Jars of Clay’s latest release, Inland, is a very deep record from a very unconventional band. So, to get a full perspective on what’s happening here, we really have to go back to the start.
The first indicator for this record was a blog post by lead singer Dan Haseltine that went up about a year ago which suggested that “the church community will most likely not embrace this record.” Then things went kind of quiet, though the band released a live EP Under the Weatherearlier this year to “prime the pump” as it were for a new record.
Out of the blue, back in June, RollingStone.com offered a free download of the album’s title track, “Inland,” along with the briefest of descriptions from Haseltine. In late July, the band released a live EP exclusively through NoiseTrade.com featuring four new songs. Finally, Billboard.com offered an exclusive full-album stream a week before the record’s release. While neither of these is shocking in and of itself, the fact that this is a quasi-CCM band who had a big cross-over hit 18 years ago and hasn’t had even a Gold record (500,000+ units sold) in 10 years, makes it a little curious.
Of course, this speaks to at least three things: 1) The band and their team are really well connected. 2) They’re saying something that really resonates with the mainstream (again, more on this later). 3) They are crafting really amazing music.
Even with as much nostalgia as we have for the early Jars records, their sound has always been a little outside of the mainstream. Over the years, they’ve released a number of successful singles (16 #1s, in fact), all the while cultivating their own unique form of Americana indie pop. They have also done this without employing a drummer or bass player as full-fledged members of the band.
For this record, they sought to get outside of their comfort-zone (or maybe they are finding their comfort-zone has become more and more uncomfortable) by working with some new collaborators and recording the album in Portland. They also employed Adrian Belew who had produced two songs on their self-titled debut, to record guitars on several of these tracks including the lead single, “After the Fight.” (As Henry Rollins said of Belew: “you’ve heard him on a lot of Talking Heads records, a lot of David Bowie records, and he’s been a live guitar player on a lot of big David Bowie tours … so, the boy can play guitar like you can go into credit debt, grow hair, and eat. He’s gooood.”)
The sounds on the album are really unified while varying in their tempo from track to track. “After the Fight,” “Reckless Forgiver” and “Loneliness & Alcohol” represent some of the more upbeat tracks. While, back to back tracks, “Love in Hard Times” and “Pennsylvania” threaten to lull you to sleep with their comforting calmness.
My favorite track on the entire record is “Fall Asleep,” which is begging to be used for five-minute-long musical montages in every indie film that is released this next year. Perhaps the simplest song on the record, Haseltine’s voice oozes emotion over the top of piano, strings, and ambient sounds. It’s nearly a perfect song.
The music here is good. Really good. And I’m a little afraid that it could mask the greatness of the lyrics.
Here’s where my evaluation of the album runs aground. I typically like to approach a record with no knowledge of what I’m meant to discern from it. Mac Powell (of Third Day) once said something along the lines that he didn’t like explaining song meanings because maybe the listener heard something that really ministered to them and he didn’t want to steal that from them by exposing their interpretation as completely inaccurate. But, you have to expect that there is always some authorial intent, if not in the listening experience, at least in the writing — and this is a case where that is perhaps critical to fully understanding the record.
In the aforementioned blog post (Note: Haseltine’s blog has since gone offline, but excerpts can be found here) the singer dropped lines like this:
“And at one point, I was sure of who God was, and how God operated. But I am not that way now. And so it is impossible to write from that old version of myself. I am in the middle space. God gave us a story, and a space to fill. And it isn’t really in the same neighborhood as the evangelical church …. These songs are honest expressions of what life around us looks like. The descriptions of love and pain, loneliness and hope are real to us. It is what frustrates me about the general church audience. If artistic expressions do not have an evangelical agenda, or they don’t explicitly cheer for Jesus, they tend to fail commercially. In my experience, the music with those kinds of agendas is shallow and somehow not ultimately believable to me.”
(I really urge you to visit the link above to get as much context as is currently possible.)
In publicity materials, the band presents the following: “In Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus returns to land after a life on the sea, he’s told to take his oar and walk inland until he finds someone who doesn’t know what an oar is. For us, the story suggested moving from a comfortable place into unexplored territory.”
I think that, far from turning their backs on God as some presumed the original blog indicated, the band is attempting to defy such rudimentary labels as “Christian” and “secular.” However, I also think that their publicity line of being “songs for the middle spaces” (as I read somewhere) is a little lacking in conviction.
These are songs that say it’s ok to have questions. It’s ok to wrestle with God (“After the Fight”). It’s ok to venture inward and challenge what you’ve known of your own faith (“Inland”). And I think that resonates with a lot of folks, both inside and outside of the church. It certainly resonates with me, and that’s why I’m shouting about this record to anyone who is willing to listen.
THREE is part of a set of 5 EPs that Charlotte is in the process of releasing. Previous Reviews: ONE and TWO
I’ve talked at length about Charlotte’s new music and a bit about how she got there, so I won’t rehash all of that here. I was absolutely floored by her TWO EP earlier this year and became and instant fan. That record is pretty serious art/alt rock and (having not heard ONE) it set something of an expectation for me. So, when she released the track “I Can Dream” (from THREE) about a month ago, I was immediately taken aback. This was not what I was expecting.
Once I got my hands on the entire record, I remained surprised – not hearing what I would have expected as a followup to TWO. But by the time I finished my first listen-through it had become an immediate favorite and I’m still playing it sometimes multiple times each day.
