Music in the key of free: an interview with Sally DeFord

Sally DeFord is one of the most prolific modern LDS composers and arrangers. Her work has been featured in Church magazines seven times and she has received 33 Church music awards for her compositions and arrangements. Seriously, search for her name on–there are eighteen hits. Her song, “If the Savior Stood Beside Me“ was used in the 2008 Primary program and was performed in the General Young Women’s broadcast in 2007. Oh, and she also gives away her music for free. That’s right. You heard me. FREE. (That noise you’re hearing, that’s ward and stake choir directors everywhere cheering.) Read on to find out why.

LHC: How long have you been writing music?

SD: Since the dark ages of whiteout and no computers! The first song I really attempted was when I was about 16 years old. It was a sort of love-hate ballad aimed at a boyfriend, and even my dear, partial mother couldn’t find much to like about it. So I put it out of its misery. The next few things I attempted met the same fate. Over the next few years I dabbled in writing, but always with the curious intention of becoming a rock star. When I wrote a song as a high school senior and a few months later John Denver released a new single with the same melody, I think I began to realize that rock and pop might not be my forte.

Several years later, I began to write again. I had married, had two children, and grown in my love for the gospel, my Heavenly Father and my Savior. These things found their way into lyrics and I began setting them to music. The hiatus was definitely good for me. I learned and grew in my love for the Lord and the gospel, and the next time I tried my hand at composing, the result was “It Was for Me“–which managed to escape the rubbish bin.

What do you think distinguishes your personal style?

I love many different kinds of music–there are very few genres in which I can’t find something to like–but I especially love modern jazz, and sometimes a few “interesting” chords will find their way into the harmonies. I do have to rein in my tendencies! Every artist tends to have a “voice” and their work becomes recognizable because of it. It is challenging to keep everything you do from sounding the same, while still allowing your “voice” to speak through your work. I fight with that–sometimes I even win.

What are some of the highlights of your musical life?

There is something quite satisfying about finding just the right chord, just the right melody, just the right words to express the feelings of your heart, and those moments are definitely musical highlights. Infinitely more satisfying is knowing that one of those melodies or some line of lyrics has reached someone else’s heart and brought them comfort, a greater understanding, a warmer love for others, or a closer relationship with Heavenly Father and a deeper testimony of Jesus Christ. You don’t always get to know when that happens, and when others share those experiences they’re sometimes too personal to pass on.

One experience that I treasure: When the lyrics to “In That Holy Place” were read during the Nauvoo Temple dedication, it came as a pleasant surprise to me. I have no pioneer heritage–my family are converts. I have a heritage of wonderful men and women of other faiths, some of no faith at all, and a few interesting skeletons in the closet (if only they’d stay there!) to add a bit of humor and keep me humble. But LDS pioneers are nowhere to be found in my family history. So though I revered them and appreciated them, I still felt very separate from the early saints. Realizing the joy they must feel at the dedication of the Nauvoo temple, and having some small part in the proceedings made me feel that we were celebrating together across the years, and it seemed to somehow connect us.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a musician?

A family, two dogs, a large garden, a house that sometimes resembles Grand Central Station, and serving as the RS Pres. Seriously, finding time is the hardest challenge I face–but isn’t that true for most of us? Setting priorities isn’t exactly my forte, and I do tend to clutter up my life. I often need to step back, take inventory and decide what stays and what goes.

Another great challenge is simply personal insecurities. Every time I make something new available, I worry about whether or not it’s “good enough.” Every time I send out a notice to my update list, I wonder, “Do these people really want to hear from me?” These words from Elder Uchtdorf at the October 08 Women’s Broadcast were just what I needed to hear:

“What you create doesn’t have to be perfect. So what if the eggs are greasy or the toast is burned? Don’t let fear of failure discourage you. Don’t let the voice of critics paralyze you–whether that voice comes from the outside or the inside.”

My inner voice can be awfully critical, and “paralyze” was such a great word choice!

You offer your music free on your website. Was there a certain experience that influenced that choice?

My first “real” song was “It Was for Me.” A friend encouraged me to “send it in.” “Send it in where?” was my ungrammatical response. She provided me with an LDS publisher’s name and address. The publisher accepted the song, had it typeset, sent it to me for approval, and then… sat on it. It was hard to understand why at the time, but from my later perspective I can see that he was inspired. Eventually I requested that my copyright be returned to me, and the publisher was very kind and accommodating.

Several years went by, and I continued to write. I enjoy the process. Composing is, for me, a combination of therapy, testimony, relaxation, creativity and recreation. I feel closer to the Lord while writing songs in His praise than at any other time, and that closeness was enough. I was content.

I entered a few Church music competitions and that was fun. Friends and acquaintances seemed to like the music, so a few copies were in circulation, but not many. Imagine my surprise then, when out of the blue one of my musical heroes called to tell me in no uncertain terms that I should and must publish. He had asked a publisher friend to contact me, which subsequently happened. I sent several things to him, and… waited. I heard nothing for what I felt was a very long time. (He tells me that, for publishers, it was not a long time. I still disagree. 🙂 Meanwhile, another publisher had also contacted me (they must have some sort of ESP network or something) and offered to publish the material as well. So, my dilemma was this: one publisher, it seemed, didn’t want the material; I didn’t feel right about the other; and yet I had been given direction that the music should and must be published. What to do?

The answer came in the form of my youngest brother. He sent me to look at the website he had designed all by himself. I thought, “If my baby brother can do this, I can do it.” Designing a website myself wasn’t something I had considered, but with John’s help it was surprisingly easy. The hard part was putting the music into a format that was readable by all internet users. PDF seemed the most likely, so I experimented with converting the music to that format. (A frustrating experience… Adobe’s help desk wondered why in the world anyone would want to do that, and Personal Composer, though intrigued and as helpful as could be, had no clue.)

Eventually it clicked. I posted my original web site to the (gasp… choke…) Geocities server. The idea was to give it a try at no expense and see if the idea would fly. It flew. Within a couple of weeks, I had exchanged e-mail with people from all over the world, helped a couple of others set up similar sites, and felt an overwhelming confirmation that this was the right avenue to follow. It was gratifying to be able to share so easily, and to provide for many choirs and musicians music they were otherwise unable to afford.

My only regrets came a short time later. Publisher #1 called to say he liked the material I had sent him. I gave him my URL. He visited it even as we spoke on the phone, and his comment was “Oh, we can’t have that.” So here was a decision for me. I could pull down my site and go with the commercial publisher, or abandon the commercial route and continue to distribute online. Well, you know how that decision went. I regretted wasting his time, I regretted disappointing him (he really was very kind through it all), I regretted not being willing or able to give in to his further entreaties over the next month or two, but I have never regretted my decision to do it this way.

Now. Let me clear up a few misconceptions. First, I do not feel that all musicians everywhere should be doing what I do. I fill a need. They fill other needs. This was simply the right method for me, and there’s no need to inflict it on anyone else, or to make comparisons. Second, I do not intend to pull a bait and switch on anyone. I have heard it rumored that I intend to make this music available free now, but charge for later materials. Nothing could be further from my mind. If some tragedy struck my family such that extra income was necessary, I would have to reconsider. However, in my current blessed circumstances, the Lord expects me to share, so share I will.

What are some of your most popular songs?

Audio: Consistently “An Angel To Watch Over Me” (a tribute to mothers)

Score: This varies. For 2008, “If the Savior Stood Beside Me” is the most popular download. For 2007 and 2006, the songs that went with the Mutual theme were downloaded most.

For all years combined, the arrangements of “Oh Holy Night” and “Come, Thou Fount Of Every Blessing” are the grand prizewinners.

What are some of the challenges modern LDS musicians face? What kinds of changes would you like to see in LDS music?

One of the challenges of modern LDS musicians is the fact that most of it happens in the US. Because the internet is blissfully unaware of boundaries, I’ve been blessed to know and interact with some talented musicians from other countries, and each of them notes that opportunities to contribute to LDS music from elsewhere in the world are still rather limited. Fortunately, technology is making it easier to erase the boundaries and the miles between us, and I think there will be more options available as time goes on.

10 thoughts on “Music in the key of free: an interview with Sally DeFord”

  1. What a great interview — Thanks Laura and Sally.

    “If the Savior Stood Beside Me” is one of my favorite newer primary songs.

  2. .

    I’m curious about these international musicians — they are LDS? did I read that right? Do we have links to share as regards them as well?

    And what kind of traffic does her website have? (Her SiteMeter link is for her only, so I’m afraid I can’t answer my own question.)

  3. What a great interview–thank you, Laura!

    Sally, I have to say thank you. Our stake and ward choirs have sung “To Those Who Came Before Me;” what a powerful spirit. Our ward choir has sung “Jesus, Lord at thy Birth” two years in a row. You have provided a great service to the choir directors and members of the Church! Thank you.

  4. It’s amazing in this materlistic world to find a talent like this who shares freely. Thanks for giving us some insight into this gifted composer’s life.
    Thank you, Mrs. DeFord, and may the Lord continue to bless you.

  5. Thanks so much, Laura! It was fun visiting with you. And thanks to William, Emily and Ken for your kind comments. I appreciate it more than you know.

    Th… in answer to your questions: some of the non-US musicians I’ve “met” (via e-mail) have been LDS, some not. None have websites that I know of, except James Loynes (, or to hear his material, who is a superb young vocalist from England.

    Traffic… hmmm. I’ll just give you this month’s traffic–it’s fairly representative:

    For November (so far), around 62K unique visitors to my website, 101K PDF downloads, and around 36K audio plays/downloads.

    I’m not sure what to make of all that, but there it is. 🙂

  6. WOW! Fanstastic interview.

    I first discovered Sally from my sister who is a master accompanist and competent arranger herself. (Looking back, I took way too long to heed her suggestion!)

    I have been the Ward Choir Director for 10 of the last 12 years. I admit that I’m a snob about the music and tended to only like music from Beckenhorst Press and eventually Mack Willberg. Once I started playing pieces of Sally’s music, I was singing her praises myself. We’ve used several of her pieces in both our Ward and Stake Choirs and they have always been a conduit for the Spirit!

    Last Christmas season (2008), however, gave me new insight and apprecaition for Sally. I had not visited her site for some time and when I discovered the MP3 recordings, multiple arrangements, and lyrics for so many songs, I was awe struck.

    I started digging deeper into her site and was struck by her humor in the Q&A section. Not only is she a gifted composer and arranger with permiating testimony, but she’s a REAL person who I can totally relate to!

    My most moving experience with Sally’s music was also last Christmas. I had been carrying “Born is the Light of the World” in my folder for two years. I had planned to finally use it with a quartet of teenagers, but schedules got in the way and I decided two days before our Christmas Sacrament Meeting it would take less practice time to do it as a solo than pull together another group. I was absolutely shocked at the power of this magnetic music. It was one of the most moving musical experiences of my life — and touched the congregation in the same way!

    Thank you sooo much for sharing your incredible inspiration! Yours is truly a gift and keeps on giving! Your phenomenal “traffic” on your site proves that my experience was not uncommon! You are touching thousands of lives every week and building testimonies in ways you will never know.

  7. Sally, you are truly an inspiration. I attempted to learn your arrangment of Abide With Me in 4 weeks back in April. I felt I got to see inside your soul as the chords were so complicated and beautiful at the same time. It was a challenge that I needed and although I didn’t make it in time I grew through it. I love the way you make the sunshine come bursting through in the middle of the piece. It took me longer to notice the stars twinkling in the opening verse but when I did I was thrilled at your skill. Thanks for sharing your humble beginnings as a composer.

  8. Hello Sally’ thanks for your Because He Lives anyway if you don’t mind I need chords to play this in our Church can i get from you ? thank you and God be with you always full of grace

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