When father and son Lenny and Daniel Smith sent out their first email announcing the launch of Great Comfort Records, they announced an ambitious goal: they hoped to "completely change the course of the old gospel ship."

"Gospel" here refers to music—praise/worship/devotional/etc.—and Lenny Smith says "it doesn't take a whole lot to change the direction of the ship. You just have to turn the rudder."

Marian & Lenny Smith, Elin & Daniel Smith

Marian & Lenny Smith, Elin & Daniel Smith

The Smiths seem an apt crew to pilot such a vessel, as their ventures, though relatively small, have been wide-ranging in their creativity and vision. Daniel has made forward-thinking (sometimes bizarre, always creative) music for years with his band (and family) the Danielson Famile, and Lenny, Daniel's father, wrote the classic worship song "Our God Reigns" (a modest tune that was a favorite of Pope John Paul II) and other worship songs during his 30-year career as a carpenter.

While some people like to gripe about stale praise choruses and misguided approximations of worldly "coolness" in worship songs, the Smiths do not gripe. Instead, they get back to the rudder. Both have made not only art, but also business at the fringes of mainstream Christian music: Daniel helms the record label Sounds Familyre, which releases albums by his own band (and by Lenny) as well as groups like Soul-Junk, Half-handed Cloud, and Sufjan Stevens. Meanwhile, Lenny runs New Jerusalem Publishing, a company which publishes and licenses songs by Sounds Familyre (and other) artists.

In early 2009 the Smiths decided to christen a new venture: Great Comfort Records, a record label devoted exclusively to worship music with an independent business model, which is run by Daniel and his wife, Elin, and Lenny and his wife, Marian.

The idea was more than a whim; Lenny Smith says he feels that the mission of Great Comfort—what the label's website calls "looking for and finding those melodies, those poetic lyrics, those honest expressions, captured in song: the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs … sacred music for the invisible church"—may be "the reason I'm here, still alive and healthy."

Devoted to 'spiritual food'

The Smiths say they felt called to create a label devoted to music that Daniel calls "spiritual food," but the timing hadn't felt right until they came across Come O Spirit, a collection of songs compiled and recorded by a nonprofit organization called Bifrost Arts.

Isaac Wardell, Bifrost Arts' creative director, met Lenny Smith at Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Music in April, and, Wardell says, "We had this whole deal done in about a week. We felt like they had exactly what we needed, and we had exactly what they felt like they needed."

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Lenny Smith "fell in love" with the recording, he says, and played it for his son. It was just what they had been looking for—worship songs that were beautifully and thoughtfully crafted in every respect.

"(We want) to really emphasize the value, the importance of the enduring aspect of the melody," he says. "Then we're looking for lyrics that are beyond just conceptual, a bunch of concepts strung together. We're going to have lyrics that are poetic, that are lovely, that are beautiful, that are inspired, that are a result of wordsmiths, that are a result of craftsmen who practice the craft of lyric writing: people that love poetry, that write poetry, that love literature and read literature and know literature."

Another vital focus is theological, says Lenny Smith, noting that they seek "a heavy emphasis on songs that are to the Lord, and about the Lord. They're not going to be so much about songs about us, or to us, or even to the Lord about us."

They found this in the Bifrost Arts album, which features new songs and arrangements of traditional hymns with a number of guest vocalists (including Leigh Nash, Rosie Thomas, and Damien Jurado). Not only is the record well-crafted and creatively arranged (strings and horns mesh with guitars and drums, with production work not far from the '70s Laurel Canyon folk sound), it was written with congregational singing in mind, Wardell says.

Participatory songs

This, ultimately, is Great Comfort's vision: to release records that can be listened to, but also to spread church music that is participatory.

"We're selling records, but really they're a platform to promote individual songs," says Daniel Smith. He wants the label to release compilations rather than just albums, "because we hope people will sing these songs in their home and their churches and their communities. It's about singing and participating in these songs."

The ease with which many slip into cynicism about worship music—it's too loud, too old, not cool enough, trying too hard to be cool—seems almost completely foreign to Great Comfort, and even this alone makes it a worthy endeavor. The music Great Comfort is getting behind has a reformation at its core, but they phrase it in positive rather than negative terms. Lenny sums it up pithily: "We can say there is a lack, and it's a broad lack. [But] it's a lack of our contribution."

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He continues: "If God blesses this effort, it'll prosper and grow, and we'll be able to continue. If he doesn't bless it, we're gonna have to regroup and do something else. We don't know yet his opinion about this, but we'll find out."

Which suggests that there's someone else at the rudder after all.

Great Comfort Records will release Bifrost Arts' Come O Spirit! on September 8, and a follow-up Christmas record, Salvation is Created, on November 4.

Photo of Smiths by Helge Kapelrud