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The Beatles (part 2)

Filed under: creativity,music — 10:18 am
The Beatles

The Beatles

After re-immersing myself in The Beatles’ music, I’m feeling really inspired.  Continuing from last week’s The Beatles (part 1) post, and here are a few more random reflections…

(6) Everything I know about creating vocal harmonies is from The Beatles. First, they often added subtle, simple, gradually building harmony parts. Listen to Paul’s background singing on “The Ballad of John and Yoko“. He doesn’t even sing until half way through the song (the bridge)…adds only a couple words on verse 5…and then sings the whole verse 6. And it’s exactly what the song needs!  Second, the Beatles would often sing odd counter-melodies rather than the traditional harmony part. For example, listen to the chorus of “Yellow Submarine”. What a strange and wonderful harmony.  Finally, they often followed the “less is more principle”. Paul sang one single harmony line on “I’m So Tired”, and it was perfect.

(7) If I had to guess Enneagram types, I’d guess that John is a 1 (or 4), Paul is a classic 3, George is a 4 (or 9), and Ringo is a 7.

(8) As fruity as Paul could be, he did give us “Helter Skelter”, which is one of the most brutal Beatles songs ever. It doesn’t make up for the schmaltz of “Martha My Dear” or “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, but it is really heavy and quite awesome.

(9) Similarly, Lennon spent so much time keeping people arms length with humor and wordplay, but his moments of sincerity were devastatingly beautiful.  The tender and heartbreaking “Julia” (about his mom who died when he was young) will make you cry.

(10) Let me end with a controversial one.  Ready?  The Beatles songwriting is a bit overrated. This pains me to write. To be clear, I believe that Lennon/McCartney are one of the greatest songwriting teams in history, and many of their songs are absolutely, brilliantly, game-changing: “In My Life”, “Strawberry Fields”, “Something”, “Yesterday”, “I Am the Walrus”, etc.  The Beatles are why I wanted to be a songwriter!  HOWEVER, when you really look at it, even a superfan must admit that they had a ton of stinkers also. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, “Good Morning”, “Your Mother Should Know”, “Doctor Robert”. And the White Album is a clear example of one brilliant album spread over two records.

This is actually really encouraging to me. Whenever I think of the mythic Beatles, they become an almost fictional, inaccessible fairytale that has nothing to teach mere mortals like the rest of us. But when I remember that they were actually just four guys (extraordinarily talented, of course) who were capable of writing bad songs AND brilliant songs, then there is hope for the rest of us!

So friends, may we each each create something today. In whatever you do, find a way to breathe new life into it. Take a risk…reimagine the process…use a new tool…approach it from a new angle…or simply toss out the old and begin with a new, clean sheet of infinite possibility.  And let’s see what happens.

You may end up creating a stinker like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, of course. And it sure will be fruity. But who knows, you may stumble upon a “Hey Jude”…


The Beatles (part 1)

Filed under: creativity,music — 12:07 pm
The Beatles

The Beatles

The Beatles are my all-time favorite band who have influenced everything I write, sing, and play.  And recently, after a bit of a hiatus, I’ve been listening back through their albums and feel SO INSPIRED by the Beatles again.  Here a few random observations…

(1) McCartney’s bass makes a lot of good Lennon songs into great Beatles songs.  Whether it’s “Dear Prudence”, “Come Together”, or most of Sgt Pepper, Paul’s melodic, inventive bass parts carry many otherwise so-so songs.  (Really, take a moment to listen to “Dear Prudence” and imagine it with simple bass line.)

(2) Lennon sure loves tempo and time signature changes.  He jumps tempos in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “Bungalo Bill”, “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, etc…and he loved to flip time signatures to drop/add a beat in “Good Morning”, “All You Need is Love”, “Don’t Let me Down”, etc.  Because John Lennon was both a creative genius and musically untrained, he was able to make these complicated changes seem deceptively simple.  My guess is that he was never thinking about tempo or time signatures at all…but simply following the muse.

(3) Ringo is wildly underrated.

