Format: Sound Plus Doctrine PodcastDownload Session
In this episode Bob and David are joined by Nathan Stiff, who has written and co-written many Sovereign Grace songs including “O Lord, My Rock and My Redeemer” and “Turn Your Eyes.” Nate tells us how he got involved with Sovereign Grace Music and shares some of the things he’s learned through the years as a songwriter.
David Zimmer: In this episode, Bob and I are joined by Nate Stiff, who has written and co-written many Sovereign Grace songs, including “O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer,” and “Turn Your Eyes.” Nate tells us how he got involved with Sovereign Grace Music and shares some of the things he’s learned through the years as a songwriter.
DZ: Hey, welcome to Sound Plus Doctrine. I am David Zimmer.
Bob Kauflin: And I’m Bob Kauflin.
DZ: And we are joined by a very special guest.
BK: Yes we are.
DZ: Nathan Stiff.
Nathan Stiff: Hello.
BK: So good to…
BK: Thunderous applause.
BK: For those of you who don’t know, Nathan Stiff one, is a good friend of David’s and mine, so that should be enough for him really to get him by.
DZ: Yeah, that’s it.
BK: Nathan has, or Nate, as we sometimes call him, has been writing songs for Sovereign Grace for quite some time. The most I think well-known being “Oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer”, which was on their Prayers of the Saints album.
DZ: Great song.
BK: Works for Ernie Ball.
NS: Yes, sir.
BK: And what do you do for Ernie Ball?
NS: I oversee global sales for them.
BK: Wow, that sounds so impressive.
NS: It sounds. The galactic sales. Universal sales.
BK: Yeah. And you live?
NS: I live in the Coachella Valley, in California. Where the Coachella music festival happens.
BK: The festival, not the conference.
NS: Not the conference.
BK: Okay the… ‘Cause I tend to think of things as conferences, but it’s the festival. And you have a family?
NS: I do, a wife and three kids, under six. So it’s a full house.
BK: That is a full share…
DZ: Oh Wow! Busy house.
NS: It is.
BK: Well, we are so glad that you could join us today.
NS: Well thank you so much for having me.
BK: I would love for people to know, we would love for people to know, just how you became connected with Sovereign Grace ’cause Nate is not a part of a Sovereign Grace Church, but has been writing songs for us for a number of years. So just how did that relationship develop?
NS: So… Probably back in 2011 is when I first really started being exposed to Sovereign Grace Music through the pastor at the church where I was leading.
DZ: Oh wow.
NS: And as I had become to fall in love with reformed theology and the writing of the Puritans I was looking…
BK: Doctrines of Grace. Amen.
NS: Absolutely, and just… That made me realize how beautiful our gospel is.
BK: Yes. Yes.
NS: And how…
BK: Which I think is the right effect of the doctrines of grace, of God’s sovereignty you realized. This is so beautiful.
NS: And also how wretched of a sinner I am.
BK: That’s included. Yeah.
NS: And how just that the cross needed to be so central to everything we would do as a church when we gather. And was struggling to find songs that were communicating all the things that I was becoming excited about. About the atoning work of Christ on the cross and what that means for everything. And so my Pastor, David Palmer, at the time said, “You should check out Sovereign Grace Music.” And it was really the Gathering album…
NS: That I listened to, and I said, “This is what we’re missing.” Because every song was so full of truth that… Not like as you say… As you’ve said sometimes, “a theological fire hydrant.”
BK: Yeah, yeah.
NS: But it was…
BK: We try to avoid that.
NS: The lyrics were beautifully communicating the truth of the gospel and why Jesus is so glorious and needs to be central to everything that we do when we gather. And there were also songs that we could play. They were accessible. They weren’t crazy. The arrangements weren’t… They were… Obviously, because of super gifted musicians, the arrangement were…
BK: Yeah, David, you played on that album. The drums.
DZ: Yeah I did, that was a great album.
NS: He did. And your drumming still… Watching you drum is one of my favorite things to do.
BK: Yeah. Mine as well.
NS: Yeah, and so it was that album that introduced me to Sovereign Grace Music, and then I went back and listened to the Psalms album, and I just stayed… Just stayed in it. And…
BK: Wow. Okay, so how did you start writing?
NS: Well, I’d… I’ve always loved writing songs, and I started…
BK: Did you write as a kid?
NS: I did. Actually… Yeah my… I’d have memories of having a little tiny piano and just chaotically slamming on it and writing songs. My…
BK: I can tell what kind of pianist you are just by the way you did that.
NS: Very much so. Yeah, like Muppet Babies was… Anyway.
BK: Not a good one.
NS: The… Yeah and so… But not… I didn’t really understand how to craft a congregational song.
BK: Okay, so you were writing love songs? Or Christian songs? And…
NS: Yeah, very much so.
BK: Everything. Okay.
NS: It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.
BK: Yeah. There are those kind of songs…
NS: And so I started writing and I went to… You guys had a micro-gathering conference on the West Coast.
BK: Oh the small worship God conference.
DZ: Yeah, in Orange.
NS: It was a small little…
BK: In Orange.
NS: And we took the whole worship team, and we went, and it was transformative for all of us.
BK: Oh my, that’s so kind of the Lord.
NS: Seeing all of this come together and be done so well. And hearing your heart for why what we do on Sundays matters so much, or why the gospel has to be at the forefront.
NS: And how the gospel shapes our gatherings. And we all just walked away from that conference…
BK: Oh man, I had no idea.
NS: Transformed with just a new set of priorities and really passion to see the gospel be the priority.
NS: And because of working…
BK: Let me just insert something right there. I remember that conference. It was so last minute. I think we advertised it for a month and a half, or a month, I don’t know. We got there, just had very little time to practice, and it would just feel like, “Let’s just go pull this thing together!” But to hear how God uses our labors, our efforts…
BK: To glorify His name, and to bring about that change…
DZ: Yeah. Yeah.
BK: That’s so kind of the Lord.
DZ: Yeah. And so humbling.
BK: It’s very humbling.
DZ: That He does that. Despite our efforts and energy.
NS: Well, you could have fooled us ’cause…
BK: Well good. Amen.
NS: It was great. And so, working for a company that makes guitar stuff, I connected with Joel Sczebel, who’s also a songwriter.
BK: Yes, we’ve written a number of songs.
NS: And would play on the albums, and we just started talking, and after that conference, I remember going home and praying, “Lord, if there’s any way I could ever get involved with Sovereign Grace Music… ”
NS: “That’d be great.” I don’t even… That was probably the prayer, it was really just like, “That’d be… That’d be swell God… ”
DZ: So sick.
NS: So yeah, probably. And two weeks later, Pat Sczebel, Joel’s dad, who’s written another…
BK: Jesus, Thank You and His Forever.
NS: His Forever… Walked through the doors of the church where I was leading the music and we happened to be doing one of his son’s songs that morning and I was like… And it didn’t even click for me at the beginning like, “My answer to prayer has just walked into the sanctuary. Thank You, Lord.”
BK: So random.
NS: It was like, “What’s happening? Pat, why is Pat? Why are you here? Why are you here? Why are you in the dessert?”
DZ: Why was he there? ‘Cause literally you live in the middle of nowhere.
NS: Yeah, I do. He has family that live in… Joel’s in-laws had a house down the street.
BK: Oh Okay. Wow.
NS: So yeah, God sovereignly ordained their real estate purchase to get me involved at Sovereign Grace Music.
BK: God can do anything He wants.
NS: And He does. And so I started writing with Pat and connecting with Pat and I asked Joel, “How do I… I’ve got a song that I think is good. How do I sing? What do I do with it?”
BK: A lot of confidence there.
NS: And he said, “Well, send it to me and I’ll get it over to Bob.” And that first song that I submitted was a version of Emmanuel Glory In the Highest that’s on…
BK: Which we put on Heaven Has Come, the Christmas album we just did.
NS: And it was much different.
BK: I think I remember that a little bit, it being much different.
NS: It was…
DZ: I think I remember hating that.
BK: Thank you so much. Thank you for writing, glad to serve the church.
