interview article on the Observer.

 

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My First Time as an Official Concert Photographer

I had never been so nervous to go to a concert.

Last week, when I covered the Troye Sivan show, I was very confused about this whole concert photography thing. How does it even work?

My first attempt at this was during the Haim concert. The Southside Ballroom staff was super nice and gave me a photo pass, though I had no idea how to use one.

At the Box Office, once I gave them my name and publication I was there for, they gave me this nice canvas-like sticker with the Haim girls printed on it. It said “Photo” on it. They said it was my photo pass and pointed to a security guard that would show me where to go.

The only thing? I didn’t have a freakin. Camera.

The venue coordinators were very confused with me. “Did you bring your camera?”

I held up my phone like the dork that I am. “I thought I would take photos on my iPhone?”

Again, I had no idea how this worked. Clearly.

Long story short, they told me I’d probably get better iPhone photos if I just tried to get as close to the stage as possible. I ended up not using my photo pass (as it now decorates my waiter bottle), and just asked my friend for the photos she took with her phone.

When I covered Troye, I thought I could just hop on the photojournalism train for fun. The Observer had hired a photographer to shoot for my article (shoutout to my boy Mike), but I thought I could just join anyways for experience. Wrong. I found myself looking like a dufus at the media table, surrounded by 8 professional photographers who knew that they were doing, ready to go with multiple giant cameras around their necks.

So, at NEEDTOBREATHE, I got my shot at redemption.

I got handed a photo pass at the box office of Toyota Music Factory.

After explaining to the people at the metal detectors why I was bringing in a big black bag with camera equipment, I was in.

I waited at the media table tucked at the corner of the venue, getting my camera settings ready and the zoom lens on.

At 9pm, the event coordinator came to grab me and the other photographer at the table to bring us to the pit.

Toyota Music Factory hold 4,000 people in the pavilion. Not only was this a sold-out show, but they opened the back of the pavilion to a lawn that holds another 4,000.

The other photographer and I were led into the pit, about a 5-foot gap between the railing that held back the mosh pit and the stage. It was just us and the bodyguards allowed in this section.

I adjusted my camera settings, and soon enough the band came onstage.

The other photographer put in earplugs.

Why didn’t I think of earplugs?

I couldn’t hear anything for the next couple hours, but it was worth it.

8,000 people and I got the best view.

This was one of the most nerve-racking jobs I’ve ever had. I only got to shoot for the first 3 songs, that’s it. It was sheer luck that I went away with clear photos.

I was so scared everything I shot was blurry. Granted, 80% of what I shot was horrible and either too light or dark, but I was so excited with what I came away with.

I got back home close to midnight, and couldn’t sleep until I edited all my photos.

Here they are!

Interviews with Kevin from Pentatonix and Kristian from Sugarland

So, quick life update for context:

I’m working an internship at a summer camp is Philadelphia. Basically I’m helping to lead a leadership training program.

But while living at a camp and working full time, for some reason I thought, sure. I can keep working Observer articles. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

I recently submitted an article on my experience being backstage during a Lion King production (which will either get published soon or I will put it up on here), and then I landed two interviews. 

One Tuesday morning at camp, I took a break from my internship duties to go back to my cabin and have a phone call with both Kristian from Sugarland (the duo that just did that song “Babe” with Taylor Swift), and Kevin from Pentatonix (aka my favorite member).

Kristian was very professional and pleasant to talk to. He gave me the scoop on his partnership with Taylor Swift and everything. 

Link here for the Sugarland article!!

Kevin was calling from Cali so he had just woken up it seemed, so it was a very chill conversation. He was super nice, even trying to work with a couple technical hiccups I had. I gushed about how much I loved their show last year, and he was so excited about coming back to Dallas for Whataburger. 

Link for the Pentatonix article!!

Getting Paid to Go to a 5 SOS Concert (an update on my latest writing adventures)

My Dallas Observer editor gave me two free tickets to go see 5 Seconds of Summer at the House of Blues Thursday. Isn’t that crazy? And I’m getting paid for this, too!

After a lot of going back and forth with publicists and managers, my editor was able to score tickets and let me know about 4 hours before the show that I could go. So I texted my sister. She was excited.

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So within a couple hours we were lining up at the House of the Blues to see one of her favorite bands. (This conveniently doubled up as an early birthday present for her.)

Some things I learned: When your editor tells you your tickets are at “will call,” that just means you’re supposed to ask the ticket booth for your tickets.

Words I actually got to say multiple times that night: “Hi, I’m with the Dallas Observer…” and “Hi, I’m here covering the concert for the Dallas Observer…” does that sound official or what? Granted, I feel like I look like this random 16 year old pretending to be a reporter, so I felt like I had to say things like that to seem more valid. I got a wrist band for “press” and everything!

 

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The concert was a pretty cool thing to do for “work” on a Thursday night.

