This week, Hillsong United’s Jonathan Douglass, better known as J.D., stopped by Faithwire in New York City to discuss the teams latest album, “PEOPLE,” which is out April 26.
In a wide-ranging conversation, J.D. shared the importance of believing in the next generation, the power of unity, and the surprisingly intense vetting process Hillsong’s songs go through.
The upcoming album’s name is somewhat self-explanatory, J.D. said. “PEOPLE” was created by people for people, and “the heart of this album is to connect with people and actually unite people.”
J.D. added that “it’s crazy that our name is United, and this album’s strongest theme is uniting people from all across the world. Wherever they come from, all the differences we have, we are all one.”
The heart for their newest album isn’t a new theme for Hillsong United. The band, which was birthed out of Sydney, Australia, in 1998, has had a heart for people from day one.
“PEOPLE”: All about having a heart for others
Speaking with Fatihwire’s Dan Andros, J.D. placed a large emphasis on the great God we serve, who allows people like himself to share that exact same greatness and glory with people all around the world through music.
“For us what has always made it easy is that we aren’t that great, but we serve a God who is amazing, who is great,” he said. “We know that we can’t change a life, but He can in a millisecond. We aren’t so confident in our own abilities, but we are so confident in God, and we put the pressure on Him to do the hard work and heavy lifting, and we just get out there and perform.”
The worship singer explained that the majority of the band grew up together, and has been together since day one. They’ve watched one another go from being single, to getting married, to having kids, and they wouldn’t want it any other way.
“From the first time, we wrote these songs and showed them to our little youth ministry in our summer camps, to be able to travel and be here with you guys on the other side of the world, has been amazing,” J.D. said.
You might think that being together for so many years would take a toll on friendships, or that they might even get sick of one another, but J.D. said it is the exact opposite.
He shared that even when they are not on tour, and just at home, they’re still together all the time, enjoying just hanging out and having fun.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and we like to have a lot of fun in all that we do, which I think has been one of the biggest secrets for us to stay together and keep going,” he said.
“We all go through days and seasons where it’s not what we wanted or what we expected, but always trying to enjoy the journey and the process and understand that God is working,” he shared. “That it sounds romantic, that God is working all things together for good, but living that out day after day can be tough, so I think we have learned how to always be able to laugh at each other.”
As for the new album, it’s packed with simple biblical truths that are timeless and powerful. The 12 songs are all inspired by different passages but have one thing in common: a heart for God.
“We want to write the most honest songs that we possibly can that are from our experience. From our struggles or our triumphs or from the revelation we get from God through reading His word,” JD says of how a United song comes together.
But above all, United wants to make sure they are not leading people astray in their thinking.
“The most important thing is that it is Biblical and lines up with Scripture,” he explained, telling us about the sometimes difficult process one of their songs goes through before hitting the market.
“We have a simple process. We have a couple of our teaching pastors that have to approve the lyrics of all the songs we write. Because we write these songs to be sung and we feel like we are putting God’s word in people’s mouths we want to make sure we get it right. “
“None of us are Bible scholars — we’re all passionate and have read the Bible, but it can be so deep and we also want to make sure these songs can be translated and still make sense. “
But often times this can lead to some friendly yet difficult creative disagreements.
“To be honest, that can be a really hard process. There’ll be this battle, we’re going ‘this is what we want to say, it sings so well, it’s so poetic and it rhymes’ or whatever it may be… they’ll be like ‘yeah but it can be misinterpreted, or that wasn’t the original purpose of that scripture.’ So those songs go through a washing machine.”
The importance of believing in the next generation
When Faithwire asked J.D. how he got involved with Hillsong United, he jokingly responded, “I just put my name in a hat, and it got picked out.”
On a more serious note, he explained that things just kind of fell into place because of his involvement at the church from a young age.
