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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Wesley Randolph Eader: Full Interview

Wesley Randolph Eader's songs have become a fixture of my community's repertoire of hymns. He is a genuine old school songwriter living in our late modern age. To learn more about his faith community, his songwriting habits, and how his life has influenced the texture of his songs, I traveled to Portland to meet with Wesley.

That interview became an essay published by Mockingbird. If you are new to Wesley's music, I suggest starting there. But since my conversation with Wesley was so enjoyable, and since I spent far too many hours transcribing the whole thing, I'm posting the entire interview here. It has been edited for clarification. 

 

Wesley suggested that we meet at a small brewery mere steps away from his house. Over Ruben sandwiches and red ales, we talked at length about his life and his creative process.

I came back from Portland after hearing you sing Oh Perfect Love Come Near to Me at Door of Hope and I thought man, this song is describing all of things I'm going through. So I looked it up, thinking maybe someone at the church wrote the song, knowing its reputation. And I just listened to the whole record again and again, especially after Tim Mackie recommended it.

Yeah, that song is... I feel like that's the one that most people comment on.

Why is that?

I don't know. I think on that record it is the most personal. I think on that record, a lot of those songs I was trying to not be a part of them. I don't know if I was conscious of it or not. But I mean, a lot of them were modelled off of folk music. I think of folk music as telling a story about something other than yourself Of course, yourself bleeds into them, but...

They are stories.

Yeah, and I think gospel music is that way too. I think there's a lot of gospel music that isn't  super personal, [you know]?

Yeah, more declarative.

Yeah, gospel is supposed to besomething that everybody - at least within the body of believers - can connect with, you know? And I think sometimes a personal song can do that, but you have to be more careful.

The songs are completely personal, but I think that wasn't what I was thinking of when I was writing [Oh Perfect Love]. There's that one and... the two that, on that record, [where] I think I was really trying to write a hymn, [where] that one and 'To Christ the Ransom Sinners Run'.

Yeah, that song sounds like something John Newton would have written.

Yeah, it think [it's because] there is no chorus. The idea of a chorus came later for a lot of hymns. I think that came with gospel revivals in the US more, where it was about getting people to sing at tent revivals and stuff. But I think a lot of the classic hymns didn't have refrains, just a strong verse and melody,

They told a story.

Yeah.

I remember I came home from Portland, and I was hanging out with my family and I said "I don't have any energy to tell about my trip, but you've got to listen to this guy." I played your music and got emotional over it, being really tired. They all said "we've got to introduce these songs to our church!" Then we realized we were already singing Victory in the Lamb. So my band leader and I started to play it more and more.

That's cool! Yeah, Victory in the Lamb is the first one I wrote that sort of started the gospel songs.

Why do you think that one gets so much attention?

I think it has a strong medley that sounds like something that already exists. I mean, that's the hard thing with folk music: melodies. I am not a trained musician, in the sense that my melodies - I don't know how to describe it - they aren't very well thought out. At least, in the process of writing they may change. But it's very much based on the way the words line up.

Okay, so you write the words first, and then the melodies.

Yeah. I think I find the melody within the words. It comes from... I write poetry too and I read a lot of poetry. I think it's that side of it. But in Victory in the Lamb all the verses sort of line up with the beatitudes really, if you look at it. I actually had three more verses to complete them all, but it was too long. So it's kinda, in some ways, a rewording of that kind of stuff.

But a huge impact on writing gospel music was [when] some friends and I started going to Burnside Bridge here in Portland, handing out coffee and hot chocolate to homeless people and singing gospel music down there. Me, and Liz Vice, and my friend Laki, and those kind of people.  We were singing all the same songs and I was like "I think I can write them" and sort of started writing them. It was a good place to test them out. If all of my fiends like it and those people, then... I don't know. It was funny. It was cool too.

So that and The Jesus House.

Yeah, the house I was living at. I think it was all really connected and Door of Hope... I don't know if I want to call it a golden [age], but I bet a lot of people who were going there [at the time]... It felt, felt like a really new, really unique place. And it still is. But I think there are so many people for whom this was their second... for some people it was either their first or their second chance at church. [They previously] hadn't felt like church was for them and what not.

Our church also has that core group of people who became believers around that time or really found their faith and got a footing in their faith. A similar age group, really. And then they go on and have kids and that's the church that comes around that.

Yeah! So that was a big aspect of writing those songs.

So you were born in Mississippi?

I was born in Oregon, actually, but my whole family is from Tennessee. And as a child I would visit there a lot. My parents are very Southern, both Tennessee raised. My dad's a Southern Baptist minister.

Is your song, Country Preacher, about him?

It's sort of basically his story. [How he was] adopted as a child from Germany by his parents in Tennessee, and the story of his becoming a minister. They came out here basically to pastor a church in Kalama, Washington, which is where I mostly grew up. But my Dad was in charge of a tent revival of Southwest Washington and Oregon. He would have a whole huge truck with a tent in the back, and I would go with him. As a kid it was the best thing ever. Going to like this country place, setting up tents. It's not something everyone would experience, especially not [in the] North West. [Which is] kind of interesting . So I think there's a bit of old time religion thing to my upbringing.

That's something you seem to celebrate in your music, in the sense that your music bears that sort of sound. But from what I've picked up, the theology of your songs would probably be different from what you grew up with. Do you look back at those old times and what your Dad did with a certain distance?

I do. I think it [might be] one of those things that I have a love and hate sort of relationship with, [you know]? Because it's so much a part of who I am, but [also] part of my upbringing that I'm not proud of, [which] I want to distance [myself] from.

Like what?

I just think the pressures of morality as a young kid. [The] really impressionistic things that are told to you. I think just the guilt complex that you come out with. I think that's why Victory in the Lamp is such a powerful song, because I think there's a lot of people in the church that deal with that guilt complex. Which is totally an unbiblical thing. We're supposed to live... like we should feel guilty when we are actually legitimately sinning against God and against other people, but we are also... we are covered.

Right. Understanding the freedom that comes from that. Here's the guilt. Place the guilt where it should be, and now be where you are.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Did you come to faith through that environment? Because you moved to Portland, when?

I moved to Portland about 8 years ago. [Portland] is not too far from where I lived. I lived about 30 minutes away, but it's a much different place. I'm from a small town, you know. But I'd say I was culturally a Christian for my whole life. I'd say I had a real awakening and took it a lot more seriously when I was 20 or so.

How old are you now?

I'm 29.

Okay. So that was just before you came to Portland.

Uh, yeah. [So my awakening] was probably in the middle of college or whatever.

So Door of Hope was a pretty big part of these last eight years.

Yeah! I had [previously] been going to the same church my whole life. My dad's a pastor, my parents [were] very much the centre of that congregation for so long. I was helping out teaching kids and youth for some time. And I was like "I need to get to place where I am being fed." I encountered Door of Hope visiting once, and I met somebody there who needed a roommate. I was already thinking of moving to Portland, so it sort of worked out. And I got immersed in a pretty amazing group of people.

And that was that prayer room?

Yeah, that was about a year after I moved. We got a house in southeast Portland together, like five guys. And it just so happened that the next house, which was [by] an identical architect - the architecture had the exact same layout and everything. But this house next door [had] also five guys from Door of Hope. It felt like a summer camp for a whole year.

Was that helpful?

Oh it was good. It was definitely a lifestyle that wasn't sustainable. There was also... Portland was still at this point where [the] "Keep Portland Weird" was so prevalent still. You'd see tall bikes everywhere, hula hoopers in all the parks. Just the hippie vibe was still strong still, which I think has lessened a little bit. You were at the service this morning?

Yeah.

You heard Miranda, the missionary, talk about Door of Hope's reach?

Yeah!

It's crazy! The people she's staying with in Nepal listen to Tim and Josh.

Yeah! And of course The Bible Project is extending this. I first heard of Door of Hope primarily through Josh Garrels and then through him I heard about The Bible Project and then it circled back to Door of Hope.

It's an interesting place.

Has it become a weird place to be as a church, as you are almost becoming a celebrity church in a way?

I think that probably accounts for a good [portion] of our Sunday attendance. Probably like  20-30 percent are visitors these days, Which I think is cool. I think it's cool to have a church to go to when you're visiting a place. It's always good to be reminded that there are people gathering, you know?

Yeah! Even seeing the people streaming forward for communion. And I've seen how God works through the sermons and the music in my own life. I remember when I came to Portland last year I was really struggling with some things and both sermons from the two churches I went to were talking about that same thing! God's working through this, you know? That's really encouraging.

Yeah, yeah.

So what is Door of Hope's role in your life, specifically as an artist? Do they disciple you in your art?

I would say no. I would say maybe indirectly. Just [because of] the fact that I lead there once a month, I've grown a lot as far as playing in bands. I typically play by myself a lot around town. I think the songs I write lend themselves to a more... like the lyrics really standing out. That's the kind of the stuff I try to write. [For] my album release show I'm going to have a full band, so that will be fun. I'm fairly... I keep to myself a lot. I'm a little introverted. I think I would just rather not have to structure [my] music stuff around four or five other people. For me, the art form is more in the writing of songs than [the] playing them. But I'm definitely learning and coming to the reality that touring and stuff is a huge part of making a living as musician.