With an EP I would typically offer up a track-by-track evaluation, but this record renders that approach obsolete. Tracks bleed from one into another and 26 minutes feels like 10 as you lose yourself in a holistic, engulfing experience. The album artwork absolutely captures the fluid aesthetic of the entire record as seen in the video for the track “Water Tower“.
While I wouldn’t consider it the strongest track on the album, “Water Tower” is a great indicator for the record. It showcases everything that makes Charlotte (and her band’s) music what it is. Restraint, subtlety, power, creativity. It’s all there on this track.
In my opinion, the strongest track on the record is “Magician’s Assistant“. Placed squarely in the center of the record, this song sort-of sneaks up on you with another subtle beginning giving way to impassioned conclusion. The composition reminds me a lot of the modular songwriting that Brian Wilson employed on his magnum opus SMiLE. Seemingly dichotomous choruses, verses and instrumental portions meld together brilliantly and take the listener on an unbelievable journey.
One of the tricks with producing such tonally rich music is finding a way to bring the same soul to a variety of performances of that music. While I can’t wait to see some live full-band performance video, for now I’m making due with a recent in-studio acoustic performance of “Like a Fool” from BBC2 radio (@ 3:50 below). Such a performance only goes to disprove any naysayers about what this artist has become. Does she demand some level of attention based on name alone? Certainly. But this new career (as discussed in the interview below) is a team effort built on solid songwriting, fantastic musicianship, and incomparable vocals. That much should be undeniable.
One of the only drawbacks of this album is that it differs so much from even Charlotte’s other recent work. While different sounds are going to connect with a variety of audiences differently, I wouldn’t be surprised if this one has less of an immediate impact as either ONE or TWO. But, then, isn’t that true of so many great records? After all, it took 40 years for Wilson to get SMiLE made.
I had the awesome opportunity to interview Derek Webb several weeks ago. And with his latest record now in pre-order mode, the time is right to share that with you. I make note of this, because if you follow Derek, you’ll realize that the very first question dates itself a tiny bit. I’m also excited to share an audio version of the interview for those of you who don’t have the time to read. We spent a long time talking and so this interview has been split up into three parts: 1) The State of the Music Business, 2) Derek’s new record, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You, and 3) Long time questions I’ve been dying to ask. (Scroll down the page for audio files of parts 2 and 3.)
Ryan: I am excited to be talking to Derek Webb today, recording artist out of Nashville. Derek, how are you?
Derek: Doing fine.
Ryan: I know you were just trying to get on NPR to talk about Spotify. Would you care to share those thoughts? I know you didn’t get to get on with them.
Derek: Yeah, um, that conversation is kind of… this week with Nigel Godrich and Thom Yorke ranting on Twitter the last few days and you know it’s stuff that I’ve thought about and talked about, run my mouth off about and written about. So, I was anxious to try and get on there because I overheard them talking about a handful of things.
There were two things. One was… the thing that I came in hearing that I was anxious to comment on was how free music changes the value, or how not paying becomes an expectation. What’s interesting is, that I have found over the my 5 or 6 or 7 years of giving a lot of music away for free is that I’ve really found the opposite [to be true]. I’ve found that it raises the value of the music, and the thing that’s vital to having a perspective on this is realizing that music doesn’t only have monetary value. That it has a lot of different types of value, not just monetary value. The only way that you could see free music as devaluing the art is to believe that the only value it has is monetary, which I don’t. You know, it has spiritual value, it has relational value, it has (certainly) monetary value. It has a lot of different kinds of value and I find that giving it away for free and risking everything on the deepest connection being made by way of the music itself… putting the music out there as its own best marketing tool… actually really raises its value. The relational value of music. So I was hearing them talk [on NPR] about that and really wanting to jump in because I make more – even just in terms of money – I make more money giving records away for free than I made selling records in the old model.
So there’s so much to talk about when you’re talking about… and Spotify specifically. And I’ve already said that I prefer folks downloading my music on Bit Torrent illegally than consuming it on Spotify. Because at least on Bit Torrent, people understand that what they’re doing is harming the artist, whereas on Spotify they’re wrongly convinced that either by enduring ads or paying for a subscription they are supporting the artist and that’s just simply not true. So it’s like they clean the conscience of the music fan, when they really have no right to do that on my behalf.
So, yeah, so much…
Ryan: You’re right, there is so much to go into. A couple of conversations that I’m having is not “does it devalue the music” so much, but does it change our listening patterns? My friend, Ryan [Gregg] and I were talking about how, in the old days, you would scrape together your nickels and dimes and go down to Best Buy and drop $15 and if you hated the record, you convinced yourself that you loved it. That it was the best thing you ever heard. You just played it over and over and over until you loved it.
Derek: Yeah, that’s right. You would kind of commit to it because you had something invested in it.
Ryan: I think there’s a lot to be said there, but there’s a lot to be said that you would never have dropped $15 for something you could find for free whether on Noise Trade or Spotify or wherever else because you [now] have the opportunity to find more.
