Robbie Down on music, vulnerability, and the benefits of liturgy
Interview by Ilana Reimer
Q. Robbie, could you start by describing what you’re up to right now?
A. I have the privilege of going to Trinity Western University near Vancouver. I’m taking a bachelor of music and I’m a vocal major, possibly with the intent of teaching later. Currently, I’m working on recording lots of my own music. [My music] is partially my storytelling and writing artistry, but also partially to inspire and equip other Christians.
Q. And has the isolation affected your creativity at all?
A. Yeah, I think it has. On one side, there’s this part of me that’s aching to get music out and share the words I haven’t been able to share with groups. But as well, I think being away from my regular community, there is also a sense of dryness.
Q. What was your experience like growing up and your exposure to music? How did you discover your passion for it?
A. My grandma was a piano teacher and so my mom saw the importance and put me and my two sisters in lessons. I moved towards guitar and that led to my love of singing and creativity with writing.
I didn’t realize until I was on a worship team that you can have this chemistry like no other when you’re playing music with other people—whether it’s a performance on stage or it’s just friends around a campfire. There’s this bond that happens around music, and that’s what really made me fall in love with it.
Q. Is there an artist in your Christian life, who has inspired you?
A. Will Reagan is part of a band called United Pursuit. He has more of a softer style, just sharing faith in the quiet, meditative moments. Will Reagan has been a figure I’ve looked up to, in the worship world at least.
Q. Why do you think a quieter, more reflective style resonates with you? Why do you think it’s important within Christian devotion music?
A. I think in the busyness—especially in this season where a lot of our lives are online—it’s so important to pull back and pull away. Getting off your phone and computer is so freeing. I actually have an iPod that I listen to music on, and that helps get rid of the distractions. And I can connect with God more that way, when there’s nothing to get a hold of me.
There’s something about music that helps get your mind off other things. It’s like artists are curating a devotion for you as you meditate through the lyrics. It’s almost a liturgy in the music.
Q. Do you bring your faith into your music explicitly? Why or why not?
A. I was at a writing retreat with some of the other worship leaders at my church, and I got a chance to talk with [Canadian singer-songwriter] Brian Doerksen. He said the more personal worship music you write, the more relatable and connected other people can feel to it. That’s where my writing started.
Now I’m taking this path, simply because that is how I’ve connected to the Christian artists I love listening to. What does it look like to tell a story through the eyes of a Christian who doesn’t have these glaring opinions, but maybe more subtle observations of how God is working in me or through me, or through others?
Q. Do you easily see the value of creative contributions within the Church, or has that been a tension for you?
A. I’ve had so many experiences where I’ll share a song with friends, or they share one with me, and it puts words to things you’re experiencing.
I think that ties back to those artists sharing stories you can relate to. It connects you to another Christian through their storytelling. It reminds you, Okay, yeah, we’re sharing the same experience as Christians living in this broken world with the same hope. In that sense, it’s a beautiful thing.
Q. Being honest and vulnerable in telling your story—that’s a hard thing. Have you found that scary at all? How do you choose to tell your story, what you should or shouldn’t tell?
A. Yeah, I don’t think there’s a defined line, it’s a little blurry. Some people decide to be explicit, and some a little less so. That’s something that comes with discernment, depending on the story.
One of the songs in my Anchors EP last year, called “We Found A Home,” expressed some struggles I was having. In Grade 12, there were so many opinions coming out among me and my friends, some that had to do with the LGBTQ community. I was really wrestling with, How do I show love, no matter the conversation, without getting attacked?
The song was speaking to finding a home in loving each other, even if we hold different stances and opinions. Depending on how discreet I was in the lyrics, I think some people might have picked that up, but others might not have.
To answer your question about how you share your story and how intimate to be, I think there’s a way of crafting your intimacy so it’s not right in your face, but people can still pick up nuances. Then it can be applicable to the listener in a way that isn’t exactly your original intent but can still be impactful.