NS: And so that song has served for me as a picture of even as… Of my evolution as a… And growth as a songwriter because of your diligence and patience and investment in me.
BK: Well which we want to talk about your growth as a songwriter, but before that, you guys have written a lot of songs together, especially a lot for the Glorious Christ album, but tell me how you’re… Tell us how you’re… Yeah, you started writing songs and what that process has been like?
DZ: Yeah, we met at a conference, one of the Worship God conferences and just became friends. And I think just enjoying one another’s company progressed us into, “Hey, you write a lot of lyrics and I tend to write a lot of melodies.” And I think the first thing that we ever worked on, that you ever sent me, was a Christmas hymn that you were writing that I mentioned talking about in the… A lot of the Heaven Has Come promo that we did… Was that I heard… I read these lyrics and was so struck by the poetry, the truth, the beauty in it, and just the progression of the gospel, starting with the incarnation and rolling through and this is Jesus, God triumphant. I just was so struck that it didn’t take long to write a melody to, I think I threw it back to you…
NS: In like 15 minutes after I’d sent the lyrics.
BK: That’s nice.
NS: You were at the same conference and you walked out… You walked out of whatever thing you were in and recorded a voice memo and sent that over…
DZ: I think I voice memo-ed the lyrics back to you. But I just think… It just clicked quickly and there are some times when you write songs with people and it doesn’t click. Doesn’t mean you quit, but there are also some times people that you write with and it just clicks. And so I think that was with you, Nate, and so we just decided to start co-writing every Tuesday at that point.
DZ: I came to a songwriters retreat and we brought a couple songs to the songwriters retreat and then it just became that habitual pattern. And I just think for my soul, for my faith, for my growth was so instrumental, also just my songwriting too, but just to do life with a person. Week by week you build that trust, that vulnerability…
NS: Which is huge. Which is really important.
DZ: And we also just… We’d also just have a blast. We also just crack jokes…
NS: 80% joke, 20% writing.
DZ: And dork around a lot and laugh. And so I think it brings a brevity too of that it’s not like, “We are crafting the… ” It’s like, “We’re just… ”
BK: The next greatest worship hit.
DZ: Yeah, exactly. We’re just… We’re doing life together. And I… So I have benefited from that so much. But…
BK: But you’ve been faithful. You did that for a number of years, right?
NS: Yeah, we did that for a few years. We were very consistent.
DZ: That was like three years.
NS: We both have young kids and so sometimes our children got in the way of our writing.
BK: Yes. Well, they’ll do that. They’ll get in the way of a lot of things.
NS: But yeah, and got to… Yeah, just got to enjoy… Just getting to… That was really loud. Great.
BK: Well done.
NS: Ta-da. Just getting to know you as a person, not just you as a melody writer, but you as just…
BK: So talk about that occurring process. What do you do? You’re on a Zoom call, what do you do, what happens? “Hey, I got some lyrics. Hey, I… ” Have you already worked on it? What’s happening there?
NS: Well, it really depends. Sometimes the starting place is different, sometimes the starting place was David would have a compelling melody and like, “Hey, here’s where this came from.” And so we’d talk about a little bit about the emotion that he felt while crafting that melody, so to get an understanding for the tone that the lyrics needed to take. Or sometimes it was, “Hey, I’ve got these lyrics and here’s how… Here’s what I’m feeling. Here’s why I wrote these lyrics.” And so that would inform where the melody would go and…
DZ: Yeah. There’s no defined formula to the process, but I think yeah, it’s a lot of the variables you’re talking about. But what I’ve really appreciated in our co-writing is a slogan we use a lot of just “Best idea wins.”
DZ: And I really like that in terms of a… Not all melody ideas have to come from me, not all lyric ideas have to come from you, but just best idea wins. We’re serving this song for the purpose of serving others. So if they can sing it better, if it’s clearer lyrically, and so sometimes that you… Sometimes you have to speak up and be bold and not…
NS: You’re just being honest…
DZ: You’re being honest with each other.