Derek: The upside of that is it gives artists the opportunity (and some might not see this as an opportunity, I see it as an opportunity) to go through their tribe of fans and weed out the ones that are not really “in” and don’t really understand what they’re doing. Because I would rather somebody have the most low-stakes opportunity possible to listen to and spend time with and understand what I do and determine whether that’s something they really love and connect with and will want to support. I would rather people have that opportunity and make real fans, real long-term fans, on the other side of a free transaction than have people who are committed to liking me but deep down really don’t and wind up spending our entire relationship on message boards saying how much they can’t stand my new record and thinking that one day they’re finally going to love something I do. They’re just not fans and that’s ok, they just need to go listen to something else. So I think that’s a real opportunity to see where the real fans are. Give them a chance to really deeply connect with it in a low-stakes situation. I’m really kind of a fan of that approach… So, um… I don’t want to get off on a tangent… so I won’t laughs.
Ryan: I know we’re talking about the free-ness, but at the end of the day you’ve got to survive. And I think when you started Noise Trade there was a lot of talk about The Long Tail and how as much money – or more money – was spent on those hundreds of thousands of obscure artists as was spent on the hundreds of large Bon Jovis (editorial aside: why do I always target Bon Jovi??) and Lady Gagas of the world. Am I getting that right?
Derek: It’s more like a dozen now days. In terms of artists who sell more than a million records in a year, I mean it’s fewer than ever and it’s decreasing all the time. The head of the sales curve is in a constant state of decrease.
Ryan: And I think the tail is growing and growing as technology becomes more accessible. So, my question for you is: Is there still room at the table for everyone to carve out their corner and have a surviving – even thriving – lifestyle, or have we just overwhelmed the disposable income of the masses with too many artists? Because Noise Trade goes everywhere from big name artists to people who don’t even play – it’s churches and independent people who have made a record in their basement-kind. Does everybody have a chance to survive in this model?
Derek: Yeah, I mean, my take on that is that there has never been a better time to be a blue-collar musician. There’s never been a better time. I don’t think we’ve even hit the peak of it yet, let alone do I not think it’s over yet, I don’t think we’ve even hit the “sweet spot.” The differentiation to be made here: there are fans for everybody… Here’s the deal, when it comes to making a living as an artist, there are a handful of rules. Rule #1 is the most important one and you can’t break Rule #1 no matter how good you are at the rest. And Rule #1 is: Be Awesome. And you can’t break Rule #1. It doesn’t matter how good you are at digital marketing. It doesn’t matter how good you are at social media. It doesn’t matter how willing you are to tour. None of the rest of it matters if you’re breaking Rule #1.
Keeping Rule #1 isn’t the only thing. There are parts of the job that you – even thing that you will complain won’t come natural to you and need to be someone else’ job – that you just have to learn. New skills you have to learn. But the only folks who can make any real use of Rules #2-10 are folks who are not breaking Rule #1. So, that’s really the first thing.
If you are good, there are fans for you. There is somebody out there, there is a group of people, who will support you if they can find you. And you need fewer of those kind of people – people who really, deeply resonate and who will really stay and support what you’re doing – you need fewer of those people today than you’ve ever needed to make a middle-class living as an artist.
So, it is a job that you can do. It is more accessible than it has ever been in history, but… so, that’s Rule #1, but what I was saying before is, the difference is when you start talking about “the masses”. Are the masses exhausted? Is the market overwhelmed? Are there too many artists, too many records, too little currency for too much music? Absolutely. But, see, that’s the difference.
A guy like me, most of my friends, blue-collar artists, folks who live their whole career in the tail that we discussed of the sales curve… I’m not trying to reach the masses. I don’t have any interest in the masses. And the masses don’t have any interest in me. I’m making no play to be discovered by the masses. What I want is to very slowly, very carefully curate a tribe of people of who understand and like and support what I do over a long period of time. I mean, I’ve said if I sold a half million records next year my career would be over. I’d be miserable. I want to do everything I can to sabotage any opportunity I might have for mass exposure, for one big splash. That’s the last thing in the world I want. I don’t want my big break or my big opportunity. I don’t want it. What I want is to maybe not ever sell any more records than I’m selling today. I have a great career. I do exactly what I want to do. I control the creative output of the records I make completely. Nobody interferes with it. And I’m on a major label – I have been my whole career. I’ve never been fully independent. And I’m still able to operate like an independent because I’ve never had one huge moment of success. That’s the only way that I’m able to operate the way I am. If I had a huge moment of mass success – you know, success to the masses – it would literally threaten my entire career and everything that’s great about the way I’m able to make my living.
And so, I’m really careful that I don’t ever… I’m not gunnin’ for the masses. I think the masses are exhausted. I want my tribe. And those people, the remedy to their is exhaustion is to find one or two artists who they resonate with. That’s the remedy. So, as like as a model of a blue-collar artist who is entering into commercial market, I am actually – not me personally, but – those artists who are actively pursuing their specific tribes are the antidote to the exhausted mass market. All those tons of people in that mass market are really looking for a few artists that they can really love and support. And that’s what – that’s exactly what blue-collar artists who are really focused on tribe building, that’s what they do. I mean, that’s exactly what it’s about. And so, if all those individuals who make up that mass market could find one, two, three artist who they resonate with deeply – suddenly, they’re satisfied. They’ve found what they’re looking for.
Ryan: That’s totally on point and I think when you hear that new album by that artist you love, it so meets a need in your spirit that everything else can’t. Those big, splashy releases – and we’ve had a lot of them recently – if that resonates with you, then that fulfills a need and if it doesn’t, it’s just more product.
