I have the privilege of doing life alongside musicians! I work with them and most of my friends are musicians to a degree. It’s one of my favorite things in life as I am creative (not musical so much), but being around musicians and writers really feeds my atmosphere! I love having a vantage point into songwriting. It’s enjoyable to see them in the process of writing a song. They never know at the start if it will be a song that will just be between them and God, a song that will be sung just to a few that are around them, a song that will be heard within the 4 walls of their church or a song that will be sung by the masses and even played on the radio. They never know. They never know the potential of the lyrics they write and the melodies they start to hum. Will it take flight? Will it ever leave the page? They are poets; they are melodic. They are risk takers.
If you, the reader, go to church or have gone to church you have most likely sung the song “Freedom Reigns”. This song has been sung all around the world for many years. It’s the song where everyone knows the words too. It’s familiar. It reminds you of that “time” in your life. I sat down with Michael Larson, the writer of Freedom Reigns and I wanted to ask him a few questions that I thought might help, encourage, and shed light for those who are yearning to bring songs forth. He has been a songwriter for many years and holds a lot of wisdom and guidance in this area.
May this conversation encourage you.
Michael! Tell me about your writing.
I’m very passionate about poetic words, rhythms and melodies and how they seem to speak to us in ways that science can’t explain. It’s very fulfilling to see songs come together. I like to write spiritual songs, God songs. Sometimes they are prophetic or story type songs and sometimes they are congregational worship songs. I don’t necessarily sit down with the idea of writing a song for the church but they do often work in church. When I am in the songwriting process I often ask the Lord what is on His heart and then go from there. When I am in nature, with family or friends, or I’m in church and I get an idea I write it down and then take it to the piano or guitar. I then start exploring those ideas. I like to write songs that really bless God and I also want to be obedient to what He has asked me to write about. I’ve really enjoyed the process and the shift in my writing over the years. In previous years there was more of an agenda to my writing. It adds a bit too much pressure to write with an agenda.
I’ve known you and your wife Jennie for about 13 years and you’ve always been involved with music in some form during that time. Have you always been a musician, songwriter?
The first time that I wrote a song was with my cousin Trevor. It was a lazy summer day and we were at his farmhouse in Saskatchewan. I was probably around 10 years old and we picked up an old Sears guitar. It was my first attempt at writing a song and it wasn’t very good at all. I think we called it something awkward like “Be that Beacon.” Growing up I remember really loving God songs, songs that moved me. My grandparents and parents were all involved with music and it just seeped in. I started taking piano lessons at the age of 6 and then grabbed the guitar when I was around 17 years old. It was after this time that I began taking songwriting more seriously.
Freedom Reigns. It’s a very well known song and it’s been sung around the world, and many other artists have recorded it. How did that song come to be?
It was written in 1997 and I was still living in Langley BC, where I grew up. A lot of us in our youth group really wanted to seek God, explore spiritual gifts and disciplines and as a result there was a move of God in our church. His presence was so real to us. Vineyard music was something that I was exposed to and also the worship movement coming out of the UK. A guy named Mike, who was in our band, was driving by our church during that time and felt like he heard God say, “Go find Michael and tell him that today is a day of favor for him and that he needs to write a song.” He came into my office at the church where I was an intern and he told me what he felt God say. He asked me, “What’s on your heart?” And I said right away, “Rain.” and he responded, “Nope, that’s not it.” (laughter) Then I said, “Freedom?” and he said, “Yep that’s it!” I went back home and looked up “freedom” in my bible and came to 2 Corinthians 3:17. I started singing that verse, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.” The four chords and the melody came out within 20-30 minutes! I’ve had the privilege of seeing it go around the world, people singing it all over. It’s touched people’s lives. It’s been a real blessing to be a part of what the Lord is doing through that song. After I wrote it, I started leading it at our church and it eventually got noticed by other churches in Langley and they started singing it. Langley Vineyard asked us to record that song on one of their records and from there it took off. We didn’t have a marketing plan or strategy to get it out there. God just breathed on it.
What season were you in when you wrote it?
I grew up in a really good church and we were experiencing levels of freedom, but we could have been experiencing more of it in our lives and worship. When you taste of the Lord’s freedom you just want more! Singing “freedom reigns” with others was so liberating. We realized that we could be ourselves, we could even be wild and undomesticated in worship. That song gave us a vehicle to get there.
Looking back at the time of writing that song, do you see any movement from God in that time to put the pieces together? Were you in a desert time and were you seeking freedom?