Do you do music full time?

Not currently. I actually work at Powell's [City of Books]. Yeah, when you asked if I like to read?  I work there part time. So I take home a lot of books. I read a lot.

What are your favourite books?

Oh man.

It's a tough question. C.S. Lewis said that the books you re-read show that you are a good reader. But I haven't re-read a lot of books. I'm just trying to get through the stuff that I want to get through.

I think that's the challenge. You're challenged with all these amazing books, and we have more access then ever before, Like, we see lists of all the books that you must read. And it's like, how many of these books can I get through? But the book I've read the most... A book I've read six times in the last three years...

Okay, so you're a reader. You qualify, according to Lewis.

Well, that's just because this book is so good. It's The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Conner. Such a good novel. It was her last novel. Read Wise Blood or The Violent Bear It Away. They are incredible books. But I've also recently read a George Saunders. He wrote some more short stories, a contemporary writer. Kinda a Kurt Vonnegut mixed with a... sort of a little bit more serious. They are very bizarre stories about people living in a weird United States [in which] corporations have taken over, that kind of a thing.

It's interesting that you mention short stories as a songwriter...

I think that's why I like short stories. I think a lot of songwriters approach writing songs as short stories, just even shorter. And in some ways it's like getting a story across in 4 or 5 verses. John Steinbeck was really angry at Woody Guthrie when he wrote The Ballad of Tom Joe, because he just retold the entire Grapes of Wrath in a four minute song.

I read East of Eden for the first time this year.

Oh man.

Man!

It's a beautiful book, especially if you like nature imagery, or people. I haven't read a Steinbeck book in about three years. I've got to try and pick one up again. He has a little novella called To a God Unknown, it's a really early good one. It has a lot of Christ imagery in it, which is I think why I really like it. It's about a guy who becomes really obsessed with the land.... it's an interesting book. He has an obsession with this oak tree in front of his house. It's like a hundred pages, but it was good.

My favourite book I read last year was Cry the Beloved Country.

I haven't read that. I know about it. Was it Alan Paton?

Exactly. It was the best audio book I've ever listened too. It's a very Christian book too.

Interesting. Have you ever read anything by Graham Green?

My cousin did his Master's degree in Graham Green. I tried getting into it, but I did read Endo's Silence, which is very influenced by Graham Green.

Really? Read The Power and the Glory. I couldn't put it down. I mean, it's a super Christian book too. I mean, the main character is an alcoholic priest, who's sort of on the run doing road masses to small villages, risking his life, but also an alcoholic. It's a really good picture...it raises questions on the complexity of God's grace and who we sort of feel like is fit to receive God's grace.

That's Silence too. Very similar. I highly recommend Makoto Fujimura's recent book on Silence.

They are piping in some good tunes [at this brewery]. Stacey's Mom [is playing right now]!

What are you listening to these days?

Oh man. I haven't sat down with a record in along time, to be honest. Which kinda bums me out. While driving around sometimes I've listened to a lot of the Deeper Well records, to be honest. Cory Dauber's is the last one to be put out and it's really good. He was another guy who lived next door to me, but he's one of my good friends and super talented.

 You've mentioned the music influences on some of your records and I've picked up some of the influences on this new album, like an early Dylan on some of the songs. Some of my musician friends don't actually listen to that much music, which kinda surprises me. Do you listen to music as part of that process?

I do. I collect a lot of old folk and bluegrass, old time country records. So I listen to those. I think I... it takes like a lot of convincing [for me] to get behind a more contemporary artist a lot of times. I don't know why. I'm always skeptical and I don't necessarily like that about myself. Because I think over the last year I've actually... I think I've tried to get rid of those preconceived notions. I listened to The Cactus Blossoms, they put out their first record on Red House Records. But they sound like... they're two brothers that have an amazing country harmony and sound like The Louvin Brothers or The Everly Brothers. Their songwriting also fits into the 1950s stuff, country stuff, like a little poppy. Like, not a lot of depth to the songs, but beautiful music.

I find that contemporary, whether music or books... There's so much richness to the past and what's been done in the past that I've never touched. I'm just getting into Bob Dylan's and he's now one of my favourite artists. There's so much there that I haven't touched.  So that bias you have isn't necessarily a bad thing. At least you're listening to the old stuff. It's usually the other way round!

Yeah. I think I really see more.... I think I like finding artists that feel like they are further away from sort of the music marketing mentality. It feels like older folk [music] was written out of a really genuine place. I think that's something that I find lacking in modern music.

And I mention [the] sort of the personal songs, you know, that come from a place... like almost a first person sort of thing. I see a lot more... think I like the idea of writing songs that are separate from me, you know. I think my next... I have a good batch of tunes that I'm getting ready for another record, that I think take the sort of the storytelling that's in [Highway Winds], to a little bit more... Like almost every song has a character that's it's centred [around]. [Highway Winds is] a good mixture, there are some personal songs, but it's almost half and half.

Whether that character is yourself or Eliza.

Yeah, and Country Preacher. Carry On Down the Road is like almost five little tiny stories. Big Steam Wheel is also a story one.

Where did you get those stories from?

Hey, I don't know. I'd like to think I'm influenced by revisiting sort of my home town, [revisiting] my visits to Tennessee and other places. And I think also just [the] stuff I read. And I think I like thinking about myself as a little bit of a tradition bearer. Folk music is what I listen to. Bluegrass all the time. Blues. So I really write, [or] try to write in that tradition to some level.

You also bring back stuff one hardly hears nowadays. Like the talking blues, right?

The talking blues are fun! I have a number of them. And I have this idea down the road of putting out 10 of them on a record. I almost have enough. I have the ideas, I just need to sit and write them. I think it's a song form that is underrated.

I had never really heard of it until I popped on Dylan's first Bootleg record, The Bootleg Series Vols 1-3.

Yeah, Dylan did a few good ones. World War III Blues was his one that was actually on his second record I think. But then Woodie Guthrie did a bunch of them. I'm sure he wasn't the first one to do it. I don't know who was. But Folkways, the Smithsonian label, put out a whole talking blues anthology.

Are they all very humorous?

Usually. I mean, it's talking. It sort of... the joke starts off on a humorous note. It's like, "I thought this was a song. Why are you talking?" But I think a lot of them, though, are able to talk about more social issues that, because... I think humour has a way of talking about more stuff then serious [music] would.

Well sure, Even in your talking blues song, you pick up some of those things, the tension in yourself. I mean, you're critiquing the consumerism but you are also picking up those themes in yourself and your solution of just shopping online.

Yeah. I'm sort of commenting on the craziness of corporate consuming, but also sort of... I don't know. Yeah, I like to think the character in it is not a perfect person to be critiquing it. At the same time...

That's the fun. You're critiquing Wal-Mart, but then you are ordering things online. A little bit of hypocrisy.

Yeah, yeah!

I listened to Bob Dylan's Talkin' Bear Picnic Massacre Blues and shared it with my family, with whom I never share music with. And lines from the song have become household colloquialisms.So I had to play your talking blues song for my family. And my dad burst out laughing at the Alice's Restaurant line.

I love when people get that reference. Usually old people get a good laugh, cause they know that reference.

What's great is that there is the reference joke and then there is the joke right after ("darn, they got her too"). So no matter if you know the reference or not, it's a funny line on both occasions.

Yeah, yeah.

Do you have a favourite poet?

I think I do. I really like Richard Hugo. He's a poet from Montana. I connect with a lot of his imagery.

When you talk about the hymn writing process, it's fascinating because what struck me the first time is that the words you are using to describe these things - "Adam's shadow it was casted, how it covered all the land" - are just fantastic. You're putting theology into poetry. Is there a process that you use to do that? What goes on your mind when you are taking doctrine and applying imagination to it?

I don't know, man. I'm really conscious of being overly poetic when it comes to theology,  because I don't want to say something that is misleading. I actually had one of the churches singing my one of my songs message me about it and said they had posted something [about my song] on their website, including the lyrics. So I went to their website and I think they transcribed [the song] just based on listening, so they had got some of the words wrong. And in my mind it was changing the meaning to a lot of it, [you know]?  They wanted to share the lyrics with their congregation. But then I saw that a lot of the words were not what I was singing. Little words, like articles, that seemed so insignificant but they actually changed the meaning of it.

I wish I had the email, but it was enough where I was like, "that's saying something that I don't think is biblical." I think just from listening to my recordings some of the words I sing are difficult to hear correctly. [But the church was] super appreciative. I sent an email saying, "hey, I love that you are using my song and singing it it, but I just wanted to say that these words are not correct and here's why." And they were like, "oh yeah."

But when I think when I write gospel songs, which i think are a lot harder to write than any other songs...

...Because they are taking truth and making it poetry?

Yeah, and you just run into so many cliches and so many recycled things that have been done in a lot of modern music. That I think, frankly, just lends itself to being a really lazy writer. Which happens in so [much] contemporary Christian music, is that they just settle for the easy lines, you know?

Yeah. How do you avoid that?

I think I just know about it. (Laughs.) I don't know. I write something and [I realize] that [it's] not good enough. So I don't write it. I wait until I come up with something that, to me, sounds like something that's powerful. I don't know. It's... I feel like... I feel like it's a hard place to get to, in being simple. Because I think you loose a lot when you make something more complicated than it needs to be, especially with gospel music. Yeah. I mean, it's funny because those songs I wrote... I wrote that whole album in a two month period. Like all those songs, plus a few more that I didn't record. And they just sort of came to me because... I think I was at a place spiritually where I was, um, I don't know, very in tune with what God had been doing in my life and [amongst] the people around me. I don't know. I can't really speak too much about turning the theological into [the] poetic. It's something that... I think it comes from [the fact that] I think more like a poet because I read a lot of [poetry]. Like you mentioned the Adam's shadow imagery and I think that's... I don't know. I guess I just think of Adam in the garden, like maybe... I don't know.... like, obviously shadows always existed, but I think it is this interesting idea that this darkness falls as soon as they fell in sin.

So... it sounds like you are immersed in poetry, but you are also immersed in theology and the life of the church. You're not trying to be clever.

Yeah! I think I also just have a sense of, like hymnody and the history of that, because I grew up singing [them].

Right, so that kind of the rhythm is in your head.

Yeah! And I think my reason for not writing gospel music sooner in my life was that we have all these amazing hymns, but the new stuff [that] people are writing is so much lesser, you know?

Definitely! Well, you mentioned that you are singing all these songs and you got to the point where you ran out of songs to sing, so you had to create something new.

Yeah! And that came with going down to the bridge with the homeless people. We need more songs to sing. Yeah, I mean, I'm waiting to get back to the place of writing gospel music like that again. I think it's difficult. Two years ago there was an interview in Rolling Stone with Bob Dylan when his album Tempest came out.

In 2012?

2012. Yeah, it was when my record [Of Old it Was Recorded] came out. Times fly!

Tempest is a great record.

No, it's an amazing record. But in that interview he said... I think the interviewer asked him something like "was Tempest the record you set out to make, that [you] wanted to make?" And he was like "no, I actually wanted to make a religious album." And they asked the question "like songs that are on your album Slow Train?" And he's like, "no, more songs like Just a Closer Walk with Thee." And he's like "Those are way too hard to write. It's way too hard to write 10 songs in that vein." So I'm like, I think there's some truth to that.

It's because... I think if you are a song writer, and you have a high standard of what a song is, I think it's harder to write gospel music. Because I think one of the standards of being a good songwriter is writing something that hasn't been heard before, and with gospel it's like... you know. Familiarity breads contempt.

[And it's the] same thing we deal with in our lives as Christians. We get too familiar and the gospel doesn't ring as true to us anymore. Because we've heard it. And that's when it comes down to discipline and choices and actual level of faith. Not based on a feeling or experience, but based, like, in a deep belief and discipline that "I'm going to, you know, push into this and I'm going to believe that the scriptures are true when I approach them, even though in just the past 20 days I haven't felt anything strong."

I think that's the challenge with writing gospel music. For me, [it's] like there's so much stuff that sounds too familiar. Like, I don't need to say that again. But, that's the Gospel. At the same time, it's something that doesn't return void. The same message can be proclaimed and it can change people, like the same way it changed all of us. But, yeah, so that's why I'm like... I don't know. I've tried to force myself to write gospel songs, like "I'm going to sit down and write one." And, like it doesn't always work out, but I think it... yeah.... I don't know.

And it sounds like, because your standard of doctrine and the church is so high you don't want to feed the church poor quality doctrine, because they are learning through your songs.

Yeah.

It's funny that you talk about familiarity. Because since I grew up Christian, I find it easy to remain unchallenged hen reading the Gospels. But it was your song He Loves Them So that helped. I was listening to that and was struck anew and was reminded of the childhood Jesus that I knew growing up.

Nice. That's interesting. My mentality for that song was [to make] a song for children.

Are there things that as an artist you struggle with specifically, that the church has helped you address? For my, my sense of identity and success gets caught up very quickly in my art.

I think from the very beginning of doing Door of Hope, [our lead pastor] Josh [White] - who is also an amazing songwriter, who I think is a good example in a lot of ways. And I think it was hearing his songs that like... because I wasn't writing gospel music at the time I [had] started coming to Door of Hope. And I think it was Josh at the time that like [encouraged me]. Maybe I can try my hand at this, and I had [previously] sort of thought that [it] was not a possibility.

But he's always - in his sermons I think he's always addresses artists a lot, because he knows they are such a central point of Portland, [as is] sort of the artist's mentality. [He addresses] sort of that idolatry of art that can occur, that there is more to life than trying to make it as an artist or as a musician. I think that's sort of, for me, a message that has kept me in check a lot of times. Like what are [other] priorities here? Why am I creating, why am I writing songs? It's one of those things that can easily become a motive of a gospel singer, you know?

I think it's just a motive of attention, maybe? I think that's something you run into leading worship at church. Trying not to be focused on yourself and your gifts. [In leading worship], you have a place of notoriety in the church. I don't know. It's interesting balancing being a Christian and being an artist. Because I think the church at large, the evangelical church, wants to tell us that our gifts are only valid if they are being a blatant witness to nonbelievers, you know? Which I don't think is true. I think, for me, there's more power in doing your creative work well and not mentioning Jesus at all in it. I think that the world is more looking for good art to come from the church. They are not looking for...

A message.

Yeah, because that's been done. And I as an artist, I put a clear line between... Like, when I write gospel songs I have the mentality of that these songs are more oriented [to] a Christian congregation than they are as being a tool for witness. Like church music. And I think that's why I like to differentiate my gospel music as church music rather than folk music or whatever. Like, obviously there is going to be crossover at some level. I think if you were listening intently to [Highway Winds} you would come to the conclusion that I'm somebody who believes in a higher power, if not more. But I think they are definitely spiritual songs.

It's an interesting thing [and] I think [it] was one of the reasons that it took me a while to release another record. Because all these people know me as...and I say all these people knowing [that my fan base is pretty small], like just my friends and people that have come...

...To have listened to your music.

Yeah, have come to know my gospel songs, but I like I wasn't... I could have put a non-gospel album out before my gospel album, [but] because [the gospel songs] just happened to come to me and and things lined up with Deeper Well. Eric [Earley] was like "I want to record a record for you" and I was like "sweet". So it's sort of an interesting thing. [But] it's something that I... when I started writing songs I didn't want to put like myself in a box as a quote-unquote "Christian Musician" you know? But it's funny that God gave me all of these songs and they are clearly having some sort of an impact on peoples' lives and people [are] finding value from them to be used [and] to be sung in congregational worship, and... I don't know.

I was talking to someone about how I think there is a cultural context to gospel music and folk music, you know? I think if you look at any of the folk traditions in the United States, like there is gospel music somewhere there. Whether it is blue or bluegrass, if it is country of if it is rock and roll. Like, the foundation of a lot of songs in the US are gospel centred. So I don't know.

I love the fact that you're doing both church music and this new music... Do you have a word for this new music? Would you call it secular?

Not secular. I would just say it's folk music. And in an ideal world, where some of these marketing labels wouldn't exists, it would just all be folk music.

Totally. And you go back far enough in music history and you find that being the case. You'll find folk albums that consist entirely of gospel lyrics.

Yeah. But I think we live in a time where language, in a lot of people's minds, requires labels for those things. I'm a little bit strategic in how I label my music, you know? Like "church music". I prefer that label [over] worship music. Because I think worship music isolates the act of worship in the idea of singing, when I think worship is so much more than that. Like certainly [singing is] a big part of it, in why we meet together [as] a church congregation. It's a biblical thing, too. But I think it's difficult when worship is so much based on the music that churches are producing on Sunday mornings. And I just don't think that... like you can flip on your iPad and listen to a worship song. And that is some people's way of worshiping, and I think that's a valid way of doing it. But I think there [are] way more intentional and challenging ways that I think worship plays out in lives. And I think, there [have been] some periods in my life where I've turned to gospel music to feed my soul, you know? But I think to become dependent on [the] experience you get from listening to a song [can, be damaging, I think] on your spiritual life. Because that's not always going to be there. There's more to it. So that's why I feel like church music is [the] phrase that I choose.

It encompasses the life of the church.

Yeah, and I think there [are] songs that I think are meant for the church and I sing some of these songs in bars and stuff when I play out. And I think it's cool. And I think - I hope - my folk songs get me into places that normally wouldn't play that stuff.

The brewery is playing Paul Simon right now. I really enjoyed seeing Paul Simon live this year.

How is his voice holding up?

He had a cold when he performed, but it was just fine. Interviewers kept remarking on how well it's held up over time, compared to, say, Leonard Coen. Coen just talks on his songs now.

Sort of like Dylan too.

Yeah. Although I like Dylan's older voice!

I do too.

But Paul Simon can still do the falsetto.

I like Leonard Coen too. He relies more on his backup singers

And his songwriting skills. And his character: this grizzled, distinguished man.

That's the other interesting thing with songwriting: sometimes your limitations can actually be your benefit. Like, I think of super talented vocalists. Most of the best songwriters are not the super talented vocalists. Because they had to rely on something else. They had to rely on the writing, because they couldn't get by [otherwise]

Versus vocalists who can rely on the showmanship or just the beauty of their voice.

Yeah. And I think [their] songs can get too complicated [in] the melodies, because they range [so far].

Right. And then in a worship context, it gets hard to sing.

I've been asked before, or I've been told that it seems that people sing along really easily with my songs and some people have asked me why that is. I think a lot of it is that the melodies are simple; they don't move around much.

There are examples of songwriters with both amazing vocal ranges and excellent song writing skills, like Bono.

Oh certainly!

Have you ever read Francis Schaeffer's little book Art and the Bible?

I actually have. The little tiny one? It's really cool.

In that book, he talks about the major and minor themes of Christian art. He says that for Christians creating art in the context of a biblical worldview, there should two themes that should come out. There is the minor theme, which is the fallenness of life, the pointlessness that comes from that, and even in the Christian life the defeated nature, the sinfulness. But you also have the major theme, which is that is that there is hope. God is real. Salvation has come and there's a future hope coming. And he says that to remove the minor theme would be false to life and to the gospel. And a lot of Christian art does that. And there are times when it is appropriate to be in the minor theme the whole time. But all in all, we should end up in the major theme, because that's where our hope is. But both have to be present

 I was thinking about how your first record is very major themed. There are minor themes there that come out, but it's overwhelmingly a very hope-filled, comforting album. But in Highway Winds, I get the feel that there is more minor, that even though there are hope filled bits and humour and encouragement, there's a lot of sadness and disappointment and sorrow.

I would think that you have it figured out. I think that it's interesting that Of Old It Was Recorded was such a... like you described it as a joy-filled kind of album.

The joy comes out of it and it's an album that you to give people who are depressed. And I have other friends who have done the same thing. Friends who have lost jobs and who have listened to Oh Perfect Love again and again. And another friend who had to move cities for a job and who told me that listened to I'm Going to Rest in Jesus on repeat during that process.

That's neat. Well, yeah. I mean, I think if you were to hear the majority of the songs I've written, [you'd notice that] they are more filled with sadness than they are with hope and joy.

Why is that?

I don't know. I think I've been often labeled a realist. I've been labeled a sort of pessimist as well. I don't know. I think that it's interesting that God [has] used me to write the songs on that first record, because I'm somebody who's a little bit more in tuned with the sadder side of life.

But it comes out. It's there. It's a realist's album, but a faith real.

Yeah! And I think our job as Christians is not to just say "Jesus loves you and everything is going to be all right, you'll be happy and go to the carnival."

...That we are hosting for VBS. Come on down.

Yeah, yeah! It's much deeper than that. I guess that's the minor key. It's just as much of a gospel act to present a fallen world to people and what that looks like then it is to present heaven or whatever. I think in the gospel there are the two sides of the coin. There's heaven and there's earth.

And there's hell.

Yeah. I guess it would be three sides to the coin. It's not a coin actually. It's some sort of other thing. It's a Trinitarian coin.

I don't know. I mean, I know a lot of reasons why there are sad songs on [the new record]. Things I went though personally while writing some of that stuff. Right when I put out that first record - like literally right after it, I think the release show was postponed because of it - I had two collapsed lungs. One, and then two months later a second time, so it was like two 10 day stints in the hospital. Where I was like "I don't know what's going on with me", and I had to have lung surgery. And I was in the middle of that, and I felt like... the overwhelmingness of life and the struggle and trying to make sense of things. I think [that] comes out on the record, and I really turned to music and songwriting as something to get me through that. And it wasn't gospel songwriting, but trying to tell stories about fictional characters that I had made up or that were probably more a picture of me than I might even know. So I don't know. That played a big aspect on that record.

In the essay you talked about how even the gospel songs were written for personal reflecting and understanding and confirmation of God's grace. So this is the like flip side. You're processing whatever's going on in your life, whether that's spiritual or earthly.

Yeah, yeah. I think songwriting is ultimately a personal act. I wouldn't know how to write a song with somebody else. I guess I've never really tried to much. It [would] be an interesting thing. I can't even write a song if anybody [else] is in the house, if I know anybody is. Like my best, ideal time to write a song is when I know I'm going to be alone for 4 hours in my house.

And you have to have three candles lit.

Haha. Right now if I had candles in my room there's so much paper I'd probably burn everything down.

Songwriting is loud. It's not like writing a short story or something. You got to be able to sing. I don't like people being all up in my process. I like to keep that to myself a lot. Like, I'll talk about it later. I think if I were to actually lay out, you know, [the] minute by minute of my songwriting process, most of it would be embarrassing to me, you know? [It includes] a lot of stuff that seems, to me, really strange.

Like what?

Like singing the most inaudible things. Or singing whatever word, the same word that has come to my mind, which is usually, like, I don't know, like something I wouldn't think would just be on my mind, you know? Like the same couple of words or whatever. Maybe as I'm trying to get a melody or something going. It's sort of like an awkward old car, that won't start almost.

Because a lot of the songs on the new album have this kind of... It's almost like you're looking back on mistakes, regrets, disappointments and you're reckoning with them and you're sad about them, but there's also a hope. You're dealing with them. But it's encouraging to listen to that. Because I'm 23 now and all of a sudden I realize that life is full of regrets. So how do I process that? Hearing some of your songs and how you process that, makes me realize that it's okay to be sad about the waste of time, but it's also... You can't linger over it, but yet you can write a song about it, so it's okay to have to process it.

Yeah. I don't know. I think my songs are not... I think a lot of them are about somebody that's not me, but somebody that's dealing with some things that I've gone through on some level, you know?

So it's less personal?

I think so. In some ways. But it's also me trying to find the universal theme in humanity. I think that's something I've always been good at. Giving people the benefit of the doubt and trying to meet them where they are at. And realizing that the stuff I'm going through other people have gone through, or [that] other people have gone through worse. So I think for me it's like writing a song or like coming up with a story of some kind is about... I think analyzing my own situation in life but also taking into account that there [are] a lot of different people out there you know?

How do you do that? It's easy to recognize yourself or it's easy to look at others. But that's interesting that you are keeping both in mind.

Yeah I don't know. It's something I see after the fact a lot of times. Like, in the process of writing I'm like... I don't know where that came from, you know? I write a lot of my songs based on coming up with the title first. I don't know if that's something a lot of others people do. You'll notice that of the tiles in my record, almost all of the titles are in the songs. Usually [as] the refrain or they're in some part of the song that's significant.

I think that is more of a folk music thing in a lot of ways. I think a lot of modern music is trying to find a title that isn't even related to [the song]. I talk to a lot of people that don't like titling their stuff anything in the song, that [it is] almost like one of those weird 80's action movie cliches where at some point in the movie the hero has to say the tile. Some people view it like that! But to me, once I know that there's a title to the song I know the song is going to be worth something, almost. Like this title sort of wraps up what the song is going to be, in some way.

I was looking at the first song, which is very much dealing with depression or even suicide.

Big Steam Wheel. Yeah.

Then there's a contrast with the next one, Carry On Down the Road. Are they hinged?

That was a little bit deliberate, the way I placed those.

But they both complement each other quite well.

Well, Big Steam Wheel is supposed to be the perspective of a ship captain who's sort of spent his days going up and down the Mississippi and [is sort of not really feeling like there is anywhere] else for him to be, like he has given a shot at not working or working somewhere else. But it's him sort of contemplating that he's worked so many years [and] what has he gotten out of it, what is his life like, you know? And I think that's something that so many... I mean anybody who's spent time working encounters that, you know? Especially if they are working for someone else's gain, for whatever reason. It's a very Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastical - is that a word? My housemate Lacki call is it an Ecclesiastes song.

The Teacher's Song.

I think that it comes down to me as a believer, how I'm not afraid to try to encounter the fallenness of the world. Scripture has things like Ecclesiastes, things like Lamentations, things like Job. Where it's dealing with the real intense things and that's like... If the scriptures are not all just hopeful, happy, Jesus-is-going-to-give-you-a-hug kind of thing and there's that side of it, why are we as artists and creatives... Why are we supposed to only be presenting sentimental and happy things, you know?

It's interesting how listening to this gives me permission to process my own feelings and experiences that align with the songs. Why am I carrying on? Why do I? What's the Devil saying to me to stop me from doing that? Well, all of a sudden now that these feelings have been spoken about in a song, especially coming from someone who has also written such profound hymns, I can see that somebody else is dealing with this. That this is part of life. And that these experiences have influenced your church music. Because I then listen to the hymns and go - oh, okay - these truths are not just philosophy, they are lived out of the "real life music." The two go together.