Derek: Right and that’s kind of the reason that I’m ok with giving the records away for free, ’cause if somebody downloads my music for free and they don’t resonate with it or don’t love it… there is zero opportunity cost in that transaction for me. Because that is not someone who would have purchased my music. So I would rather them and me know that they are not a fan of mine and they can move on to somebody else and I can stop wasting my time trying to sell something to them. Again, if the opportunity cost is zero for me to give music to somebody who doesn’t like it, wouldn’t have purchased it, I’m fine giving it to them and they can just delete it. It’s a zero-sum game for me because I wouldn’t have made any money out of that person anyway. For those who discover my music and like it, and only discover it because it’s free, then that’s found money for me. That’s the only way that I was ever gonna find that fan. If they’ve not found me after 20 years, then that free record might have been the only opportunity that they could have found their way to me and been willing to give it a try. And then, if they find it and they love it, and then I have their email and zip code – and that’s the trade we made: they get the music and I get the data – well then, now I’ve got a direct connection to a new fan that I can sell old records to that they don’t know about, new records to that haven’t come out yet, shows in their area, merch off the merch table, there’s a million different ways to make money.
And the people who love and support what you’re doing are glad to give it to you. You’re not wrenching money out of their hands, they can’t wait to give it to you. Just like I can’t wait to give my money to The Arcade Fire when their new record comes out in a few months. I will literally drive all over town – I mean it used to be drive all over town to look for the Deluxe Edition that nobody knew about that cost $100. I mean, I was that guy. For the artists that I love, I am not only willing to give them my money, I can’t wait to give them my money. And I’m willing to give them more than most people would give them. I have purchased the Macklemore record maybe three times digitally because I am that big a fan. Because it went on sale at Amazon and had two bonus tracks, I bought it again. And then it went on sale somewhere else and I just love it so much I just went and bought it AGAIN! Just because I love ’em. They don’t even have to ask me to spend money. If I’m part of their tribe and I resonate that deeply… money’s not your biggest problem. Finding your tribe is your problem. Once you find your tribe, they will give you their money. They can’t wait to give you their money. So, we’re looking at the whole thing upside down.
Ryan: So, let’s look at it from the other perspective: I know there are so many artists on Noise Trade and I think there’s a growing mentality in our culture of entitlement: “I’ve put this out there. Everybody needs to come buy my record.” You mentioned Rule #1 being “awesomeness”. Are you seeing a lot of people who are coming into the business of music and saying “Well, I’ve made a record, where’s my audience?” or “I’ve got a record deal now, work for me.”
Derek: Yeah, you know I think that entitlement is a product of the old model and it might be going away as music is more understood as a blue-collar living. I think in the old model, music was a white-collar living. You know, you’re going to do something and it’s going to change your life overnight. Everybody’s gonna know who you are, you’re going to make a bunch of money. If you want riches and fame, you just need to go try something else. Music’s just not for you – if that’s why you’re getting into it. If you’re getting into it because you want to do the work of music: out on the road, playing, connecting with people, making the record, dreaming it up, writing great songs that resonate with a particular group of people – well, that is a blue-collar living that you can have for a long time if you want it, if you understand that it’s work (which it is). And it’s great work. It’s a fantastic job. I love my job.
Fewer people that I’ve seen are expressing that kind of entitlement because nobody owes you a career. Nobody owes you, you know, even putting your record up for free on Noise Trade doesn’t mean people are gonna download it. It has to be great and you have to know how to do the other parts of the job. You have mobilize and audience and a tribe to help get the word out and incentivize them to get the word out. To tell their friends about it, which is why we make the music free.
Ryan: There’s a lot more work to it than there was before.
Derek: Yeah, but what’s interesting is, you couldn’t even do the work if you wanted to before. You couldn’t even put your hands on it. Like the artists were more like children in the room. Like, “You just go and sing your little songs and let the grownups take care of the marketing and distribution, promotion, touring, budgeting. You let us do all that.” And that’s why the artists were getting screwed. Because they were like the children in this scenario. And they really had no control. They were really relegated to do one thing.
But see, the thing is… the thing that I’m excited about music being more of a blue-collar living now is that there is no better group than the artists themselves to come up with creative solutions to the challenges that are facing the market right now. You can’t expect groups who have no idea what the problems are in our market to come up with the solutions. We’re creative people. We should be the ones, of everybody, who can dream up solutions. I guarantee you, the week before Kickstarter launched, there were two dozen blue-collar artists all over Nashville where I live, or Austin, or any other music town, sitting around saying to themselves and each other, “You know what would be awesome? If there was some way by which fans could, like, support me making the record – almost like a pre-sale where they could purchase it and support it and then they buy in before it even comes out and that kind of facilitates the making of it. Man that be so cool. I wish somebody would do that.”
Blue-collar artists, most artists because they are so abstract, because of the way they’re wired, most artists they don’t even understand the value of the ideas that are in their own heads. They are living on the front lines. They understand what the new tools need to be. They just don’t have the language with which to articulate to someone who could go and implement those tools and bring that stuff to market. But if somebody could stand in the gap as a translator between entrepreneurs and blue-collar artists then you would see… it would be just like Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. All of a sudden there’d be new tools coming out every week that would be insanely valuable and useful because they were being dreamed up by the artists themselves.
