Last night I tromped down the hill with a hammer, six wooden stakes, and a spool of fishing line to do battle with deer. But it’s not what you think. As far as I know there are no vampire deer in the neighborhood. No, our deer are the usual docile, graceful, and enormously frustrating sort. Frustrating because I’m a wannabe gardener, and they seem to think I’m doing all this work for them.
I planted a pumpkin patch down in the lower part of the yard, just past the young willow tree. I’ve never had much luck with pumpkins, so this year I went all-out. My kind neighbor brought his tractor down the hill and turned the ground, revealing darker soil than further up where I plant my corn. When it rains a lot (well, when it used to rain a lot) I can’t even mow this spot for fear of getting stuck in all that soggy grass–which is why I planted the thirsty willow tree there last year. I’m guessing all that moisture and runoff has been feeding this little section of the yard for a hundred years. Now, by golly, that soil was going to feed my pumpkins.
The lame duck period is, well, pretty lame. The months during the making of a record are equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, and the months of touring and supporting the record are the same. But the period of time between the two, when the artwork is finished, the album is mastered, it’s sent off to the presses, then packaged and shoved into a Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse to await its eventual shipment—that part is fairly maddening.
I don’t write songs just for my own pleasure, after all; these are for you. Sure, I may get some enjoyment out of the process, and there are residual blessings that come from the writing and production of the music, but the real thrill for me has always been the mysterious way songs (and whatever light lives in them) have the potential to find their way into the world, into your ears, and, hopefully, your hearts. That you would give them that chance is a great honor, and my great hope for the album.
When I was a boy my dad consistently called on a wrinkled old sage named Mortimer Hawk to offer the closing prayer at church. He was so old that the congregation’s stillness deepened as soon as he opened his mouth. “Most Holy Father,” he quietly boomed. (I know that sounds impossible, but that’s how I remember it; he boomed—quietly. Honest.) “We thank Thee for Thy bounty, and humbly seek Thy guidance as we depart this place to proclaim in word and deed Thy merciful affection.”
So he began. That’s not verbatim, but it’s the general vibe of Mortimer’s weekly supplication. The way he pronounced every “Thee” and “Thy” assured me that in his mind they were capitalized. He transported the whole church back about a hundred years, and reminded us how rich and humble a prayer could be. And that was the weird thing—he didn’t speak that way in normal conversation; he reserved his King James prayers for church, but somehow it never struck me as pretentious or put-on. It was merely this humble old saint’s way of honoring the King to whom he spoke. He didn’t pepper his prayer with mindless repetition (“FatherGod, we pray, FatherGod, that you, Jesus, FatherGod, Jesus, would be with us, Jesus, God”, etc.), a habit many of us have acquired which strikes me as dangerously close to “babbling like the pagans do” (Matthew 6:7). My guess is that this odd repetition that’s so pervasive in our prayers is either nervous habit, an oratory device employed to buy us time to think of what to say next, or maybe we’ve grown up thinking it’s just what you’re supposed to do. I’m sure someone out there will demonstrate that I’m wrong to reference that verse here—but hopefully you see what I’m saying: sometimes our public prayers are padded with nice sounding words and phrases that don’t mean a whole lot. (This is what is known on the Internet as “opening a can of worms.”)
The Peterson family just started reading The Lord of the Rings aloud this summer and I’ve been nerding out a bit more than usual (which is saying something). I thought I’d re-post this piece from four (four!) years ago.
So my nine-year-old son Aedan just finished reading Tolkien’s The Return of the King for the first time.
He came downstairs after he finished and we talked about the ending, about the mysterious Undying Lands to which the elves were compelled to go; about how happy and sad he was for Sam, who had a family and a home in a restored Shire but who had to go on without his dearest friend; the bittersweetness of Frodo’s farewell at the Grey Havens. I can’t imagine a more poignant or complete ending to the story.
I told him that Ben Shive wrote a song about the Grey Havens, and I played him that song from The Far Country while he read through the lyrics. (I don’t normally push my own music on the kids, so he wasn’t too familiar with it.) I was impressed all over again at what a great writer Ben is, not to mention Tolkien.
What is it about that idea of being wounded and ill-at-ease in our present condition that resonates with me so? Obviously, it’s because I’m wounded and ill-at-ease. Much of the time I feel content with my lot, and why shouldn’t I? Most of the people reading this have been blessed with the means at least to own a computer, and the leisure at which to browse websites with it. You have the ability to read, to see, to think, to type. What could we complain about? Well, about the fact that our hearts are crippled and weak. Our literal eyes may be able to see, but the eyes of our hearts are often so bloodshot and weary that our souls trip and fall.
This is a transcript of my opening remarks at Hutchmoot 2011, revised slightly to work as a post here. In case the spirit of the thing comes across as actual irritation, let me say that this is intended to be good-natured ranting, if there is such a thing. I have a lot of friends who use the terminology I’m poking fun at, and the last thing I want is to make enemies. This is just me raising my hand from the back of the class to ask if there’s a better way to think about the subject. –The Proprietor
Allow me to kick off Hutchmoot 2011 with a complaint.
