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Hitting the right notes: Hymn writer Keith Getty on why it took him some time to woo wife Kristyn

'Kristyn was 18 and I was 24 when we met and I think to her I was this unattractive boy who was Presbyterian and wore his trousers too high'

Northern Ireland-born hymn writer and performer Keith Getty tells Stephanie Bell his wife was not impressed with him at first meeting and also reveals how his most famous composition was written on the back of a bill

Discovering that the world's most famous modern hymn, In Christ Alone, was born on the back of an electric bill receipt may seem bizarre until you meet the man behind it.

World renowned as an innovator in the modern hymn genre, Keith Getty (43) is refreshingly grounded about his global fame and expresses gratitude for it that you don't doubt is heartfelt.

He comes across as a not-too-serious, doting father who enjoys life and seems to take success in his stride.

And that success is on such a huge scale that he and his wife Kristyn (37) lead an unconventional life, touring internationally and dividing their time between their home in Tennessee and here in Northern Ireland.

The couple have four children - Eliza Joy (7), Charlotte (4), Gracie (3) and four-month-old Tahlia - who are all clearly the apple of their daddy's eye.

Touring as a singing duo, composing and bringing the Christian message to the world through their music, the couple survive with a tight team of people around them including a tutor who helps with home schooling their girls.

They spend five weeks during the summer at home in Northern Ireland where they both grew up.

It is impossible to overstate the impact the pair have had on the world of music as modern hymn writers.

Up to 100 million people worldwide sing Keith Getty's hymns in church services each year, an accomplishment recognised in the Queen's Birthday Honours last year when he was awarded an OBE.

In Christ Alone is his best known composition - and one of the most famous hymns ever written.

Penned by Keith and long-time writing partner Stuart Townend, it holds the position of most-frequently-sung in UK churches for the past nine consecutive years.

It was voted the second best-loved hymn of all time in the UK according to a BBC Songs of Praise national survey and among the top five hymns of all time by the UK Hymns Society.

According to Christian Copyright Licensing International, it is estimated that 40 to 50 million people sing In Christ Alone in church services each year.

Back home in Northern Ireland for the summer, Keith revealed exciting plans for a huge gospel concert in Belfast in the SSE Arena next year when they plan to bring together a choir of 1,000 people.

He talked about his Christian childhood growing up in Northern Ireland, how he met Kristyn and fell for her immediately while having to woo her and his amazing career and talent as a hymn writer.

With a new addition to the family, he says life for him and Kristyn centres first and foremost on their girls and he revealed just how precious they are after the couple spent seven years thinking they were not going to be parents.

Keith says: "There is no model for our lives. For us the responsibility of our children comes first and we only tour now 12 weeks a year and in fact this year it was 10 weeks. The rest of the year we have with the girls and it means that for most of the year we get a lot of time with them.

"We take 10 weeks off in the summer and spend five of them in Northern Ireland going down to the beach every day and just enjoying family time together.

"Some Christian leaders think we are negligent of our work, but we have been married for 14 years and for the first seven years we didn't think we were going to have kids.

"We now have four and we love it, it is amazing and I can't believe it and it makes me so thankful to be alive."

The couple are based in Nashville, Tennessee because it suits their work.

They met in 2002 after being introduced by world renowned Northern Ireland-born mathematician John Lennox who was a friend of Keith's and also Kristyn's uncle.

The couple were both brought up in Christian homes and although they appear the perfect match - composing together, singing together and running their business together - Keith reveals it took Kristyn a little longer than him to realise it.

"Kristyn was 18 and I was 24 and I think to her I was this unattractive boy who was Presbyterian and wore his trousers too high," he says.

"Her uncle John Lennox had become a hero to me and would debate faith with me and he said he wanted to introduce me to his niece who was interested in doing a bit of singing.

"When I met her she just knocked me out but it took her a couple of years to realise how attractive I was!"

Kristyn grew up in a Christian household, the eldest of four in Glengormley as a member of an independent church, while Keith was also the eldest or four, raised as a Christian in the Presbyterian Church in Lisburn.

He says from his youngest years he wanted to be a Christian.

He explains: "It was my parents John and Helen who introduced me to my faith. Dad was a choir master in the church and mum was a piano teacher and also introduced me to music. They still live in the same house in Lisburn where they have been for 40 years.

"I was a Christian from the earliest age I can remember. Between the ages of 15 and 21 I found it more challenging in high school and university when I would talk to atheists and people of other faiths and engage in intellectual debates with them.

