The Catholic Church has the TV animated series “The Smurfs” to thank for inspiring a contemporary liturgical composer to take up music.
Josh Blakesley was in first grade when he received a Smurfs drum kit for Christmas.
“And I broke it on Christmas Day playing it too hard,” he says with a laugh.
Nonetheless, his cartoon-driven holiday experience began a lifelong love of making music. By the time he was in his teens, he was serious about both singing and drumming. When he was 14, he says he lost a friend, Jenny Smith, in a car accident, an event that changed him from a typical teenager trying to impress girls with his musical talent to a serious youth who yearned to please God first.
“I just made a commitment at that time in my life to live with more purpose and live for Christ,” he says.
The Alexandria, Louisiana, native has since been involved in numerous musical ministry pursuits, from playing at confirmation retreats to composing contemporary hymns for the Catholic Mass. His travels have taken him to several events, including Congresses in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He has also worked with the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Life Teen International, Catholic HeartWork Camp, and Adore Ministries.
Blakesley has been featured on Sirius XM, EWTN’s Life on the Rock, Relevant Radio, and K-LOVE, and has performed with a wide variety of Christian artists such as Matt Maher, Andrew Peterson, Jars of Clay, and the Newsboys, as well as at several international papal events, most recently in Milan, Italy, in 2012.
Blakesley’s last full-length album, “Even in This,” was recorded in 2015 in Franklin, Tennessee, with Grammy nominated producer/singer-songwriter Michael Farren. The album features songs co-written with Farren, Mia Fieldes, Dove Award winner Marc Byrd and Grammy-nominated Sarah Hart. The title track from the album was born out of tragedy after the band’s guitar player, Grae McCullough, lost his 1-month-old daughter to a chromosomal disorder called Trisomy 18.
“The peace I had the day Lizzie’s short life ended could have only been God,” McCullough states on Blakesley’s website. “There was an underlying sense of peace in the devastation and the song really encapsulates the situation we were in.”
The song’s video features a series of poignant images, including a couple arguing in front of their bewildered child, a man contemplating suicide with a gun and a drug addict preparing to shoot up. The video ends with each of these scenes turning hopeful as Blakesley sings about God being present “even in this.”
“This was a dark time in our church family,” Blakesley says. “A popular high school student from our youth group died in a car accident, and within a few months Grae and his wife lost their firstborn. I wanted to write an honest song that asks the question, ‘Where does God go when we are in the midst of tragedy?’ The truth is that it is in those times that he is closest to us, listening to our hurt and anger and offering his healing even before we’re ready to accept it.”
Music for the Masses
He and his wife, Heather, and their children recently moved to Woodlands, Texas, north of Houston, where Blakesley is now music director for St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church. Over the years, Blakesley has released a handful of records, including three versions of the uplifting, melodic “Mass of Restoration,” which he co-wrote with his longtime collaborator, guitarist McCullough, as well as bandmates Blake Powell and Christian Gaudet.
Blakesley notes he was inspired to create “Mass of Restoration” by the release of the Church’s new English translation of the Latin text of the Mass in 2011. He noted the key to writing good liturgical music is remembering that it’s designed for a congregation, not just one individual.
“I wanted to create something that they could sing and pick up easily,” he says. “If we want people to be able to participate fully and actively in the liturgy, they need to be able to catch on to it quickly.”
He debuted the liturgical songs at Our Lady of Prompt Succor Catholic Church in Alexandria, Louisiana, in 2017.
“That church was super accepting. I noticed that they picked it up and sang it right away, which told me that it might be something that the greater Church could use.”
With that in mind, Blakesley and his bandmates also created three versions of “The Mass of Restoration”: an acoustic one designed for summer events like church camps; an all-out take, featuring a full choir, piano, acoustic and electric guitars, bass and strings; and a third one for churches that only have organs and choirs. Blakesley says he will debut “Mass of Restoration” at his new parish in November.
Blakesley says he plans on concentrating releasing singles in the future while he continues to explore how best to match sacred texts with sing-able melodies. Young adults seem to like his music best, he says, adding music is a vital part of his spiritual journey. Scripture is filled with beautiful passages that have always inspired composers, he notes, and he is one such writer.
“The more that I dive into that, the more that I find God is teaching me through what I’m reading.”
You can learn more about Josh Blakesley at joshblakesleymusic.com.
You can learn more about The Mass of Restoration here.