Format: Sound Plus Doctrine PodcastDownload Session
What’s it like to write songs for a kids’ album? What are your goals? How do you even go about it? Jon Althoff is one of the primary writers for Sovereign grace Music Kids’ albums, and on this this episode of Sound + Doctrine, he joins Bob and David to talk about how he thinks about writing for kids.
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David Zimmer: How do you write songs for a kids album? What are your goals? Jon Althoff is one of the primary writers for Sovereign Grace Music kids albums, and on this episode of Sound Plus Doctrine, he joins Bob and I to talk about how to write songs for kids. Welcome to the Sound Plus Doctrine. My name is David Zimmer.
Bob Kauflin: My name is Bob Kauflin.
DZ: And we have Jon Althoff with us.
Jon Althoff: Hello.
DZ: Which we’re so excited about. Today we’re talking about kids albums and Sovereign Grace Music kids albums.
BK: Specifically, right? Not kids albums in general. Specifically, the ones that Jon, you have helped us… Well, not only helped us make, without you, we wouldn’t even have the last two kid’s albums. I was just figuring this out, The Ology, out of 11 songs you wrote or co-wrote seven of them. And then Listen Up, was our last one, you wrote or co-wrote eight out of 13 of the songs. So you are a kid’s song guru.
BK: It’s just such a privilege to be able to talk about your process and just your heart for this. So, you’ve been with us once before and we talk about this but have you always… You have how many kids?
JA: I have four.
BK: Four. Ages?
JA: They’re 14, 11, soon to be 10, and then 4.
DZ: 14, dude.
JA: Yeah, 14 down to 4.
BK: That’s so great.
DZ: That’s so great.
BK: So have you, from the moment they were born, just been writing songs from them, and it just kinda comes out of you?
JA: You know, now that you mentioned that, I actually did. I wrote a song for my daughter when she was in the womb, and we used to sing it to her. Yeah. Used to sing it to her when she was in Shea’s tummy and I’d sing it to her.
BK: I don’t know if you can hear this now, but there’s people mowing outside and…
JA: Oh yeah.
BK: Other podcasts wait, they’d find another day to record, but no we do it.
JA: Seize the day.
BK: We’re pushing through.
DZ: Well yeah, we want you to know that there’s a lawnmower in the background.
JA: Everybody mows.
BK: There’s grass removal…
DZ: Everybody mows.
BK: And people have to cut it. That’s right. Alright, go ahead.
JA: Oh yeah, so yeah, I’ve written songs for my kids, actually I’d kind of forgotten about that, but yeah.
DZ: That’s awesome.
BK: A few years ago, Marty Machowski, a pastor at Sovereign Grace, came to us with this concept. Well, it was more the concept, it was a book, a children’s curriculum, a family devotion called The Ology, which I just love, and he said “Do you wanna do an album to go along with this?” And we’d already done that with Prepare Him Room, our Christmas album, which turned out to be an adult album, but he had actually had a devotional that was a companion to that. So, I wanna talk about just some of the songs on The Ology because I think you tackled some topics that it’s just hard to express to kids. It seems to be there are two ways you go with kids’ songs, you can go two extremes, one is to treat them just like an adult song, and it’s big words and you just figure…
DZ: They have no idea. Right.
BK: Yeah, over time, they’ll just get it. And then the other is, “Well, they’ll never get this, so we’ll just allude to this and kind of just barely say anything about it, make it really fun”. But they don’t really teach. So we’re trying to find that middle ground.
BK: And our kids’ songs are probably longer than many kids songs would be, but still fun, but trying to get down into this concept. So, one of them that was really amazing to me was Totally God, Totally Man. And I got to co-write with you on this, just some lyrical stuff, but talk about that. It’s the incarnation.
BK: Where do you begin with that? ‘Cause where it ended up, was this beep doo-wop. Remember being in the studio, singing the…
BK: Which is not where I go with incarnation.
DZ: But it’s duality.
JA: But it’s kids.
