Rabbit Room Interview Part 2: Jason Gray

Rabbit Room Interview Part 2: Jason Gray

Now that Jason Gray has officially released his new album, it’s the ideal time to disclose the second half of our interview with the Minneapolis-based songwriter. If you missed Part One, you can hear all about the lead single “Remind Me Who I Am” there. Here, Jason discusses writing with Andy Gullahorn, confronting his fears and using the word “doppelganger” in an actual song.

Matt: The best place to start seems to be the title: A Way To See In The Dark. We were discussing identity earlier in our conversation as the album’s primary theme, so is the title an allusion to that? In other words, does our Christian identity provide a way to see in the dark?

Jason: Like I said earlier, I originally set out to write songs around the theme of identity, but later released myself from that and gave myself permission to write whatever songs came knocking. When I turned the songs in to John Mays, head of A&R and executive producer of the record, he wrote me an email saying something to the effect of: “the word fear comes up in almost every song. Do you need to talk to somebody or get some help?” I laughed about that and of course saw that he was right!

In the liner notes of the album, I wrote about the different kinds of darkness:

“The shame that leads us to forget that we are loved by God is a darkness that drives us, in the words of Waylon Jennings, to look ‘for love in all the wrong places…’

The fear that we are abandoned and alone, like Shakespeare’s ‘poor naked wretches… that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm’ is a darkness that tempts us to despair. The shadow of doubt that looms when life breaks our hearts is a kind of darkness that threatens to swallow us whole.

But into each of these comes an invitation – a call that is both simple and complicated, as easy as it is impossible. We are invited to trust, and in trusting to discover a new way of seeing that can lead us out of the dark. ‘Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,’ is how the writer to the Hebrews describes it.”

So identity is certainly a part of that – it’s having faith in God’s love for us on the days when the person in the mirror doesn’t look particularly worthy of love. Believing in our essential belovedness is a way of seeing in the dark – If I believe God loves me, that he’s invested and has indeed carved my name in the palm of his hand, well, that’s assuring, isn’t it?

I’m also thinking as you ask this of a conversation I had with Paul Mabury, the drummer for this record, about things that Christians do and take for granted but might look odd to those observing us. The way we pray in public came up and how it might look strange to people watching when we’re hanging out at a restaurant talking, laughing, and then the food comes and everybody looks down, closes their eyes, and starts mumbling. We talked about the virtues of praying with our eyes wide open, and as though Christ is seated at the table among us, and how meaningful that could be.

But afterwards I thought of how meaningful it could be, too, that we close our eyes. It could, if we let it, be an act of surrendering our vision, turning instead to another way of seeing: trust. At best, with our eyes wide open, we’re told we only see through a glass darkly. So why not abandon my vision (unreliable as it is weak) altogether – closing my eyes as I reach into the dark for the hand of the one who can see all things including my future? That’s what closing my eyes to pray means to me now.

Matt: That word fear is something you directly confront. I love that “No Thief Like Fear” isn’t some timid song, but something you’ve turned into a rousing sing-along of sorts. Purposeful?

Jason: Yeah, we wanted that one to feel kind of rowdy, with a kind of chorus that might feel at home in an Irish pub. Given the nature of fear, what it takes from us, it seemed like anger is an appropriate response, so it is a kind of angry anthem – as angry as a mild-mannered singer/songwriter can get with his acoustic guitar, anyway.

Matt: Any surprises for fans on the new release? A ‘where did that come from’ moment?

Jason: When I first met with producer Jason Ingram to talk about the sonic signature of this record, I did want to surprise my audience. My suggestion was to completely abandon the acoustic guitar and make it more programmy/keyboard driven like Vampire Weekend or Derek Webb’s recent work. Ingram said, “That’s funny, because I was thinking the opposite, that we should embrace your acoustic guitar playing this time out.” We then went back to his studio and wrote “Remind Me Who I Am” which is really acoustic driven, but then dressed it up with that synth part makes it feel kind of like Mumford & Sons meets Owl City – a convergence of our different sonic ideas for the record. That feels kind of surprising to me, but in a modest way.

