Back home: Keith and Kristyn Getty on writing one of the world's best loved hymns, their chance first meeting and touring with children
Ahead of their major concerts in Belfast next month, the Northern Ireland-born hymn composers talk to Linda Stewart about their motivation, their difficulty in starting a family and how much they owe to their inspirational teachers
Keith Getty's family like to joke that his career has been heading downwards for almost 20 years now. The Northern Ireland born hymn writer has been writing music ever since he first picked up an instrument - but it was his first published hymn that proved to be the biggest hit of his career.
The deeply moving hymn In Christ Alone was released in 2001 and by 2005 had been named by a Songs Of Praise survey as the ninth best loved hymn of all time, up there with the likes of Be Thou My Vision.
And in 2013, it won the seal of approval of Justin Welby when it was sung at his enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Originally from Lisburn and now living in Nashville, Keith and his wife Kristyn, also from Northern Ireland, have gone on to create an impressive catalogue of modern hymns and it's been estimated that their works are sung by around 100 million people in churches around the world every year.
Their songs have been recorded by stars such as Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs and Maire Brennan and they have performed at the Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall and the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts. And earlier this year the couple performed for US vice president Mike Pence.
But back home in Northern Ireland with Kristyn and their four children and preparing for a major conference on congregational music, Keith is modest about his most famous hymn, while acknowledging its significance.
He wrote In Christ Alone in 2000, along with Stuart Townend, and it proved to be the biggest hit of his career, opening eyes to what he was capable of doing.
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"My family likes to joke that my career has been on a downhill spiral for 19 years," he laughs.
"It was like an act of God, not least because I've never managed to repeat it!"
While In Christ Alone has been hailed as one of the great modern hymns, Keith prefers to think of it as a return to a traditional style of hymn-making, rather than a contemporary movement.
He says he grew up with hymns that were created to last.
"A hymn was only chosen to be in the hymnbook if it could be used for the length of time that the book would last, which was usually around 30 years. So I've never been interested in the Radio 1 style new hymns - I've tried to aim at the more lasting, classical style of hymn," he says.
Keith is 44 ("but I look about 25," he jokes) and was born in Lisburn, the eldest of a family of four, much like his wife Kristyn.
"We both like to be the boss. We are both very much oldest children in how we behave," he admits. "And it's helped a lot, because in the work that we do, in so many ways, it's so unusual. It's the path least travelled and we've had to take a lead, and it's prepared us for that, I think."
Coming from so focused a person, it seems surprising now, but Keith admits he had a bad experience in his early days of primary school, struggling with his studies and not keen on music.
"I was pretty strong-minded and pretty obsessed - I was really, really into sport and determined not to do music," he says.
"I just struggled a lot to concentrate - I always had terrible concentration problems and I probably was a bit socially awkward. But once I moved to Pond Park Primary school that helped a lot.
"I think it was down to a teacher who took an interest, a teacher who loved music and got me into music."
Keith says that once he got interested in music, he got the bug and started playing guitar, and he credits his teacher Bobbie Wright for fostering that interest.
"I just put all my crazy energy into music and from then on it was just music all the way," he says.
"I never had a summer job. I'd spend my summers doing Christian missions and going on music camps. I had started working in the music industry by the time I was finishing high school."
When he left school, Keith was doing some arrangement work for the BBC. He also founded New Irish Choir and Orchestra (now New Irish Arts) in 1994, which is due to take part in the Sing! Conference.
He also casually mentions doing some arrangement work for world-famous flautist Sir James Galway but plays it down as "not a big deal".
"I did a flute course with him and he persuaded me to be an arranger - not a flute player!" he says.
At the same time, he studied music at Durham University while also travelling up and down from London where he was doing a conducting scholarship.
"I didn't do well at university - I wasn't academic," he admits.
But there was plenty going on in the background as the musical work went from strength to strength.
"My late uncle Ian gave me some support at three parts of my life - he helped me when I was getting my first handmade guitars, when I was given the chance to study conducting and when I was starting my business," Keith says.
And, while he has always wanted to do music, it was always about the bigger vision, he reveals.
"I was never excited about being a flute player in an orchestra or a guitar player in a band. I always wanted to take the vision forward," he says.
"I was more captured by the vision of reinventing the hymn for the 21st century - that was what excited me more.
"My parents would have brought me to church and given me a positive experience of Christianity, and I became more and more conscious that Christ was the future for the world."
