(Photo by Timo Matthies)
An Interview on the Love of God with Jonathan Ogden of Rivers & Robots
By Sarah Komisky
Jonathan Ogden is just as chill as the music he and his bandmates, collectively known as Rivers and Robots, create. Calm but clearly, deeply pensive. This creative wiring is a birthplace of the musings that have brought forth a succession of artsy releases unifying the acoustic and electronic worlds. Think Air meets Kings of Convenience except with signature songs based on Bible passages. Making their music widely accessible on digital platforms, their popularity has grown, but the motivation to create doesn’t come from a need to be known. In fact, most of their music is still produced at home with a laptop, keyboard, and guitar. No, fame or popularity isn’t the goal for Ogden, it’s more about making Someone known; sharing about a love he and his bandmates have come to experience. This love, the love of Jesus Christ, is a reality that is a cornerstone of the band’s life. And their music that has caused them both to move beyond their Manchester boarders as missionaries and also as indie artists who seek to infiltrate the mainstream world while staying true to their church roots. The latest release, “Discovery,” a multifaceted exploit into the character and nature of God, displays this truth about the band. Ogden, dubbing Rivers and Robots “creative missionaries” who craft creative worship, took some time to share with me more about the love of Jesus that continues to propel them forward in creative encounters with fellow artists, listeners, and everyday people.
Sarah: One of the things about your band that I love is your ability to create true art. Combining acoustic with electronic in the worship genre has been truly inspiring. How do you want to aim to (as you put it), “make God known through Creative Worship?”
Jonathan: From a very early age I’ve always loved to create things, from drawing as a kid to making cheesy stop motion animations in high school and writing comedy songs. I’m just really passionate about creating things and I love the whole creative process. As I was growing up as a teenager, I came to a point where I really gave my life to God and knew I wanted to live for Him. So I spent a lot of time praying about what God wanted me to do with my life and how I could serve Him. And I started to realize that I love to create because God put that desire in me and so I just set my mind as a teenager that whatever I create, I want it to glorify God and point people to Him. That vision has grown and developed more as I’ve grown older and I’m still learning more about it. But each of us in the band view ourselves as creative missionaries. Our aim is to point people to God and reveal Jesus to the world and our method/vehicle for that is creative worship. We believe God is a creative God and made us to be creative too And, so, we want to express in that in the music we create and explore different sounds and styles. I think it’s something that resonates with a lot of people!
Sarah: As a band, you guys like to partner with different artists. Who have been influential to you and why? How do you hope to spearhead the indie music scene as artists who are Christ followers in this generation?
Jonathan: Growing up we used to listen to a lot of Delirious. They wrote some of our favorite songs for the church but would also play concerts in club venues and arenas and even had songs in the mainstream charts. I think they pioneered something of writing songs for a generation and also seeing worship break out of the walls of the church. Nowadays I think there are a lot of up and coming artists who are breaking out of that mold as well and are starting to write worship songs with a different sound than the usual Sunday morning corporate worship (which we love too!). As we’ve been travelling around with the band, we’ve had chance to meet and make friends with a lot of these artists and I think it’s something God is speaking to a lot of people about. We try and champion other artists through our website and playlists too because we’re definitely not alone in what we’re doing.
Sarah: Let’s talk about the new release, Discovery. How did that come about and how does it compare to your other releases?
Jonathan: The theme of the new album is really about discovering the knowledge of God. In many ways it’s a theme that runs through all of our songs. We love to explore the attributes of God through our lyrics and sing about the nature of God, who He is and what He’s like. Very early on in the writing of this album I had the word ‘Discovery’ in mind and I also had an album cover in mind of somebody diving into an underwater scene. It changed a little as time went on, and we ended up going with a more illustrated option, but the theme is still the same. This was our first album with our new drummer Caleb Choo and I think we all just had a lot of fun writing the album. [There was] a lot more time spent together in rehearsal rooms [and] working on ideas. It’s also one of the first times we did an intentional writing retreat, in a cabin in the Scottish Highlands. It’s our favorite album so far and we’ve loved playing these new songs live.
Sarah: Scripture has really been at the core of your music. Why has the Bible been foundational for you and how have you seen it as powerful to your songwriting?
Jonathan: I think God’s word is such a beautiful gift to us. It speaks in such powerful ways and means so much to so many people. Many of our songs come from moments where God reveals something through His word and that theme ends up becoming a song. I also lead worship at the Manchester House of Prayer [and] we have a model called Worship and The Word where we’ll pick a passage of scripture, often a psalm, and just sing through it, word for word, and then spend time singing spontaneous songs around that theme. Some of our favorite choruses have come from those worship times.