“I grew up in the church, I went to Sunday school there and was in the youth group there. Right at the time that United was birthed, I just happened to be in the youth group and friends with one of the worship leaders, Joel,” he explained. “We grew up together.”
“I kinda just got thrown into it really,” J.D. joked again, explaining that at the time he didn’t expect to ever be a part of a band, because he didn’t play an instrument.
“I thought, I can’t sing, I’m not holding a guitar — because that was the thing that everyone was doing,” he explained.
He added that he would quickly realize that you didn’t need to be holding an instrument in order to be part of a band, thanks to the leadership of the church.
“Our pastors Brian and Bobbi, have always — one of the hallmarks of our pastors — they’ve always believed in the next generation, even before they believe in themselves,” J.D. said.
“That kind of leadership culture, bringing up the next generation is so important,” he said.
If it wasn’t for the leadership at Hillsong believing so passionately in the youth, there may have never even been a Hillsong United, let alone a Hillsong Young & Free.
J.D. recalled the first time the band played at church, saying, “it was horrible,” but the passion the team had for God is what has propelled them forward ever since.
“One thing we did have was a passion to serve God, to build His church, and help people,” he explained. “We were always encouraged by our leaders to use whatever God has put in our hand to fulfill the dreams in your heart to glorify God.”
Due to the encouragement, and enthusiasm from the leaders of the church, Hillsong United has been able to share the things they are passionate with the world: life, music, creativity, and most of all: God.
“It wasn’t, ‘Let’s make albums and tour the world and do what we are doing’,” he emphasized. “The heart of what we are doing has always been our dream, to reach the world, and help people, but we didn’t realize we would have to stand in front of huge crowds to do so.”
What it’s like to tour with families
Many of the members of Hillsong United have been with the band for over 20 years, and many now have kids, which can make touring a bit different than before.
“It’s tough and it’s a sacrifice, but I understand everyone has to make sacrifices in life,” he explained. “I think we understand that we are graced to do this, and we believe in what we do and that’s the thing that makes it easiest to do.”
He explained that even though he knows it is what God has graced him to do, it doesn’t make leaving behind his three kids and wife any easier.
“When I look on paper how often we are away or what our schedules can be, it looks daunting to me, it’s tough,” J.D. explained. “But at the end of the day, we feel like God carries us and has graced my wife even more than he has graced me because she’s the one at home with the kids.”
Hillsong United embarks on their newest tour this week, kicking it off on Friday, April 26, in the heart of Texas. J.D. explained that they designed this tour a little differently than past ones, only doing two legs, instead of three, with their families joining them on the second one.
What it’s like to perform in front of millions
It might come as a surprise, but J.D. has struggled with stage fright ever since he joined Hillsong United 20 years ago. He explained that he frequently gets asked for advice on how to heal stage fright, and frankly, he has no answer aside from pushing through it.
“It’s the most humbling thing to be able to do what we do, to stand on that stage, because we all know that we are not that good or talented. It’s not hard for us to lose sight that it’s only by the grace of God that we get to do what we get to do,” he said.
J.D. also shared what it’s like to perform music that can have such an impact in front of thousands.
“You can’t always see what God is doing in a room,” he said, “but sometimes you actually can, and when we see people closed up, or they have tears on their face, we make sure to give an opportunity each night for people to connect with God or reconnect with God, and that response is always something mind-blowing.”
“People will use our songs for their weddings, or loved ones that have passed, and everything in-between. To hear that feedback, it never gets old for us,” he added.
Hillsong’s bigger picture
J.D. shared that Hillsong Church has one overarching theme for this year, and that is “revival.” The big picture — world-wide revival — might first come to mind, but the leaders are also focused on revival on a smaller scale, with individuals dedicating their hearts to God.
“Our prayer is that we would spark a new revival,” he said. “I think the way that happens is by individuals connecting with God, which is either being reminded by His truth, and His plan for their lives, or maybe even hearing it for the very first time, that’s what we are believing in, and we really think that.”