From shy worship leader to entertainment royalty
Colin Buchanan opens up about overcoming stage fright
Christian singer-songwriter Colin Buchanan found it hard to get up in front of people when he began to lead singing at church. That was back in the 1980s when he and his wife Robyn were studying at Cornerstone Community in Bourke, in the corner country of NSW.
The fun-loving, cheeky children’s entertainer makes the surprising admission to Sydney-based Anglican minister Dominic Steele in the latest edition of his ministry podcast, The Pastor’s Heart.
“It’s hard to get up and play for people,” he says.
“Good, strong writing has a pastoral dimension to it, I believe, and songs can really do business with people’s hearts,” — Colin Buchanan
“I was very self-conscious and one of the guys out at Bourke took me for a walk after church … and he said ‘I feel like you’re a bit self-conscious, you don’t like to look up, and you shouldn’t be because, you know, the song was good and the singing was good and you should think about looking up at people while you’re singing and just trusting that to God.’
“That was so helpful because I was self-conscious. I’d sort of look at the song, I’d look down at the chords and things I didn’t need to and it’s a great encouragement when you see people involved in leading worship and engaged with what they’re singing. I like to see bass players singing!”
Over the past 25 years, Buchanan has become well known in Christian circles for his Bible-based children’s songs such as Isaiah 53:6, which contains the chorus “Baa baa doo baa baa,” and Ten, Nine, Eight, God is Great.
Steele, who is minister at Village Church in Annandale, New South Wales, joked that he had to smuggle Buchanan into the studio under a blanket so that the children at a kids’ club upstairs didn’t mob him.
In the podcast, Buchanan reveals his biblical approach to writing children’s songs was shaped as a teenager at Hurstville Presbyterian Church, then called St Giles, where he absorbed the importance of handling God’s word carefully for children as much as adults.
“That’s really where I started to shape up so much of what became the sensibility of my approach to children’s ministry,” he says, adding the fact that the main Bible teacher, Ian Murray, gave a strong message that children’s ministry is “no lightweight thing.”
Buchanan started writing songs for St Giles when he was just 17 and had just graduated from playing the ukulele to the guitar. At that stage he had only two songs under his belt, including one for the dry cleaners where he worked.
“Me and a couple of friends were helping to lead the singing, me up the back just very gingerly with my guitar,” he says.
“Discovering your musical gifts in a church is a great blessing because hopefully the culture is ‘you are not your own, you were bought at a price and so in your bodies glorify the Lord with your talents and your skills and abilities whatever they may be.’”
After training as a primary school teacher, he began working at a Christian school, which gave him opportunity to write more songs for kids and teach memory verses.
“It was just like, ‘well I’m not gonna be able to remember all these memory verses unless I put them to music.’”
After two years of working full time, Buchanan and his wife moved to Cornerstone Community, a discipleship training school at Bourke.
“We’d had a couple of friends go out there and found it a great exercise in putting legs on your faith,” he reveals.
“I was writing [songs] all the time really just because I loved doing it … So I was writing songs about the bush out there and I’d sing them in the cookhouse and so forth and … I recorded them on to cassette … because people were saying ‘I’d like to listen while I’m chipping or sitting on the tractor.’”
Buchanan says he loves creating “a monument to seemingly insignificant things” by creating a musical experience out of a single moment.
“Good, strong writing has a pastoral dimension to it, I believe, and songs can really do business with people’s hearts,” he says.
“God invites music into the sanctuary – that’s profound … he invites music with all the risks that are involved because it’s creative and it has its own engagement about it but all the beauty and richness and it’s spiritual within itself … it captures people in a really remarkable way.”
Asked how he made the transition into a professional career in country music, Buchanan says he recorded a cassette of songs in 1988 and rang up the Tamworth Tourist Bureau and asked – as quickly as possible because it was a long-distance call – where to enter his songs for the Tamworth Country Music Festival.
“So I sent off three songs on cassette and it came back and they said we like your songs and three of them are in the finals.
“So I borrowed a car the next year and went up to Tamworth and won the Capital Country Music Association. I didn’t get a statue, I got a statuette, and that was sort of the beginning of my introduction. That was the first time in Tamworth … and I gave a cassette to a guy in a band … and he said I’d like to produce a record for you and that opened the doors to music.”
He has since become a regular panellist on ABC Radio Sydney’s Thank God it’s Friday comedy show hosted by Richard Glover, where he is often challenged to write and perform a satirical song on the spot.
“Yes, [it’s] comedy, but also getting to express a view, getting to express some leadership in the public debate, in the public square,” he says.
“So it’s interesting and Richard said to me, well, ‘you come as a Christian so we expect you to be what you are cuz the other guys will be whatever they are and … you can bang your drum’ … so that makes him quite exceptional.
“The best restaurants are where the chef has a taste before he sends it out and I would hope that I have established a pattern with my children’s music where the process is taking a biblical truth, digesting it, tasting it, refining it as best you can, as opposed to diluting it, staying on target and … [ saying] ‘let’s just teach that one truth.’”