NS: And, when the relationship’s there, there’s… You don’t ever feel threatened, or you don’t ever feel like you’re being cheated out of an opportunity to have something.
BK: You don’t really trust the other person.
BK: And, all you have to do is say, “Hey, I like that, or I don’t like that.” It’s not like there’s some right answer.
BK: This whole conversation reminds me of that passage in 1 Corinthians 12, just where the best idea might come from you Dave, the best idea might come from you Nate, and it hardly ever comes from me, I’ve noticed that. But that’s another conversation. What Paul says, when he’s talking about spiritual gifts are in Verse 11, he says, “All these different kinds of gifts are empowered by one and the same spirit.” Chapter 12, Verse 11, “empowered by one and the same spirit, who apportions to each one, individually, as He wills.”
BK: It’s like none of us has a market or no one has a market on the Spirit’s working. Certainly, we do develop our craft, we seek to do the best we can, certainly, you are very gifted in melodies, you are very gifted in lyrics, but the spirit is the source, not us. So the Spirit might use someone else to come up with a better melody, even though I’m the melody guy, and so I just see that process working.
DZ: Yeah, that’s really well said, and I think looking out of that lens of that it’s the Spirit that’s inspiring this, it makes it easier to write with someone else.
BK: Yeah, absolutely.
DZ: And it makes it easier to take criticism. Anyone that’s listening to this podcast that either writes a ton of songs, or is just trying to get into songwriting, I would encourage them to have people that you trust help edit your songs.
BK: Yes, yes.
DZ: Help edit your melodies. I wouldn’t rely on your church body to do that on a Sunday morning.
BK: In general. Oh I just love your song, I love the music, I love your song…
DZ: Or, no one’s singing ’cause I can’t sing it. And when you have the opportunity to have someone you trust edit your content, you grow in this understanding of, “Oh, this isn’t as good as I thought it was.” Or “this could be better”.
NS: I don’t know if you can really… I think you’ll grow in certain ways, just like anything you practice and you tend to get better at, but if you don’t have somebody that can help you see where something’s weak or even when it’s strong, you’re not going to get much better or you’re gonna get… You’re gonna go in one direction and you might even be making your weaknesses weaker.
NS: You might be developing worse habits. And so you need…
DZ: That’s good.
NS: But… We need community for everything, and songwriting can’t be excluded from that. We… We’re not meant to be alone on anything that we do, and so we need other voices speaking and also helping us to be sensitive to the spirit, because again the… If the song resonates, it’s because God decreed it to resonate.
BK: Yeah. God made it resonate.
NS: God made is resonate, and because Jesus is glorious, and He’s worth singing about, and because the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead is the spirit that’ll make a song minister.
BK: Amen. And yet, God does use means.
BK: And I think it’d be helpful if anyone listening is a songwriter, I think we probably do have a lot of songwriters listening, to talk about Nate, what are some of the things that you’ve done to grow, to… You cooperate with what God’s doing. I think you’ve grown lyrically. I think you’ve grown in your heart, just the way you approach songwriting. I remember some of the early retreats, I think you’ve been on about five or six, I don’t know. Early retreats, you’re much more aggressive in terms of…
NS: Yeah, I am.
BK: Can I be part of this album? Hey! Can I be part of this album?
NS: I have things to say that people need to hear right now.
DZ: Hey, I named your song for you.
BK: Yeah! but just… That’s really changed I think your writing has gotten better, without question. So what have you pursued to do that? How has that happened? You know, practically?
NS: I think that… I think because we’re explicitly gospel-focused in what we’re writing about, that the more you do that, if you’re not being humbled as a songwriter, then something’s off.
BK: That’s good, say that again. If you’re not being humbled as a songwriter…
NS: Because the more you’re… They say songs are sermons people remember, and, so as we’re writing a song from taking it, a lot of it from Scripture, the Word of God is sinking in deeper, or should be, because we’re trying to creatively communicate this, and so, just that process of doing that regularly, has caused the Word of God to dwell in me more richly, and I think that He has graciously shown me areas where I’ve been prideful, or overbearing, or just… Immature in a lot of ways.
