Since 1997, Selah has been a mainstay in Christian music. The original trio was comprised of brother and sister Todd and Nicol Smith, and their friend Allan Hall. Nicol married and left the group in 2004, and Amy Perry joined a few years later.
The trio has sold more than 4 million albums and singles, and garnered seven Dove Awards. Despite their previous accomplishments, their most recent album, You Amaze Us, has achieved unprecedented success.
Recently, I sat down with Todd, Allan and Amy to ask them about their history, their songs, and why theology is such an important aspect of music.
Trevin: You’ve been together 17 years. What is the secret to longevity in the Christian music industry?
Allan: Every artist has a different story. For us, it comes back to our common heart and a common passion.
Amy: We get asked by other groups, “Do you guys fight a lot? Do you have trouble picking who sings what lead?” and we always say, “No.” In fact, we are so conscious of that kind of thing that we’ll say things like, “I feel like I’ve been singing a lot of leads lately, do you have enough?”
There’s still a brother-sister feel to this group, even though Nicol isn’t with the band anymore and I’m not actually the sister. We still have a unified heart as worshipers.
We know why we are called to do this. It’s ministry. We didn’t pick “You Amaze Us” because we thought it would be a number one hit. We picked it because it resonated with us and we thought it would speak to others when we sing it. That’s been our secret to longevity – putting out music God can use to ministers to people.
Todd: We’ve had our ups and downs. When “You Raise Me Up” became popular, we were turning away dates. But then came the shift in the music industry and then the downturn in the economy. We went from doing 80 shows a year to 30.
In the end, on a practical level, you just have to get in the recording studio. You choose songs you love, then record them, and watch how it goes.
Allan: Another reason why we’ve lasted is that we don’t chase musical trends. We’ve just always done what we do. And as much as we can, we’ve tried to do timeless things, and get better at what we’re good at.
Trevin: You mentioned “You Amaze Us.” It was the first song to ever debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Christian Soft AC charts. What brought you to that song?
Allan: Some radio stations have never played us, but they’ve added “You Amaze Us.” So there is definitely something about this song.
We’ve sung similar songs in the past. But sometimes, songs just catch fire. And this is one that has.
Amy: There’s an anthem feel to it. Musically, it lets you put your fist in the air and celebrate our victory in Christ. Lyrically, the song connects with the brokenness in this world, but states it in a way that reminds us we are victorious over it.
I grew up in the church. And I know every Christian is dealing with something. No one says, “The minute I started serving the Lord, my life was perfect.”
We are broken people and we hurt. People think we are supposed to put a fake smile on our face and say everything is OK. No, you don’t. Be real.
This song allows people to move through the pain and weakness we may feel when we start singing, but by the end of it, we are ready to shout in victory because of Christ. It builds to a moment of triumph. And we need that in this life.
Trevin: You’ve always had a mix of songs and hymns. How do you choose which hymns to do?
Todd: Sometimes, we sing hymns in concert and decide to record them later.
Other times, the decision comes from interesting circumstances. We had the privilege to meet with Billy Graham and we asked him, “What songs would you like to sing?” He said, “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” So we sang it for him there.
Afterward, we started thinking, We should record that for him and send it to him. So we went into the studio and recorded it for him and his personal use. Later, we put it on the album.
Trevin: You include a mix of older, classic hymns, like “It Is Well,” and more modern hymns, like “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” Why have songs like these stood the test of time unlike so many others?
Allan: There is a great marriage of lyric and melody. And often times, the writers are coming from places of sorrow with honesty.
In the modern church, too often we are eager to put a bow on suffering. If a song mentions pain, it has to tie it up and say, “It’s going to be OK.”
But there are some pains that we will never fully understand this side of heaven. Todd lost a daughter. Now, maybe time can make it a little better. But it’s not going to heal here.
I feel sorry for new believers who come to faith in, what I call, “Rah-rah churches.” If your faith is built on nothing but emotions, when the storms come and that “rah-rah” goes away, your faith is going to crumble because it wasn’t built on something solid. It didn’t have the firm foundation.
Todd: The timeless hymns have great theology, great lyrics and great melody. And those things stay with you.
You may be able to remember some sermons, but if you memorize Scripture set to music, like some of those hymns are, you are more likely to recall those truths when you need them.
That’s why we feel a huge responsibility when we pick songs or write songs – to make sure they are theologically accurate. We don’t want to sing something that might communicate a prosperity gospel, for example, because people will start to sing it and then believe it’s true.
Amy: We had a song that we were thinking about for a recent album, but there was a line in it they we did not feel completely comfortable with. We had to ask, “Are we really saying what the Bible says or what we believe people would want to hear?” It turns out the line was biblical and theologically sound, but we wrestled with it for a while.
Trevin: Amy and Allan, you’ve both released individual albums. How do you put this together – your work as individual artists and as a group? How do the two work together to sharpen you?
Amy: Whenever I’m not on the road, I lead worship at church. So who am I as a worshiper influences and shapes who I am as an artist.
Recently, we were having a concert and we sensed the Holy Spirit leading us to change directions. My experience in worship at church has helped me recognize those moments.
With the solo project, I wanted to do songs I would do at church. It’s a little bit of a different side of me, but I think both avenues help me be better.
Allan: Ten years ago, Todd, Nicol and I all put out solo albums and it was just another avenue for us musically.
I think that’s also one thing that has helped Selah’s longevity: our styles are so varied. An album has something for everyone. There’s this mix that brings in all our styles.
Now, with my solo album this year, it’s a little more rootsy or Americana than Selah would go.
But it was great to be able to tell our fans, who have waited three years since our last album, that they were going to have a whole summer of Selah this year.
You can find out more about Selah at SelahOnline.com. Pick up their latest album You Amaze Us, Amy’s solo album Glory All Around, Allan’s Work of Love, and Todd’s project with the International Mission Board, Music Inspired by The Insanity of God.
Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.