Still, the full-length debut from Dallas-based singer/songwriter, worship leader and multi-instrumentalist John Marc Kohl, released last month via The Worship Initiative. Hallmarked by a range of genre-spanning influences, Still delivers deeply vulnerable, autobiographical themes grounded in the promises of God’s unyielding faithfulness. Co-produced by Kohl and Will Hunt, with two tracks produced by Bryan Fowler (TobyMac, Newsboys), Kohl penned or co-penned the entire 12-song set, collaborating with such acclaimed songwriters as Fowler, Shane Barnard, Mike Donehey and The Worship Initiative’s Aaron Williams, among others. In this TCB Exclusive, Kohl shares how the album is a collage of the different seasons of his life over the last 8 years. He also talks about the listener response to the collection and how he defines success for the record. And finally, Kohl previews the upcoming Christmas tour planned with The Worship Initiative.
I want to start with your project that was released in October, Still. Do you recall when the first seeds of this project came to you?
Short answer – eight years ago and a year ago at once. I’ve got songs on that project from eight years, some of the first songs I started writing about Jesus. And others from six to eight months ago. The vision board was to be a collage of me figuring it out to follow Jesus and be an artist. That’s why we chose the album artwork that we did because I wanted it to feel like a collage. These songs come from different seasons of my life and wanted it to be like a scrapbook. Sure it’s a little bit messy and there are different genres on it, but it’s a picture of my story.
I was going to ask about the album artwork and how it tells the vision for the project.
We picked a lot of images very intentionally. We picked mementos from my entire pursuit of music. We pulled it together to feel like an introduction of who I was and point to who Jesus is and His faithfulness in my life.
There is a track on the project titled “Still.” I’m curious your thought process on that becoming the title track.
That was one of the first, and I just didn’t want to release it. I held on to it for a long time. I didn’t want to do Christian music for a long time. I love the Lord and serving at my church, but I listened to other types of music and pursued that for a while. Recently I had this shift where God made the priority clear to be writing songs about Him. There’s a fulfillment I think I was missing when I was doing the pop and singer/songwriter thing. It’s so cool to finally not withhold that song anymore. It’s been humbling to see the Lord use it and impact people already.
When did you know that was going to be the title track for the project?
It was inevitable. I had the song as a teen. When I sat down with The Worship Initiative folks to listen through the project, I tacked “Still” on at the end. It was everyone’s favorite. It was always going to be Still. It is my story that even in spite of me, somehow, Jesus still loves me.
Is there a track or specific lyric that means something different to you now than when you first encountered it?
We’ll stick on the “Still” thing because it’s a good example of it. I wrote it in a very dark and horrible place. I was in college so frustrated with sin patterns in my life and not seeing growth. I stayed up all night and wrote “Still” through tears and anger. I didn’t understand how God could still love me. It didn’t make sense. The chorus is a question. So it didn’t feel like a worship song for a long time because it had a question in it. You’re supposed to give truths and I have a song asking “God, why do you love me?” It took me years to realize that He does because it is who He is and the blood of Jesus is enough. It took me a long time, and I still feel like I’m applying that element of the Gospel to myself. All of my sin is real and there, but the blood of Jesus can handle it. I have to submit to that. So now I love the song. It encourages me in the moment! I look back and I see how God used that difficult time to grow and understand and learn his forgiveness.
Are there any personal highlights that stand out to you from the writing and recording of the tracks for this collection?
So “Still” was just me in my college house with my roommates. “Tapestry” was with seven writers, spread out over a year, and I don’t even know how many choruses we did. We were talking about changing the chorus up until we had session singers coming in to sing the chorus. Total different approach, but that one was fun for me. Leonard Cohen who wrote “Hallelujah” said a quote similar to “cut the diamond until it shines.” He said it took him ten years and eighty verses to write that song. I didn’t take ten years and eighty verses, but working with other people and cutting that diamond until it shined.
How have these songs come to life for you as you get to watch listeners interact?
It is surprising how people just connect with testimony and story. The songs that I just wrote myself and didn’t have a lot of help. I think there are things wrong with them and they have cliches in them, but they came from a very genuine place of my story, that connects ten-fold compared to the shiny. It’s not better or worse, but just is what is honest and real.
With this being your first full-length debut, how does that influence your desired impact and definition of success?
My goal was for the listener to feel like they knew me. It’s kind of a narcissistic goal as a worship leader, but the end goal wasn’t to know me to know how cool I am, but I want you to know how messed up I am. I struggled with my faith and applying elements of the Gospel to me. I knew them in my head but not applying in my heart. I want them to know me to know that I was impacted by Jesus and is the only thing that sustains me. I want it to be approachable, authentic, real, honest, and not too polished.
You’ve recently released a live video for “Tapestry.” Are you looking to continue discussion of music concepts in other ways?
We have three more from that day! I just got some of my best friends together in a friend’s living room. You can see my lyrics in the video shot. It’s raw and not attempting to be impressive. I don’t want to be on a stage or with lights, but just feel like we are together and sharing songs about Jesus. I hope it creates an invitation with a living room feel.
You’ll be heading out on Christmas tour with members of The Worship Initiative team. What are you most looking forward to during those nights?
We’ve got that coming up. I’m super excited about it – it is so special to do ministry with friends! They call and lift me up in every area of my life! I can’t wait for the relational moments we’ll share while we’re all exhausted. We’ll make some memories and pour out together, but also have that unity as a family!
Why is your work with The Worship Initiative and that community important to you?
It’s a big collective, and we just confess sin to each other. We are honest and vulnerable. It’s a dangerous thing when you have a bunch of travel in your career, and it’s a safe thing with believers. The communication and directness has been good. We are just a big family, and sometimes you have to have those family talks, but on the other side of that is a real healthy bond of creatives and people.
What are you most expectant for looking to 2023?
Well I’ve already started writing for the next project. That is fun and terrifying and defeating at the same time! Next year I’m thinking about starting again and jumping into writing and how I can be faithful – to the artist side, to pouring into ministry, and to the developmental side to create helpful content to encourage those serving in churches. How I can be faithful is the question I want to be asking all year.