Songwriter Ethan Hulse made history in September, becoming the first Christian music songwriter to win the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI)’s songwriter of the year award — an accolade that has typically gone to a country songwriter.
“It’s still kind of mind-blowing, honestly,” Hulse tells Billboard. “I thought, ‘Is this the Christian writer of the year award? Is that a thing?’ They had to explain to me that it was the songwriter of all genres… Being in the Christian music industry, I don’t know that I ever expected to get an an honor that big, because we’re a small genre within the bigger industry.”
Hulse has earned seven Billboard Christian Airplay No. 1 hits, starting with Zach Williams’ “Old Church Choir,” and has earned three Christian Airplay No. 1 hits so far this year: CAIN’s “Rise Up (Lazarus),” Andrew Ripp’s “Jericho” and Jeremy Camp’s “Out of My Hands.” He is also nominated for songwriter of the year (non-artist) at this year’s GMA Dove Awards, which will be held tonight (Tuesday, Oct. 19) at Lipscomb University’s Allen Arena in Nashville, Tenn., and will air Oct. 22 on TBN and on SiriusXM.
California native Hulse picked up a guitar for the first time when he was seven years old and was leading church worship services by the time he was in junior high school.
“Nobody in my family plays professionally, but my dad plays bluegrass music,” he says. “I didn’t have like the classic rock dad — I had the bluegrass dad. He gave me that folk-inspired influence. Bluegrass has had an impact just in the way it resembles communal singing and communal participation, which I feel relates to what worship music is. The best things are the most simple and bluegrass kind of draws on tradition. In songwriting, I try to write music where people feel like they’ve always known that song.”
After spending eight years as a worship leader at Mariner’s Church in Irvine, Calif., Hulse and his wife took a chance and moved to Nashville in 2015.
“We were in our twenties, we didn’t have kids, and we thought, ‘Let’s try Nashville. If we hate it in a year, we can move back.’” Hulse says. “We moved out here with no jobs or anything. We got connected pretty quickly, thankfully enough.”
The couple settled in Franklin, Tenn., and Hulse soon began making connections within the songwriting community and booking co-writing sessions, leading to his signing with Essential Music Publishing and soon after, writing “Old Church Choir” with Williams and Colby Wedgeworth.
“Zach’s career was just starting to rise, so we had that song after ‘Chain Breaker’ had gone No. 1,” Hulse says. “‘Old Church Choir’ was his second single and it just soared.” The song stayed atop Billboard’s Christian Airplay chart for 20 weeks and earned a GMA Dove Award for best pop/contemporary recorded song of the year.
In perhaps a nod to his bluegrass roots, Hulse says he hopes to expand his songwriting to transcend genres: “I like being a little bit of a musical chameleon, kind of jumping into different spaces and stuff. I would love for more country opportunities and pop opportunities to kind of open up. I hope that’s the next part of the journey, and I know that I will always be connected to Christian music, and worship music in particular, because it’s a part of me. I just want to keep growing as a writer.
Below, Hulse offers some of the stories behind his hit songs.
Zach Williams, “Old Church Choir”
We wrote that at Colby’s house. It was very early on with Zach and he was kind of still making trips to Nashville. He wasn’t living here yet. Colby and I had written a few times before, so we got together the night before and started up that chorus. We brought it to Zach and it was a somewhat fleshed-out chorus. I remember very quickly, Zach started adding lyrics and the song happened really fast.
CAIN, “Rise Up (Lazarus)”
Nick Schwarz and I had been writing together a bit and he’s a producer on their project. We had spent all morning chasing a different idea and it wasn’t quite working. Somewhere along the line, someone had the guts to say, “Should we try a different idea completely?” I remember bringing up the title “Lazarus,” and it was just called “Lazarus” at the time. I think right off the bat, the idea of a resurrection song that had more to do with ‘Wake up from your sleep and start living the life you were meant to live’ was an inspiring idea.
There was a lot of things stacked up against that song. When it came out, we were kind of worried. They were one of those bands that had that story, right? Everything was perfectly teed up — and a pandemic hits. Their tour cancels, and we’ve got a song at radio. We’re going, “How is anybody going to even know who they are to add them and play the song?” It wasn’t a rocket ship straight to the top — it moved pretty slow — but the themes in that song really connected and that’s a special part of the story.
Andrew Ripp, “Jericho”
Andrew is one of my neighbors and best friends. There was definitely a journey of him even wanting to release a song at Christian radio. It was a process for him, but it was the song that did it. He’s got a career kind of in pop music. I think at the time, it was like, “Well, maybe we can play in this arena and put a song out every now and then. Maybe it won’t be in the top of the chart because we don’t have a label or whatever, but maybe we can put a song out.” Neither of us expected it to go to No. 1. A lot of doors have opened for him that he’s walking through, so that’s exciting.
That was the first time I ever produced a song, too. I still feel like my main role is being a topliner [songwriter] — but when there’s an opportunity to, it is fun stepping into a different kind of creative space. “Jericho” was doing so well, and we are working on his next record.
Jeremy Camp, “Out of My Hands”
That was a chorus that Jeff Sojka and I had. We brought it to Jeremy, and he kept that chorus the same way and wrote a bunch of verses and we were sending it back and forth. We got in the room a couple of times to finish it up. Just that idea of something being out of my hands — which feels out of control — but that’s being painted as a beautiful thing. I just felt like there was a pretty big kind of emotional draw to that for a song. Jeremy just connected with it right off the bat, and I’m so thankful for that. I feel like that shows the trust of an artist-writer relationship, when someone trusts you to bring in a chorus like that.