Sometimes in the process of creating a new album there's one song that becomes an anchor for the whole project. On Chris Tomlin's Love Ran Red, which dropped Oct. 27, that song is "At the Cross."
"This song is the centerpiece of the album," the Christian artist tells Billboard. "When we were writing the song, it was the line, 'Where your love ran red and my sin washed white' -- it just knocked me out. It was such a simple way of sharing the Gospel. It's such a beautiful word picture of what Jesus has done for us. I feel like you can really see it."
"At the Cross" was penned by Tomlin, Jonas Myrin, Matt Armstrong, Ed Cash and Matt Redman. "I've heard it said that songwriting is like a photographer taking a picture of a mountain. It's the same mountain that everybody's looking at and taking a picture of, but the great photographers can take pictures of that mountain in a way that you've never seen it before. Songwriting is the same way…Sometimes it can be said in a way that you see things in a new way. That's what I feel this line is, 'where your love ran red and my sin washed white. I owe all to you.' Matt Armstrong wrote on 'At the Cross' and it was his lyric. It was the catalyst for that song. It's just a powerful way of seeing the grace of God in a fresh way. I thought it was such a beautiful title for an album."
Watch Chris Tomlin talk about the making of the album in this exclusive interview:
Love Ran Red, Tomlin's 10th studio album, follows up his previous release, 2013's Burning Lights, which debuted at No. 1 on the Top Christian Albums chart and at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, making him one of only four Christian acts to accomplish that feat. Love Ran Red debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200, but had stiff competition on the album's Oct. 27 opening day.
"We released the same day as Taylor Swift. She needs some help, poor girl, so hopefully she'll do okay," he jokes. "You can do the best you can and try to make the very best record you can make. That's what I hope people know from me, not just, 'Wow, we just wrote the next ten songs that came our way and spit it out as the next record.' It's not that way for me. These songs are labored over. I care about them, and rewrite and work and make better, and cut so many songs. At the beginning of the record I thought, these songs are amazing, and half of those didn't even make it on the album because I felt like we keep working and keep writing songs and better songs come. I'm really proud of this album. I feel like it's definitely one of the better records that I've ever made from top to bottom."
Watch Tomlin perform an acoustic version of the song "Waterfall" from Love Ran Red in the Billboard studio:
Love Ran Red finds Tomlin again collaborating with some of his favorite co-writers, among them Myrin, Redman, Ben Glover, Ben Fielding and Jason Ingram. "The strength of the songwriting for me comes from collaboration with friends," says Tomlin, BMI's Christian Songwriter of the Year. "We're very much like-minded and with the same passion. It's not 'We're just here to write a single for a hit song.' We really want to write God songs -- songs that come from somewhere special and go past these artists, past the songwriters and become songs that people sing in their churches. That's always been the goal."
Tomlin has accomplished that goal. Known for such worship anthems as "How Great is Our God," "Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)," "I Will Rise" and "Whom Shall I Fear (God of Angel Armies)," Tomlin's songs are sung in churches all over the world every week, prompting Time magazine to dub him "likely the most often sung artist anywhere."
"It's a statement I haven't really gotten my head around," Tomlin says, "because there's so many amazing songwriters. I'm just thankful and honored to be in the conversation with some of these other great songwriters who are writing incredible songs. For me, that's what it's always been about. That's what I care about the most more than selling tons of records and being number one on a chart, any kind of those successful things. I'm more interested in how these songs are in the church and how they find their way into the fabric of people's lives. That's so special to me. That's something that God does, His Spirit does. I don't think a marketing plan ever does that."
Married with two young daughters, Tomlin and his family reside in Atlanta and he's very involved in his home church. Leading worship at Passion City Church gives Tomlin a place to try out songs and see how a congregation responds. "'At the Cross' is an example," he says. "We played that at church several times, way before anybody else heard it. I'd just finished writing it and I felt like it was missing something. Every time I'd lead it, it was missing something, this other element that would really take people to a place in their hearts. I went back and reworked a lot of it just because of how it felt in church.
"It's a beautiful thing to be able to [try songs out] because for me it is about people, and the people are the judges of the songs, not just me. You feel that when you can feel the people rising up with the song or you can feel the opposite about it, that it's going nowhere and is not hitting the mark, not quite stirring people. It's a beautiful thing to be able to have that opportunity of playing all these songs and seeing how it feels."
Tomlin's new single, "Jesus Loves Me," is currently No. 8 on the Christian Airplay chart and rising. "The title is interesting because obviously many people see that and go, 'I think I've heard that title before,'" he says with a laugh. "That little simple song is one of the first songs you learn as a little kid. If you grow up in any kind of house of faith, you learn that song. I sing that to my daughters. It's such a simple little thing and it's so beautiful. I find it interesting the further and the more years you live, it's easier to believe that Jesus loves me when I was three, than when I was 33, when I'm taking different roads, make mistakes, and the road takes me further from my relationship with God. People find themselves in that place."
Watch Tomlin sing "Jesus Loves Me" in the Billboard studio:
In bringing that classic sentiment to a new song, Tomlin wrestled with how to convey it. "It's such a simple song and at first I was hesitant to even finish it, because it's so simple. But it's so true," he says. "There's a line in the song, 'I couldn't run from His presence, I couldn't run from His arms' that's just where I feel so many people are. It's where I've been in my life. That's where I think we all find ourselves at some point. We can make our own way, make our own decisions. We can have our own path, but you can't run form the presence of God. You can't outrun God. There's nowhere you can go that His presence isn't there, and His love for you, and His grace for you. In my songs, I've always tried to write about two things -- the greatness of God and the grace of God. To me, if I can put those two things before people -- the greatness of God and the grace of God, that's all you need to know. That's all you need."