Songs of Praise
He’s sold more than two million albums around the world, but most of us have never heard of Robin Mark. Audrey Watson meets the Belfast man who pens smash-hit hymns
Asked to name some of Northern Ireland’s most successful musicians, it’s safe to say Robin Mark isn’t someone who would immediately spring to mind. However, in the world of Christian worship music, this little-known Belfast man is a global superstar.
Since his first release in 1992, the 57-year-old has been selling out concerts all over the world and has notched up album sales in the millions.
“Yes, I’ve got quite a few gold discs,” he laughs. “But Christian worship is a niche area, so people are surprised at the popularity.”
He has just released his 16th album, Liberation Praise, and is about to embark on his latest tour of Canada and America. But far from old-fashioned religious music, Robin Mark’s compositions embrace a wide range of genres from rock to pop to classical, and Liberation Praise has a distinctly folk vibe.
“It has got a bit of a folky feel to it,” he admits. “And it’s a bit different to my previous albums. I have a very eclectic taste in music — everything from Don McLean to Paul Weller — and I do like a lot of folk artists such as Loudon Wainwright III, Kate Rusby and Beth Nielsen Chapman.”
Although Robin had been a keen music fan since he was a teenager, his career really took off after he joined the Christian Fellowship Church (CFC) on Belfast’s Belmont Road, where he became Director of Worship.
Some of the province’s leading contemporary artists — including Duke Special, Iain Archer and Snow Patrol’s Jonny Quinn — cut their musical teeth at CFC, attracted by the fact the church has its own ‘house’ band and uses original music and songs penned by members of the congregation during its interdenominational services.
Born in the Donegall Pass area of Belfast, Robin moved with his father, Jack, mother, Laura, big sister, Jacqueline and younger brother, Laurence to east Belfast when he was a few years old and reveals that while ‘church’ was always a big part of his life, he only started to take Christianity seriously in his mid-teens.
“Mum and dad were not overly religious, but like most people at that time they were good working class Christians,” he says.
“Going to Sunday school and church every Sunday was the traditional thing to do.
“Mum had sent me to the local gospel hall for about four years until I was 11 and then I went to the local Methodist church, but had never really thought about making a commitment.
“When I was 14, like every teenage boy, there was a period of wanting to be a rock star and I borrowed a guitar and learnt a few chords, but that ambition fell by the wayside.
“I was a fairly well-behaved teenage lad — didn’t smoke, drink or go out with bad women,” he laughs.
“At about 16, I started to take religious faith seriously. People talk about being saved, but for me it was much simpler.
“My dad had died from cancer when I was 15 and my mum was left to raise the three of us on just a widow’s pension.
“Dad was a good guy. A righteous guy, and a believer. Some people, when they lose a parent so young ... it can have a negative effect and they go off the rails.
“But I think because my father was such a good man, he inspired me to strive to be a good man as well.
“I left school at 16 and got a job as a technician in a drawing office.
“The two guys I worked with used to have huge discussions at lunchtime about religion and other serious subjects. One of them was a Catholic and the other a Protestant and they used to argue all the time — but it was always good-natured.
“One day they were talking about eternity and how long was eternity.
“It seemed to me that if eternity was such a huge unknown infinite period of time, then it might be good to find out about the one who held that vast expanse in his hand and who spoke, when he walked the earth, about how it was possible to inherit a life in that eternity.
“It might also have been connected to my father’s death, but after that discussion, I made a commitment to God there and then at my drawing board and I’ve never looked back.”
Working as a technician paved the way for Robin to attend university. “When I worked in the drawing office, they sent me to Millfield Tech to do an ONC (Ordinary National Certificate). In those days, that was enough to get you into university.
“So after a few years, I applied and got into Glasgow’s Strathclyde University to study civil engineering, but after a year I transferred to Queen’s.
“Those were the good old days when you got a grant and I started to feel that it was stupid to use the money to pay for digs in Glasgow when I could go to Queen’s, live at home and give my mum some money.”
It was during Robin’s year in Scotland that his musical career started to develop.
“When I first went to Strathclyde, I borrowed a guitar and learned to play James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot songs — because that’s what you did when you were a lonely student away from home and living in digs in Glasgow,” he laughs.
“I then started playing in the Christian
Union and various other things, but I was just like any other young Christian guy. I liked the idea of playing acoustic guitar and did small gigs and that, but didn't really have any vision to play music seriously.
“After I transferred to Queen’s, I carried on playing a bit here and there.
“I became involved with Bloomfield Methodist Church youth group and started to play with them every now and then.”
After graduating, Robin started working as a teacher and began studying part-time for an MA in acoustics and noise control.
“It was a great job, but I got a bit bored teaching the same thing over and over, so after doing the MA, I became self-employed and with a grant from LEDU, started my own acoustics and noise control company called FR Mark and Associates.
“The company turned out to be the catalyst for everything because being self-employed allowed me a more flexible working routine and this resulted in more time spent playing and eventually writing my own music.
“Over the years, the music just grew and grew and in the end I sold the consultancy.
