Last summer I was at my trusty Starbucks working on a Rabbit Room post when I got a phone call that changed the last five months of my life. It was my manager, Christie, asking if I’d be interested in going on tour with Steven Curtis Chapman. I remember pacing outside, processing the invitation. I knew I had to say yes, but I tried to play it cool and told her I had to think about it. In truth, I did have to think about it, but only because I was so excited; knee-jerk excitement can lead to bad decision making, and I wanted to be sure that it was the right thing for my family.
I came home for lunch and told Jamie about it, and her knee-jerk excitement affirmed my own. A day or two later I accepted the invitation and not long after that the Songs and Stories tour with Steven and Josh Wilson was confirmed. To make the deal even sweeter, Steven asked Ben Shive to be his piano player for the tour, which meant I would be on the road with one of my best friends. I spent the rest of the summer and fall swinging between disbelief and mounting excitement until the day I showed up for rehearsal. Contrary to my cynical expectation that the tour would somehow fall through, I was undeniably there, in the rehearsal studio with Steven and Josh and a world class band.
Today I’m sitting in Starbucks again, this time in Lakeland, Florida, a day away from the end of the tour, trying to think of a way to sum up the last forty-five shows.
Someone pointed me to this letter the other day, and the author (James K. A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College) gave us permission to re-post it here. As someone who has been in hundreds of churches over the years, I resonate with much of what Smith says. I’ve wanted to write something similar before, but didn’t because I didn’t want it to be seen as some veiled critique of my own church—a church I love.
This is a touchy subject, and it’s easy to get opinionated without affording much grace toward the music leaders. I agreed to lead the songs one Sunday at our church a few years ago, and by the time I had chosen the songs, learned the songs, chosen the keys, prepared the slides, called the band, rehearsed with the band, soundchecked with the band, and played in the service I was exhausted. My week was shot. I learned two things: 1) music leaders at churches work harder than most people realize, and 2) never agree to lead songs at church again if you hope to get anything else done that week.
If you’re not familiar with Josh Ritter’s music, here’s a piece I wrote about my discovery and ensuing fandom of his songwriting. He just released a new EP of lullabies called Bringing in the Darlings, and this video from one of the songs was fairly mind-blowing. Here’s what one of the folks at Etsy.com had to say about the making of the video:
In part one, I talked about the outset of the journey. Part two was a look back at the lack of pattern over the years, which explains the appropriate lack of readiness, which, while uncomfortable, can be very good thing. In this post, thanks to your excellent feedback, I’m going to try and get more specific about the process and try to answer some of your questions.
Right off the bat, let me address this question a few of you asked: Which comes first, the lyrics or the music? This question has been asked of songwriters for as long as there has been songwriting, I imagine. The answer isn’t very satisfying, I’m afraid, which may be why it keeps coming up. The answer is “Yes.” Or, if you prefer, “D) All the above.” Sometimes the lyric comes first, sometimes the music comes first, and sometimes they come all at once, like the doorbell and the phone ringing at the same time. When someone claims to have discovered a foolproof method for creating art—other than a willingness to work very hard at it—I doubt either their honesty or their skill.
I’d dig into that more, but I want to get us back to the studio. Reading through your questions, I realized the best way to approach this may be to choose a song from the new record and give you a play-by-play of what we ended up doing.
Like I said in part one, this isn’t meant to be a definitive piece on record making, because there are a zillion ways to approach it. I just did the math and realized this is my eighth studio record. That doesn’t include live stuff or Walk or the Slugs & Bugs CDs, nor does it include occasional shorter recording sessions like “Holy is the Lord” (for City on a Hill) or the appendices A, C, or M. I only say that to say that as I look back at all those sessions, one of the only patterns that emerges is a lack of pattern. This may be super-boring, but just for fun I’m going to try and remember a thing or two about the making of those records.
Walk (1996): I mention it here because even though it was an independent record, it was my first time in a legit studio with legit musicians. It was recorded in three days by my buddy Mark Claassen, who was interning at a studio that let us use a room after hours. To be honest, I remember little about the process except that it was maddeningly rushed. Also, we had no idea what we were doing (but we felt really cool doing it).
This post should really be called, “How We Make a Record”, or even “How We’re Making This Record”. There are a thousand ways to skin a cat, or to write a song, or to make a chocolate chip cookie–this just happens to be our recipe. That said, in some ways I’m still as mystified by it as I ever was.
I remember lying on my bed in high school with two cabinet speakers on either side of my head, listening to Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason, getting delightfully lost in the music and wondering how on earth this band of Brits transferred their music to two-inch tape, then to cassette, then to the record store, then to Lake Butler, Florida, to my speakers, to my ears, and finally to my adolescent noggin.
I discovered this through (I think) my pal Brannon McAllister, co-founder of the now-defunct Portland Studios (click here for a bittersweet farewell painting by our friend Justin Gerard). I was lamenting the absence of Portland’s wonder-inspiring internet presence, and he pointed me to Moonbot Studios.
I don’t know much about them other than that they’re based in Louisiana and they produced this beautiful animated short film about stories–sort of. At the very least, it’s for anyone who’s ever suspected that books were magical. I immediately bought the film for a few bucks on iTunes, but I recently discovered it on Vimeo for your free viewing pleasure. There are worse ways you could spend fifteen minutes today.
It was a delight to learn just a few days ago that it’s been nominated for an Academy Award. (Congratulations, Moonbots.) And besides, won’t it be nice to seem so very in-the-know when you’re watching the Oscars with your friends and you can mention offhand that you’ve actually seen one of the short films?
I wrote this a few months back, but it came to mind today because I spent hours this week wrestling with a song. Knowing that I’m recording it in a matter of days ramps up the pressure to get it right–or, as right as I can get it. It’s a relief sometimes to remember that, as hard as I try to say what I mean to the listener, in the end, the song (or poem) is going to do whatever it wants.
Happy Thanksgiving, Rabbit Roomers. I posted this poem last year and thought I’d dust it off again this week. Reading it just now for the first time since last November, I can’t decide if I like it more or less than I did when I wrote it. I remember that I was thinking of a poem by Berryman that I once heard Garrison Keillor read (I can’t remember which), but I gave up on all that by the tenth line and let the thing go wherever it wanted. Whether or not you enjoy the poem, I pray your time with family and/or friends is peaceful and that you remember in all your feasting that it’s but a shadow of what is to come.
(A CONFESSION AND A PLEA TO THE ALMIGHTY)
O God, Magnificent Confounder,
Boundless in mercy and power,
Be near me in my apathy.
Be near me, Savage Dreamer,
Bright Igniter of Exploding Suns,
But not too near. I’d like to live,
By your grace, just long enough
To taste another perfect steak.
And to see my children marry,
And, perhaps, to pen a memoir.
Great redeemer of my lechery,
Bright Dawn of Blessed Hope,
Lay waste to every prideful thing,
Each black infraction of your law.
O Swirling Storm of Holy Anger,
Be patient with me. I’m certain
I will make a second gluttonous
Trip to the festal spread of food.
And I might as well admit, O King
Omniscient, I plan to make a third.
I just read this passage from a sermon by George MacDonald in a book called George MacDonald in the Pulpit (published by Johannesen) and it reminded me again why I so love the man’s writings. Here’s the sermon heading:
THE UNEXPECTED GUEST
A Discourse Delivered in the
Union Park Congregational Church, Chicago, Illinois
Sunday Evening, April 13th, 1873
“Behold I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” —Revelation iii. 20.
Hutchmoot 2011 is adjourned. Tonight after everyone went home and we locked up the church, Jennifer, Pete, Shauna, Jamie and I sat around with full bellies and thankful hearts and read your comment cards aloud. Just like last year, it was one of my favorite parts of the event.
The tension eased from our shoulders and we spent a few hours enjoying the quiet, the afterglow of a joyful few days, and stories about our favorite moments. We made notes of some of the great suggestions for next year and were encouraged by your comments about this year. Once again, it seems everyone loved the food. You also loved the community, the storytelling, the conversations, the new friendships forged, the masseuse (yes, there was a masseuse), the coffee, the music, and the story about Thomas McKenzie blowing up the Taylor Mart. (I won’t mention Andrew Osenga’s story.)
If you weren’t here this weekend, never fear. Assuming the recordings turned out, we’re planning to post some of the sessions as podcasts in the near future, and I’m sure some of the presenters will post their talks as pieces sooner or later. In the meantime, we’d love to read about your experiences, your impressions, or your revelations. Also, if you’re a blogger or an artist or have a website and you want to share it with other attendees, here’s the place. We meant to compile a list at the ‘Moot but didn’t get to it in time.
On behalf of Pete and the rest of the Rabbit Room crew, thank you for coming. Your presence was an immense blessing.
Note: I wrote this a few years ago for a CCM article. I can’t remember if it was ever published, so I dug it out in honor of the man whose music and ministry quite literally changed my life. As of this week, Rich has been dead for fourteen years, but his music and memory are very much alive.
Today I drove across the flat, wide prairie that lies at the feet of the Grand Tetons. My wife of twelve years and our three children were with me on the journey, and as is our custom on long trips, we let the kids take turns choosing the music. We listened to Riders in the Sky (the best cowboy music around), the soundtrack to Silverado (the best Western film score ever), and some Sara Groves (who doesn’t have much at all to do with the Wild West, but who was a welcome salve after ten hours of the kids choosing the aforementioned music).
Then we rounded the bend at sunset and there before us stood those craggy Tetons, all gray stone with white snow tucked into the fissures. The clouds were gold with sunlight and long, misty fingers of rain dangled from them, caressing the peaks and the aspen- and fir-covered shoulders of the range.
Who else but Rich Mullins could write music that would adequately suit a scene like that? I asked for the iPod, selected A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, and we drove the next forty-five minutes without speaking. We weren’t speaking because we were being spoken to.
I’m pleased to announce the release of a new album: Above These City Lights (Live). (Get it here.)
We recorded it last fall on the Counting Stars release tour, and then things got busy. Not only did we immediately hit the road for the Christmas tour, I spent all Spring writing The Monster in the Hollows. Meanwhile, the indubitable Todd Robbins . . .
One of my favorite storytellers doesn’t write books. He doesn’t write songs, either. But his stories quicken my imagination and teach me about beauty and light and the mind of God. He’s an artist and illustrator named Justin Gerard, and I’m pleased to let you know that he’s our official artist-in-residence for Hutchmoot 2011.
I discovered Justin Gerard years ago via his involvement with Portland Studios, an art studio in Greenville, South Carolina. He painted the cover of my 2005 album The Far Country, the cover illustration for On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, and has illustrated two of the three Wingfeather Saga books. Yes, ladies and germs, that makes me a fan.
It’s not just that his pictures are amazing. It’s that they flip on a light switch deep in my heart, in the room where the ten-year-old boy inside me sleeps. Justin’s pictures yank back that kid’s covers and tell him to get outside and play. More than once, I’ve looked at a new painting or sketch on his blog and had my mind flooded with unwritten stories, stories about wise old monsters and epic battles fought on the backs of giant, noble birds.
I’m pleased and proud to let you know that my dear friend Ben Shive‘s newest collection of songs is now available for pre-order and/or immediate download here in the Rabbit Room. These songs are quirky, brilliant, poetic, and joyful—and the lyrics are smack-your-forehead good. I’m being serious when I say that I don’t know of any songwriter on earth who could make an album like this—one with pop hooks, chamber strings, great sounds, intricate poetry, and on top of that, Scriptural allusions galore. As the proprietor of this establishment, I implore you to download this record (or pre-order the disc) and listen to it eighteen times in a row, as I did when I first heard it. Then sit back and thank God that there are true believers in the world who are using their gifts for the glory of the Giver.
When I introduce Ben at concerts I usually say that he’s a great poet and that he knows the Bible better than most people I know. Well, as you’re about to see, he’s also a great writer. Ben’s working in conjunction with a 14-year-old prodigy of an illustrator named Benji Anderson to produce a Shel Silverstein-meets-Tim Burton-esque book as a companion to The Cymbal Crashing Clouds and wrote the following about his writing process for the song “Listen!”. It’s a fascinating read, whether you’re a songwriter or not. (We’re putting the audio player at the top of the post so you can listen as you read along.)
Before this album was The Cymbal Crashing Clouds, I was calling it The Animist. (I called it this mostly to myself; no one else cares what I’m thinking of writing next.) The idea came to me one day when my brother remarked that my son, Jude, was “a little animist,” talking to his trains and plastic men as if they had eternal souls. I overheard this and thought that I would love to write an album of songs ascribing souls—or at least voices—to inanimate, everyday things. I later abandoned the title because of its pagan implications. But The Cymbal Crashing Clouds is really just another way of getting at the same idea.
Seconds after my brother’s comment, I also knew that if I were to write such an album I would like it to begin with a prelude much like the one to William Blake’s in Songs Of Innocence. In it, I would meet the muse in some form and be sent to write the songs that followed. You could think of it a prophetic vision of sorts, though I’m certainly not a prophet.