Guitarist and singer Chris Llewellyn is a Northern Irish musician with a Welsh name and an Australian father. Baffled? Welcome to the quirky world of the Rend Collective…
“It all gets very confusing,” drawls Chris Llewellyn in his laconic Nor’n Irish accent. “Trust me, I’m Irish!” That playful approach sets the tone for our interview in much the same way as it sets the tone for Rend Collective’s latest album, The Art of Celebration.
“For us, we realise that seriousness isn’t a fruit of the Spirit,” Chris explains. “But joy is. We need to cultivate joy with the same kind of discipline as we talk about any other spiritual fruit.
“There’s nothing automatic about joy – it’s something we have to chase. It’s been really exciting working through that and trying to figure out how that sounds musically. We’ve been trying to write congregational songs that really speak to that idea.
“That’s one of the things that I love about the album. There are songs about pure joy and then it has an awful lot of songs that, really oddly, could be called laments.” Confusing as ever, Chris continues to explain the reasoning behind the laments.
“It’s kind of this idea of praise out of sorrow – that’s quite a common theme on the record. Praise within difficulty. It’s exciting for us to see the impact that this could have on the church, giving people vocabulary to sing and talk about this kind of thing.”
This groundedness within the church is one of the admittedly rather odd but wonderful things about the Rend Collective. They’re far more than just a band, though the touring group has now dropped to a fab five.
“It all started with a Bible study community in Bangor and there were about 100 people in it,” Chris says.
“It was just a coincidence, or maybe providence that there were a lot of artists there. There are probably about 30 people contributing to the projects at any one time. That doesn’t mean that we’re all standing on stage. The biggest number of people we’ve ever had on stage is 14.
“The Collective describes anybody who contributes in any way. It’s everything from crafting songs to designing t-shirts, to designing album art, playing the instruments we can’t really play. We do nearly everything that we do ‘in-house’ and try to always look within our original group.”
It didn’t start off this way, though. Despite the fact that providence threw a few creatives together, it was a long time before that transformed into the folk-playing phenomenon that has now broken through in the US.
Having begun touring in 2001, the group found fame for their unique blend of ‘bespoke’ worship (their first album was called ‘Homemade Worship By Handmade People’) in 2007.
“We were in this Bible study and there wasn’t much music there and it wasn’t very ‘artsy’. It was just coming, trying to work out our faith in God in our early twenties and doing that in the simplest way possible. Sometimes there would be a guitar, but it wasn’t the point.
“For five years, we didn’t even make music together. Then we started writing some songs out of that journey that we’d gone on together in terms of faith and unity. We did that in obscurity for a long time in Northern Ireland. The really lovely thing is that the same community is on the road together now.”
Although it sounds like a pretty idyllic life, touring the world with your mates and making a living out of it, a lot of work actually goes in to keeping the Rend Collective together and growing.
“It’s remarkably difficult,” laughs Chris. “Managing people is always really difficult. But it’s also really worth it,” he adds, after a pause.
“I think without people, there’s very little joy to be found in music, even though that’s an obvious thing to say. You know, if we were doing this by ourselves, isolated out on the road, we would hate that. Feeling like we’re a part of something larger than just the touring band helps us to keep going in many ways.
“It hasn’t really stopped for us. We’re much more of a family on the road, than a band. We’re able to keep that sense of spiritual community alive on the road. We’re able to still have those conversations about faith, and life, and God, and community. We’ve been given some awesome messages since we came out on the road.”
Indeed, communicating a message seems to be what the Rend Collective are all about – at least, when they’re being a band. The songs which have won them a following of fans that come in all shapes, sizes and ages have hit home more because of the message than the music.
“I guess we’ve learned that people really love a message more than they care about music,” Chris opines.
“We write songs that we can imagine the church singing – that’s why we do it. We write to resource the church. That creates some challenges, because we also want to bring something fresh and something new. It’s a big shift of gear when you’re trying to bring the church along. But if you write songs with content that the whole church can go along with, they find it easier to go along with the music.
“I think that stories and messages are way more captivating than music. I guess the thought process behind the new album is what really gets me going.”
Success might bring its challenges, but gaining a huge following in the US has certainly made life sweeter for Rend Collective in some ways too.
“For me, the main highlight has been being able to lead worship in our own style,” says Chris, happily.
“There’s a certain tipping point with leading worship where you can transition from playing other people’s songs in their style to playing our songs with our voice as a band. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to sing our hearts’ message, bring people along with us and also have our artistic vision on it. It’s very fulfilling.”