For sure. Although we were seeing great things in our church I do believe that I was in a bit of a desert time before writing the song. Brian Doerksen was at our church and I remember hearing this sound that was coming from his heart and his band, it was so full of life and God. It was amazing! I was awakened more to God’s presence in that room. I knew that I wanted more of it for me and for my church. I wanted to experience more freedom. I believe that experience played a huge part in the writing of that song.
When you wrote the song did you know it’s potential?
When it first came out there was a sense of anticipation around it because of the prophetic word that was attached to it, “today is a day of favor for you”. I was very excited when it came out because I sensed the Lord’s touch on the song.
People think we get moments of favor or a day of favor and that’s it. But when we experience favor, there are lasting fruits from it and things happen that alter our paths allowing for a lifetime of favor.
Yeah, the favor on that day was for 30 minutes but it’s lasted a lifetime. It’s opened doors for our music, and the opportunities that have come because of that song have been great. One of my most favorite, interesting times was when I led that song in Russia. We were invited to go into a prison and we sang “Freedom Reigns in this place”. We were in a prison, in Russia, singing that song! It was kind of ironic you know? It’s true that bars can’t hold our souls.
Was your goal to become a Worship Leader/Pastor? A full time songwriter?
I don’t think it was a goal of mine. There was a sense of His calling on my life, in the sense of ministry and becoming a Pastor. Halfway through my Bible College experience I felt that I heard God say, “I am calling you to music ministry”, but that was after I became serious about songwriting. I think there was always a sense in my heart that singing and music would be apart of my future but I didn’t know what it would look like. When we follow Jesus we don’t always know what the future holds, even from hour to hour. I definitely didn’t know that I would be a Worship Pastor today, but I am so grateful that I am! When Jesus called the disciples, “Drop your nets and come follow me”, they did, not knowing what their future held but knowing they were in good hands. That’s the way Jennie and I like to live!
I am sure you have heard of many stories that have to do with this song, or people have told you about moments of impact while listening to the song?
We heard this story of a young lady who had a stroke. Her mother contacted us and shared with us that her daughter couldn’t speak but she could still sing “Freedom Reigns”! We were so blown away that God would use this song to minister to someone who had suffered such a physical ailment. I had a chance to meet her while my band and I were in Texas and thankfully she is doing a lot better today.
Other artists have covered/recorded this song, what are your thoughts about that?
It’s a huge honor when an artist or church band wants to put one of my songs on their record. It’s cool hearing different versions, some are more chill and then you have the big anthem versions with massive walls of sound to support this melody. I like seeing the different arrangements of the song.
How does it make you feel when people think that someone else wrote that song? Because I have seen many names attached to the song!
Ha, it doesn’t bother me. I have had people come up to me and say, “Man, you cover that song so well!” I say thank you! I think it’s amusing; it doesn’t bother me in the least.
Did you have to deal with ego when that song took off?
We think way to high of ourselves at times and we also think way too little of ourselves at times. I heard a quote one time, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” I don’t know who said that, but I think it’s brilliant. When a song takes off and is used and recorded I think there is a battle with the ego. I encountered that battle. There’s always a battle between our ego and our Christ centred self. I have tried, not always successfully to keep Christ at my centre.
After you wrote Freedom Reigns and you saw the success of it, did you expect your next song to do the same?
That’s a great question. I feel like I have grown as a songwriter over the years so I feel that Freedom Reigns is not the best song that I’ve written. It’s weird to say that because it’s easily the most well known song of mine. I was so young at the time, I hadn’t really lived any life at all and it really was a gift, it pretty much just happened. Since then, as an artist, there is a struggle because you want to write another song that has influence. It’s a good wrestle, it’s healthy. It’s good for an artist to get out of their own head, to focus on what is on the Lord’s heart today and write from that. Sometimes I still sing that song, but not as often anymore. I still honor that part of my writing history.
To the writers and musicians, what do you say to them?
Keep writing. Write from a place of honesty and try to get out of the form of what many in the church say we need to be in. We need the celebration songs, but we also need the laments, honest songs about issues that people are dealing with in their families, their careers, their frustrations and tensions in life. Keep writing real songs. What is the Lord speaking to you in that time? Where is your church going? I think it was Brian Johnson that said, “Write where you want to see your church go.” Don’t be discouraged in the process. Sometimes it can feel like nothing is happening, but people give up too early. I’ve been there. Keep in the process. Play them in your churches, at your gigs. See what catches on. Sometimes songs are just for us and the Lord and that is a beautiful thing. It’s not less of a song if it isn’t sung publicly.