That’s one of the advantages I feel like Noise Trade has is that I’m a blue-collar artist who uses our tool and I’m part of the company. So, like, I’m able to vet the tools we’re developing and say to our designers and developers and our team, “Yeah, that’s a really clever… it’s a cool thing, but there’s no way I would use or pay for that and let me tell you why… it’s just and instinct. I’m just telling you that it’s super cool, and all of our friends in the tech world would love that particular functionality, but it’s just not useful to me as a blue-collar artist.” So we scrap it.
Ryan: Let’s dive in and talk about the new record, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You.
Ryan: I want to ask a really specific question because the first line is, “It’s been 20 years since I rose and cleared my throat.” Is that resonating with a specific memory for you? Or just a generic “20 years”? When you sing that line do you think of a first show with Caedmon’s [Call] or a first time stepping on a stage?
Derek: Yeah, well, that whole first verse is basically me just wanting to go through specifically my entire music career, summing Caedmon’s up really in that first line and going all the way through my entire solo discography. And wanting to be very clear that regardless of what you think you’ve heard me [say] whether or not it’s something I actually said or not. Wanting to be very clear about what my intention has been. And so really that first line, I mean really I wanted to be specific and go album by album but I couldn’t do that and include all the Caedmon’s records, so I just summed Caedmon’s up with one line and then got specific starting at year ten, you know, all the way up to last year’s release.
Ryan: So, talking about being specific and being clear about what you’re about… Can you talk any at all about transparency in lyrics? I think you talked a little bit to someone about [your previous record] Ctrl and the need to name “it” as much as you could without being too explicit in what you were saying and you’ve kind of walked that fine line over the years of saying things that were specific without being 100% transparent – and how you walk that line as an artist and as an individual.
Derek: Well, there are moments to come right out and say things and there are moments where it’s more useful as a communicator, ironically, to be evasive and keep things abstract… There are really very useful moments for both. And I’ve found in the more recent years with the things I’ve been wanting to communicate – some of the subject matter, etc. – it’s been very useful to stay in that kind of zone. That’s been a real sweet spot in terms of communicating in a way that I really felt like was useful and effective.
But when it came to this record, it was really time for me to show up in the lyrics a little bit. I feel like, I’ve been doing insanely personal work over the last few years. I’ve made some of my most personal records and written some of my most personal lyrics but they may not be viewed as that because they’ve been left so abstract… to some extent because they were so personal. It’s a little bit of self-protection. But, it was time for me to really show up on an album again and… You know, 10 years in I felt like it was time for me to pull my tribe in a little bit and pull them behind the curtain a little bit and be more clear about what I believe my role to be, what I perceive as my strengths and to maybe remind some of those people why they resonated with me in the first place.
Because I see so much a part of my job as being an agitator – really enjoying and being particularly gifted at you know bringing up uncomfortable subject matter and poking and prodding at people with questions (not demanding particular answers so much, but wanting people to use their brain). What I’ve figured out over 10 years of solo work is you can’t only do that. You can’t only agitate. You have to remind people every so often why they are listening to you in the first place in order to keep yourself in the role of agitating.
Ryan: Would you say… I think, 10 years ago people would have said “Derek Webb sounds like ‘X’.” And I think that this record really harkens back to that sound – a little more electronic, but not a lot. How do you deal with the fact that, over the last 3 or 4 years, you know, some of the people that I believe would be part of your “tribe”, who really love what you’ve done, sonically have distanced themselves because it’s just not the sound that resonates with them? How do you balance that artistic side, with professional side, with the statement and just the pure music of it?
Derek: Well, see, I mean that’s um… see, I like experimenting. I like really pushing hard into the future. I like coming up with new tricks. I don’t like repeating myself. And I like standing on the work that I’ve done previously and always bringing that with me. And, that being an assumption, not feeling the burden of restating everything I’ve said previous in order to say something new. And even with what I’ve said or done previously – unless I go back and specifically recant – the assumption should be that I still agree with everything I said previously. And I know some people have had a hard time with that.
And I like doing that on the production side, too. I mean, I really like experimenting. I’m a producer and a remixer. I really like pushing forward. I like making sure that I’m keeping myself engaged and interested in what I’m making and what I’m doing all the time in order to never find myself asleep at the wheel. And so that’s been part of the effort and that’s been part of the journey. And I’ve really the last so many years really experimenting and pushing on the production side.
But, I guess I [got to a moment] and I was ready for this moment where I thought it might be important to, again, give myself permission to make a record that could be understood on first listen and that could really be enjoyed by my tribe. I feel like I’ve not been interested in making records that people could enjoy. That kind of wasn’t on my radar. I didn’t really care about making records people enjoyed. I needed to make records that seemed important to me. Enjoyment was really secondary. But I wanted to really give myself permission to do that. And I felt like it was a good time both from a content and a production standpoint to try to kind of take an account of where I’ve been and pull everything (all my tricks) pull everything I know into this moment and try to make a record that brings all the different tools, all the different sounds, all the different strengths that I feel that I’ve put together over the last 10 or 20 years to this, in order to connect as deeply as possible with the tribe that I’ve got right now. It’s a moment of trying to go and regain that trust as an investment in my next 10 years, in order to stay in a position to continue to ask questions. I can’t ask questions if no one is there and no one is listening.
Ryan: It seems like the marketing behind this has been a lot different than the last few. Is that because you want to keep… it’s been a lot of work for us, the fans, to go along on crazy missions across town to pick up little slips of paper. Are you just trying to pare all of that down and strip it away? Or, did you feel like that was necessary to get buy in on those records?
Derek: Yeah, I mean, all… I don’t even like the marketing… the “marketing” that I’ve done starting back to when I really started to get more creative with it with Stockholm Syndrome – there was a little on Ringing Bell, but mostly on Stockholm Syndrome and forward from there – I didn’t really consider any of that marketing. All of the work I did before the release of some of those records (Stockholm Syndrome, Sola-Mi, Ctrl, Feedback to some extent) I felt like was literally part of the performance. It was not marketing.
Like when people were participating in the activities and the mysteries and things that we were making and distributing for people to find and participate in and just… you know… People would say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you know, just take my money. When is the record going to come out?” I’m like, you don’t understand, you’re experiencing it now. This is it. Like, this part of the art I’m trying to make is something that will only be for the people who see it as that and experience it in real time, right now. And once this part of the project is over it will never be… you can’t experience it. And it’s only for the people that are really vigilant and really paying attention. The album is going to be the punctuation mark at the end. Just the part you can take with you. It’s the souvenir. This is the art, as much as the thing that will come after – the recorded part. I’m not trying to market the art. I’m making the art. You know, you’re soaking in it. This is it right now.
People didn’t always see it as that. They saw it as clever marketing (I hope “clever”). But, like, we never really saw it like that. I really saw all of those marketing campaigns as part of those projects, inherently. The full experience of those projects you can’t have now. They were things that were happening in the moment. They were communicating what the content was, how it should be viewed. And you know that’s part of how I’ve been doing it the last few years. That was really a fully-immersed experience, which is what I was hoping to provide.
But this time around, again, it was a “back to basics.” So I wanted to do something that was not complex, that did not require an inordinate amount of attention from people who I know can’t spare it. [Knowing that] I have demanded quite a bit of it in the last few years and folks might be growing a little tired of that. I wanted to do something that was a more straight-forward marketing campaign and, you know, we involved the label to a larger extent than we ever have in 10 years. My record label that I’ve been with for the last 10 years is more a part of and has been speaking into the marketing of this record more than any record we’ve ever done together in 10 years and I think it’s really benefited from that and from their input. And you know we’re releasing a lot of content – it’s all about to ramp up in the next few weeks [editor’s note: interview was recorded 3 weeks prior to this posting].
We’ve done a lot of work to really figure out what are the points of connection, what are the points of resonance where we feel like those new people, but especially that disengaged part of my larger tribe will come in and hear or see something that they resonate with, connect with, and want to lean in and find out what’s going on on this record. What are those elements? How can we make them great? Distribute them in a way that’s consumable for our people. You know we’ve really put a lot of thought into that. We’ve played out way out in front of this project to try to prepare a lot of great and easy content for people. And tried to truly apply ourselves to a more conventional approach and hopefully we’ll see that working in the next few weeks.
[Brief backstory: Several years ago, before the release of their album The Walkthe band Hanson did a video podcast leading up to the record (and this is in the very early days of podcasting). In one of these videos, there was information about a songwriting retreat that the brothers held and for little more than a second Derek is visible on screen as are several members of the band Eisley. I recently stumbled across the picture below and (though I can’t fully credit myself) urged Derek to reach out to both of these bands who in turn promoted their newest albums through his NoiseTrade.com earlier this year.]
Ryan: Can I ask you a couple of off-topic questions about some other artists that you’ve collaborated with or had some interest in?
Derek: Sure, yeah.
Ryan: So, you know I have this question I’ve always wanted to ask… Can you tell me anything about how the whole thing with the Hanson, Eisley, Derek and Sandra, a few other people thing came together for you and what that was like?
Derek:Yeah, that’s an interesting story. So, the Hanson guys I had a loose connection with over a lot of years because (as I understood it) those guys… um, you know… I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school to say that those guys have a Christian faith that they take pretty seriously. And they were into Christian music back when Caedmon’s was in it heyday and bands like Waterdeep were in their heyday. You know, they were aware of some of that music. There were a few times that I heard rumors that when we were playing shows in Oklahoma that they snuck into shows and saw the sets. I was never able to confirm any of that, but you know we’ve had a loose connection over a lot of years.
But some years ago, maybe 10 years ago, Sandra [McCracken – Derek’s wife] had a record that she was putting out with a label in the UK. She had signed a deal with a label in the UK and they were really pushing, both in the retail and on the radio, they were really pushing a record of hers. And she was over there for a long time doing a lot of work promoting it, marketing it. And she was [experiencing] some success on BBC2. And they set her up to open shows for Hanson, who (most people don’t know) in every other part of the world, have evolved and continued on their trajectory as a great rock and roll band. A band of brothers that makes really good music. They’ve been allowed to grow up and be adults and make adult music in every other country but America, really. They’re like the Beatles over there.
So, they set [Sandra] up to open for them and so she opened a bunch of shows for them and you know Sandra had a bunch of screaming fans chasing her around in the streets because she had been opening for them. It was insane. So she traveled all over, opening for them for a while and really connected with them and wound up playing a finale at the end of their show with them. They just really connected and they got to know her music and her as a writer.
