In this “Behind the Song” episode of the TGC Podcast, Brett McCracken interviews Poor Bishop Hooper—Jesse and Leah Roberts—about their EveryPsalm project, which releases a new song each week, one for each Psalm. An already ambitious 3-year project became even more so when, only a few months after launch, the world was shaken by a global pandemic. But the sovereign timing of the project unexpectedly worked for good, creating a hymnal of hope and comfort for listeners in a world that seemed to be falling apart. In the interview, the duo addresses the origins of their project and what it takes for a married couple with young children to continually muster the creative energy to create for this ongoing work of art for the church.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Brett McCracken: Christian art used to be ambitious cathedrals that took centuries to build church ceilings that took years to paint, sprawling oratorios seeking to capture the majesty of our Messiah. But it’s rare that a Christian artist impresses me today. However, the artistic ambition of Christian folk-rock duo Poor Bishop Hooper does impress me. I’m Brett McCracken, arts and culture editor at the gospel coalition. And I love getting to tell stories of Christians who create excellent art. The story of Poor Bishop Hooper is one I’m excited to share with you in this episode. If you watch TGC his admin concert last December, you might remember Poor Bishop Hooper as the band that performed the wildly creative musical rendition of Matthew’s genealogy.
Poor Bishop Hooper is Jesse and Leah Roberts, a married couple with three kids who share a house in Kansas City with four art students. In 2020, a Poor Bishop Hooper launched their ambitious every song project, in which they record songs inspired by each of the salters 150 songs released one per week in order for almost three years. You heard that right. All 150 songs were released once per week for three years. That’s the artistic ambition I’m talking about. Here’s a clip from the project’s first song One released the first week of January 2020.
As lovers of music-making and lovers of God’s word, Jesse and Leah had kicked around the idea for a project like every song for years, but its scope intimidated them. Then in July of 2019, they felt clear prompting from God to launch the project and January 2020. Here’s how Jesse describes that moment.
Jesse Roberts: We’re gonna run out of ideas, they’re all gonna sound the same. There’s no way you can do 150 songs, which is ridiculous, right? You have to table this there’s no way. But he kept affirming that call. And so we started and then of course, three months into the project, the pandemic hits and all of our friends in music are scrambling to release content. And here the Lord has gone before us and set us up to release a song every week for three years.
Brett McCracken: The project’s 2020 launch really was God’s timing, not only for the Roberts, but for listeners shaken up in a world that seemed to be falling apart. In the early months of the pandemic. I remember turning on Poor Bishop Hooper’s new song songs, often for comfort, like their version of Psalm 23, released in June 2020. So I will see. We’ll see. We’ll see. We’ll see.
We’ll see. There have been many times over the last 18 months when I put on my headphones, or turned up my car speakers, and just immersed myself in the Psalms. Thanks to Poor Bishop Hooper. There’s something powerful about hearing the words of Scripture put to music sung out as they were originally word for the people of Israel. We need to be reminded of God’s holiness and faithfulness, and listening to the Psalms is a good reminder. And so I’m deeply grateful to poor Bishop Hooper for taking on this project every song and I was delighted to recently chat with them about how it’s going at the midpoint of the three year project. But before we get into the every song project, you should know a bit more about poor Bishop Cooper’s background. Both Jesse and Leah grew up in small Kansas towns, though their paths didn’t cross until their college years. Leah attended Sterling college, a Christian liberal arts college in the tiny town of Sterling, Kansas. And Jesse attended the University of Kansas. they first met at a small church camp in southeast Kansas called Westminster woods and they got to know each other more while on a mission trip together in Thailand. from the get go faith and mission were shared passions for Jessie and Leah. And so as music,
Leah Roberts: I grew up turning the pages for my mom while she played the Oregon church. And so I love sitting next to her and like following along and when the end of the page came, she would kind of nod and I would turn it and so I was exposed to music at an early age.
Jesse Roberts: My brother and I are both artistic my brother’s successful artists, visual artists, and I do the music thing my parents neither of us neither of them are musical or artistic in that way, but we my dad listens a lot. So we listened to a lot of music. So grew up on classical and, you know, playing Viola and piano and then got into bluegrass through my brother, just kind of where we lived in what was going on. There’s a phenomenal Bluegrass Festival in Winfield, Kansas. It’s like an international event. It’s kind of crazy.