Should their motive be to write a hit?
For me the answer is no. Once fame, popularity, and influence are at the forefront of our minds, it can be a dangerous, stale place. There is also a business side that comes into it as well and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that but we need to keep Jesus at the centre of our writing.
How do they know if they are to be writing Christian songs or Secular?
I don’t think you need to make a choice. I feel led to write God songs and if they are to be sung in the general market, I would be pumped for that. I feel that a lot of my songs are geared for the believer but every songwriter needs to work that journey out with the Lord. I’d encourage all writers to write songs and not think about which genre it is. Write honest songs and see where the Lord takes them.
Do you always write from experience?
On my best days of writing, yes. On my worst days, no. (laughter) Years ago my friend Ben and I took a bunch of songs to a producer. I think we sent him 13 songs. He gave us some hard truth. He said, “You know guys, maybe you have 3 choruses out of all these songs. You guys need to go and live life and write from your experiences of life.” I was definitely brought back down to earth in a good way. The best songs are honest songs. I am still learning that today. Trying to write that meaty melody and lyric that will connect with the listener. Write from your experiences and your encounters!
What are the things that discouraged you with writing?
There are times when it comes easily and then there are times when it is hard work. Sometimes the well seems dry and it’s in those times that spiritual disciplines become really important. Always be writing down notes, chord progressions, being present in what God is saying to you in every moment.
What if you can’t hear the Lord? Because we all go through times when it can be hard to hear Him.
For me it’s been practicing. I get impressions from the Lord and it’s freeing to me to make mistakes. Going through trial and error with hearing God’s voice. After many times of trial and error you will be closer to learning what is God and what is not God.
Sometimes as artistic people we can feel that it’s silent around us. How do you write through the silence? Do you?
In those moments I sing my prayers. There’s no pressure in those moments where I think I can’t write a song. What are you praying about right now? Someone said, “Sing your prayers.” Amazing advice. Sing the scripture.
I think it unlocks the realm. Singing your prayers and the scriptures opens up an atmosphere.
Exactly! Write melodies, chords and rhythms even if you don’t have the words.
Today you are pastoring?
In 2009 we moved to Calgary to be the Worship Pastors at First Assembly. It’s been so much fun journeying with a tribe of artists who are passionate about restoring beauty to the Church in Canada. I think it’s time that communities of Christ followers start risking financially with the Arts and Music. Extravagant risk, even what may seem wasteful at times. The fruit of our investment may not be seen for decades to come but it will be worth it.
It’s like the Cathedrals in Europe, they built them knowing they wouldn’t ever see the finished product. Their investment was “wasteful” because they wouldn’t get a return out of it for themselves, however, others did.
Prodigal investment is beautiful. It’s like Mary who poured out the perfume on Jesus. Those around her said it was wasteful, but to Jesus it wasn’t. Jesus was so in it. I think it’s time for the church to rise up in the Arts. What we have been contending for decades, we are seeing it now. We are seeing God songs infiltrate the general market, shed a light on the true nature of Jesus. I recommend people to get the book, “Beauty Will Save The World,” by Brian Zahnd.
What is your hope, vision for worship music?
A church rising up in beauty. We all know the power of a song, the melody, the lyric that can change people and a nation. Andrew Fletcher said, “Show me a song of a nation and I care not who writes its laws.” (paraphrase) I believe music can impact a nation on that level; a nation so on fire for Jesus, that the hot topics of our day are not even focused on anymore because the land has fruitfulness and joy through Jesus. I want to see God songs infiltrate the land, rebuild the walls of a broken church. I felt that mandate early on and we are starting to see it.
Any final thoughts?
Those who are on the fence with writing and pursuing the arts, I would say press on. If you feel called to be an artist, a musician, songwriter, don’t back down. It can happen and when the Lord is on a dream, provision follows.
Don’t rob the world of the song it needs. The earth needs it.
Woah. Angela. Did you just make that up?
Ya! It just came to my heart. We can’t rob the earth of the song it needs. It could be a song of freedom, healing, breakthrough, change. It could be a song that alters the moment, the future.
Michael and his wife, Jennie and their two children live in Calgary, AB. They currently pastor at First Assembly, leading worship, mentoring musicians, recording albums and overseeing FA Academy of the Creative Arts. He continues to write and record songs and also travels some to lead worship. He has a heart for raising up musicians and songwriters that will impact their cities. He is a mentor to many and he is a storyteller to melodies. / Michael’s latest project was a Live Recording with First Assembly, We Are One .