Exclusive Interview with Russell Fragar: Former Hillsong Music Pastor Talks About "Shout to the Lord" & His New Album "Worship Now"
Once upon a time, there was a little church called Hills Christian Life Centre located right down south in the suburb of Sydney Australia called Castle Hill. The church was just emerging.... they did not own a building, they were struggling financially, they were just tiny in terms of church attenders. But God has birthed with them a big dream. A dream that one day millions would be singing to their music. From humble beginnings senior pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston together with their worship leaders Darlene Zschech, Russell Fragar and Geoff Bullock stepped out in faith. Now, Hillsong Music has revolutionized worship forever. With songs like "Shout to the Lord," "Mighty to Save," "Worthy is the Lamb" and their latest "Glorious Ruins," Hillsong music has made up a huge proportion of worship music sung across churches today.
BreatheCast is privileged enough to spend some time to talk with Hillsong's former worship pastor Russell Fragar for an exclusive interview. Fragar was the man instrumental in getting Hillsong's first International hit album "Shout to the Lord" released. He produced the first 10 albums for Hillsong Live with Darlene Zschech. And he wrote many of their staples such as "People Get Ready," "Love You So Much" and "Holy Spirit Rain Down."
BreatheCast: Let's start with your time with Hillsong Church. Tell our readers, what was your role at Hillsong Church?
We started attending Hillsong simply because it was a great church for our family. Chris and I were in our early 30's, Michelle was aged 5 and Alana was still a baby. I had no intention of becoming involved in the worship team and in fact after years in the music business I had my first normal (ie not in music) job. I was about to sell all my instruments, declare myself fully recovered and become officially a non-musician.
During one service God spoke to me very clearly about becoming involved in the worship team, something I did not want to do at all. So very reluctantly I went to the audition, and began playing on the team. I came from a career as a player then engineer and producer and Hillsong had some great singers and players. I began to music-direct, helping get the best out of all those talented people. I wrote the charts, did the rosters and structured the rehearsals and more; all the usual things.
Hillsong had some good writers in particular the worship pastor Geoff Bullock and so, (encouraged by Chris Falson) I began to float the possibility of a live album. We got the go-ahead from Pastor Brian and, with a very small budget, we made the first one. The combination of good songs that were congregation-friendly, some strong vocals and the live atmosphere was enough to overcome any shortcomings, and the Hillsong live album story had begun.
Eventually, at the age of 39, I made the shift from volunteer to staff person and then became the Music Pastor. In all we were there nearly 14 years, and it was a great adventure that few of us expected to be on.
BreatheCast: One of Hillsong's most pivotal albums was the album and song "Shout to the Lord." How did the album come about? Did you expect the album to be so huge?
We had just made our third live album, "People Just Like Us" and the church wanted to see if there would be any interest beyond the shores of Australia. The few copies of albums that found their way to the US had made people very curious. At that time Vineyard and Integrity-Hosanna were the main sources of song for worship teams and the relatively raucous, raw Hillsong sound was a stark contrast.
We visited a number of record companies in the USA and they were surprisingly open. Eventually we signed with Integrity and they proposed an album that would be all new recordings of the best of the old and the new. Darlene's great song "Shout to the Lord" was becoming very well known in the USA so it was a natural title song for the new project although I had to fight Integrity to get it on there. They had other plans for the song but we all now agree the right thing happened.
No-one had any idea that this would become such a huge album. There were lots of contributing factors but in the end you can only say it was something that God did and we were all along for the ride. We made a conscious decision to not over-think things and stay focused on having great church every Sunday. That gave us 52 creative steps every year. I think that was a vital element in keeping everything healthy.
BreatheCast: After being with Hillsong for all those years, why did you leave?
It was decision that took some time to make. Hillsong Music was essentially built- the structure and the culture. I think I am at my happiest getting things up and running rather than maintaining them but that's what my role was increasingly becoming. I had fewer avenues to be creative, and I am a creative person.
Another big factor was the emergence of a new generation. The United team were writing great songs and exciting the world with what they were doing. Very clearly it would be just a few short years before Joel and the guys would be the Hillsong play-makers. The last thing I wanted was to be in their way or make them second guess themselves.
I love them and greatly admire what they have done. It is stunning. At the same time I have to be responsible for what God has placed in my own life, and what I am called to do. I had to ask myself if I wanted to sit around reminiscing or if I still had another adventure in me. I signed up for the adventure. It's an easy call if you forget how to be afraid.
I'm sure some people thought there was more to it but that's how it was; totally my call and a good one. I took a couple of years to ease myself out and we headed out to live in the USA. The USA has been wonderful to us, fully accepting and encouraging.
