Hillsong United: Building An Empire

The Australian worship band on their new album Empires, their road to Zion and how they handle the pressure. 

- Posted on May 14, 2015

Members of the band Hillsong United

It’s a Saturday night and I’m sitting at a picnic table in Central Park, waiting to interview Taya Smith and Jonathon “JD” Douglass, two members of the band Hillsong United. I’m here to talk about their new album Empires -- which drops May 26th-- and to dig into the psyche of the group whose music reaches over 50 million churchgoers on any given Sunday and who’s sold more albums than mainstream platinum artists like Lady Antebellum, Mumford and Sons and yes, even Miley Cyrus.

I want to know what it’s like to have millions of people across the globe singing your songs, repeating your lyrics, screaming your name when your worldwide tour makes a stop in their hometown. It has to be an ego-boost, an affirmation of God’s favor in your life, but it’s clear as Smith settles into her seat across from me, rocking a pair of black, cut-up skinny jeans and nestling a cup of hot lemon water; JD flashing a big grin while trying to manage his long, wiry (and I’ll admit) attention-grabbing mane of hair, that ego is the last thing anyone from this band has to worry about.


“It’s the grace of God. It’s the biggest privilege because we know it’s not us and we’re not awesome, but through the grace of God, we get to do this and our heart is that we would serve with everything that we have, love people and just pray that God would use us,” Smith says when asked about the success of the group’s last album Zion, which cracked the Billboard Top 5 two years ago and whose single “Oceans” held the number one spot on Billboard’s Christian music charts for 45 straight weeks.

Success like that doesn’t come often, especially for a Christian worship band, but according to JD, what United was able to do with Zion had nothing to do with their talent and everything to do with their willingness to trust and follow God.

 “None of us ever sat down and said let’s start a band, make albums, tour the world,” the singer explained. “For us, the opportunities that we get, we just know who we are. I hope you don’t think this is a cliché, but we’re actually the most normal, ordinary people that go through every single insecurity as everyone else. We’ve just encountered a good God.”

We just want to hear the heart of God and let that be the message.

Good doesn’t even begin to describe the career the band has had in the past few years. With 15 albums, millions of records sold, hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and undoubtedly even more fans, the group, which was birthed in the youth ministry of Australia’s Hillsong Church, is the name in Christian music right now. You can’t turn on K-Love in the car or visit a Christian youth conference without hearing their lyrics. It’s both a blessing and a weight.

“There’s definitely pressure, but what we decided to do more than ever was to not feel it and to not carry it,” JD said of the group’s journey making their newest album. “We didn’t shy away from hard work but we didn’t strive to try and compare ourselves to what we’ve done before.”

The result is Empires, the band’s fourth studio album and, both lyrically and stylistically, it’s bravest to date. On it are the classic worship anthems Hillsong is famed for – the title track and songs like “Touch the Sky” and “Heart Like Heaven” were made to be sung by the masses – and a few tracks which speak not only to lead singer and songwriter Joel Houston’s ability to pen a good tune – “Prince of Peace” is his crowning achievement in this category – but also the band’s willingness to experiment with new sound. Synth beats, guitar riffs, percussion solos and quirky electro influences all have a place on the new record and surprisingly pair well with some of the album’s heavier lyrics.

It’s challenging to keep creating music that appeals to the kind of vast, completely varied audience that is Hillsong’s fan base, but even after all these years, JD says the group’s goal still hasn’t changed.

“We are trying to write songs that reflect a relationship that we all have with Jesus. Ultimately, the number one goal would be that people would hear this good news that is the gospel, that Jesus came and gave his life so that we could have grace. Then as well, if they’ve already heard that message, we want to encourage them on this journey.”

For Smith, who started out as a youth leader in the church before being asked to lend her vocals to “Oceans” two years ago, her journey -- to being a part of the band -- is the perfect example of God’s timing and grace.

“I love the story of Taya and her coming in and singing ‘Oceans,’” JD said. “We’d known each other for a little while, and I just knew that she had a great voice and she was a cool girl. She was really known not for her singing but just being a great youth leader and it was the last day of recording and we really needed somebody to sing ‘Oceans’ and we thought ‘Well, let’s just give this Taya girl a try.’ It was our last option, our only option and the song is doing what it’s doing majorly because of who Taya is and what her voice is doing on that.”


Smith, for her part, never expected the song to touch as many lives as it has, or the fame that came with it.

“[I] thought it was a great song, great lyrics, that was it. But what it’s actually done and how it’s reached people, that’s completely a surprise for me and definitely a story of God taking it where maybe music has never gone before. These guys are just really good stewards and they just did the best with whatever’s been put in their hands and they gave it everything and I fell like that’s what we did with Empires as well. Everything that we have we just laid it on the table. Like Joel says, our job is to build a ship. Build a ship the best that we can, make it really sturdy, and wait for God to just breathe on it. “

Part of building that ship includes promoting the new album, something the band finds themselves in the middle of doing. Tonight, they’re playing to a packed crowd at Summer Stage at Rumsey Playfield in New York City; tomorrow, they’ll catch a flight to L.A. where they’ll play the Nokia Theatre. And then of course, there's a new movie coming out later this year, Let Hope Rise, which documents the rise to the top. It’s an exhausting schedule, one that most people would balk at, but watching them jump around the stage with boundless energy, and hearing a crowd of thousands crooning along to their lyrics, it’s easy to see why they do what they do.

“God’s love and grace is ridiculous,” JD said. “We have to glorify Him and tell people about Him. We just want to hear the heart of God and let that be the message.”

I think people are starting to listen. 

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