Megan Russell, Songwriter
1) skill acquired by experience, study, or observation
4) the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects
1) one skilled or versed in learned arts
2) one who professes and practices an imaginative art
reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power
— definitions from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Part 1: This Love
And this love, this love between you and I, is older than that burning ball of fire up in the sky. — “One Hundred Million Years”, M. Ward
Maybe it’s just me, but I often find that the most captivating people are the least outspoken—the most modest and unassuming ones, especially when those people have something to say. They are individuals you don’t notice until they blow you away by saying or doing something profound and meaningful, without a lot of hoopla to let you know they are about to say or do something profound. People who aren’t dramatic. People who say what they mean and believe, even if they don’t really feel like it, but because they know it’s the right thing to do.
In some ways, it was hard to write this interview. I didn’t know Megan previously and though she sent me some of her music to listen to, it’s hard to get to know someone through song lyrics. Additionally, she isn’t trying to advertise to herself or make a statement, as many people often are (myself included). Her identity is something she seems to almost keep hidden. You don’t know who she is right off the bat. In fact, I still feel like I don’t know who she is to the same degree I feel like I have gotten to know other people in brief periods of time, though I do feel like I learned some interesting things about her and her art. And I learned that I want to know more. People who don’t say things that aren’t necessary have always been the most interesting to me, probably because I am the opposite of them. It is an amazing quality that makes the secrets and information they do share that much more powerful.
This is notable as far as Megan is concerned, because her art is her form of worship, and worship, for most people, and I am assuming especially for more inward people, is deeply personal. So Megan’s art form—writing music and lyrics—is a, if not the, primary way that she worships God.
Megan’s depth of passion and sincerity is palpable when she sings her songs or talks about God. It is evident that their relationship is a long, intimate one that has been cultivated and cherished for many years.
Perhaps more importantly, I get the feeling that her spirituality is not put on or something that she is saying to impress you. She is in no way pretending she is something she is not. She talked frankly about different times when she has had more exciting sorts of experiences with God than she has had recently–like all relationships, it sounds like theirs is one that is accompanied by changing seasons, and she does not pretend like it is always perfect.
Part 2: The Weight of Truth
And the mercy seat is burning, and I think my head is glowing. And in a way I’m hoping to be done with all this weighing up of truth. — “The Mercy Seat”, Nick Cave
Megan has always loved music. She grew up in a Christian household in Kenosha where her parents regularly hosted church groups in which worship music played a central role, and her father loved playing the guitar for fun and for meditation. “Every Sunday morning, I’d always hear the guitar.” Megan took voice and piano lessons, along with other instruments like the oboe during school, but she didn’t start writing songs until college.
Worship has also played a foundational role in Megan’s faith. She explained, “I feel like I have learned so much about God through worship. Sermons don’t stick with you for ten or 15 years, but I will remember a lyric forever.”
Megan’s art is done for and through worship. In fact, she claims, “My intimacy with God developed through worship… and probably a good part of my theology, which is probably good because people aren’t usually singing about dark, apocalyptic stuff.” Her artistic process is simple: she sits down to spend time singing and playing piano while worshiping God, and then sometimes these songs come out. New songs. “They come to me during worship. I don’t know what that means, but they can come.”
In high school Megan stopped playing piano so that she could narrow down her extracurricular activities per her mom’s suggestion, but when she got to college she started playing again because she had missed it and felt it was a healthy outlet for herself. She used much of her time playing the piano as a way to have private worship experiences. “I wanted to be able to say something. I wanted to speak to God directly. I wanted to say my own things and not something someone else said.”
For Megan, the hardest part of writing songs is making it anything other than a personal experience. “The hardest part of it has always been the performance aspect of it, which I guess is because of my personality… If it’s only me and God, I don’t have to sing perfectly and keep a perfect beat. It’s hard for me to share something vulnerable and then have to sing on top of it.”
She told me about how she would attend meetings of the songwriters group at church and “shake so hard.” She would occasionally get up the nerve to share a piece of music, but “it didn’t matter what anyone said. I thought it was terrible. I’d make it through the song, but… the whole time I would think ‘maybe next time I’ll have Rachel Allen perform it.’”
