Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Since 1907
Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

From Calvin College to Los Angeles: A Q&A with Calvin alum Glenn Bulthuis about his musical career

Glenn Bulthuis’s musical journey began in high school, and Calvin played a large role in shaping him as an artist. He attended Calvin as a student and played concerts with his friends at Calvin for over 30 years. He even wrote songs about his experiences at the then-college.

Later in life, Bulthuis played a show in Los Angeles with band members from Smokey Robinson’s band, Michael Jackson’s band, the Steve Vai Band, the Temptations band, as well as singers and coaches from American Idol. Today, Bulthuis has just finished teaching a class for Calvin’s Academy for Lifelong Learning (CALL) on the life and music of Bob Dylan, and will be playing a concert in the chapel on Oct. 12 at 2:15 p.m. Bob Dylan himself will be performing in DeVos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids on Oct. 14 and 15.  

This week, Chimes had the opportunity to talk with Bulthuis about his passion for songwriting and Bob Dylan, his time at Calvin and the different opportunities his musical journey has brought him to experience.  

Chimes: What was your motivation to start writing songs in high school and college?

Bulthuis: Well, when I was eight years old in 1964, The Beatles were on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and they did a song: “I want to hold your hand.” I loved the Beatles, they were great. So already, as a high school student, I was writing songs about girls, about smog because I was in LA — just funny little songs. And then I came to Calvin. It was the fall of 1973, exactly 50 years ago. I was a freshman; I was 17. And my first year, I didn’t play out. I just watched and wrote songs about girls, about the dorms, about VanderWerp. Then, in my sophomore year, I started to perform in the coffee shop and started writing Calvin songs. This album [the very first album he recorded in 1980 called “Misled”] was almost all Calvin College songs; it was just kind of a natural album. At that time, there were different groups on campus, different people were playing in bands, and so I just kind of was writing songs. I’ve done about seven albums now of original material.

Chimes: The themes of many of your songs include California, college life, girls and faith. Can you describe the stories and ideas behind these themes?

Bulthuis: I went to Calvin and I graduated in ‘77. I did a concert [and] I think I’ve got that poster here from my very first concert. Way back in the day, that’s the way posters looked. You just had a picture. I lived in California, but I would fly out here in the spring, pull my friends together, [and] we’d do a concert…this happened in May of 78. And so I was in California writing songs about Calvin. I wrote a song about cruising on the Beltline, or a song about a Calvin girl because I knew each year when I flew back here, I had to have some new material. “Calvin Girl” is on this album, [and on the Greatest Hits CD]. 

And I’d remember I just had to write a song, I gotta write five or six songs for this concert I’m giving at Calvin College. So I [would] lay in bed and wake up at 1 a.m. and the song would be in my head. And I [would] write it down and record it. And that’s how I really wrote a lot of these songs. 

Different songs are inspired by different things. My spiritual songs are inspired by experiences in life. There’s a song called “God is in control.” I wrote it because when I finally got married, I moved from California, I left my job and my family and moved here. New job, new house, got married. And it was an adjustment, so I wrote “God is in control.” I’m just going to just kind of give it to God.

Chimes: Did writing songs about girls reflect the atmosphere at Christian colleges where people want to get married really fast? 

Bulthuis: [When] I went to Calvin, I had a couple of little girlfriends, but nothing serious. I was 21 when I graduated, and I lived in California, but each year I’d come back and I think, [what if]  I would meet Calvin girl, and then I started writing songs at that point about college girls. I didn’t get married till ‘87. I had about 10 years from age — from age 21 to age 30 — that I wasn’t married. So I was writing songs about, you know. Romance, love, heartache. Just the normal stuff, and people could relate to that. I was 24 when I wrote my first album. I was 25 when I wrote my second album, and I was still single –– so still looking for love, hoping to find someone. It’s nice when you find someone. It’s nice.

Chimes: How did you develop your music since you started performing in college and did you notice any changes in your songwriting style?

Bulthuis: When I first started, it was just me. In fact, this concert is really a return to some of that basic folk singing with one guitar [and] one voice. You know, a lot of these shows I did, I’d have 10 people in the band: singers, brass players. It got quite big. A concert I did at Calvin in 2012: we had 30 people on stage. But this concert will be much more low key. It’d be me, my buddy Pete, my wife — only three people max, two guitars. It’ll be much more intimate. And so that’s one way my writing has changed. It’s gone from kind of intimate, one-man one-guitar songs to more fleshed-out things. I mean, this is a studio album with all kinds of people on it and instrumentation. But my first two albums were much more basic. Just me singing, playing guitar, one or two instruments –– very basic and, and I liked that too… But how has it changed? I guess as you grow, you learn more about music so you can arrange brass parts, you can add more instrumentation and make it more elaborate. And the Beatles did that; their Sergeant Pepper album was rather elaborate. And so I tried to expand; this album got a lot of elaborate. There’s a lot of, a lot of broad music on it, but it has some intimate stuff too.

Chimes: Worship leadership in the church was and still is a big part of your life. How did it influence your music and your personal life?

Bulthuis: Obviously, I’m 67 now. And I can see that God had a hand in all the things that happened in my life. I can look backward and say, okay, he arranged for me to meet my wife. He was there when — I mean it — when you’re in the delivery room when you watch your children being born. That’s a profound experience. And I’ve seen his hand at work in my life. All the twists and turns, the good times, the bad times. I’ve always had a sense of God having a hand in my life. The interesting thing about Bob Dylan is, he had a very dramatic Christian conversion when he was like, 39 I guess? He did three albums that’s just gospel music that he wrote. And the critics didn’t like it. They said, “What happened to Bob Dylan? Why are you doing all this Christian stuff?” He still does those songs today. 

Chimes: Can you share a particularly memorable or inspiring moment from your musical journey so far?

Bulthuis: I did this concert in 2012, in the Fine Art Center, okay. Recorded this album [called “Gloryland”]. I have a friend, this guy I mentioned who sang with Michael Jackson. He said, “Hey, let’s do this concert in Los Angeles.” So I flew out to LA [and] he lined up all his musical friends — because he was a coach on American Idol.  So he lined up people who would work with Smokey Robinson and with the Temptations in these different groups. And he put the band together. And we did this [“Gloryland”] concert in LA. And that was really well received. This triggered playing in LA, which in turn caused me to meet a lot of Los Angeles musicians.

I met James Taylor, who’s a great inspiration of mine. I don’t know if you know who James Taylor is, but he’s a great folk singer. I’ve met Smokey Robinson. I’ve never met Michael Jackson although I was backstage at a Michael Jackson show.…but yeah, I’ve met a lot of people in the industry and it’s fun… A friend of mine plays with the Temptations like okay, that’s pretty cool, and he played with me in LA.

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