RR Interview: Jason Gray

picture-3.pngThe latest Rabbit Room interview shines a spotlight on Centricity singer/songwriter Jason Gray. Some of you might know Jason’s music from the brand new album he’s supposed to have by now but doesn’t because he’s taking absolutely forever to write anything new at all. When I asked him off the record about this delay, he said, “Those other imbeciles in the Rabbit Room will fart and then release it. Real genius takes time.” Ladies and gentlemen, we present Jason Gray.

Matt Conner: How did you end up meeting The Proprietor [AP] in the first place?

Jason Gray: Well, I was already a fan to begin with. We had the same booking agency for a time and when I was at their office they gave me his current record, “Love & Thunder”.  My wife and I listened to it as we drove south from there to shows in Florida and both of us started crying within the first few moments of that record.  There was something special about it.

Skip ahead several months and the Breen Agency sends me an offer to open for Andrew at a show he’s doing in Minneapolis.  I don’t think any pay is involved, but we wouldn’t have dreamed of missing it.  I think it was the day of the show that we spoke with the guy hosting the event and he tells me that he forgot I was coming and didn’t make room for me in the evening, etc.  We were already on our way there, so he told us to come and he’d work it out.  We got there and he wanted me to do like 10 minutes of music while people were walking in.

I told him that this wasn’t our cup of tea and that we’d rather just enjoy the show than go through the demoralizing experience of being background music while people found their seats.  I was disappointed with him and with the booking agency and it had soured the evening, so we thought of just leaving, but then I guess he talked to Andrew and Ben (Shive) and they worked me back into the evening.

It was so kind of Andrew and Ben to accommodate me – an unknown opening artist -  and in spite of all the confusion, it turned out to be a great night! We hung out and had dinner afterwards and became good friends.  Andrew offered to let me stay at his house the next time I was in Nashville and I’ve been stalking him ever since.

Matt: When/how did he first approach you about the Rabbit Room? And what drew you to be involved?

Jason: Well, inevitably whenever we would talk we would give each other book recommendations and it was clear that we shared a passion for similar kinds of authors and the worlds they created.  It became common for us to send each other books as gifts.  So when he started this venture, I assume I was a candidate because of that.  He asked me to be involved and I jumped at the chance!  I love being a contributor here because I can be a little self-indulgent and talk about stuff that I care about that I don’t get to anywhere else.  And I love the community and the varied and civil conversations that happen here.  It’s also a good place to meet girls.  (just kidding)

Matt: Since you brought up your live show, I’d love to know: how do people
describe an evening at a Jason Gray concert?

Jason: As the most amazing hour and half of their lives!  “I laughed!  I cried!  I grew hair behind my knees!”

Just kidding (I don’t know why I always feel compelled to let people know I’m “just kidding” even when it’s obvious).  I’ve been thinking hard about how to answer this… because it’s hard to talk about myself, especially in a positive light.  I’m afraid of sounding self-important or worse – foolish! – if I begin to talk about the virtues of the Jason Gray experience.  But Proverbs 27:21 says: “…man is tested by the praise he receives,” and any praise I receive usually is in regards to my live show.

I’m not necessarily an awe inspiring musician – I play mostly first position chords in standard tuning, no frills, and I’m a moderately capable singer (though I try to always sing and play with passion, to play and sing like I mean it), but what I think I’m best at is connecting with people.  I think I’m personable and self-effacing enough that an audience feels safe with me.  I’m a communicator more than anything else and I craft the ideas I want to share nearly as much as the songs I sing.  I share a lot of stories because people connect with stories, and I try to tell each story as if it were a song – it has to have a hook, a chorus (a central thought that I’ll return to) and some kind of turn in the “bridge” or “third verse”.

My view is that if people wanted to only listen to music they could do that with a CD in the comfort of their own home.  I’m assuming they want something more if they come to a concert, that they want something human.  So I try to bring my life to them, working out my salvation with fear and trembling up there behind the mic, trusting that it helps them do the same.

I think one of the reasons why people connect with me live is because of my obvious weakness.  As a stutterer, a part of what I feel called to do is explore the virtues of weakness – how God meets us and empowers us in our weakness.  I get to be the guy who comes and tells everyone that if they feel weak and unlikely that they are the ones who should be most expectant.  I’m grateful I get to be the one who brings this story, and I think many people who are crippled by shame and fear are grateful to hear it.

