Eric and Monique Johnson have played their music in churches around the world. Now they are at home in Australia, pastoring and raising their two young children—but they haven't stopped singing.
Question: For about 10 years, your full-time work was as self-supporting “musicianaries,” travelling around Australia and the world, singing—mainly for Adventist churches—even in the remotest areas. What was that like?
Eric: It was the time of our lives, to be frank, flying by the seat of our pants most of the time—learning, trusting Jesus, and growing as we went. We, at times, would book entire tours without having the funds to pay for it and watch the Lord cover our costs and then some. It was indeed a genuine stepping-out-in-faith adventure. If we stopped still long enough to analyze, it was a little bit crazy, to be honest. But the Lord provided for our needs.
Monique: We stayed in so many homes where we met the family living there for the first time as we walked through their door. Some invited us in even when we couldn't speak their language, and we had to use Google Translate to talk; it was such a nomadic season of life. I couldn't even tell you how many different families we stayed with. We lost count.
Eric: It felt like we were truly living a life of faith, and it was just honestly the best experience I could have asked for in life. I felt like I lived an entire lifetime in those 10 years. God is good; we initially stayed in our comfort zone with Adventist churches but later branched out to many different denominations. They really appreciated what we did, and that did not stop us from singing Sabbath songs and biblical truth. Many did not know at first that we were Adventists. Still, we were met with welcoming arms and the people really were thankful that we visited and often asked us back. We were able to give the people in these different churches a positive experience about the Adventist brand of Christianity.
You bought a caravan and made that your home while touring. And you kept on touring, even after you had kids! What made you choose the nomadic life full-time?
Eric: To be honest, we should have bought a caravan earlier. We purchased the caravan in mid-2019, just before the pandemic hit. We toured a lot with our son.
Monique: His first tour with us was when he was four months old. And for months, I would hold him in a baby carrier as we sang the entire concert. Most of the time, he was asleep, but a couple of times those elusive naps didn't line up, and I'd be lying if I didn't say I was a little nervous. We toured with our son through Australia, Oregon, the USA and Europe (with the help of my Mum because he was a little older at that point).
Our daughter did not get the same experience, unfortunately. She was born the day after we sang our last concert before the pandemic struck, at a church service in Melbourne. It was only five days later that Australia was shutting down like the rest of the world at the start of the 2020 pandemic in March.
Eric: We caught the nomadic bug in 2009 when we went overseas to volunteer in Ukraine. (This is before we made music as a couple.) I'd done a few performances in churches by myself, and we hit ARISE [an independent Adventist discipleship and training ministry] in California later that year when our time was up in Ukraine. That program shaped us and directed our music ministry more than we realized. It was there that we caught the vision for the touring “musicianary” life.
Monique: The concept was born from having preaching and singing and songwriting all mixed into one. Honestly, it's not an easy lifestyle. Most years, we were on the road for five or six months. When we got home from each tour, all we wanted was to hibernate because we felt so saturated from meeting so many people. We're both introverts, so it was definitely tricky finding a balance between being around people so much and finding space to recharge.
Using music to preach gospel truth is what kept us going. To share Jesus in a way where people could invite their friends because it's a concert and not intimidating was really meaningful. And meeting so many people from different walks of life, different faiths, and nationalities was really amazing.
Eric: We are still going to tour where possible! Life is quite a bit crazier with two kids now, and the COVID-19 pandemic quite frankly destroyed our touring music ministry as we have known it.
Monique: Right now, as we speak to you in Australia, we still cannot travel more than 5km from our house, let alone to church, because they are closed as most of the eastern coast is still lockdown.
How did you make money? Was your income entirely donation-based?
Eric: The vision and way we felt called to make money in music ministry was a faith-based model. We caught that vision from the stories of missionaries in South America, where they would pray, and God would provide.
We took this vision and the experiences we had in trusting the Lord to provide the money for us to go to ARISE, and implemented the same concept in our music ministry. Which, in a nutshell, is all free-will offering and donation-based. Sometimes the churches where we played wanted to know an amount. We just gave them an approximate amount, said we wanted to just let the people donate, and let God speak to them about giving if it was their desire. That kept us going full-time!
Monique: Sometimes, we felt really tempted to just charge a specific amount or ticket charge (which there is nothing wrong with doing). But we felt especially called by God to not do that, but just trust that God would provide.
Eric: We've had a lot of crazy stories about how God has provided for our needs. A woman came up with us with an envelope for $1000—not knowing she just covered our concert weekend that had just been cancelled. God works in mysterious ways, and he speaks to believers through the Holy Spirit. Because I have seen the hand of the Lord provide directly financially, we wanted to honor that in our music ministry. Trusting God is hard, despite everything, and sometimes I still doubt.