Brett McCracken: The bluegrass piece is important, and so are the Kansas roots. Because if I were to describe the sound of Poor Bishop Hooper, I probably call it something like folk Americana bluegrass meets Baptist revival. As Christian music goes, it’s Kansas more than Nashville, an indie more than CCM. Here’s a clip from Final fire, a song on Jessie and Leah’s 2014 debut album for unmade, which incidentally was included on TGC list of the 25 best Christian albums of the 2000 10s. And it’s the song that introduced this episode. Oh masters calm without the slave and have those choices. Though it seems so powerful. There’s an American revival vibe to this sound which makes their interpretations of the songs especially interesting. How exactly does a Kansas folk aesthetic translate to an ancient Near Eastern songbook? Perhaps as a testament to Jesse and Leo’s diverse musical talents, you could listen to the songs and the every song collection and not be able to pinpoint one particular genre. Part of that comes from the constraints of the project having to churn out a new song every week, and part of it comes from a desire to foreground the lyrics. Most of the 92 songs that have been released so far, are musically minimalist focusing on piano or acoustic guitar and vocals. Here’s Psalm 64, for example.
But other songs like Psalm 33 have a more upbeat vibe, complete with drums.
What impresses me about the scale of this project is how a married couple with young kids manages to muster the creative energy to come up with an original musical setting from scratch, inspired by a biblical song. Every week. 20 months into this grueling creative rhythm I expected for Bishop Cooper might feel exhausted or spent. But when I asked them how it’s going, they both seemed as energized as ever.
Leah Roberts: I think at the beginning, we were working out kinks, how do we sound? How do we do this? Do we say every word do we try to, you know, say just a couple verses and I feel like the early ones are lovely and we were learning and experimenting, and I feel like we’re kind of in a good stride right now. We’ve made it through a lot of the laments. And we’re approaching the praise the you know, the ending books that are just our praise, and I just feel like it’s been absolutely enjoyable.
You can tell it’s enjoyable for them, and also deeply personal. The way they describe it, the every song project is just an extension of their personal devotional lives. Song ideas come when they’re reading a particular song as part of daily Bible reading. And they just jot down a lyric idea or record a melody idea on a voice memo. To stay organized, they have a big whiteboard with notes about each song, who’s taking the lead on it, where they’re at in the process, when it needs to be done, and so forth. Sometimes they work ahead, Psalm 137. For example, it won’t be released until mid 2022. But they’ve already written it. And in other times, Leah and Jesse just have to write the next one in order. They grab time whenever they can, often at night after their kids go to bed. And they just lean heavily on the Holy Spirit’s guidance and inspiration as they read and contemplate the songs. I
Leah Roberts: I feel like for me, every song starts with a blank sheet of paper. Don’t try to have an overall goal in mind even in the start of it. And for me, I guess it just kind of happens organically, you know, in partnership with with the Holy Spirit, okay, well, this is your word, what are you saying in this? And sometimes it feels like there’s something particular that needs to be sung again. And sometimes it feels like this song is way too beautiful to skip anything. And it’s kind of hard because you know, a song shouldn’t probably be like 12 minutes. So, you know, how do we practically do it that’s still engaging, but not so cumbersome? And so, just having an open hands of like, what do you want it to be like, Lord,
Jesse Roberts: And that honestly, one of the most beautiful things about this has been when we committed to the structure, that it removes your ability to second guess everything. You know, being in the studio with a band is like, sometimes it can be so hard, because oh, we’re listening back. Oh, that’s like one click too fast. Or, oh, I think we need to do this in a bridge, I think we don’t have that we’ve we’ve chosen to not give ourselves enough time to rethink them all, that it ends up being a really beautiful thing. Because we you can’t you know, it has to be what it is. And, and so then it helps us to lean on the Holy Spirit for the guidance through the songs.
Brett McCracken: Here’s how Leah describes her process in writing Psalm 87, which just released a few weeks ago, but it was based on an inspiration that struck the a year and a half earlier.
Leah Roberts: So I this one, I feel like I just started with first one and then just kind of went through and what felt right. The last part of it all my fountains are in you. I remember having some of my like alone Bible time. And reading this one, I think it was at the very, I think it was March a year and a half ago. And we have a worship leader that we really like here from Kansas City named john thurlow. And he has a song All my fountains are in you. And so sometimes the Psalms that already have a very well known tune to them can be really hard to get past. And to like, think of something different, but that one day I was reading that one and just I started singing all my fountains are found and so I took a voice memo of it. And then I went to 87 you know, then like a year and a half later, and started writing it and then got to the last verse and suddenly thought, Oh, I think I’ve a voice memo from like a year and a half ago if that line. I wonder if it’ll work with the key and with the notes. I’m playing with the overall feel. And so I tried it and it was like that. Thank you, Lord. That is that was that? Was that what it needed to be at the end?
Brett McCracken: You can watch a live performance video of poor Bishop Hooper Psalm 87 on TGC his YouTube page, but here’s a short clip that captures the line Leah was just referencing
Though the fast moving nature of the project doesn’t allow for intensive research and digging into commentaries for each song. Jessie and Leah do care deeply about giving musical interpretations of the songs that distill important themes and make biblical connections. Old Testament historical context and New Testament references to the songs play into their process of figuring out exactly how to render the biblical text into a standalone song.