So, over the next few years, Hanson does a thing called the Fool’s Banquet which is a thing where they invite just a handful, less than a dozen, artists and writers to their house in Oklahoma where they have their studio and they spend a long weekend and they match up songwriters and they sit in on every session just writing songs. Recording them at night. Sharing them at the end of the night with everybody else who’s been, so they just write songs all day in different random groups that they put together as a means to find great songs for their album, but also as a means to stay connected with the indie community.
They invited me and Sandra to come to this little Banquet thing several years ago and we wrote together and got to know them even better than we had known the previously. And Sandra’s gone to the Fool’s Banquet a few times and gotten to write. And we’ve met up with them at both our shows and their shows as we’ve been able to over the years. And they’re good friends. Man, they’re great hard workers. They’re one of the biggest indie bands in the world, most people just don’t know it. They run their business, independent, like nobody’s business. They’re a great organization. Great guys.
Ryan: And you were talking [previously] about how you sabotage yourself not to have that one breakthrough hit and that’s really, I think, what hurt them so much is that they could never replicate that breakthrough moment. And, so, they end up doing the same thing that you’re doing on a day to day basis.
Derek: Yeah, man. They’re blue-collar now. It’s a great job and they sustain it and they own it and control it. Yeah.
[Backstory: When I discovered the recent work of Charlotte Churchseveral months ago I thought it might something that would really interest Derek – if not musically, at least from a positioning standpoint. I tweeted him about it and was glad to see that he resonated with it and was able to make a connection between Charlotte’s team an NoiseTrade. If you’ve been around this site very long, you know that I think she’s one of the best things happening in music right now.]
Derek: No, I haven’t heard it yet, but I’m a huge fan and thanks to you and some other folks who brought her to my attention we were able to jump in behind her efforts to bring her old fanbase up to speed and find her a new fanbase who never, I think, would have considered her music because of what she’d done previously. But, she’s doing this amazing new stuff and I was thrilled to reach out to her and put the weight of NoiseTrade’s tribe behind her new music. And, yeah, you know I can’t wait to hear her new stuff and I’m a new fan. I knew her name. She’s got millions of fans worldwide but there will only be a remnant of those people who even understand or appreciate what she’s doing now, but it’s just a whole different audience.
There are a lot of people who have a connotation with Charlotte who might not think they could ever be fans of her music, but if they’d just give it a chance they’d find they were huge fans. And I hope NoiseTrade helped make a little dent in her finding some of that new tribe. We definitely saw a lot of people respond in that way saying, “Wow, you know I just got this free EP from Charlotte Church and I’m blown away by how much I love it.” You know, I resonate very much with the moment she’s in of wanting to disrupt and experiment and try new things and take that risk. I mean that’s been one of the hallmarks of how I’ve run my career and so I love watching that moment she’s in. I was thrilled to be in a position to be any small part of helping her out.
I can’t say enough thanks to Derek Webb for taking the time out to record this interview
I’ve said a lot, in the past, about Derek Webb so I won’t bore my long-term loyalists with too much back story. Webb spent the first ten years of his career in the band Caedmon’s Call where he offered up a portion of the songwriting and lead vocal duties on a total of 14 records (full length, EPs, and compilations). In the past ten years, he has had an on-again-off-again relationship with the band having played on 2 of their 4 records since his “departure”. In that same latter time frame, he has released an additional 15 records (by the same accounting) with his latest album set to release the first week of September.
Now, there are a lot of artist whose music I enjoy. There are a number who have had some significant effect on me. But I don’t think anyone has had as deep an impact as Derek Webb – even beyond (and sometimes in spite of) his music.
I was first introduced to Caedmon’s Call (as many were) on their self-titled major-label debut record (1997). While I didn’t really know all of the dynamics (two songwriters, three singers) at the time, I definitely resonated more with Webb’s tracks – specifically “Standing Up for Nothing” and “Center Aisle“. While stocked in your local Lifeway Christian Store, this was certainly not what defined “Contemporary Christian Music.”
Their 40 Acres (1999)record was my first exposure to a discussion of reformed theology (“Thankful“) and by their Long Line of Leavers(2000) I was skipping over everything that wasn’t Webb-written.
In 2001, Webb embarked on a solo tour of non-church venues including bars and clubs. His stop in Lubbock, TX would mark my third show in concert promotion business (alongside BJ Olin who I interviewed last week). We even did an in-studio with the local college radio station – I’m the creeper by the door.
In 2003, Derek released his solo debut, She Must and Shall Go Free, and basically lost me. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It wasn’t “country” but to this day that’s the closest description I can give to it – and to this day, I’m not the biggest fan of it. By that point, I had been listening to live recordings of his most well-known solo track “Wedding Dress” for a year and a half, and the production on the studio record wasn’t for me.
With that in mind, I bailed on his live record The House Show(2004) and picked back up on his next studio record I See Things Upside Down(2004). This record knocked me on my butt sonically and lyrically. This was the dwebb record I wanted to hear. It was the first time in a long time that I had been challenged by a record and it proved to be the gift that kept on giving. As my obsession with one great song would start to wane, I would discover another more profound than the last.