(4) Everything is better with the clash of opposites. Like hot air meeting cold air creates tornados, Lennon’s cynical angst meeting McCartney’s cheery pop created the most important rock band of all time. Lennon (alone) gives you the rarely accessible art-rock-noise of “The Plastic Ono Band”, and McCartney (only) gives you cheesy, fruity, bubble gum like “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime” and “The Girl is Mine”. But the tension of BOTH changed the music world. One of my favorite examples is Paul’s line “It’s getting better all the time”, followed by Lennon’s line “It couldn’t get much worse”. So great.

(5) The Beatles never got too big to keep risking.  This is extremely rare and one of the keys to their musical revolution.  Many bands “discover their sound” and then spend the rest of their career re-hashing that same formula over and over…with diminishing returns.  But it’s a rare band that becomes wildly successful…AND KEEPS EXPLORING!  (U2 is another obvious example).  It reminds me of these brilliant words…

“It is common history of enterprises (band, companies, churches, etc) to begin in a state
of naive groping, stumble onto success, milk that success with a vengence and, in the process,
generate systems that arrogantly turn away from the source of their original success:  groping.”
<MacKenzie, Hairball>


Curious to hear your thoughts and reflections.  Where do you agree/disagree?  What would you add?

Part two (and probably Part three!) coming soon…


A Conversation about Creativity, The Beatles, and Creating Art During my Crisis of Faith

Filed under: creativity,God's movement,music — 9:09 am

My friend and filmmaker Kurt Larson recently invited me onto his Bad Headshots podcast.  We had a fascinating conversation about the creative process, growing up in the Midwest, and even making art during my own crisis of faith.  (He tricked me into going to some deep places! Ha.)  I think the world of Kurt, and am really honored to be a part of this.  Please give it a listen and let me know what you think!


Bad Headshots Podcast:  Musician Aaron Niequist


Bad Headshots Podcast

Bad Headshots Podcast



Let’s help an amazing artist create amazing art!

Filed under: creativity,music,willow — 10:11 am


For the last five years, I’ve had the privilege of leading worship, singing, and creating art with Sharon Irving.  She is sincerely one of the most talented people I know…a pure artist who never stops imagining and exploring and pushing.

If you’ve been around Willow, you know her well.

Whether singing, rapping, writing songs, or doing spoken word, Sharon brings a prophetic power and possibility to everything she touches.

And she is recording her debut album!

The story…

Like most independent artists, she needs our help to make this happen.  So let’s join her!  Might you be willing to help support her Kickstarter Campaign?  Even 5 or 10 bucks?  Or more?  Here is the link to all the info and a way to give…

Sharon Irving’s Kickstarter. 




My favorite music documentary in a long time

Filed under: creativity,music — 7:15 pm

In the last year or so, I’ve loved a number of music documentaries – “Sound City”, “Beware Mr Baker”, and “Searching for Sugar Man”, and “Muscle Shoals” – but none of them held a candle to “Mistaken for Strangers“. It’s incredibly fun and complicated and touching and strange and hilarious. If you’re a fan of The National or music or funny family stuff, check this out…

There’s so much to love about this film – the music is incredible and I laughed at all the incredibly awkward moments – but honestly, I found the brothers’ relationship really touching.  To watch one of the coolest rock stars on the planet love and stand by his painfully awkward little brother, over and over, is beautiful. A smaller person would try to distance himself from the “messy” parts of his life, but this film feels like a bear hug in the opposite direction. Well done, guys.



Filed under: creativity,music — 8:01 pm

It’s not very original to talk about how great Lorde is.  But we don’t care…  Her performance last night was mesmerizing and entirely unlike anything else.  It blew me away.  The last Grammy performance I loved like this was Mumford and Son’s “The Cave” in 2011.  So fresh and raw at the time…

What did you think?


the heartache and exhilaration of creating stuff…

Filed under: creativity,music — 1:44 pm

Anyone who has every tried to create something knows the excitement, terror, difficulty, and thrill of the process…especially when going out on a limb and trying something new.

I LOVE this video.

Trent Reznor could easily be on cruise control – just rehashing his greatest hits and cashing in.  But instead, he’s trying to dream it all up again.  And this amazing behind-the-scenes video gives a glimpse into the chaos…


The Son of Ghostman!

