Pamela Stewart uses words like composers use notes and rhythms. With each new lyric she reveals fresh perspectives on treasured truths. Her texts are always thoughtful and filled with layered purpose and meaning. Her words have been set to music by many of the leading writers of church music as well as composers from the concert world.
She has worked with a diverse group of collaborators, from Stephen Schwartz to Maya Angelou. Her concert music tackles difficult questions and builds bridges of understanding between an audience of diversity.
Her sanctuary output is no less impressive. She has written for such names as Craig Courtney and Mark Hayes, Lloyd Larson and Heather Sorenson. Her canon includes many styles of music and covers many subjects. Through the years her texts have resounded through such venues as Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and thousands of churches around the world. From festive anthems of adoration to bittersweet ballads, from liturgical litanies to large-scale cantatas, her poetry of worship is filled with variety and deep meaning.
WorshipSongsOnline asked Pamela to take our Composer Spotlight challenge, and her answers reveal an artist who is always reaching to connect with the journey of faith in meaningful ways.
What was the music of your youth?
Wow, where to begin? I liked songs for the lyrics (surprise!) and groups for the harmonies (and later because they made good road trip music). My teens and 20s included: Eagles, Chicago, Three Dog Night, Little River Band, Seals and Crofts, Beach Boys, Carpenters, Cat Stevens, Doobie Brothers, Bee Gees, Beatles, Kansas, Fleetwood Mac, Toto, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor. Enough?
What music do you listen to now?
The earlier ones, plus those that came slightly later like Bonnie Raitt, Michael McDonald, Elton John, Phoebe Snow, Stevie Ray Vaughan, k.d. lang, Sting. Artists/composers from other genres like Yo Yo Ma, Claude Bolling, Stephane Grappelli, Dave Grusin, Diana Krall, Christopher Parkening, Conspirare, Ennio Morricone, Michael Kamen, Piazzolla, Jobim. And I love a luscious soundtrack.
Tell us about your background and how that inspired you to pursue writing as a career.
English was my favorite subject until I discovered foreign language; I was a sentence-diagramming nerd who wrote poetry. My last “real job” was writing/editing policy and handbooks for a state agency. I quit when our son Jonathan was born and by the time our daughter was on the scene, I had made the shift from technical writing to creative lyric writing, which felt like a return to poetry.
Tell us about your faith journey and how it influences your lyrical choices.
My dad was a Baptist minister, so I grew up in the church graded-choir system. Hearing choral music on a grand scale at camps like Glorieta was a turning point for me. Another was when I joined First Baptist, Austin in my 30s and was exposed to liturgical worship for the first time. I had never known any seasons but Easter and Christmas, to say nothing of any litany that wasn’t a responsive reading in the back of the Baptist Hymnal. Liturgical worship really reinvigorated my faith, and I enjoy writing for it. I know that some people who grew up with liturgy are finding a similar freshness in more contemporary evangelical worship.
Name three things about yourself that would surprise people.
The first thing I ever wanted to be was a secret agent; I was 11. I checked out some James Bond books from the library and my mother had a fit.
I was not allowed to ride a bike because of a bike-rider fatality in our hometown. As a result, I never learned how.
I got a mention in Texas Monthly’s restaurant reviews for my cheesecakes, when I was baking on the side back in the early 80s.
What projects are currently on your horizon?
In my spare time, I’m working on a book of poetry, although I have no idea how to get it published. I’m also collaborating with Mark Hayes on a piece for Carnegie Hall; it’s a new closer for an earlier work we wrote together (The American Spirit, based on the works of Henry David Thoreau). I really want to write some lyrics for the academic side and try some more contemporary sacred things.
When are you most creative?
When I have insomnia. Ideas emerge while I’m in that theta state on the cusp of sleeping/wakefulness. Driving helps me work through a text that is giving me difficulty.
What’s your sacred space?
Right now, I’m not in my own living space, so I don’t really have one in a home. But being in nature never fails me; being quiet and connecting with the created world speaks to me.
What writers inspire you?
Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, W.S. Merwin, Wendell Berry, Kathleen Norris, David Whyte, John O’Donohue, Jan Richardson, Jane Hirshfield, Rilke, Rumi, William Stafford, Annie Dillard, Barbara Brown Taylor, Terry Tempest Williams, William Stegner, Frederick Buechner.
What do you read?
I gravitate toward poetry and nonfiction, especially books about the creative process. There is a lot of overlap/similarity between the various disciplines. I’m trying to read a little light fiction now and then just for a change of pace. I have two or three books going at any given time.
What are your tips for aspiring writers?
If you want to be a writer, you have to write. There is a lot of truth in the ratio of 90% perspiration:10% inspiration. Be consistent with a writing schedule. They don’t call it a discipline for nothing; it takes discipline to create, and there is as much muscle memory in writing as in any sport. I try to end my writing day with the first line of the next verse so that I have a springboard the next morning and can avoid the dreaded blank page. If you do reach a roadblock, try doing something in one of the other creative disciplines. It often breaks through the inertia. And read––a lot. It doesn’t matter which genre; you can learn the craft from all of them.
Editors Note: Click below to look and listen to some of Pamela’s new publications.
Remember (A Winter’s Communion)
There’s a Baby in a Stable
The Wondrous Gift