“I’m still a partner in the business, albeit a silent one,” he laughs.
“It’s been an interesting career. I’ve never really had only one job, there’s always been something else running parallel.”
As well as music and the business, Robin also works as a part-time lecturer in acoustics at Queen’s University.
Married for 33 years to Jacqueline, who owns Triniti Boutique on Belfast’s Upper Newtownards Road, the couple have three children: Catherine (27), a paediatrician; David (24) who is studying at Queen’s to become a barrister; and James (19), who is studying law, also at Queen’s.
“I met Jacqueline through the Methodist Church youth group when I was 17,” he recalls.
“She was going out with someone else at the time, but I was patient,” he laughs. “We started going out a few years later and tied the knot in 1980.”
At the same time as starting his own business, Robin and Jacqueline started attending the Christian Fellowship Church (CFC), which is neither Protestant nor Catholic and welcomes and hosts people from every tradition in its membership.
“My songwriting had been so-so up till then,” he recalls. “But through CFC I met a girl called Jennifer Atkinson, who had written a few lines of lyrics and asked me to put them to music.
“I expanded her lyrics and combined them with my own and the result was All for Jesus, which is now sung all over the world.
“It’s a very simple song of commitment and dedication, but one that was written during a time when one very popular church member was dying of cancer. “We prayed for his recovery and really hoped that this would happen, but we found as a church that we had to be brave and bold to give all of our ‘hopes, ambitions and plans’ over to God's will and purpose.
“That was the first real worship song I had ever written and things progressed from there.”
He insists that success is not something he has ever deliberately chased.
“I’m not particularly driven,” he says. “I often find myself saying, ‘Well, when I do this event or that event I’ll pack it all in and just become anonymous again.
“I did actually joke once that if I ever got a gold disc, it would be time to retire,” but that didn’t happen, he laughs.
“As long as God opens the doors and calls me to worship, whether that’s anonymously or as a hymn-writer known by many or few, I’ll keep going.”
Next up for Robin is a tour of Canada and the US, where he is so successful that he has a second home in Nashville.
“It’s great and now that the kids are grown-up, Jacqueline travels with me,” he says.
“Instead of going from hotel to hotel, we have our house in Nashville where we can base ourselves while in America.
“We have a lot of friends on the gospel music circuit out there.”
Having lived in Belfast during the Troubles and witnessed the horrors man inflicted on his fellow man, surely he has questioned his faith and indeed the existence of a God many times over the years?
“I think everybody has doubts and questions,” he replies.
“I am one of the lucky ones. No near relatives or friends were killed or injured. But it was always there and you were very aware of it.
“Strangely enough, a lot of the songs that I have written have come out of my experience of living in Belfast during the Troubles.
“It’s not obvious in the songs … I don’t mention specific incidents … but what I have written has often been a response to what is happening in the world.
“One of my songs, Not by Might, was written when things were so bad that you almost wanted someone to win and someone to lose, just to end the situation.
“The song is based on a verse from the Bible which goes, ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit’, says the Lord.
“And the second line of the song is, ‘Healer of hearts and binder of wounds, lives that are lost restored’.
“That song came out of me looking at the mess the province was in and realising that the only way it could be sorted out was through the Lord.
“Strangely, a lot of incidents during the Troubles pushed me more into my faith and as a consequence, my faith grew stronger.
“I know that for many, it’s the opposite.
“I firmly believe that man has a soul and I think that a large percentage of the population accepts that and believes that there is something more to a human being than skin and bone.”
Robin adds: “And the question is what happens to that soul, that something more, when the body dies.
“For me, the message from the Lord is, ‘Give me your life and I will look after your soul’.”
The albums that spread the word
Robin Mark’s first album, Captive Heart, which was released in 1992, included several songs that are still used in worship not only in his home church but throughout Northern Ireland and the world today.
Further locally-produced albums, Not by Might and Days of Elijah, became bestsellers in Ireland in the mid-1990s.
Europe-wide release of new albums followed, including the award-winning, certified UK-Gold-selling Mandate series with its unique blend of old and new songs presented in the context of the largest men’s conference in the UK.
Robin recorded another Mandate album in 2007, which has been a number one selling album in Europe and Canada. It again captures the unique and intensely emotive sound of thousands of male voices joined in praise.
In 1999, Integrity Music signed Robin to record the seminal Revival in Belfast album, live at the Christian Fellowship Church, which became one of the world’s biggest selling worship albums of all time.
His overall music sales have now reached more than two million throughout the world.
Robin has also garnered numerous awards including Albums of the Year in the UK, four certified Gold Discs in local and overseas markets and other nominations and personal awards from peers and the Christian music industry.
He was awarded International Artist of the Year at the 2004 Dove Awards, and in March 2008 was awarded Worship Artist of the Year at a UK Radio Awards ceremony.
His first book Warrior Poets of the 21st Century was released during the summer of 2007 and charts a personal and Biblical journey through worship to underline the importance of a heart of worship in our lives as Christians.
Robin’s 16th album, Liberation Praise, is out now. For more information go to robinmark.com