BreatheCast: Tell us what is your current role now at The Life Church in Virginia?
The Life Church (welovechurch.com) is a fast growing church in the outer suburbs of Washington and I'm the worship pastor. We have undergone a huge transformation in the last 6 years, from a few hundred people meeting in an Elks Lodge (the most "unique" building I have ever seen) to a much bigger, more modern building which we are outgrowing after just a year. It is very exciting and rewarding. Lives are being changed every week and lots of people find Christ there. We have all the challenges of growth and life. Definitely living on the edge.
The worship team is absolutely awesome. We have some amazing singers, great players, a great production team and every Sunday is very real. You feel the presence of God.
My goal is to create a healthy environment where everyone can flourish and grow.
BreatheCast: We love your new album "Worship Now," but why did you wait such a long time to release this album?
Thank you, that's very kind. There are so many very good worship recordings around that you have to ask "Is there really room for another one?"
Eventually I believed these were good, unique songs and people would enjoy them. The singers and players were great, and we could make a good sounding project. Enough boxes had a check in them.
I also considered the fact that as a team we had been given much and so much was required. So we began.
Then about halfway through the recording we added Tom Jones' guitars and it all started to make sense. The album that was in my head started to appear. We were also able to have Ron Davis mix the project which was the final seal...I was thrilled.
I am so glad that we went ahead.
BreatheCast: I notice that your family and your church are very much behind this record. Tell us about their involvement.
I guess it is an answered prayer. Two of our daughters are on the worship team and they are truly wonderful singers. Michelle is well known to many people because of her part as a singer and writer in the Hillsong United story. She is now married with a new last name (Baird) and an American baby on the way.
And Kimi (Martin), our youngest, also married, a mother and expecting again, has been a wonderful part of our worship team here and brings her unique and beautiful voice to the project.
Michelle's husband Jordan Baird sings many of the songs. He is amazing and we are so blessed to have him on the team. The final great voice belongs to Jordan's brother Josh. He also contributed a powerful song to the project.
In addition, Kimi's husband Zach Martin plays some of the great guitar parts.
I wouldn't have made this album if not for the encouragement of Pastor David Baird. He didn't really push, he just made it seem like a good idea. The church funded the album in an offering last year, so I was committed. After I had been working on it for about half an hour I thought "What have I got myself into?" but by then I had no option but to finish it. The project became my after-hours friend for the next few months.
BreatheCast: What is unique about your album is that it is very much keyboard driven while many worship albums nowadays are guitar orientated. Do you see keyboard-driven music as the future direction of worship music?
It is true that for many years most people's picture of a worship leader was a guitar playing guy. However I have noticed recently that on worship records there are lots of keyboard sounds appearing again. The pendulum swings constantly, I just try to not get hit by it as it passes overhead every few years. Piano is my personal voice so I am pretty happy to be in season again.
BreatheCast: I really love "Welcome Here" the final cut on your new album "Worship Now." It has a very intimate perspective to it. How did you come to write this song?
I became a Christian as a child. The most surprising thing to me at the time was the very real sense that God was living in me: at the time I prayed a prayer inviting Jesus to "live in my heart". Then as the years went by I collected some extra things and put them in my heart too. There was some unforgiveness, some pride, some fear and other things as well.
The space I had given Jesus had become a cluttered mess full of things that I knew had no right being there. The guest room had become the junk room while the guest was still living in it! I wondered how different my life would be if my heart were the place Jesus preferred to be instead of the place He was contracted to be, a place He could enjoy not a place to tolerate.
My heart is an ongoing project but starting is a good step.
BreatheCast: Out of all the songs on your new record, which are your favorites? And why?
Different songs for different reasons. "Worship Now", "Be Exalted", "The Whole Earth" and the other worship songs are various attempts to write the same thought- bringing glory to God's name. "Welcome Here" for the reasons we talked about. "You Looked For Me" is also personal. "Rise Up" is a song that makes you want to play. Michelle's song "Shadow Of The Cross" is very profound and personal. I like them all.
BreatheCast: God has certainly gifted you as a songwriter, I love your composition for Don Moen "Throne of Praise." Are you currently writing for other artists?
Very kind. No but I would love to. I do have a unique process though which unfortunately seems to involve all the usual stages of grief. I need to learn how to play with the other children. I think I will pursue that though. Great thought!
BreatheCast: For readers of Breathecast who would like to purchase your new album and/or find out more about you, how can they do that?
The easiest way is to download through iTunes, Amazon or CD Baby. If you want the physical CD (lots of people still prefer that) you can buy it from Amazon or CD Baby. Lots of options!