Twelve years into his career, Aaron Shust is continuing to make just as much impact as ever on his listeners. When "My Savior My God" debuted nearly a decade ago, it rocketed Aaron to his position as an artist to watch as he took home the Dove Award for New Artist of the Year in 2007 and hasn't slowed down since. The following hits "My Hope Is In You," "Matchless," "God Of Brilliant Lights" and recent "You Redeem" have continued to encourage fans with Biblical truth wrapped in singable choruses and profound lyricism.
Marking yet another milestone for Shust, his first ever live album Love Made A Way released last month and carries the perfect combination of new songs introduced in a powerful atmosphere and older songs finding fresh life in the live setting. We caught up with Aaron at a recent show in Virginia to talk about his heart behind the new album, the unexpected success of "My Savior My God" a decade later and what this current season of life holds for the worship leader as he reflects on the last twelve years.
You've had a fairly long career at this point--over a decade--but this is your first live album. Why now? What made you want to do a live record?
It's crazy. I went out to lunch recently with my old friend Bebo Norman. I told him the story about when I was on my first year of touring, and I was on the road with him. We were on the back of the bus, and he said something to the effect of "man, I've been doing this for twelve years." I was thinking then wow, twelve years. That's remarkable. I'm amazed I've finished one, but he's finished twelve.
So as I grabbed lunch with him the other day, I told him, "dude, this is twelve years for me. I hit twelve years." Maybe that's part of why the live album. I haven't been begging to do one. I think the studio is a lot of fun, a space for creativity to hone and fine-tune and perfect and try to find those crazy instruments. I mean, on my Christmas album I used the bouzouki, the Greek guitar and the Prague Philharmonic, all these sounds that wouldn't have been able to be contrived if it were happening in a live thing.
Enough people over the years have said "you need to do a live record," and I always just said "we'll see." Enough people said that, that when the record label said it was time, I acquiesced and said "okay, let's do it." I'm always a fan of stepping into the unknown.
What was the live recording experience like?
It was good! I worked with Nathan Nockels for the first time. I just recently met him last year, but was always very aware of his work on the live front with all the Passion records.
He was a joy to work with. He's very organized and very efficient with his time, and yet he's not a taskmaster. He keeps us on track, but always with a smile. He always reminds us why we're doing what we're doing. We get to make music. Every once in a while we'd get chatting about something else, and he'd say "hey guys! Let's make music. That's what we love to do." This was at rehearsals leading up to it, and even the day of, when we started to get stressed and we started to get tired, he'd be like "hey guys, let's make music." He was unflappable. Nothing bothered him, nothing ruffled his feathers. That made the whole experience a complete joy.
You had a few features on the record: Molly from Grayson|Reed, Christy Nockels and Matt Hammitt. How did they get involved, and how did they add to the experience?
Sometimes it was just relationship, or the idea of making the songs as unique as possible by bringing in different voices. Matt's an easy one because he wrote on the two songs that he sang on, "You Redeem" and "Heartbeat." He was out west and was flying back home, so he swung by for the day and sang the songs. It was cool to get that all captured on video as well.
Molly, I met her earlier, but also through her husband Mike because I toured with him in 2014 with Mikeschair. They're Grayson|Reed now, they're on Centricity and have fantastic songs.
I met Christy the same time I met Nathan, and obviously with Nathan producing I didn't have to go through too many people to see if she would be willing to sing. I think one of the coolest cameos was that April Geesbreght, who wrote "My Hope Is In You," got to sing with us for that. The fact that she wrote that song and got to sing on it that night was special for me.
Did the writing process and preparation change going into a live recording process instead of the studio?
I don't think it did, I really don't. I think some people will just sit down and try to write the best song possible, and that's a good approach. I have a couple of criteria: I want it to be worship, and what that means to me is I want it to be vertical. I want it to be songs that we're singing directly to God, and not just about Him.
I want it to be congregational. No one knows exactly what that means. If we all could write congregational songs we'd do it every time, but I think that just means catchy. If you hear a song on the radio and it makes you want to sing along, if it makes you want to sing along in church, it just means that it's not too difficult. I think that sometimes worship songs can get a bad rap for being too simple, but the point is simplicity and truth. That doesn't mean I'm looking for shallow; I want truth. Some people will dismiss a song because it's not deep enough, but I think if it's full of truth, it's deep enough for me.