Q. You’ve talked about liturgy and storytelling a bit. You also mentioned before our interview that you’re part of a team developing a liturgy book for the student body at Trinity Western. Could you talk about that?
A. I’m so excited about this. A lot of students go to Bible college or Christian university and think, Where do I start? What will my devotions look like? What will my prayer look like?
Also, when you’re getting into your twenties, you’re wrestling with a lot of bigger questions as you see different sides of the world. We wanted to place a book in students’ hands as a starting place. So, the discipleship team is writing a liturgy book—probably similar in structure to the [Anglican] Common Prayer book.
It will offer prayers in the morning, the middle of the day, prayers for fellow students, and prayers for learning. It’s a stepping stone into a devotional life.
Q. What’s been your own experience with liturgy?
A. It’s tricky reading boring liturgies, because those definitely exist. You’re like, What am I reading? How is this helping? I don’t feel anything through this. But the idea of liturgy is that God is forming you top-down, not bottom-up.
It’s not me trying to be more like Christ and be more worshipful and intentional. This is Christ’s love before mine: He loved me first before I could love. It’s the counterintuitive idea of grace, that I have done nothing to earn Christ’s grace. He has simply offered it to me, and this is my response.
Key points like these have come to life for me through liturgies. I’m not going to say it’s easy or fun all the time, but I think it’s really rewarding. You can reap a lot from other people’s words and direction in your devotional life.
Q. A lot of time we put so much focus on feelings and emotions. We can question the value of simply sitting down and reading something because it’s a commitment. But it’s a good discipline sometimes.
A. It’s interesting you say the word discipline because we as Christians are sometimes guilty of being really passionate and excited about things. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Yes, it’s exciting because we’re becoming more like Christ and we’re digging into our communities. But it’s also a lot of work.
It’s a lot of work to be our authentic selves. I don’t mean trying to find ourselves, but the most authentic version of ourselves, which is imitating Christ. And that imitation takes a lot of practice and discipline.
Q. Tying into what we were just talking about with the liturgy book, how has community played a role in your creativity?
A. In terms of writing, I have a lot of fond memories of collaborating with other people. Not only is it encouraging to my own faith, but it’s also meaningful in giving me a place where my home is. This is my new home because I’m working with these Christians for a purpose bigger than myself.
Q. Have you ever had any insecurities about your creative abilities? What’s helped you push through them?
A. One of my biggest insecurities arises from ego, actually. Because when you have this sense of pride, that pride tells you [your work] needs to be perfect. People need to listen to this and think, Wow, this is amazing.
That has been where the insecurities come in. For me, the opposite of insecurities and anxieties has been humility. Realizing that, nope, this is not going to be perfect because I’m a sinner and a saint.
Q. Do you find that tension carries into leading collective worship? Is there a struggle between the desire to be humble and to also produce high-quality music?
A. In my experience leading worship, my priority is to lead others into a place of worshipping their King. It’s not necessarily how good the music or singing is, but asking the Holy Spirit what those people need to hear.
Often, when connecting with God in that way, asking Him to lead, it’s not going to be a separate experience. In leading others into worship, I often find myself in that same place. Of course, it’s not the same every time, especially right now when everything is online.
But I can’t stress enough how rewarding it is to be serving. Serving connects you with other people in your community.
Q. As you continue to explore music, what are some dreams you have for the future?
A. One thing I’ve found about the Christian artist industry is there are no platforms. There is no sense that this artist is way out of my league, or that I’m never going to talk to that person, they’re way too famous. I think in the Christian world, that doesn’t exist as much because we’re all doing it for the same reason.
So, my dream is to collaborate with other Christian artists I can create work with and hopefully be an inspiration to and be inspired by. Maybe that’s going to have to wait until a post-COVID world, but I want to head towards more and more collaboration. The more I can write and record with others, the better our collective work is going to be.
To learn more about Robbie’s music follow him on Instagram.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.