Megan has recently started sharing her songs with others, recording some and offering others to be performed by friends at church. “The first songs I wrote I’d never give to anyone and expect them to perform them in any worship setting, but I’m on the flip side now. It’s been a really gradual process.” Sometimes she thinks, “maybe I am supposed to keep this to myself.” But she also knows that her feelings of insecurity are mostly her own issue and not based on actual perceptions of others. “I feel like if I get to the place where I am worshiping and not performing, it really makes a difference.”
Part 3: Without Fear
He said that you could come into His presence without fear, into the holy place where His mercy hovers near. — “The Mercy Seat”, Third Day
When we started the interview, Megan asked me if we could trade seats. I was kind of surprised, since I had chosen my seat with some intention (namely so that she couldn’t read my notes while I was taking them), but she then explained that she is deaf on her right side. She says that when she enters the church sanctuary now, she hears the music differently than she used to before she lost her hearing in one ear early this spring. Her doctors have told her the deafness is permanent, but Megan did not express sadness or fear about how the injury will affect her music or appreciation of music in the future.
Megan talked about some of her favorite musical artists and about certain songs that have stuck with her over the years. One in particular was called “The Mercy Seat”. She had heard it at a church she had traveled to in Pensacola, Florida, during high school, and she couldn’t exactly remember who it was by, though she thought it was Third Day. While looking it up, I found a lot of fascinating songs about mercy seats and ended up learning what the mercy seat actually is. According to Wikipedia (the most trusted source on earth), “the Holy of Holies could only be entered at Yom Kippur, and even then could only be entered by the Jewish High Priest, who was covenanted to do so in order to sprinkle the blood of a sacrificial bull onto the mercy seat [or the golden covering of the Ark of the Covenant], as an atonement for himself and his family, the other priests, the Tabernacle, and the people of Israel; the directions specify that incense was first burnt in the Holy of Holies so that a cloud rose up and appeared above the mercy seat.” Clearly, there is no wonder why a song about the mercy seat would stick with someone.
I think I have had a hard time with worship music in the past because it seems contrived or too self-aware or too happy or trying to be something it’s not. There are no Job-like worship songs, about the hard times in life and there aren’t any without easy, happy endings. I mean, I know the point of worship songs is to talk about how great God is and that that is a happy ending in itself, but sometimes I just don’t trust the level of ultra-joyfulness they exude.
With Megan’s music, I feel like I can trust it. I don’t feel like she is trying to force any overly positive emotion. In one of her songs, she sings about people not being able to escape from God. While the idea is ultimately a positive one, she is tackling the question of humans trying to escape God’s love, something she explained she had dealt with among people close to her.
When you listen to Megan singing her songs (and you aren’t singing one yourself in a worship setting), you get the feeling that you are eavesdropping. It is obvious that she has not planned on performing for an audience or that she even had an audience in mind when she was creating her art. She is doing it purely out of her own desire to worship, and the creation of music, her art, is a side note.
Megan’s music is haunting and angelic, with serious, intense lyrics. Musically, the songs she shared with me are simple (according to her), but they are beautiful and engaging, with lilting piano accompaniment. Her voice is sweet, and she sings earnestly and without dramatics, as though she is simply expressing herself, as she is.
Maybe I feel like I can also trust her music just because I trust her. After getting to know her as well as I could in the brief time we shared, I felt that she was not trying to control my perception of her or to consciously portray any particular element of who she was. She was just hanging out and trusting that I would be honest in my interpretation of her and her art.
I do believe it is important to trust the artist. Sometimes you see or hear music or paintings or plays or movies that make you feel like you are being manipulated in some way. And while it is sometimes good to let your comfort be pushed by art, it is not as good when you feel like your emotions are being toyed with (think of your average romantic comedy). It makes you feel like a puppet. When you can listen or watch or look and be stirred, intrigued, or moved in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you are being intentionally mastered, then you are probably experiencing honest art that allows you to trust it and the artist.
Megan’s music is like that. You don’t feel like her music is meant to convince you of anything or stir any specific emotion. In fact, you don’t get the feeling that it is for you at all, unless perhaps you are wanting to sing it in your own worship. Her music is meant for God, and that is obvious.
You can listen to one of Megan’s songs, “Open My Eyes”, on the recent Greater Chicago Church worship album, “Glimpse.”
‘Poor tempest-tossèd soul, be still; My promised grace receive’;
’Tis Jesus speaks—I must, I will, I can, I do believe. — “Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat”, John Newton