BK: So, are you more conscious of trying to write lyrics? ‘Cause you write some very creative lyrics, are you more conscious of trying to write them in a way that comes from Scripture…
BK: That represents scriptural themes and priorities and…
NS: Yeah, and it tries to frame them in a way that it just gets you to be like, “Oh, that’s a different way of saying that, that’s a… That’ll stick with me.” And I think as far as processes are concerned, it’s just… I don’t have a particular process, like I don’t say like, “Wednesdays, from 4:00 to 6:00 PM,” I just don’t… I’m sort of like, I’ve sort of tried to be fly paper for ideas, so that always just be… Anticipate inspiration.
BK: That’s good.
NS: That the one thing, is that you just… Don’t necessarily like hunker down and be like, “Alright inspiration, come to me.” It’s more like just be open to it and train yourself to recognize things that can serve as fuel for songwriting, and so be that in your time.
BK: How do you do that? That’s so mystifying to me. Recognize things that could serve as inspiration, ’cause you do both. When you get locked into a song, you are locked in and you’re kinda doing it all the time, you’re just thinking all the time.
NS: And that’s sort of a…
BK: That’s who you are, it’s a gift
NS: It’s a personality. It’s a gift and a curse I mean, ’cause we’ll be… If there’s a song that I care about and that’s interesting to me and I’m working on… It bangs around my head all day to the point where I’ll be at dinner and I’ll just suddenly… [laughter]
BK: Joanna will start to…
NS: Kind of stare off into the distance.
BK: Ask you.
NS: And Joanna will say [laughter], she won’t even ask me, she just knows. She says, “You’re writing a song, aren’t you?” And I’m like, “Done.” The computers to reset a little bit and…
BK: But you also schedule things. You have written with me on Fridays, it’s been sporadic, but it’s only been sporadic, ’cause I cop out. You’ll text me, “Hey, are we on for this weekend?”. And I’m thinking, “Oh man I could use that”. But you are persistent, and it’s so good because that’s how songs get written.
NS: Staying consistent. That, with anything that you wanna grow-in, is important. You can’t eat one healthy meal a week and expect it to really change your body chemistry.
BK: I do get people who… Well, I’m sure other people do, “I’ve written one song. Here it is, if you wanna use it in your congregation just let me know.” And I’m thinking, “Oh man, do you realize how many songs people write to get to a place where other people do their songs?”
NS: You have to write a lot and co-write a lot. And co-write it with as many people that think about melody and lyric differently than you do.
BK: Yes, that’s good.
NS: Because it will grow you. I think in your book Worship Manners you say, “Practice what you’re bad at, don’t practice what you’re good at”. Because then you’re just the guy from Lady in the Water that just works out his right arm and he just has this massive right arm and the rest of his body is just…
BK: I’m sorry, what was that reference?
NS: Anyway, not important. Moral of story is versatility as a writer too I think is really important in surrounding yourself with people that are better than you, and wanting to not be the best writer in the room, wanting to be surrounded by people.
BK: That’s good ’cause you might be. In a certain area you might be the best whatever lyrics, melody person.
NS: But try to… You can learn something from every songwriter to some degree ’cause…
DZ: When you’re constantly growing.
NS: You have to.
BK: You’ve modeled that. I’ve just seen that you’re one of the guys who so freely gives credit to other songwriters. When you write a song there’s this process of, “Okay, is that idea worth something? Is that worth a part of the song? Do I get an author’s… A composer’s credit for that?” In Sovereign Grace we’ve tried to cultivate the mindset be quick to give credit, and slow to take credit, and you really modeled being quick to give credit.
NS: When your ideas… Sorry David, when your ideas are the ones.
BK: Apparently what you wanted to say wasn’t very important. Go ahead.
NS: Yeah. I’m modeling this well right now.
BK: You are. Doing a terrible job.
NS: When the lyrics that end up, or the melody that ends up being recorded don’t exist without all the other iterations before it.
BK: That’s right. It’s exactly right.
NS: And it’s like, there’s a whole framework that was built underneath this thing, and you’re seeing the finished product, but the best idea comes after lots of great ideas.
