In 2008, Aaron Gillespie memorably appeared on the cover of the last printed issue of CCM standing next to TobyMac, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, and other top names as the sole representative of what the magazine called "a new generation of artists." It's a statement whose time has come with the release of his first solo album, Anthem Song, an honestly ragged, often rocking praise and worship set aiming to "get to the people who think church is a country club."
Indeed, whether or not you know him by name yet, Gillespie is already one of the most dynamic, outspoken, and visible artists in Christian music today. It's just that the redheaded 27 year-old isn't always where one might expect to find a faith-based performer, a fact that defines his sense of ministry and what Anthem Song is all about.
Aaron's story is full of unexpected twists in its own right. A standout drummer by age 14, Gillespie was invited in 1997 to join UnderÃ¸ath, a Christian metal-core band that would chart the gold-selling records They're Only Chasing Safety (2004) and Define the Great Line (2006). The group's aggressive soundâ€”often tempered by Aaron's comparatively softer additional vocalsâ€”and steady mainstream success has led to a passionate fan base and provided many unique outreach opportunities on tours that have included controversial hard music acts like Slipknot.
Despite the public outcry, Aaron left UnderÃ¸ath on good terms in 2010, pursuing a cleaner alternative rock sound as lead singer of The Almost, a band that has registered 21 million plays on MySpace, gained MTV2 airplay, and recently toured with Switchfoot. Even as The Almost continues its rise, Gillespie makes another sudden turn, doing Anthem Song alone. Why?
"I've always wanted to make a straight-up worship record like this. The Almost is a rock band, and we didn't want to mix the two styles. Of course, it's all worship; your shift at Starbucks should be worship. But this just seemed to be the way to do it right now," Aaron begins to explain. "I have this desire to see our generation worshipping God. But a lot of the people I get to meet through music - kids with tattoos and swoop over haircuts - don't think of worship as 'cool'. I want them to find a home and a vocabulary to experience this kind of music."
Gillespie, who lives in central Florida, recorded Anthem Song in Seattle with versatile producer Aaron Sprinkle (Jeremy Camp, Kutless). Both multi-instrumentalists, they played everything on the album themselves except for several piano parts added by worship leader Shane Anderson. Co-writers Paul Baloche, Sarah Hart, and Phillip LaRue also helped pen what is largely a very personal record about adoring God, worshipping Him "because He is and because you are; just because you woke up today."
Much of that outlook is informed by a mission trip Aaron took to Africa, especially on the epic "All Things" (humbly described by Gillespie as "a U2 rip-off") and the charging title track that declares:
We sing to you, oh God, for you are good
The whole universe is echoing your song
"The people in Africa are so happy, so joyful. They have nothing, but they worship so wholeheartedly," recalls Aaron. "I went there as a rich American expecting to fix something in their world. But we are the ones who need fixing. I've learned that God's goodness is an anthem that will play forever. Our job is to grab a piece of that song while we are here."
With Chris Tomlin melodies and Billy Corgan vocal inflections, you can hear Gillespie reaching out for a piece of that song on "Earnestly I Seek Thee" - a gentle acoustic worship tune until it erupts with raw force into a distinctly hard-edged arrangement. "I Am Your Cup" is another stripped back selection, practically a live home recording, that never amps up but just as effectively speaks the real language of disaffected youth:
Here I am, looking for a place to hide
Here's my soul, broken and needing a home
"You can't find any level ground with people without being real," says Aaron. "My goal is to open my arms as big as I can and say, 'I've got faults, I've got issues, but Jesus loves you, and your life matters.' Before Christ was anything he was relational; the Bible shows that over and over. So if we're called to be Christians, then we're literally called to be relational with others."
Anthem Song's first single, "We Were Made for You", highlights the relationship between God and man. Composed with Paul Baloche - best known for adult contemporary praise favourites like "Open the Eyes of My Heart" and "Above All" - it's also a perfect example of the bridge that's being built here between two types of audiences both made for worship; traditionally written lyrics retracing the gospel story are met by a Euro-flavoured arrangement with fuzzed out bass, gritty guitars, and danceable drums. A similar spirit of expanding and uniting adventure follows on the exuberantly played "You Are My Everything".
The project's deep thesis is restated on the closing number, "Your Song Goes on Forever", a sing-along for the church that cuts through life's clutter with insightful praise and a call to action:
Back before the sea, before the skies were blue, there was this melody no one could hear but you.
The noise has finally disappeared; I can hear your anthem loud and clear.
Your song goes on forever. I will sing my part with my whole heart.
Your song goes on forever. I will bless your name and sing your praise forever.
"I love that God wants us to know him, that we were put here as missional people to serve God and point others to him," concludes Gillespie.
Aaron, who is on the volunteer staff at his local church, has a vision for when he tours in support of Anthem Song to help other places of worship welcome those who wouldn't normally feel comfortable being there. He says when people don't feel good enough to join God's family because of whatever sin is in their lives, that's when they should be running to the church. Indeed, we should all be there.
Come, be a part of the anthem.