Keith also says that he got a lot of pleasure during his early musical career in discussing faith and philosophy - and that passion led to a fateful meeting with Northern Ireland-born mathematician Professor John Lennox of Oxford University.
"He helped a lot with my faith - he inspired me," Keith says.
Keith says he originally just showed up at an event at which Professor Lennox was speaking and got chatting - and the friendship developed and deepened.
It was through this friendship that he was introduced to Professor Lennox's niece Kristyn - the woman he was destined to marry.
"She walked into my house one day asking for advice - I was 24 and she was 19," Keith says.
"I was obsessed with her and we've worked together pretty much every day since. But it took her three years to realise that I wasn't just this uncool, overweight Presbyterian but actually someone she would find attractive."
Kristyn, in her turn, was passionate about poetry and drama and all kinds of literature - and it's clear it was a fateful meeting for her as well.
"Keith suggested I should start writing songs, so I decided to give it a go. In fact, we started writing a song together on the very first time we met," she says.
Kristyn describes herself as a dreamer when she was growing up in Glengormley, and namechecks Mr McMaster, Miss Morrison and Mr Lee as teachers who all inspired her at Ashgrove Primary School.
"Mr McMaster was the first person, outside of family, who ever encouraged my singing and he got me involved in the school choir - you don't realise how significant teachers are in inspiring you and buoying you up. I do think Northern Ireland has such a wonderful batch of teachers like that," she says.
"I went to Glenabbey Church and I grew up in that bustling local church environment, and grew there through family and the people around me in the church. My dad was a teacher of modern languages at Ballyclare High School and my mum taught P1 - and then my dad left teaching to become a full-time pastor at Glenabbey Church."
Kristyn has one sister and two brothers - one of whom, she reveals, is the Oscar-nominated director and cinematographer Michael Lennox, who directs Derry Girls. That irreverent comedy seems as far away from the world of congregational singing as you can get.
"They should have won the Bafta. It's very funny," Kristyn laughs.
"It's a very different world to our world. But it's been fun to watch all the different things he's been doing.
"When he was nominated for an Oscar a few years ago [for the short film Boogaloo and Graham], he very kindly brought me with him and it was a really fun experience. I was pregnant with Eliza at the time. It was a very fun day.
"It's a very different world - our world and the line of work that he's in are very different."
When Kristyn was growing up, she says, she longed to be Anne of Green Gables.
"I wanted to be an English teacher on Prince Edward Island," she laughs.
"I did really grow up with a passion for languages, a passion for communication and a passion for imagination. I was a dreamer as a teenager. Think of all the little seeds that were planted, with English literature and the beautiful countryside and the world that is Northern Ireland, love of church, love of the various interests I had as a little girl, working over the past 15 years into all these things that we've grown into now. That's is how life has unfolded and I am very grateful for it.
"I remember at 15 or 16 caring very much that my life would be useful and praying that the Lord might be able to use me. It's a great privilege to have that sense of being used and be able to watch how our songs have gone around the world and the impact of our singing."
After their marriage, Keith and Kristyn lived in Switzerland for a year - but then made the move to Nashville, Tennessee, which has been their base ever since.
"It's the global headquarters for music - it's an inspiring, creative place," Keith says.
"We enjoy being there, although we also enjoy coming back here and living at a more stable, slower pace here."
Kristyn says it's a privilege to have two places to call home. The family makes a point of returning to Northern Ireland to relax with friends and family for most of each summer.
"We're fortunate in that every year we get to come home and spend a serious chunk of time here. We've been living in America for 15 years. We've been there long enough that we have grown to love it, but it's a privilege to have two places to call home," she says.
The couple tour with their four girls, Eliza (8), Charlotte (5), Grace (3) and Tahlia (1), homeschooling them on tour buses with some of the other families they travel with.
Kristyn laughs that she's missed out on Mother's Day twice this year, thanks to the rigours of combining touring and family life. The family were travelling and missed the British one and then were on a transatlantic flight during the US version.
"Travelling with four girls on a transatlantic journey wasn't my idea of a day out! We'll have to find another Sunday and do Mother's Day then," Kristyn says.
But at one stage in her life, she says, it seemed as if motherhood wasn't to be.
"For a number of years, we thought we might not be able to have children. It was a real sadness to me and it was very difficult to be patient," Kristyn explains.
"But it helped to deepen my faith and I am so grateful to have those four little girls. I always remember that when they're all screaming for a glass of water in the night!"
