Middle River Hymnal comprises of Josh Diaz and Laura Creel. Diaz and Creel has been collaborating with each other in their local church, City Church Fort Lauderdale, for many years. In early 2021, they signed with Gospel Song Records to release their debut EP Holy Week Vol. 1. On this new record, they put their spin on traditional hymns such as "Give Me Jesus," "How Great Thou Art," and "Were You There." You can purchae or stream their new music HERE.
We are honored to be able to catch up with Josh Diaz and Laura Creel for this exclusive interview.
Q: Thanks Laura and Joshua for doing this interview with us. Tell us a little about your musical backgrounds and how did you come to sing together?
Each of us grew up singing hymns in church, and our musical backgrounds are both inextricably tied to the church: It's where and why we learned to sing and harmonize, and to play instruments and lead others in worship. We met about 7 years ago when CityChurch Fort Lauderdale launched an artist residency program and hired us to lead the music portion of Sunday services.
Q: Why do you call yourselves Middle River Hymnal?
Middle River runs through Fort Lauderdale, and for the past several years, our church has been meeting in a building that looks out over the Middle River. We grew our worship team by the Middle River; in 2016, we started playing house shows at the homes of church members who live on the river. When we were brainstorming names for ourselves, we wanted to land on something that felt like home, and Middle River is that thing.
Q: You have a passion for the hymns of the church. How did you develop this passion?
Laura: My childhood church was a place where I felt safe, where I felt I belonged; it felt integral to my sense of self as a child. And a lot of that had to do with having a place to sing. I loved to sing and grew up singing in the children's choir, where our choir director would give out prizes to those who memorized and recited hymns. I don't know where that woman is today or what she's doing, but there's something very beautiful to me about the idea that her handing me a chocolate bar after I recited Trust and Obey has blossomed into me singing and recording hymns.
Josh: I grew up going to many different types of churches. Everything from baptist, to Pentecostal, to evangelical, to even "cowboy church" in a barn or at a rodeo. No matter what kinds of songs we were singing, there was always a poetry to the hymns that would draw me in. Art has always had this superpower to be a medium that is able to say so much more than simple direct words can. And to that point, I've always felt that I could express more worshipfully when singing a poetic hymn, vs singing something like "I am a friend of God" LOL.
Q: What do you think are the values of singing hymns?
We both feel grounded when we are singing and playing hymns-like we are engaging with the music that shaped us as children and engaging with the music that has shaped millions of people across the world for hundreds of years. The practice of singing hymns draws us into this thing that is bigger than we are.
Q: Since many of these hymns are pretty well-known, how do you breathe new life to these hymns?
That's always a question that we are asking ourselves! When we are reworking old hymns, we want to make sure that we convey the beauty of these songs. Sometimes that means keeping the lyrics as they are and changing the melody to something more singable, maybe; sometimes it means just letting a hymn breathe and be sparse and quiet so that the lyrics have a chance to linger.
Q: Talk to us about your new EP. I believe this record was made for Holy Week, what were some of the highlights in the making of this record?
Well, these songs weren't intentionally recorded for Holy Week. We actually started recording them in summer 2020 for use by our church, which was meeting virtually in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That's why, in the videos, everyone is standing so far apart: We were socially/physically distancing from each other.
But it ended up that many of the songs fit together as a 5-song EP for Holy Week.
Q: Do you have more music coming in the near future?
We do! We are excited that Middle River Hymnal is working with Gospel Song Records to release more music over the coming year.
Q: Can you relate a time where a hymn has ministered to you in your walk with the Lord?
Laura: Well, I don't know if this counts as ministering, but during periods of deep, deep sadness and hopelessness, I've clung to the words of "Abide with Me." I didn't have any words of my own that could capture the despair that I felt, and all I could speak or sing or whisper were the words that became a prayer: "In life, in death, Lord, abide with me." Even when I could not see beyond my own grief, I was wrapped in this song that had borne the unspoken griefs of the millions of people who also sang those words throughout history.
Josh: For me, the one that stands out is "Give Me Jesus." Since my youth, I have wrestled the structure of western Christianity. Only recently have I become familiar with the term "Deconstruction"; but it has probably been something Ive been practicing for decades at this point. However, I've always felt Gods calling to not merely "Deconstruct", but also "Reconstruct". My spiritual struggle has been one where I fight to not "throw the baby Jesus out with the bath water" lol; Constantly learning where we as a humanity misinterpret, and miss the mark; and that it's ok to let all of it go. But hang on to Jesus. He has always been the same. "You can have all this world, but give me Jesus."
Listen to "Give Me Jesus" HERE.