The Northern Irish duo reinventing the hymn.
Keith and Kristyn Getty have written music together since 2001 (and have been married since 2004). Both born near Belfast, they now live between Nashville and Portstewart, Co. Derry. The transatlantic life is an apt parallel to their musical style, which combines classical, folk, traditional Irish, and contemporary genres to form a modern catalogue of hymns, both new and old.
Keith (41) and Kristyn (36) have each been playing music since their teens, but it was 2001’s “In Christ Alone,” which Keith co-wrote with English composer Stuart Townend, that originated the new genre of the “modern hymn” that is their calling. For the past nine years, it was the most frequently sung hymn in the U.K. By the estimates of Christian Copyright Licensing International, which keeps track of song information and resources for churches, the Gettys’ songs are today sung by over 100 million people globally each year.
Since 2006, the duo has released two live albums and six studio albums – their most recent, Facing a Task Unfinished, debuted at number one on U.S. and U.K. charts this year. They have garnered a devoted international following, too, performing at churches and globally acclaimed venues alike, including Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall, and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Since 2011, they have also toured an annual Christmas show, “An Irish Christmas – A Celebration of Carols,” one of the largest annual Christmas concerts in the U.S. This December, the show hits 20 dates spread across central and eastern America, including the Perelman State at Carnegie Hall on December 20.
The goal of the show is simple, says Keith, who answered our questionnaire on behalf of the pair – to get people to sing together. “What a great opportunity that Christmas brings for this,” he says. “To join voices, from so many states and even other countries, and sing joyfully together about this unimaginable good news of Christmas.”
What is your current state of mind?
Thankfulness – for the breath in our bodies, the privilege of making music, the joy of human love, my wife, my girls, my family, and for this happy time in life.
What do you see as the importance of hymns?
Hymns have several purposes. They remind us of what we believe and what it is we truly worship. (Each of us, after all, becomes like those things we love.)
They also bind us together as communities, both the local community we are part of and those generations that have gone before us.
What is a “modern hymn?”
The “modern hymn” was an attempt to re-invent the traditional priorities of Judeo-Christian congregational singing, where people learned their faith and deepened their sense of community by singing together.
The term has only become popular since we co-wrote “In Christ Alone,” though we didn’t expect it to become a genre.
What is the importance of your Irish heritage in your music? Your religion?
My faith is everything to do with it, but I’m also aware that my Irish heritage is what has given our music such a unique identity – our sense of melody, of passionate missional Christianity (not always well-directed!) and our heritage of hymns (“St. Patrick’s Breastplate” dates back to the fourth century while “Be Thou My Vision” dates to the seventh).
Do you strike up conversations on long plane journeys?
Not right now – the lady beside me is sleeping and I’m trying to finish this questionnaire so I can be off for Thanksgiving.
What is on your bedside table?
iPhone, notebook, Bible, and a spare pacifier for my daughters should one of them do something crazy during the night and in my tiredness I can’t find it.
What is your most prized possession?
My wife and my daughters.
Where do you go to think?
Beaches on the north coast of Ireland (to really think), golf courses (well, really to stop thinking). I think a lot on planes actually – the whole blue sky thinking thing.
Do you have a hidden talent?
If I do, I haven’t found it. Though I suppose I think I could have managed the Irish rugby team or Liverpool Football Club if the opportunity would have come my way.
What quality do you seek in friends?
In close friends, loyalty.
For social friends, people who love to laugh and are not boring. Many of my creative ideas come out of late night conversations with interesting thinkers – usually in fields unrelated to music.
What is your perfect day?
This Thursday – Thanksgiving with my girls; then, the first day back in Ireland every summer; then Christmas in New York City; the day of our Carnegie Hall show.
Favorite country you’ve visited?
South Africa, Switzerland, Italy.
The country you would most like to visit?
Israel, Far East.
Your favorite opening line in a book or piece of music?
“Irish Carol,” “Once in Royal David’s City” at the start of a carol service, and Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
A movie you will watch again and again?
Chariots of Fire.
Your greatest extravagance?
Your favorite place?
The whole north coast of Ireland is the greatest place in the world. I also still love it when Kristyn and I discover a new place together – for some reason the sense of the first-time newness and discovering it together still is better than anything.
Do you have a secret passion?
Getting people singing, so it’s not so secretive…
Your biggest pet peeve?
What is your earliest memory?
Family events – they were always a big deal – and then music – there was always music around our house.
Your most embarrassing moment?
Listening to a speech at a private school about how my hymns had profoundly affected how the children learn their faith and then watching them perform them by memory, while my daughter, Eliza, who had sneaked into the choir, didn’t know the words.
There really was nowhere to hide.
The best advice ever received?
Ensure your faith grows faster than your music.
What is one thing people might not get about you?
We are boring hymn writers – most of the exciting things we get to do are kind of by accident.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
Never wanted to do anything else for a single day, which is just as well. ♦