BK: It is kids. How did you approach that? How did you think about that?
JA: Yeah, well, I think I started off just with the idea of Jesus being fully God and fully man. And that concept is so difficult even for an adult to really grasp. I mean it’s a mystery, right?
BK: So, the song actually starts of “Jesus, he’s fully God and fully man”, that’s really hard to understand. So let me try to explain.
JA: Exactly, yeah. Yeah, so honestly, I think that was the first thing I ever wrote about the song was just that, was just that part. It’s really hard to understand. But then I remember thinking about “How do you flesh this out for kids?”. And so part of it was trying to capture in the lyrics a way that you could say “This is sort of like the fully God part of Christ, and this is the fully man part”, so it’s all those juxtapositions, so to speak. All those things where like, Jesus… What’s it?
BK: I have some words here.
BK: His word upholds the galaxies, but he babbled like a baby in his mother’s arms.
BK: Understands the universe, but he had to go to school to learn how to write his name.
BK: I love this.
JA: Yeah, or His feet walk upon the ocean blue, but they also get tired and dirty too.
BK: His feet get tired and dirty too on the dusty road.
JA: Just looking at something like that, it’s like, here’s Jesus who has the power over the whole universe and can walk on water, and yet his feet got dirty and they needed to be washed, when he went to eat with people. So it’s just trying to find a way. I think more than anything is that you want a kid to walk away with that same sense of wonder that we have, but at their level, so something like that, that’s a picture of saying like, “Okay, I can imagine a person walking on the water, but then I can also see his feet being dirty”, that picture. Or him needing, like when he falls asleep in the boat and there’s a storm, but he’s sleeping because he was physically tired and he fell asleep. It’s just trying to find those pictures in the Scriptures that help us realize or try to comprehend as best we can, like this is God and man in one person.
BK: And then you just captured that so well in the chorus. He is totally God, totally man. Both in one, he’s the great I am, to save the world, fulfill God’s plan. He had to be totally God, totally, man.
BK: Okay, I’ve had more than one parent come to me and say, “You know what, I was listening to that song the other day, and it just helped me understand the incarnation so much better”.
DZ: It’s so cool. Yeah.
JA: Yeah, yeah.
DZ: ‘Cause it should serve kids that we’re trying to… But when adults listen to it… I remember at a Worship God conference, Craig Cabaniss was preaching and was talking about the God of wow. Just made a point of the God of wow of that, we’re still… I love what you said, we’re still in the wonder of the incarnation, we’re still in the wonder of the Gospel. And if we’re amazed, we’re passing that to our kids and they’re amazed and we’re showing “Look how amazing this is.”
BK: Yeah. You didn’t write that song, but…
JA: No, no, no.
BK: The principle remains the same.
BK: The Lord Jesus… But you did write another song… And it’s Craig Cabaniss just in case he is listening. Which I’m sure he won’t be. But the other song… Well there are songs I wanna talk about. But a very deep topic was just the way God wanted us to be.
BK: Okay so describe that in the ardous… I’m gonna pull up the words here.
JA: Yeah for sure. You know I remember Brittany…
BK: My daughter?
JA: Yeah, your daughter Brittany. I remember Brittany, we were at your house for a song writing retreat, and I think I was just mowing around the house not really knowing what to do at that point, and she had said something… Maybe she was…
BK: Which was not your typical status, but at that point…
JA: I don’t know. At some point, you just need a break, right?
JA: Yeah, and Brittany, I think was… Maybe was… Had read something and was just… She kind of mentioned the idea of a song that could just help boys and girls understand the glory of what it means… The beauty of what it means to be made a boy or to be made a girl, and the differences that…
BK: Which is a lot of confusion in our current culture.
