Irish folk band Rend Collective is one of the most influential and iconoclastic Christian music groups internationally. They've achieved success with their unique and catchy folk-style sound. The musical and lyrical excitement of Rend Collective's engaging live performances is captured in all their recordings. They named their band based on the scripture Joel 2:13, "Rend your hearts, not your garments."
Band leaders Ali and Gareth Gilkeson are the masterminds behind Rend Collective.
Ali is one of the most prominent female Christian music artists worldwide. She’s written many well-known songs used in worship and praise services. Apart from being the band's co-founder, she’s performed and led worship individually and collectively with the band at some of the most prominent and distinguished events in the music industry. She’s also a social media icon, a celebrated musician who’s helped change and widen the perception of Christian music.
Gareth has a strong reputation as one of the most prominent Christian music artists worldwide. He has written some 100 or so well-known songs used in worship and praise services. His song “My Lighthouse,” cowritten with fellow band member Chris Llewellyn, recently achieved Platinum status for selling over 1,000,000 copies.
In connection with their first-ever children’s album, Sparkle. Pop. Rampage., and children’s book release, I had the chance to speak with Ali and Gareth about their history in founding the band and what they’ve been up to this past year.
Ali, you helped create and develop Rend Collective. Over the years, you’ve written, sang, performed, and toured the world as the band's only female member. What do you think is unique about the artistic style of this music and, in particular, your voice as a female worship leader, soloist, and band spokesperson?
Ali: I feel like growing up I didn’t see a lot of females on stage upfront with the band, and when I decided to become an artist what I really wanted to bring to Rend Collective and the worship movement was a female who could worship freely and lead the way in that. I believe I was one of the first female artists to be seen drumming on stage and playing weird Irish instruments in a unique way and opening the way for other female artists to express themselves and not be afraid to stand out. I remember when we first started touring, people would ask, “why is that girl hitting a trash can”? This has really opened the gateway for freedom in worship.
Gareth, your song “My Lighthouse,” which you co-wrote with Chris Llewellyn, recently achieved a remarkable Platinum status for selling over 1,000,000 copies. What inspires your songwriting?
Gareth: Every song comes from an idea or a melody. I literally grew up on the coastline in Ireland and every time you went for a walk, you’d see about 10 lighthouses. Something that has been key for me in the songwriting process is to write music for myself and not someone else, being honest to my voice. I’ve been reading and thinking a lot. My piano is set up in my guest bathroom and the acoustics are great in there. It’s a fun place to write songs, as well as think and pray through lyrics. If I can be honest with my struggles and my faith, I hope others can relate to that.
Ali, what you co-wrote for Rend Collective’s second album helped establish the band’s style and mission. Tell us about your songwriting contribution to Homemade Worship and how it ultimately launched Rend Collective’s international career in 2012.
Ali: I’ve always enjoyed working on albums and writing songs. Our breakout album was exciting for us to hear played on the radio. I wrote a song called “True Intimacy” on that album. And, we still play “Build Your Kingdom Here” at every concert. It’s been a real privilege to be involved in developing the album and to have my voice come through. It's also been an honor for me as an artist.
Gareth, you're the leader of the band. What was the inspiration you had for forming the band considering all the competition in the Christian music industry? Also, what was it that you felt was truly unique about its artistic style?
Gareth: I suppose competition is never a word I would think of in why you start something. We started the band because we felt like we should. There was no one writing the type of music we were in the worship space. We started writing music because we’ve seen younger people leaving the church. We wanted to be unique and new and have an influence on the worship genre. We wouldn’t have known that unless artists had told us that people have said they wanted to sound like us. Chris Tomlin invited us to tour with him because of our unique sound. We’d like to keep making new and fresh expressions of music to appeal to the younger generation.
Within both the Christian and mainstream music fields alike, one of the greatest honors a musician can receive is to be invited to perform for Pope Francis. You personally performed and spoke to a massive crowd during the pope's visit to Dublin a few years ago. In what way was your interaction with the audience different than other typical performances? What did you say?
Ali: It was a special moment for me to connect with a large crowd, and to share about the joy of the Lord and experiencing the Holy Spirit in a way that connected with them. My art and my performances are always about making people feel special and bringing them on the journey with us. Being the only female protestant on stage was historical for me personally.
Gareth: For me as an artist, the why of what I do is helping people find freedom and joy, which comes from chasing after God’s will in my life. The joy of the Lord is my strength. It makes me free. Following God releases me to be who I am meant to be. For the crowd in Dublin, people were excited to see the Pope. It was mind-blowing that a band from Northern Ireland could be the only protestant band to play for the Pope (it was a huge moment for everyone). Definitely, a career highlight.
In your 12-plus years performing, recording, and touring as a worship leader and performer, do you have a favorite album—one that means most to you personally?
Ali: Homemade Worship by Handmade People really launched our career. It has always connected with me personally. It gave us the opportunity to expand our audience and travel to the U.S. to play concerts across the country. That was a special album for me, for sure.
Gareth: Looking back, The Art of Celebration, which has “My Lighthouse,” and Good News, which has “Counting Every Blessing,” are two of my favorite albums. For a group that doesn’t sound like a radio band, to have a hit song on the radio was really a blessing for us. We're a band who makes music for everybody.