It was probably a couple more years before I went back and listened to The House Show. The performances on that record are great, but pale in comparison to the points where Webb speaks on a variety of topics regarding personal faith and Christian culture. It was this experience that cemented me as more than a fan, but a loyalist.
From 2005 to 2011 Webb released a plethora of content – 4 studio albums including 1 instrumental, 2 compilations (acoustic versions and remixes), 2 duet EPs alongside his wife Sandra McCracken, and 2 quasi-fan-club cover records. They all had their highs and lows but the all pale in comparison to what he did next…
Last year Webb (un)officially dropped the “recording” from the front of “artist” when he took his fans on a journey of imagination with the events leading up to his two releases Nexus(with Josh Moore and Latifah Phillips under the moniker, “Sola-Mi”) and Ctrl. More than a couple of records, this was an experience complete with fake twitter accounts that would interact with each other, Webb, his friends, and fans, scavenger hunts across the country, promo videos for a non-existent film, and more. The resulting discovery was that the separately released records were in fact part of one whole with the Nexus album inserting within the Ctrl album between tracks 7 and 8.
And, while all of that is awesome, it was nothing on the level of how the Ctrl record, wrecked me emotionally. It is so beautifully crafted that no matter where you are, you can find yourself within it. I’m still on the journey that it started, and I hope it doesn’t end.
As mentioned at the outset, Webb has a new record on the table, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I LoveYou. In a manner of speaking, it is his reflection on the same 20 years I’ve outlined above. I’ll be posting some acoustic versions of the new songs over the next few weeks, I’ve got an interview with derek going up two weeks from now, and (of course) a review of the record on the official release day, so stay tuned.
In the meantime, you can get selections from his entire solo catalog completely free on Noisetrade (a site he co-created) so go catch yourself up.
Sometimes you’ve got to get outside your comfort zone. Sure, it’s become pretty well accepted that the suburban youth workers are going to listen to Lecrae, but for some reason the rest of gospel music still resides outside of the mainstream. (Now, I’m defining “mainstream” as your K-Love, KLTY, Air1 type of Christian radio.)
Sure, Kirk Franklin has had some crossover success, but there is still a wealth of other gospel artists that never get the recognition that they deserve. And I really don’t know why that is. I mean, I’ll put Kirk Franklin & The Family’s Whatcha Lookin 4 or Fred Hammond & Radical for Christ’s Pages of Life Vol. 2 up against anything that Passion has produced in the last 15 years as top-notch worship records.
This album is the latest effort by one of the godfathers of gospel music, Mr. Fred Hammond. You probably know the name. He’s been actively recording since 1985 with at least 25 albums on his resume as a solo artist, member of Commissioned, and with the choir Radical for Christ. The other members of United Tenors, you’ve probably never heard of. Eric Roberson has been recording since 2001 and has worked with the likes of Jill Scott and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Relative newcomer Brian Courtney Wilson has only one album to his credit, but it was enough to earn him a Dove nomination for New Artist of the Year (2010). Most impressive and surprising to me is Dave Hollister of Blackstreet (“No Diggity”) fame.
Gospel really is its own sound. It’s not R&B. It’s not soul. It’s not hip-hop. It’s gospel. The musicianship is amazing, especially the bass. If you’re a musician, you’ve got to at least appreciate the virtuosity of the players.
The album launches with a couple of high-impact, up-tempo numbers. You’re going to hear shades of Prince, P-Funk, Chicago, and some early 90’s hip-hop all mixed together. There’s bass, synth, and crazy drums on tracks like, “Unshakeable” and “Love You Like That.” There a number of more mellow, introspective tracks that, again, are very synth-heavy, such as “Never a Day” and “I Need You.” Occupying the middle ground are several tracks with thoroughly modern production featuring more sampled sounds that might be easier entry points for the uninitiated: “My God is Real,” and “I’m Reminded.”
You get your money’s worth here as well. The shortest song (out of 14), “Where Are You,” clocks in at 4:11. On the flipside, “Never a Day” is 8:04.
As the album title indicates, these guys are all tenors, which means that you’re not going to get the vocal range that you would with a more traditional vocal quartet. Rather, you’re going to stay in that boy band type of range. Think Boys II Men or NSYNC. What that’s going to give you is a really smooth, integrated quality. The harmonies are tight and even in the isolations it is hard to distinguish one vocalist from another.
I’ve been listening to Fred Hammond for 15+ years, so I recognize his voice and can say that he takes the lead on much of the record, but everyone has their chance to shine. The basic premise is: solo lead vocal on the verse, group vocal on the chorus, different lead on the next verse. There are some powerful moments of group vocals throughout a given song, most specifically, “Here in Our Praise.”
Maybe this is what they call “burying the lead.” I’ll call it “saving the best for last.” Here’s why this record (and in my experience, all of Gospel Music) is important. The message is clear: God is faithful. He won’t let you down. If you’re feeling good today, praise Him for what He’s done. If you’re feeling down today, remember where He’s brought you from (that’ll preach).
On Pages of Life Vol. 2, Hammond says, “We don’t praise Him because we want results. We praise Him because He’s good. And His mercy endures forever.” Boy, is this a word we need constant reminding of or what? This is the message throughout gospel music. So stretch yourself today and give this one a chance. It may be outside your comfort zone, and maybe that’s just what you need.