JA: Right, but those are things that we need to celebrate, that God made man in His image, male and female, he created them. And so just the uniqueness is something that we can be… That we can celebrate and be thankful for. So that was… So her mentioning something like that was the spark to go, and I remember finding a room by myself and just beginning to read whatever Marty had and just reading some scriptures, reading that scripture, I just mentioned from Genesis and just kind of prayer fully going, “Okay, how do we communicate that?” And so it was just one of that kind of phrase that realizing whether if you’re a boy or if you’re a girl, you are just the way God designed you to be, and that we can celebrate that. And even in the course, then we kind of have that little like he made us boys and the boys get to say, they get to shout “boys”. He made us girls and all the girls get to shout “girls”.
BK: Although at that age, they sound a lot alike.
JA: They do, they do. But you know…
BK: Boys, talk low.
DZ: That’s right.
JA: But one of the things about kids music is, I’m thinking too, of the children’s ministry workers at local churches who are gonna use this song. Or even, if you’re a family that has boys and girls in your family and you’re doing a family devotion. This is a very easy way to think of… Okay, this is something that our kids can do. Like, “Okay, boys, now, when they say boys you get to shout boys, and then when girls, you get to shout girls.” And so even when I’ve led this song in a kid’s class, that’s the kind of thing kids love to do. It’s like the old, Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah, praise the Lord… And you split the kids up into groups and then they stand up… You know it just turns into chaos.
BK: This is a little more content.
JA: They’re shouting to the top of their lungs, there’s no singing anymore.
BK: Well, again, the chorus just sums it up so well. And I think of Lady Gaga’s song “born this way”. And this is so different. Similar in some ways. Yeah, we were born this way. We’re just the way God wanted us to be.
BK: But you say in your course, we are the image of the God of all the world. He made us boys, He made us girls. ’cause that’s what it says, male and female. He created them in the image of God, He created them. Different pieces of the puzzle joined together perfectly. We are just the way God wanted us to be.
DZ: That’s right.
BK: And then you go into…
DZ: So clear.
BK: Beyond male and female, we’re shades of brown, we’re short and tall, but God Himself designed us all unique so we could see, he wants each one to play a part to show the world the Father’s heart to have a family of different people.
JA: You really helped a lot with those lyrics Bob.
BK: I don’t remember.
JA: You really did, ’cause as you’re reading those, I was actually reminded, I was like, “Oh yeah. That was Bob’s line.”
DZ: Well, I was just going to say that’s… Just you even… When you… When sing it.
DZ: It just sounds like a goofy kind of fun song…
JA: Yeah. It’s got this country feel and…
DZ: And you and the kids are shouting and you… But when you stop and… Just talking about the craft of songwriting, when you stop and listen and read those lyrics just as they are, that is so hard to do. That’s so hard to do to be clear and to be focused and to not have to say a ton of things, but enough information that you can read it and I can say I fully understand that. And a child can sing it, and if they were really thinking and if they’re even older, they can think it and go, oh no, that really makes sense. So that’s just… That’s so hard to do, and I think it just takes a lot of time to build that craft to be clear.
BK: It is so hard to do. And you wrote a rap song on this album.
JA: Yeah, that was a lot of fun.
BK: On The Ology. “All about Jesus”. Talk about that.
JA: Yeah, so I don’t even remember where I got the idea of doing the rap, other than I knew that the song…
BK: Jon, you look like a guy who would do rap.
JA: Oh, right.
BK: It’s probably just…
DZ: It flows out of you.
BK: Just like me. All of us probably.
JA: I don’t know. But yeah. So I was working on the song “All about Jesus” and was already loving the song and thinking of it as like this biblical theology that all the scriptures point to Christ. And so I just… I don’t know. Somewhere along the lines, just one of those ideas that pops in your head and you go, “What if we could write a rap that just kinda… ” Maybe… I don’t know if Hamilton was already out at the time or something. I was trying to… Maybe it wasn’t. Okay. But for whatever reason…
BK: You were way ahead of your time.
JA: Oh yeah.
DZ: Oh my goodness.