I’m not very cool, either – I’m a little awkward, too tall and gangly, and I talk funny.  I think my lack of coolness goes a long way toward my audiences feeling like they can open up, be vulnerable, and explore the mysteries of God’s grace with me.

I’m always told that my live show is my greatest strength, and the challenge has been to bring every other element of my ministry to the same level of “success” as the connection I enjoy with a live audience – a hard thing to translate into studio recordings and even live recordings.

Matt: Have you found that weakness of being a stutterer become a major inspiration to your own songwriting?

Jason: Well, less an inspiration at first than maybe something I had to learn to accommodate.  But limitations are always an artist’s greatest asset – it forces you into unexpected, unique places, and gives your work context.

I have to let people know early in my concerts that I’m a stutterer to help put them at ease (and avoid any awkward snickering from an audience who otherwise wouldn’t know any better).  Over time it became clear that this obvious weakness of mine is fertile ground for exploring God’s grace.  As I’ve met so many people over the years who are amazed that I can do what I do even though I have a speech impediment, it’s become clear that my greatest gift I can bring to the table is my weakness.  I get to be a trophy of God’s foolishness!  The existence of my ministry at all puts a face to the verse that says “God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.”

Of course, my speech is really the least significant of my weaknesses – but it is the safest and easiest weakness for my audience to digest.  I can start there and then slowly dig deeper with them, though, and hopefully by the end of the concert we’ve started to chip away at the shame that paralyzes so many of us – the fear that my weakness, handicap, depression, addiction, or failure disqualifies me from service.

But with my stuttering, I get to symbolically stand for the truth that God takes all those things – all of our brokenness – and turns them into our qualifications.  It’s an inspiring thought, really, so I guess you could say that it does inspire my work.  I try to be a good steward of my weakness.

Matt: Let’s say you had the Pauline option open to you, of sorts… that is, to have the ‘thorn removed.’ Would you choose to be free from stuttering?

Jason: Sometimes – especially when I have to call and order a pizza or do a radio interview.  Radio interviews are the worst!  Radio people can be a jumpy bunch anyway, with most of them nervous about any kind of dead space or awkwardness on air at all.  It also can throw your comedic timing off.

But I’ve long since accepted that this is just the way it is, so I do my best and trust God will use it.

I can honestly say that I no longer really long for that kind of healing.  If it came I’d be happy!  But I’m just as content to be a stutterer for the rest of my life.  It really has become one of my greatest assets.  It teaches me so much dependence and humility and I think makes me a safe place for others.  I think I’d be somewhat impoverished without it, and the same could be said for most of our suffering.

I think of Moses here, who – like most of us – when God speaks to him through the burning bush and tells him that He’s got a job for him to do, begins to tick off a list of why God picked the wrong man for the job, culminating in Moses pointing out the fact that he stutters and stammers and has never been impressive with his speech.  God graciously assures Moses not to worry, that He will be with him in all of this.  But Moses continues to protest and God puts a hard question to him:  “What’s in your hand?” He asks, which is not very polite in a way, since God is essentially reminding Moses of how far he has fallen.  The Prince of Egypt who was raised to perhaps wield a scepter is reduced to now to the lowly station of a shepherd.  “A staff” a humbled Moses must answer.

It seems that God is telling Moses and the rest of us that it doesn’t really matter what’s in our hands, what we think we can bring to the table.  All that matters is that we come to the table, and let God look after the rest.  One of the byproducts of all this is the fact that if we come and serve and work out of our weakness, those who are weak won’t be afraid of us, we become a safe place for others.  It’s much easier to talk with a person holding a staff than it is to talk to one who is holding a scepter.

I’ve often thought about how from Junior high on we begin posturing, playing the game of hiding our weakness while exaggerating our virtues.  We start living a lie and we begin our life-long obsession with hiding from those around us, exerting so much energy to project the best version of ourselves, constantly afraid of being found out.

The gift of my stuttering is that I never really had much chance of learning how to hide.  Every time I opened my mouth it was clear that something was wrong with Jason, and so I’ve always had to be up front that, yes, something is wrong with Jason.  It starts with the way I talk, but that’s just the beginning!  My brokenness goes much deeper than just a speech impediment.  My stuttering is the beginning of a conversation about all that’s broken in all of us.

In many ways it has helped undo the power of shame in my life.  It’s hard to wish it away when you think of it in that context.  Humiliation has the potential to set you free of the fear of men, and I couldn’t have asked for much more of a bearable humiliation.