BK: It sits on the shoulders… Stands on the shoulders of a lot of other ideas that never made it to the top.
NS: And your first idea is never usually your best.
BK: That’s true.
DZ: Well, and we, we’re talking a lot about just a spirit of humility when you’re approaching songwriting and co-writing, but I think even just practically, it kinda goes hand in hand. That if you write one song, you’re bound to be more offended ’cause you’ve put all the blood, sweat and tears and energy into that one song, as opposed to “I’ve written these 100 songs and so I can give a little bit here, and I can give a little bit here and I can.” And so you’re sort of diversifying, which just has less impact, you’re just trying, “How can I serve these the best?” And not just hold so white knuckle onto this one song that has to get on the elbow or something.
BK: And I think when you write like 100 songs or hundreds of songs, you realize how many bad songs you can actually write.
NS: Oh gosh yeah.
BK: So it makes a little humble.
NS: There are… David and I… For Ahead of the Glorious Christ you and I wrote 30 or 40 songs.
BK: I think you guys had a majority of songs on that album. But you did, you wrote five times as many songs, six times as many songs are actually on there.
DZ: And it’s not that you’re half writing them, you’re trying to complete them with hooks, with melody.
NS: The whole thing.
DZ: So it is just a practice and an energy, but Nate, you’ve just been such a blessing to Sovereign Grace Music into my life. And I hope this is encouraging for anybody who’s listening, to keep writing, to keep finding people…
NS: That will edit with you and for the glory of the Lord, so that we can serve his people.
BK: It sounds like you’re landing the plane, but just before we do that, Oh Lord My Rock and My Redeemer. Beautiful song, it’s just been… It’s blessed people throughout the world. Did that just kind of come out of you?
NS: Yeah, it sure did. And what came out first wasn’t great. It was, you know, you never know what a song is gonna do, like, you never set out to saying “this song is going to really minister to people”, you just…
BK: Hopefully not. Hopefully not.
NS: But, I was reading Psalm 19, I loved how it ended with “O Lord my rock and my redeemer”, and I Googled “O Lord my rock and my redeemer song”, and there wasn’t much. And I said “Well, here we go”.
BK: Less competition.
NS: Yeah. But started off with the right motivation for sure, but just wanting to unpack those three things, Lord, rock, redeemer. And, originally had a melody was not compelling, and I sent it to you and you said “it’s good, but it’s not great”.
BK: And there are a gazillion melodies like that.
DZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BK: Good but not great. So your church might love it…
BK: But it’s not going far beyond that.
DZ: Yeah, yeah.
NS: And then God orchestrated some very difficult circumstances for me and my family, and got to go back to the song and say, “What would it sound like if I sing it like I meant it?”.
BK: So good.
DZ: That’s really good.
BK: It’s how we should write every song.
DZ: It is.
NS: And so, what came out of that was just, there is pain and but hope, and that’s what I tried to convey with the melody. ‘Cause it was a melody that I definitely, more so than I think any other that I’ve written, that was a melody that I felt. I felt that in that season.
DZ: It sounds like more of a cry than a, “Hey, these fit the words”.
BK: It’s a catchy tune.
DZ: Yeah, but when you have a melody that’s sort of just a deep cry from your soul, it translates because people sing that song at all different places, sometimes it’s bolstering their confidence and their hope in Christ, and sometimes, it’s a confession.
BK: Well, it contains both, I think that’s one reason it’s so effective is it. It’s my song when enemies surround me, my hope when tides of sorrow rise, my joy when trials are abounding, you get to express both.
DZ: Yeah, that’s good.
BK: Now right now, I’m faced by enemies trials, challenges but Jesus is my joy, he’s my song, he’s my hope, and then you tie it all, you bring it all home with, this is the greatest thing, he died for my ruined life, and now he’s risen, and ugh, thank you for writing that song. Thank you for being faithful. Thank you for being with us today, and thank you.
DZ: Amen. Yeah, thanks Nate. Thanks for joining us. Thanks for tuning in. And we’ll see you next time.