Ep. 059: Jonathan Ogden of Rivers & Robots
Art & Jesus
In our second week of looking into devotion, glory, and art, we chat with Jonathan Ogden – lead singer of Rivers & Robots. Jonathan tells us about the purpose of the music of Rivers & Robots and also the work they do at Set Sail. Set Sail is an organization that “aim[s] to make God known through creative worship – be it music, design, video or any kind of art.” Along with last week’s episode, we ask him how he works through “receiving praise” for his work. He gives some great insight into this.
Isaac Dagneau: Well, it’s great to be chatting with Jonathan Ogden today. He’s part of the indie worship band Rivers & Robots from the UK. I’d imagine he does many other things as well, but anyways, it’s great to have you on the show today Jonathan.
Jonathan Ogden: Thanks, man, good to be here.
Isaac Dagneau: Before we get into the purpose of Rivers & Robots, some other personal stuff, and some art and faith topics, let me just ask, for all of us who are not quite familiar with who you are personally, who are and what do you do? Personally, and also your music life?
Jonathan Ogden: Yeah, so I’m Jonathan. I’m from Manchester in the UK. I’m basically a creative guy all around. I’ve been involved in graphic design and web design, a little bit of filmmaking, and now music.
I’ve grown up in church, my dad was one of the elders at the church. I’ve always just grown up with that background. I used to work as a graphic designer at a company called the Message Trust, a Christian organization. So I was doing that for about 5 years, basically just pursuing – well, I basically wanted to work at Pixar or, like, just do graphic design as a freelance job. And then I started this band as kind of a side project. It was my evenings and weekends. It eventually grew into being one of my main projects. Graphic design is now my side project.
Isaac Dagneau: That’s awesome. And, obviously, some of us have heard about Set Sail. What exactly is that?
Jonathan Ogden: Yeah so Set Sail is an organization we set up a couple of years ago, and the vision of it is basically to make God known through creative worship. It’s all about making art that’s about Jesus and who He is, whether that’s through music or video or any kind of creative expression that we can do that tells people about who God is. And then we also want to encourage and equip other artists to do the same thing, whether it’s through providing really practical resources like how to make a track, or design stuff, or just more inspirational stuff – inspiring creative people to use what they’ve got basically, and use it to make God known.
Isaac Dagneau: Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, as you say that, if the purpose of Set Sail is to make God known through creative things, obviously you didn’t just get there, because, by nature, we’re all depraved and we don’t really want to make God known.
So how did you come to know who God is to a point where you actually want to give your life to making Him known?
Jonathan Ogden: Yeah, as I said, I grew up in church and I think throughout growing up in childhood I always had that understanding of who God was, just from hearing enough teaching. I kind of had this knowledge and vague concept of who God. Yeah, it was a belief that He exists and that He was real, and that I was probably going to heaven and that’s enough. But it didn’t really affect me to be in a real relationship until I was about the age of sixteen and I just got to this point where I was like,
“I just know a lot of things about God but I don’t know if I actually know Him as another Person.”
And I heard a lot of people talking about having their relationship with Jesus, and the more I heard about it it was like, “I don’t know if I have that,” and it just became a real journey with me from that point. I prayed the whole “prayer of salvation” probably like ten times just to make sure. It’s one of those things where I didn’t have that dramatic, like, one-time conversion experience. But somewhere along that journey that happened. So then, from about the age of sixteen and onwards it just really became real and I started actually feeling like I had the relationship with God and not just knowledge about him – a concept in my mind.
Isaac Dagneau: That’s really cool. Is there any specific passage or even book in the Bible, or maybe even a book from a Christian author that really, I don’t know, spoke to you during that time, that you’ve gone back to many times just to be fed?
Jonathan Ogden: Yeah. The gospels were a big thing. I like just reading through the four gospels and seeing the life of Jesus – trying to actually encounter the Person in the book and not just read it as a story.
And for me, one of my favourite passages is Isaiah 40. It talks about preparing the way of the Lord. It’s that whole thing of like, obviously, it speaks about John the Baptist as well, but,
I really felt that call on my life to be someone that prepares the way for Jesus.
And I think in the same way that John the Baptist made Jesus known before He came, he spoke about who He was and lived this radical lifestyle. Basically, his life was to point people to Jesus. I think that’s something that God’s doing now as well. The “John the Baptist” movement is happening; people are just going to point people to Jesus.
Isaac Dagneau: I think that’s awesome, in fact, that’s funny that you say that because one of my all time favourite verses in the Bible – pretty much John the Baptist says, you know, “I want to decrease, so that He can increase.” And I just think that should be the humble heart for every Christian. I want to decrease so that He may increase. That’s really cool. And I kind of hear you say that.
Now, Rivers & Robots specifically has really taken off in the last few years. I remember first stumbling across a batch of six or so songs on Noisetrade, I think it was a little EP thing you guys put together. The question is, what is the band’s overall aim in its efforts in pushing out music all over the world? What is your hope in it all?
