Many people grow up singing songs from church hymnals, but few grow up to have the songs they’ve written placed in hymnals for others to sing. Singer/songwriter Twila Paris knows the satisfaction that comes from having her music so warmly embraced.Many people grow up singing songs from church hymnals, but few grow up to have the songs they’ve written placed in hymnals for others to sing. Singer/songwriter Twila Paris knows the satisfaction that comes from having her music so warmly embraced. Paris was the top Christian songwriter last year in American Songwriter’s annual awards issue. With the exception of the traditional songs she recorded on her Christmas album, she has written all but two tunes on the nine albums she’s recorded since 1981. Paris has achieved nine number one singles and has been nominated for numerous awards including Song and Songwriter of the Year from the Gospel Music Association.
Much more important to Twila than industry accolades are the reactions she gets from fans. “Many people say ‘if I could have written a song that is exactly what I would have written’,” she says. “I write from personal experience. Most of my songs are prayers from me to God and are very vertical…I believe that we all go through the same things though not at the same times.”
Music has been a part of Twila’s life since her earliest memories. Her father was a minister who also taught music. “my parents say I started making up songs and singing when I was just two or three,” the soft-voiced writer comments. “It [songwriting] was one of those things that was in me. I was just going to do it.
“At 12 Dad assigned me a song [as part of her music training homework]. I wrote one. It was a bad song, but it gave me the feeling that, yes I could write a song.”
She wrote her first real song at 17, “Morning Sunshine,” and it ended up on a custom album she recorded when she was 20. Not long after she began recording for Milk and Honey Records [she is presently on Starsong] and the rest of the Christian music community found out what the people she’d grown up with in Arkansas already knew -that Twila Paris had a gift for communicating personal thoughts and observations in a universal way that made her songs especially poignant.
“Lamb of God,” “We Will Glorify,” and “Faithful Men” are Paris songs that have been included in two different hymnals used in church worship services. She is referred to as a modern day hymn writer and her work often elicits comparisons to 19th century songwriter Fannie Crosby (writer of “Blessed Assurance” and “I am Thine O Lord”). When asked how she feels about such comments, she responds, “It’s a great honor, but it’s really undeserved because of couple of songs that end up in a hymn book does not a Fannie make…When I write something I usually cut it first and most artists usually want to be the first one to record a song.”
She has had a couple of cuts by Steve Green and Bill and Gloria Gaither. “Steve Green is the only one I’ve sent a song to,” Twila says. “I wrote “For the Glory of the Lord” and I felt I should give him the opportunity to record it first. Then I thought ‘no I should do it.’ But that wasn’t the Lord that was me. Six months later Steve called and said he was working on his album and said he needed songs and I just knew that was the song. I had no qualms about giving it to him first.”
When it comes to cutting outside material, it’s very rare for Paris to cut someone else’s material. Her musical ministry is a very personal thing and she prefers to cut her own songs. The two times she has cut other tunes, they’ve been gospel classics – “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “Angel Band.”
Paris says she listens to a variety of music including classical, jazz and contemporary acts such as Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. She also appreciates the music of her peers in the Christian industry. “One thing I’ve noticed is great music will inspire me to write even if I’m writing something completely different,” she comments. “When I hear great music it’s inevitable. I have to write something. I’m inspired to create.”
In discussing the songs she wrote for her current album, Paris admits the title cut turned out to be ironically prophetic. She wrote “Cry for the Desert” lamenting the spiritual desert in many people’s lives. A week after the album was released last August, Iraq invaded Kuwait.
“It really does tie in with the whole crisis in the desert,” she says. “When it dawned on me I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. It was so uncanny. I didn’t know, but God did. He knew it would have more than one application to the heart.”
When asked to give advice to novice tunesmiths, Twila says she’d like to pass along some points she learned at a seminar she attended as a teenager that shaped her writing. The seminar was conducted by writers Jimmy and Carol Owens. “They said, ‘don’t tell me, show me,’ simply meaning strive for a creative approach and never settle for less than what a song could be,” she says. “If something isn’t quite right, leave it and come back to it later. There’s no point in writing a bad song just to be cranking something out. If you have a certain jewel of an idea, a certain treasure and it doesn’t work in that song, take it and put it somewhere else. Save it and put all your good things in one strong song. Maybe you’ll write only ten songs but they’ll all really be something.”
Another point Paris is quick to make is though New York, Los Angeles and Nashville are considered to be the country’s music centers, they don’t have a monopoly on creativity. She lived in Nashville for awhile, but moved back home to Fayetteville, Arkansas and wants others to know you don’t have to live in one of the big cities to be a songwriter.
“I think songwriters need to stay close to their source of inspiration,” she muses. “In one of the major cities you can make contacts and take care of business, but as far as writing great songs. It may be better to be somewhere else where you’ve living real life. Sometimes living in a big city you get all caught up in the politics and business and you get tunnel vision, but real life is what great songs are made of.”