Partial Transcript of Interview
A THEME OF GRACE . . .
Well, first of all, I sort of have a vow of career poverty, which means that
I allow absolutely no career momentum between records, on the off chance that
I might actually catch on and be able to make a living! So, I'm just happy to
have something new that is coming out. But I always feel reluctant to move on
from a previous record, because I just don't think enough people have heard it yet.
But, on the other hand, it has been a good solid five years and some dramatic changes
since Songs from Bright Avenue came out. Small Graces has taken a couple of
years to complete, mainly due to the difficult, but not unrewarding process
of getting the songs written. This recording is about being observant of the
small things, perhaps the things that don't even appear to be very spiritual,
but they hint at the spiritual, at the larger picture. Grace is definitely a
theme that runs through this record. I realize in saying that, when you use
grace as a theme, you are on pretty safe territory, in terms of Christian
language, concepts and understanding. But my experience has been that you
don't really understand what grace means until you really, really, really
deserve it. Everybody, I think, knows that grace is unmerited, undeserved
favor. But when you get into a situation where you feel so undeserving and
then it still comes, I think it becomes a lot more valuable and precious to
A DELICATE BALANCE . . .
The other thing about the record that even I find interesting--and I am the
guy who did it!--is that the album is pretty evenly divided between songs that
hint at relationships and romance, and those that are directed upward and
outward to the body of Christ. (And I would hasten to add that I think I’m always
hopeful that the songs can appeal to and be listened to by anybody, regardless of their
spiritual beliefs.) I think songs about doing the laundry belong
right alongside songs of worship and grace and other things. What makes the
gospel so important is that it works in a real life context. Everything from
the mundane to the spectacular is touched by the grace of God and is infused
by the truth of the Gospel. I have always felt that the palate that I can
paint from, as a songwriter, is a broad one with lots of shades and colors.
Even though the habits and opinions of a lot of contemporary Christian music
listeners might be to the contrary, I feel the Christian artist has the most
freedom as opposed to the least. What that often means is that non- or less-religious
people think I am a little too Christian and the Christian people don't think
I am Christian enough. I sometimes feel as though I am existing in that
artistic netherworld between two warring factions. But there is a wonderful
group of people who breathe a sign of relief and say, "Thank God somebody
feels like I do." I think it's a lot like a large food conglomerate that
decides a particular way to manufacture cereal and soup. All of that food is
fine, but if you have any kind of a taste for the different, or the
not-cookie-cutter stuff, you have to look on the fringe of what is happening.
ABOUT THE MUSIC BUSINESS . . .
What is exciting about Covenant Artists is that they are not out to bash
anybody, but I also don't think they are out to gloss over some of the
difficulties that have grown up around the Christian music industry. To me,
I'm willing to put up with as much nonsense as I can handle in order to get
to that moment where I am playing in a concert, or that moment where someone
is able to listen to my CD or tape. At the precise moment, it doesn't matter
whether my record is charting or whether the A&R guy likes it or where it is
on the sales chart. None of that matters. Because I have glimpsed that
wonderful place, I don't mind some of the machinery of the music business. I
put up with it because it is a means to an end, to get to something much more
ABOUT SUCCESS . . .
I have always wanted to do this. I am one of the few people that I know who
has always wanted to do one thing and wound up getting to do it. There are
not many people in life that can say they are living their dream. But I am
living it differently than I ever thought I would. I never thought I would be
a Christian. I, like every person who has ever gotten in front of people,
wanted to get rich and famous and all of that kind of stuff. Now, I am very
comfortable with the fact that that is not going to happen. But I do have a
healthy drivenness, and someday they'll have to pry the guitar out of my
hands when I am too old to know better. I don't mind playing for a couple
hundred people night after night after night, as long as I can keep doing it.
If the larger audiences come and the numbers start to show up, that will be
fine. But at this stage of the game, I am just grateful to have a job, and to
do something that I love.
ABOUT THE CLUB SCENE . . .
Over the last few years I have begun playing in clubs and that has been a
lot of fun. But I would never for a moment want to discount how wonderful it
is to perform in front of a group of people who love you before you ever get
there, to play for people who either know you, or have a fair degree of
confidence that you believe a lot of the same things that are important to
them, and we're brethren. That's a wonderful thing. But it is an entirely
different proposition, and a really exciting one, to walk into a group of
people who don’t know you, and you don't know who they are or
what they might believe, and the only currency you have to trade on is not
your identity, or your image, or your belief system, but the songs that you play.
Then, you get to find out whether or not you can connect, whether or not these
people think these are really good songs, if they can relate to them, or if
they are just meant for the people who are inside "the club," the household of
faith, so to speak. I often have people come to me and say they really like the spiritual
quality of my work, and ask me "Where have you been?" I'll tell them I've
been playing in churches the last few years because a lot of my music is
explicitly Christian-oriented. It's always great because they'll say, "Oh
man, this doesn't sound like any Christian music I've heard! It sounds like
real music to me." That's the greatest thing you could ever say to me.
ABOUT MINISTRY . . .
I think that accomplishing some sort of ministry by playing music is a
completely human, wacky, faulty, frail method that God still manages to use.