Filed under: creativity,music — 5:43 pm

If you love quirky-indie-romantic-odd-hilariously-strange-sweet movies about a guy who puts on make-up and starts a late night internet show…then you are in luck!  The Son of Ghostman releases tomorrow in time for Halloween.  Three things about this great film…

(1) My friend Kurt Larson wrote, directed, and acted in it.  Kurt is a creative force of nature who was able to turn a tiny budget into a killer film.  I respect him a ton.
(2) Even though he’s my friend, I sincerely loved the film.  The premise is funny and the characters are deeply human.  Imagine John Hughes meets Tim Burton meets Swingers.
(3) They used my song “The Resistance (Alberta Remix)” for the credits.  I’m honored to be a part of it!

Check out the trailer below, and then head over to their website.  We need to support great
people creating great art!


Take Nothing for Granted

Filed under: creativity — 11:51 pm

This week, my brother Eric Niequist finished an incredible short film called “Take Nothing for Granted” that you really must see. It’s not easy to watch, but in three minutes he takes us on a journey through the grit, pain, and possibility of everyday life. May it disrupt and inspire us all to dive into the “life that is truly LIFE”…



5 documentaries about music and art and crazy people

Filed under: creativity,music — 12:54 pm

For some reason, I’ve been watching and enjoying a ton of documentaries in the last couple months.  Here are my five favorites…

Sound City

Sound City

(1) Sound City (directed by Dave Grohl) – This is the story of Sound City Studios – where Nirvana, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and MANY other legendary artists recorded their most important albums.  Dave Grohl narrates a fascinating journey from the studio’s earliest days until it’s closing in 2011, hearing from dozens of the artists who created history there.  I absolutely love learning the stories behind all this music, but for me, the performances are the highlights.  I won’t wreck all the surprises, but let me just say that Sir Paul shows up at the end and blows some minds (and eardrums).  Such a fun film.




(2) Beware of Mr Baker – Many consider Ginger Baker the greatest drummer of all time.  And although I had never heard of him, I absolutely loved the film.  The other thing you need to know about Ginger is that he’s insane.  Really.  An actual crazy person who has left a trail of destruction of broken bands, broken families, broken relationship for his whole life.  He is a tragic figure, to be sure, but somehow you end up being inspired by the story.  With insightful, heartbreaking, and hilarious interviews with Eric Clapton, Ginger’s family, and tons of musicians who knew him.  Highly recommended.


Searching for Sugarman


(3) Searching for Sugar Man – I still can’t believe that this documentary is for real. Wow. Rodriguez was a genius songwriter who recorded two brilliant albums in the late 60s that somehow never sold.  After the disappointment, rumors are that Rodriguez killed himself by setting his body on fire during his last concert. But decades later, his music managed to get to South Africa, where it became one of the most popular soundtracks to the anti-Apartheid movement.  This film is the journey of two men who are trying to find out what really happened to Rodriguez, and you won’t believe what they find.




(4) Being Elmo – My son Mac is 18 months old, so we already watch a TON of Elmo in our house.  But this film about Kevin Clash, who created and gives voice to Elmo, was wildly interesting.  I loved seeing the intense work, thought, heart, and sweat that goes into bringing a red piece of cloth to life and into the imaginations of millions of kids on earth.  Kevin and other puppeteers are not just “playing with puppets”…they are deeply committed to their craft in ways that would put many other artists to shame.  It certainly challenged me.  But on the other hand, it showed a bit of the toll that such single-minded devotion takes on the rest of a person’s life.  This film is both an inspiration and a warning.


Side by Side


(5) Side by Side – This film wrestles with the emergence of digital technology in Hollywood.  Will the new digital process of making movies replace film altogether, or will they both remain?  What is gained and lost in each medium?  (We musicians are often wrestling with the same questions, although digital is more common in recording).  I found it fascinating to hear movie legends like James Cameron, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Noland, and many others debating, disagreeing, and passionately making a case for what they believe is the future of film.


What other documentaries would you recommend?


