Interview with Maranatha! Music recording artist, Shelly E. Johnson

Recently I received an email encouraging me to give a listen to a new song, “All Things Beautiful,” by Shelly E. Johnson. This expected top song is a part of her EP release, Power of the Cross due out in August 2012.

Her label debut is a powerful collection of songs helmed by acclaimed Dove Award-winning producer Phil Sillas. The project spotlights Shelly’s gift as a songwriter, vocalist and pianist. Her poignant ballad and debut single, “All Things Beautiful,” acknowledges life’s baffling challenges yet echoes with the hope of God’s goodness and sovereignty.

The album also includes “Power of the Cross,” a song Shelly was inspired to write while volunteering at the Nashville Rescue Mission, a shelter that ministers to the homeless of middle Tennessee. Two Wednesdays a month, for four years, Shelly led worship for morning chapel at the Hope Center, the branch of the Rescue Mission devoted solely to women and children. Shelly recalls, “One morning our speaker talked about the cross and explained to these women – some who were hearing it for the first time – what Christ did on the cross and how it could change their lives. She held up a wooden cross and said, ‘Some of you have been living in chains with drug addiction, abuse, all the things keeping you from embracing Christ, and it’s time to let these things go and embrace the life God has for you.’ She then encouraged the women, if they were ready, to come forward and lay their chains at the foot of the cross.” As the women began to come forward, one by one laying down their chains before Jesus, tears streaming down their faces, Shelly was deeply moved. “It was one of the most powerful things I’d ever experienced. I came home, sat at my piano, and began playing and singing the song, as though it had already been written. It was a gift from God.” In the years that followed, as Shelly continued volunteering at the Hope Center, “Power of the Cross” became a life song to many of the women involved in the ministry.

Shelly is a native of the Atlanta area where she grew up in a strong Christian home, but it wasn’t until the age of fourteen when her father tragically died from cancer that Shelly became serious about her relationship with Christ, and her life was changed forever. “When faced with that kind of tragedy, some people get angry at God and turn their back on Him, but I chose to run to Him. I knew if He could create the universe, then surely He could take care of me, and I wanted to know Him more. Reading the Bible, praying and journaling became part of my daily routine, and seeking after Christ became my number one priority. I began to transform spiritually during that season of my life.”

I had the opportunity recently for a brief email interview with Shelly.

MD: How did you get into music?

SJ: Music had always been an integral part of my life, from playing classical piano from age eight, to being involved in every church and school choir musical, to leading worship throughout middle school and high school. But it was during this painful season that I discovered the art of songwriting. When my daddy was sick, playing my music was my way of dealing with it. I would play and sing for hours, pouring my emotions out to the Lord. The first song I ever wrote was called ‘Miracles’, and it was just a simple, honest song from the heart of a 14-year-old begging God to work a miracle and heal my daddy.

After attending a private Christian school kindergarten through eighth grade, I attended a public high school and became involved in chorus. My chorus teacher, who knew of the struggles my family was experiencing, encouraged me to share the songs I was writing with the chorus classes. I was in a public high school with over 2,500 students, from all different backgrounds, religions and races, singing and playing my newly-written songs about Jesus in the middle of chorus class. I was able to share with my classmates what my family was going through and share with them how I was learning to depend on God.

MD: How many projects have you recorded?

SJ: This is my first album signed to a label. Before this, I released an independent album in 2009 entitled Mosaic of Grace, comprised of eleven original songs.

MD: From where do you draw the inspiration for music you write?

SJ: From life, conversations with others, from observing what goes on around me, but mostly from my prayers, my journal, the Scriptures and books I’m reading and what God is teaching me.

MD: Tell me about your new song, “All Things Beautiful.”

SJ: It seems everywhere I turn, I hear stories that break my heart.

Stories that cause me to stop in my tracks, shake my head in disbelief, and ask, “What?”

I quit watching the news a long time ago because, frankly, I just couldn’t handle it. So much suffering in the world. A world God intended to be so perfectly beautiful.

Horrible things happen to us and those around us, and when we try to reconcile these horrific events in light of the loving and all-powerful God, we are simply left shaking our heads, with nothing to say other than, “Why?”

This song is my response to that heart-wrenching, desperate question. The question with an answer that has eluded so many, sadly, causing them to run in the opposite direction of the very One who can carry them through the fires and floods in their lives.

I don’t know why God allows fires and floods. I don’t know how He can just stand by, do nothing and watch a mother lose her child. These matters are too overwhelming for me to wrap my mind around.

I do know that when Adam & Eve sinned, the curse of sin entered the perfect world God created, and that curse reaches to the molecular level into the deepest part of all creation – there is nothing in the universe unaffected by the fall. That explains “why” terrible things happen.

But, there’s still the question, “If God is loving and all-powerful, why doesn’t He do something about it?”

It is by asking this question that we can drive ourselves crazy, trying to settle this in our minds.

But, thanks be to God! It’s not my place to understand His divine, mysterious and perfect plan. All I know is that He promises to work all things together for good for those who are faithful to Him.

So, when things don’t seem to be working together for good, when we fear the fires will consume us and the floodwaters overtake us, what is our response?

Sing.

How beautiful is the soul who finds a song to sing, despite the pain and suffering. How beautiful is the heart that chooses to praise the One who although shields our eyes from understanding “why?”, is the very One who will one day redeem, restore, renew and, finally once and for all, make all things beautiful!

“I will sing to the LORD because He is good to me.” Psalm 13:6

MD: Who were some of the people who played on this project?

SJ: I played all the piano tracks.
• Dan Needham – drummer, has played with Israel Houghton, Michael W. Smith, Natalie Grant,
Michael McDonald, Peter Cetera, and Cece Winans
• Jacob Lowery – bass player, has played with Philips Craig & Dean and Michael W. Smith
• Taylor Johnson – guitars, has played with Travis Ryan
• Ethan Hulse – background vocals, LA-based worship artist
• Chelsea Ward – background vocals, has sung for John Tesh
• Phillip Keveren – string arrangement on “Power of the Cross”, featuring some of top string players in
Nashville

MD: Is there any singer/songwriter who you pattern your work after?

SJ: In my early years of writing during high school and early college, the two artists who influenced me the
most were Nichole Nordeman and Steven Curtis Chapman. In recent years, I have enjoyed listening
most to Sara Groves, pop artist Sara Bareilles and hymn writers Keith & Kristyn Getty.

MD: How is your growth as a Christ follower reflected in your music?

SJ: If you were to browse through my songwriting folder and compare the songs chronologically to my prayer
journal, you would see an obvious correlation. I can’t help but write about what God is teaching me in the
different seasons I go through in life. Writing songs is how I deal with life and how I express what Christ
is doing in me, how He is growing and changing me. To say my growth as a Christ follower is reflected in
my music is an understatement. My growth as a Christ follower is my music.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.