Bangor-born singer of Christian folk-rock band Rend Collective says “all are invited” to party with them in outdoor Belfast gig

Live at Botanic Gardens brings seven nights of live music events

Rend Collective’s current line-up Will Pearce, Stephen Mitchell, Chris Llewellyn, Jonathan Chu and Daniel Jones
Rend Collective’s current line-up of Will Pearce, Stephen Mitchell, Chris Llewellyn, Jonathan Chu and Daniel Jones

“I’ve memories of taking the train up to Belfast with mates from Bangor and hanging out there, so it’s really sweet to go back. I think we’re the first Christian band to play there,” enthuses Rend Collective’s Chris Llewellyn about the group’s forthcoming gig at Live at Botanic Gardens.

From humble beginning in 2007 the group has become “much bigger than they ever dreamed”. Nine albums in, the American-based multi-instrumentalists are one of the world’s biggest-selling Christian music bands.

With songs like Build Your Kingdom Here and Counting Every, Rend Collective are known for their high energy, joyful performances, what makes them stand apart is that when touring you will find them perform at clubs, stadiums, theatres and rarely churches.

With an acknowledgement that music transcends boundaries, the band stress they are “making music for all”. In 2018 they were invited to perform when Pope Francis visited Ireland and guitarist and singer Chris is looking forward to “meeting a wide mix of audience” in Belfast on May 29.

The members of Rend Collective standing beside the famous Samson and Goliath cranes in Belfast
Rend Collective are looking forward to bringing their music to Belfast

“The mission that we have is one that really means that everybody can have a good night. The gospel message fundamentally is good news; nobody is separate from the love of God no matter who they are and what they’ve done. That’s the invitation, and all are welcome.

“I think there’s so much baggage around Christianity and religion in general. Just for people to know that they are loved, wanted and welcome in the arms of God is the message that gets me excited and what we want to bring to Belfast.”

Rend Collective will be bringing a mix of all their hits, as well as “a couple of brand new songs” from their next album, which Chris reveals will be “a fully-fledged folk record”.

“I’m writing heavily now. We should have 40 or 50 songs going into the summer and then we’ll turn some of them around and record them,” says the 39-year-old father-of-three.

So, what made them return to their folk roots?

“This past five years or more, it’s been about trying to work out what we’re supposed to sound like,” he explains.

“When we started, folk music was majorly in mainstream culture. We came along at almost exactly the same time as Mumford and Sons, which paved the way for us to exist.

“Since then we’ve been a bit more experimental and tried pop and other sounds. I’ve enjoyed that as well but there’s something about just going back to the thing that feels really comfy. It’s like putting on that jumper you’ve had for years.”

Having started as a worship group at Bangor Elim, the group made the leap of faith to relocate to America after supporting singer Kari Jones on tour and developing a fan base on the other side of the Atlantic.

There’s so much baggage around Christianity and religion in general. Just for people to know that they are loved, wanted and welcome in the arms of God is the message that gets me excited and what we want to bring to Belfast

—  Chris Llewellyn

Their Irish heritage and love of traditional hymns stayed with them, inspiring some of their own music, including their version of Be Thou My Vision, complete with banjo, and Boldly I Approach, which was influenced by Before the Throne of God Above.

However, it’s In Christ Alone, a song penned by English composer Stuart Townend and Lisburn-born Keith Getty who, together with his wife Kristyn, are also hugely successful in America, that Chris singles out as his favourite worship song.

“I know it isn’t ‘traditional, traditional’, but it’s been around for 30 years, and it will be around for another 30,” he enthuses.

Rend Collective are celebrating the 10th anniversary of their first album, Campfire, which contained their platinum single My Lighthouse, whose video was filmed off the shore of Portavogie.

Would Chris like to see more of their songs make that crossover and, like the Gettys, be sung in more churches?

“I hope I get one of those hymns, one day. But I think you have to write whatever feels authentic at the moment. Right now I feel more drawn towards writing that is a bit more intimate and personal, rather than those big universal anthems.”

One such song is their hit Hallelujah Anyway, which implores listeners to give God glory even when life doesn’t unfold the way we think it should.

“It’s about trying to find that joy and something to celebrate even in the middle of situations when there isn’t anything to celebrate,” shares Chris, who wrote the song during his now six-year-old son’s autism diagnosis.

“That was a scary diagnosis for us because we had no idea what it really meant. Would he be capable of having a happy life? It has definitely coloured my writing a huge amount and I’m grateful for what it’s done for my ability to write lyrics that connect and build empathy with audiences who are going through tough times.”

The band has had a number of membership changes over the past decade, hence their name ‘Collective’. It’s something Chris describes as “a sign of life”, though he pays tribute to the “main characters” and fellow founder-members who have moved on, in particular Ali Gilkeson and husband Gareth, who left at the end of 2023.

“We absolutely honour and recognise the sacrifices and contributions they made to make the Collective what it is today. We also honour their decision to spend time at home with family rather than live in tour chaos.”

Bangor-born singer and founding member of Rend Collective, Chris Llewellyn
Bangor-born singer and founding member of Rend Collective, Chris Llewellyn

Having recorded his own solo album Honest last year, does Chris see his future with Rend Collective or as a solo artist?

“If anything, it would be combining both. When I wrote my solo songs I had a lot of doubt and questioning and didn’t feel like it belonged with the other Rend Collective stuff. Right now I’m fully focused on the band. Rend Collective has at least 10 years left in it for me,” he quickly replies.

Rend Collective’s mantra of ‘Nothing to prove, just being faithful’ is something that has remained constant and which Chris takes seriously.

“It’s important for us in the sense that I think a lot of our music is actually written from a place of insecurity.

“There are a lot of musicians who are writing music and standing in front of a crowd that are trying to fill a hole in their lives. They want people to tell them they’re great, so that somehow that will fix everything. I think working from that place of trying to get affirmation is wrong.”

Rend Collective’s social media shows the band involved in some wacky warm-ups - from plunging into cold water to singing on top of city rooftops. However, prayer also plays an important role before each performance.

“We go around the band and we play ‘high-low-buffalo’, where you give your highlight, your lowlight and your wildcard fact about the day. Usually there’s plenty to pray about after that. Nearly always it comes down to what’s happening at home and the people you are leaving behind, rather than the performance.”

Poster for Rend Collective gig at Botanic Gardens
Rend Collective play Botanic Gardens Belfast on May 29

As well as looking forward to catching up with friends and families, Chris is on a mission when he comes back home to Northern Ireland to “source and eat sausages”.

“No matter where you are in the world you’re never able to replace ours. A sausage soda is also on the agenda,” he laughs.

Rend Collective play Live at Botanic Gardens on May 29 and Dublin’s Vicar Street on May 30. Ticketmaster.ie