“When your whole world is suddenly shaking, you need a firm place to stand. You see what it is in your life that’s stable and true and strong enough to hold you up, and you reach for that, you run to that. In a way, life becomes simpler because the distractions fall away and you find out what you really believe.”
It wasn’t the typical way to record an album: with your producer in Nashville and you in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. With your wife and two year old son living in the hospital where your son is being fed through tubes because he can’t keep down any food or drink for more than 2 seconds and the doctors are running out of options to treat him. With your older son farmed out to friends for days at a time, and your grandmother dying, and you sitting in the car, in her driveway late at night, singing your scratch vocals into your cell phone to send to your producer. It’s not the script you would have written for yourself, but it’s the story you find yourself in the middle of, and somewhere, in the midst of the chaos, you find something else as well: You find that you’ve become acutely aware of the reality of your utter dependency upon God, and of the need to daily, constantly, embrace his promises and his presence.
It’s the sort of awareness that can impact the songs you write.
For Centricity Music’s newest signing, Aaron Shust, the writing and recording of his latest project, This Is What We Believe, became a journey back to the bare roots of his faith.
“Over the years” Aaron says, “ I’ve written a lot of songs speaking to my own soul the way David did in the Psalms: ‘Why are you downcast? Put your hope in God.’ But these new songs are a much bolder declaration. They come out of a difficult season, and these are declarations about who God is and who we are in Him because of His great love for us. This whole project is really about praising him simply for who he is.”
Produced by Ed Cash (Chris Tomlin, Leeland, Chris August), This Is What We Believe retains a poetic simplicity, even amidst a warm and sometimes adventurous sound architecture. It’s vintage Aaron Shust, to be sure, but with Cash at the helm, the familiar textures seem to fall together in new ways.
“Ed really pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Aaron explains. “He could hear possibilities in the melodies and even in my voice that I hadn’t explored before. He had me singing more passionately, less precisely, higher, louder and even more quietly than I ever had before. And it worked. This Is What We Believe is an honest reflection of who I am as an artist, but Ed managed to draw that out and express it in ways that never would have occurred to me. It was a great collaboration.”
The dynamic of that collective chemistry seems to have yielded Aaron’s strongest collection of songs to date. The entire project feels seamless and intentional, including standout recordings like the hauntingly accessible “My Hope Is In You” (written by April Geesbreght), and the lose-yourself-in-the-moment singability of “Your Majesty”.
“Both of these songs feel so personal to me,” Aaron explains. “Ed was familiar with April’s version of My Hope Is In You and he couldn’t get it out of his head. When I played it for my wife, she told me I had to put it on my record. Even though I didn’t write it, it expresses my heart, and it’s exactly what I would want to say. Your Majesty, on the other hand, was one that took me several months to write. It was a song that the first time I strummed the chords I spontaneously started singing the lyrics: ‘Jesus, Alpha and Omega…Beginning and the End.’ The whole feel of what the song would become was already there in the first moment of creating it, but because of that, I didn’t want to rush it, so I let it slowly come together. Your Majesty is probably the only song I’ve ever written that just allows me to abandon myself in true worship of God every time I sing it.”
As an artist whose globe-trotting career already spans more than ten years and includes multiple Dove Awards as well as the most played song on Christian radio for the last eight years (My Savior, My God), Aaron Shust has always been willing to follow wherever the journey took him. But after living in Atlanta for ten years, in early 2010 he and his wife made the decision to pull up stakes and and move their young family back to Aaron’s Pennsylvania hometown. In less than a year, he was invited to take on the role of worship leader in the church he had grown up in. There was a sense of coming full circle.
“It’s a little church,” says Aaron. “No fancy lights, doesn’t have a great sound system. But it’s a part of the fabric of my life and my family’s life. My grandmother went to that church. My family has generations of roots there. It’s where I first heard the gospel and was baptized. I feel like this is my home, and these are my people. I left home years ago to pursue the opportunities that God put in front of me, and I value all that I learned and experienced during that time, but I think it took all those years and making several records to realize that what I really am at heart, is a worshipper. So as I’m writing songs now, I’m not writing things just for one guy to stand on stage and sing, but for worshippers to sing together. I’m writing songs for my church, but I think if I can do that, other people in other churches are going to connect with those songs too.”
The support of their local church became critical to Aaron and his wife as they walked through their son’s medical issues. Diagnosed with Eosinophilic Esophagitis, a rare and extremely painful condition, two-year-old Nicky was unable to take in any nutrition. Doctors tried multiple food formulas but his body rejected all of them. He had to spend months in the hospital. Finally, when the last available option was tried, his body accepted it. But he still had to be fed through a tube that bypassed his stomach. Doctors further explained that Nicky would have to be on steroids for the rest of his life to manage the pain, so the Shust’s began researching the negative side effects of each steroid. That’s when Nicky’s doctor contacted them with stunning news: their son’s tests had come back normal. It was as if he’d never even had the condition. What was considered to be a permanent disease seemed to have disappeared. The doctor could offer no explanation as to why. But the Shust’s were confident they’d just received a miracle.
Walking through that difficult season left an indelible mark on Aaron’s songwriting. The epic title track of “This Is What We Believe” is also probably the most obvious expression of Aaron’s newly heightened sense of God’s gracious intrusion into our lives and world. The song resonates with the knowledge that the person, grace and truth of Jesus form the only sure foundation upon which a life can be built. With strong confessions of the risen Christ set to confident, simple chord choices, the song flows with joyful assurance, it’s lyric reflecting the grounded faith of a man whose recent life experiences have only served to further strengthen his belief.
“Through all of the sickness and heartache and loss,” Aaron says, “my family has run to God and his promises. We’ve been forced to our knees, but this trial has made life exponentially more meaningful. And through it all, God has never left us. He brought strength to our weakness, peace to our uncertainty, and healing to our wounds. He’s given us the grace to handle what we didn’t believe we could. And ultimately, he’s let us experience the joy of seeing his miraculous grace at work. To witness your own child being healed of something that doctors told you was permanent, painful and incurable—well, if that doesn’t move your heart to worship, I don’t suppose there’s anything that will.”