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updated: 8/19/2013 2:10 PM

Lombard songwriter's group gives old hymns new life

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  • Heidi Malcolm of Restoration Project records vocals for "God Is So Good," one of five songs on the first EP in the hymn-writing collective's newest effort, "Firm Foundation."

      Heidi Malcolm of Restoration Project records vocals for "God Is So Good," one of five songs on the first EP in the hymn-writing collective's newest effort, "Firm Foundation."
    Courtesy of Restoration Project

  • Jay Mathes records Aaron Boynton on drums as the hymn-writing collective Restoration Project records songs for the first of two EPs in its latest project, "Firm Foundation." Restoration Project is seeking $10,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to fund recording, mixing, mastering and manufacturing of the new release, which updates Sunday school hymns with new lyrics and melodies.

      Jay Mathes records Aaron Boynton on drums as the hymn-writing collective Restoration Project records songs for the first of two EPs in its latest project, "Firm Foundation." Restoration Project is seeking $10,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to fund recording, mixing, mastering and manufacturing of the new release, which updates Sunday school hymns with new lyrics and melodies.
    Courtesy of Restoration Project

  • Chris Walke plays during a Restoration Project recording session of the updated hymn "Jesus Loves Me" at The Dragon Room in Lombard. Members of the hymn-writing collective are seeking $10,000 in a Kickstarter online campaign to fund recording and production of a two-EP series called "Firm Foundation."

      Chris Walke plays during a Restoration Project recording session of the updated hymn "Jesus Loves Me" at The Dragon Room in Lombard. Members of the hymn-writing collective are seeking $10,000 in a Kickstarter online campaign to fund recording and production of a two-EP series called "Firm Foundation."
    Courtesy of Restoration Project

  • Video: "Firm Foundation" launch

 
 

It was probably an old hymn, but it was new to singer-songwriter Jay Mathes of Lombard.

"My God Is So Big" caught Mathes' ear when his 4-year-old son, Seth, sang it for him one evening after Sunday school.

Mathes, 30, is part of a hymn-writing collective that updates Christian worship songs from past generations with new melodies and a fresh, modern-folk sound. So when he heard a traditional Sunday-school hymn like "My God Is So Big" for the first time, the idea for Restoration Project's next endeavor started forming.

"It was a pretty immediate reaction to learning from (Seth) that he knew songs I didn't know from his Sunday school class," Mathes said about "Firm Foundation," a series of two 5-track EPs Restoration Project is seeking to fund through a $10,000 Kickstarter.com campaign that lasts until about 2 a.m. Sept. 8. "The 'Firm Foundation' series is a reaction to some of the songs that I never had a chance to learn growing up."

If the all-volunteer group's campaign reaches $10,000 by Sept. 8, the money will pay for recording, mixing, mastering and manufacturing of the EPs. Mathes, who runs a micro record label called Swiftly Running Records, said that amount isn't much for professional-quality work.

Mathes said the series adds new lyrics and melodies to bring greater theological depth and clarity to original Sunday-school songs like "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and "This Little Light of Mine."

"The majority of songs we decide to work with are published in dusty, raggedy, old, smelly books," said Mathes, who performs under his first and middle names to avoid the last name Mkrtschjan. "Literally we will crack it open to the table of contents, scan for interesting titles, or we'll just flip through a hymnal and look for something that catches our eye."

Mathes and Daniel Hautamaki, a founding member of Restoration Project, said the group wants "Firm Foundation" to bring high-quality recordings to churches across the country so more listeners can experience dated hymns in a new way.

"We believe (hymns are) a very valuable addition to the church, and it's a very valuable resource for the church as we live out our daily lives of faith," Hautamaki said. "We just don't want to see some of this poetry and some of these resources fall by the wayside."

Along with reviving old church songs for children, Hautamaki said the group is seeking to increase its reach with "Firm Foundation."

"We didn't start out to expand and go all over the country or the world at the time," he said, looking back at the group's founding in 2007 at College Church in Wheaton. "It does seem to be broadening."

While several of them were studying at Wheaton College, a group of friends started updating hymns as a hobby, tying several to sermons preached at College Church, Mathes said. Hautamaki, founding member David Jordan and others all had experience singing and playing instruments, while Mathes brought recording expertise to a musical endeavor members knew was relatively uncommon.

As members graduated and moved across the Chicago area and the country, Restoration Project built roots in several suburbs as well as in California, Florida, North Dakota, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. Churches in those states have used songs from Restoration Project's 2008 self-titled album and follow-up release, the 2011 "Hail the Cross, Our Only Hope."

New Covenant Church in Naperville also may consider singing Restoration Project tunes at its Friday night service, which is more upbeat than traditional Sunday services, said Andrew Fulton, pastor of student ministries, missions and outreach. Fulton has been involved in Restoration Project since its start and said singing freshly recreated hymns in a church community is an uplifting experience.

"Some old hymns have melodies that still speak to people today," like "Amazing Grace," Fulton said. "Others have rich lyrics but a very dated sound."

Musically, Restoration Project changes instrumentation and arrangements of hymns that often progress straight from verse to verse.

"We want to give people enough time in between sections of a song to really contemplate the words that they sang," Mathes said.

With acoustic guitars, light percussion, and various lead singers, the roughly 50 people who have been involved with Restoration Project create what Mathes calls a new "beautiful painting" out of the canvas of old hymns.

"It's tough to put a label on our style, but we're more modern folk than anything else," Hautamaki said. "We add new instruments they wouldn't play 150 years ago."

"Firm Foundation" contributors -- including Mathes' brother Michael Mkrtschjan of Lombard and his wife, Megan Mkrtschjan -- are praying that donors will pledge enough financial support to allow the project to move forward. They're marketing the Kickstarter campaign in ways new and old: on social media profiles, in church bulletins and at nights of song called hymn-sings at churches and homes. As of Sunday, the group had raised $1,653 with 20 days left in the campaign.

"We are taking beautiful writings and recovering them," Hautamaki said, "and trying to make sure the church doesn't forget."

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