Despite the current restrictions of COVID-19, the live music scene will eventually come back. During this time of silence and staying at home, music listeners have been forced to find alternatives to feel the power and presence of something that has always been available. For now, that collective feeling of community through song has been put on hold. But there is hope.
Multi-platinum selling Hillsong UNITED has just released a full-length live album and concert film experience (on Amazon Prime) called, “The People Tour: Live at Madison Square Garden”. Filmed prior to the global pandemic, the new project features a wealth of Hillsong United favorites including “What a Beautiful Name”, “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)”, and “Another in the Fire”.
The new album and film arrives at a time when people of faith are desperate for performances like this. Not quite the electric surge of seeing Hillsong UNITED in person, it is still an opportunity to experience praise and worship from the comfort of your own home.
I recently spoke to longtime band member J.D. Douglass about the timing of the new release, how a live performance can transcend a normal listening experience, and what God has been teaching him and the band during the quarantine.
First off, how have you and the group been making it through the corona virus pandemic? I’m sure it has altered how you create record and perform your music.
I think it’s affected us all differently, but I think the one thing that’s the same for all of us is that it completely changed whatever plans we had for 2020. 2021 is looking just as uncertain. Like everyone, we had to pivot. We had a lot in the pipeline with traveling and some exciting collaborations, but it all pretty much came to a halt. But what I also love is that we’ve been able to get a bit more creative in how we do things. I think, like the rest of the world, Zoom became our best friend and we were able to connect and stay in contact that way. The truth is, it’s been quite an authentic journey for Hillsong United from where we started. Our whole team has been spread across the globe. So, I think we’ve kind of got used to collaborating or working from different parts of the world, but this is definitely something else.
The timing for releasing a live record in this age of COVID seems to be providence when people are so desperate to hear live music again. Was that at least part of the reason for releasing this album right now?
I think it was unintentional, but became very intentional when we started talking about recording this. At the time, we were still able to come out to play stadiums and arenas. But as it became apparent early last year, when everything started to shift and change, I think that we got more passionate and excited about the importance and weight behind this project. It just came out recently and obviously I was there, so I knew what to expect. I’ve got three kids and with my wife and we watched it together. We were believing it was going to inspire and encourage people that have been unfortunately, physically and socially distant from people. I was surprised even how much it encouraged and helped me. This sounds very funny because I knew what to expect. I was there. I do think the timing of it is incredible to bring hope and remind people of the power of being able to gather together. We will hopefully be able to do that again in the not too distant future.
Beyond the venue, many times a concert experience that truly transcends is just as much about the interaction between the artist and audience. Was this the case for the Madison Square Garden concert?
Absolutely. You can’t force people, but we know when people bring their faith and expectation, combined with what we’re going to bring from the platform, (God will be there). I think that’s always going to help people have a greater experience and greater encounter with God. Setting that atmosphere of expectation for God to move, He always does, but there’s something about New York City. It felt like a melting pot. People that have been there realize it is a city that almost represents all nations. And it kind of felt like that in the room, which I think beautifully describes the Body of Christ. Really, that is what the album is all about. (It’s about) people coming together, regardless of who you are or where you are from. We really felt like we were able to represent that.
Having talked to many musicians over the years, the creation of the set list is sort of an art form, giving the ability to perform music that takes your audience on a journey of sorts. Can you take me through how Hillsong UNITED puts together set lists for live concerts and especially this one at Madison Square Garden?
It’s definitely incredibly important. It’s not the most important thing, but I think it’s one of those things over the years, where we’ve come to realize that as a worship leader at my church on Sundays, it’s really important to be crafting the set. There’s not a right way or wrong way to do it, but for us, it usually starts early on when we’re talking months out from the tour. We will start talking about what will the songs be, then laying them out, trying to figure them out. We don’t want to do too many, but most of us come from Australia, so we want to get as many as we can. We’ve been doing this for a while now, so we’ve got so many different options and it’s hard sometimes.
You want to get people to songs that they really want to hear, but that’s an impossible task. Then you want to make sure that it musically flows. And then, we’ve always been about using everything that we can to bring glory to God and help people have an incredible experience. It’s really a matter of a few of us key band members will basically sit down and write down a bunch of songs. Then we’ll come back to it the next week. And it’s kind of like a massaging process. From there, we’ll usually get together and rehearse the set list for a few weeks out from a tour that we’re doing and to see how it feels. And so, maybe we rehearse something, but it just doesn’t translate.
You don’t want to just do all crazy, up, fast songs. You don’t want to do all slow piano songs either. It’s definitely an art form that I think for us is the collaboration of some of our key guys. We get together, do it together, and then give it a shot. And if it doesn’t feel good, we’ll just adjust it on the fly.
Through these last 10 months that the world has been through, what has God been teaching you through this experience?
That’s a great question. I feel like there’s been so much, but I think straight away for me, it has been the revelation that God is God and He hasn’t changed. I think for all of us, no one saw this coming, no one expected it. No one really wanted this season, but what I’ve loved and seen over and over through God’s Word is that God hasn’t changed. This didn’t surprise God. God is still God, and He is still in control. And if anything, I feel like for our faith, for our journey as a community, as the Church, I feel like I’ve been stepping back from the things that maybe aren’t that important that we thought were important. It’s been helping me to come back to that first love and understanding how much we have in God when so much stuff has been somewhat taken away. I can’t wait to not have to wear a mask or to social distance or to be able to gather, but I also love that I’ve got a deeper revelation of who God is and the truth that He’s still with us, that He’s still control, and that His purposes haven’t changed. It’s just helped me to, instead of just looking to people, even though there’s great people that we can look to and be encouraged, but to keep God as the number one authority and His Word, He is our light. You don’t need a light in the middle of the day. We don’t have a headlights on during the day. It’s during the night, and this is one of those unknown seasons and I’ve got God’s Word to guide us. For me, it’s just been a renewal of that. It’s really brought me strength. It’s strengthened my faith. I don’t know what this year is going to look like, but I know that God’s with us, God’s in it, and He has something incredible for his people.
After people listen to this recording or watch the concert video, what would you like to see audiences get out of the listening/viewing experience? What is your greatest hope for the project?
My greatest hope is that God would bring courage and refresh every single person. Even without this pandemic, life can throw us in seasons or situations that can leave us discouraged or leave us wondering what God has for me. I believe that God would just refresh and renew people’s spirits and their faith and bring courage to people. I hope that it would also encourage people to actually just not just sit there and enjoy that, but actually to go out and with whatever God is putting in their life for this season.
Whether it’s school, work, or whatever opportunity, to understand that God is with them, and in that for them to trust and rely more on Him to keep, to basically keep going and feel that strength that we never were created to do this journey on our own. And the good news is that we don’t have to. I hope people will be encouraged and have a greater faith that God is with them as they keep going about whatever it is God’s called them to do. I hope this record will bring courage to people to fight their battles.
Watch a portion of HIllsong UNITED’s Madison Square Garden Concert: