A Breath of Fresh Air: The History of the Song 'Breathe'
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Marie Barnett didn't consider herself a worship songwriter, although she had led worship with her husband, John, for years and wrote her own compositions during her personal worship time. John was the writer, penning what Barnett terms "tons" of worship music through the years (including "Holy and Anointed One"). "He's the worship writer," she explains, adding, "I never sat down and wrote thinking, This could be sung in a congregation. It was more between me and the Lord in my bedroom with the door locked."
But that changed during a Sunday evening service at the Mission Viejo Vineyard in Southern California. The Barnetts were leading worship as they had done hundreds of times before, and words to what would become the worship song "Breathe" just spontaneously came out.
"We had been singing Isn't He by John Wimber," Barnett recalls, "and my husband continued to play. I was so enthralled with Jesus at that moment, thinking I could never live, I could never even take a breath if I didn't have a word from Him every day, and I heard those words this is the air I breathe. This is my daily bread and I started singing them."
Before she knew it, the congregation had joined her. Still, it wasn't as if Barnett left that night convinced she had a worship hit on her hands. There had been other spontaneous songs, but she soon realized "Breathe" was different. "People would come up to me at the grocery store and say, You know what we were singing on Sunday night? I've been singing it all week."
So they began to sing the song regularly in church, and it continued to elicit a strong response, bringing many to tears. Barnett says even now she can hardly get through it. "I think the word desperate digs deep into me," she says by way of explanation. "The longer I'm a Christian, the more desperate I am for God."
Not to mention Barnett was feeling particularly desperate around the time the words for "Breathe" came to her. A dance teacher by day, Barnett's boss of 10 years had recently taken his own life, leaving behind a note asking her to take over the dance studio. "He was very depressed and had just gone through a divorce and was on all kinds of weird medications and into New Age thinking," she recalls of the tragic incident. "He even came to church with me once right before he took his life, and I was like, Well, what good did that do?" In the end, the event left Barnett with questions for which there were no answers. And that desperation came out in her songwriting.
Shortly after being written, "Breathe" wound up on Vineyards Touching the Fathers Heart No. 25 and seemed to be on its way to finding a broader audience. But if there's one thing Barnett learned from watching her husbands songwriting career, its that the timing isn't up to us.
"We recorded the song for Vineyard, and then nothing happened," Barnett says. "Not that I thought anything about it, because, to me, it was just a neat thing the Lord gave to our church." Five years later, worship leader Brian Doerksen was putting together Vineyards Hungry and contacted Barnett about including "Breathe." Then came Michael W. Smiths version on his 2001 release, Worship.
Barnett was driving in her car when she first heard the track playing on the radio. "I just started bawling. I love that version, because at the end when he's saying Cry out to Him, it's like Oh! People are worshipping Jesus! Yea!"
Searching on the Internet, a friend of Barnett discovered that Rebecca St. James was also including "Breathe" on her new project, Worship God.
More important than who is singing the song is what the song is doing in the lives of those who hear it.
"One lady came up to me and said she had known the song for a year, but she couldn't sing it yet because every time they played it in church shed just start bawling," Barnett recalls. Its a response she understands all too well. "I'm still affected that way. I can't even sing the words. I love hearing that kind of stuff, to know that God is moving people."
Since writing "Breathe," Barnett regularly contributes songs to the worship time at Vineyard Community Church of Laguna Niguel, the California church plant where she and her husband lead worship today. And she continues to run the dance studio as her late boss wished. With more than 600 students and 20 classes to teach each week, Barnett says the business venture provides her with plenty of material for her songwriting. And to round out her schedule, she also teaches at worship conferences, going "wherever people invite me."
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