What I want to learn from Sigur Ros

Filed under: church,creativity,music,worship — 12:47 pm

On Tuesday night, a group of us went to the Sigur Ros show.  Even with ridiculously high hopes and expectations, they blew me away and have had my head spinning all week.  Yesterday, I sat down to reflect: “Why did the show move me so deeply?”  And more than that, “What can we in the church learn from Sigur Ros”?  A couple reflections…

(1) Beauty needs to retain a bit of darkness to keep it grounded and real.
In many ways, the music of Sigur Ros is wildly, gratuitously beautiful…with lush strings, epic soundscapes, and gorgeous melodies.  But if you listen closely, there is almost always something cracked or dark or dissonant in the mix.  Which is exactly like real life.  Sweetness without ugliness is only half the story.  It doesn’t ring true. It is mere sentimentalism.  And as my friend Ian says, there is nothing worse than sentimentalism pretending to be art…or sentimentalism pretending to be theology.

So how can our communities, churches, and worship experiences embrace and live in the tension of both realities?  This is an easy question to ask, but honestly, I’ve found it very difficult to live out in a church service.  Is there a way to whole-heartedly celebrate the beauty in this world and the hope we have in God without ignoring the very real darkness all around (and inside of) us?  Both are true.  And like so many of the Psalms do masterfully, both need to be reclaimed in worship.

(2) Amazing music (or art) does not require individual virtuosos.
Besides Jonsi’s superhuman singing, most of the parts being played Tuesday night were very very simple.  No individual musician did anything exceptionally impressive or complicated on their own.  However, they played the exact right parts at the exact right times and created something collectively brilliant.

Here’s what they remind me:  Amazing music does not require virtuoso players…but it does require an inspired and crystal clear vision.  As a band leader, do I help everyone understand exactly what the song is trying to be?  Can we create this together?  Do each of my bandmates know their exact role at each moment of the song?  Do I?

How do we all become musicians who would rather ask “what does this song need from me right now?” than “what are the most amount of notes I can fit into this measure?”….a band of simple players trying to realize a shared vision, rather than a collection of wildly talented soloists all playing at the same time?  That’s when the magic happens.

(3) Embrace the weirdness.
Admittedly, there were a number of moments in the Sigur Ros show that I didn’t understand, connect with, or even like.  Some of it was just plain weird.  But that’s part of what makes them so compelling.  If they sanded off all the “weird” edges, they might end up sanding off the “brilliant” edges also.

Which is probably what happens to some of the music/art in the church.

In an attempt to make what we do inviting and understandable and comfortable for the wide range of people coming to church, I’m afraid that we often end up neutering it.  So instead of offering art that is alive with passion, truth, and the messy glory of real life, we end up with safe, middle-of-the-road, predictable music that it perfectly innocuous.  The Christian radio in our town advertises that their music is “safe for the whole family”.  They take pride in this fact, but I think they should apologize.  Jesus was profoundly loving, but anything but safe.

So to my friends creating art, sermons, and music in the church:  Embrace the weirdness!  Explore the edges! Lean into your uniqueness!  Don’t try to be a short order cook for mass-consumption.  Instead, live a life of deep prayer, connection, and obedience…and then let it gush out of you in its purest form.  Not all of it will be appropriate for a Sunday gathering, of course, but I think we’d be surprised by how much might be.  And gloriously so.


UPDATE (4/8):  I just added a fourth learning about Sigur Ros at the A New Liturgy worship blog.


Does any of this resonate with you?  Any Sigur Ros fans out there?  What have you learned from them?



Seth Godin: awareness rather than journalism

Filed under: creativity,quotes — 11:34 am

Blaine Hogan – one of my good friends and favorite artistic collaborators – did a fascinating and insightful interview with Seth Godin.  If you haven’t seen Part One or Part Two, I highly recommend them.

Today, Blaine posted Part Three of the interview, which included a quote that really hit me.  Blaine asked “Seth, how do you capture ideas as they hit you throughout the day?”  And Seth replied,

“I don’t. Instead of writing things down, I immerse myself in what I notice…. I would rather develop a sort of soft-tissue of awareness, rather than a journalist constantly writing things down for future blog posts.”

How great is that?!?  What would it look like, in my life, to develop a soft-tissue of awareness?  What could it look like in yours?  Rather than furiously trying to clutch and capture every moment, what if we learned to simple be in that moment?  This is not easy for me, but it sure sounds compelling.