I am fascinated by that. My approach to the ministry is a little different
than some people's in that I think ministry is actually a secondary goal
of what I am doing. To me, my primary goal is to communicate truthfully with
people. If I can communicate truthfully the life of the spirit, then ministry
happens as a natural result of that. I don't mean to be flippant when I say
that, but I consider communication to be the first goal, whereas ministry I
think happens more naturally. On the other hand, if you go into it with the
idea, I am going to create ministry, then I think you are not going to be as
risky and honest. The other thing that I try to do, is write songs that are
deliberately very subjective. In my songs, I try to say, "Here's what I
think, now you can eavesdrop, and tell me what you think." What that means is
that people can say that they don't like it, but they can't say it's wrong,
because it's me. The only person I can speak authoritatively for is me.
Because I grew up listening to the folk music in the singer/songwriter genre,
I am drawn toward people who sort of lay themselves out and communicate what
is going on inside of them, because then I don't feel so alone. I don't feel
so misunderstood when someone sings a song about something I have felt too.
The notion that I can use language to describe what somebody else might be
feeling is a pretty great thing. I think that you can find plenty of people
who are using the cheerleader, pep rally approach, and that works for them.
But I think there is a whole group of people who need to be dealt with a
little more subtly, a little differently. I think that's where I fit in.
TAKING OFF THE CCM FILTER . . .
I feel that one of the challenges of doing music in America, even with all of
the advertising we are bombarded with, is that people are hypersensitive to anything
that comes off as advertising or a sales pitch. We need to be very careful
about how we communicate. If it just comes off like another shtick, another
sales pitch, then I think we are dead in the water. I don't believe the
Gospel ought to be sold the same way as Firestone tires are sold, although
we often employ some of the same techniques to get the word out. A friend
once told me something I have never forgotten. She said, "I want to hear Bob
Bennett songs without the CCM filter on them." I've carried that with me
ever since. You can tell when people are writing songs that they think they
ought to be writing as opposed to songs they need to be writing. For instance
I think there are a lot of Christian artists that portray a particular type
of image, and they are comfortable portraying that, but it's not a very
well-rounded one. I think underneath all of that, these are real people. They
have struggles, they have hurts, they have desires, they have victories, and
I want to hear about that stuff ... these are people of depth who don't
allow their depth to come out. The other side of that coin, God forbid, is
that there is no depth at all. I think the challenge is to write songs that
are as naked and vulnerable as Jackson Browne or Shawn Colvin or David
Wilcox. They shoot first and ask questions later, and I don't sense that sort
of abandon and that sort of freedom in a lot of Christian music.
BEING REAL . . .
One of the reasons I like to go out and play in concert, is to let people
know that, contrary to what they might see on the airbrushed album covers or
the edited lyric sheet, the Christian life is really sort of a wild
endeavor. It's messy, it's human, it sometimes can be a free-for-all. You can
be resting and fighting for your life all at the same time. I just want to
encourage people to hang in there, that this is very much a process. I heard
a pastor say one time that we are in the process of becoming who we are. In
one sense, we are very much “done”, and in other ways it is never a done deal.
As Bruce Cockburn put it so succinctly, the only perfect Christian is a dead
one. So, when I go play in concert, I try to speak to those who don't feel
like they fit in, don't feel like they are performing at the level that they
should be, and have trouble relating to the perfectly coifed,
always-victorious images that are thrown at us. I want to say to these
people: “Hey, I am with you. If our lifeboat is leaking, let's bail the water
out together. Let's fight the good fight and run the race, and keep getting
up when we stumble and fall.”
Basically, I am looking for the yahoos like me, the folks who are hanging on
by the skin of their teeth more than they would ever want to admit, so I can tell
them that I want to travel this road with them.
WORDPLAY . . .
I am fascinated by the ability of language. Even more so than poetry, I think,
song lyrics can be some of the most finely crafted, and finely honed little
pieces of the English language that are possible. In some ways song
lyrics have more conventions to pay attention to, and therefore I think it's
a more challenging process; wedding the words to music, making sure the
phrasing is right, making sure the rhyme scheme is what you want it to be.
I'm an avid music fan, and to me great songwriting, from whatever quarter it
comes from, be it inside the church or out, is just a thrilling thing. A lot
of people, when they first start out, simply pay attention to rhyme scheme.
They think that if you meet that burden, then you are done. But they've used
turns of phrase that don't sound natural, that don't sound conversational. I
love tinkering with a lyric. I love making sure a song is everything I know how
to make it. There have even been songs I have recorded, that later I have
found a better way to do it. I'll re-write a couple of lines, and then that's
the way I sing them in concert. There's nothing sacred about recording it, I
mean, we're not dealing with Scripture here. I can change it any time I want!
LIFE AFTER BRIGHT AVENUE . . .
My last recording, Songs from Bright Avenue, was definitely a musical
photograph taken during a very painful time. I always say it was not the kind
of recording that you would want to put on, invite over the gang, and break
open the big bag of Fritos! But rather than go underground and pretend my
divorce wasn't happening, I decided to write an album that dealt with some of
the pain of divorce. I wrote the album right in the middle of all of that,
sort of like a dispatch from the war zone. But what I wanted to do, even in
the midst an absolutely horrendous situation, was to try to portray a sense
of hopefulness. I'm not a naturally hopeful guy, and I can be the most
cynical guy around. It seems like one of the biggest failures you could ever
have in life in general and as a Christian in particular, is to be divorced.
Even in the late nineties, when you can blindfold yourself, throw a rock, and
hit a divorced person in the church, it still doesn't make it any easier. But
I felt a real hopefulness that I was going to somehow survive this and that
the Lord still saw merit and worth in me. Small Graces comes from a place
that has a little bit more light shining into it. It is really the album that
brings a testament to that hope.