Acclaimed chart-topper reflects on his successful switch from secular to Christian music: ‘Doing What God Wants Me to Do’
Before embarking on a solo career in the Christian genre, 39-year-old singer-songwriter Zach Williams, from Jonesboro, Arkansas, fronted a rock band, Zach Williams & The Reformation, which he launched in 2007.
The unit had built a solid fan base that extended to Europe, but after several tours and an admitted “reckless lifestyle,” he returned home to Arkansas, working as an associate pastor in a local church.
That’s the short version of a longer story that encompasses the artist’s dramatic life change, finding God, and turning to spiritual music – the life of Zach Williams, profiled in Billboard magazine and named its Top New Christian Artist of 2017, as well as Top Male Christian Artist of 2017.
Both of Williams’ first two Christian singles, “Chain Breaker” (in November 2016) and “Old Church Choir” (this year), topped Billboard‘s Hot Christian Songs and Christian Airplay charts and his debut full-length, Chain Breaker, peaked at No. 4 on Top Christian Albums in August. From that success, Williams has earned Billboard’s designation as Top New Christian Artist of 2017, as well as Top Male Christian Artist.
Williams’ rock background is instilled in his music and, with its sound that leans more organic than a lot of music in the Christian genre, Chain Breaker also peaked at No. 4 on Billboard‘s Americana/Folk Albums list. Additionally, the singer-songwriter received a Grammy nod, with Chain Breaker being nominated for best contemporary Christian music album.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, following more than a year of continual touring, recording and visiting radio stations, Williams stopped to take his family to Disney World. After returning to his home in Thompson’s Station, Tennessee (about 30 minutes south of Nashville), with his wife Crystal and children, he took time to chat with Billboard and look back on his first full year in the Christian music world.
How does it resonate with you to hear that you are Billboard‘s Top New and Top Male Christian artist of 2017?
That’s just unreal, honestly. To me, it doesn’t even seem how it could be possible. So, to hear my name mentioned with people like Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Lauren Daigle, it’s just crazy.
It seems like Christian radio embraced you almost immediately, as you’re also the No. 1 Christian Airplay artist for 2017. Your debut hit “Chain Breaker” was No. 1 for 15 weeks on Christian Airplay and the second, “Old Church Choir,” No. 1 for 16 weeks. Programmers in the genre seem pretty cautious when it comes to embracing new artists. Why do you think you were welcomed right away?
You know, I have thought about that. When we released my first single, “Chain Breaker,” I really had no idea how radio would respond. The thing is, though, my music is intentionally simplistic and my hope is always that it’s also relatable, that it can connect with normal people. I even thought that “Chain Breaker” may have been too simple at first, and the fact that it got traction and went to No. 1 was extremely gratifying.
I don’t know if you realize this but, in talking about Christian radio, you’re just the second artist that has reached No. 1 on Christian Airplay with your first two charted singles, following MercyMe in 2003 (not counting holiday fare).
I didn’t know about that and it just seems sort of surreal. I have visited a lot of radio stations in the past year and everyone was gracious and welcoming, and the fact that they supported me early on means the world to me.
I am not one that concentrates on watching the charts. You just work hard and put out the best music that you can, so when I hear that the songs were successful, what makes me really happy is that a lot of people may find God through my music.
You were working at a church in Arkansas when you were discovered and eventually signed to Essential Records and the Provident Label Group.
Yes, and I was content. I was a pastor at one of the satellite campus churches for the Central Baptist church in Jonesboro, and just happy to sing worship on Sundays and be part of the community. One Sunday, I just happened to be at their flagship church and [songwriter and producer] Jonathan Smith happened to be in church. He asked me to have coffee with him; one thing led to another and we were writing songs together.
“Chain Breaker” was one of the first songs we wrote together, and basically, when Jonathan played it for the staff at Provident, they wanted to sign me right away.
Working in a church, happily married and content, that’s a long stretch from being on the road constantly with a hard rock band.
Yes, I was with the Reformation for seven or eight years with a big enough following to tour Europe several times and, to be honest, I led a pretty reckless lifestyle that included alcohol and drugs… One day we’re driving along, the bus driver is scanning radio stations and all of a sudden I hear Big Daddy Weave‘s “Redeemed.” I knew the song, but this time it stopped me in my tracks and I clearly heard the Holy Spirit speak to me.
I got to the hotel that night, called my wife and told her that I was coming home.
You broke up the band right after that?
Yeah, and it wasn’t pretty. It was my band, we all had a lot of years invested, but I needed to change, so I did what had to be done.
So, from working with a secular rock band to touring as a Christian artist, where the shows, except for the really big tours, are in churches, I was going to say that’s quite a switch. But, since you were already working in a church, was it a natural transition for you?
Yes, but first, let me just say, I’ll play anywhere. I recently did a show at a House of Blues venue, and I welcome that and kind of love it. I want to play in front of people and meet them where they are. The fact that my songs might connect with them, that they might hear God’s word and that it might inspire change in their own life, that’s what it’s all about and that’s always my hope when performing.
For our readers that aren’t necessarily familiar with Christian concerts, do you pray during the shows?
Yes, it’s natural, and that’s what the music is for. God’s worked in my life and having it transcend to all kinds of people, that’s my wish. My only goal is that I am doing what God wants me to do, and that it resonates with people.
There are points in the show when we’re performing worship-style material that lends itself to prayer, like the song “Revival” on my album. It’s more of a worship song.
Billboard‘s Top Christian Artist of the year among all acts is Hillsong Worship, a prayer and worship act, so it seems like that style of music is mainstream now?
It is and that’s a great thing because there’s some really great worship acts like Chris Tomlin who are phenomenal artists.
You co-wrote all 10 songs on your Chain Breaker album. Is co-writing how you prefer to write?
For sure, I love co-writing. It’s a lot easier to not get yourself stuck because you have people pushing you and finishing ideas. I love bouncing concepts and thoughts off of people and Nashville is full of talented writers.
Would you write or record with an artist outside the Christian genre and if so, whom?
Yes, absolutely. And if I had a dream artist living or gone that I could collaborate with, that’s an easy one: Gregg Allman. I’ve been a fan for years. His voice was simply incredible.
You’ve had a great year and topping it off, your album has been nominated for a Grammy. How do you follow that up?
I try to not get caught up in awards and accolades, so I don’t think about it that way, although it’s an extreme honor to be nominated for a Grammy, and I’ll be there.
But, looking forward, if God wants me to just come home and work in a church, than that’s what I’d do. But, for next year I’m just going to continue to work hard, keep writing and hope that anyone that hears my music or comes to a show will also see the message of Christ in me. That’s all I ask for.
This story originally appeared at Billboard.com, published on Dec. 12, 2017.