John Van Deusen plays in a pop band called Telephone Friends and a punk band called Buffet, but he suspects it’s his Christmas album that you’ll like best.
In the Bleak Midwinter features Van Deusen playing 14 holiday hymns, his acoustic guitar and tenor voice augmented by rich string arrangements. He released it digitally last year and on vinyl in October.
“I actually think it’s one of the few things I’ve made that can appeal to a wider range of Christians and specifically crosses age in a way that my other music doesn’t,” Van Deusen says by video call from his home in Anacortes, Washington.
The story of the album starts in November 2020. Van Deusen was the worship director at a Presbyterian church and was keenly aware of the unease congregants were feeling because of the pandemic and the political atmosphere in the U.S.
With the holidays on the horizon, Van Deusen started playing Advent and Christmas hymns during the church’s livestreams.
“My goal was to play them as gently as possible,” he recalls. “People just responded really well. They would write me and just say, wow—that version of ‘Come Thou Long Expected Jesus’. . . I felt really calm and at peace when I heard it. And so I thought I should just record it like that.”
Van Deusen tracked his vocals and guitars live off the floor in two days at a recording studio that was once a Catholic church.
He self-recorded additional piano and percussion parts at home, then sent the recordings to Andrew Joslyn, who wrote and recorded the violin, viola and cello parts.
“It was just this small, natural thing,” Van Deusen says. “Sometimes the best creative projects don’t happen because you have some big idea or ambitious end game in mind.”
“The First Noel,” “Joy to the World,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “O Holy Night” are a few of the hymns included on the album.
Van Deusen appreciates that these songs “have a deep sense of spiritual awe.”
He says, “They also acknowledge the gloom and the depravity and the helplessness of our situation prior to Christ. I think maybe that’s what makes them so potent—that they have this perspective of [how] we really needed Jesus. And then he came.”
Van Deusen hopes that In the Bleak Midwinter brings peace and calm to listeners.
“I picture people listening to the record while the TV is off... and they’re decorating a tree or baking cookies—doing something that involves their hands, that is quiet and life-giving,” he says. “That would make me so, so happy.”
To stream the album or purchase a vinyl copy, visit iamjohnvandeusen.bandcamp.com.
Cover art, worship music and what’s next
Three excerpts from CM’s interview with John Van Deusen
On how he chose the cover art (an 1858 landscape by American painter George Henry Durrie) for In the Bleak Midwinter:
“I like visual art that … feels a little bit more out of time, and [where] you don’t exactly know which era it’s coming from. And so I’ve kind of developed this habit of finding public domain artwork and using it for my record covers. With In the Bleak Midwinter, when you held the vinyl, I wanted the record to feel familiar and old—that it could be something your grandparents listened to as they put logs on the fire while living in upstate New York in 1934. Or [something] your parents listened to in the ‘60s or ‘70s. I think a lot of people in our culture today, there’s this kind of collective sense of dread and unease. A lot of the people I know, and myself included, we try to find our way back to things that comfort us. When I saw that image that’s on the cover, it comforts me. It’s obviously from a different era. You’ve got the horse-drawn sleigh, people together playing in the snow. It looks like it could be Pennsylvania or New York, Vermont, Ontario, wherever. I just want to be there. That’s where I want to be.”
On his work as a musician, which includes writing worship music for a publishing company:
“It’s really exciting because even when I was younger and playing in secular bands, I always wanted to write for other people. I just like writing songs that other people will sing. I like singing my songs—it’s fine—but it’s not my preferred way to hear my music. I really like it when others sing it. I’m hoping that, with God’s favour, I can write a couple of songs that are really easy to sing in church and have enough spiritual potency and deep enough theology that they can really enrich congregations. Hopefully in an ecumenical way. I don’t want to write a song that’s only going to be played in the evangelical non-denominational world. I would really want to write songs that could cross that divide and step into even like a Mennonite church or a Methodist church or an Anglican church. Those mainline denominations tend to desire and champion more theology in their lyrics.”
On what’s next for his solo music:
“I am getting ready to record my next worship record. I guess you’d probably call it alternative worship, but it’s songs that I’ve been writing for people to sing in church. I’ll start that hopefully in January. I have another record that is due out on Tooth and Nail [Records], but I actually have been contemplating just not releasing it because it’s loud and depressing, and it’s not really what I want to put into the world anymore. You can print that if you want. I try to be really open with what I’m doing and the struggle of releasing music, and trying to be true to who I am and what I think God is doing in my life. I’m really excited to write and record and release the next worship record. I often think: If I could release one more thing before I died, what would it be? That seems to galvanize my effort. Right now, I have this really deep sense that I need to record this worship record. So, that’s what I’m going to do next.”