You had a whole year of touring planned up and down the coasts of Australia when Covid hit and turned your plans upside down. What did you do?
Eric: Survival mode is probably the best way to describe it. We were just trying to take one day at a time. It was an incredible psychological upheaval. It practically killed our touring music ministry as we knew it to be. Our daughter was born at the start of the pandemic, so our hands were very full during that time.
Monique: I had just had our second baby and was struggling with postpartum depression and anxiety. I found it crucial to focus on my family, find peace and joy from Jesus, and heal while looking after a baby and toddler in a caravan during the lockdown.
Eric: Yes, we were living full-time in the caravan we had bought the year before—we had moved out of our rental house to go full nomadic, but Covid slammed the doors shut (in Australia we won’t open up until vaccination numbers get high enough). Thankfully, we had a government that gave financial support to those impacted by lockdown. This saw us through the year—long enough until we received a call by the Victorian Conference to be an intern minister.
Yes, I believe you have a degree in theology from Avondale. Now that you are serving as a ministerial intern, does this mean your touring days are behind you?
Eric: Thankfully, I have been able to implement some of our music into the local church setting. As for touring, half of the country is closed, and international and state borders are shut. We have Zoom church now, and we've been in and out of lockdowns all year. Many churches have been closed on and off for most of the year, making it pretty much impossible to plan anything.
I think touring will look different in the future. Instead of going away for months at a time, it will be in spurts. Maybe a weekend here, a weekend there. My internship supervisor and the eldership team have supported our existing music ministry, encouraging us to visit different churches at least once a month. Lockdowns have put a stop to that, but it is encouraging to have that support. I love touring so much that I'd probably use some of my annual leave holiday time to tour. I love our Victorian Conference, and they have been very supportive of us in the past. I think it will look different and less often, but I still have that burning desire for touring.
How did the two of you start singing together?
Monique: The first time Eric heard me sing was at ARISE. We had been married for one-and-a-half years, but singing just wasn't my thing. To be honest, singing in front of people was my version of a living nightmare.
Eric: Half of our ARISE class in 2009 was from overseas, and most were incredibly musically gifted. The teachers decided to have a community concert for evangelism purposes. I planned to sing one of the songs I'd written in Ukraine, “He Knows.”
Monique: Eric was practicing “He Knows,” and I was just hanging out with him. I got a little bored, so I started singing some harmony, which was a bad choice. One of our friends walked in and heard us. He immediately told us we should sing at the concert. He then began a quest to convince me to sing with Eric; it took a couple of days. But finally I agreed just so I would be left alone.
Eric: So she did. On concert night she hid behind me, the piano, and a lamp when we sang for the first time together.
Monique: I was beyond nervous. I didn't want to do it, but we prayed together before we went out. As soon as I got out on that stage in Sonora, California, all my nerves disappeared completely.
Eric: So we sang “He Knows” for the community of Sonora, California, at the Adventist Church there. Our teacher, David Asscherick, was impressed. He asked us to join him at the Generation of Youth for Christ convention at Louisville, Kentucky, to sing after one of his sermons at the end of the year. So the funny story goes that Monique sang with me for the third time ever in front of over 5,000 people. Who knows how many were online, as it was broadcast on satellite TV. God likes to throw you in the deep end. Getting to that convention was a provision by the Lord in itself. At that moment, as we sang that song at the end of David Asscherick's sermon, we knew the duo had been formed.
Can you tell us a little more about some of your tours abroad? What were some of the most memorable performances or experiences?
Eric: Sure, our tours abroad were definitely highlights of ours. Initially, one of the highlights of our touring experiences was in 2011 joining our friends on the Songs of Ascent tour. We would join in with our own songs and inter-link them together as one extensive themed concert program. We did a total of three tours across the US in 2011, 2012, 2013 with Matt & Josie Minikus, Alison Brook, and Bryant Rodriguez, but also Josh Cunningham, Jacqueline Jewel, David Asscherick, Ty Gibson, James Rafferty, Randy Ban and Jeffrey Rosario.
When we went it alone in 2014, we hit up New Zealand for our first tour. New Zealand was the first tour that we also visited Baptist and Presbyterian churches, as well as Adventist churches, with our music ministry.
One of the most incredible experiences was touring all over Europe, particularly in central Europe in the German-speaking countries. We joined up with tag7 (which in English is Day 7), to do some massive concerts with them. There is nothing like being in the presence of God in worship. We loved it when the peace of God flowed out in us, and to the audience. I loved the stirring of the Spirit during those times of worship.
We also had a number of momentous occasions with tag7 when they had their massive band/orchestra. We played some of our songs with them, and it was just such a special moment to hear an entire orchestra behind your songs, live in person. Seeing so many remarkable sights, traveling, and being in such cool places is definitely one of the perks of our touring. Also, the connection with our Adventist Church family all over the world was terrific.
