You may have heard of the band Rivers & Robots, but do you know the man behind the music? DOROTHEA WONG speaks with frontman Jonathan Ogden to fi nd out how his bedroom recording project led him on a journey of becoming a singer-songwriter for Jesus.
I have been a long-time fan of Rivers & Robots and Jonathan Ogden’s solo music, so I must admit that I was thrilled to speak with him for this interview! Rivers & Robots is known as a band who writes songs about Jesus with a creative and unique sound, breaking the boundaries of what worship music can sound like. Marrying Scripture with dreamy electronic beats, the band has since led worship at churches, festivals and even clubs! However, with the hiatus of the band due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Ogden is relishing this season to write and produce music from home.
Who were some of your musical influences growing up?
I live in Manchester — a very big music city in the United Kingdom, so I grew up listening to a lot of live music. That infl uenced me to start writing songs because I noticed how creative and diverse every artist was, how every concert sounded different and used different instruments.
How did you know that God was leading you to write songs and worship Him with music and creativity?
I’ve always enjoyed creative things even since I was a little kid — I even used to make short films! Music was something I toyed around with; I used to make remixes of songs and little goofy things.
When I was turning 17, I started to take my faith more seriously. I decided, “I really want to own my faith and not just come to church with my parents.” I went for a Christian conference and right in the middle of worship, I felt something in me telling me that I was supposed to do worship as a way
of serving God.
EVEN IF I LEAD WORSHIP AND IT GOES TERRIBLY, GOD STILL LOVES ME.
What were some faith-defining moments you had as a teen?
When I started taking my faith seriously, I really wanted to read the Bible for myself. There was this moment when the more I read the Word, the more it started to come alive to me in a new way; it wasn’t merely reading words on a page. I realised I could speak to the Person who inspired these words, and I could turn these words into conversation with God.
What gave you the courage to become a full-time musician?
People encouraged me to do it. One of the worship leaders at my church was always asking me to lead worship but I kept saying no. But deep down, I knew it was what God wanted me to do so I obliged. Over time, I was still really nervous but stepping out and doing it gave me the courage to keep continuing.
Did you start out making music intentionally to further the gospel and reach out, or was it something that happened along the way?
It happened along the way. It was almost a surprise to me when I felt God speaking to me about using music for Him and I realised that all this while, He had already put that desire and joy in me to make music.
It did feel different to create music with purpose attached to it. Previously, I was just curious about music and how to make songs. But now I know that the music I create can help me and other people connect with God too. Once I discovered the purpose of what I was doing, it took on a whole new level of
passion and enjoyment.
What are some setbacks you’ve experienced as a musician?
There were definitely times when I got discouraged by people’s comments about the music I release online. I remember the second album that I made from home. The day it was released, one person bought it. It was my friend who sat next to me in my office! But I was okay with that as I realised that I wasn’t making music to get millions of plays but to create music and give to the Lord.
I LOVE SINGING THE BIBLE AS MANY CHRISTIANS CAN UNITE AROUND THE WORD.
How did your perspective of success change after becoming a Christian?
I became a Christian in the midst of my working years. Over time, listening to sermons and reading the Bible caused me to ask myself, “Why am I doing all the things I am doing?” The things that gave me status as an advantage over people was rendered useless in the kingdom of God.
Interestingly, things started changing at my workplace; my boss had resources to hire more people so work became more balanced amongst the employees. I started to have more time to pursue my own interests, and I realised that life is more than just work.
What really set me free was my struggle with a spending problem and I prayed for God to help me overcome it. I read Crazy Love by Francis Chan and I was convicted to only spend a fixed amount and give the rest away. That season opened my eyes to realise that there is more to life than working tirelessly to earn more money. Of course, no matter how much or little you have, you should still have a heart of service to bless others. Being freed from excessive working and money as my identity was a huge breakthrough.
What do you think distinguishes striving and working hard for grades versus obsessing over them?
Ideally, nothing should fill the void in your heart except God. You should be so secure in your identity that good or bad grades will not make you feel any less loved and complete. The problem is that sometimes, you have an idol that is co-existing with God. I can have a good relationship with God, and still have an idol. Let’s say my idol is good grades. I achieve good grades and I do love God. But I need to ask myself honestly if I am working hard because I love God and want to be excellent in what I do, or if I am doing it because I am looking to good grades to define me.
WHEN IT IS CONSUMING OTHER IMPORTANT ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE, YOU OUGHT TO TAKE A CLOSER LOOK.
What is your creative process like? Do you intentionally use Scripture as lyrics, or do tunes come into your mind as you read the Bible?
I always like to write songs that mean something to me or about something that’s already stirring in my heart. I’ll usually start off by creating loops and melodies. But as soon as I get to the lyrics, I ask, “What is God speaking about this week?”
I also love singing the Bible as many Christians can unite around the Word. The Bible contains deep truths that is way beyond something could come up with; it’s God speaking to us. Sometimes I’d literally just open the Psalms, grab my guitar, sing the Bible while reading, and see if I can get any ideas from that.
If you could change anything about the
music industry, what would it be?
I wrestle with the fact that we (as Christian artistes) often produce and release music like the world does. I believe worship music is unique and not the same as just releasing an album. When things grew with the band, I found myself in a lot of conversations that involved promoting our albums and talking to labels.
Many times, I came out of those meetings thinking, “I just want to sing songs to Jesus” more than talking about how to market a product, because I don’t see it as a product to be marketed. I see it as my expression of worship. I would love to see more of that kind of heart, where music returns to the purity of why we worship and why we make these songs.