Their music is being sung in churches across the globe, and just last week, Hillsong UNITED received Top Christian Artist of 2015 at the Billboard Music Awards. God is certainly breaking through, and on the move. A long-time fan of Hillsong (church, worship music), I had the opportunity to jump in on a phone call with Hillsong UNITED's Taya Smith, and chat a bit about UNITED's latest album, EMPIRES.
For those who may not know Taya, she is the voice behind 'Oceans,' and has been a part of the Hillsong UNITED team for 2 1/2 years. Though Taya grew up going to church, and loving music/loving to sing, ever curious about how it all came together for worship, she never dreamed of being in ministry in the capacity she is today. In fact, Taya worked in retail for eight years, before teaming up with Joel Houston and the rest of the UNITED team.
We asked Taya a few questions regarding EMPIRES, what it's like to be a part of Hillsong UNITED, and how God prepares her heart for this great journey in ministry.
What inspired UNITED when working on EMPIRES?
EMPIRES was inspired by the Beatitudes. We just realized that the world is so, so broken- with so many broken people living in it (us included). We really sort of see it all as two empires- God's and ours.
How is EMPIRES different from past UNITED albums?
EMPIRES is our most raw, honest album yet. There's a personal story behind every song. This album is so different- we want people to hear the voice of God through it.
What sacrifices have you and the team made regarding this album?
God deserves our very best, and our songs are a huge labor of love and sacrifice. You wouldn't know this just by listening to the songs, but Joel especially is so bent on excellence for our God- that he'll go back into the studio to work on a tiny part of a song for two hours, just to find the perfect sound.
*Side note from Taya-
'I just want to say that I hope people won't be offended by some of what they hear on this album, because it is so different- so honest. There's a song called Even When It Hurts, and we mean not to offend anyone by using the word 'hell' in our lyrics, but we wanted to be that honest and exposed on this album. It's the truth- sometimes we do feel like we're living in hell on earth, and we want people to know that everyone feels that way at one time or another, and experiences that brokenness- everyone.'
Which song are you most excited about from EMPIRES?
Oh, wow- I don't know... I mean, I love them all. Prince of Peace is a favorite, and then Touch the Sky, of course- because that song is just a full-on surrender.
My personal question to Taya:
How do you, (or how does God, rather) prepare your heart for worship- both personal times of worship, and leading the assembly?
I feel like He prepares my heart the same, and that I should have the same response, no matter the situation of where I am, or who is or isn't watching/listening. In terms of preparing for a Sunday church service- that's really when the nerves kick in. Sometimes I feel sort of panicked right before we start, and I just throw up my hands and say, 'I need you, Jesus. I need for people to hear You, and not me- because if it's just me out there, and not You, it's yuck.' There's definitely a desperation there.
And then Taya turned the tables and asked ME a question!
'So, you're a mom?' she asked.
'Yes, I am- I have one child, a 4-year-old boy,' I replied.
'And do you work from home or you're a stay at home mom?'
'Yes, I am a WAHM, and I really love it.'
'Wow. You are amazing to me. Thank YOU for making the sacrifices you have made as a parent. I mean, you brought precious life into the world. That is such a huge responsibility. I hope to be a mom one day. It's just like, wow to me that moms and dads do what they do. To all the moms- or any parents, if there are dads on the line today, who stay at home with their kids- don't ever discount that. You are doing the most important job there is. My mom stayed home with me when I was growing up, and I know that I am who I am in Christ today, because of her... I mean, you're raising these kids, and you're the example of what it is to be like Jesus in this world... and they're the future of our world- so really, thank you. Incredible, really.'
When did you realize you had a calling for ministry?
I grew up in church, and have always loved singing... I was one of the ones sitting during the service, taking notes and putting together how it all worked. I was really shown how to live by attending church, but you know, church isn't just sitting in. God does something there- causes you to dig deeper. I loved writing, and loved/love secular music, as well. Even when I wasn't writing a song about Jesus, He was still coming out in it. I don't do the 'fluffy thing.' I say, 'God, show me how to do this, and it hurts sometimes, but it's so, so beautiful at the same time.'
What's the best piece of advice you might give to someone in ministry or in service?
Don't put God it a box- and take your ideas, and run with them!
Do you ever feel burnt out?