JA: Yeah. But anyway, so yeah, I just kind of sat down and thought, “Why not?” Just give it a shot. I think part of it was, I had written a scripture memory song a few years before that, and I did a rap in that, and kids really love to try… It’s like a challenge. Can I memorize this rap? I’ve seen a lot of the kids in our own church that have done that or they memorize it. They’ll be like, “Mr. Jon, Mr. Jon, I know the whole thing.”
JA: And I’m like, “That’s awesome.” Cause it is just… It is just a biblical theology.
DZ: You take it with you. Yeah.
BK: It’s the story of the Bible in five short verses.
JA: Yeah. And that was my hope, I guess, when I started writing it, was like, how can I get the main things.
JA: The creation, the fall, the redemption through Christ and the fact that he’s coming back, you know?
BK: It’s brilliant. And what I love is that just as you mentioned, it’s a challenge for kids to learn. It’s like…
BK: “I wanna learn this,” and then they do…
BK: And that those words get in their minds.
BK: And it stays with them and…
JA: And if I could… Yeah, I was gonna say if I could jump in on one thing.
JA: That’s what… When you were talking a while ago, David, one thing that I love about writing for kids is I think we’ve all had this experience where there are songs that you learn when you’re a kid that will stick with you for the rest of your life.
DZ: Oh yeah. Yeah.
JA: And so it feels like there’s a kind of a weightiness in a sense of like if you write a kids song really well, it can keep coming back to a person over and over again. A lot of times when people get older, maybe in a nursing home, they can forget a lot of things…
JA: But there will be songs and lyrics and hymns and things like that, that they will remember.
JA: So if you’re planting a seed of a song that has truth in it like that, you know, who knows what the Lord could do with that?
JA: Maybe it’s someone that sort of walks away from the faith when they’re a teenager, but they remember that rap when they’re 25.
JA: And something about those words being in there just reminds them about the message of the gospel, who knows?
JA: So anyway, that’s one of the things I love about writing songs for kids. It is just knowing that there’s such a potential…
DZ: That’s so great.
JA: For God to use that later on.
DZ: That’s so great.
BK: And these would be for kids. Our albums are geared towards kids, probably five to 11, somewhere in that range.
BK: Younger kids can enjoy them. Older kids can enjoy them, but that they’re… They’re starting to be able to put thoughts together, starting to figure out their world view.
BK: What’s important, what matters, what makes sense. And so again, they’re a little more challenged than “Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah.” They’re not just fun.
BK: Trying to make them fun.
BK: But they’re not so complicated that, you know, kids, they’re just way above their heads.
BK: So you have just done I think a fabulous job doing that for us. So second album that you really participated in was Listen Up. You wrote eight or co-wrote eight of the 13 songs and wrote another one with a rap song, “Lord help us forgive.”
BK: Do you remember that one?
JA: I do.
BK: Can you talk about that a little bit. How that came together?
JA: I mean it was kinda similar to All About Jesus in a way, I don’t know if it was like, “Hey, we did the rap last time. Let’s do another one.” But you know, I think with every song that you start to write, you gotta figure out a way to make it somewhat unique.
JA: And I just thought… For that song, I thought what if we could make this some kind of a hip-hop or some kind of a thing where the rap is kind of like the main part of the song…
JA: And then there’s a melodic chorus.
BK: I’d like to mention this is an album based on the Parables of Jesus.
BK: And this is the parable about the unforgiving servant.
JA: Yeah. So, now I’m remembering when you and I were tossing this back and forth, that’s when we were talking about Hamilton. Yeah. ‘Cause Hamilton had come out at that point, and I had listened to it and I just thought, “Man, this is so good.” And I think I remember wanting to write something that was like… That tells the story, but with that style.
JA: But then having a chorus that is melodic and kinda brings things back together and it’s kind of like this male-female duet in octaves that…
JA: Kinda goes along and… So yeah, that was really the genesis behind.
DZ: Well, and I love when you put it in the sort of the rap context, you’re able to say a lot.
DZ: You know, in a short amount of time.
DZ: And that’s why… That’s why that’s such a popular musical, ’cause it’s so much information.