Your recordings are being played and being covered by other artists now worldwide. Is there any country whose reception to your unique style of Christian music surprised you the most?
Ali: Germany and mainland Europe really stood out to me. English is not their native language and ticket sales and album sales have done well there. When we traveled to these places, it was humbling to hear our own songs sung back to us in another language. It was breathtaking and an amazing moment to be part of.
Gareth: Opening for Christian contemporary icon Chris Tomlin and playing in our hometown of Belfast were memorable. We played at soldout shows in Germany, which was jaw-dropping. In Germany, we were asked to play our song, “Boldly I Approach.” We don’t normally play the song in concert. When we played it, the crowd went crazy. And, when we finished playing, the crowd kept singing the song in German. I found out later it was the most-sung church song in Germany that year. That caught me by complete surprise.
Many Christian artists tend to safely perform to church audiences. Rend Collective is known for taking bolder steps by performing religious music and offering worship services to much wider secular audiences. How do you get away with this? Why do you think that secular audiences resonate with your personal testimonies and with other members of the band?
Ali: There’s a lot of grace in being Irish, isn’t there? We write music that is inclusive and doesn’t push people away. We’ve made it our mission to partner with large organizations like World Vision, which doesn’t focus on Christians only but changing the world regardless of a faith tradition. Creating songs that have biblical truth and a sound that bridges the gap that resembles something you might hear in a pub on a Saturday night was our whole goal in starting the band.
Gareth: I think Jesus’s mission was to be inclusive. Sometimes the church is so worried that being inclusive waters down what it means to be a Christian. Jesus seemed interested in connecting with people. He spent time with people and wasn’t always with the “right crowd.” Jesus was perfect, but He recognized the people who needed help. We write worship music for people who don’t go to church. That’s our ethos. We play in whatever arena is well-known for music, and not necessarily just churches. We are honest in our songwriting.
What made you decide to use authentic Irish instruments in your performances and recordings? Tell me what instruments do you enjoy playing most, and how they change the energy of a performance?
Ali: I love incorporating Irish and old folk instruments in our performances. It’s unusual at our concerts to see a girl pick up an accordion or mandolin and start playing them on stage, during worship. I’ve always enjoyed bringing our culture to what we do. (my favorite instrument is a hurdy-gurdy). I love bringing joy into worship. Growing up, we would see worship as being serious; you needed a straight face and an intense look. You can express yourself and have joy in worshiping the Lord. Ultimately, my goal is to point people to Jesus in a fun and unique way.
Gareth: I love to play a Jingling Johnny. It’s an old folk instrument that was used in pubs. The floors are wooden and hollow and banging it on the floor has the effect of a bass drum. I ended up making my own instrument. I was a percussion teacher in Ireland. I would get teenage boys together and we would play all the percussion instruments I could find. Rhythm and percussion instruments are an accessible part of the music. You tend to watch the drummer at concerts and orchestras.
Ali and Gareth, what quality of personal interaction do you have with your audiences through social media? Ali, your individual Instagram account now has reached the “Influencer” status benchmark. Tell me about your typical Instagram follower and what you communicate to them.
Ali: I love connecting with people. I always try to communicate about loving the Lord and loving your kids. People who are struggling come to me with questions. Just being a voice for people can be difficult--especially as a parent and a woman. But, connecting with people and helping them feel heard and understood is a big part of what I do on social media.
Gareth: Podcasts allow for a conversation and nuance, and that’s something I’m excited about. We have a season of 10 episodes coming out and there seems to be a good reception for that.
Ali, you and your husband recently completed a children’s book to compliment your work as an artist, speaker, and worship leader. As a mother yourself, what would you personally tell other mothers about your motivation and goal for writing the book?
Ali: We would get a lot of messages about how thousands of churches were using the message of “My Lighthouse” for their Vacation Bible School week. And, we were passionate about having something visually that children could look at and read that would go along with the message of the song. It was a fun experience to write the book and work with the illustrators. I love reading to our kids and watching their imaginations run wild. “My Lighthouse” is a story about a little boy who wants to be normal. He goes on an adventure to bring people safely to shore. God is the light in our lives that will guide us home. People can relate to that story. I love kids and anyway I can be creative and point them to Jesus makes me happy.
Gareth: When you become a parent, you get involved in all sorts of things for kids. I’ve always wanted to speak in places where others aren’t speaking. Looking at faith-based music and books, I couldn’t find much I liked for my kids. My wife and I had so much feedback about “My Lighthouse” that we decided to write a book about it.
What’s next for each of you and Rend Collective?
Ali: There’s always hope that we can go back to feeling safe being in community. We plan to get back to outdoor festivals. As soon as everything is safe and available, we’ll be out touring with our accents and weird instruments. We miss it so much. I can’t wait to write new songs that have been inspired by this time. People need something real. We’ll keep busy and keep trying to impact the worship genre as much as we can and getting back face to face with people.
Gareth: I think getting together is a huge thing. I hope we can all get in rooms and up close and personal again. They are meaningful and big moments in people’s lives. I hope when we get together, we don’t take it for granted anymore.
NRT lead contributor Kevin Davis is a longtime fan of Christian music, an avid music collector, and credits the message of Christian music for leading him to Christ. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and three daughters.
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