Wayne Watson: 1996’s Christian Writer

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Videos by American Songwriter

In a recent letter Wayne Watson wrote to American Songwriter after being named the magazine’s Christian Songwriter of the Year, he talked about every songwriter’s favorite friend and foe – the blank page.  Watson says it sometimes entices and sometimes terrifies him.  However, he always manages to rise to the occasion, and as a result has penned some of Christian music’s most enduring songs, among them “Friend Of A Wounded Heart,” “Watercolour Ponies,” “Home Free,” and most recently “Field Of Souls.”

In a recent letter Wayne Watson wrote to American Songwriter after being named the magazine’s Christian Songwriter of the Year, he talked about every songwriter’s favorite friend and foe – the blank page.  Watson says it sometimes entices and sometimes terrifies him.  However, he always manages to rise to the occasion, and as a result has penned some of Christian music’s most enduring songs, among them “Friend Of A Wounded Heart,” “Watercolour Ponies,” “Home Free,” and most recently “Field Of Souls.”

Watson began recording Christian music in 1978.  His first album was a custom record filled with mostly cover tunes.  When he landed a record deal and began seriously concentrating on developing a presence as an artist, he knew he wanted to be singing his own songs.

“When I started doing records for real, I felt like I had these things on my heart that other people who were writing weren’t expressing,” he says.  “It didn’t mean anything bad against their songs.  It just wasn’t where I was.  I wanted to say where God had me, and that’s what makes writing Christian music special and sort of unique.  It gives people insight into your heart.”

Allowing the listener those insights isn’t always an easy thing, and Watson says whenever he’s going through a difficult time, there’s always the temptation to “counterfeit and say I’m here when I’m not really here,” he says.  “One of the things I try to do in my songs is to make them honest whether they are painful or not.  I find a lot of people can relate to that.”

When he was developing his craft as a writer, Watson says he listened to other writers for tips but “I never listened to that person who said ‘Don’t make it too long.’  It’s a chore for me to get it under four minutes,” he admits.

“I basically got educated by listening to other people’s records.  The first writer I admired and thought was a genius was Dan Fogelberg.  He would paint pictures with words that would just amaze me, and that was definitely an inspiration early on.  That always inspired me to make every word count too.  You have so little time in a song to communicate your idea or to paint a picture.  That’s why it’s really hard for me to write.  It’s such an effort.  For some people it flows and just happens quickly.”

Watson says he’s finally joined the computer era.  “I’ve started keeping ideas on a computer program and then if I hear a line in my head, I go up and store it so I have it for later,” he says.

“I think it definitely starts with titles.  A great title spurs great ideas through the song.  I write down titles and write down lyric ideas.  Then you try to marry those lyrics to melodies and I think that’s where a lot of us miss it.  If you miss the perfect marriage of lyric to melody, it’s not as great a song as it could be.  That’s another big challenge.  I don’t feel the freedom to just do whatever I want.  I feel obligated to pick the best setting for a lyric that the most people will be able to digest, because I want people to hear [the song] and apply it to their life.”

Watson says, to him, being a Christian songwriter carries an added responsibility.  “I don’t really take the artistic freedom to just do what I want to do,” he says.  “I feel a little more responsible for my platform because I think it has eternal consequences.  It’s not just a three-minute thing.  It doesn’t mean it’s more important, but I think where God has me, and as a believer, and as someone He’s given this platform to, I feel responsible to make it as palatable to the biggest number of people I can, so that definitely colors musical setting I might put a lyric to.”

Being a Christian songwriter not only carries a responsibility in terms of relating eternal truths, but also in relating them in such a way that the audience accepts them.  Watson cautions Christian writers to balance making their point with making it accessible to the audience.

“I’m a human being.  If I had to choose between guilt and good feelings or conviction and comfort, I would choose comfort and good feelings,” he says.  “I think that’s a built-in stumbling block to the whole Christian industry sometimes.  A dad that’s been to work all day – getting beaten up by the boss and the public – the last thing he wants to do is get in the car and turn on the radio and hear he needs to be a better father.  You aren’t a good enough Christian.  Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?  You don’t want to hear that.  I want to turn on something that is going to make me feel good.  We have to be aware of that as writers and artists and wrap whatever truth we have to communicate with extreme caution, and wrap it with compassion and understanding.  That’s something I’ve worried about.  We have to be careful, but at the same time, I don’t want to have to go so far as to not address the problems.  I think there is a way to wrap them in a language that can both convict and comfort.  That’s something very humanly difficult, but spiritually possible.  It’s a challenge as a writer.”

Watson says when he’s writing for a new album, he always tries to look past the moment and think about what happens after the song is heard.  “I look at having to answer questions about a particular and what I was thinking,” he says.  “I wrote a song called “Almighty” which is sort of a praise song back on the Home Free record.  It sounds like a joyful praise song, but basically I was mad at God when I wrote it.  I knew the only way I would get out of my funk was to acknowledge that he was God and I was not.  He was going to do what he wanted and the best thing for me to do was go along with it.”

At the time of this interview, Watson was writing songs for his next Warner Alliance album, due out this summer, which will be produced by Michael Omartian.  Watson is co-writing some with Omartian.  He has, on occasion, collaborated in the past; he and Claire Cloninger co-wrote “Friend Of A Wounded Heart.”  For the most part he writes alone, partly due to logistics (living in Houston limits his co-writing opportunities) and partly by choice.”

Watson has a co-publishing deal with Word.  His company is called Material Music because “I want my music to be material as opposed to immaterial,” he says.  He doesn’t have anyone else signed to his publishing company.  “It’s just for my catalog at this point,” he says.  “I had an opportunity to sign some people, but I really couldn’t justify signing them to my publishing company because I’m not a staffed company that could really work their songs, so I couldn’t justify taking a piece of their action and not be doing anything for it.”

When asked about his advice to aspiring writers.  Watson encourages newcomers to “spend a lot of quiet time alone.  When you have time alone and quiet, it allows God to inspire you,” he says.  Dedication to the craft of songwriting and respect for the platform his career affords him has made Wayne Watson a formidable presence in the Christian songwriting community.  Writing songs is a vocation he treats with reverence.  “I don’t want to take it too lightly,” he says.  “We get too few opportunities.  I remember when I was a kid thinking if I could just go into a recording studio, I would be so happy to see one.  God has really blessed me and allowed me to do this for 16 years and I don’t want to take it lightly.  God gives us the ability to do things with our brains and our imaginations that, sometimes, you just have to tough it out and go for it.  So that’s where I’m at.”




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