Monique: It's so hard to pick a highlight. Touring through America with other musicians who have become close friends is an experience I'll be forever grateful for, and I pray we will have the opportunity to do it again. Having our music and concerts translated into five languages is something I never thought would happen, and I still can't believe it has. A concert tour with tag7 is one of the most exhilarating moments of worship during a concert I have experienced, and I just loved getting to know the band members I now count as friends.
Getting to share the touring musician world with my Mum when she used up some of her extended service leave to be our son's “nanny” on our last tour to Europe was special. It's a challenging experience to explain, so her experience firsthand was so memorable.
Do you write all of the music that you record? Do you both compose and write lyrics?
Yes, so far we have written all the music that we have recorded. Monique is the wordsmith.
Monique: You're good at lyrics too! Eric's excellent at taking my wordy ideas and crafting them into something that means the same thing, but just with fewer words!
Eric: That's true. I am more the music guy. I like simplicity. In short, we write everything together. In the recording process, we have input from other musicians and producers who also put their ingredients into the mix. We've had Dale Willis as the producer for our two studio albums and one live album and absolutely have loved working with him. He's brilliant! We've collaborated with musicians for our albums. They have made them what they are and have carried the vision of our minds further than what we could ever do. We are very thankful for our musician friends and producers who have helped us with records.
What are your musical backgrounds? Did you study music? Eric, you are a pianist, and it is your piano-playing heard on your albums, right? Monique, you play the violin? Is that you playing the violin in some of the songs? What other backing musicians play on your albums?
Eric: Yes, the piano you hear on the album is me playing. I studied music as a kid for three or four years but quit formal lessons because I preferred to play my own thing.
Do I regret not continuing lessons? Yes, somewhat—it has prevented me from reading sheet music, but guitar chords are fine, and I love to play by ear and what inspires me at the moment. Wow, how did you know about the violin? You definitely have done your research!
Monique: I learned violin from age 3 to 19, but then I never touched it after that. I kind of regret it now—maybe one day I'll pick it up again, but for now, I sing and do most of the spoken word in our concerts.
Eric: We have had the talents of Dale Willis, who has produced our albums Pilgrim and Everlasting. He has also played acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, electric guitar, and percussion, to name just a few. He is definitely an all-rounder and has helped shape things. Blake Robinson has been monumental in his gifts, adding such an epic sound to the mix. The violin you're hearing on the albums is Mick Albeck—actually a fiddle. David Pudney has played double bass for us. Several other people have helped, like Jean-Pierre Martinez, who has played charango and nylon string guitar. Tim Burcham has done a lot for us in terms of direction on our first album. He was also a great encouragement when we first started out as a duo, and he played the drums. Leighton Heise has done quite a bit of bass for us in the past as well. So, we might have forgotten some people (sorry), but you can see it is a team effort when it comes to production. We've been really delighted with how things have come about.
Your songs are rich, with big chords, instrumentation layers, and surprising harmonies and key changes. It sounds like you have a lot of musicians and composers who help you put it all together!
Eric: The songs start out as piano melodies and a simple chord pattern structure. Often the vision of the music and how it might sound with instruments is in our mind. We then try to communicate that with the producer and musicians. The surprising harmonies are what Monique comes up with within the songwriting process. A lot of it is just discovered as we play.
In the sphere and space of worship, the songs are born. We are not very formal in that regard. In the free-flowing worship space things come about.
Monique: We really want the music, the lyrics, the harmony, and the melody to all be pointing towards the biblical message in the song. We want everything to be pointing towards the theme or message of the song.
Eric: We are incredibly grateful to all those who have helped create those layers of sounds/instrumentation. It has helped the songs become what they are today.
Your lyrics are deeper and more profound than most modern Christian music, drawing directly from Scripture and teaching, core Adventist theology about the resurrection, the second coming, and more. You are going back to the early hymn-writing tradition, where music was the way people were taught about beliefs. I'm sure this must be intentional?
Eric: Wow, thank you for those encouraging words. It was our dream to do this, and yes, it is very intentional. We really believe in the power of Scripture and the Bible to communicate eternal truths in song, but we want to add flavors that are contemporary and make sense today.
A lot of the songs are born from scriptural inspiration. Songs like “Honour the Lord” are almost verbatim from parts of the Psalms, while other songs like “He Knows” are based on the message in the Gospels that God knows how many hairs are on our heads. We are Christians, and we are also Adventists, too, and those influences and core teachings are found in the songs.
