Musician Zachary Smith hopes to cut through the noise to help listeners notice a beautiful, glorious world.
“Aurally and visually, we have a lot of white noise,” he said. “We need to make space for seeing the beauty. The author Ann Voscamp talks about recording things you are thankful for, and when you get in that habit, you start noticing things. There are a myriad of beautiful things around us.”
Mr. Smith was provoked to put those observations to music when Calvary Chapel’s Youth Pastor Kenny Engels suggested he organize the church’s young people into a singing group for their meetings. The 18-year-old singer, who had begun playing guitar two years prior, took up that suggestion, sparking the kindling that has now become the Chattanooga-based band, As Issac.
“Their lyrics are very honest, very life-giving,” Mr. Engels said. “For sure, Zach was made to do what he is doing.”
At the start, Mr. Smith, who is 25 now, said, “I began in earnest to assemble a group of kids that could play something resembling music for our youth group gatherings.” He developed chord charts, lyric sheets, and everything else needed to coordinate a group of volunteers into a singing ensemble. “I learned so much. I was forced to,” he said.
At the time, he saw music as his niche, his way to serve his community, but it wasn’t until after he graduated college with a business administration degree that he began to think of it as a calling.
“Anyone who has ever written a song or played an instrument has gotten some kind of joy out of it,” he said. “And something in the back of people’s heads says, ‘I want to do this for a living.’ Just because you’ve written some songs and even recorded some of them doesn’t mean you should do it for a career. That’s where a lot of people get disenchanted and frustrated and end up resorting to methods that I never wanted to use.
“Growing up, I had the opportunity to be around a lot of musicians and artists, and I saw that it wasn’t glamorous, so I guess I never had a romanticized view of it. To finally come around to admitting that I really would love to do this was a long process.”
Now, Mr. Smith writes songs with Rachel Kelly and performs them with Kristian Croxall and others in the band named As Isaac. They pulled the name from Galatians 4:28, “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise.”
“With all the digital platforms and affordable ways of recording, the music industry has become decentralized,” he said. “If you have a good head on your shoulders, you can do a fairly good recording at home and get it out on iTunes, Soundcloud, or NoiseTrade, totally circumventing all of the traditional channels. It’s a free for all right now.”
Getting their music to listeners, not impressing a particular record label, is the band’s goal at this stage. Several of their songs are available for free (tipping optional) on NoiseTrade.com. Their titles show the explicitly biblical nature of their music: “Song of the Risen Son,” “Living and Active,” “Speak Lord,” and “My Hope and Anchor Stay [I Love You Too].”
“How could I ever bring
To show Your majesty
For Your magnificence
Has overtaken me
So unexpectedly” (from “My Hope and Anchor Stay [I Love You Too]”).
“When you're in ministry full time, there are a few people that are always a pleasure to work with,” said Ritchie Johnson, who leads Singles and College Ministry at Calvary Chapel. “Zach is one of those guys. He's all heart, he loves Jesus and people, and that communicates in his life and his worship. The spirit he brings with him is contagious.”
Mr. Johnson was one of the people who opened a door for As Isaac. He invited them to lead the music for a youth conference at Precept Ministries. They had already recorded their EP, “Hastening the Day,” in the summer of 2011. “I didn’t take it for granted that it was supposed to be anything more than that,” Mr. Smith said, but fans began asking if they had a CD.
“Of course not. Who do you think we are?” he replied, but after a while, Mr. Engels suggested they look into it. “That’s all my sister [Meleah Smith] needed,” Mr. Smith said. “She’s pretty well connected, and before we knew it, she had a great producer who was willing to make an album with us.”
That album, Headed for my Home, is a great collection of songs by and for the church, available through their website, AsIsaac.com.
Though Mr. Smith draws inspiration from the work of artists Charlie Hall, Jon Foreman, Matthew Perryman Jones, and Josh Garrels, his songs aren’t like theirs. “I love artists like that,” he said, “but the ironic part is I’m not one of them. Our music is unashamedly ecclesiastical.”
The songs aren’t typical of Christian hit radio. “Do I have a problem with people doing less-than-excellent work and then stamping the proverbial fish symbol on it drum up business? Absolutely. I don’t feel like taking whatever is on Top 40 radio right now and changing the lyrics a little bit is making a positive contribution.”
We don’t need clones of other successful musicians, he said. We don’t need the next Chris Tomlin.
“Hopefully, we can have people who are honestly blazing a trail. I hope to be more like that, to fit the unique calling God has given me, not fit other people’s mold.
“There’s a line from one of our songs that says, ‘Set your sails on the sea of surrender.’ You can go through life rowing, pushing your own direction, pushing your barrel up the hill, or you can set your sails and say, ‘All right, God. Where are you going? How can I come along?’ That up to this point has been the story of our band and I hope it is the story going forward.”
Phil Wade is a freelance writer and editor. Find him on Twitter: @Brandywinebooks or LinkedIn. He blogs regularly at Brandywinebooks.net.