At the time, the couple were stressed with work as they underwent a gruelling travelling schedule and Kristyn's doctors advised them to take a break and relax.
"I found that I was easily stressed by certain parts of the travelling. So we decided to take a break from the touring for a bit and the stress levels went down," she says.
"Three or four months into that period of time off, I found out I was pregnant with Eliza. We had just moved from Cleveland to Nashville and I had an inkling that there was something different.
"I said to Keith, 'you are not going to believe this' and I sent him out to the local drug store and told him to get as many pregnancy tests as he could."
Keith did exactly that, leaving the lady at the counter shaking her head in total disbelief, Kristyn reveals.
"He brought back five or six pregnancy tests and I tried all of them and they were all positive. And that was the beginning of knowing Eliza was on the way," she adds.
Kristyn admits life on the road with four girls takes a lot of organisation, adding: "You can't do it without help.
"And we've been very grateful that at every step of the way another person has come along who is the right fit.
"That has been really great - the things they have experienced have been truly positive."
The girls are homeschooled by a friend, Abby, on the tour who is already homeschooling her children.
"She has slotted our children into her syllabus. Her husband is in our band, so they travel with us," Kristyn says.
"I don't want to be leaving them to go away on tour, I want to be with them very much.
"Wherever we go, Abby incorporates where we are into the teaching.
"If we are in Atlanta, she takes them to the aquarium. And when we were in New York last Christmas, we were able to go and see some of the world's most famous paintings at the art galleries."
Kristyn admits that sometimes they end up learning in more prosaic locations such as the back of a remote tour venue.
"You make it work. We set up school in the directing room and do it as best we can. They love it," she says.
It's an unusual upbringing, travelling thousands of miles all over the US and around the world, she admits.
"It's a unique set-up for them. One of the biggest struggles is trying to keep up the consistency of the basic rhythms of everyday life and trying to find consistent ways of sharing that with them.
"How do you discipline them in the back of a tour bus going down the road?
"What do you do when the naughty step is in a different place each day? Where should time-out be today?"
Keeping an everyday routine can be challenging when they turn up at a venue to be confronted with a magnificent spread of treats and desserts.
"Trying to keep on top of little things like that can be tricky, but the focus on all of us being able to stay together is the main thing," Kristyn says.
"It's good for them to see something that is bigger than our family."
The band will be playing 30 arenas over the next three years, starting with the Belfast conference. They have already played venues such as Carnegie Hall and the John F Kennedy Centre, appearing alongside the likes of Billy Graham, Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs, and the Sing! Conference has become a regular staple in Nashville.
But the conference at the SSE Arena will be the biggest yet and will mark the first time this major event has come to Northern Ireland, the birthplace of In Christ Alone.
The band will be joined by New Irish Arts, internationally renowned pastor and author John Piper and a choir of 1,000 people. Keith estimates that it will attract around 15,000 people, between those who are present for the entire conference and those who are just dropping in for part of it.
The Sing! Conference in Belfast aims to encourage churches towards a deeper, more dynamic view of theology, artistry, and mission in congregational singing and will be focused on equipping, educating and encouraging church leaders.
The conference will be shaped around the teaching in Keith and Kristyn's book Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church, which was published internationally in 2017 and has received critical acclaim.
Keith is critical of the tendency in churches to focus on a few performers in the spotlight and that is why he wants to bring back the focus onto congregational music.
"A lot of churches are focusing on the people at the front," he says.
"They should be focusing on the whole congregation and the wider church community, so that it's not a performance thing. That's one of our big priorities."
Over the years, the emphasis has shifted from the challenge of getting the hymns out and heard by lots of people, and is now more about a team of writers.
"The vision of our company has been to help create a catalogue of hymns. It's a global vision and a global movement, rather than the two of us being artists," Keith says.
But he laughs that his pre-concert routine has remained much the same throughout his career.
"My father came to the Sing! Conference which is the largest worship conference in the world and his comment was I hadn't actually changed anything I was doing in 30 years!"
Keith says he still goes through the same routine ahead of the conference as he always has, practising, arranging, torturing himself about having to do a speech, doing the concert and finally having a party at the house afterwards to celebrate.
"Each year, I've tried to refine it and make it better than it was last year," he says.
- The Sing! Conference and concert will take place at Belfast's SSE Arena on June 14 and 15. Tickets can be booked at www.gettymusic.com/singbelfast