Yeah! Yeah. Yeah, that's interesting. I appreciate that statement because it took me a while too come to a point to think that the next record I put out was going to be this and not another gospel record, And I think [what you said is] what ultimately made me realize that these songs are just as important as the other songs. I [had] thought that, but...

My experience with believers is, I think, [that] there is a line drawn [between] Christian music and non Christian music. But I felt like if there were people into my music [who] were listening and [who] were maybe songwriters themselves or artists themselves and [if] were to hear my fist record and my second record and were to come to a conclusion like you said... I'm almost like, if I feel like it's okay to write not to just gospel songs but songs that are portraying more of a fallen world, if that inspires other people to do that too, that's awesome. Maybe I should put this stuff out because I think that line needs to be taken away.

That's my opinion and I think people who are writing Christian music need to write it for the church. I don't think they need to be writing it for radio or for whatever. I think church music has historically been funded by the church to be used in the church, you know? And I think that's something cool that Deeper Well is doing in a sense, We're doing it in a modern way.

Amongst a modern system.

I think Deeper Well is able to sort of take down the motivation to make money off of music. Josh Garrels too. It's an interesting thing, that if there's going to be a music that has to be free, I feel that it is gospel music.

Like Humble Beast's philosophy.

Yeah, and I'm obviously for artists making a living. I'm trying to do that myself. But I think, for me I wouldn't have made a gospel record if I was going to sell it. When I found out it was just to be a non-profit thing, it [became] an opportunity for me to be using gifts for the church.

Obviously, I love the idea of Christians creating art. And even understanding why unbelievers can create art of value, being made in the image of God. But when you put out a Gospel record, it's easy to justify it because you are showing Christ. But when you put out a more subtle, less explicit album that shows the gospel in more subtle, worldview rooted ways... Is that kind of music a witness? How do you just trust that to do its thing?

Hmm. Yeah. I don't approach a song as... maybe I should be doing this. I don't approach it as a chance to evangelize. I feel that soon as that enters my mind the song won't be any good.

Yeah, that Schaeffer quote about how "a Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God."

Yeah. I don't know. Let me think about that. I don't know.

Well, here's another question. I know that when a church like Capital Hill introduces a new song, the leadership critiques the song, ensuring that it speaks truth and is suited for the church. And if I were to write a song for my church, I would bring that song to my pastors and ask if it were true.

Yeah, is this teaching true?

Right. The song is going to have a lasting effect on those who sing it. So is this good teaching? Does this line up? Now, when you are writing folk songs, you are still teaching, you are showing forth your doctrine. But, I feel like as a church disciple, being discipled by a church in my art, I don't necessarily bring it to the church. If you were a bricklayer, you wouldn't going to ask the church for advice on the quality of your bricklaying. But once you are teaching...

There's more risk involved [in my music], I guess, of leading people in wrong direction.

Yeah! And songs are more powerful than stories, even. Stories are sneaky, music is sneaky, it gets into your head.

Yeah. I think there are songs [that] I've written that I've choose not to sing because of those reasons. I don't know if this [song] is benefiting anybody. [It's] just dwelling on pure sadness, like, presenting a character that has no redeeming quality. The thing is, I don't write too many of those songs because I believe in redemption. I think redemption always usually comes through, even if it's like a song about... whatever,  somebody who has committed some crime that they shouldn't be redeemed from. I think the gospel offers that redemption.

Yeah, I think, with the gospel music that's presenting itself as gospel music for the church, that's the one that has a standard. You have some standard you have to live up to. And I think there's certainly Christian music that is passing as Christian music that is doing more to lead people astray than [certain] secular music [is]. Whether it's almost a prosperity brand of the gospel or whether it's giving a false representation of...

...of trials?

Yeah, you know? I think half truths are dangerous. And I think there's a lot of Christian music that's doing that. I don't know. Not to mention just what they are doing as far as culturally for the church. Like, as far as digging us [into] a deeper hole, into a lack of inspiration, showing the world that we just aren't creative people. We're supposed to be image bearers. But I don't know.

I really want to talk about your song Eliza (Saint of Flower Mountain).

That's the oldest song that's on there, actually.

Really! I think it's the best song on the record.

Thanks, man. It's also the most spiritual song out of them all.

You think through it and you realize that it is. But it's also one of the more physical songs. It talks about her eyes and her hair. And it's a very sad song.

It is sad. A lot of people tell me they cry on that one. It's good that it comes across on the recording. That was one of the hardest songs to record on the [album]. It's the one I'm the most conscious of. It's a song that had been around for so long and so many people had requested it when I play. And I think there's something special about that song. And that I think it, it presents sort of the cost... the Bonhoeffer book, The Cost of Discipleship.

Where did you get the story from?

It's funny. I think this is good picture of where you can get inspiration from for a song. I was just hunting around on the internet, reading old accounts of missionaries.

You couldn't find enough good stories at Powell's? Had to go on the internet?

Haha. Yeah, I mean...  I can't remember if I came up with the chorus and I thought "this is a good chorus I need something to go with this." I can't remember the order of how things came, but I basically found some missionary... I don't know.... I can't find it again. It's like one of those things when you are 20 links in off of a Google search and you're like "I don't know where I am." And I was reading about an account of a missionary who was killed. I think it was [around the] turn of the century, like 1900s, in a place in China called Flower Mountain. Which is was where the flower mountain [title] came from. And I was like that's an amazing name for a mountain and an interesting place for someone to be martyred, I guess.

It inspires a lot of different thoughts.

Yeah. I sort of just, I don't think.... I had also just sort of had a relationship that ended based on somebody choosing to sort of go elsewhere for mission work, [at] some point in my life and so that...it's an interesting...

It's interesting then that you choose to tell it from her perspective rather than his perspective

Yeah. I don't know. I think... I don't remember the process of writing it. But it was actually, the main thing that started the song was the guitar picking.

The melody of it?

Well, I finger picked a melody and it sort of just fit. I think also the rhyming of the name with the rest of the stuff in the chorus. I guess "Eliza" rhymed well with "eyes." "Eliza had eyes like..." It kinda sounding like it was repeating the same thing. And that sort of set me on a melody that sounded nice. But that kinda goes back to where words have a lot of melody in them. And especially when it comes to rhyming...

It's one of those songs where the words and music pierce the heart together. It reminds me very much of He Loves Me So, with that minor chord that pierces you each time you hear it. But you say that it's the melody of the words that brings that out?

I guess. I think I was just coming to a point where I was getting more confident in my picking on the guitar, so I was writing more songs based on that. I could pick melodies out. So that allowed me to write a little bit more based on melodies [rather] than off lyrics. There's also only two minor songs on that whole record, the first song and that one. I don't tend to write a lot of minor keys songs. I tend to stick to a major key; you know, the three-chord-country type folk songs. Because I think the minor key can be overused, for me. I think it's...I think my songs already tend to be on the sad side of things, [so if i make the music that way] I tend to, it tends to be too much.

I also find it's easy to be lazy with minor songs, because they are so beautiful already.

Yeah, yeah. I don't think there's a single minor song on [Of Old It Was Recorded], expect for To Christ The Ransom Sinners Run. Yeah. I don't write too much in the minor. I tend to... the first instrument I picked up actually was the banjo and I played more kind of claw hammer, which lends itself to more minor stuff. So I really like that stuff.

When was that? When did you start making music?

I started when I was... let's see... I think I was 20. I didn't pick up an instrument to write on until I was 20. I played trumpet in middle school. That was it.

Why did you pick it up the banjo?

I don't know. I think I was bored living in a small town. My younger sister was playing guitar at the time and I was like "if my sister can do it, I can do it." Since she was playing the guitar, I wanted to pick up something different. I took a couple lessons on banjo with the most rednecked guy I think I've ever met. He taught me a couple of lessons in Longview, Washington, and he had chickens running in and out of his house while we were playing. And it smelled terrible and he had a plethora of crude banjo jokes about, like playing banjo while being on the toilet. The  classic like, "this is why the banjo [has a reputation for] being such a rednecked instrument." And he was teaching me stuff I already knew on my own. And I think that made me reconsider the guitar. And I also just realized that the guitar was a way better songwriting instrument. I think the six strings just lends itself to strumming more.

I sing Eliza while at work. It haunts you.

People tell me that one has a tendency of getting stuck in their head. A friend of mine, they just had a kid named Elijah. They tell me that they reworded it to Elijah [and they sing it to him] as a bedtime lullaby.

At this point, the brewery was closing for the night. Wesley invited me over to his home, a couple houses down. We spent another hour with his housemate Laki, discussing Laki's creative projects and the creative community in Portland.

