After months of hard work, Love Will Have The Final Word is finally finished, released, and in listeners’ hands. The record is more intentionally acoustic, but is less about sonic reinvention than it is about emotional vulnerability. To mix things up musically this go around, I did something I’ve never done before—splitting the project between two different producers: Jason Ingram and Cason Cooley.
Wanting to build on the momentum of our earlier collaborations that have connected at radio, I re-teamed with Jason Ingram for seven of the eleven tracks. I love getting to chase after songs with him that we hope have legitimate commercial viability as well as a sonic distinctive and both heart and something worth saying. But I also had such an amazing experience working with Cason Cooley on my Christmas record that I couldn’t imagine making a record without him. With Centricity (my label) feeling confident that the commercial considerations were in place, the remaining five tracks were more or less our playground.
[Editor’s note: Today is release day for Jason’s new record. