A Life Amongst Books in 2017

I love reading. I love lists of books. I love looking back and making a record of the books that provided a texture of ideas and words to my life over the last year. My goal is always to finish each month with 5 books completed. This year I read 83, my record since high school. (I suppose that this rise in volumes could be attributed to the books I read for university.)

As usual, the following will include, in chronological order, the books that made the best impression, followed by a longer list of the other books I really enjoyed reading this year.

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

After being influenced by James K. A. Smith’s thinking for several years and with the release of his final volume in the Cultural Liturgies Trilogy this Autumn, it was finally time to tackle the series itself. I read this book in January and it’s insights have shaped me ever since. I think its concepts are key for understanding how the human heart and society works. Later in the year, I read the second volume (Imagining the Kingdom) and I’ve just started the final book: Awaiting the King.

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands

I’ve enjoyed Michael Chabon’s fiction, but this book of essays on the imagination turned me, head-over-heels, into a fan. Being immersed in his active approach to such a diverse range of subjects is like taking a sniff of cayenne pepper to your imaginative senses – it reminds you of what wonders are possible in this world and then has you looking for what other concepts you might have missed in your previously your humdrum existence.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

This was doubtless the most entertaining audiobook I’ve listened to. Trever Noah narrates his experiences growing up in the dying embers of apartheid South Africa. It is simultaneously fascinating, side-splittingly hilarious, and harrowing. I don’t expect that I’ll soon forget the stories, accents, and insights of  this book.

Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties

As I’ve shared elsewhere, this was the year I made my way though everything Beatles. An online friend recommended this guide to every track they recorded, and I’m so glad I had it. It’s an insightful analysis into the brilliance and shortcomings of the band, while tracing the cultural forces of that indelible era that both shaped and was shaped by the lads from Liverpool. The story of The Beatles is a story of both the stunning potential of humanity and it’s irredeemable shortcomings. This book shows both of these traits.

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical

Tim Keller’s books are always insightful. In this volume, he sets out to provide a sort of prequel to his debut classic The Reason for God: an argument for the validity of belief in an age of skepticism. But the book becomes much more: a systematic, carefully researched understanding of our current era and the system of belief that undergirds it. It’s a heady book. It’s an important book. I want to reread it.

Holy the Firm

This slim volume is Annie Dillard at her most distilled. It is both simple and approachable, and complex and layered. It’s an age old narrative of why so much evil can exist amongst such vast goodness, but it is told in a simple story that is narrowly focused but encompasses so much. I read it twice in a row, and then wrote about it for school.

No Great Mischief

Some novels are page turners, but the writing itself is quickly forgotten (hello Ms. Rowling...). Others are beautifully written but take a fair bit of concentration to pick away at. This book is one of those rare combinations of being ripping yarn, while continuing beautiful writing on every page. It’s a perennial novel; one that I’m sure I will return to repeatedly, a novel for the ages that remains remarkably tied to a specific place.

Born to Run

Bruce Springsteen narrates his highly acclaimed memoir. The Boss’s voice is in your ears for 18 hours. What more can I say? Bruce Springsteen’s voice is a gift for the people. This audiobook is no different. It was fascinating, insightful, and through it, I’ve developed a great affection for The Boss. He is a gift we do not deserve, and so is this book.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

This vast book, tracing an alternative history where magic is the lost inheritance of the English, feels like it was written in the 18th century, a cross between Austin and Dickens. Ms Clarke has written a terrific yarn, with an ending that verges upon the eschatological. But what I appreciated most about this book was how the plot, while important, was not the main point. This is a story that loves its characters and its textures and wants us to enjoy them too. It’s a marvel that I’m almost ashamed I’ve missed up until now.

 

Honourable Mentions

This year the Book of Psalms was once again my guide and nourishment. I’ve thought back to C.S. Lewis’ small book of essays, The Weight of Glory, often, and enjoyed a recording by Malcolm Guite of Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse. Francis Spufford’s A Child That Books Built was splendid. On Writing Well gets to the heart of good writing habits, and does so in a manner far more enjoyable (a sign itself of good writing) than any other I have read. Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage left a thread in my head that would later be picked up and Wesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship was both well written and insightful. Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction was terrific and the novel Station Eleven wove an interweaving story that I throughly enjoyed. I can’t wait to reread Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, even as I read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf yet again and loved it all the more. I would have been haunted by Benjamin Hertwig’s book of poetry, Slow War, even if he wasn’t my cousin and friend. Michael Chabon’s Moonglow is, I think, my favorite novel of his. Mike Cosper’s Recapturing the Wonder was insightful and convicting. Before We Get Started is Bret Lott being again incredibly human and humble. I fell in love again with The Wind in the Willows and with Tolkien’s best short stories – Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wootton Major and Leaf by Niggle. And Alan Jacob’s little How to Think was thought provoking in a year when I reflected a good deal on how to talk to those I disagree with.

 

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Tasting the Joys of 2017

At the end of every year I’ve made a habit of asking: what happened over the last 12 months that is worth remembering and worth celebrating before they fade away? The list always ends up including both momentous events and small blessings, for both contribute to the scope of the year.

As I look back over 2017, I’m struck by just what an outstanding year this was. Although there were plenty of disappoints and frustrations, it was abundantly rich. Many of these events I had hoped for. Many were unexpected. All were immensely satisfying. And yet as I look ahead and examine my expectations for 2018, I have to remind myself that a list so full is not the only qualification of a year well lived. Ordinary faithfulness, tasting and enjoying the specific goodness of this world, and trusting the upholding hand of God are the ultimate qualifications. And in a year of plenty, like 2017, such a list is a way of remembering the taste of those gifts. Here they are, in roughly chronological order.

Leading music at church

I’ve been making music in church ever since I was 13. Early this year I started leading music regularly for the first time. There was (and remains) much to learn, but to lead your congregation in song is amongst the most satisfying experiences. It’s an immense privilege and a skill that I hope to take with me in the years ahead. When I was younger, I complained about having to learn the piano instead of the violin. But the piano lets me lead worship, a ministry I hope to take with me into the years head.

Leading music for kids

This year I also began a ministry where I lead the 75 kids in our congregation in a time of song and prayer every Sunday morning. Three of my favorite things include music, children, and Jesus, so this is a pretty perfect combination. I’ve learned a lot about what kind of styles of songs work best with kids (think call and answer instead of multiple complex verses). All together, it’s been both a joy and a blast.

Getting my writing published

If you had told me a year ago the places my writing would be published this year, I would have shook my head in bewilderment. My goal was just to write more regularly and get just one piece published. Instead,

-after much trail and error in pitching my pieces, I found a home in Mockingbird, who published three interviews I had been working on for months.

-One of the publications that originally rejected me later accepted a pitch. It was incredibly satisfying to work extensively with the editor to polish the piece into something I’m still proud of.

-And then there were the following two interviews, each of which were incredibly exciting...

Interviewing Propaganda

Prop has been one of my creative heroes for the longest time. I’ve always wanted to interview him. I’ve been told by sources very close to him that he turns down most requests. Through a happenstance set of circumstances, I was able to speak to him on the phone for 20 minutes. Crazy.

Then I hopefully pitched the piece to a publication I’ve long wanted to write for, Christ and Pop Culture. Not only did they say yes, they placed the piece in their digital magazine which meant, a. I was paid money for my words (wait, what?) and b. they commissioned custom artwork for the piece!

(The only bummer is that Prop never retweeted the interview. Such a disappointment. You can’t win them all, friends.)

Interviewing David Lowery

The second epic interview of 2017 came about like this: the movie I was most excited to see this year was David Lowery’s highly acclaimed little indie film A GHOST STORY. The problem is that highly acclaimed indie films tend to arrive in Calgary months after everyone else gets them.

Then one Friday evening I get an email from my editor at Mockingbird. “We’ve been given access to a screener for A GHOST STORY and the option to interview the director. Would you be interested?”

I watched the movie. I watched endless interviews of David. I reached out to writer friends for advice. I wrote scores of questions and ran them past my editor. Then I had 20 minutes on the phone with David and it went really well. It was an open dialogue about the issues that challenge both of us. At the end, David told me that he really enjoyed the conversation.

Covering my first film festival

While working at Apple, I bumped into the director of Calgary’s Underground Film Festival. Taking a chance, I mentioned that I like to write about film. Might there be an option for writers to contribute to the festival? A chain of emails later and I was in touch with my now friend Laura. She hooked me up with a boatload of screeners and I was busy writing reviews for several weeks in April. I also interviewed a couple directors, was given my first press pass, and had my work featured daily by CUFF’s social media team. But most satisfying of all was the email I got from Ian Mcallister Mcdonald, director of the astonishingly good film SOME FREAKS. He had read my review and took the time to write to me to say that it was “one of my favourite [reveiws] that we've received so far... incredibly thoughtful and beautifully written”. I almost cried. This began an enjoyable and extensive email conversation with Ian, Ian, a play-write and teacher, that covered many aspects of the creative process. 

Launching Assumptions

Kyle and I have been dreaming about creating a podcast that explores issues of worldview ever since 2014. It started with a YouTube series, but we soon realized that it was the wrong avenue. We came up with multiple names, made multiple plans, and even recorded a demo episode back in 2015. Finally, after our plans become more elaborate and detailed, we launched Assumptions, a podcast where a Christian and an atheist try to understand each other’s worldview. It was met with a warm reception from our friends. We cracked the iTunes Religion and Spiritually top chart one week, and have built up a devoted fan base. I’m quite happy with our first season and looking forward to our next steps in 2018. 

There are signs of growth and continued interest. This winter we were interviewed by Patheos and took on a sponsorship. Whenever I tell professors or peers about the project it is met with great interest. It was incredibly satisfying to put our long-simmering plans into fruition and to be met with the early signs of success.

Finding a School

I’ve wanted to go to university ever since I graduated from high school, a good 6 years ago. It was a long and painful wait and my dreams of going abroad to attend a fancy (and expensive!) liberal arts school turned to something more humble and more achievable. Early this year, through a seemingly random series of connections, I realized that the small, Catholic-rooted liberal arts school a mere 15 minutes away from my home was both perfect for my needs and was glad to accept homeschoolers. The question was: would I attend it full time or continue to work?

Leaving Apple

It was a tough decision, made easier when I got sick (partly due to exhaustion) and had to take what ended up being a three month leave of absence from Apple. This gave me the necessary distance from that environment, which helped me realize how unhealthy that environment had become for me. It also freed me up to work on the writing projects I described above, which gave me the confidence to pursue a new career. I’m very grateful for all that I learned at Apple. It’s remains an excellent company to work for. I needed it. Closing that door was a major milestone.

Starting School

School is so much fun! My family has been trying to persuade me that the school lifestyle is suited for me, and I have to admit: they were right. I’ve made some excellent friends, have worked with some terrific teachers, and have been challenged and confirmed by many experiences. I got some good grades, throughly enjoyed being part of my first choir (and earned a smashing solo!), and I contributed to some very fun drama productions. I still have much to learn, which is good. This is just the beginning.

Meeting Malcolm Guite

Malcolm has long been a major influence in my thought and imagination. Ever since I wrote a blog post stating my wish to smoke a pipe with him and he responded promising to take me up on the offer, I’ve been looking for the chance to make something happen. So when I learned that he was teaching a course on poetry at Regent in Vancouver and that my dear friends would be hosting him at A Rocha, I knew this was my chance.

My best friend and I traveled out to Vancouver to spend a week studying under our muse. In addition to the course itself, we enjoyed multiple evening lectures with him and other faculty. I then got to spend three hours in a car interviewing him, served him my favorite ales, enjoyed an intimate and magical concert with him and Steve Bell, spent an afternoon wandering the trees and trails of A Rocha with him and some of my closest friends, and saw God work as I lead a group discussion amongst him, Steve, and some of the staff at A Rocha. Oh, and a photo I took of him that weekend was used on the cover of one of his books. How could I ask for more!

But I got more. Last month, Malcolm toured Calgary and we spent two hours doing our favorite things together: wandering the river, smoking pipes, and talking poetry and Jesus. My hero has become my friend.

Music Discoveries

I believe in reading the classics. I’ve been working my way through Roger Ebert’s list of Great Films. I have access to all the world’s music through Apple Music. So why am I not guiding myself through the best music of all time? Early this year I took The Rolling Stone Magazine’s List of the Top 500 Albums of All Time and (slowly) started to work my way through them. It’s been terrific so far. Here are two of my favourites:

I did not grow up listening to The Beatles. Starting last year, I decided it was high time to change that. In January I picked up the excellent volume The Revolution in the Head and worked my way through every album, single, and film. The Beatles are now justly crowned amongst my favorite artists of all time and their wonderful body of work has become part of my life’s music.

The other artist I am pleased to have met through this list is Bruce Springsteen. I listened to his outstanding narration of his memoir, Born to Run, and worked my way through (most) of his discography. His work and presence is a gift and I’m grateful for it.

Finally updating my room

For years, I’ve wanted to have all my books in one place. I’ve wanted to hang up missing art for ages. I’ve wanted a new desk for a long time. I’ve always wanted a Persian rug. This summer all of these things came together and I’ve been enjoying the fruit of those labours ever since.

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Annie

Last, but far from least; I was not looking for a relationship this year, but some good things came completely unasked for. I’ve known Annie for almost two years now, but at the end of June we started talking daily. We soon became excellent friends. Sharing the details of my day with her and hearing of her life become a reliable source of stability and joy. After almost six months of this, we both came to realization that something more was afoot. It’s been a remarkable and very unusual journey so far. The details of our future are far from certain, but we have both been upheld by a countless encouragements that continue to give us confidence in each other and in the guidance of our Lord. I’m thrilled that our lives have been brought together.

Portraits of Malcolm Guite

Poet, priest, and academic Malcolm Guite has had an indelible influence on my life. For some 5 years, I've followed his work – reading his poems, listening to his lectures and readings,  and chasing his recommendations (he's introduced me to the work of many, including Bob Dylan and Seamus Heaney). His books on poetry have been some of the best that I've read on the subject, and have inspired multiple photo series over the years (in Christmas 2015, in early 2016, and again that Christmas, In fact, his life almost interchanges with my family history. For years, he served as a priest of the Church of St. Edward King and Martyr in Cambridge, the very church where my grandparents were married in. 

Although I'll regularly interact with Malcolm online, I've always wanted to meet him. When I learned that he was coming to Vancouver, BC to teach a course on poetry at Regent College, followed by a stay at A Rocha Canada, the organization dear friends of mine work for, I knew it was time for a trip to the West Coast. It was an extraordinary week. I plan to eventually write more about it, as my time with Malcolm included an extensive, almost 3 hour interview (that will eventually, I promise, see the light of day). 

I will say this for now: being amongst Malcolm for over a week, in a variety of different contexts, showed me two things: first, it is okay to be happily eccentric (a vocation I've always held to, although at times cautiously). Second, a love of beauty and words can exist in parallel with an all-encompassing Gospel vision. Often, we are taught that the two can only exist carefully and cautiously together. But for Malcolm, they are one and the same.

Over the week, I took a number of candid portraits of Malcolm, the best of which I'm sharing here. Keep reading, as there are some stories that join these photos.

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Malcolm’s taste in beers echoes my own, so I had the great pleasure of bussing all over Vancouver to find a selection of my favourites, which refreshed Malcolm prior to his performance that evening. We both took great joy in these gifts! 

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This tree reminded Malcolm of the famous photo of Tolkien next to one of his favorite trees. This photo, in fact, inspired one of Malcolm’s poems. So of course, using a borrowed phone, he had to share it with us.

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 This photo also has story behind it: after posting it on Facebook, I got an email from artist Faye Hall, who was working on a book of art, called Seven Whole Days, inspired by one of Malcolm's poetry sequences. She payed me money to use the photo of Malcolm as his portrait on the book's back cover! That was very satisfying.

This photo also has story behind it: after posting it on Facebook, I got an email from artist Faye Hall, who was working on a book of art, called Seven Whole Days, inspired by one of Malcolm's poetry sequences. She payed me money to use the photo of Malcolm as his portrait on the book's back cover! That was very satisfying.

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Malcolm had mentioned that he would be coming to my home city of Calgary later that December as part of a poetry and music tour with Steve Bell. The day he was in town he sent me a message. Two hours later I was walking along the river with Malcolm, where we enjoyed some of our favourite things: smoking pipes, admiring the sharp beauty of the winter light on water, and talking about books, poetry, and serving Christ in our era. It was a delight! 

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I wish we had paused to ask a bystander to take a photo of the two of us, as we were both dressed in knee-length tweed coats, bright scarfs, and sweater vests. Admittedly, Malcolm's hat was much more impressive than mine. 

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Faye Hall again reached out to me, asking for permission to turn this photo into one of her paintings (attached below). 

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Evan Thomas Way: The Full Interview

Way back in August 2016, I had a long chat with Evan Thomas Way, music pastor at Door of Hope in Portland and frontman of the acclaimed indie band The Parson Red Heads. Last summer, I published a profile based on that conversation at Mockingbird. If you’re new to Evan’s work, head there first. But if you want more, here follows the entire interview with Evan. As someone who cares deeply about music in the church, and who leads music regularly, I found Evan’s approach both refreshingly realistic and healthy. Rereading the conversation before posting it encouraged me again, so I hope it benefits you too.

Which album do you send people to, or that you think is the best representative of The Parson Red Heads?

I don't know, because I feel like they are all representative of specific times, whether it be different versions of the band, or where we were at in life, or what we were listening to.

The band includes you and your wife?

Yeah, pretty much. My wife and I are the founding members, and we've gone through lots of different changes. Some of the [members] have been through it for the most part, for almost the whole time. But it's hard to say what represents us most, 'cause I feel like every album is fairly different and representative of a specific...  you know little documents, so I don't know. That's a hard question.

I feel like Yearling is a special album, in the same way that I describe Wesley Randolph Eader's latest album. Somehow we ended up with this one collection of songs that were really strong as songs. Song for song, they were probably the best. You could play them just on an acoustic and they would still [hold up]. As songwriter songs, maybe it's the strongest in that way. And we spent a lot of time working on it, really all over the country, recording it at different studios. So it's this really special... probably it will go down in history for us as the most special album to make, maybe like the strongest, most cohesive collection of songs. But then at the same time, I don't know if it really represents where we are now, so it's hard to say.

At any stage of one's art it is hard to really narrow it down and say, "That's me!"

Yeah.

How long have you been making music?

Well, Parson's have been playing... I've been doing music in this form for 12 years, I had some bands before then, but they weren't very good. Laughs. So we'll say 12. 12 years.

Anything you've learned...?

I'm sure I've learned a ton! Laughs.

But that you'd look back at on and say, "Man, I wish I had known that." Or, "I'm glad I learned that over time."

Yeah, all sorts of things. You can't help but learn about songwriting, about being a musician, about playing with other people, and just about how to treat other people by being in a band and touring. Especially because we started the band and had been playing for a little under a year before we moved to L.A. When we moved to L.A. we were like, taking it really seriously, and it was good to do. But I was certainly... like, I would write songs that I was pretty extreme about. I was writing everything and I was telling everybody what to play.

Maintaining control.

Yeah, you know. Not to justify it, but I had these ideas, like, “This is the guitar part that I thought of for this thing. This is how I hear it in my head, so I'm going to tell people what to do.” And, in retrospect after growing up and learning more, I don't think that's the best way to be in a band. Laughs. Maybe there are some songwriters who are talented enough that it's the best way to do it. But as we've gone on, I've realised that even if people are writing a part that maybe I thought of in my head, [theirs is] almost always better. When somebody can invest and come up with their own contribution to the song, it's going to make the song more dynamic, and it's going to represent the band as a whole better rather than the two dimensional version of what the song would have been if I would have written everything.

It's a band, not an artist, so it should reflect everyone.

So once I learned that – and that was a hard lesson to learn! – I feel like we got better. Laughs. But yeah, it's hard to sum up everything that you've learned, because it covers so many different categories.

It's interesting hearing that, and then watching you play with your team at church. How much more that is important in a church context, where if you're the one controlling everything!

I'm sure that there are people in my position at a church [who] control everything, that's pretty common. But that's not how I like to do things. No, it's certainly...

But even you think of a band making music, and how members are bringing things they've invested into that song... If you are talking about the church, that's a picture of the church itself!

Yeah. It seems illogical now!  [But] at the time, I don't know... I just wasn't thinking that way. [Now] it just makes sense. Not only is someone going to care more about what they play, if it's something that they've came up with, they are going to play it better. Laughs. There's going to be more character and... it's going to be better if they've thought it up. Because everyone has their own unique way of doing things. If they replicate something that I've shown them how to play, it's just not going to be as good, or as interesting.

It brings more to the table, and when you listen to a good record, or a song, it unfolds itself more the more you listen to it. If other people are bringing stuff to it, it's just going to add to that richness.

I was reading Bob Dylan's memoir and realised how much of his early career was spent just playing other people's music that he loved. Same thing with The Beatles early music. They just covered people.

Yeah! That was indicative of the 60s though, everybody was doing it. It was kind of weird. There would be like four versions of the same song on the radio, and they'd all just be playing at once. “May the best band win!” You know?

Did you start out as songwriter?

Yeah, I just pretty much jumped right in, wanting to be in a band that did our own songs. [But] I definitely learned the value of covers. Parson's have made it a habit of knowing some covers, because they are fun to do. For the past 6 years, on every New Year's Eve, we do a concert where we perform an album from beginning to end, so we learn a band's album that way.

Wow! What's your favourite?

We did the Weezer's Blue Album. You don't know Weezer? Man, Canada! So that was probably the most fun. But we did The Beatles “Hard Day's Night.” We did Tom Petty's “Wildflowers”. We just recently did Fleetwood Mac's “Rumours”, we did Stardust this last year. So that's been so interesting – how much it informs and teaches you. Like one time in L.A. we were the house band for a Beach Boys tribute show. All sorts of different vocalist from around town were singing and we were just the band and did harmonies. We had to learn like 20 something Beach Boy songs and all the harmonies. We were learning harmonies off sheet music, choir style.

And that was so educational! We grew so much as musicians having to do that. And my appreciation for what the Beach Boys do... Because it's hard to write something that's hard for you to do. Like, I would never write a song that I can't play. Some people do. They hear something, and it's really hard for them to play, and eventually they get it. I'm not wired that way. I don't write something that's hard for me to do. So being forced to learn something that's hard for me to do just makes me grow that much more as a musician.

Did you watch Love & Mercy?

I have not.

That film really helped me appreciate them. It also made me appreciate the amount of personal suffering such brilliance brought Brian Wilson.

Yeah, I've got to see it. All my Beach Boys fanatic friends saw it, and it passed. They all approved of it. I have some friends who are historian level [Beach Boy fans], so if they approve it, it must be good.

 Apparently they found the original recordings of the studio sessions and replicated them exactly.

I guess even the scenes in the studio were replicated off photos and footage, so everything was laid out the same, the microphones were all in the right places.

 And it's fun to watch! Especially seeming them create these ideas together.

Yeah, I gotta see it.

 I find it cool that you and Wesley are both making music that's not explicitly Christian, along with Gospel music, and having that combination.  Are there things that you keep in mind when you are wearing those different hats?

Yeah, I guess so. For me, writing gospel music and... worship music?

Church music?

Yeah, church music. That's a good way to put it. It was something I didn't do until I started working with the church. And started working with the church, and Josh, our lead pastor, writes a lot of the songs that we do. and there were lot of other songwriters writing songs for the church. And he encouraged me, like, "You write good songs. You should try writing some worship songs. Might as well try it." And so that's kinda when I kinda started trying my hand at it. And it takes me... it's a lot harder to write a good worship song.

Why's that?

Because there's a lot more.... You can't do whatever you want. Laughs. It's gotta be theologically sound, it's gotta be clear. In my opinion, this is what it takes. It has to be easy to sing along with. There's just all this other stuff. Whereas when you are writing a song, it doesn't have to make sense, really. And I take it a lot more seriously. I'm a lot more critical. I'm like, “Is this all true? Is this all worth singing, will people get it?” So it just takes a lot longer. I mean, I've only written church songs in the context that this is for our church, for this church specifically. So for everything on that record, I wasn't just writing Christian songs. I was like writing a bunch of songs to be congregational worship songs

For your church.

For my church, yeah.

For people that you know!

Laughs. And I was a little weirded out making a record, because I wrote [all the songs] not thinking to do a record, I was like, “I don't know if I wanted to.” It felt weird. I wrote these songs to be sung in a worship service. Is their function to be recorded, and put on a CD, and be monetised, and [played] in the car? Is that what they are for? Is that right? Or is their purpose to be sung? And I still think about that some times. I realise that there are people who worship to them outside of the confluence of church. And that's fine, if you can put it in your car and drive and you're worshiping, and it helps you, that's good.

Once I decided to do it, working with the guy I work with, Danny (who did Wesley's record too), [he] helped me kind of realise that the record is an opportunity not just to recreate what [I] do on Sunday, but these songs can be done differently on the record than what [I] do at church. Like, they can still be worshipful, but they don't have to be a congregational worship song. So we changed the arrangements and made them a little more experimental.

More spacious.

Yeah, which helped me justify doing the album more.

In the sense that you were making something that people can enjoy as art?

Yes.

It is worship, but you are not singing it in your congregation.

Right. So yeah, I mean, that is very different from what I do for Parsons, in that it's a different function, if you think about music as functions, I think about the songs I write for church as serving a very specific purpose, whereas the songs I write for Parsons can serve all sorts of different purposes I guess, depending on the song. Over the years I've found my songs for Parsons, whether I try or want to or not, have more clearly expressed my worldview, you know? Laughs. The more I've grown as a Christian and [have] taken following Jesus seriously, the more I can't help it. I'm not thinking about it when I'm writing lyrics, but its coming through somehow. Because more and more, every release I'll have questions asked by interviewers, "Are these sons about... God... like?" When we first started no one would every ask me that about any of my songs. It just [has] kind of sneaked in, like, " I guess it is, yeah." Laughs.

In what ways do they sneak in? I listen and find it very joy filled. You're reckoning with these things and realising there is something greater going on.

I think it really started happing with the last record, with the Orb Weaver record. Just on certain lyrics, [critics] were picking it up much more quickly then I thought they would be. Laughs.

When you're writing music for the church you're very specific. It almost sounds like you're hearing a need in the congregation.

I'm seeing the need In the church in general, for good worship songs. Not to offend anyone, but I feel like there is a lot of bad church music out there being done by churches. So I see a need because I know there are a lot of people like myself who hear these songs and are like, "This is terrible." And they're conflicted because they want to be good worshippers. Certainly you don't want to go to a church and feel like... I mean I've done it so many times, where you hate... you just don't like the songs, but that's not your job. You're not there to please yourself or be entertained, so then you're trying. You want to worship God well, and humbly, but you're like, "Man, I can't help it, this song is terrible." Chuckles. That conflict! So I see a need for good worship songs [that] I think are pleasing artistically. But also I find that a lot of modern worship songs are devoid of all actual content. Like, they are Christian lingo just repeated over and over again that just means nothing. So I see a need for that in the church in general.

So, the immediate use is for our church. And then the nice thing is that through Deeper Well, through any reach that we have, it is able to echo out [into] other churches. Whenever I hear about another church doing some Deeper Well songs I'm, like, so happy. I love that people are finding that music and using it in their congregation and that it's growing from there.

We use some of Wesley's stuff, and it's great. We do a lot of Indelible Grace and Sovereign Grace songs, and there is still so much from them to draw from. But the more I listen to Deeper Well, the more I want to introduce your songs.

When you’re making the art that is specifically Gospel focused, especially that made in context for the church, you know that it explicitly includes truth. So you trust that its going forth and being used. Is there a sense that you wonder how if your other music is having any impact? Obviously you can trust God...

I guess I don't worry about it too much, because there is not much I can do about it. I think that songs that are outside of [the church] context sometimes can be more powerful. They certainly can communicate to people who are... I mean, I would love it if Deeper Well...

One idea was if the records sound great, if the songs are good, [then] even if the content is explicitly Jesus content, maybe people outside of the church would gravitate towards the music anyways, and [it could] sneak in there. [But} I think that outside of maybe Liz Vice's record, that's probably not happened, I mean for various reasons. When a black woman is singing traditionally sounding gospel music a lot of people let that slide sooner then they would a bearded man singing about Jesus. Chuckles.

I was talking to her about it yesterday, and I was surprised at the types of venues that invite her.

Yeah, I think she can get away with it, and it's great. [But] the idea that my record being heard by someone who is not a Christian and being like, "I love it anyway!" like... it's a little ridiculous. But, are they going to listen to the Parson's records where the messages [aren't] explicit but certainly [have a] worldview engrained in them that can, I don't know, soften their hearts? I think that's totally possible.

Especially because music can get under your skin and in your head.

Yeah. So I think it can still be used for good. I think it's [also] a vehicle to express other ideas, and like, you know, more personal introspective about life in general. I don't think that's the place where Gospel music [can]...

So even though the worship music talks about life, the other stuff talks about it in a broader sense, in ways that the other stuff can't?

Yeah. More introspective, I guess.

At my church, when we write gospel music our pastors give it a read through to make sure that what is being taught is accurate. And you mention something similar, in trying to be careful. Do you do something similar when you write something that's not explicitly Christian? Because you are still conveying a message.

Not really. I guess I trust myself enough. And I feel like if I were to do that, would I expect other artist attending the church [do to the same]? Would I expect Wesley to bring his songs [to me]?

Would you expect a coffee roaster to do something similar with their coffee?

Yeah. [You] have to exercise accountability, and you have to be able to have the freedom of expression to express doubt, or pain, and sing from different perspectives. I certainly have written songs that, when I take a step back, I have to admit that, "Man, I wrote that from the perspective of maybe a character who is not where I am at." And I have to be okay with that. You have to take that step of bravery I guess. That [perspective] might get associated with me, but I think it's a valuable story to tell anyway.

How did you get into the worship pastor position at Door of Hope?

Laughs. By accident, I guess. We moved up here, and I was working as a website project manager from home, and we were sort of looking for churches. Like I was telling [you earlier], I was struggling with going to churches and just really not responding to the music. In a way that wasn't healthy, that was very selfish.

In the sense that you wanted to be pleased?

Yeah, like I'd show up ready to judge the music. The music would happen. I would judge the music. [I was] completely shut off from the experience, just not good. It was not good.

It's so easy as an artist to do that.

Oh yeah! And so, after a while of looking for churches [and] that being the thing over and over again, both my wife and I were super convicted about it. [We] started realising that we are not... everyone else is just worshiping and we are just being so self-righteous and treating it like we are supposed to be entertained. And so we really had to take a step back and just choose to put that aside and be like, "We will find a church and music will not be a factor. Because it's such a  problem we can't actually let that be a factor in our decision anymore. So whatever the music is, if we find a church that has solid teaching, that were compelled by, that we think is healthy, we just need to go. We need to commit to a church, and we need to lay that down. Music just needs to not be a thing."

And so we did that and a little while later we found Door of Hope and it was just God rewarding some amount of faithfulness and repentance. Because when we walked in, I was like, "Oh, the music is good. But it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter if the music is good!" And then the message was great, and halfway though the sermon I leaned over to Brette and was like, "We should go here." And so we never stopped going.

And through committing to the church a couple weeks later we introduced ourselves to Josh, and Josh, being the way he is – it's hard to describe – he was like, "Oh you guys are musicians, what's the name of your band?" And we told him and the next week he comes up he's like, "I checked out your band, it's really good." He's just really immediate and informal. He's like, "It's really good, do you want to do a special song sometimes? Like special music for a service, like do a song?" We're like, "Sure." He's like, "Okay, cool. Next week."

Alright! So then next week Brette and I did a song, and after the service he was like, "That was awesome. Do you want to do worship with me sometime, like co-lead?  Okay, cool, next week we will do it."

Ah, alright! After that, he was like, "That's great!" and we'd get lunch or coffee occasionally. And through co-leading, sometimes I started seeing how... because at this point it was just him and two guys working for the church. He was preaching every week. He was the only pastor, he was doing all the music, coordinating the band to whatever extent he could. He was just doing a lot. And my Dad's a pastor, and so I know what it looks like for a pastor to do more then he should, plus [Josh is] just like, not organised. So I got the inside view of, “Woah, he's sending out an email to people like on Saturday night, telling them that they're going to play worship with him tomorrow. Like, that's not going to work. That not sustainable. I'm surprised it's lasted this long.” And I was working at home at the time, a computer job, so I offered; "Josh, can I just make a monthly schedule? I'll handle scheduling. Give me the musicians. I'm an organised person. It will take no time. I've got time at home. Give me their emails, I'll make a schedule every month, that way you don't' have to be doing this ridiculous scramble every Saturday night."

He's like, "Alright.” So I started doing that, and co-leading more regularly, and after doing that for a few months he finally offered me a job. And I didn't really want the job.

No?

Not really. I didn't think that I'd work for a church, I was comfortable doing what I was doing; we were able to tour whenever we wanted, doing what I was doing. And so when he offered me the job it took me a while to say yes. I was so comfortable. "Yeah, the job I have now is stressful and giving me ulcers, but we can tour. I know what it is." The known vs. the unknown. And I called my dad and I was like, "Dad, should I take this job?" My dad's a pastor and I was half expecting him to say, "Of course, work for a church!" He was like, "Well, I don't know. The band's important, and working in ministry is hard. If you're not called to do it it will destroy you."

Well, alright, I'll take that into consideration! But after praying about it and my wife really calling out my... I was holding on to the comfort of like, "This job pays good, we can tour whenever." [But in the end], if you have an opportunity to do music for church, for a job, just do it. And I did it.

That's an amazing story! And how, over the years of doing that, how have you changed?

I've probably changed completely. Laughs. I doing know, I mean, yeah, it's been almost totally different then I thought it would be. I love it. I don't know if I would... I don't consider it my career. Were I to, for some reason, loose this job tomorrow, would I be like, "Alright, better find another church to do worship for"? I don't think so. I mean, not only do I think that I'm called to be the worship pastor for this church, that's how I feel now. I don't feel like I'm called to got on another church. So if I didn't work for the church, I guess I would just do a different job. But also, but I don't think any other church would have me.

Why?

Because I don't like to do the job how most churches like to do it, or do the songs that most churches want you to do. I think either I'd quite or they'd fire me. Laughs. Yeah, I don't view music as a career. I view it as a calling to this specific church. If I were to loose the job, I would just go back to...

But that feels healthy. It feels organic, even just watching you do your thing. This is you doing this because this is how you serve the church. It's in this capacity, but ultimately you are still going to serve the church through music wherever you are.

Right. Yeah. So, I mean I've changed a lot in that I've embraced the role in ways that... I never thought that I would have a job that I would do. I actually realise that I care a lot about how worship is done. Not only artistically, but like, even more so on a pastoral level.

What is that?

Well, I feel like my job is first and foremost carrying for the musicians and volunteers that are put under my care. That's number one, fostering that community, pastoring this community of these people at the church. I don't think that my job is to be the guy who makes music. I feel like worship pastors nowadays they are the guys who are hired to make music that sounds good, and looks good, and people can... "Can you sing good? And play guitar good? Then you're the worship pastor!" How does that qualify you to be a pastor? You're just a musician. And there [are]a lot of guys who can sing good, and play good, and look good on a stage, and be compelling. But I don't feel that's the appropriate thing. I feel like first and foremost, when you pastor people, do you care about the people who are put under your care? Do you have a healthy vision of what constitutes healthy, humble worship rather than a concert? And then, maybe, like 5th down the line, can you sing.... Actually, I don't think it even is on the list. [It}doesn't matter. If a church is like a family of Christ, do you care if you're around the dinner table and your brother tells a joke and it's not good? It's your bother, just let him tell a joke. I don't even think it matters.

But your musicians are very good.

They are very good. Yeah. I don't know. I'm blessed to serve at a church where the musicians are so good. So I can't take it for granted.

 So let’s say you have someone that comes in and says, "I want to serve the church this way" but he or she is not the best musician – yet. What would that look like? Especially since you've got such good talent.

Right, yeah, there's the brass tacks of everyday, where I have a rotation of 40 something musicians who are all pretty stinking good. Do I have a need for even a really good musician right now? Not really. I will try to use them somewhere because I want everyone to be able to serve with their gifts if they can. But what I've done in the past is when somebody wants to serve in the worship team but they're just not good.... which happens. I mean, [if] they can't play their instrument well enough it would be a distraction, it would take away from it. Or they don't have experience playing with other people, all sorts of things. Usually I have to gently tell them that they can serve yet, and that they should maybe try to serve the church in some other way, with other skills or interests that they have. But I always offer to continue playing with them, to help [them]. I have a group that I meet with every other week. They might not be ready to play on a regular rotation, but I want to pastor them and I want to help them get better. Maybe sometime they can play. I don't just say, "Sorry, not good enough." I don't like the whole idea of it being an audition process. Like an American Idol thing.

Offering that takes more work out of you, but then that's pastoring.

Yeah. I'm the pastor. So we get together and we play. There's not a promise that they ever will be on the rotation, but maybe they aren't supposed to be. Laughs.

But you're still going to learn how to enjoy...

Yeah. If nothing else, I can help you learn how to play with other musicians better and listen.

When it comes to disciplining artists in the community, because Portland's got a lot of artists, which is really cool...

Mhm.

But as a church you are called to disciple people and artists have specific shortcomings and idolatries...

Sure! Laughs.

...that are specific to them. How do you, as a church, disciple artists?

Hmm. I mean, we're not a church that's very programmatic. We try very hard not to be. So, we try to be as organic as we can. But how do I disciple artists outside of trying to go through life with people who go to the church who are artist, and be their friend and their pastor? Laughs.

Outside of that, I guess we try to be very real with.... Artist have the tendency in communities to think that they are a gift to the church, like the church needs artists. That's something that's talked about all the time. But artists very rarely think that they need the church. So I try to tell artists that we don't really need them, and that they actually just need the church and [need] to be in community. And you know what? It's cool that you paint good. [But] you need to be here every week and just, like, serve coffee. Laughs. Right?

Totally!

I feel like one of the best ways to disciple artists is to try and strip away the idolatry of their art, like, "I live for my art." No. You live for Jesus. And you're lucky to be able to do art. "The church needs me." No. That's ridiculous. Like, we'd be fine without the painter. We'd be fine without 48 musicians. We could have one guy up there with a guitar lead[ing] a hymn and it would be awesome. So we don't need you. You need the church. Laughs. That's how I disciple artists. Laughs.

That's good! And you mentioned that idolatry piece. I find I'm understanding more about how much my identity is placed in what I'm doing. Even when I'm getting frustrated by my creativity – I can't write, or it doesn't succeed, or whatever – that's where I place all my identity.

Oh, of course.

Are there things you've found as an artist that you have to kill?

Yeah. I mean, I'm killing sin all the time, right? Laughs. It never dies. It won't be dead. And in any artist the tension is always there, because it's the tension of being imperfect, selfish, broken humans that...

Speaking for myself, I love making music. I love finishing a song and playing it and being pleased by it. Is that healthy? Only to a certain extent. Like, what are the reasons why I like to put out music that people like? I'm sure most of those reasons aren't glorifying to God. And every artist is like that. No artist makes art without the idea that they want people to like it. Well, why do they want people to like it? Why does it matter?

When you notice that in yourself, do you continue to make art? Or do you pause sometimes and not put it out?

No, because I don't think that's any healthier. Laughs. You've got to deal with the problem, and certainly I think that as beings created in the image of God, part of that is being creators, and everybody is.

I feel like that's a whole other thing. Artist's get put on this pedestal as being like, "You guys have that part of the image of God!” But everybody's a creative. Literally everything humans do is creative. The guys who laid the pavement out there are artists.

Teachers. Mothers.

Yeah. So, I mean, that's something that has to be stripped away anyways. Like, artists get treated like, "Wow, you guys have that blessing and burden of being creators!" Nah, that's every human, ever. And that's a whole other problem.

No, you don't stop doing art because God gave you that gift. It's not a bad gift.

If he gave you that gift, then with it comes temptations, as every gift does. Perhaps that's how he is disciplining you and how he's sanctifying you.

I mean, I think there are certainly times... I know guys who have really confronted the fact that playing music in some capacity, or making music... "I can not avoid it causing me to sin. In whatever way, this is a threat to me. It causes me... for whatever reason. It causes me to drink too much, because I always drink too much when I play shows." Or, name the reason. Countless reasons why doing art could cause your walk with Jesus to be compromised. And I certainly know guys who have taken that step, that at least for now, I need to not do that.

Or for family reasons.

Right. And I think that's totally respectable. I know guys who have done that and then, years later, have been able to come back to it in a much healthier way. But I don't think anyone should expect that they can do art without constantly battling self.

It's life.

Yeah.

It's really cool to have a church that cultivates a community of creativity. And Door of Hope definitely does that. You just walk in. How do you encourage a church to do that who doesn't? And how do you avoid being seduced by the beauty?

I mean, I think the idea of a church cultivating creativity is a little..... Like I get asked a lot from those who pastor churches that aren't [like ours], "Your church is so creative! How do you cultivate creativity?" Well, if you are serving a church that is not made up of people who are artistic in that particular way, you can't. Laughs. And you shouldn't want to. Because you are serving a church made up of these people. What do they want? And your church is going to look like that.

I think a church should be responsible for the people who make up the church, and not try to be something they aren't. Because they think that's what a good church looks like. Our church looks like this because, for whatever reason, we are a church that from the very beginning [had] a lot of musicians. Musically creative [and] gifted people started coming. And that feeds upon itself. But if we didn't have that, I wouldn't got out to try, like "How do we get these people here? How do we make our music sound like that church’s music? Because I don't think that's healthy.

No, it's not.

So do we cultivate creativity? No, we just have a lot of creative people and we have a healthy view of how they could be used in the church and it's probably not even... I feel Imago Dei does a lot more with their visual artists then we do, and they have a lot more, but they also have found ways to use them that we don't. I don't try to pursue copying them.

You just aren't connected to the needs of that community.

Yeah. I think cultivating creativity is just an idol that churches have that they want to make. They need to do music that works. That worked for that church. What do your people want? Can they even do it?

Because that serves them.

So I wouldn't say we cultivate creativity, we just happen to have people here who want to serve. [We are] trying to guide them in a healthy way to serve, but I'm not trying to get people to be more creative. You can't make... if you have artists, like musicians, you can't make, you don't have to do anything to make them be creative and make music. If anything, you have to stop them from doing a lot of stupid stuff.

And how does that play in? I see of a lot of art organisations that do great work, but you see them start to loose the doctrine side.

Yeah! You know, I could totally think of times when someday said, "I wrote this and I want to do it for the church on Sunday." And maybe I didn't look at it close enough, and I let them do it, and then I think, "Yeah, I shouldn't have let them do it like that. That did not serve the purpose. It shouldn't have been done at church." Either the point hadn't been clear, or, you know, for whatever reason. You can get away with a lot under the guise of being artistic in the church.

It's a pass.

Yeah. And I just think you have to be really strict about it. Chuckles. You have a lot of freedom to [personally] be creative as a Christian. As a member of a church you have a lot of freedom to be creative. Not all of that freedom is allowable in a church service. Where I work at a church, a big part of my job is overseeing a church worship service.

Freedom under the context of the proper framework.

I wouldn't play a Parson’s song in church. Even though it's something I do that I think brings glory to God, I wouldn't do it, because it's selfish. I mean, as far as guiding artists away from doing stupid stuff, you can't. They're always going to do stupid stuff. Laughs. But being willing to have those hard conversations. How many times [I hear about them outside] the church just being, doing all sorts of dumb stuff outside of the church, how that reflects on the church and how that reflects on them. Are you going to have those conversations that are hard? And be like, "What are you doing  and why are you... Why do people see you smoke pot after church, that's crazy? Why are you talking like this?" That's pastoring. That's holding people accountable.

And it's not just for artists.

Right.

How did Deeper Well come about?

Pretty much just through me and Josh talking. When I started working, he had just finished his last record for Tooth and Nail. He had finished his contract for Telecast, a big worship band. He finally finished his contract, he was so happy to be done doing that. But you know, he is a creative guy, he writes music all the time. [He's] still constantly writing music. So what does that look like now, [with] both of us being musicians wired to write songs? We have a real heart for musicians making music. So he's got songs, he's done with Tooth and Nail, [he] certainly doesn't want to go down that road again. And then starting to look at his songs and other musicians in the church who were writing songs for the church. This is something that God has blessed this church with. What are we supposed to do with this? Are we just supposed to sing these songs on Sunday? Or can we do something, like we talked earlier, to address the need in Christian culture, in worship culture? Is there a way that we can do it differently? Can we learn about Josh's bad experience with contemporary Christian music and can we do something else?

What has the impact been on the church and its community?

I think it's helped our worship. I think there's something really powerful about having the bulk of the songs that you sing as a community being written by people who've been in the community. Because they speak to our growth as a church, and they've come from our experience as a church. I think it's undeniable that when we sing 'Victory in the Lamb' it's powerful. Because it's a powerful song, but also because Wesley wrote it, and he's part of our church, and he wrote it while he was at our church. [There's] just something inherently strong about that.

I've heard that it's brought other people to the church. I'm blown away by the reach that it's had. Like Miranda [a missionary from our congregation] on Sunday [telling us that] people in Nepal have heard of it. That blows my mind, and it's humbling to hear.

But how it's affected our church? It's strengthen our worship. I love that we've been able to serve the musicians that we have by allowing them the ability to make a record that they're proud of, that serves the church but is also something that helps them grow,

It's affirming as artists!

It strikes me how Wesley's songs are very much hymns, with a traditional hymn structure. But Deeper Well has also released stuff that's very much not. Those songs are played different style. They even have a different way of writing words. It's neat that those can exist in the same context. I'm curious why that happens and how you avoid having it so simple and one dimensional.

I think it's just by not telling people what to do. Laughs. Being willing to have Holly write her songs and be like, "These are good!" Pastoring her, but not being like, "No, it should be more like this." People are unique, and by writing these great songs... I'm not looking at Wesley's songs and [saying], "These have the potential to be great if he does x y and z." But seeing them as they are. Seeing Cory's songs that he's written as a song writer, not because of what I've told him to do. Because he has the gift of writing songs. All these people are better at writing songs then me, in my opinion, so what should I tell them what to do?

I've enjoyed having the Sunday worship sets up on SoundCloud.

Yeah, isnt' that cool? Not my idea. But it ended up being a good idea. I'm like, so cautious about putting the music up on any sort of pedestal. I'm just all about why. Why would we do that? Wouldn't that just make people idolise the music and the musicians?

And covet the quality of your church's music?

Sure. So I'm always more about saying no then yes. But our executive pastor was like, "We've got such great music that could bless churches all over the place. It could bless people at our church that want to hear this music throughout their week." He was like, "Even more so..." – and he probably said this to convince me –"there are other churches who could really use the inspiration of hearing these worship songs done in a way that, clearly, you think is good, because that's how you do it."

So I was convinced. I drew the line at audio. He's like, "We could film it?" No. Yeah, so it’s been great and I've been blown away by how many people are listening to it.

I've really enjoyed it. It's been a great way to get ideas for new ways of doing songs. Like, hearing a different person sing Of Old it was Recorded and thinking, "Okay you could do it this way too. " Even Liz's version of Amazing Grace that you did yesterday.  I want to do it like that, and now I can look it up later.

I was thinking of [that song as an example of] why not to tell people what to do. Liz was like, "I heard the Blind Boys of Alabama do Amazing Grace this way and I loved it.” So we did it through once. [But] for my taste I didn't want to, it seemed a little silly. I just didn't gravitate towards that idea. [But I thought,] "Is there any real reason outside of my personal taste why I wouldn't want to do that? Does it change the content of the song? Does it make it less singable? No, people will pick up on it just fine."

So you've never done it like that in the church at all?

No, no. Liz just suggested we do it that way.

I just didn't have any reason, other than my taste, to say no. And that's not a good enough reason. So I was like, "All right, let's do it. It works with your voice good. I guess we'll do it." And, it turns out, my taste was wrong, because everybody loved it. Laughs.

It was fun to sing to! I sang along louder on that then probably anything else that morning.

I got a ton of comments about it. So I was wrong! So all the better for me to not go with my tastes most of the time.

Well, this has been a terrific conversation. Thank you for for your time!

You're welcome! I'm glad that you are able to meet with Wesley, and talk to Paul [Ramey at Imago Die]. You're going to get all kinds of different perspectives [from him.} Laughs.

What's it like having two different churches with similar focuses, especially both in the same neighbourhood?

Yeah. Well, similar but different, We just have different ways of doing church. Neither wrong nor right.

Um, I love it. I think more churches need to be more unified and less divided about things that don't matter. And I think Imago does a ton of great stuff, and they do a ton of stuff that we don't do. And so to know that there's a church right there that's doing all of this stuff, and somebody might come to our church and not like it, but they can just go right over there and know that they can got to a church that is preaching truth, and doing great things, and loves people. It's not a competition.

It's cool that that events like Canvas Conference that can bring that talent and the people of the community together that way.

Yeah, I think Portland's unique in that [way]. At the first Wednesday of every month there's a lunch at Imago. Any worship pastor or worship leader from the Portland area is welcome to come, and we all just come together. Usually like 10-15 different churches are represented. And we just we talk about stuff, sometimes there are different themes, sometimes not. We sing and worship together, we pray together. And it's us! I think it's a healthy way to get there.

Yeah, I mean Paul's a good friend. He and I get together pretty regularly. I love the guy. We probably don't agree on somethings, [like] philosophies of how to do church, but I don't know if Jesus cares about it or not. Laughs.

Portland gets that reputation of being one of the least churched cities [in America] but I'm not sure where that comes from.

I wonder if it's a Pacific Northwest thing?

Maybe...

 That statistic applies to Victoria for sure. Maybe Vancouver,  but not as much. I don't know about Seattle...

I don't know. I just look at all the churches that I think are great around here and I think, "How can [Portland] possibly be unchurched?” I look at our church and Imago, and [at] how many younger people are involved. To me, I can't relate to that statistic.

Last year I talked to Tim Mackie more about the unique church situation in Portland. There's a certain strange flavour to this city, but when I'm amongst the Christians I remember why I keep coming back.

Yeah, and I mean certainly with any major city, there's plenty of opposition to the Gospel and the people who are not into it are really not into it. And that's fine, but that's everywhere.

That's a good thing. It means you are not watering down the gospel.

Yeah. I mean, I would love for that not to be the case. Me and Josh have had this [conversation] sometime. It seems like sometimes people come to plant a church, or do ministry here, and they are almost proud. "Yeah, we're going to Portland, the most unchurched city. It's cool." It's not cool! I'd much rather it be he most churched [state]. We're praying ourselves out of a job. I'd rather it be more churched then less churched, but I don't expect that to happen in my lifetime. And I love this city, and a ton of my good friend are entirely opposed to the gospel. I'll work on [that]. Laughs.

It's neat that you're involved in the music scene as a pastor. I've been to churches where the staff seem to be in the church office all day. At my current church the staff include farmers, firemen, teachers, and a former Chelsea football star.

That's awesome.

Yeah, it brings this real-world grit to their ministry.

Making music outside of church, and being in that context grounds you.

 That's important. It's evangelism in its own way, maybe.

I think it's totally valuable, I encourage all my musicians, "Don't just make music here. This is the safe place to do it."

Do they all do it in bands?

A lot of them do, not all of them. Its' such a wide spectrum. And some just do it at church, they've got three kids [and a] full time job, but they love playing guitar. But in anyway that you can, I do encourage people to.

Well, thanks again for your time! This has been excellent.

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An Interview with A Ghost Story Director David Lowery

The movie I was most excited to see last year was David Lowery’s highly acclaimed little indie film A GHOST STORY. The problem is that highly acclaimed indie films tend to arrive in Calgary months after everyone else gets them.

Then one Friday evening in early summer I got an email from my editor at Mockingbird. “We’ve been given access to a screener for A GHOST STORY and the option to interview the director. Would you be interested?”

I watched the movie. I watched endless interviews of David. I reached out to writer friends for advice. I wrote scores of questions and ran them past my editor. Then I had 20 minutes on the phone with David and it went really well. It was an open dialogue about the issues that challenge both of us. I’m rather proud of the result and I hope you head over to Mockingbird to read the full thing.

 

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Kyle and I Get Interviewed

Over the past year, our little project Assumptions has received a fair bit of attention and interest from friends, acquaintances, and friendly professors and business owners. An acquaintance turned online friend, Rebecca Florence Miller, discovered us back in April and offered to interview the two of us for her blog at the esteemed Patheos Evangelical. She asked some brilliant questions. I think the finished product is an excellent summery of why Kyle and I are so passionate about this project and why we hope it might make a small difference in the world and our own lives. Check it out!

P.S. If you are a blogger or writer who is also intrigued, Kyle and I are always eager to do another interview...

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Micah Bournes: The Complete Interview

A while back, my profile on Micah Bournes was published on Mockingbird. Micah is a hip-hip artist, spoken word poet, and a blues singer. For a distilled look at his creative process, check out the original article. But there were many topics in our conversation that didn’t make it into the final draft, so I’m posting the entire, fascinating interview here. Enjoy it, and if Micah’s thought process resonates with you, his new hip-hop album, A Time Like This is due to be released in early January.

Hey, what's up brother.

Hey doing well, how are you?

Real good. Yeah man, Thanks for your patience. I'm glad we finally got to connect. I know stuff has been crazy for a minute, but I'm looking forward to this conversation.

Thanks for making it happen! I was just going to say that your album has been in my "heavy rotation" since it came out. It’s been one of those albums that I call “shower karaoke,” in that I sing along to it and really enjoy it, but than it sticks with you and causes a lot of thought. So thanks for your hard work on it.

Yeah, that's awesome man, I appreciate it. I'm glad it's been something that you've been able to engage with on that level. That's cool.

Oh yes, on multiple levels. It’s fun music.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the album process and how you've gone from spoken word poetry to this, and then I also have some questions on the book you recommended, Art and Fear. (I've given several copies away. I have some questions on how the themes of that book applied to this art making process.)

Man, I'm glad you read that too, because for me, when it comes to things that I've read, I don’t think anything has had such an influence on my creative process as that book

Really!

Just because it addressed so many of the hesitations and insecurity that I had and... well, I'll get to that. Let's get to the album first and then talk about that book, because I could talk about that book forever. [Laughs.] I suggest it to every creative I meet that's struggling. [I’m] like, "Read this book, read this book, read this book!” Yeah.

It's a powerful book. I bought a copy for a friend and I just bought another copy as a Christmas gift for another friend, so yeah. A little cottage industry of Micah Bournes recommendations are keeping that publisher alive.

How is the spoken word album creation process different from the blues album process?

Yeah, incredibly different. Well, I guess I'll just talk about how I got into blues from spoken word.

I see myself as a creative writer. [Yet] a lot of folks see me as a spoken word poet, and I own that, but when I started writing, it was not poetry. It was all hip-hop, it was rap lyrics. For the first two years I started writing [during] the freashmen year of college, so the first two years of college all I wrote was hip-hop. It wasn't until I was 20, my junior year of college, that I got invited to an open mic [event where] I saw spoken word live for the first time. I had seen it on YouTube but it wasn't until I was 20 years old that I saw it live.

And that's when I started writing poetry because I just really liked the environment of the open mic and how inviting it was for people to just share about anything. When I got into spoken word, it wasn't like I was going to quit rapping and just do spoken word. It inspired me in the same way that hip-hop inspired me when I fell in love with it. It was just like, “Oh man, I want to try that” because it looked like fun. And it wasn't like a career shift. I mean, it ended up being [one, but] it wasn't an intended career shift to switch from hip-hop to spoken word.

And kind of the same thing happened with blues. I had no intention of trying to shift from being a spoken word artist to [being a] blues musician. And even still, [now that] the blues album is out I don't know if I will ever do another one. It was just an idea. I got inspired.

The way that happened was I actually started listening to this band called The Black Keys. They are like modern blues rock type [band],  but heavily blues [influenced]. I don't know if you have this in Canada, but there is this website called Pandora where basically you put in an artist that you like and they display other artists that are similar, and kind of help you discover new music and stuff like that. So I made a Pandora station and put the first  input as The Black Keys. And it was amazing, because all of a sudden Pandora started playing all these old-school blues artists.

Now I had heard some of the names, [but] a lot of the names I hadn't. I didn't grow up listening to blues. My parents, they listened to a lot of kinda soul and funk but they didn't listen to blues [while I was] growing up. So I started listening and falling in love with all of these old school blues artists. It was something that caught my attention, because for a genre that I did not grow up listening to and had very little experience with, it felt so familiar. And I realised that was because blues came out of the black American tradition. And so I'm listening to these songs as I kind of ventured away from The Black Keys and [as I] listened to other blues artist I was like, "Man, the vocabulary they are singing, the stories they are telling, it feels so familiar!” It came from the Southern United States. My grandma’s from Mississippi, [so] everything they were communicating reminded me of my great-uncles and aunties and grandmothers and cousins. And so for someone who never listened to blues, I felt so at home. And it as like "Man!" So I just fell in love with it. And I just listened to it left and right. I was just listening to the Pandora station and so it's not like I knew a bunch of blues artists or nothing, but I would just let it play, all the time. I had a part-time job and every time  I was at work I would put on this Pandora station.

Well, just like with spoken word, after a while of listening to it so much, I just thought, maybe I should… It wasn't even conscious [decision, but] when I would sit down to write, instead of rap or poetry,  it would come out in a song, like in my head.  I don't play an instrument, and [at the time I] didn't sing. So I had no intention of doing anything with these songs , I just started this because they were the ideas in my head, so I thought, “Why not get them out.”

But the writing process was very different. With both spoken word and hip-hop you have a lot of words per song. In a three to five minute poem you are  constantly talking. And with hip-hop, a lot of it is flexing your lyral ability - turn of phrase, and metaphor, and double entendre. You're working with complex sentences, and structure, and poetic devices to make it beautiful in spoken word and with hip-hop. But with blues I noticed it was, number one, a lot fewer words per song.

A blues songs had maybe a third of the words that a hip hop song or a spoken word poem would have, even if it were the same length. A three minute blues song has so few words. But then [in blues you are] also pulling from a simpler vocabulary. You might still use metaphor, but it wasn't in the same way of metaphor on top of metaphor [and] complexity. Blues [language] was very common, every day language, [using] particular  dialects [from] the African-American community. So, not only common [words] but specifically black kind of ways of speaking. So when I first started writing, I realised that [my initial] songs were too wordy because I had a background in hip hop and spoken word. It was really a discipline to learn; “How do I  tell a story and create a world of art that's just as powerful as the way my spoken word pieces impact people?” But [doing so with] fewer words and simpler vocabulary.

At first I felt like I had my hand tied behind my back, but after a while [I realized that] it's not about dumbing it down, it's just being more intentional about your diction, about your word choice. You have to be precise, because you have fewer words, every word matters. And there are definitely times in spoken word pieces where I'm like, “I could have done without these sentences” or whatever, but with blues, it's like “You don't got that many words, you gotta make sure you do the right ones.” And so, yeah, that was a fascinating discipline. And then, another thing I noticed about blues is that there’s a lot of repetition. But it doesn't feel montanous or boring, it's just the way blues [are] repeated, it causes the messages to sink in in a different way. It's almost like I'm chanting it to you.

So yeah, man that's kind a how I got into it and then the recording process, was very different because…. What happened was, I didn't have any intentioan of doing a blues album. As a writer I just got inspired by the genre and started writing songs. But the songs on [‘No Ugly Babies’] were written over the course of probably four years. Because as I was writing them, I wasn't thinking about an album. I would just leave them because I didn't have a band and I didn't sing. I'd be writing poetry all of the time, and then every now and then, every few months, [I’d write a] blues song. They would just be on my computer.

After about three years I was like, “Man, I have about 15 songs.” Then I went on tour with a band, doing poetry, and I met this guy who was a musician and a producer and we start talking about music. He's telling me about how he loves The Black Keys and how he loves blues rock. And I'm like “Dude,  I love that stuff!” So we became good friends, and then by the end of the tour I thought to myself, “Hey, if there is anybody…” Because he had showed me some of the other work that he produced. So I said, “Hey man, look, I got all of these blues songs. I don't play guitar. I don't really sing, but I think they are good songs. So maybe if I showed you them and you like them, maybe we can collaborate and we can bring these things to life.”

So he said, “Sure, send them my way.” So I basically recorded myself singing them, with no music, just me singing out the melody. I sang them onto my phone and I emailed him all the files. I sent him 13, no proably more like 15 songs of just me singing. Me like, "I don't pay no mind to no hate", like just like that. And so he listened to them and he responded; “Man, I really like these songs! We can defiantly make this happen.”

So it was very different from my spoken word album, because with a spoken word album I just worked with one person primarily; my hip-hop producer.  A lot of hip-hop sounds - although some hip- hop definitely does incorporate live instrumentation as well - with a lot of modern hip-hop it's the beat or most of the sounds are either samples from preexisting recordings of music or are generated off of computer programs, or they're electronic sounds that are pre-recorded and just dropped in. And so even though a lot of the poetry albums that I've done have full music behind them, it was all done - with the exception of maybe one or two - it was all done by one producer and so it's just him putting in all of the sounds electronically.

Well, with this blues album pretty much all the songs - there might be one or two songs when we used programming, with sounds that we added to it. But all of the songs are live instrumentation. And with the exception of the one that's just the guitar, they all have at least 3, sometimes 5 musicians on them. So that process of working with, you know, people and real musicians, as opposed to one person who is dropping in a lot of sounds from a computer, was very different. We had these ideas in our head, and maybe a general melody, but then the drummer brought his personality to it. The basest and the keyboard brought her personality to it.

So we had these ideas and we are incoperating all these folks and we're like - oh,  this sounds different then how I thought it was going to sound. Sometimes better, sometimes no, I don't like this. Whenever there's more people involved there's more things to coordinate. More things that need to happen. But at the same time, you also have more creativity,  more perspectives, and so it… felt much more collaborative than my spoken word albums. They were collaborative too. But then there were [only] two people, me and the producer.

With this [project], even things like having background vocalists. You never need background vocalists for poetry, even if there's music. All of a sudden, I'm like singing with my friends. I have three voices on this song. On “Happy As Can Be”, I have a whole choir.  A lot of the songs have background vocalists. Before, I never needed to ask my sister, or my mum, or my brothers to come in, because you don't recite poems together on a spoken world album. So like wow, my family is coming in the studio, my friends are coming in the studio, I'm reaching out to musician friends of mine that I knew they played but I didn't have the reason to collaborate with them before, so my buddy Joe played keys on a Four Left Feet, my homie Jackie played keys on Bo Boy Clean, Liz Vice sang on three of the songs. So it really felt collaborative in a way that spoken word hadn't been for me. Which is cool.

And there's that sense of you being a little bit vulnerable and reaching out to people, like you mentioned on your social media about the vocal coach that you had to meet with, and reaching out to Liz Vice out of nowhere and saying, "Hey, can we collaborate on this?” There is a vulnerability that comes with that when you are not in control.

Yeah, totally, totally and I think vulnerability is a good word for that whole process,  because with spoken word I've been doing my thing for a while, So when I record a spoken word album or project or song, I have so much confidence because it's tried and true. It's like, "I know I'm good at this". But with blues it's like, dang. It's not that I think I have a terrible voice, [it’s just] I don't have a tired and true voice. I've never done a tour. I've never put out an album before. So I don't know, and it’s scary. For the first time in a long time I'm in the studio feeling nervous, like is it good enough? I'm taking 20 takes of every song because I’m nervous. So it was crazy for me to see how much that affected my performance, even in the studio. Being relaxed is the most important thing, Because I know I don't have a natural Usher, or Michael Jackson R&B voice.

Blues is about channelling the right emotion. And some of the best blues vocal sets have these real kinda gritty voices that might sound a splatter off-key sometimes, but for the genre and the things they have to communicate, it’s perfect. Because, again, it was birthed out of the black community during a time when it was pain. It's pain, and they are singing about poverty, and they are singin about heartache, and they are singing about facing prejudice, and so that [doesn’t result in] a clean, neat sound.

At first I was trying to sound good. And then I was like, no, I don't need to sound good. I need to channel the right emotions. As a spoken word artist, I have a lot of experience channeling emotions into performance. So when I thought about it like that, I was like, okay, I need to relax and realize that if I connect emotionally to these songs, my voice would do what it needs to do. I can’t do what I'm not capable of. I can't sing real pretty, but that's not what I need here. And so I begin to relax and trust myself. And a lot of that had to do with having the vocal coach, and having Blaine tell me, "It sounds good, calm down and just do your thing, trust yourself.” So yeah man, it was very, very vulnerable being in that place of not being sure if it was going to be good or if I was good enough to do this. I'm glad I challenged myself in that way.

You mentioned how the songs are more - you mentioned chanting, repetition, simplicity. I have a friend who says when you write a short story you use a lot of words, whereas when you write a song you are compressing it into into very few words, which is a way bigger challenge.

What did this medium of blues allow you to say that you wouldn't have been able to say if you had not used it?

Oh absolutely. Not only what I'm saying but how it is being received. For example: if somebody sees me perform spoken word, and likes it, and buys the album, you can listen to it on the regular all you want, but you don't really participate in spoken word. You just appreciate it. You watch it. But with blues, like you were saying, with music in general, but particularly the blues is repetitive at times, like "I don't pay no mind" over and over again. What it does is it washes over the listener in a way that spoken word or hip-hop [doesn’t]. A lot of folks like hip-hop, but it's not as easy to pick up all the words and to rap along, right? But with the simplcity and reputation of blues, I'm like “man, the things that I say people are going to singing them in the shower. People are going to be playing them in the car on your way to work and on your way home. People are going to get them stuck in their heads and are going to be humming them while they are vacuuming and cleaning their house.” That's very different from someone who listens to a spoken word piece or watches a spoken word. They may be super impressed by it and like it, but it doesn't really get stuck in their heads and they don't sing along.

 

It made me think; what are the messages that I want folks to have on repeat in their heads? Like, what are the choruses that I want them to be singing over and over and over again, the truths that I want to be washing over their minds and hearts on a regular basis? That's the responsiblity! And so I love that. I love that people are walking around singing that they're not going to let themselves be overcome by hate. I love that. I love that people are walking around singing that “I'm not ugly.” “God ain't gave me no ugly babies.” “I'm handsome, I'm pretty, I'm worth, I look, I look good, I look good, I look good”, you know? [Laughs.] Those are the things, like [starts singing];  “I look good, ma, you look good!” That is a repeated, intentional phrase, like, tell yourself this over and over and over again. God made me good. He made humans and said it was good. And there is beauty in who we are, in addition  to our brokenness, of course. So it’s things like that that a allowed  me to communicate in a way and using qualities that the other genres I had written in didn't really possess.

I would say that spoken word lures you in and kind of shocks you. And blues does too, when you realize what it is saying. But I’m not going to put a spoken word album on repeat.

No.

You sit down and listen to it. Whereas with this, you play it while driving around.

What would the consequences have been if you had kept yourself in the comfortable medium you were used to?

The thing is, if you don't try stuff that is different than you are going to become a one trick pony. You are going to get stuck. Yeah, you can always come back to your home base and the things that you are known for, but I look at every major artist that I respect, and they were constantly pushing themselves to the limit. You don't know what you can do unless you push yourself and do stuff that you can’t. If we're talking about business here, if we're taking about having fianicnal success as an artist, [then recording this blues album] was a poor investment.

I have spent the last four years building up a following for spoken word poetry. All of my invitations are for venues and events that want a poet, not a blues artist, not a blues band. Nobody knows me for that. I’m starting from scratch. But the thing is, my aim was never to build a successful spoken word business. My aim was to express myself through the creativity that God has put inside me. I know that it is easy to stick to what is already tried and try. But I think about spoken word and how that was a risk. For two years people liked my rap and they were booking me for rap. If I were to just stay with that - and I had been listening to hip-hop from birth. So it felt familiar, it felt very at home. Poetry was foreign. This was - oh this was new, spoken word was a weird thing. But I’m like man, if I had only stuck with what was safe, I would have missed this beautiful aspect of what I’m capable of.

So I always want to be pushing myself. And that doesn’t always necessarily mean a new genre as drastic as this. One thing I’ve been trying to do lately - I do a lot of storytelling, [but] I don’t use use a lot of metaphors. I don’t use a lot of imagery or extended metaphors, because I like straight-up storytelling. But I’ve found recently a couple times, while listening to my friend’s words, I’m like, “Man.” I somethings resent metaphor a little bit because I think it’s overdone and people make it really confusing, they stack metaphor on top of metaphor and you don’t know what they are talking about . But when it's done well, it really does enhance understanding and makes it beautiful. So I’m challenging myself as a writer, [because] storyline is easier for me. But how can I write poetry that uses metaphors that enhances comprehension rather than make it more convoluted?

I do think that’s possible. I do think a lot of times poets hide behind the metaphor and they abuse metaphors. Because, yeah, I think the intention behind metaphor is that you have something you want to communicate and you doin’t quite have the words for it in plain speech. So you liken it to something in culture or in the world that your audience is familiar with so that it better resonates with the person, so that they comprehend it even more, rather than less. And what happens is that people use it in a way that folks don’t understand it.

But I think about the Psalms and here you have David, who grew up as a shepherd boy, and was very familiar with shepherding, and the culture he lives in is very familiar with shepherding. And so when he sits down to write a song or a poem about his relationship with God, he goes, “You know what it’s kinda like? It’s kinda like a shepherd and the sheep. You know how a shepherd takes his sheep and leads it to green pastures and he protects it and he restores it and he puts it by the river and make sure it drinks… that’s like… the Lord is my shepherd. That’s what it’s like.”

To me, that is how metaphors is supposed to be used. He’s speaking to a culture that’s familiar with these things. So they listen to it and they. “Oooh, okay.” That's a metaphor that enhances understanding, instead of making it more convoluted. And that’s something that I do appreciate when its done well. And so often poets, particular, try to be so deep, that it’s metaphor on top of metaphors, and I'm confused, I don’t know what you are talking about. But now I'm like, you know, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, so I'm pushing myself to engage with metaphor and extended metaphors that will both beautify my writing and enhance comprehension.

Because sometimes a metaphors does work better than saying it straight up, when you liken it to something, and folks are like “oh, now it’s connecting the dots.” Which is why preachers use it all the time for sermon illustration, because if they had just said it straight up it wouldn’t have driven home like likening it to something would have.

You mentioned earlier about pushing yourself and making yourself vulnerable in the new medium. Art & Fear talks a lot about that; the fear of failure and the fear of quitting that comes from that. Were there times when you were tackling this new medium, that… Maybe because I’m a younger artist, but my identity gets so caught up with my success. When I think that my writing is turning out to be successful, I’m thrilled, but when I think it isn’t worth it, then I just start to question everything. What was that process like during this new art form, especially as a believer?

Yeah. Let’s go into Art & Fear. The last part of the question, [about] the new art form; a lot of the reason I was able to approach it this way was from the things I learned from reading Art & Fear a few years ago. I didn’t have a deadline. I knew it was something new. And it took me two years, two full years to write and record all this stuff. I had no deadline. I knew that I ddin't know what I was doing. I knew that it wasn't going to be good right away from the first time, [from the] first draft. I knew that we were going to have to go back to the drawing boards a lot. So I gave myself the freedom and the time to create without going, “oh it’s not working.” No no, I’m trying something new.

And when you are trying something new you have to be patient with yourself. You don’t expect it to be amazing. You’re figuring it out. And [for] the whole album I was figuring out my sound. It wasn’t until about half way through, so about the 5th or 6th song, that we hit any type of stride in finding the sound we wanted. So the second half of the songs [that] we recorded were great. But once we finished those, we went back. There were three songs in particular that [we] completely started over [with]. Like, threw out all the music we had and approached it differently. Because we didn’t hit our stride until half way through.

But I guess to me, I already knew that it wasn’t going to be amazing right off the bat. That we had to figure it out slowly, and [the reason] I knew that [was] because of Art & Fear, really. And this is why [the book] is so influential with me. For me the premise, like, the repeated theme in the whole book was "no matter what type of artist you are, no matter how good or bad you think you are, most of what you do is going to not be good. Most of your work is going to suck.” And there’s a line in it where [they] say. “what the artist needs to understand, is that the purpose of the vast majority of your work is simply to show you how to create the small portion that will be good.” And that, to me, that freedom to create knowing good and well that even the best artists in the world… It’s so arrogant to think that every time I pick up my pen every single poem or song I’m going to write is going to be brilliant. Every time this person picks up his brush it’s going to be a classic. Every time she opens her mouth… That’s so unrealistic! And it’s so much pressure! So that book helped me realize to just fearlessly create. In the sense, when you get ideas, just get them out. Just create them. They are not all going to be good. In fact, most of them won't be good.

It was Art & Fear, and also a few other things that I watched. Like, I ended up  watching a documentary on Pablo Picasso, I believe it was. By the end of his life was incredibly wealthy, he had his pictures hanging for half a million dollars in museums and all these things. But, when he died he lived a mansion that was like three or four stories high and had a basement, and they went into his home and all along the walls of his basement, stacked like 10 canvases deep, all along the wall was just canvas after canvas of mediocre, not that good, paintings. So for every brilliant Picasso painting hanging in a museum there were like 10-12 canvases in his basement collecting dust that he thought were not even good encough to share, but [that] he still painted. And so that's how I feel about song writing, or poetry. No matter how good I am, 8 out of 10 are going to be either mediocre or bad. So if I let that discourage me, I’m just not going to have a lot. But if I let that say, “Hey I don't care, I'm just going to create” and I write 100 poems, I’ll have 80 bad poems but I’ll have 20 good ones instead of just the two.

So it’s kinda like that. I just I let myself create. I try to get the the ideas out and not put the pressure on me not being good. That helped me not put the pressure on the album. I took my time and I was proud of it in the end.

What does that look like in the social media age, in which every artist has a social media account and can post a photo right away, or the idea right away? It seems harder to guard against that.

I think that is a huge temptation of immediacy. Whether it’s a song or a poem. Especially if they like it, which might not actually mean it’s good, because a lot of times artists have a personal connection to their work, that other people… Like, you love this but it’s actually not your best work. But there’s this temptation to share immediately. And I get it, because when I write something that I like I want to show the world.

But sometimes it needs time to develop. Sometimes you can share prematurely. If you’re posting singles the whole time you’ll never get around to posting the album and, when you do, everything will be out already. Sometimes if you’re posting every poem you write, by the time your book comes out nobody’s going to be excited because they’ve seen it all already. And I think if you have the displine to to hold some things close to your chest and let them develop and be refined, that’s definitely something that I’ve had to learn to do. Even with the blues album, there were so many times in the studio where I loved it, and I wanted to post clips to the song and it I was like, “No no, just wait, just let it be.” But yeah, it’s not an immediate thing. It takes a lot of time. No matter what your art form is.

I think people are impatient. I meet folks who want to be an artist or a singer or whatever and they have this incredibly unrealistic timeline in their heads. Like okay, I’m going to quite my job, and I’m going to work really, really hard for like 6-9 months, and if this thing isn’t off the ground in a year then I’m going to go back to my full time job. And I’m like, “Do you understand? I am four years deep and [am] still unknown.” And I don't resent that, because things have grown. But, by and large I'm a no name artist. I’m not selling out shows. I can't book a venue. You saw me. Going over to my homegirl’s back yard and reading three poems for 15 people. But, I’ve also had some opportunities for bigger stuff, but [over all it’s been a] very slow and gradual process.

And very few people… I know that’s the narrative that TV and media shows [emphasize}, the artist who gets discovered and boom, [becomes] an overnight celebrity. But when I look at the artists that I respect the most and whose work I really appreciate, I see years. [So] don't think about where you want to be in 1 or 2 years. Think about where you want to be in 10 years. 10 years as an artist.

When I look at artist like Josh Garrels, when I look at artists like Propaganda, even still these guys aren't celebrities. But I love Josh Garrels’ music and he has a sizeable following right now. When you look at him though… I wasn’t familiar with his work until ‘Love and War and the Sea In Between’ [came out]. So I’m like, “Oh wow, this album is amazing.” And I loved it. Well, to me, in my head, he’s a new artist at the time when that [album] came out. Well, I look him up, [and] the dude is not new. At that time he had had several albums out. He had been making music for a decade. And he is still, to this day, relatively unknown. He has a strong enough following to support himself. But he is by no means as big as a lot of artists, especially those who are talking about faith.

And yet, the funny thing was I love, loved, ‘Love and War and the Sea In Between’. But then I listen back to his other stuff and I liked it, but I didn’t love it nearly as much. And to me, that wasn't a bad thing, that was encouraging. I was like, “Wow, I can actually hear the difference between something you put out today and something you put out three years ago.” He’s grown. And he’s continuing  to take risks and do different stuff and so I love the fact when I see his career it has been gradual, incremental progress. And that’s encouraging!

Because I think about me. I’ve been a full time artist for four years. At this point, with “No Ugly Babies”, this is my 5th release. I have two full length spoken word albums, one full length blues album, and two 5 track hip-hop EPs. So in 4 years I’ve released 5 things. All different. [For] most people who discover my work it’s new, and I'm new. I have [only] 3,000 followers on Instagram. I want to do a full length hip-hop album in the next couple years because that [medium] was my first artwork. So in the next couple years, as things continue to grow folks [will] continue to discover me as this new artists.

No, I'm not new. Whatever I make next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, has all been possible because of these gradual steps that I have been making and pushing myself. That is, to me, [what] successful artists do, by and large, with the exception of a very few who get the right connection and shoot to the top. [For] most successful artist, it is like that. It’s the tortoise verses the hare. I’ve seen it over and over and over again.

And people look and they envy the success and they go, “I want to be there, I want to have what you have. Man, Micah, you’ve been able to travel the world, you’ve been able to do this and do that.” And I’m like: “Yes.” But, I also ate cereal for dinner for the first two years, and I have also invested $15000 of my own dollars on making a blues album. That’s a huge risk. Are you willing to take literally half of your annual income, and invest it in something that might not make you any money? If you are, yeah, maybe you want this life. Are you willing to wait for four, five years, to have some of the opportunity you were hoping to have? Are you willing to make decisions financially and sacrifice some of theses habits of shopping and eating and doing things in  order to do that?

I don't feel like a staving artist because I make financially wise decisions in order to do the things that I want. Like, I have everything I need, but from the car that I drive to the place where I live [I’ve had to make sacrifices]. I have 5 roommates in the house so I can have cheap rent. Because when I keep my expenses low I can invest more of my resources into making the art that I want.

So I just think there are a lot of illusions as to what it means to bean artist and most of it is not glamorous. But then when people see that I’ve got to perform for NBA teams they think I made it. When people see that I went to New Zealand or India or Paris, they’re like “Oh, your famous!” And I’m like, “Nah, this is the result of a lot of hard work, and even still I’m not there. There is no arrival. I’m just continuing to create.”

The book talks a lot about out about failure and pushing on. It’s interesting looking at that and then looking at it as a Christian, who’s identity is beyond just the art he creates. What would you add to it as a Christian that you would encourage other arts who are Christians, especially looking at the sense of failure and identity?

Honestly, part of the reason I love the book is because I thought it was so applicable to the spiritual life. They authors didn’t know it, but they wrote a devotional. People want that same kind of instant success when it comes to spiritual growth and spiritual health, and ministry, and God's will. People think being a mature, having a healthy relationship with God [is immediate]. It takes discipline. It is a slow but sure step-by-step gradual increase in maturing and that comes from just disciplining yourself. And you know what? You're going to make a lot of bad discussions. You going to make mistakes, you’re going to do things and create things that don’t work, but when you do, you keep going, you keep trusting God, you don’t let your failures discourage you. You dust yourself off, you receive the forgiveness, and you push on.

And so I was taking all of these principles they talk about as an artist and applying them to my spiritual life. I’ve done so many things, just like I’ve written so many poems that I though were going to be good and just fell flat. I’ve made so many decisions in life and spirituality, [thinking that] God wants me to do this, and I’m [being] led to do this, and it just crashes and burns. Are you going to throw your hands up and say you’re a bad Christian? Are you going to throw your hands up and say God is done with me? Or, are you going to say, “Okay, guess that’s not what God wanted, let me do something else. Let me not loose hope.” And that’s what people do. They just throw their hands up and say, “This is too hard, life is too hard!” And I’m just like, “Nah, remind yourself of why you are doing it, know that it’s worth it no matter what, and know that you are growing in all the things that you do.”

And even the aspect of them talking about not finding your identity in your work. They are like, “This is a modern thing but there’s been a lot of times in the past when artists would create and that wasn’t their soul. Like, if you don’t like my art, you don’t like me.”

That also is applicable to the spiritual life.Because there’s a lot of people who find their identity in the things they do for God. People in the ministry - and for me, it’s one and the same, because it’s my art, and then also I do see my art as the words of God and God using that. But it’s not who I am, it’s still something I do. And I’ve put a lot of vulnerability, and I’ve put a lot of myself into my art, but my art is not me. So whether it’s the things that you’re doing, whether it’s justice work, or in a formal ministry like working for church or for a youth group. It’s like yes, God is pleased with those things, but God does not love you because of those things. He is is not pleased with you because of the things you are doing.

In the same way as an artist you make beautiful art, but you can’t tie your identity so strongly to it that you are going to be depressed because if people don’t like your art then they don’t like you. And same thing with ministry. If you’re trying to do things for God and it’s not going well and no one is being converted, or the ministry isn’t growing, then you’re going to feel like a personal failure or that you’re not a good Christian. So I just made all these connections reading that book. “This makes so much sense. This is a devotional.”

There’s a line in the book where they talk about how “every artist will leave a thread loose in their work that they can pull on later.” Meaning that if you are working on a great piece of art and you’re exploring these themes, you’re going to leave a thread that you are working with that you want to unravel in your next piece of work.

Oh totally. Because there is no completion. I’ve found it to be a funny thing, that with any project I’m working on, by the time I’m approaching the end of it I’m already thinking of the next one. Because you learn so much in the process! You’re like, “Man, by the end of this album, if I were to start this album today it would sound very different.” But I don’t have time to start all the way over. I have learned so much in this process that although I’m done it feels like I’m just getting started. So it feels incomplete always. I kinda kinda feel that way, that the creative process is such a stretching and a growing thing that I’m always thinking about this process and how it [will be different] the next time around. And you don’t want to have a sense of, “Oh, everything’s done, there goes all my creativity.”

Are there any themes that you’ve talked about this time that you want to keep going with?

Yeah, definitely.  Because of everything that’s going on in America, I want to continue to explore themes of black history, and culture, and presence, That’s something I want to be intentional about. Issues of justice in general have always been a theme in a lot of my work. Just because of this moment in time.

But then also more specifically even in that, the concept of loving your enemy has been so heavy on my heart because there’s been so much division. And rightfully and understandably so. I’m not about “Kum by Ya”, can’t we all just get along. I’m like, nah: these fools are my enemies. A lot of things people are doing and saying in my country right now, I am pointing out, that they are my enemy, they are my enemy. The things they are promoting, the things they are speaking are evil and anti-black and anti-peace. And so just being in a context of, “Okay, I have to recognize these folks as enemies, so what does it  mean in this modern context to generally love my enemies?” That’s a difficult thing to think through, what that means.

Here’s the last question I want to ask you: this moment in American history is fascinating and scary. But in the sense we and my friends, who are white guys raised in Canada, are starting to be more aware of what that means and what the identity of the white evangelical has been through that journey. So whether it’s films like 13th, or your work, or Propaganda, or Sho Barka, these guys are coming into our lives and really waking us up.

But as Canadians, it can very easily be the temptation to look down and cast judgment, or even sit back and wait for the fireworks to begin. Because our history and our identity are so different. And yet the sin of racism applies to all of us. So I’m curious: you’ve spent some time in Canada. What would you say to people like myself who are maybe waking up to these themes, but who are white and are not American?

I think Canadians - and I say this with all respect - but I think they are very blind to their prejudice. Because on the surface level they don't have the same ugly history - although they definitely have some of it towards the indigenous people and the First Nations - like especially towards black folks and immigrants. You guys are a lot more welcoming of immigrants and you don’t have the history of slavery. So there seems to be this superficial, “We love people and especially more than Americans do. I mean look at those people down there!” But, particularly within the realm of theology, Canada is just as bad as America and doesn't realize it.

Because without realizing what Evangelical Christianity has been, particularly white evangelical Christianity… I have that’s about walking up to prejudice in the church. One of the things that comes up… I went to Bible college, and it was a predominantly white Bible college, and I was talking to one of my buddies who was Jamaican, a black dude, and he was like, “This is hard, because I come from an all-black community to this all-white community.” And he goes, “My roommates are white and my professors are white.” But then he said something that stuck with me and I’ve been thinking about it [still], years later. “Even all of the authors of the textbooks we use, they were all white.”

And a couple years after BIble college I was thinking about that conversation, and I realized that - because of Bible college I developed a love of theology and philosophy - and I had the realization that every single book of theology and philosophy that I had ever read was written by a white male. And I thought to myself - how ridiculous is that? The church of Christ is so broad. And yet when it came to my thoughts about God, theology, and the things I’m learning have all been taught to me by one slender slice of the human family and one slender slice of the body of Christ.

And the thing is in most evangelical circles that’s true of both our literature and our teaching in church. Most of the time churches are pastored by white males and leadership is predominantly white male. And so the books we read, the leadership, but then also the songs. Like most songs sung by churches are by Hillsong or Bethel Music, or [other] white contempary Christian music artists and worship leaders. Again, you are missing out on such a rich history. I say it like this because people tell me, “Why should this matter if we are all preaching the same Gospel.” [And I say]: because all of us, our cultural experiences inform our perspectives. And I’m not saying white guys don’t have good things to say.  I’m not saying that. But [compare] a white guy talking about a concept of freedom, verses reading the literature of a black American slave who is writing or singing about freedom. Because of the Gospel, that takes on a whole different and deeper meaning.

In that same sermon I talk about how I had the chance to go to Hong Kong [where] I listened to a Filipino woman, who taught at a seminary in the Philippines, talk about prayer. And the thing is, she wasn't the most articulate or the best person I’ve ever heard speak on prayer; however, she was the most Asian. She talked about how in the DNA, in the roots of Asian culture across the board, they have practices like meditation, like yoga, like tea time, like they are used to sitting in silence and listening to God. So when their ancient cultural practices that are known in their ancient culture come in context with the gospel of Christ [it results in] something beautiful and particular. No matter how intelligent a white guy it is teaching me about prayer, he does not have that cultural lens.

And this is apart from the church and even in culture. I [ask] folks: what is white privilege? [And they respond} “What do you mean? You guys can eat at the same restaurants and go to the same schools.”  Look, especially with Barack Obama becoming president, it [has] almost annoyed me, not because of his politics but because, for a lot of people in America, for them it was the symbolic end of racism. “Look, you can no longer complain because a black person is holding the highest office. Look, he’s made it.”  And obviously, the election of Donald Trump has proved that otherwise. But at the time, it was like, “Look, we’ve made it.”

And I say no, listen: Obama is a freckle on the white face of American politics. You need to look at not just the presidency, but you like at Congress, and you look at Senate and not just politics either. Look at any major institution in America. Look at big business, look at higher education, look at medicine. You rise to the top and you look at positions of power and influence in any pillar of society and overwhelmingly, by and large, it it is white and male. Even if people were not intentionally skewing the policy to benefit their own people group, when you have such a drastic imbalance it is going to naturally affect [society]. Imagine… American politicians [are, say], 90% white and male. Imagine it it was 90% Latino women. Now, tell me that would not have an effect on the policies [on which] America is run? Or black women. Or Asian men. If it were 90% Asian men in that position of power, things would change even if they weren’t on purpose trying to affect their people group.

So that happens in culture, and Canada is the same way. You might have a diverse group of folks, but in the pillars of society, who holds the position of power, who has the money and the influence? It’s white dudes. And in the church in Canada a lot of your theological resources are the same that Americans use. Don’t get me wrong. I love Charles Spurgon. I love C.S. Lewis. I love A.W. Tozer. I love all these old white guys. They have taught me a lot. But man, I’ve been missing out on the black and Asian and Polynesian, and female theologians, and philosophers, and poets. I don’t even know who they are.

So for me, two years ago I started on a journey where I wanted at least the books I read to reflect the diversity. I want the books I read to reflect the diversity of the whole body of Christ and have influence from all of it. So I haven't read a book by a white guy in two years and I don’t plan on [doing so] any time soon. And it’s not all been theology: some, but I’ve read phisophy, I’ve read poetry books, I’ve read theology. And it has brought such a balance. So I think the Canadian church does’t realize that what [we are] interpreting as orthodox Christian theology is really white male theology. That’s all it is. That has a place, but it is not the place. It’s held up as [the normal].

I was just in Vancouver and I was talking to a guy who is Korean and he had a multiethnic church. His church is full of Koreans and Chinese and Japanese and Indians, but most of them are Asian even though they come form all these different cultures. And then they have a few white folks and black folks as well. He [told me that ] people will walk into his church and say, oh, this is an Asian church. But if you walk in to a predominately white church and there’s just a few minorities, you wouldn't say, “That’s a European church.” You’d say, “That's just church.” So that idea that white theology is not white theology, it’s just theology and then you have African theology and Asian theology, it’s not… it's European White theology, which is not bad. But it is not the standard. And that is the problem. The problem is that its’s been treated like the standard.

So when you talk about Christian history, most people are just talking about Europe. [Even though] Christianity did not just start in Europe, but spread through South Sahara and Asia and the Coptic church in the Ethiopian area is just as old as any European tradition, and you talk about Christianity in Latin American countries. We don’t talk about that.

And it’s the same thing in high school. When you are studying history, you are really studying European history because Sub-Sahara Africa has a whole history that we don’t talk about until the slave trade, because that’s when European feel into Africa. And you don't talk about Chaina at all, unless it’s the Great Wall. But you spend all these different times talking about European history and the industrial revolution. So what’s seen as world history [is actually} white history, and it’s the same thing with theology. What’s seen as orthodox theology is from Europeans and their descendants. That’s white Christian theology. That becomes destructive when it’s seen as the standard, when, if it’s approached correctly, it could be seen as a beautiful contribution to the body of Christ if it has its place

And a lot of times when i talk about this, folks are like, “Oh man…” Like one of my friends said, “iIsn’t that reverse racism to not read books by white people?” No. Because for the first 20 or so  years of my life, I know all about that. Not to say I have nothing to learn, but it would take three more lifetimes to bring any type of balance. It’s like, by the time I die I guarantee you I will still have read more books by white culture, even if I never read another book by a white person. Because I don’t have 20 years to spend reading only Asian women and then only 20 years to spend reading only Latino men. It would take the rest of my life to bring any type of balance to this.

But just for me, when it comes to the books I read. But still, when I go around and travel and go to church's and meet people and watch movies, still white folks control a lot of the things that get the most exposure. So anyway, what I found in Canada that people don’t realize that. It’s like, ya’ll folks is white washed just like any other place in North American and Western European countries. You don’t read South American theologians and Asian theologians, you only read the white guys.

Well, thank you for your time. A lot of this applies to my life.

It’s very encouraging to hear, specifically how the blues album has meant so much to you. It was an experiment. I didn't know what was going to happen, so it’s cool to hear how much it’s affecting you.

It seeps into my life and makes a difference.

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I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore

It was Makoto Fujumara who first introduced me to Jeffrey Overstreet way back in 2011. Jeff has been an influence in my life ever since.

Throughout the summer, he helped me refine what was a tough piece to write, and he has now published the finished review on his site.

I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore is still one of my favourite films of 2017, and since it's a Netflix exclusive most of you can check it out today. Go read my review and be sure to follow Jeffrey's work.

http://www.lookingcloser.org/blog/2017/09/04/not-so-beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood/ 

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An Interview with Propaganda

Spoken word poet, hip-hop artist, and activist Propaganda has long been one of my favorite humans. Through a bizarre and dream-coming-true set of circumstances, I had the chance to interview him for 20 minutes.

Christ and Pop Culture is one of my favourite websites and it has been a goal of mine to write for them. They published my interview, and even paid me for my writing. It was the first time I've been paid for my writing!

Enjoy the interview on their website. And enjoy the cool artwork my friend Seth T. Hahne drew for the piece. 

https://christandpopculture.com/an-interview-with-propaganda/ 

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Turning 25

I was terrified of turning 25. It would be a moment of reckoning. Whatever state of accomplishment at the quarter century mark would be a litmus test result of my self worth.

That dreaded date has finally come, and it's not as bad I thought. Maybe that's because I feel better about where I'm at in life. I'm certainly glad to have moved on from Apple and to have settled into the university life. The prospects head feel good.

Does this contentment come only because my plans are "under control?" How swiftly they can change! Already I feel cracks of potential tension. My health has flashed warning signs and I can almost predict that it will wreck havoc on my schooling. My income is limited. I've been told that I'll do well in school, but of that there is no guarantee. I've ruined my potential many times in the past, and that can certainly happen again.

This last year has been a season of letting go, of new vistas, and of small blessings. I've said goodbye for good to long held career ambitions at Apple. I've had an important trip cancelled at the last minute. My health has been violate, leaving major repercussions. But I'm happy with the small, local school that seems just right for my needs. I've received satisfying success in my writing. I've been given a ministry at church that suits me so very well. Crowded amongst these major events events are countless small blessings; an unexpectedly lovely week with Malcolm Guite, friendships both new and renewed, a room filled with bookshelves and art.

Ah, things. All very good, of that there is no question. They are gifts that our Creator gives us, and we see His hand of blessing through them. But how quickly they consume.

Are my standards for what makes a year good based primarily on how I feel about my accomplishments, accomplishments that fade so quickly? They are truly fragile. As I live my 25th year, may I learn to find my stability in the Lord and His character. May I see the effects of his hand in my life, and find my contentment in them rather than my own strivings for success.

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Evan Thomas Way: On Pastoring Artists

Over the past couple of years, I've developed a great affinity for Portland's Door of Hope church. It's the home church of Josh Garrels and Lize Vice, and over the past two years I've attended multiple services and interviewed former pastor Tim Mackie and songwriter Wesley Randolph Eader. Last summer I met up with Door of Hope's worship pastor Evan Thomas Way, who also leads the popular and highly acclaimed West Coast indie band The Parson Red Heads. 

For a church that has such an emphasis on creativity, producing some of the best church music of the 21st century, Evan is surprisingly down to earth. "Artists have the tendency to think that they are a gift to the church, that the church needs artists. I feel like one of the best ways to disciple artists is to try and strip away the idolatry of their art. You don’t live for your art. You live for Jesus. And you’re lucky to be able to do art.”

 My profile on Evan got published by my friends at Mockingbird. We talk about his songwriting for Parsons, but most of our conversation revolves around his thoughts on writing and leading music of his local congregation. Working on this piece greatly encouraged me in my current role of making humble music at my local chruch. I hope you give it a read. 

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In Defence of Owning Too Many Books

I live my life surrounded by books. The increase of these volumes used to excite me. Now, it tends to lead to despondency. Why do I keep pursing books, even when I know I'll never read them all? Why even bother?

Last September I gave a speech at my friend Kyle's variety show, wrestling through these memories and expectations and eventually arriving at hope. Now, less then a year later, it's become my debut essay with Upwrite Magazine.

I'm really proud of this piece. Working with Upwrite to edit and improve it was a great joy, combining my three favorited things: creating, collaborating, and communicating. Go give it a read and tell us what you think!

 

 

 

 

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My desk while writing this piece. I'm really excited about the potential to buy new bookshelves.