This Friday, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise -- the new film that chronicles the story of Australian-based Christian band Hillsong United -- will be released nationally. The movie was directed by Michael John Warren, known mainly for his directorial debut on Jay Z's Fade to Black.
Hillsong United was launched in 1998 from the youth ministry at Hillsong Church in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, founded by Pastor Brian Houston and his wife Bobbie. From their humble beginnings and a flock of less than 50 believers, Hillsong Church has grown into one of the world's largest "mega-churches." Their home base remains in Sydney, but it's now a multi-campus operation, with church locations that include New York City, London, Paris, Stockholm and other cities.
Beginning with its 2004 set All of the Above, between their Hillsong and Hillsong United releases; the act has rolled up 11 No. 1s on Billboard's Top Christian Albums chart.
Hillsong United's 'Oceans' Still Making Waves Atop Hot Christian Songs Chart
On Hot Christian Songs, the collective has one No. 1 single -- yet it's a whopper of a No. 1. "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)" has spent 156 weeks on the chart and has totaled a chart-record 61 weeks at No. 1, dating back to its first appearance at the top of the survey on Dec. 7, 2013. Since its Oct. 5, 2013, chart debut at No. 46, the song has spent nearly three years on the list. You can see a performance of the song in this Billboard-exclusive clip from Hillsong: Let Hope Rise.
Taya Smith, the vocalist on "Oceans," actually started with the group during the recording of its album Zion, which spent five weeks at No. 1 on Top Christian Albums, starting with its arrival at No. 1 on the chart dated March 16, 2013. The album has sold 356,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen Music.
The 11-track Let Hope Rise soundtrack is No. 41 on the Sept. 17-dated Top Christian Albums chart, after opening at its No. 12 peak (so far) on Sept. 3.
With the movie about to debut, Billboard sat down with two of Hillsong's main members: singer/songwriter/guitarist Joel Houston (son of pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston) and vocalist Taya Smith.
Congratulations on the film. Have you seen the completed product yet, and what was your reaction?
Houston: I actually haven't seen the finished product, in its in entirety anyways, but what I have seen, I can kind of relate to like this: It's kind of like you're hearing your voice back after recording it the first time. It takes an adjustment, seeing your face up there. We totally gave control over to the filmmakers, so we were in their hands.
What can Hillsong fans expect to see?
Smith: Well, mainly, I think that people will see that we're local church kids, very ordinary folks really, and my hope is that they'll be impacted, maybe inspired in their own lives and journeys; that if we can do this, just regular people, that they will then be encouraged and can turn that into something extraordinary in their own lives. That's my hope.
The movie is being billed as a "theatrical worship experience." What does that mean?
Houston: It's kind of an oxymoron, isn't it? As prayer and theater don't really seem to mesh. Jesus tells us to pray in private, but it was the producers' way of describing the experience. Really, I get it now because in church you have a community, and we're hoping for that to happen inside the theaters -- our way of bringing people together.
One thing I must ask before I get back to the film, as I was reading about Hillsong, I noticed a question from a fan who asked about not knowing the difference between the various Hillsong brands: Hillsong, Hillsong United and Hillsong Young & Free. I often have people asking me that same question, and I must admit -- I don't really have a good answer. So for the everyday Billboard reader and me, please explain the difference.
Houston: There's always going to be a little confusion because we're primarily a church and the songs are written primarily to be sung in churches over the world. United has become an evangelical term of connecting music to people's lives. The message is the main thing; the United term gives us less rules. When I was in a secular band I never thought that songs we wrote could be sung in church.
It seems like the band was shadowed for a year during the filming, tracing your roots, following you on the road and culminating with the last show of the tour in Los Angeles. Were you apprehensive about it at all? It sounds very intrusive to have cameras present so much.
Smith: The project was something that I wasn't expecting, so from my perspective, the experience was just sort of surreal, honestly -- I may have been a little cautious at first, but truly, I really can't help being anyone but myself.
For a band that seems to fly pretty much off of the radar as far as any sort of celebrity desires, what was it like being monitored by a film crew?
Houston: They filmed us for eight and a half months, but it wasn't continuous. They'd come in for two- to three-week spurts. We had to remind ourselves sometimes to just be ourselves, and we carried that out. For instance, if there was a good moment of interaction between the group that the cameras missed, and they asked us to do it again for film, we would not do that. We're not actors.
There are some pretty sensitive scenes of the band going into extreme poverty-stricken areas, and you just sort of veer off from a concert tour, morphing into a mission trip. Does that occur on a regular basis? I think also, that's the moment in the film where you realize: This isn't your everyday rock band.
Houston: We have always done that, but I must say that in this filming process, it's when we were most exposed. It can feel very staged to have cameras, but we don't want to make a show of these poor people. It's important, whether you're in Houston or Bolivia, to get to those people who can't afford a concert ticket.
There are times when you feel helpless about saving everyone, but we were able to accomplish some very special moments with people who otherwise would never have seen us. However dire their situation is, it's essential for us as Christians to spend time with people -- whether that means playing with children or just sitting and praying with people in need and simply feeling their pain.
Taya, are you aware that "Oceans," which you sang, is the longest-running No. 1 on our Hot Christian Songs chart, 61 weeks?
Smith: [Laughs] Are you serious? I really had no idea, I didn't. It was actually one of the first two songs that I sang after joining the group during the recording of the Zion album. What makes me happy about that is that so many people would hear the song and then maybe God can work in their own hearts.
Joel, you co-wrote "Oceans." Did you know at the time that you were involved with something that was going to become so special?
Houston: Yes, it felt like God was working, that the song was becoming bigger than us, if that makes sense. Funny thing is, we didn't even know who was going to sing it until Taya came along. When I heard it back, her amazing vocal performance, it was like, "Wow." It all came together. In fact, when we do it live, it's not intentional, but I normally find myself with my back to the audience, just feeling them come alive.
Taya, your story is chronicled pretty intensely in the film. At one point, you kind of cry out with this unguarded humility: "God, who am I to be up here leading these people? I'm just a country girl." That's not a pop-star-like comment. Can you just explain that to music fans, because we live in an era of celebrity worship.
Smith: You know, we're just "normal" people and want to come off like that. I think what we'd like for people to get from this movie and our music is what Jesus can do in their own lives. I'd never think of myself as a star or even that I am that super talented; it really is about doing the work of God. I'm seriously just that small-town girl; I'm not a star. The music connects us to God.
I can't remember what member said it, but during a recording studio scene, one of the members says: "We're probably the most popular band you've never heard of." What does that mean?
Houston: That was Jad [guitarist Jadwin Giles]. He actually regrets saying it now, but I'm glad that he did and it sums a lot of things up. We'll go through airports and people will ask us who we are -- we always laugh about it. We get to do this, yet we get to walk around with some anonymity; it's really cool.
Taya, you are the only female member featured in the film. Does that add any pressure? And being the woman of the group, were you able to get space that you need while cameras are following you?
Smith: I don't feel any added pressure. I feel like I am surrounded by amazing people that I have been led to and we're a family.
You actually moved to Sydney when you were singing with a secular band?
Smith: Yes I was, and how I came to Hillsong is quite remarkable to me in that I am from a small town, Lismore, on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia. I moved to Sydney, was working with a band, then find myself trying out for The Voice. I ended up not following through on pursuing that. I volunteered in the youth ministry at the church. Eventually I auditioned for Hillsong -- and here I am. God gave me this opportunity.
Joel, the movie wraps with you guys under pressure to write material, literally, it seemed like minutes before you hit the stage at the Forum. Was that actually as it went down, and what was the song?
Houston: It was the song "Empires." That was a moment where having the cameras rolling actually helped; the pressure of finishing the song and performing it, literally moments afterwards, in front of a live audience.
I sometimes get distracted in movies, especially if I'm getting involved with my popcorn. So if I were sitting next to you, at what point would you elbow me to pay attention?
Houston: I think it would be the scene that shows Jad at home with his family -- their own personal struggles with a small child that has needed special medical attention. Those moments show us for how human we are, that we're just like everyone else, and that doing what we do even requires some sacrifice.