To Twila Paris, a great song is like a favorite garment – something the listener can wrap themselves up in and make it their own. Creating musical garments that have continually warmed the hearts and souls of Christian music fans has made Paris one of the most successful singer/songwriters in the Christian industry.
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To Twila Paris, a great song is like a favorite garment – something the listener can wrap themselves up in and make it their own. Creating musical garments that have continually warmed the hearts and souls of Christian music fans has made Paris one of the most successful singer/songwriters in the Christian industry. Well known for penning such classics as “Lamb of God,” “We Will Glorify,” “He Shall Be Exalted,” and “The Warrior is a Child,” Paris has written the words and lyrics to every tune on each of her twelve albums. Currently the Gospel Music Association’s reigning Female Vocalist, Paris recently released another collection of insightful tunes titled Beyond A Dream.
Paris’ fascination with words and music began at a young age. She recalls making up melodies as early as two years old. By her teens she was actively pursuing the craft of songwriting. “I started writing when I was 12 because my Dad assigned me-he was my piano teacher-to write a song,” she recalls. “He had been teaching me about musical theory and improvisation and had assigned me to write a song and I said, ‘I can’t.'”
Paris soon learned she could indeed write songs. Her grandmother and her father were songwriters and she says music was always an integral part of her family’s life. It was only natural that she would become interested in writing, but she admits her development as a songwriter was a slow process. When asked about her early work, she confesses. “I wrote bad songs for several years. At first I didn’t think seriously about being a songwriter. It was just a creative outlet. Then when I was 17 I wrote a song or two that I thought could be real songs.”
When she decided to pursue a career as a singer/songwriter, she and her Dad sought the advice of a friend who was running a Christian record company in Kansas City. He was impressed by the young writer’s work, but suggested they record a custom album to get the attention of the major Christian record labels. They took his advice. The producer he suggested they contact, Wayne Boosahda, had connections at Milk and Honey Records. Executives at the label became familiar with Twila’s work, signed the young artist, and her career began to take off.
In some ways, Paris’ approach to a songwriting career is unusual in that she never pitched songs to anyone else and she’s rarely co-written. Also, the only times she’s cut other writer’s tunes have been on special projects she’s done such as The Young Messiah and a Christmas album she did that was mostly standards.
Twila says she doesn’t pitch because she’s not particularly prolific and usually just has enough to record for her albums. (That hasn’t stopped her songs from being recorded. Numerous other acts have covered her songs and they’ve been translated to many different languages.)
According to Twila, the fact that she doesn’t co-write isn’t a hard and fast rule. (She did co-write “Runner” with her younger sister, Starla). She says she may explore the option at some time, but it would have to be a situation that developed naturally with another writer, not something that was forced. And due to the fact that she lives in Arkansas and generally just comes to Nashville to record, there may not be a lot of co-writing in her future.
As to how she writes, Twila says she tends to write in spurts. “I may write several songs in one week and then may not write again for several months,” she says. She laughingly recalls one of those commercials about selling no wine before it’s time and says her writing is like that. She believes in taking her time and working on a tune until she’s satisfied with it. “If I force a song it’s not as good as if I just let it mellow,” she says. “It’s got to simmer and steep and then something just releases.”
Songs sometimes come to her very slowly. “I started writing “God is in Control,” my current single, while I was driving. I wasn’t even at the piano. I just started singing and the chorus came.” She was driving to her parents’ house in the country and wrote the first part on the way back. “Over a period of six months the verses began coming to me,” she recalls. “That song came in pieces. Later when we went in the studio I showed what I had to Brown [Bannister, who co-produced her album with Paul Mills] and he said ‘finish that song.’ So I finally got serious and finished it, but it was written in bits and pieces over a long period of time.”
When asked how she knows when a song is finally finished, “When people buy the record,” she says with a laugh. Because she’s a perfectionist, she continually searches for just the right line and says she sometimes will be in the studio and ask opinions about which of two lines works better. But after the record is finished, she says she puts the songs to rest and moves onto the next ones.
Though Twila is concerned with the craft of songwriting, she feels that often the most effective songs are written on an emotional level. “I hope that after 17 years of songwriting I have developed my craft and gotten more skilled at the art, which I believe it is to a degree,” she says. “And yet at the core I still tend to start the song at a very visceral level… I believe sometimes the songs that are felt the deepest are the ones that start at that level.”
For that reason Twila says she’s just not the kind of writer who can write on assignment. She says she has a great deal of respect for writers who operate that way, but she tends to write from personal experience. “The songs I write are personal, even when I write from observation. I think they are observational, but from a very personal perspective,” she explains. “On Beyond A Dream there are more observational songs like “Watch And Pray,” “God Is In Control,” and “Rescue The Prisoner,” that really are about the big picture. “God Is In Control” was written because I was looking at the big picture and going ‘yikes.’ It was affecting me personally… The song was written in a very personal way of me relating to the big picture.”
Though some people have trouble revealing themselves so openly in their songs, Twila says to her it comes with the territory. “I don’t give a lot of thought to it,” she admits. “The particular segment of the body of Christ I’ve been planted in has always been very open before the Lord and our brothers and sisters and not put up a façade… It’s almost pointless if you’re not going to do that [be open] because people benefit so much from what you say. Sometimes it’s hard – I’ll write something and think ‘oh no, people are to call me up and say ‘I didn’t know you were that horrible.’ But I just feel that to be able to write lyrics even to write lyrics from a confessional place is very important.
“Not everybody likes the songs that I write, but the people who do often tell me I’ve written exactly what they are feeling. So I feel my songs are garments that other people can take and put on and make their own. A lot of songs are written very directly like a prayer. People can take that song and it becomes their song and their prayer. Obviously I don’t have the market cornered on this, but I feel what makes a song special is when the listener can take it and make it theirs.”
One of the most gratifying things about Twila’s career as a songwriter has been the universal acceptance of several of her songs that have turned into standards in the Christian music industry. Such songs as “He is Exalted” and “Lamb of God” have been recorded numerous times by many artists and have been translated in different languages. She says she was pleasantly surprised when someone told her they were visiting a church in Rumania and the congregation was singing “He is Exalted.”
Does she know when she’s written a song that has that special quality that transcends language barriers and becomes a timeless classic? “You don’t always know,” she says. “I think with “Lamb of God,” I had a feeling. Think a lot of it has to do with music, anything that’s cutting edge musically is probably not going to be timeless musically. You can’t have it both ways. The things I’ve written more in a traditional or inspirational vein probably would be the most timeless.”
Twila says knowing that a song is used by believers to worship God means a great deal to her. “As a writer of Christian music, the most gratifying songs are worship songs that people sing to the Lord giving him glory and honor. It can just be an individual singing “Sanctuary” in their car with tears streaming down their face, or a huge group of 5,000 people in church on Sunday morning. Romans 11:36 says ‘for of him, and though him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever.” Songwriting very visibly illustrates that clearly… God gives the gift of the song. Then take it and make it available to the body of Christ, and then they take it in their living room or their car or church and give it back to him in worship. It’s like here’s this song that completes the cycle of giving. That’s the most deeply gratifying feeling.”
Twila is frequently approached by aspiring songwriters seeking advice. She recalls one young girl who said she just locked herself away and concentrated on writing songs. Twila cautioned that might not be the best approach. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is a great song has to come from your heart and not your head,” she relates. “I told the young girl the best thing to do would be to get out with her friends or read; do things to have something to say.
When we put ourselves at risk – just working things through or facing reality – that’s how we get something to say. It’s not always fun getting material for great songs, but songs come from getting out and living real life.”