Author: Gabriel Wolthius
It’s fair to say that Bruce Benedict has a lot of experience when it comes to music. In addition to serving as Hope’s worship chaplain since 2014 and a professor who teaches on worship theology, he has also been involved in a wide variety of projects, bands, and musical collectives. He has had a lot of time to hone his craft and a lot of opportunities to work with other artists, so he seemed like someone worth talking to about art, creativity, and inspiration.
One talent that Benedict seems to put to good use frequently is being a collaborator and facilitator. Throughout our conversation, he seemed to be most interested in discussing his biggest influences and how many of his artistic contributions have been made alongside peers and mentees. “The more resources, influences, artists, and people you introduce yourself to, the more you have to work with and the more interesting conversation partners you have.” While this statement in itself is good advice, it’s even cooler to see how fruitful of a philosophy this has been for him in his work. Just look through the discography of Cardiphonia music, a collective-of-sorts that he has played a very active role in organizing. Each album, of which there are 25 currently available and can range from 10 to almost 30 songs, has a different vocalist and lead musician. Or look to Hope’s thriving chapel worship program, which comprises three different teams of students each year and has only continued to diversify in the styles of music and songwriting voices represented. He was even involved in the making of Work Songs by The Porter’s Gate, the stunning debut album from a collective of some of the most interesting and exciting spiritually-minded artists of the last 20 years (such as Josh Garrels, Audrey Assad, Madison Cunningham, Sandra McCracken, and Jon Guerra).
What’s more, he seems to continually find new avenues for collaboration, often based around breathing new life into timeless works of art. In addition to Cardiphonia, he has also been making music with Bellwether Arts, a group of Holland-based liturgical artists who release biblically-inspired music for different seasons of life. Yet another creative muse for him recently has been the rich folk tradition of the Great Lakes area. Working alongside a group that call themselves Michigan-IO, Benedict helps arrange and play gorgeous renditions of old Michigan folk songs that, like his countless works inspired by the Psalms, Gospels, and other religious texts, help us remember the past and acknowledge the beauty of artistic traditions that came before us.
Benedict himself readily points out that he is a big fan of building upon the resources that other artists have provided for us, especially those from a background of making art to glorify God. When honing his craft as a songwriter and musician in college, he was advised to “make music in the style of other artists until he got bored of that”, a strategy he frequently recommends to budding songwriters in the chapel team or at songwriting workshops. In his eyes, taking inspiration from other artists has become more gratifying the longer he has made art, almost comparing the process to working on a painting for a long time. “That’s the fun part about doing this for so many years, you’re always adding layers upon layers of color, context and content.”
Speaking of painting, Benedict sometimes does that too, a passion he especially credits to some of the creative communities he’s been a part of. He dabbles in many different media of art depending on where his inspiration is taking him, leading him to provide the surprising notion that writers’ block is a myth, or at the very least misunderstood. Citing a recent dialogue with rapper Sho Baraka, Benedict says that the phenomenon that people call “writers’ block” is just an artist reaching the end of the creative energies that have been carrying them to the point that they get stuck, at which point it’s time to do a creative pivot. Hence, if he ever feels a lack of inspiration to write music, he might switch to painting, writing, or pottery, a process that he calls “creative crop rotation”. Just in case this sounds like a bold and unsubstantiated new idea, Benedict also points out that Joni Mitchell spoke to a similar effect about 30 years ago (in The Sunday Times). Even some of his favorite artists like Sufjan Stevens (‘98) and My Brightest Diamond (Benedict enthusiastically encourages everyone to listen to My Brightest Diamond) have had remarkable longevity while staying fairly prolific in their output by changing directions every time they make an album.
It’s entirely possible that some readers will wonder why anyone should care about the revitalization of and reverence for past voices when, thanks to artistic tools becoming more accessible every passing year and the advent of streaming services, there is a saturation of content and a seemingly limitless wealth of new voices, ideas, and means of expression. If so, truly consider the recent patterns in music-making, where new trends can spread fast enough to sound cliche and dated in a matter of months, artists are hesitant to acknowledge their influences for fear of monetary repercussions (such as Olivia Rodrigo being forced to retrospectively add songwriting credits), and even the fact that bands are a rare presence within pop charts at the moment. Whether or not these trends should spark serious concern is a separate issue, but at the very least, it’s refreshing to hear stories about healthy collaboration. Artists do still work together for the joy of making art with others, and Bruce Benedict has been instrumental to that process time and again.