Jonathan Ogden: Yeah, so when I first started it was a solo project. It was just me in my bedroom. I used to make these songs on my laptop. And basically, I was learning to lead worship at the same time because I felt God was calling me into – I was kind of involved in worship bands at church, but I felt like He was calling me to lead in it. So basically I just spent a year at home singing songs and just learning how to worship in my own home.
And in that process of worshipping at home, I started to write songs as well and these songs would come out that were, I suppose, just my natural expression of worship – songs I felt coming out of my heart. So I just recorded those. And my aim with recording them was always to really explore the creativity in the musical side of things as well. And just, that whole belief that God is a creative God and made us to be creative, and I think you can worship Him through the words and all the content that’s in the song, but also musically, at a level of creativity where that is part of the worship as well – the craft of making actual music in the song.
And I was aware that the style of songs I was writing probably wouldn’t fit on a Sunday morning, congregational sound, but I guess that was never my aim in the first place. I wanted to just create something that had some beauty about it and it would point people to Jesus. I think it’s got a double aim of, I mean, it’s always to make God known, the same thing as Set Sail, but, I think part of that is to the church and to people who already know Jesus, but I think there’s always more you can see in those, the different sides as well, and I think, just wanting to go really deep in exploring who Jesus is and then put that into song and into words.
But then also for people who don’t know Jesus at all and maybe don’t have that relationship, like, if we can bring some of that to the world as well and see people meet Him through the songs that’d be awesome.
Isaac Dagneau: I love that. And what I like about your songs as well is that they often- they’ll have a line from Scripture, so, “In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” it’s like, “Oh! That’s Colossians! That clicks!” That’s good because if you want to teach people about God you got to teach people what He said about Himself, right? So I think that’s really cool.
And the other thing you said about putting just as much time and effort into creatively displaying the music and the melodies and the instrumentation, I think that’s really cool. Last week I was just talking to Zach Bolen from Citizens & Saints, and in the same way (their new album just came out, A Mirror Dimly, in the fall), I said this to him as well and I can say it totally with albums like the Eternal Son for you guys, is that, I love being able to put on an album that I know is theologically solid (because that’s important to me), but at the same time actually interesting to listen to. It’s not just listening to a new CCM worship album. It’s like, “Oh! There is good music here!”
Jonathan Ogden: I love that A Mirror Dimly album as well. It’s been on repeat a lot for me.
Isaac Dagneau: Yeah! I like how they went back to- their one before that was very poppy-synthy, but for this next one it was a little more raw again. And I really enjoyed that.
Now, all of us, and when I say all of us I mean like, every Christian and non-Christian, but we’re specifically talking about Christians, all of us can be tempted to pride ourselves in the praise that we receive from our work. And I imagine that, I mean, you guys do get praise and that’s good – you guys need to know that you are doing a good work and to see the fruit of that.
But have you personally, I guess the question is: have you personally felt the temptation to receive that glory for the work that you do? How have you walked through that?
Jonathan Ogden: Yeah, I think it’s definitely one of those things that is on my mind a lot and it’s one of those things that I’m very aware of because I think in anything that’s performance based or creative in the sense where you’re creating work where people are going to listen and enjoy, I think there’s always a danger in that you’re kind of in the firing line for being someone that’s going to receive a lot of emails of like, “Oh this is amazing,” and yeah, I think it’s really important to watch that pride doesn’t come in in that kind of environment.
For me, I really want to pursue humility in every area of life. One of the main quotes that I love about humility is C.S. Lewis’s one that’s probably quoted a lot, but, it talks about humility being not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. And I think it just basically comes down to how much we’re focused on ourselves and our own thing, and do we have a need to get approval for what people say about us or do you already know that we have that approval from God? Like, we’re not as affected by whether people like what we create or not.
People used to say in my church, “Oh Jonathan’s really humble,” but they were basically meaning that I was quite shy and quiet. It was almost a reverse of that because I ended up, when I was growing up as a teenager, I was like really insecure about what people thought about me, and so, I would stay really quiet and stay behind the scenes. But it wasn’t a humility thing, it was almost more a pride thing because I was so bothered of what people thought about me that I didn’t want to show myself to anyone.
I actually feel like some of the most humble people are also the most confident.
Sometimes they seem like opposites, but I just think they really go together.
The people that are really humble are the people that know they have their identity in God and they’re secure in that.
They’re not so focused on themselves that the words people say about them are going to affect them. They’re just confident to be who they are.
I think it also comes down to not being rude to the people that like your stuff as well. Because I know the people that come up and say “That’s great” and then you say, “It wasn’t me it was Jesus.” I think God has given us gifts and we are able to create things and that’s a good thing.
I heard someone say, I can’t remember who originally said it now, but it’s about a bouquet of flowers. People coming and giving you compliments is like be handed flowers, but then you gather them up and give the whole thing to God at the end. It’s like, you say thanks to the people that come and compliment the things you create, but then at the end of it you just give glory to God for what you’ve done because He gave you the gift in the first place.
The only reason you’re making stuff is because it comes from Him.
