Story Behind the Song: “A Place to Meet Jesus”

Back in February of 2011, at an open mic performance in Huntington Beach, California, I announced my intention to release a recording of a song Al Lowry and I wrote in 2010 called "A Place to Meet Jesus" "in the next month or so":

Well, it took more than five and a half years, but that recording, or rather a September 2016 remix of it, is now available in most popular digital music stores and streaming sites:

But I’m getting ahead of myself. A story should start at the beginning, not somewhere in the early stages just before skipping to the end (or at least the next phase of the song’s life). So let’s head back to June 13, 2010 at 11 PM PDT.

For context, I should mention that I met Al Lowry, my co-writer on the song, playing on the worship team at a church in Rancho Santa Margarita California called The Gate. I think we’d both played at the services earlier that day. The Gate had a large banner hanging on one of its walls that read, “A Place to Meet Jesus”. The pastor there was (and still is) David Habib Bardowell, but many of the people who’d known him for a long time called him Habib.

Getting back to the story of the song, at 11 PM on that Sunday night, Al sent me an email that started out:

Hey Rick,

Here’s a song I wrote during Habib’s message a couple weeks ago. Just thought I’d share it in case you ever felt inspired to do anything with it. When I throw these at you, don’t feel like you have to but I just appreciate your input. I know you have plenty of your own material to work on.

Really like what you did with “There’s a Chair” and am anxious to do it next week. Blessings, Al

He then included a draft lyric, whose only resemblance to the song as it exists today was the title.

I should mention a little more context. "There’s a Chair" is a song Al and I had written earlier that year. It was also inspired by a sermon at The Gate, with Al’s scribbling some lyrics on the church’s program (or maybe a napkin from the coffee and donuts area?) and handing it to me during the sermon, saying, “you write the music.” At one point during or after the writing of that song Al suggested I should write a book about the writing of the song. I think he was referring to the voluminous, “book-length” email messages that went back and forth between us, hashing out the lyrical edits that eventually led to the final form of the song.

I didn’t have a day job back then, so I read Al’s draft lyric shortly after he sent it, and replied about 20 minutes before 1 AM on June 14th. I knew the lyric wasn’t doing much for me at that point, but I wrote Al another of those book-length emails that started out, “I like the concept of going from church as a place to meet Jesus to making one’s home a place to meet Jesus. The lyric itself isn’t doing much for me, though.” I then went on to try to put various issues I saw in the draft lyric into objective language, mentioning terms like mixed metaphors, singsong rhythms, conversational language, and so on. As I look back on that email now, it might have been more to the point just to have written, “let’s write a brand new song with the same title.” That turns out to be what we did over the next few days.

Al responded later the morning of the 14th, basically relegating the song to the “ideas that might have been” pile. We went back and forth with a number of additional email messages that day, some more or less veering into songwriting philosophy. For example, at one point I wrote:

A semi-random thought: If you focus less on how to write the song, and more on what you want to say (i.e. independent of lyric writing techniques, song form, etc., and even if you don’t fully know what you want to say and have to explore that first), the what/how to write will probably emerge fairly naturally.

That thought seemed to have struck a chord with Al because a few minutes after midnight on June 15th — I’m thinking Al had some serious insomnia at the time — Al sent me another draft lyric. It still didn’t end up resembling the final lyric all that much in the words it used, but the outline of what became the story we’d tell in the lyric had started to emerge, as did one of the variations of the hook, “I needed a place to meet Jesus.”

I must have been encouraged, and also a bit of an insomniac, because I replied about twenty minutes later:

Wow, Al, this is indeed much tighter! I’ve only read it through a couple of times now, and I’m pretty tired, which probably affects my comprehension, and there are a few parts I’m not sure I’m quite understanding, and a few places where I think the language could be tightened up a bit, but this feels much closer than the previous take on the title.

BTW, the challenge wasn’t really inadvertent. I’ve done a lot of song critiques on various forums in the distant and not-so-distant past, and I’m always hoping the combination of critical feedback and ideas, be they conceptual or specific, I offer in the process might help someone dig deeper, challenging themselves to not settle for easy, but keep going until they reach something that really will move someone. Sometimes that kind of stuff backfires and pisses people off, sometimes people try but just don’t really go anywhere, so it’s always refreshing to see when someone takes up a challenges and raises the level of their game, be it on a single song or in general, by an order of magnitude or more. I think you’ve done that in this particular case.