DZ: But it’s just like… It’s a wonderful tool in the toolbox of a songwriter that you can go, “Well, we can say a lot here.”
DZ: And in this context, we don’t have to say a lot.
DZ: You know, we can just give a very simple principle.
BK: You know, I’ve noticed when we get songwriters together to write a kids album, it’s always so fun…
BK: And people are just so into it and I thought maybe we should learn from that.
BK: It’s like the idea of boiling down these deep theological concepts to words that we love to sing just makes sense.
BK: And maybe it’s not quite as fun, but it’s enjoyable, can be enjoyable and something that people wanna sing.
BK: ’cause I know when I listen to our kids albums, which I do occasionally, I just think that’s so great. And part of it… Part of the help comes from the fact that we send these songs to Ben Gowell.
BK: He is the electric guitar player for Paul Baloche, and he basically does the whole, all the instruments for us.
BK: So they put together some great instrumental tracks.
DZ: Yes. That’s… Yeah.
BK: Then we add the vocals back in. So it’s great. So Lord, Help Us Forgive. I was gonna read the chorus of that, ’cause one thing that we seek to do in the kids songs is to have a clear presentation of what Jesus came to do.
BK: So your chorus is, “Our debt was satisfied… Our debt was satisfied on the cross when Jesus died, and if we’ve been forgiven, it’s gotta change the way we’re livin’. How can we hold a grudge? How can we fail to love once we have known what mercy is? Lord, help us to forgive.”
BK: That still affects me. That’s so great. So another song that you wrote was Welcome In.
BK: Yeah. I think I helped…
JA: I think you did, yeah.
BK: I participated on this, but they’re so meaningful ’cause you come with this concept in most of the song, and then I’ll just do a little tweak. Welcome In was a song that was about Lazarus, the parable of Lazarus, the rich man. It’s a beautiful song. It’s a heavy song.
BK: ‘Cause here’s one of the lines, “Our God in heaven is just, his eyes can bare no sin, His holiness and nothing less is needed to come to Him. For those who don’t believe God’s judgment is their choice, but those made right through the blood of Christ will know the greatest of joys.” And then this both… I’m sorry, I’m gonna read the whole song. “Both hell and heaven are real. And God wants us to know that Christ endured what we each deserve, so heaven could be our home.”
BK: I mean… Yeah, what were you thinking?
DZ: Not even adults are singing that.
BK: I know. I know. I know. And I thought about, you know, putting this… When we’re putting this on the album, I thought, “This… Someone, a kid could come to know Jesus.”
BK: As they’re singing this song.
BK: So yeah, your thoughts behind that?
JA: Yeah, I think just starting with, like you said, The Parable of Lazarus, and just sitting down and reading that, and realizing that, yes, heaven and hell are both real. And sometimes we… I don’t wanna say we forget that, but we gloss over it, you know. And that’s what makes the…
BK: We don’t act as though it’s true.
JA: Yeah. But that’s what makes the good news, good news, right? Is that you need to be rescued from your sin, and if you’re not rescued from your sin, that’s your eternal destiny. And so I think, again, just going back to that, there’s a weight to all these songs. We’re figuring out how do you communicate this, so that’s kind of where the song started. But then I think that one took a little bit longer to write, if I remember. I think we were back and forth on that for quite a while.
BK: Very careful, trying to be very careful.
JA: Yeah, you really have to craft the lyrics just so… So that… You’re not trying to intentionally scare somebody…
BK: Yes, yes, I remember.
JA: You just wanna communicate the reality of it, you know, I mean…
DZ: Well, and what I really appreciate about you, Jon, is in your writing is that you take a topic and you sort of internalize it.
DZ: I think it could be easy to do… It could be an easy thing to say, “Hey, let’s write a kids’ album.”
DZ: And then you just go, “Let’s make this song about joy or… ”
BK: Yes, yes.
DZ: But the idea that you would take the time to sit down, “I’m gonna read this story about Lazarus and let it affect me. And from that, I’m going to be able to put that… You know, those lyrics on page.”
