STORY BEHIND SONG
by John Hillman
Rebecca St. James well knows the power of prayer. As her legions of fans have discovered, the 23-year-old Australian singer's commitment to communicating with God permeates her music, ministry, and life.
"I pray before everything," the unofficial spokesman for the True Love Waits campaign confessed in a recent interview. "I pray before going on stage, before songwriting, before working on an album...that's my strength. That's where I gather my inspiration and the source of my message - from my love of Him."
Prayer evolved into an important dimension for Rebecca during her pre-teen years. The eldest of David and Helen Smallbone's seven children entered the public spotlight at age 12, opening for Carman's Australian tour. Shortly afterward, however, the Smallbone household hit financial rockbottom.
Her father, a Christian concert promoter and record producer, lost $250,000 on an Amy Grant concert series. The monetary setback cost the Smallbones their home, car, and virtually every possession. A new job awaiting David in Nashville brought the family mixed feelings of hope and trepidation.
"We prayed to survive, really," the Sydney, Australia native recalled in a session with Riva Harrison. "We prayed for food and money, a car, everything we needed, and it happened...people showed up at our house with groceries and furniture, and sent us checks in the mail. Just absolute miracles that wouldn't have happened had that reliance on God not been there. That's what turned my life around."
By age 16, Rebecca's musical talent matured sufficiently for ForeFront Records to release a self-titled debut album. Christian pop music aficionados embraced the singer's first effort enthusiastically, and the recording brought the Aussie singer the unique distinction of being the youngest person to receive a Dove Award nomination as New Artist of the Year.
Just over a year later, the auburn-haired vocalist hit full-stride as a Christian alternative performer with her second album simply titled GOD. Its wide-spread acceptance earned Rebecca a Grammy nomination, a Dove Award nomination for Female Vocalist of the Year, and several top radio hits. CCM, Campus Life , and Lighthouse selected her as Favorite Female Record Artist of the Year.
Once again, prayer played the pivotal role in the recording's conception. Rebecca and producer Tedd T. developed the idea during a joint session with the Lord.
"In the middle of the prayer, the words just starting coming to me," she said. "It's actually based on Psalm 8, and it's filled the tangible, picturesque things and places in which we can see God. Then the end of the chorus sums it up: 'I can't explain it any other way...it's God.'"
The text of Psalm 8:1 reads, "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" Like its inspiration, strong reviews accompanied the 1996 release. While some critics originally dismissed the bubbly pop teenage singer as an Amy Grant clone, many now compared her Christian compositions to the soulful secular sounds of Alanis Morrisette.
David Longnecker in reviewing the album for christianmusic.org wrote, "Powerful? Dynamic? Can you say 'understatement?' Try 'explosive!' GOD shows a girl mature well beyond her 18 years, both lyrically and musically. Every song is filled with Godly wisdom, and Rebecca leaves no question where her faith and loyalties lie, or why."
In 1997, the rising star added to her growth and maturity, producing a Christmas album and authoring two devotional books, 40 Days with God and You're the Voice - 40 More Days with God. The projects not only broadened Rebecca's appeal to her peers but also revealed her emerging talent as an inspirational writer.
The 21-year-old lyricist and vocalist brought even greater depth to her music the following year with Pray. The recording took programmed sounds of the 80s and mixed them with a 90s blend of driving drums and guitar. As a result, the album created an edgy, alternative style with a dash of U2-type, European flavor.
Consistent with their previous work, Rebecca and Tedd T. incorporated prayer power into the production. The theme focused on the familiar passage from 2 Chronicles 7:14, "If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."
The title cut, "Pray," opened the fourth album for the emerging spokesman of the under-25 Christian generation. In describing the song, Rebecca said, "Prayer is such an essential for me, my life blood. It gives me strength in my weakness and centers my focus on God, away from myself."
Her lyrics expanded on this sentiment in the opening lines, "Jesus I am broken now. Before You I fall, I lay down. All I want is you, my all." The imagery of laying everything before the Father continued with the line, "Melt me away, 'til only You remain."
The single debuted at number 13 in the Christian Top 50 on October 5, 1998. During the song's 15-week stay on the charts, it remained in the top spot for five straight weeks. In February 2000, the album Pray garnered an unexpected Grammy as the best in rock gospel.
As a recognized but unofficial leader of the high school and college-age crowd, the upbeat singer offers her contemporaries a four-point plan for their lives: live radically for God; read the Bible; pray; stand up for what you believe in and make a difference in the world.
Rebecca's purity of voice and soul coupled with her emphasis on Bible study and prayer have fueled her meteoric rise to contemporary Christian music's upper echelons. But the youthful vocalist and composer fully recognizes her role as a minister rather than just an entertainer.
"I absolutely do it because I know this is what God's called me to do," she said in a 1999 interview. "I want to share with people the hope that I have, especially when you see our generation today, which is such a hopeless, death- absorbed, self-absorbed generation. That fires me up to share the hope that I have even more."