There are maybe a couple surprises lyrically. I offer a level of self-disclosure that might surprise people in “Without Running Away”. The song “I Will Find A Way” that I wrote with Andy Gullahorn has a surprise ending that takes my breath away every time even though I know it’s coming.

Your question makes me think of the temptation for an artist to always try to blow people’s minds by doing something completely unexpected. A lot of that instinct is really good and nurtures compelling art, but another part of it can be ego driven, I think. At least in my own heart. These days I’m inclined to think there is also virtue to invisibility.

A certain kind of song can draw attention to the brilliance of the artist. Another kind of song can draw people deeper into their own story, where the artist and artistry mean less than the inner conversation it initiates. Does that make sense?

I remember I struggled with this on the last record with the song “The Golden Boy & The Prodigal” where I used the word “doppelganger” – I worried it was too flashy, that it drew too much attention to itself or to my vocabulary, or whatever. There was a time I would have loved that I got a 50 cent word like that into a song. But the fact that I wrestled with it here I think is growth for me.

Matt: Can you tell us more about writing with Gullahorn? Was that your first time together?

Jason: No, I’ve been lucky to write several songs with Andy, two that he’s even recorded for his own projects. Andy is one of my favorite writers and I still find it hard to believe he lets me hang out with him. He’s one of the cool kids. And he’s a decent bowler.

Andy is a great storyteller and fans of his music know that he’s really good at delivering the “twist” at the end of a song. He’s kind of like M. Night Shyamalan that way — when Shyamalan was still cool. The song “I Will Find A Way” was based on a piece that author Walt Wangerin wrote called “An Advent Monologue”, so we already had the story and the surprise ending, but I had worked on the song for about six years before stalling out on it. I think I was so afraid of failing the source material that I was paralyzed.

I brought it to Andy and he loved the idea as much as I did, and helped me bring it across the finish line. I had fleshed out parts of what are the middle verses of the song and had part of a chorus, but Andy immediately saw that it needed to begin at the beginning – that we needed to set the stage: “At the end of this run down tenement hall is the room of a girl I know…” Of course that’s where you begin! It’s so obvious now, but I couldn’t find it on my own. Once we had the way in, then the song kind of opened itself up to us.

Andy’s writing has such heart and emotion, and he helped me take the song beyond being conceptual to the kind of song that could break your heart open. I’m grateful that Andy cared about this one as much as I did, and together I think we wrote the best song I’ve ever been a part of. I should add, too, that as talented as Andy is, he’s so easy to write with – he’s a humble man (except maybe on the bowling lanes) and I never feel intimidated when I write with him, which says a lot about his character considering how gifted he is.

Matt: So what is the most important thing you’d want Rabbit Room readers to know about the new album?

Jason: Woooo, that’s kind of a big question. Well, I guess it’s less something I want them to know than it is something I would wish for them to feel. I hope people feel loved when they hear the songs.

I remember Fred Rogers talking about how he tried to focus all of his love into the camera when filming his show so that the children watching would feel love pouring into their living rooms. He talked about broadcasting grace throughout the land. I hope it’s not too immodest to say that I hope people have some kind of experience like that. I wrote the songs for them, in service to God, after all.

I tried to let that guide everything about the record. Even and especially the writing of the more commercially viable songs that we hoped might serve radio well. I have written with people in the past who want to write hits for their own sake and reward, but writing a pop song – a song that is easily understood and accessible to a broad audience but that isn’t pandering – can be a way of loving people. Writing a singer/songwriter kind of song like “I Will Find A Way” can also be a way of loving the kind of listener whose heart opens to those kinds of songs. The occasional use of the word “doppelganger” might be love to a certain segment of people, too.

The more I do this the more I think this is my job – to love my audience with the love of God. I hope I’m getting better at it and that it comes through the songs.