Part three of the interview…


We all want to change the world (part 2)

Filed under: books,creativity — 2:42 pm

On Feb 23rd, I posted some thoughts from the brilliant book “To Change the World”.  These profound and challenging ideas have really been messing with me…in a good way…I think.  And the author takes it deeper. I’ve needed to read this paragraph multiple times already…

“at every point of challenge and change, we find a rich source of patronage that provided resources for
intellectuals and educators who, in the context of dense networks, imagine, theorize, and propagate an
alternative culture. Often enough, alongside these elites are artists, poets, musicians, and the like who
symbolize, narrate, and popularize this vision. New institutions are created that give form to that culture,
enact it, and, in so doing, give tangible expression to it. Together, these overlapping networks of leaders
and resources form a vibrant cultural economy that gives articulation, in multiple forms, and critical mass
to the ideals and practices and goods of the alternative culture in ways that both defy yet still resonate with
the existing social environment. These networks of leaders and the various resources they bring may or
may not originate in the “center” of cultural production, but they do not gain traction in the larger social
world until they do challenge, penetrate, and redefine the status structure at the center of cultural life.
Invariably, as we have seen, this process results in conflict. As to politics, where present, it contributes
most effectively to the process of cultural change not when it imposes a cultural agenda but when it creates
space for a new way of thinking and living to develop and flourish.”  (James Hunter)


Notes from both teachings on worship

Filed under: books,church,creativity,worship — 2:45 am
Honolulu 2013

Honolulu 2013

This week, I’m thrilled to get to teach two electives at the Honolulu 2013 conference.  Certainly, I’m happy to come to Hawaii for the first time, but more than that, I LOVE the conversation about worship, liturgy, formation, and the future.  I’m far from an expert on anything, but soooo passionate about the journey.

As promised, here are my notes, slides, and resource list…

Elective 1:  Moving Beyond Singing into something much more Mysterious, Subversive, and Beautiful.

Worship is this huge, beautiful, epic, mysterious, global, active, intimate human/divine interaction, but when someone says “Okay, it’s time to worship”, we all assume “It’s time to sing.”  This is not bad, of course.  Singing is a fantastic way to worship God.  But it’s only one part of the whole. This breakout will explore ways to move beyond our usual framework, and in doing so, help more and more people engage with more and more of The Almighty God.

Moving Beyond Singing Niequist notes

Moving Beyond Singing .ppt slides


Elective 2:  Evangelical Worship Leading, The Liturgy, and me.

While leading worship in a mega-church for the last ten years (at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, MI and Willow Creek in Chicago, IL), I’ve been feeling more and more drawn to The Liturgy – both personally and as a worship pastor.  The depth, reverence, and historical grounding have been profoundly moving.  But how does this fit into an evangelical mega-church with big screens and moving lights?  Is there a way to bring these ancient practices into this modern context, or are they fundamentally incompatible?  In this breakout, I’ll share what I’m learning, what I’m wrestling with, and a few big mistakes I’ve made.  And then we’ll dream together about the future.

Worship, Liturgy and Me Niequist notes

Worship Liturgy and Me .ppt slides



The Story of A New Liturgy (video)
Ian Cron: “Becoming the Liturgy” (video)
Glenn Packiam’s blog
“Church is Bigger Than the Church” (my article for Relevant)
“Common Prayer”, Clainborne, Wilson-Hartgrove
The Book of Common Prayer online
Brian Mclaren’s open letter to Worship Songwriters


“A Guide to the Sacraments” John Macquarrie
“The Immortal Diamond”, Fr. Richard Rohr
Everything Belongs”, Fr Richard Rohr
The Holy Longing”, Fr Ronald Rolheiser
“Start with Why?”, Simon Sinek 
“To Change the World”, James Hunter
“Finding Our Way”, Margaret Wheatley
“Honest to God”, John Robinson
“Liturgy For Living”, Weil, Price 
“The Wisdom Jesus”, Cynthia Bourgeault

Examples (video):

A New Liturgy No 4: Creation (live at Willow Creek)
A New Liturgy No 2: Blessed to Be a Blessing (live at Axis):   (password = liveliturgy)
Love Can Change the World / St Francis / Have Thine Own Way (live at Willow)
The Resistance Experience (live at Willow)
Worship band IN the room (live at Willow)



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