I won't say that I don't... I always turn to God's Word, which says, 'My yoke is easy, my burden is light.' I mean, I have a human moment every now and then, and think- 'What am I doing here? I am under-qualified!' But I love the Holy Spirit, and need to remember that I do this not in my own strength, but by His strength, and He is going to grace me for it. I definitely feel sometimes that I am just pouring out, and pouring out, and not filling back up- and that's when I know that I am not spending enough time with God. You have to have good people around you and allow them to pull you up. These are the people who are able to hold you accountable, because they are filled with the Holy Spirit, as well.
How would you encourage young musicians to distinguish the difference between vocalist and worship leader? Is there a difference?
Yeah, yeah- of course. UNITED is a worship team. I love the term 'worship leader,' because it reminds the worship leader that it isn't about them... it's a big responsibility. I remember the first time I saw my name listed as worship leader on an album jacket, and I was like, 'Whoa- I love that,' because that's what we're out doing in our church, in venues and worship events... we're leading worship, pointing people to Christ, and experiencing something incredible together.
It's sort of funny (I mean not really, but kind of) because it's one of Joel's pet peeves to have someone run up and ask if they can be a worship leader, because they're a singer... but being a singer doesn't always translate to being a worship leader. God determines that- He knows what He's doing when He calls someone to the platform to lead worship.
Also, excellence really matters. I want to be the best in the house of God- for God.
What are your methods for being prepared and how are you inspired creatively?
It's really two parts. You have to come to worship prepared. We walk and talk through everything for a worship service music set. I choose my 3-4 songs, make sure they work with what we're doing, and then we rehearse- and I mean, we talk through transitions, and all- so I know where the music is going to go, and so the musicians know what I plan on doing, vocally.
Your heart needs to be prepared. I want the words that come out of my mouth to be God's words... if they're my words, they don't really do any good.
You have to allow/create space for creativity. Ask yourself, 'Where is your quest that you've carved out to meet with God?' I always think of the story of Moses. You know, God has the BEST ideas ever- I just want to hear from Him.
Who are your musical influences?
I am going to be weird here, and say that I don't know that I really have many. I mean, I love good singers. Beyonce's voice is insane... amazing to me. Just- the things she can do with her voice- wow! I can definitely admire and appreciate her sound. Also- there girl from Paramore. I heard her, and it made me want to run out and take vocal lessons. I definitely have a lot of vocal crushes!
What's your favorite UNITED song?
Well, I am definitely a lyrics person, and I am so thankful for Hillsong Church. They take the time to make sure the song lyrics and the theology around them are correct, and biblically correct, as well. To me, it's all about the lyrics. If I had to choose a favorite, it would have to be AFTERMATH, because it's so, so true.
Speaking with Taya was an incredible experience. In my church, we use a lot of Hillsong's music, and I am always interested in what they are doing- musically, and as a church. My dad had the opportunity to attend Hillsong Conference in Sydney, back in the summer of 2007, and when he returned, he brought back a new energy, which we plugged into our own worship, and that really shaped the way we think about what worship is- and who it's all about. I know that it was one of those life-changing, spirit-filled opportunities that my dad will never forget. My dad, sister, and I also had the pleasure of attending a worship leader conference at the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove, in Asheville, NC in 2008, and it was so amazing to worship and study with Darlene Zschech and her team of worship leaders. We also had the opportunity to attend Hillsong Chuch in Montclair, NJ last summer (2014), right after the release of 'No Other Name,' and that was a powerful worship experience for us.
I believe that God is really doing something here- through Hillsong, definitely, as well as through many other churches, musicians, and leaders in ministry, and through those who are called to serve in so many different ways. To speak with Taya was a fun experience- and aside from the feeling of 'Oh, wow- I am speaking with the girl who sings OCEANS,' our conversation was very easy and light- like, chatting with a longtime friend, who wasn't afraid to wear her heart for God on her sleeve.
From a 'worship leader's' view, I felt encouraged. Though I don't lead worship in the same capacity that Taya does, we share many of the same thoughts and feelings, and we definitely share the same purpose. The bottom line is that we live in a world which desperately needs Jesus, and we're here to be his hands and feet.
A huge thank you to Taya for taking time out her her day (7 am Aussie time!) to speak with me, and a select few bloggers, and a big thanks to FlyBy Promotions for organizing the call and offering us this awesome opportunity.
For more on Hillsong UNITED...
EMPIRES is available now on iTunes. Visit Hillsong online to learn more about their church & mission, to meet Pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston, to check out Hillsong UNITED, Hillsong Worship, Hillsong Young & Free, to find upcoming conferences, and tours.
Connect with Hillsong on Facebook, Twitter and check out Hillsong Collected for articles and blog posts by the Hillsong Team.