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