I recently did a writing session where I felt like songs that they had been writing on, they were saying "we don't always have to have all the answers." Maybe there's some truth to that statement--that we don't have to have all the answers--and I hope this doesn't sound too much like a Sunday-school answer, but we do have the Answer. And if that's what makes Christian music different, then I want to sing about having the Answer, even if I don't understand all of life's circumstances. I want to write with a level of authenticity, with a brazenness of believing what I'm saying. Those type of things go into the songwriting, regardless of if it's live or studio.
How has the response been to the new songs so far?
I can only speak from live experience. We did a two week radio tour, and "You Redeem" and "Belong" were two songs that I was pleasantly surprised to hear the crowd fully singing along with. Granted, we had the lyrics up on the screen, but there was some level of familiarity on their part, and it was pretty special to hear a brand-new song being sung along with.
I felt the same way the night of the recording. People came in and we ran through things a couple times. I taught them the chorus before we went into each song which was kind of cool, to just unplug and walk forward and say "okay guys, have you heard this one?" Like half the people would raise their hands. "Okay, well, for the rest of you, here's how the chorus goes." We'd sing it a few times and just have some fun while the people behind us were tuning their guitars and getting ready for another take.
That's how that night felt. It was different. It wasn't a church service, and we don't pretend that it was. It wasn't a church gathering where we played for like 45 minutes straight. We wanted to capture these songs, and if we really enjoyed the way a song felt, we might just do it again. A couple times we did that, which you would never do in concert because that'd be strange. That was a fun allowance. But yeah, the couple shows I've done have been a strong response in a positive way when people were singing along, and that feels pretty good.
Overall, what's the takeaway message you want people to come out of the album with?
Half of the project is highlight moments of songs I've done in the past. With the new ones, I had to narrow down what the title of the record would be. You go everywhere from, "do we just pick the song we think is going to be the lead single" to "do we just call it 'live'--no, that's boring."
You try to find the themes. Between the lyrics in "Lead On (King Eternal)" where I sing "You made a way" and "Death Was Arrested" where it says "love made a way to let mercy come in," that popped up: the fact that God is love, and love making a way to let mercy come in.
My wife always talks about, whenever my kids get depressed about something and say "this is not going to work. I wanted to do this and now we can't," she'll say "what's mommy going to do?" And they always say "mommy's going to make a way," and she says "that's right, I'm absolutely going to make a way." So when that title rose to the surface, I mentioned it to my wife, and she said "that's it. Love made a way." To me, it's the Gospel message summed up in four words. When there was no way, Love made a way. When there seemed to be no way, our good Father made a way for us to have a hope, to have a future, to have something to look forward to.
Going back to talking about those older songs of yours, did you ever think "My Savior My God" would be as big as it ended up being, or that it would still be the song you have to play every night?
No way. It was words coming from an old hymn in those verses, and I fell in love with them from the moment I read them. I remember the title catching my attention: "I Am Not Skilled To Understand." That grabbed my attention because it was an odd title for a hymn, and then just reading through those lyrics, I thought this was something that needed to be sung at our church. So new music was written, and the chorus later on. The whole goal of writing that song was to make it so simple and so accessible that my church family could grab it right away. It was something that encouraged me, and I figured it was something that would encourage them too.
Finally, how can people be praying for you in this season of life?
Pray for our family. It's good to be in Nashville now. The kids are finishing up their first year of school. Michael's got his health issues, but he's doing well. We're just settling in to new life and new ways of life. We haven't even gotten them into music lessons or organized sports yet because that just seems like so much at the end of the day.
I think we're creating a sense of stability and rhythm as a family. Getting involved in the local church was the first thing. We're in a good place. It's time for new songs to be dug up, and here's what I'm learning: the next season is never promised to be the same as the previous season. So when you think it's time to just start over or repeat, you never know what that's going to entail, and I want to be open to that.
I was watching a show the other day, and the kid in the show was growing up and going to college. I was just thinking, my oldest is ten, and that seems young, but those first ten years went by so fast, and in eight years I'll be doing the same thing. Again, the next season is never promised to be the same as the previous season. There's a lot of change just with us moving to Nashville, so pray that the things that need to be stable--like our relationships with each other, our relationship with our God, our journey as a family spiritually--would be stable and strong.