Hillsong Worship Songwriter Brooke Ligertwood on What Sets Christian Music Apart: 'When You Connect With People, You Can Feel Their Spirits Being Lifted'

Hillsong Worship
Courtesy of Hillsong Worship

Hillsong Worship

Hillsong Worships latest single “What a Beautiful Name,” has spent eight weeks atop Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs chart, the hybrid ranking that includes airplay, streaming and sales data. It reached No. 1 for the first time on the chart dated Feb. 25 and on the most recent April 22-dated list, it’s bulleted at No. 2. As Easter approaches, Billboard sat down with Brooke Ligertwood -- one of the writers behind the hit song -- to discuss her take on what makes Christian music so unique.

“Name” has also dominated Christian Airplay for three consecutive weeks, starting on the April 8-dated survey, and four weeks atop Christian Digital Song Sales, selling 136,000 downloads to date according to Nielsen Music. On Christian Streaming Songs, “Name” reached its No. 3 chart peak on the latest April 22 chart, collecting 2 million U.S. streams.

For Hillsong, and all of their different configurations -- Hillsong United, Hillsong Worship and Hillsong Young & Free -- “What a Beautiful Name” is their second Hot Christian Songs and Christian Airplay leader since “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail).” While “Oceans” topped Christian Airplay for one week (May 10, 2014), it has spent well over three years (187 weeks) on Hot Christian Songs, with 61 weeks at the summit. On the latest April 22 Hot Christian Songs, it’s bulleted at No. 5.

“What a Beautiful Name,” written by Ligertwood and Ben Fielding, is from Hillsong Worship’s 25th live album, Let There Be Light, which debuted atop Top Christian Albums on the chart dated Nov. 5, 2016, selling 16,000 copies, and on the April 22 list, it lifts 8-5 (up 20 percent), earning 4,000 equivalent albums. Let There Be Light was recorded at Hillsong Church’s 2016 conference in Sydney, Australia.

Below, find our interview with Ligertwood about the success of "What a Beautiful Name," her solo singing career as Brooke Fraser, and much more.

Congratulations on “What a Beautiful Name.” You co-wrote the song and sing lead vocals. Can you tell us what moved you to write it?

You know, foremost, Hillsong is a church, the group Hillsong Worship is part of the church, so we set out to write songs that connect with the people there. So chart success is not really a part of the conversation, but listening to that, it’s just great that so many people are hearing the song and that it might then work in their own lives, connecting them to God.

In the songwriting context, Ben Fielding and I wrote “What a Beautiful Name” about a year and a half ago for the upcoming Hillsong conference.

“What a Beautiful Name” is from the live album Let There Be Light, which debuted atop our Top Christian Albums chart. It was recorded at the annual Hillsong Conference in Sydney that you just mentioned. For anyone not familiar, can you explain what the conference is?

Hillsong Conference is the annual church gathering in Sydney and in other cities to champion the church, and not just our church; we have all sorts of denominations present, from Catholics to the Salvation Army.

It’s really designed to support local churches, and it’s a wonderful event. That is where we performed the songs for the album Let There Be Light.

Was that the first time that you performed “What a Beautiful Name” as well as the other tracks live? Because the crowd is singing along; do you rehearse with the audience?

Because the audience is part of the church and we sing these songs in church regularly, most of the people in attendance were already familiar with the tracks. As an audience, they are just super gracious and welcoming. Our mission is that the music will resonate with them. We’re not really performing -- we’re simply vessels.

What is it like performing a song such as “What a Beautiful Name,” that’s so powerful? And by the way, your vocal performance in concert is very captivating. It’s easy to see the connection with the audience.

I guess that when I am leading the song, my voice is me, but it’s also my prayer first, that I am there to serve people and link with them in the presence of God. When you connect with people, you can feel their spirits being lifted. It’s really the beauty of singing something about the wonder and power of Jesus. When people connect, it’s freeing for them and breaks chains and creates faith.

You guys just released an EP with six versions of the song. Why?

[Laughs] It’s a great question, and I go back to us wanting to reach as many people as possible. So there are different styles, hoping to not get pigeonholed into one particular sound. We want to leave room for other versions of the song -- for instance Hillsong Young & Free’s version may resound with younger folks, while we may not be able to. It’s not about my ego; what matters is that people will hear it and then it works in their own lives.

You’re from New Zealand and had quite a successful career as Brooke Fraser. Do you still record and perform concerts under that billing?

I do. I just put out a record in November called A Sides [released Nov. 25] and I still tour as Brooke Fraser. I have somehow managed to be involved in both things for a long time, so with Hillsong, I have been part of leadership and creative teams for many years. When I’m singing as Brooke Fraser, it can be more about me; when I am with Hillsong, I am simply part of the church and it’s not about me. The goal with Hillsong Worship is to lubricate that connection between people and God.

Can you tell me what the difference is between Hillsong United and Hillsong Worship, because you share personnel. And are you also part of Hillsong United?

Back in the day, I was with Hillsong United but am currently just with Hillsong Worship. We do have some that are part of both units, and we also sometimes have members from Hillsong Young & Free as well. We are all under the Hillsong umbrella, if that makes sense. With Hillsong Worship, we are developing songs that will ultimately be sung in churches, and I think that’s the main difference.

With so many folks involved in your creative process, who decides what songs make the final cut?

There are team leaders on the production side and on the songwriting teams. Because our own egos are not part of it, the process works seamlessly, really, and there’s no drama. It’s truly not about us.

You live in Los Angeles now, correct? Are you involved in the Hillsong church there, and do you sing worship at Sunday services?

Yes, I am part of the Hillsong church in Los Angeles and am sometimes part of the worship team on Sundays, depending on schedules. I have been plugged into that church a long time.

I notice that in your publicity images for Hillsong Worship, the members are depicted as silhouettes. I have a feeling that I know why, but can you explain?

Part of it is basically because we are doing live recordings and the lineups are often changing. Also because we’re really scattered all over the world, it’s merely a challenge to get everyone together in the same place. And lastly, we’re a unit, without individual egos, so there is that aspect as well.

For Hillsong, “Name” is the biggest song since Hillsong United’s “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail).” When you wrote “What a Beautiful Name,” did you have an idea the song might be this big?

I was excited, because I felt it was something special. However, not to be overly humble here, but honestly, I thought I was writing something that would be useful for the church. I never really thought beyond that. The fact that so many people are listening to it and hopefully attaching with God, that’s a very nice bonus.

What are your hopes for fans to take away from your music and your concerts?

Our goal is that whether they are listening in church, in their cars or on their smartphones, that the music resonates in their own individual journey and helps them in whatever they are going through.

How do you avoid star trappings and stay rooted in your faith?

I think that I have a lot of friends around me that tell me the truth. All of the decisions that I make are rooted in God, and also, what really helps is that I am plugged into a local church, which is a community. That community happens to be the most enriching thing in life and makes me feel valued for who I am as a person.

Finally, what are you doing for Easter Sunday?

I am leading worship music at my church for Easter Sunday and it’s very specific for our church in Los Angeles. It’s a time for reflection and it’s also a time that many people will be in church that don’t come regularly. Easter gives us a wonderful opportunity to reach them and tell the greatest story ever told.