The title of Matt Redman’s first Christmas album, These Christmas Lights, may beckon images of houses strung with festive and bright decorations, garland over the mantel, carolers marching down the street. But in the context of this album, which will release with sixstepsrecords/Sparrow Records October 21, the phrase These Christmas Light means much more than Christmas parties and outdoor decor.
“We can get caught up in all the doings of Christmas, all the activities,” explains Redman, “and there is some very special stuff that goes on, but you don’t want to just be dazzled by fairy lights and LEDs. You want to be dazzled by the wonder and the mystery and the radiance of Jesus’ coming.”
So that is what Redman did. He created a Christmas album that centers around the idea of Christ as the brightest light of the season.
Interestingly, the England native never set out to make a Christmas record. “It’s not very typical for a Brit to make a Christmas album. I think it’s a little bit more of an American phenomenon,” he says. “My wife Beth had the idea and kind of persistently mentioned it a few times… seconded by my teenage daughter, Maisey.”
Perhaps a seasonal album felt like a leap for the double GRAMMY-award winner, best known for his worship albums. His last one, Unbroken Praise, hit No.1 on the Billboard Christian Music Chart when it released last year and spent a significant amount of time at the top of the iTunes Christian and Gospel Charts. Songs like “10,000 Reasons,” which won him the two GRAMMYS, “You Never Let Go” and “Blessed Be Your Name” are sung in churches worldwide and have the staying power of classic hymns. That’s because whatever Redman writes, he does so with the church in mind.
So when Beth and Maisey finally persuaded him to make the Christmas album, he approached the genre without setting aside his passion for worship or the church: “I really had the distinctive in mind that it would have a congregational element to it. First and foremost I’m a worship leader…[but] I don’t want the whole record to be full of that kind of music. There are a lot of opportunities for all different expressions of music at Christmas. Songs really can be special in the Christmas service as you’re singing over people.”
These Christmas Lights is not simply a worship album released at Christmastime. It is also not an album of Christmas covers. Instead, this album falls somewhere beautifully in between.
“I don’t want to just tell the story,” says Redman, regarding the nature of many existing Christmas songs. “I want to make sure we put ourselves in the story, too, and say, ‘This is what happened, and what does that mean for us here today in 2016?’”
With the use of brass instruments, gospel choirs, gentle chimes, lyrics that recall the wise men and Mary and Joseph, and a brief incorporation of Handel’s Messiah, These Christmas Lights puts the worshipper in touch with the mystery and awe of the season while drawing their eyes to the cross in worship, rather than the Christmas tree.
“I think that’s one of the key things with song writing,” continues Redman, “…you have this sense of the reenactment. In other words, you’re telling the old, old story of what happened—hav[ing] gone over the beautiful details of what God did and how he appeared. In the second stage in the song, [is] realization—what that means for us here and now. I think it’s a really important thing to do.”
The album opens with the title song and a chorus that doubles as a simple prayer to make the Christmas story a part of our story, to make the connection from reenactment to realization: Open my eyes / Oh, heart believe / The wonder of that Christmas night be born in me.
To write some of the songs on the album, Redman, along with Beth and longtime co-writer Jonas Myrin, returned to the original scene of the Christmas night by traveling to Israel.
“It was a fantastic place to be thinking about this theme of reenactment and realization,” recalls Redman. “Walking old roads that Jesus would have walked, going to some of the key places where key events of the gospel happened when Jesus walked this earth. You’re thinking a lot about him coming as a little newborn baby.”
En route to Israel, with the theme of journey in mind, he began the song “How Far.” The soft, piano-driven tune begins in Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, asking, How far is it to Bethlehem? It then moves to the story of the cross on Calvary, stating, How far, how far love has come to bring us home. The song ends by linking us personally to Bethlehem and Calvary: We set our hearts on pilgrimage / We’re caught up in your story, too / From Bethlehem to Calvary / Our hearts will always follow you.
The entire album is a type of pilgrimage, taking the Christmas story on a journey from head to heart, from Bethlehem to Calvary.
The track “Glory to You in the Highest” does this by reminding worshippers that the story of Christ’s birth is also the story of grace and redemption: A day of grace has come / The dawn of our redemption / Sing halleluiah / Let every heart adore / To us you have been born / To us you have been given / Glory to you in the highest. This powerful song, which features Tasha Cobbs (“Break Every Chain”) on vocals, ends by chanting the familiar, Oh, come, let us adore him / Oh, come, let us adore him.
This happens a few times on These Christmas Lights—an original song with a surprise, familiar lyric or melody worked into it. To write “His Name Shall Be,” Myrin and Redman adapted lyrics from an old carol called “The Angel’s Song,” written in the nineteenth century. Beth suggested they use Handel’s Messiah for the bridge in “Hearts Waiting (Joy to the World).” And “Oh, Little Town (The Glory of Christmas)” is a take on the English version of the classic carol “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,” with an updated chorus.
“There’s always something brilliant about celebrating the treasures of the past and the richness and the heritage of creativity when people have sung about God in ancient times and centuries past,” says Redman. “Sometimes when the old meets the new it’s such a beautiful infusion.”
Old also met new on this album when it came to collaboration.
“There’s something about a Christmas album—it’s really nice to invite some friends to become a part of it and to really jump on board with it,” he says.
Redman worked with friends he’s known for years, like Myrin, who wrote on almost half the album; Chris Tomlin, who sings on “Angels (Singing Gloria)”; and Natasha Bedingfield, who sings with Redman on “Help from Heaven” and has been a longtime friend of the Redman family.
But Redman also brought in some new collaborators, such as the producer on the album, Bernie Herms. Though Redman and Herms have been in similar circles for years—Herms has written and produced for artists like Casting Crowns and Danny Gokey—These Christmas Lights is the first time they’ve worked together.
“I loved his vision for the project musically from the first moment,” says Redman. “Just talking about creating something that can sound a little Christmassy but staying on the classy side and not the cheesy, and then also maybe something that can stand the test of time.”
Which brings us back to Redman’s signature as an artist: a worship leader at heart who writes music the church can sing today and for a long time to come. These Christmas Lights has accomplished that, not only with new Christmas favorites but with year-round worship music not confined by holiday or season—music that will remind the worshiper the story of Christmas is not just something we read or sing about once a year, it’s the story inside of us that we never stop telling.