Sarah: Of all the new tracks on this album, which one has been a personal favorite and why?
Jonathan: It’s honest difficult to pick, and our favorite change quite a lot. A personal favorite for me is probably “My Refuge.” I really like how the song came together, especially verse three. I had this space for a verse all the way through the recording process and still didn’t know what the lyrics were going to be. It was the day of recording vocals and the guys went out for a lunch break. I decided to just sit at the piano in Dan’s house (our producer) and sing whatever was on my heart. Often I find there’s so much to do and so much going on in life that I can feel anxious and my default response is to run away or distract myself with something else. But God was revealing to me that He is my hiding place and the one I should run to in those times. So those lyrics kind of flowed out in that moment: “When anxious thoughts take hold of me, I remember You’re the Prince of Peace. You’re my place of rest and my escape, Father, You will be my hiding place.” We recorded the song that day and the spontaneous section afterwards. I think it’s one of my favorite moments on the album.
Sarah: This month at MM, our issue theme is God’s love. Many of your songs on this new album point to the character of God and His love. They invite the listener on the journey to knowing and being known by God. How has this truth been transformative to your life and music?
Jonathan: I think God’s love is always transformative when we encounter it. One of the songs that points to this is the song “Satisfy.” It’s something we spoke about a lot as a band in the lead up to this album—the fact that many people in the world seem to be searching to try and find something that will satisfy the longings and desires of our souls. And particularly in travelling around the world to places like Tokyo in Japan where there’s so much to do and so many things to distract and help people escape from the stresses of life. But all of those things will only ever be a temporary fix. God’s love is the only thing that truly satisfies us because it’s what we were designed and created for.
Sarah: To add to the prior question, what has it meant to you to share this love with others?
Jonathan: It’s an absolute joy. I think some people view evangelism in a negative way, like we’re trying to twist people’s arms and convince them of something. I view it as more of a way of sharing about something that you love. Like if you’ve visited an amazing place and you come home and can’t stop talking about how amazing it is. We probably all know the kind of people who tell us “you have to go to this place” or “you need to go and watch this movie.” It’s from a good motive because it’s had such an impact on them that they want to share it with others too. That’s the way I view what we do. God’s love has impacted us in such an amazing way and changed our life; how can we not want to tell other people about that?
Sarah: For those who don’t know, you’re a group of guys that live as missionaries. I’ve seen your videos and social media and I love how you guys invite people all over the world to enjoy your music and message. In turn, what does it mean to you to be in a band that invites other in to be a part of the experience?
Jonathan: We just love to make our music available to as many people as we can. We once read an article online, from a mainstream music reviewer, and it was talking about an album of the world’s most popular worship songs and the reviewer mentioned how she didn’t know about any of the songs, or even the artists, and yet they fill stadiums and are listened to by millions. We found it strange that the music we listen to is completely unknown by people outside of the church world, and so we set out to try and make our music widely available. We’re still 100% a worship band, of course, and our main audience is Christian, but we often tour in club venues and advertise in our home town of Manchester in public ways.
Sarah: You’ve been able to share your music in church, clubs, festivals, and gig venues. Some look down on this. I see it as an amazing opportunity. Talk about this. For you, why is it important for you to bring the love of God in maybe the not-so-traditional church setting?
Jonathan: For us, it’s been an amazing way of starting conversations. We know of a good number of people who aren’t Christians and listen to our music because they can still appreciate it musically. And the lyrics may not make sense at first, but at least it sparks curiosity. We’ve had people come to our Gather worship nights just out of curiosity, which we run in a mainstream, very hipster coffee shop in Manchester, who are now connected to local churches and going strong in their faith. It’s also been a good way of people bringing their friends or family along who aren’t Christians. It’s like Jesus says in Matthew 5, that we should let our light shine before others and not hide it away.
Sarah: On the heels of this subject, I appreciate so much what you guys do. What are some new things on the horizon for the band?
Jonathan: Our friend Philip Shibata is moving over to Manchester to join us as our new guitarist, so we’re looking forward to having him be a part of the band. We’re planning on touring this new album a lot more throughout 2019 and then we’ll probably start writing some new tunes and work towards the follow-up project!
Find out more about Rivers & Robots by visiting riversandrobots.com