"There are two teachers in school who really influenced my career. In Pond Park Primary School I had terrible problems concentrating in class. Bobbie Hunter helped me through that stuff and she gave me a lot of self confidence.

"In Friends School in Lisburn, Peter Hunter my music teacher gave me a lot of opportunities to write music and perform. It was the best training."

Keith completed a degree in Music at Durham University and then studied conducting in London.

From he was a young boy he played the flute and at the age of 18 attended a masterclass in Switzerland by famous flautist Sir James Galway.

He says: "I became obsessed with the flute and trying to perfect melodies and James Galway really encouraged me to do arrangements."

Keith began writing hymns in his 20s and soon proved to be one of the most prolific hymn writers of modern times.

Together he and Kristyn occupy a unique space in the world of music as the finest modern hymn writers.

In re-inventing the traditional hymn form, they have created a catalogue of songs teaching Christian doctrine and crossing the genres of traditional, classical, folk and contemporary composition which are sung the world over.

Together the couple have written The Power of the Cross, Christ Is Risen, He Is Risen Indeed, By Faith, and others.

Their compositions can be found in mainline hymn books and choral repertoires and have also been recorded by a wide range of artists.

For Keith it has always been about getting the Christian message out. "I wanted to write hymns because I was excited about my faith," he says.

"I believe we live in the most exciting generation in history as Christians. There are more Christians now than ever and more conversions. It is unique now because of global communication.

"Christianity in the 21st century needs to be intelligent and deep, enjoyable and engaging for every generation both at home and in church.

"In Christ Alone was the first hymn that blew the whole thing open for us. I was 25 when I wrote it.

"Singing is such a huge part of Christianity. My goal with In Christ Alone was to help articulate the Christian faith and what is behind it.

"I wrote the tune on the back of a cellophane envelope of an old Northern Ireland Electricity bill.

"I write piles and piles of melodies and every so often one stands out from the rest and usually they are written on manuscript paper.

"I was going through them and found this one on the electricity bill and thought I like this and I wanted it to be a hymn on the life of Christ and Stuart came up with strong lyrics for it.

"As a writer most of my life is just writing tunes and tunes and hoping that one of them speaks to people in a unique way. I would say one in every 100 becomes a hit and a lot of it is hard work.

“I believe singing transforms people, and getting individuals, families and children singing again is our life’s work.”

His favourite hymns, he says, change every day. On the day we are doing our interview, there are two on his mind.

He says: “I have been thinking a lot about friends, and in the past year I lost an uncle whom I loved really dearly. Thinking about him today, the hymns How Marvellous How Wonderful and Abide With Me are what are on my mind today.

“I think we need different songs to suit our different moods.”

As a singing duo, Keith and Kristyn travel the world and have performed in many top venues including Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, the Pentagon, the Grand Ole Opry and many more.

They have performed for former United States President George W Bush and ex-South Korea President Lee Myung-bak.

They also have a famous Gettys’ Irish Christmas show, touring annually since 2011, built around their Christmas church music catalogue, as well as their love for historic carols and congregational singing.

The tour, playing to some 40,000 to 50,000 people each year, has featured annual sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall, as well as performances at many of the top concert venues in the US.

Their profile just keeps rising.

Regulars on TV, three years ago their concert, Joy: An Irish Christmas television special, was broadcast to over 45 million homes across the United States, as well as on the BBC and internationally.

They also run the Getty Music record label, have built various print publishing partnerships and produced unique merchandise containing their hymn lyrics.

The label has now released two collections of songs and hymns for families, In Christ Alone and For the Cause.

Keith pays tribute to the people around them for helping them to strike a balance between juggling their heavy work schedule and being there for their girls.

He says: “I never thought I would be doing the things I am doing, not even slightly. It is beyond words. Coming home every summer to Ireland, I am more grateful every year that we get to do what we do at such a high and global level.

“I always feel lucky. We have a wonderful team of people around us. Having a full-time tutor on our staff means the kids get to tour with us, and wherever we go they get to pick up skills and education on our travels.

“If we are in New York, they will tour around Manhattan. If we are in Washington DC, they will visit two museums a day, and in Ireland they get to explore.

“Where we live in Nashville, there is a lot of home schooling and groups would get together, which the kids love.

“We also have a great nanny and house keeper, who is a stunningly brilliant organiser, and generally we have a brilliant team — most of whom have been with us for over eight years.”

The couple are excited about a huge concert they are planning to stage in the SSE Arena on June 15 next year.

The event will see the performance of the biggest choir ever, with 1000 people on stage with Keith and Kristyn. Tickets will be for sale on the couple’s website — www.gettymusic.com

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