I’ve been enjoying the newest songs from Matt Papa and Ross King, Every Last Word: A Scripture Songs Project. They’re doing something unique here. Every month, they release a new song that puts a longer passage of Scripture (word for word, in the CSB translation) to music. Listen to their take on John 1, or their excellent rendition of Psalm 42 and you’ll see what I mean when I say this is special. (See their site here.)
I’ve asked Matt and Ross to join me today to give me some insight into how this project has come together.
Trevin Wax: Putting Scripture to song is a long-standing tradition for the church, aiding in our memorization and in our worship. I don’t think it’s accurate to call what you’re doing here “Bible verse songs” or “Scripture memory songs” primarily, because (1) you’re doing longer passages, not just verses and (2) you capture something of the movement of these passages. There’s an artistic sensibility here that’s unusual for Scripture set to music. Why take this approach?
Matt Papa: We chose this approach for two reasons. First, we hadn’t seen songs done this way often, so we thought this approach could meet a real need for the church. Second, we wanted these songs to shine light on the wider context of a passage, not just a verse. It’s fine to memorize specific phrases and verses, as many Scripture songs do, but we adopted an approach that would give voice to larger portions of Scripture. There’s an artistic challenge to this as well, because it forces us to include often overlooked verses that may be awkward, uncomfortable, or not as easy to sing and set to music.
Ross King: We approached these passages as if we were writing them into a musical, not just putting the words to catchy melodies or hooky choruses. Our goal was to see the emotions and moods in the text itself and let those words inform the music.
Trevin Wax: In these songs, you choose to stay with the text word-for-word, instead of adapting the words in order to fit better musically. What artistic possibilities does that kind of intentional constraint open up in the creation of the music?
Matt Papa: The interesting musical possibilities are endless. Since you don’t have repeated sections (chorus, verse, and so on), the style forces us toward something more like the Broadway or classical approach. Definitely a challenge, but a lot of fun, too!
Ross King: A few years ago, I wrote some Scripture songs for our homeschool co-op, and they asked me to compose them verbatim, one-time-through, with no repeats. Their goal was memorization of longer passages, but I wanted the songs to be interesting and beautiful. Despite the challenge, I discovered that I wrote much more interesting music when those constraints were there. Those initial songs were well-received. When Matt and I started talking about this idea, I was ready and eager to try it because of my experience.
Trevin Wax: How has the CSB translation philosophy of finding an optimal blend of accuracy and readability influenced the way you’ve approached these songs?
Ross King: It’s a beautiful and lyrical translation, so it lends itself to this kind of musical work. I love to read the Scriptures, and I love how this translation couples meaning and accuracy with beauty and accessibility.
Trevin Wax: Have you found it easier to do certain genres than others (psalms, for example, as opposed to John 1)?
Ross King: I don’t know if it’s easier or harder to do certain ones, because we really try to let the passages tell us how they want to sound. That probably sounds like artsy nonsense, but what I mean is that we look for moods, and the genre tends to reveal itself. The Colossians and John songs were our first ones. We did those in an organic way, writing the most natural and “don’t over-think it” music that we could. Since those two were released, we’ve looked for additional ways to make each song unique. Psalm 42 was our attempt to give voice to the heavy and somber mood we saw in the passage. There’s something wonderful about writing a dark, bluegrass song with the lyric “I am deeply depressed.” That sort of honesty informed and fueled the mood.
Trevin Wax: How many passages do you hope to put to music in the future, and what are some we can expect soon?
Matt Papa: We hope to focus on the “classic” passages of Scripture right now. We are trying to do a new song every month, and there are many important passages to hit. I am excited to cover the Ten Commandments, sections of Revelation, some of the minor prophets, and more. These genres will present new challenges, for sure. We’re open to suggestions from the listening community as well—what passages of Scripture people would like to see “Every Last Word” give musical expression to.
For more information on Every Last Word, check out their site here. You can download tracks or stream the songs.