We once sang one of our songs about the Sanctuary doctrine at a church that wasn't Adventist. To our surprise, one of their church founders had just written a book about the Sanctuary and how it relates to what is happening in heaven. They were so excited that they could relate to this song. That was an extraordinary experience. We always love singing our second coming song, “There We Rise,” in churches to give hope that God is not done yet—that we will meet Jesus face to face in the clouds.
[Watch the music video for "There We Rise" here.]
Monique: One of the Bible verses that has inspired us to be so obviously biblical in our songs is Ephesians 5:19: “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” We have seen how God can use music in ways that just aren’t possible with preaching or other methods of evangelism alone. We believe that there is space within sharing the Gospel for so many different ways of evangelism, and we don't have to be cornered into the same methods all the time. Does preaching work? Definitely! It for sure does and is so important. But I believe that music and other creative forms of evangelism can be used in our churches to share biblical truth in a way that supports the call to share the Gospel with the world. Music can really be such a robust method of speaking truth to people's hearts. We have seen God use one of our “Gospel through word & song” church services to bring someone back to Jesus. She told us later that she had given up on God, and she thought of this service as God’s “last chance.” And somehow, our music and words were used to bring her back to Jesus on that day. She said she gave her life to Jesus again, got re-baptized, and went into ministry. We have so many stories like that.
Who are your musical heroes?
Eric: For me, it is Coldplay, some of the earlier Hillsong / UNITED band, Bethel Music, Jeremy Riddle, Rivers & Robots, Ólafur Arnalds, and Hans Zimmer, to name a few. Growing up, I listened to a lot of Jars of Clay, Worship Music, DC Talk.
Monique: I grew up listening to Twila Paris and Michael Card, Jars of Clay, Paul Coleman Trio, and Sons of Korah. I also love Bethel Music, River & Robots and Ólafur Arnalds. Still, I also love Jenny & Tyler, Ghost Ship, The Gray Havens, Strahan, and Page CXVI. Honestly, I love the Christian indie music scene! There are so many talented singer-songwriters out there. Recently, I've also really gotten into Lauren Daigle's music.
How old are your kids now? How do you put music into their lives? Will you get them to play instruments and take music lessons?
Eric: Our son is four years old, and our daughter is one. We regularly play worship and kids songs with them at home worship times. Our son will often say, “Play a mummy and daddy song” or “that song when I was born.” We haven't quite gotten to the instrument stage. We have decided that if they want to learn, go for it; if they don't, no problem.
Monique: Ezra has started to sing little tunes around the house. He's actually on key, and most recently, he started making up his own little songs. Somehow, the lyrics always match the melody. However, we don't want to be those parents that made their kids learn an instrument because that's what mummy and daddy do. “Family band” thing works beautifully for a lot of musician families. It just doesn't really work for our personalities.
Eric: It's really up to them. I hope they do take it up, though, but I am not going to be too upset if they decide to go a different path. Everyone is different. I think we will start approaching music lessons for our son very soon.
Monique: He did recently ask for a drum!
I guess you are living in a house again? Is that a good feeling?
Living in a house is quite lovely. You get the excellent internet, space, and a sense of normalcy. It is a good feeling. Sometimes the travel/touring bug comes up, but I have fought it off so far!
Monique: Lockdowns in a house are so much easier than in a caravan, that's for sure!
What plans do you have for the near future and farther ahead? Will you hope to take a full-time pastoral position, Eric? Do you think you will go back to teaching, Monique?
Eric: Some days just feel like survival in these lockdowns. I think we are in lockdown number seven? Sometimes it is just simply one day at a time. Other times we catch glimpses of what the future could be.
Monique: I feel as though I've been coming out of the fog of postpartum depression and anxiety that I'm sure many other mums who've experienced it can understand. And I've got a renewed desire and excitement to get back into using music to share Jesus.
Eric: We'd also love to tour overseas at some point again when international borders reopen. My intern pastor position will keep me at least two years at my current posting.
Then I am open to the call of God where he leads. Ministry in the broad sense has been the end goal for us, and music has been part of that.
While ministry is much wider than just music, music is at the very core of my being and always will be. I hope to find a way to marry two types of ministries together: music and pastoring in an all-in-one approach. I love the idea of being a worship pastor—which is common in other denominations, although not so much in Adventism.
Monique: I'm just really waiting and praying to see where God leads. If he leads me back to teaching, I would definitely do it. I really loved teaching, especially secondary school Bible and religious studies. I agree with Eric. I feel called to ministry, whether that’s as a “musicianary,” a singer-songwriter, a teacher, a mother, or a pastor's wife—all of these things are ministry. There is a joy in knowing that we are a part of sharing the Gospel to the whole world so that one day soon, Jesus will come back to take us all home to heaven.
Alita Byrd is the interviews editor for Spectrum.
Photos courtesy of Eric and Monique Johnson.
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