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Healing Wings on 'Highway Winds': An Interview with Wesley Randolph Eader

I first discovered Wesley's music when I visited Door of Hope, a church in Portland. A young man with long blonde hair was leading worship and we sang the song "Oh Perfect Love Come Near to Me".  The song described what was going in in my spiritual life with poetry that felt torn out of some long lost hymnal. I had never heard it before and wondered if someone at the church wrote the song.

That night I discovered the music of Wesley Randolph Eader, writer of the most extraordinary hymns of our modern time. I introduced his songs to my family, my friends, and then my church. A year later, I sat down with Wesley for an in depth interview on his work, his church life, and his latest album of world weary storytelling. 

And now I can share the result of that interview with you. My profile on Wesley has been published by Mockingbird. I'm proud of this piece, thrilled to have it published, and excited for you to read it.

If you like what you read and want more of Wesley, I've published an edited transcript of my full interview here. 

 

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Talking Paul Simon's Rewrite

If you were to ask me to pick one single song as my favourite, I would choose Paul Simon's 'Rewrite', off his 2011 album 'So Beautiful or So What'. I deeply admire how it deftly packs so many layers of music into 3 minutes and 50 seconds. The way the music matches and interprets the lyrics is astounding. And the song came into my life at a moment when I deeply needed it. It sums up my attitude towards life. 

I’ve long wanted to write about the track and parse out its meanings. Maybe I still will. But when my friends Matthew Linder and Zachary Dear invited me as a guest on their podcast Musicale Imperatives and asked which song I wanted to talk about, I knew the answer immediately. Each episode of Musicale Imperatives takes a song, pairs it to a beer, and analysis the song’s music and lyrics. It was the perfect fit.

The finished episode is a long, leisurely look at this song I so deeply admire. We discuss the music, the lyrics, and the stories of why the song speaks to us. Matthew has expertly edited the audio to include clips from the song and Paul Simon’s discography. I hope you enjoy listening and come to appreciate this song as much as I do. And I hope I get invited on more podcasts!

Learn more about Musicale Imperatives and this episode here, listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts through the button below, or stream it here. You can also get a taste for this episode by watching this short clip Matthew put together. 

 
 

Want to hear more of @djmelvill? Subscribe link in bio. #paulsimon @deschutesbeer

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2016: A Year Amongst Music

I've been wanting to put a list together like this for years. But every time I tried to assemble it, it would largely consist of older albums I had only discovered that year.

Not so this year.

People keep celebrating how remarkable a year 2016 was for music. But it really sank in when I went to write down every influential album I listened to this year. On one half of the notebook's pages I wrote down all of the 2016 titles. On the other I recorded the older titles. I ran out of room on the 2016 page.

So here then are the 2016 albums, followed by a list of my favourite older discoveries.

1. Paul Simon's Stranger to Stranger

This album gets top mention for three reasons. First, he has promised to take a hiatus from music, very possibly making Stranger to Stranger the 75-year-old's last album. Taken as a whole it is also one of the best of his late-career albums (although I prefer some of the songs of 2013 'So Beautiful or So What'). The production combines Simon's folk and world influence with exceptionally mixed electronic music, embracing the new while continuing the craft of the old. The fact that it's been woefully missing from the best of year lists also prompts its high rank on my list.

Second, this album seems to sum up 2016. "Ignorance and arrogance, the national debate." The music's weary cynicism, schizophrenia, and loneliness speak to the heart of what it meant to be woke in 2016.

Finally, Paul Simon is my favourite artist and in 2016 I got to witness him perform songs of this album live. How could this not become my album of the year?

 

2. Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book

In the face of what so many have called truly tough year, this album of full-hearted joy has taken the world by storm. So much of this album shouldn't have been; its streaming only, free download status, its label-free release, its unabashed Christianity, and its generous joy. It blissfully breaks down barriers between secular music and Christian, gospel and hip-hop. It taught me to love R&B. It embraces the complexities of the  world and giggles back a song of mirth and praise.

 

3. Bon Iver's 22, A Million

At first, we weren't sure if Justin Vernon would ever return to the Bon Iver moniker. Yet we were sure that whatever work the man would drop next would be well worth exploring. But nobody counted on something so entirely different and yet so entirely good. Every track on this 33 minute, electronically charged, broken down with expert craft album feels like a prayer. As a whole, it's a minuet and affecting masterpiece.

 

4. A Tribe Called Quest's We've Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service

First, Phife Dog passes away and there's an outpouring of grief. Then, Quitip announces the final Tribe album just weeks before its realise and we collectively hold our breaths hoping that it is a fitting send off to these legends. And then, during the week of the election and hours after Leonard Coen's death is announced, the album drops and everyone hails it as excellent. There is so much to enjoy here. The beats are fire. The verses are funny, enjoyable, thought-provoking and fun. The messages are some of the most challenging that Tribe have ever worked on. To be honest, I've only really made my way through the first half of the album. Every time I try to listen through the whole thing, I get distracted by the excellence of the first half of the album and have to go back and re-listen to it from the beginning.

 

5. Frank Ocean's Blonde

2016 convinced me to enjoy R&B. Colouring Book announced that it was worth listening to. Marvin Gaye persuaded me it could became art. And then this album showed me how damn convincing it could be. The music is a roller coaster of pace, tempo, and reach. But above all, this album is emotionally hooking. I have no idea what he is singing about, but I know it is disparately important.

 

6. Leonard Coen's You Want It Darker

This final album of the man whom Bob Dylan called "the number one song writer of all time" is tragic, tender, and haunted by life, death, and God. It was a beautiful album before he passed away just weeks after its release. After his death its mournful, bittersweet quality, so perfect for late night ruminating, perfectly encapsulated the late evening of a full, yet broken life.

 

7. Carl Bromel's 4th of July

I'm so glad I discovered this gem of a record. Epic landscape songs like the 10 minute long title track are paired with self-contained songs like Rockingchair Dancer, a delictly told story of how the narrator's assperations changed as he has matured. The music's beat and riff is the perfect complement to the well crafted visuals of the lyrics. This album sustained many late night walks home from work. It rewards repeated listening and I'm happy to recommend it to everyone.

 

8. Micah Bournes No Ugly Babies

I met celebrated spoken word poet Micah Bournes while in Portland this summer, when he told me about how, despite never singing or playing an instrument, he was hard at work on his first blues album. The songs he was writing could only be told in this medium, and what songs! They are tunes you dance to on your way to work or karaoke to in the shower. They get under your skin with their stories of confidence in the face of despair, commitment in the face of easy love, and joy and hope in the face of pain.

 

9. Wesley Randolph Eader's Highway Winds

Wesley's world-weary, dust and tear-streaked record of heartache, failure, and disappointment is somehow ballasted by a hope and comfort that sustains despite all odds to the contrary. The production is equally timeless, feeling like some dusty vinyl pulled out of a shelf of old bluegrass records.

 

10. Christmas Albums: Chance the Rapper's Merry Christmas 'Lil Mama and Josh Garrel's The Light Came Down

This year gave us two very different but both excellent Christmas albums that I'll be pulling out annually for years to come. Chance the Rapper decided he was not content with being named artist of year by every other year-end list and gave us all a pre-Christmas gift of this jewel like EP. Like his more-famous 2016 release, it effortlessly combines the sacred and the secular and is bursting with joy. There is a sadness and tragedy underneath it all too.

And Josh Garrels' lush Christmas complication deserves mention for its dark, comforting, intricate mixture of original tunes, classics, and covers.

 

11. Other Hip-hop: Kendrick Lamar's untitled unmastered and Sho Bararka's The Narrative

Both of these albums are flawed - Kendrick's, as its name suggests, is messy and unfinished and Sho's is overly declarative in our age of hip-hop storytelling. But both are essential. I turn to the angst and desperation of untitled unmastered to express what I often choose to hide. And I turn Sho's The Narrative to understand the experience of the black Christian in 2016: their despair, injustice, style, commitment, and ultimately their hope.

 

Honourable Mentions:

Jordan Klassen's moody and polished Javlin, Shearwater's driving Jet Plane and Oxbow, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zero's south drenched PersonaA, Baaba Maal's exotic and emotionally hooking The Traveler, Radiohead's urgently contemporary A Moon Shaped Pool, Sturgill Simpson's richly textured A Sailor's Guide to Earth, Slow Dakota's tragic and lovely The Ascension of Slow Dakota, and Wilder Adkin's affecting Hope and Sorrow.

 

Non-2016 releases:

The album I'll probably be listening to the most years from now is Liz Vice's timeless There's a Light. I loved the wilderness-haunted pop of Lord Huron's Stranger Trails. I was finally ready to enjoy the excellent merging of hip-hop and R&B that John Givez provides on Soul Rebel. I was seduced by Van Morrison's bewitching albums like Moondance and Astral Weeks. I continued my endless trip down the Bob Dylan highway with only the beginning his Bootleg series and recent Modern Times. And I became obsessed over this little thing called Hamilton.

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Album Review: Liz Vice's There's A Light

I met Liz before I had ever heard of her music. I was at a concert hall in Portland at 7:30 am on a Sunday morning to observe a local church music team practice when this tall, African-American woman walked in. She was as sleepy eyed as I was, but exuded a passionate warmth as she eagerly told me about the music tour she had just completed. It was full of disasters; her drummer's grandmother died so he had to be flown home mid-tour, her bass player used every excuse to smoke weed and party, and Liz broke a toe climbing the stairs at a slightly decrepit venue. "Were these Chrsitian venues that booked you?" I asked. "Not at all" she replied. "They just invited me to sing my songs and my songs are about Jesus."

Over that week, I had many chances to interact with Liz. She told me stories of her health traumas and their corresponding miracles, her successful television production career that she was quite happy with, and how her music kept persisting in opening doors for her until a full-time career seemed inevitable. And as I met other local creatives, her voice kept appearing on their projects; in an animated children's music video on entomology, at my favorite hip-hop artist's concert, as a background vocalist for a yet-to-be released blues album.

It was only on my train ride back to Canada that I put on her album, There's A Light, for the first time. I barely listened to anything else for the rest of the month. This is a record that feels classic, like something you would expect to find flipping through the gospel racks of dusty vinyl shop. The music is simple - never too complex, yet full of unexpected flourishes that surprise and hook you in for another listen. The band and production is tight, providing the perfect background to Liz's powerful voice, which effortlessly walks the tightrope of both gentle and expressive. The lyrics have a hymn like quality, expressing robust truths about God and His salvation. But like the most well loved hymns, they convey not merely abstract ideas, but the marks of a life wrestled amongst their implications.

Don't sleep on this record. It's equally at home amongst the wooden pews of a church as it is on the stage of blues bar. I'll be playing it for years to come.

 

Album: There's A Light

Artist: Liz Vice

Year of Release: 2015

Genre: Soul/ Gospel

Stand Out Track: All Must Be Well

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Snaps for Props

Last night I attended both my first spoken word concert and my first hip-hop show. Propaganda performed one set from each category at an event supporting Calgary's own Legacy One outreach program. Although I've been a fan of Propaganda for some time, seeing him live and hearing him perform poetry left quite the impression. Let's see if I can capture in words the flavour of the evening. Here is a tribute to that night. 

His is a poetry not divorced from thought or feeling. It is joyous, words not only enflamed from the brain but rattling in the bones, alive to life’s pain yet aware that man is not alone. He won’t let you off the hook, nor himself either. Eyes wide open, will you join him? “Oh,” he tell us, “we got problems with race, don’t deny it or be amazed. Our education system’s a mess, stop acting so impressed. But our deepest issue is found right here in my tissue. My heart and my mind are defaced, yet I’m gonna speak of grace. I’m aware of it, through our King who is incarnate. See, I’m redeemed but far from perfect. I can’t change the world but I can touch it. I’m alive to His beauty ‘cause I’m confident in His sovereignty.” Having heard him, our minds are enlarged, our hearts are renewed. We return to our homes exhausted, refreshed, reminded that this messy, complicated life can be redeemed, for our God is our banner.

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Desert Island Artists

There is nothing like sinking your teeth into an excellent musician’s back catalogue. The journey of discovery usually begins by falling in love with a single album, spending hours unpacking its lyrics, examining its riffs, and enjoying its virtuosity. Just that one album can be a priceless gift gift, but when you discover that they’ve released other music just as worthy, that journey is like a slow burn of Christmas mornings. An artist with such riches is one I would happily explore forever, an artist that would satisfy for a lifetime, even if the rest of your music library is removed. A desert island artist. I love lists so here are my top five such desert island artists.

PaulSimon

Paul Simon

One day some colleagues and I got into a major disagreement over who had produced better music, Simon and Garfunkel or Paul Simon. I proposed, and was ridiculed for my opinion, that Paul Simon’s music has a depth that surpasses the youthful melodies of the famous folk duo. You could give me just his two world albums, Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints and I would have enough complexity of beat and elegance of lyrics to keep me happy for months. But even his recent 2011 album has tracks like ‘Rewrite’, which is my definition of a perfect song. Unlike his earlier efforts, Paul Simon’s best music is a certain intrinsic selflessness, which is why Sammy Rhodes described Graceland as “so full of joy it practically dares you to be sad.”

Start with: Graceland

Sufjan

Sufjan Stevens

One of the great things about Sufjan Stevens is the diversity of his music. Watching it progress over his career is quite a journey. His early lo-fi folk, with its almost medieval flare thanks to the horns and flutes, gave way to an orchestration, complete with choral rounds and chants. Then there is his electronic phases filled delightful, if sometimes obnoxious beats and patches. His recent offerings combine gentle electronic with a light folk that has me eager to see where it will evolve next. But it’s his lyrics that haunt and comfort me. A friend of mine describes one song, Impossible Soul, as the best song to listen to when your depressed. It meets you in your sorrow, cheers you up, and then reminds us that our depression is probably rooted in our own selfishness. And I supposes such is true of his entire discography.

Start with: Come on Feel the Illinois, or Songs of Christmas (depending on the time of year).

Josh

Josh Garrels

Josh Garrels is a songcrafter. He’s honed his arsenal of tools and what are a rare mixture they are. He is just as comfortable using organic samples and beats as he is with sparse guitar picking. His voice is equally at home dispatching hip-hop flow as he is soul-stabbing falsetto. This package is wrapped into a lush soundscape that tells stories of heartache and home, the dangers of the wilderness and the contentment of redemption. His are songs I can nestle into and live my life amongst.

Start with: Love & War & The Sea In Between

HumbleBeast

Humble Beast

True, technically a hip-hop label. But the group’s four artists, united by the label’s lush, acoustic driven production, sit on equal footing in their talents and upon my musical shelf of honour. I turn to Beautiful Eulogy when my soul is dry and my heart is broken, and they restore me in the hope of the Gospel, my cheeks often getting wet in the process. Propaganda is a modern day prophet, preaching into his culture while restoring hope in his community of Los Angeles. Jackie Hill Perry intricate wordplay produces a cracked mosaic drawing us to seek joy in the Lord. And JGivens’s depth of lyrics and intricate soundscapes tell a multi-layered story as complex and as simple as life itself. To say that their music has impacted my life is an understatement.

Start with: Fly Exam or Crimson Cord

Open Slot

I know, I know, this is cheating, but honestly, choosing this artist would depend on what I’m most feeling on the day of my island banishment. Would it be U2 (with lots to explore, not to mention two of the best albums ever recorded, The Joshua Tree and Achtung, Baby)? Might I choose Elbow, whose maundering chords and rifts I can sink my teeth into? Or would it be a perineal favourite, Jars of Clay? Right now I would probably opt for Bob Dylan. His talents remain undiminished, his back catalogue offers so much to explore, his broken voice satisfies in ways normal polish just can’t, and his musicianship and storytelling can fill a lifetime

Start with: U2's The Joshua Tree, Elbow's The Takeoff and Landing of Everything, Jars of Clay's The Long Fall Back to Earth, and Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy.

So there they are, my five(ish) desert island artists. Who would you choose? Please share - maybe your suggestions will result in the rest in a new journey of discovery for the rest of us.

Travels 2015: Cello from Portland

Travels 2015 is a series of updates I originally posted on Facebook while on vacation. What started as a quick update and a couple photos transformed into a series of mini-essays that I would have posted on this website had it been up and running at the time. This one was written on August 12th, 2015.

The first photo isn't the best from my day with Humble Beast, but it captures my experience well. Here I am observing, mostly from a distance, the joy and grind of intense creative collaboration (in the picture are Odd Thomas and JGivens, discussing the excitement of their plans for an upcoming music video release) while awkwardly surrounded and feeling slightly in the way (as represented by the basketball game going on in front and around me).

What can I say? I so admire the work that Humble Beast is doing from a creative and ministry standpoint, but then on a personal level their music has meant so much to me. It truly has been used by God! (I’m tearing up as I write these recalling stories of how God has used them.) They are heroes, and performers, and public figures.

And then today found me running on a quarter tank with energy, after yesterday’s excitement and its resulting very poor night's sleep. So I felt like I wasn't on my best, that I missed opportunities - to take photos, to ask questions, to learn more, and get more involved.

But still. These guys were very generous with their time, privacy, space, and resources. They grind so hard! Such intensity! It's incredible, actually. They take this so seriously, with such craft, and with the weight of the gospel and its implications evident in their attitudes and the use of their time. It was such a joy to be there and see it all. And several of the team members really took the time to share with me and become my friends. Even the rest of the crew, despite in their busyness, were hospitable and offered wisdom and advice when they could. I'm so grateful and sincerely hope I can do more with them in the years ahead.

And hopefully I can share more of this experience soon.

Travels 2015: Notes from the Hornby Island Festival

Travels 2015 is a series of updates I originally posted on Facebook while on vacation. What started as a quick update and a couple photos transformed into a series of mini-essays that I would have posted on this website had it been up and running at the time. This one was written on August 4th, 2015.

