Within the track list of Hope Darst’s debut album Peace Be Still lies a rich variety, including layers of melodies that stake their claim in the pop genre, but with the heart of intimate worship lyrics. The immediate rhythm and almost cinematic orchestration of “Let It Out” grab your emotions and thrust you into a joyful shout.
“Surrender” was the first song I heard and I couldn’t get it out of my head. But it was the song “Start Over” which had me weeping in my dining room on a Tuesday morning as I was about to talk with Hope about Peace Be Still.
When I told her this, her response made me tear up even more. Her heart and her genuine love for the Lord and for people spill out into every word.
“You could not have given me a greater compliment for that song because when we were writing it – it’s incredibly personal for me. ‘Love Like This’ and ‘Start Over’ were written out of places of failure and places of brokenness for me and how I allowed God to come into those situations and what he did to bring some healing and some restoration to my heart and my mind. I remember when we went in to work on the record, I said to the producers, ‘This is gonna sound weird, but if people don’t hear this song and feel like they can cry and they can be vulnerable with the Lord, then we didn’t capture what I felt like God is asking of this song to be.’”
Hope has been a worship leader for the past 15 years where she and her family are currently part of the congregation at The Belonging Co. in Nashville. Very much used to a live situation where the set list is sometimes abandoned to make room for spontaneous worship, Hope says recording an album in a studio was a challenge.
“[Live worship] is all I’ve ever known. I knew that that was going to be a little bit of a challenge for me to be comfortable in the studio. But more than that, I wanted a way to communicate who I really am as a worship leader, because I didn’t want a listener to hear this record and then come see me lead worship live and be like, ‘Those are two different people.’ It was really such an amazing way God orchestrated it. It [the song “Surrender”] wasn’t really planned – obviously God had it planned. Except for two writers on this record are people that I go to church with and lead worship with weekly and, and most of the musicians are also.”
Hope encouraged her team to practice the song “Set Free” as though it was a live worship set and not a recording, and it was this freedom that allowed the track “Surrender” to naturally surface in the midst of the recording session.
“The producers immediately said, ‘Hit record,’ and they told me to grab a mic. I just ran into the room and began to sing these lyrics over what they were doing. It was such a special moment – we could feel it in the studio. I really wanted an instrumental track to start the record but I also didn’t want to force it. It was almost like having a moment to just get your heart fostered with the Lord before you of embark on what I hope that the journey of this record does for the listener.”
Ever curious about the methods used to choose songs for an album, I asked Hope how it all came together. She tells me she wrote a lot of the songs prior to signing a record deal.
“A lot of these songs are songs that I was writing on the journey where I was in life. I wasn’t writing to be an artist. I was writing as a believer and as a worship leader.”
The spirit of collaboration and openness to invite God to speak through the album is one of the guiding ideals Hope wanted for the record. She is quick to point out the many talented producers, musicians, and songwriters who helped bring it all together. It was a team effort which produced “Promise Keeper,” and a bridge which was written years ago that always stayed with her:
I’ll see Your goodness
In the land of the living
I’ll see Your goodness
Right here right now
You know the ending
Before the beginning
I know that You have
Worked all things out
“That particular section of the song, I have sung over my life. On days when it was really hard or days that I was struggling, I would sing that section as a reminder of like, ‘I’m going to find a promise of God and I’m going to meditate on it. I’m going to sing my way through this season.’”
The spontaneous moments in these songs sound genuinely free and unplanned. But, there moments on some worship albums where it can sound a little too well rehearsed. Hope tells me there’s a balance to it all.
“Sometimes what happens, I know at least for our team and myself, is sometimes God is stirring a little something in my heart and it’s like I have this little melody or I have this idea that I may want to go into. And you just kind of say, ‘Hey, maybe stay on that chord and then just give me space to work on it.’ We plan to give God space. And so I think that’s kind of what happened here.”
One aspect of Hope’s career which deserves attention is the timing. She never even attempted to write songs until she entered her thirties. It was a daunting process, but waiting until the right time also gave her the confidence to be comfortable with what she wanted to say.
“I wasn’t trying to be clever. I’m trying to be honest and truthful. I think so often people can get caught up in songwriting and they just want to be vulnerable for vulnerable’s sake. It makes you feel something, but it doesn’t lead you to hope.