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I was probably the only one taking notes at a concert, so that was interesting.

My editor wanted me to get the review to her by 10am the next morning, so I stayed up until 1am to finish it so I could just sleep in until my class the next day. Got her done!

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LINKS TO THE STORIES:

Click here for the 5 SECONDS OF SUMMER STORY

(Unfortunately… maybe it’s because I was tired or I’ve never written a concert review before, it looks like my editor made more changes than normal. So if it doesn’t sound like me at some points, that’s why!)

I also have two other new articles out, one about a local neon artist and one about a contestant on Lifetime’s new reality dating show! I watched one of the episodes and it’s actually really interesting, go check it out!

 

Troy and His Series of Unfortunate Events

 

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You see that beautiful piece of zebrawood I’m holding? That gorgeously crafted piece of art? That is my electric-acoustic Ibanez, commonly known as Troy.

(Side note: My first guitar was a classical named Gabriella, so maybe you can connect the theme here. I unfortunately can’t plug her in or put a strap on her, so I needed an acoustic guitar to be able to bring around and use for church and performances and stuff.)

Yesterday, Troy died for the third time.

Get ready for a musical story of love and heartbreak. If you’re a musician of any sort, this might be hard to read. Just bear with me. Stay strong.

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Right after the picture above was taken (the picture of me and my best friend, not the gif of Will Ferrel…), I forgot Troy at our church building. It was right after I had done a rendition of “Beautiful” by MercyMe, and I had headed to work right after. Luckily, I was meeting a friend later that day, so I just asked her to grab it for me. The thing is, Troy didn’t have a case at this time. I had still been saving up to buy one. And unfortunately, the strap was a little finicky. While my friend carried it, the strap came undone, and CRASH.

Troy was decapitated.

Pretty much.

Well, his head was hanging off. (Technically it’s called a headstock, but… details.)

Needless to say, my friend was mortified. And it’s been a while since I’d seen her freak out that much. She knew how much I love Troy.

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We took turns comforting each other during this emotionally traumatic time. Luckily, she being the good friend she is, paid for Troy’s repair. Guitar Center fixed him for $150. Looking back, I should’ve just used the money to buy a replacement guitar, but hindsight is 20/20, isn’t it?

Troy was fixed.

The End.

Right?

No.

Months later, on a road trip to visit our friends in College Station as pictured below, I decided it was a good idea to leave Troy in my friend’s car overnight.

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Worst. Idea. Ever.

You see, I had left Troy in the car many times before and it was fine! That is, I left him in the car many times before he was damaged. I didn’t even think about how his fragile state could affect his ability to withstand the intense Texas heat.

On the way home, I found Troy dead again. His head was once more hanging lose. The glue from his repair had come undone, and we were back to having a broken guitar.

This time, my parents were angels and agreed to pay for his repair. Once more, I really really really should’ve just bought a new guitar. I really really really really really really should have.

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Anyway.

After going to a big worship music ministry conference with my church, I was super inspired to start playing Troy again.

It was a Sunday night. 8:04 pm. I was in my dorm room. I opened the hard case I now keep him in, and there he was.

This time, completely decapitated. His head(stock) wasn’t even hanging, it was just completely off.

My guitar was in two pieces.

Keep in mind, I got Troy for Christmas, but had to still pay my parents half of his cost. He was $399. I’ve spent $250 on repairs by now. And he just freaking KEEPS BREAKING.

After a very intense cry session in which I had a questioning-my-life-and-contemplating-quitting-music-forever-and-never-picking-up-an-instrument-ever-again-maybe-this-whole-thing-is-an-omen-and-I-should-just-live-a-music-less-and-miserable-existence breakdown…….

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I eventually gathered myself together. An omen to stop music? Ridiculous.

I took the poor guitar to Guitar Center, and a nice man who worked there heard my sob story and offered to repair it for free, since their last repair was only a little over a month ago. There he now sits, getting his third surgery. But the Guitar Center repairman told me that he won’t last long. He explained that it’s like having a wrecked car. You can fix it, but it will never be the same. It’ll just keep breaking.

Basically, I need a new guitar. I’ll still have Troy, but I need something I can actually bring around since he’ll only last maybe a couple more months.

I’m still trying to figure out what to do, honestly. My plan was to save money for an electric guitar and a keyboard. Now I have to backtrack and figure out how to get a replacement acoustic. No new toys until I replace it. Do I get the same guitar as a replacement? Do I get a different one? Should I just get a keyboard instead? Should I wait until Black Friday? Or Christmas?

I don’t know. I’m bad at decisions. I’m still looking around and spending a questionable amount of time at Guitar Center feeling out the instruments and trying to figure out what I need to buy and with what money. We’ll see what happens.

So there you have it. The story of how Troy died. Three times. And though he’s getting repaired again, his life is over. So let’s just end this weird cliff hanger of an ending with some pictures commemorating our good times together.