Isaac Dagneau: Yes, exactly! And that’s a good point. And I like, I understand that when someone comes up to you after a show and say, “Aw, that was so refreshing,” and if you just tell them, “No it’s all God,” it’s like, well, you know, they want to be able to give that to you! That’s a gift for them, for you to receive that. And I love that analogy, you know, gather them up, then give them to God. That is actually really cool.
Now, there’s a ton to say regarding art and faith. I mean that is a huge subject in and of itself. Books and conferences and all that kind of stuff are talking about art and faith and the marriage of them. All of these different things and how they work together.
So the question is: what’s one thing you’ve learned about this marriage between the two, or not marriage, that you could encourage others with? Especially those Christians that would call themselves creatives or artists? The target audience for Set Sail?
Jonathan Ogden: I would basically encourage anyone (I think we all have a level of creativity, but I think some people more – like they want to go into a more creative role and that’s something they want to do in their life), I would just encourage real freedom in that creativity. I think there is sometimes a temptation to simplify and limit some of the things that we create whether it’s writing songs where people might say “Oh, make that simpler so people can sing it,” or you’ll be making a film and someone might say, “Make the metaphor more obvious so that people can grasp it easier,” and I think there is an element of truth in that, but at the same time I think we need to be really free to create what’s in our hearts. Create and be as creative as we can be.
And I come back to, I believe God is creative and that’s how He made us. When He made us in His image I believe that is a big part of it, that He gave us that gift of being able to create and make things. I think He delights in that stuff as well and takes real joy in when we actually create beautiful things.
And I also feel like, particularly in this culture right now, art and creativity are such a great tool to communicate things. I think art and creativity are some of the great influencers in our culture at the moment. One of the things that influences society and culture as a whole is like, our songs and our films and our, you know, the things that we create.
I think there’s a responsibility, almost a greater responsibility, on artists today to carry that message of who Jesus is and who God is.
And I think, realizing that you’re not just creating art and doing it because it’s nice and it’s fun, but actually realizing that if people listen to that, you’re sharing the message of Jesus through your art. And that can be something that shapes the whole of culture and society that we’re in now.
It’s a big responsibility to be able to create.
Isaac Dagneau: Yeah, as you say that I’m just thinking about how the majority of our generation is shaped by the music that they’re listening to on their iTunes Top 20 and how every single day, but mostly weekends, people flock to a building to watch movies, you know? So you just see, you’re so right, that art plays a massive role in shaping and teaching and indoctrinating our culture – especially our generation.
And of course, we as creative Christians should be grabbing that opportunity to be like, “Oh man, people are so shaped by art! We need to be talking about Jesus through this! We have friends passing by on either side believing things and going after this career opportunity and believing in these morals based on the music they’re listening to and the movies that they’re watching.” I think that’s a great point. We need to be doing that.
For those Christians who, you know, they listen to your music, they listen to other Christian artists and are inspired to do that as well but sort of feel overwhelmed with the idea of “How can I actually make and record music? The thought of going to some recording studio and all the money that’s poured into that, I can’t do that! I’m in school, I got a spouse and a kid, what am I supposed to do!?” What could you say to them?
Jonathan Ogden: Yeah, well, one of the great things about the time we’re living in now is that you don’t necessarily need all that stuff to create music.
I mean, technically none of our albums have been done in studios.
The first two was a laptop and one microphone and a midi keyboard. That was all I used. The third and fourth albums we hired in more gear, but we still made it all in our homes and rooms we found in our church. I would just say to start making things with what you have, even if you just have one beat up guitar or a mic on an iPhone.
You can start creating things with whatever you have.
Gear does help to a certain level, but it’s not the most important thing. Yeah, I think anyone can be at a point where they’re creating things.
I always say to songwriters first starting off – people always come to me because they want to put out a full-length album straight away and have it produced in “this” style. I normally say “Just record one song, and be happy with it. Put it out online, stick it on SoundCloud or something. Just start to put out something that you create, and you don’t have to build towards your big end goal in the first thing that you ever do. Just start where you’re at.”
Isaac Dagneau: That’s good encouragement. Just do the one thing. We can get so overwhelmed with trying to think, “How do I get from here to there, the end goal?” You got to take the first step.
Hey Jonathan, if people want to hear more about you, Rivers & Robots, or Set Sail, what’s the best thing that they can do?
Jonathan Ogden: Our website for Set Sail is timetosetsail.com, and on there we post a lot of different things we do, whether that’s the band or the worship nights here in Manchester. We also have a YouTube channel now. We basically post a blog every Friday of behind the scenes of what we do. We talk about what we’re working on and we help people feel a part of the journey. You can also follow us on all those social media things.
Isaac Dagneau: I’ve actually watched a couple of the vlogs. It’s just good to see, “Oh, this is the life of an artist that I listen to. This is what they actually sound like, and this is the banter they have back and forth.” So, it’s a lot of fun!
But anyways, Jonathan, thank you so much for taking some time out of your day to be able to chat with me on just a variety of little topics. I just want to say thank you so much for that, that was great.