“And then there can be the other side of it where you’re so fixated on the theological side that you miss the humanity of it. Jesus was never scared of our humanity. I love the picture of when he got down in the dirt with the woman who had committed adultery.
“Every song on this record is me trying to be very honest about my journey, honest about my failures, honest about my weaknesses and my revelations and all of those things that always come from knowing that God is good and I can trust Him and that He is my source for everything. Every song is a co-write because I learned early on I write better songs when I am able to surround myself with people who are better at their craft than I am. I’m super fortunate that my community of people which are songwriters gave me a seat at the table and invited me to come and sit with them and learn how, and I would be the first to say that I still don’t know what I’m doing!”
Hope’s journey into music began before she was born, as her mother said she felt strongly that Hope would “sing songs for the Lord.” Every night, she would lay her hand on her stomach and pray for that word to come alive. The name she was given at birth, Hope says, didn’t have a special significance until later in life.
“She liked that name and it was from a word from the Bible. I think God was just kind enough to give me a name. That’s something that I’ve had to wrestle with. I’ve had to wrestle with having hope in really hard seasons, but I’ve never, ever, ever been able to abandon that truth in my bones, in the depths of who I am.”
Hope’s dad was a pastor, so she and her family spent many hours in church. She says that because she was born into a culture of singing, it became a part of her whole life. From choir to school programs, her mom’s prayer was being fulfilled. Music was her focus, but at age 19, things changed.
“By 19, I had a real moment of having to acknowledge the fact that – I was saved by the time was 19 – but I didn’t actually understand what it meant to live your life to honor God. It was a more of a cultural decision that I had made. And I knew it was the right decision, but it was like an insurance policy. At 19 I had a radical encounter with the Lord and I knew it was that moment that my whole life, my whole heart, my mind, decisions – everything is yours, God.”
As the next few years passed, Hope focused on music and her new relationship with God, but her career wasn’t taking off as she hoped it would.
“By the time I was 25, I felt like God just asked me to be willing to give that dream up. And I did – it was hard. I felt like it was like the death of a dream. I had to grieve. I didn’t have a backup plan or something else to do.”
“But it was the greatest decision I ever made because it actually led me into full-time ministry and becoming a worship leader and going on staff at a church, which changed the course of my life.
“I look back now and it was almost like I had chosen one picture on my own, and God had a different picture, and better picture honestly. And so I spent the next 15 years on staff at a church and raising a family and leading worship.”
Hope tells me she “wasn’t secretly trying to pursue being an artist.” She was living her life, enjoying her family, and sowing into her church and local community. Fast forward to 2013, when Hope was travelling across the country leading worship at special events. She had decided to bring a song project on the road and sell it, but didn’t have peace and the venture ended before the album was finished.
“I shelved that project. I never released it. And I just put my feet to the ground and continued to serve my local church and serve my family and my songs for the church. When that happened, I was convinced we didn’t need to be going down this path anymore. Then when the church that we’re a part of started releasing records, I got to be a part of them. That was such a sweet, sweet thing that the Lord did. God made such a beautiful way for me to be able to still see those desires of my heart fulfilled.
“I think of two main things. That one, there is no expiration date on your life, if God has written it. I’m turning 40 this year – it makes no sense – at 40 years old to be signing your first record deal. In our world, that’s not the normal trajectory for artists, but that was the path that God had me on.
“Two, God is such a faithful promise keeper. It’s so important that we’re willing to say yes. It’s really just the economy of obedience and surrender.
“So, at the end of the day, I’m very much a heart of Moses that says, ‘I don’t want to go if you’re not going with me.’ I want to offer songs that allow people have encounters with the power of the living God in His presence.”
Hope admits that finding the perfect words comes before finding the right melody, though both hold the utmost significance in the process of songwriting. It’s those words that she hopes – the whole reason she leads worship and has released this album – will lead listeners into a deep relationship with Christ.
“When I’m writing, my brain is thinking about the lyrics. I’m always like, ‘Oh, we’ll find a melody [but] will we find the right word?’ Words are so significant. And so I don’t necessarily think about the melody as much as when I craft the melodies as well. I’m just so committed to making sure those words have depth and meaning to them.
“Now [that Peace Be Still is done] I can hand it off to people and hopefully do for them what the songs did for me, that they bring freedom and they bring healing and they bring restoration and they ultimately land people in a place where they know that they can trust God and that He’s good and that He redeems everything.”