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When WORLD last caught up with the Canadian singer-songwriter Joel Willoughby in 2008, he had just released his second album (Do You Have Something to Say?) and was serving as a youth pastor at an Anglican church while composing, recording, and performing on the side.
Now—five EPs, one recent full-length album, and one brand-new best-of later—he’s leading worship at an Evangelical Free church and enjoying the fruits of having remained musically persistent. Two of his songs have ended up gracing episodes of the Canadian TV drama Heartland.
Willoughby and his wife are also the proud parents of a recently adopted 17-month-old daughter, thus “walking” the “talk” that comes with Willoughby’s being an artist-ambassador with Compassion International.
“What I do,” Willoughby says, “is ‘champion’ the cause of Compassion at churches and other events if possible. I recently had the chance to travel to the Dominican Republic and see what Compassion is doing there, and that was life changing.”
Not quite, however, as life changing as experiencing the joys of fatherhood firsthand, joys that inspired his late-2014 album Indian Summer Sky.
“The project began during the time we were hoping to adopt and finished just after the adoption had been completed. The songs don’t necessarily name the subject matter, but there’s a lot of personal experience of heartbreak and being surprised by joy in the midst of the process. It was a season of life that needed to be chronicled, and I think the songs reflect the new place I’ve journeyed to.”
According to Willoughby, it’s Indian Summer Sky’s new sense of place that made him decide not to include any of its songs on Stay with Me (The Best of 2004-2014), a highlights-packed, 17-track compilation. Both projects, nevertheless, have a lot in common: Willoughby’s silky-smooth voice, his career-long insistence on simple pop hooks, his producer Jonathan Anderson’s glistening studio craftsmanship, and most of his compositions’ being, as he puts it, “either love songs or prayers.”
Stay with Me also showcases Willoughby’s knack for putting his own stamp on other performers’ material, from the obscure (Poole’s “Strawberry Koolaid Smile”) to the well-known (Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks”).
“I remember one night having [‘Pumped Up Kicks’] in my head and thinking, ‘Wow, there’s actually a lot of stuff going on there lyrically.’ I was just starting to figure out how to record my own demos, and I found a drum loop I liked and built it up from there. I really like how it turned out.”
One impressive cover that Willoughby left off Stay with Me but that he included on his 2014 holiday EP Northern Light Sky is U2’s “New Year’s Day.” Whereas the original roars and soars, Willoughby’s light, acoustic touch brings it down to earth, making the lyrics’ promise that unity will ultimately overcome division feel more healing than apocalyptic.
It’s a good version by which to remember the Anglican clergyman Jack Heaslip.
Heaslip, who passed away in February at the age of 71, was U2’s “traveling pastor,” accompanying the band on its many tours and providing spiritual guidance. In a recording of one of his pre-show benedictions available on YouTube, he can be heard claiming the Holy Spirit’s blessing on behalf of everyone from the group to the stagehands.
“The question,” he concludes, “is how do you respond to the blessing of God? And the answer is celebrate—and drink a toast to God.”