DZ: And I think being affected by the topics you’re writing…
JA: Is huge.
DZ: Is going to write better songs.
DZ: Yeah, is huge. And I love that that’s a part of every song you’ve talked about is “Well, I sat down, I thought about this, I internalized this.” I really appreciate that.
BK: So if you were gonna say to someone… If someone’s asking you, “Jon, I wanna write kids’ songs.”
BK: Just what kind of counsel would you give them, ’cause I also want you to talk about musically.
BK: You’ve talked a lot about lyrics, but the music you write is so catchy or beautiful. It just… It moves you.
BK: So what are you thinking about there? What kind of counsel would you give both lyrically and musically?
BK: You can talk some about lyrically, internalizing.
JA: Yeah. Yeah, I think from a music standpoint, I would say… In another podcast that we recorded, I was sharing about having done several years of writing scripture memory songs with kids. And one of the things I learned through that process was that… And this is like a no-brainer, but kids love to have fun, right? And so a lot of it, a lot of times, probably the vast majority of the songs, I think for a kids’ song, it needs to be upbeat. It needs to be pretty fast or something.
JA: Or that and it needs to have something that’s musically what we would call a hook, which is, if you’re not familiar with what a hook is, it can be anything, but it’s that thing that you can’t get out of your head. It’s like a little melodic thing.
DZ: The earworm.
BK: Yeah, the earworm.
JA: Yeah, the earworm. It’s just something that you find yourself humming or you find yourself singing. And so there needs to be a certain amount of repetition, right? So there’s like a repeated melody or something that just… It keeps you coming back and it is a hard balance. We’ve talked about this before, where you don’t want it to be so repetitious, where people get bored of it or they’re sick of it, or they’re like, “Oh, I don’t wanna listen to this.”
BK: Or the parents are saying, “I can’t stand to listen to this again.”
JA: The parents are like, “I cannot stand this.” Yes. It’s not Baby Shark, right?
JA: But it’s like… But it still has a fun quality and it has this repetition to it.
JA: So I always try to think about that, like, this needs to be fun, it probably needs to be up-tempo. And a lot of times, I’ll even try to imagine a group of kids standing in front of me and I’ve got my guitar and I’m just about ready to teach them this song. And so if I put myself in that place mentally, then I’m not gonna wander around with my melodies. Like I’m gonna try to pick something that’s like a few notes, three or four, maybe five notes, that’s got a pattern and then just repeat that pattern.
DZ: That’s so great.
JA: And make sure it’s something that to me, I’m like, “I enjoy singing this.”
JA: Or you know, the other thing that’s interesting I’ve found is, if you can imagine someone making hand motions to your song when it’s done…
JA: I think that’s a win. So if I’m writing something that has a mental image that I could see somebody going like, “Oh well, this is… ” You know, it’s a cross, so they’re gonna do this where it’s like sunrise or sunset, or I don’t know, just something that you can imagine somebody making hand motions to, tends to be like, I think this might work.
JA: But yeah, musically, I think just keep it upbeat, keep it fun. And the other thing too, I think is with kids’ music, knowing that if you’re gonna… If they’re gonna be volunteers in a church setting doing these songs with kids, there need to be chords that are not way out there.
JA: Some of the chords we did are pretty interesting, and you’re like, “Oh, it’s kinda hard to get around having to use some of those chords.” But as much as you can, try to keep pretty simple chords in the songs and keep it upbeat and kinda go from there. So short melodic patterns, upbeat, those are… That’s a great place to start.
DZ: That’s really helpful.
BK: Very helpful.
BK: Yeah. Well, Jon, you’re a gift.
JA: Thank you, I appreciate that.
BK: And just love having you on the podcast.
JA: Great to be here.
BK: Great. So some other time, we need to talk about some other things, but…
JA: Yeah, love to.
BK: We’ll just have you back and do this.
BK: Thanks for joining us.