 

Hornby is home to a thriving and varied community of artists, and one manifestation of this influence is the annual Hornby Island Festival. Despite the small size of the island and the family feel to the festival, the event has become a bit of a legend in the world, classical, and folk music scenes, having featured world-renowned artists. I'll never forget Colin Carr's two night performance of the complete Bach's cello suites several years ago.

This year all of the performances I attended were at The Farm, which is first seen at the bottom of winding road that begins high above on a steep escarpment. One then follow’s the road down, onto a gravel driveway decked with colourful flags. The farm's fields roll towards the ocean and are scattered with ancient oak, arbutus, and chestnut trees. The evening sun illuminates two giant maple trees, reminiscent of Bilbo's "party tree", under which the stage and seating are set up and from which giant spotlights are hung.

Only my parents and I attended the first event, a symphony orchestra. My grandfather bought the tickets but made the uncharacteristic decision not to come. "I refuse to attend outdoor symphony events. The symphony belongs indoors" he declared. That was a mistake, for he would have become best friends with the little spirited Irish conductor, who has taught and performed around the world and received a medal of honour from the Queen. (Both he and my grandpapa remind me of Bilbo Baggins in their age, stature, charm, and significance.)

After several satisfactory Mozart and Hyden pieces, the evening proceeded with a performance of Vaughan Williams 'The Lark Ascending’. It is a performance I will never forget. I was introduced to the piece through a David Crowder album, but until now have never heard it live. The sun was setting, the moon was rising, and the soloist, a lovely 20 year old fiddle protégé named Ceilidh Briscoe, stepped onto the stage.

To try describe the music that followed would be futile. Instead I'll just quote the poem that accompanies the music. Imagine music that supersedes these words in grace, poignancy, and tenderness.

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.
Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

My dad is not one given to displays of emotion, but the moment she finished playing he leapt to his feat, applauding, something I've never seen him do before. Both Mum and I joined him on our feet immediately after, followed by the rest of the audience. Dad told Ceilidh later that it had been a long, long time since he's heard that piece performed with such justice. (The composer, it turns out, was good friends with my dad's grandmother and composed a piece for her family to perform in Trinity College, Cambridge.)

The black and white photos are from last night's family fiddle dance. It featured one of the best fiddlers in the world, Pierre Schryer, joined by a first class Irish uilleann pipe player. It was such a treat watching the two of them perform together, effortlessly passing their ideas back and forth with joy and humour. Then the chairs were cleared away, the evening light was replaced with the light of the lamps that hung in the trees, and all the families, couples, strangers, and friends joined together for several hours of called English dances. Such rare fun. It brought everyone together. Imagine your dancing partner being, in turn, your sister, your mum, your auntie (who's teaching you the moves as you dance), a lady who could well be your grandmother (whom my mum dragged in from off the sidelines to join our family), and finally a little twelve year old girl who's shyness blossomed into a big smile as I give her a surprise twirl as we dance our waltz under the trees.

Bach and the Joy of Work

I am already out of town by the time I realize what music my sister is playing as she drives me. James Ehnes is performing the final movement of Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C for Solo Violin and the notes come fast.  They tumble and tangle, cascading into breathless arpeggios. Rolling and echoing, distinct and quick, they are like the details of a complex mosaic. I could stare at the details, marvel only at their perfection, and miss the greater masterpiece that they bear witness to. And what a masterpiece! Listening to the intricate arpeggios is like ridding a strong and sensitive stallion up a mountain, or directing a sailboat into crest after crest of wave, water, and wind. This music should peak, I think. There is no way it could reach a pinnacle higher than the one it just reached. But then it does and I am overcome with joy.

I’m simply listening and yet I’m experiencing such pleasure. I am not playing this music, mastering it, coaxing it off the written page and into reality. Nor am I Bach writing this music, taking simple chords, scales, and turning them into something new.

And yet a trace of joy that is chipped from the same vein is witnessed when I am doing my work well. When I am using my skills, my knowledge, my personality, and my abilities to help someone, it is like every string in my instrument is tuned to the perfect pitch, making music. What satisfaction and what pleasure! I experience it too in hobbies; the rare occasions that my film review clicks into place and explains a truth, or when the composition and lighting of my photograph have gathered together to convey a visual idea.

When I do this I worship; I glorify God to the best of my abilities, using his gifts to their fullness in order to accomplish what he has set before me. As Dorothy Sayers wrote, “Work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties… the medium in which he offers himself to God.” Or in the more blunt terms of Eric Liddle: “'God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

But how rare are these moments! So often I come close to that satisfaction, yet miss it, brushing past its greatness instead of meeting it head on. Something gets in the way. Often it is my own inadequacies and my self-centredness. Sometimes it is someone else’s failures. Maybe I get bored, tired or lazy. Oh the frustration of corruptly bearing God’s image amongst his tainted world!

Now think; if work is worship, what than should we expect from our worship in Heaven?  What would be possible without the limits of our own finitude, our own and others sinfulness, and the fallenness of our earth? With God Himself before us and in our midst, think of the masterpieces I will photograph, the endless beauty and complexity of the films we will create (and review), the redeemed people we will call our colleagues, and the music that Bach and his friends will compose and perform. All for the pleasure of our King!

For this King is making all things new. And I am called to join him. Until that day when my sinfulness and this world’s fallenness is eradicated, may the hope and reality of his redemption have me return to this fallen ground, spade in hand, tilling for my Master.

Joy of Work2

U2's Songs of Innocence: Initial Impressions

I've listened to this  album 2 or 3 times, so expect longer and deeper reflections as I dive into it more. Here are just some quick thoughts. 

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U2's new album Songs of Innocence has been given by Apple to every iTunes account holder. I had to get  over the loud and edgy rock stadium overtones, something I wish they would move beyond, like they've had to with their youth. But the hooks and harmonies withstand the fading glamour. Underneath it all I'm finding an album filled with songwriting wisdom that persists, provokes thought, and points to a sustaining grace greater than any free album. 

So, since it is free and already in your iTunes library, I recommend giving it a couple spins. You might find yourself returning to its music repeatedly. 

New York Morning

A friend recently introduced me to the English band Elbow, who took the name after hearing a character on a BBC show describe it as the loveliest word in the English language. Imagine if Coldplay didn’t care about radio play, spent their evenings with Irish whiskey and watching black and white films, and dealt with breakups by drinking that whiskey alone in basements and writing poetry. Elbow’s music is dark, profane, poetic, and full of humanity. 

One song off their recent album, The Takeoff and Landing of Everything has me particularly thrilled. Not only is it some of the finest songwriting you will hear this year but it also perfectly illustrates the role of the city in the Christian worldview. Click play on the video and I’ll walk you through what I mean.

The song opens with quiet chords, sneaking in like the first light of morning. The lead singer, Guy Garvey, begins by describing the power of ideas and “how there is a big one round the corner.” Right on cue the drums enter like a beam of sunrise. The city of New York is waking up. It’s towers are described in a rapidly rising crescendo, “each pillar post, and painted line, every batter ladder building in this town” singing “a life of proud endeavour and the best that man can be.” Garvey has just described the ambition that is the heart of New York and every urban Rome.

And his crescendo is not over. He continues, without pausing, describing the “million voices” of people that are “planning, drilling, welding, carrying their fingers to the nub.” “Why?” he asks as the musical line meets its ernest and earned peak. “Because they can, they did and do…” Such is the reason for our endeavouring, our modern babel of enterprise, our kingdom building.

But the line doesn’t end here, for if there was just ambition, we humans would be smothered under our own terror. The city holds something greater than achievement and the climax of this line ends by describing it. “Why? Because they can, they did and do so you and I could live together.” The heart and purpose of the city are right here, in home, in family, in love.

The lyrics in the song break as the bass and the piano wind themselves into a melody represent ing the towers “reaching down into the ground” and “stretching up into the sky.” The song than twists the three ideas it has introduced together as the voices and melodies overlap. “Everybody owns the great ideas”, “the desire of the patchwork symphony”, and the striving that is “for love, having come for me”.

The song opened with the morning light and pinnacled in afternoon ambition. It than winds to a restful end, revealing its foundation. “The way [the day] ends depends on if your home. For every soul a pillow and a window please.” In just over five minutes it has perfectly captures what we love and hate about the city but also why we must cherish our urban centres. Here is humanity. Here is the potential for home. And here is grace, family, and people, where the gospel takes root and proves its worth.

I can think of several examples. My first solo trip to London, were the city large, foreign, and exhausting. Yet I stayed with a group of Christian urban monks and because of their fellowship never felt alone. Or just last night, visiting a young couple who recently moved downtown. A car accident on Sunday left them shaken and debilitated so I went to keep them company and was joined by the her younger siblings. These kids live on an acreage and were visibly awed by the dark hot streets towering with cranes, the apartment, ancient and decrepit, and the stories of crime and homelessness surrounding the building. And yet in that home was warmth and sacrifice, family and protection. The heartbeat of life itself. 

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