Al replied later that morning, mentioning the difficulty in balancing the flow of ideas with catching issues in his own writing, despite being able to do that for others. I responded to that with a bit more songwriting philosophy:

Short of a whole lot of luck (or a song dictated by God that was transcribed perfectly, too, or some such thing), it tends to take two different “people” (or “roles” or “personalities”) to write a great song. One is the creative or brainstormer or inspirer or whatever you want to call it, who generates the ideas that inspire the song and provide enough content to fill it. The other is the editor, who takes that raw inspiration in whatever form it may arise or come out and molds it in a way that gets the point of that inspiration across to someone who has no clue what was intended, smoothes over any areas that distract from the flow of the song, etc. Sometimes collaboration supplies the two different personalities, but, in solo songs, it usually takes either multiple sessions, where the writer is wearing different hats in different sessions, or outside critical input to help flag the speed bumps, say, “huh?” at the stuff that isn’t getting across, and so on. Of course, some writers are good at switching hats at a moment’s notice — I think that comes with time and experience — but it’s not that easy to do as it more or less requires switching sides of your brain (the right side is the creative/visual side, while the left side is the logical side).

That morning I played the editor role I’d mentioned in my philosophical note, writing three verses and two bridges that either ended up being part of the final song or just being a few words different from the final song. However, there was also one addition verse I’d written, a draft of the second verse that ended up changing significantly. I sent that to Al in the very early afternoon. Al liked the changes and asked if I had music. I didn’t, but, within a few more hours I’d written the initial draft of the melody and chords and emailed a quick demo to Al, and he seemed to like that. Late that afternoon, I sent him another of my book-length emails explaining in depth the transition from his insomniac draft to the draft we’d arrived at by that point. (Sometimes I find the process of writing songs as interesting as the results.)

That evening, Al had some new thoughts on the second verse, and he drafted a new one that ends up to have included about half the words in the final verse. We shared some notes back and forth later that day and into the wee hours of the morning of June 16th. By mid-afternoon on the 16th I’d come up with another draft second verse that ended up in the final version of the song. We had a number of further email discussions of the song that day and on the 17th, but not much changed as a result of those discussions — I’d probably describe those as questioning various aspects, ultimately bolstering our confidence in the state of the song as it stood.

On the afternoon of June 17th I sent the lyrics and rough demo to David Habib Bardowell, more or less as an “FYI” since the very first draft had been inspired by one of his sermons and the title had also been inspired by The Gate’s banner. He loved it, mentioning he “got chills and shed a tear listening to (it).”

I tried the song out at a Just Plain Folks Orange County Chapter meeting the next Monday (June 21st) and got some feedback there. Al and I had some further discussions, including a few book-length responses from me, over the next few days, but the song itself was more or less complete at that point.

As for the recording side of things, I started on that in early 2011. By early March I’d recorded a soft rock version I intended to release shortly after that and done a country remix for some song pitch I wanted to make. However, I never quite got around to releasing the recording for one reason or another. I know there were a number of “life gets in the way”-type things in the ensuing years, such as running out of cash and needing to get my house on the market and sold, then looking for new housing after that, various family events with my adult children, starting the day job in October of 2012, and so on. I also ended up putting out two full-length albums, a Christmas album and a pop album, as well as a few singles, in the interim. However, I think the biggest factor in my delay in releasing the track was not being able to figure out what I wanted to do about cover art.

This year, after I finished my pop album, I’d been thinking about possibly doing a rock album next. However, I decided I didn’t want to commit to another long-term project just yet. Rather, I’d start out putting out some singles, committing only to releasing at least two by the end of 2016. Just prior to releasing the pop album I’d also taken a road trip along California’s central coast, stopping at a couple of old Spanish missions along the way and taking lots of photographs at each of those. When I got to the point of thinking about which single I’d put out first, “A Place to Meet Jesus” was one of the first ones I considered, and the wealth of photos I’d taken at the missions seemed like it could possibly provide some raw materials for cover art, which it ultimately did. However, after having listened to that 2011 recording of “A Place to Meet Jesus” alongside my newer recordings, I was no longer satisfied with the recording itself. Thus, I started a remix project that elapsed over a few weeks, initially just intending to try and solve the technical problems I saw with the old mix, but eventually becoming a much more extensive remix than I’d planned.

In the end, I’m glad I didn’t release the original recording since the new one feels much better. I also feel like the cover art is a big improvement over anything I’d likely have come up with prior to my recent road trip. Maybe the five and a half years delay was worthwhile.