Many of you have heard of “verbing”: the practice of using a noun as a verb. The very word “verbing” is a case in point. Other examples: friend, spam, and Google. You “table” a discussion. Concerts get “booked.” I get it. Language is a fluid thing, and part of the beauty of it is the way it changes with the times. Still, as Calvin said to Hobbes, “Verbing weirds language.”
Allow me to dialogue a little more with you about it. (See what I did there?)
There’s another word that’s popped up recently, and every time I’ve heard it or read it I’ve had some kind of reaction. It’s not a noun that’s been verbed—rather, it’s an adjective that’s been nouned. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I just verbed the adjective-ing of “noun,” and in this very sentence verbed “adjective” too.
Nouning verbs is a little more difficult, but it happens every time I go on a run. It happened a few minutes ago when I stood in line for Evie’s cooking. I thought to myself, “Gimme some eats.” And Evie, in a brazen case of verbing two nouns and employing two nouned adjectives, with some hyperbole thrown in, likely thought to herself, “If Andrew comes back for thirds I’m going to fork him in the innards, and he won’t stomach that for a second.”
I’m certain that made no sense. Let me be clear: this phenomenon is nothing new, nor is it wrong. It’s one of the things I love about language. But let me get to the point. The word I’m talking about, the one that galls me a little, is this: “creative.” I keep hearing people refer to themselves not as creative but as creatives. As in, “I’m a creative who works in the ministry,” or on the occasional Twitter bio, “I’m a wife, a mother, and a creative living in Punxatawney, PA.” I’m sure some of you are in this room, and that’s fine. But let me push back just a little, lest this “creatives” thing get out of hand.
I just got word that we’re allowed to show you the cover for the new record. When the folks at the label told me they wanted Katie Moore to do the cover I headed straight to her website. I was pleasantly surprised that I was already familiar with her work (with the Civil Wars, Leagues, Ingrid Michaelson and Trent Dabbs, to name a few) and even owned several of the albums. We met and I blathered for about an hour about the songs on Light for the Lost Boy. At one point I told her that I kept picturing a boy in the woods with a lantern. I said it bashfully because I doubted it would make a good cover. Well, a few weeks later she sent several ideas and everyone who saw this knew right away that it was the one. Thank you Katie, and thank you Centricity Music for signing her up to work on it.
Just for laughs, I’m including a link so you can download a screensaver, and you can also click the image below for a high resolution version of the cover. Can’t wait for you guys to hear the record in August.
“We really didn’t know what this was going to be when we started recording it, but it’s kind of turned into this story that we didn’t anticipate telling–the story of our lives for the past three years.”
That’s Caleb Chapman describing his band’s newest EP, To the Ends of the World. I met Caleb on tour last fall and immediately enjoyed his company. He was 22 years old and had already been married for a few years. I enjoy the look of surprise on folks’ faces when I tell them that I got married when I was 20, but there I sat, registering the same look when Caleb told me he had one-upped me by a year. I must watch this young grasshopper closely, I thought as I stroked my beard. I knew he had a band, and that Brent Milligan (whom I’ve known for several years via his excellent production of a few Eric Peters records) had produced their latest album. I also knew Caleb’s dad (this guy named Steven).
What I didn’t know was that their music would make me ugly-cry while jogging. Several times, in fact. As soon as To the Ends of the World released I bought it, and as soon as I listened to it I loved it. It sounded like a combination of Coldplay, The Killers, and Switchfoot. It sounded fresh and full of energy and joy. But what caught my ear from the beginning wasn’t just the sound. It was the story.
I just stumbled upon this post from 2007 and was shocked by what I read. Shocked, because five years ago I seemed a few degrees wiser than I feel today. Jamie and I are in the middle of some pretty huge, life-altering decisions right now (good things, don’t worry)–decisions so big that I cried myself to sleep last night, my spirit assaulted with worry and fear. The thing about worry is that it exposes how little faith we really have. It’s something I’m discovering over and over lately, though I hate to admit it. God help my unbelief. –AP
I recently had a good, long phone conversation with a singer-songwriter about that grand old subject, Getting Started in the Music Business. He’s recorded an album but hasn’t yet taken the leap into full-time music and was asking me for some advice on the matter.
The problem is, I don’t know what kind of practical career advice to give, because what worked in my case might not (and probably won’t) work for you. I loved a pretty girl in college. I also loved to make music. I was deeply frightened that I had to choose between her and the songs, and late one night my old friend Adam said, “If God wants you to play music, dummy, you’ll play music whether you’re married or not.” So I married the girl.
On the other hand, I gave similar advice to some guy many years ago and a few months back, after one of my shows, his heartbroken ex-wife told me through tears that he had left her because he thought she was holding back his music career. It’s a good thing I don’t know where he lives, or I’d have a mind to throttle him. “If you marry the girl, dummy, God wants you to stay married, music career be damned,” I’d say.
On this fine Tuesday, allow me to brighten your day with this beautiful cover by two of my favorite people (and neighbors, more-or-less) of one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite songwriters. That’s FOUR favorites in one video. Seriously, Don and Lori Chaffer are delightful and crazy talented. If you’ve never dug into Waterdeep (or Paul Simon), here’s a good reason to correct that.
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.