In mere days, Ben Johnston-Urey will embark on the adventure of a lifetime ... again.
The composer and director of music at Janesville’s First Lutheran Church and his family are leaving their Janesville home to relocate to Whitehorse, a community in Canada’s Yukon Territory. But Johnston-Urey is no stranger to extreme culture changes. Before coming to Janesville, the Christian music artist and composer worked amid the hustle and bustle of the film and TV industry in Los Angeles.
“I suppose you could say we have heard the call of the wild—fresh air, mountains and vast tracts of untouched wilderness,” Johnston-Urey said of his family’s call to Canada. “In all seriousness, though, we both (he and his wife, Caitlin, a Whitewater native) recognized there is great need for our respective vocations in and among the rural and indigenous communities of the Yukon Territory.”
Joining the couple on their trip north are daughter Madelyn, 9, and twins Leo and Ari, who are less than 1 year old. The couple also have two adopted feral cats, Charlotte and Apollo.
Johnston-Urey leaves an indelible mark on Janesville’s faith and music communities, having founded FirstEvents, a popular community outreach program at First Lutheran.
A 2002 graduate from Bloomington High School in Bloomington, Illinois, he also holds bachelor’s degrees in piano performance and classical history from Carthage College and Master of Fine Arts in composition from California Institute of the Arts. Professional awards include 2009 Madison Area Music Association honors for classical single of the year and classical album of the year for his album “Travelogue,” and a nomination for best musical score (“The Sasquatch and the Girl”) at the 2011 Burbank International Film Festival. His music and liturgies are widely used within the Evangelical Lutheran Churches of America, and his first ecumenical songbook, “The Songbook of the Beloved,” will be released in early 2022.
To learn more about Johnston-Urey, visit Johnston-Urey.com and look for his latest album “Love Reflecting Light” on Apple Music, YouTube Music and other streaming services. That album features several other area musicians including Kellie Pearson, Amanda Jones, Rob Tomaro, Christopher Aaron Smith, Rodrigo Villanueva and Brian Liston.
1. What led you to pursue composing Christian music for your career? It sprouted from a desire to share this awesome love—this deep transformation of my own heart—with those around me. So much of the music industry centers around music as accompaniment, which can be evocative and moving in it’s own right, but creating music to communicate a message that can transform your life if you let it ... nothing else compares.
2. You have some videos accompanying your music on YouTube. Are you involved with this visual aspect of your music? My wife, Caitlin is, among many things, an amazing cinematographer. We work collaboratively to create our music videos. She shoots the vast majority of footage, and then we work together on storyboarding, editing and production.
3. You created FirstEvents as an outreach program at First Lutheran Church in Janesville. What led you to believe there was a need for this? It was really in response to the congregation’s long-running passion for serving the community beyond the walls of our church building. When I discovered the wealth of gifted, big-hearted artists and musicians living around Janesville, it just made sense to knit those two strengths together. With the help of an amazing team, voila—FirstEvents was born!
4. What are you most looking forward to in your future home of Wildhorse, and what do you think you will miss most about being in the U.S.? Our family is most at home in the great outdoors, and along with getting to know the friendly people of the Yukon we are looking forward to all the hiking, canoeing, dog-sledding, and ice fishing that awaits us in the north! Our family, friends, and this amazing community we have been a part of will be what we miss most, hands down.
5. Which instruments can you play? Which ones do you wish you could play or are you trying to learn? In order of proficiency: piano, organ, violin, cello, keytar, tabla, erhu. I’m currently learning how to play the accordion and would love to learn guitar someday, too.
6. Before living in Janesville, you resided in Los Angeles. Talk about the culture shock of such a change. Day-to-day life in L.A. was definitely more intense. Trendy clothes, famous people, random earthquakes, fires that pop up out of nowhere, watching out for rattlesnakes all the time … once I was caught in the middle of a U.S. Marshals manhunt for a fugitive on the loose in our neighborhood. My wife remembers driving on the interstate and seeing a trailer pulling a pacing lion. Moving to Janesville was like taking a deep, cleansing breath.
7. Before transitioning to ministry work, you worked in the film and TV industry. What led you to change your path? It didn’t happen overnight, but with each opportunity I began to understand that—at its heart—music ministry is about relationships first and music second. It put front and center those aspects I loved most about working in the music industry: collaborating with others and sharing in moments of mutual inspiration and deep connectedness.
8. Of all the places you have visited around the globe, do you have any personal favorites? Golly, it’s hard to choose just one, but Rajasthan and the northern Indian regions bordering the Thar Desert always stands out. My first album, “Travelogue,” has an entire suite inspired by that magical place. There are also some beautiful, truly ancient sites in the Middle East that I yearn to revisit one day when it is safer to do so.
9. If you didn’t work in the music industry, what do you think you would be doing for a vocation? Cultural anthropologist, or perhaps talk show host.
10. What type of music did your parents listen to when you were a child? Did it influence your future tastes? We listened to everything from Spanish Flamenco to Frank Zappa. There is no doubt this informed the eclecticism of my own music and certainly my appreciation for how different types of musical expression lend themselves to particular settings of worship (and everyday life).
11. People would be surprised to learn that I: Once narrowly escaped kidnapping by leaping out of a moving vehicle. Lessons were learned.
12. What inspired you to continue composing new music? Do you ever get “writer’s block”? My inspiration stems from a desire to share my own growth in understanding with those who may be at a place in their lives to benefit from it. When I get “writer’s block,” it’s usually because I’m trying to write music with my head and not my heart. But my wife and kids are always there to help out when I get stuck.
13. Who are some of the musical acts that inspire you to create? Ravi Shankar’s collaborations, anything Stravinsky, and of course Scottish pipes and drums. They all put a tear in my eye for different reasons.
14. At the grocery store, what goes into your cart whether you need it or not? Sartori cheese—it goes with just about anything!
15. Who is your favorite Muppet? Cookie Monster. We have a lot in common.
16. Does Christian music get the respect it deserves as a genre in modern music? The music aspect does, surely—we get to hear it all the time on the radio and at church. The actual message of Christ, that we strive to love one another, definitely could use more airtime. There is great truth known in what our world rejects, though.
17. When I think about it, the single coolest thing that has ever happened to me is: Hmm … at the top of the list would be befriending a Sicilian mafia boss who took me on tours of off-limits archaeological excavations in Rome. That was pretty cool.
18. I understand you composed music for video games. Are you a gamer yourself? If so, what games do you enjoy playing? I love video games, especially those open-world games where you have a chance to create and experience beauty and wonder. “No Man’s Sky,” “Spiritfarer” and “Eastshade” are what I’ve recently enjoyed playing.
19. Many people enjoy music as a hobby. Since it is your profession, what do you do in your spare time for enjoyment? I love the great outdoors, and in my spare time I enjoy traveling. This past summer, we bought an RV and ended up going more than 12,000 miles by the end of the year. Nothing grows the heart quite like stepping out for a fresh experience.
20. Have you ever been inspired to compose a song by an unlikely person or source? Walter de la Mare, a British children’s book author in the early 20th century, authored a set of lesser-known but fascinating supernatural short stories. One of them was the inspiration for my song “The Ballad of John Mouldy,” which was featured last year on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Simply Folk” and sung by my dear friend Christopher Aaron Smith.