Leah Roberts: Yeah, we I was talking to Jesse about you know, Psalm 22, oh, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And without the New Testament, you know, I have understanding. I get the feeling of feeling forsaken by the Lord. But then when you like see it through the lens of like, those are the words Jesus said on the cross. It just is like so much more and like those are holy words. I can’t just sing whatever I feel like you know, we were like, I want to uphold it in a beautiful way because those are like the very words of Christ,
Brett McCracken: It’s important to know that with each song Jesse and Leah aren’t doing a word for word musical cover. If it took that approach songs like Psalm 78, for example, which is 72 verses long, would clock in at about 25 minutes or more in length. Instead, their songs often focus on just a couple key verses or phrases that feel Central, or capture a truth that audiences today who are far from the original listening audience of ancient Israel need to hear with their version of songs. 78 for example, Jessie and Leah, focus the chorus around just one of the 72 verses, verse 32, in spite of all this, they still send, despite his wonders, they did not believe
Jesse Roberts: That’s a remembrance song. And so it’s narrative in and of itself, which those are the ones that I really drawn to, I really enjoy the story ones. Particularly, there’s not a ton of like linear esque stories in the songs. But I remember how I remember that one. And it that reading through it, you know, just try and read it, read it a bunch of different translations read it again, before I even start writing anything. And having this moment of like, look at all these things that the Lord did. So that’s telling the exodus narrative as well as other things. Like, look at them, and then, like, inspire, I remember read that in spite of all this, they sin and turn away from God, you’re like, Whoa, you know, and he had this moment of how could they do that? Look at what they’ve seen? And then, you know, within seconds, like, how could I do what I do, look at what I seen, you know, inspire, inspire everybody. Despite this, this and so that, that I remember that line being that’s the one to grab onto for me. And I think that was probably personal, as much as it is like, spirit lead, saying, Lord, how much have I seen in you time and time and time again, in my life, like testimony after testimony after testimony, and yet still, here I am, you know, sitting every day, doing things I know, I don’t want to do
Brett McCracken: For Jesse and Leah. Seeing the Psalms is not just work, it’s a ministry. It’s a personal devotional project. It’s a way of loving God and loving neighbor. Here’s Leah describing why she particularly loves singing songs that lead her to love and pray for her literal neighbors.
Leah Roberts: I think one of my favorites is Psalm 49. It’s like the beginning is like listening high, low, rich and poor. There’s a riddle and its answer. And all of it talks about those who trust in wealth. I don’t envy them, though their their houses stand in beauty and glory, they take nothing with them to the grave. And what ransom Can you pay to God? Listen close. I think my favorite ones are the ones that draw me into intercession. Our neighbors are very wealthy, and they don’t love the Lord. And I just like it breaks my heart, thinking of them being led to destruction. Or our brothers that one also makes me think we both have brothers that aren’t walking for the for the Lord, and are putting their trust in riches and wealth and money. Because you know, it does bring security, but it doesn’t go anywhere.
Brett McCracken: By all accounts, the music of every song is ministering to people, whether you’ve been following the project since its beginning, or just hearing about it today for the first time. These are songs intended to bless the church, encourage believers and glorify God.
Jesse Roberts: And they are, you know, we knew it’s good. We know it’s good to sing God’s word. We know it’s good for people to know God’s word. But particularly amidst the pandemic, all these people responding with, I’m in this, you know, these horrible situations, whether it’s, you know, COVID related or not, or, you know, my daughter’s in the hospital with cancer, and I can’t go see her because it COVID and I have, you know, all these things, and I just listen to the songs or day, or whatever it is, and I thought it’d be a lot more distant like hands off for the people that actually listening because we’re not playing them live, you know, we’re not doing that. So that’s been a heavy thing, but a really beautiful thing. And some fruit of it that I never, never imagined and that all these people’s you know, kids are memorizing songs now and stuff through the songs. So praise God for that.
Brett McCracken: Thanks for listening to this episode of The TGC podcast. To watch for Bishop Cooper’s new performance exclusive to TGC of Psalm 87. Check out the gospel Coalition’s YouTube page. And for the sake of your soul, I really do encourage you to check out the every song project at Spotify, Apple Music, or wherever you stream Music This episode of The TGC podcast is written and hosted by me Brett McCracken. It’s produced by Heather Ferrell and Josh Diaz, edited by Robbie Herrera artwork by Gabriel Ray as the TGC podcast is part of the gospel Coalition’s Podcast Network. Its executive producer is Stephen Morales and our editor-in-chief is Collin Hanson. Special thanks to Jesse and Leah Roberts and to Andrew Laparra, for production assistance in this episode.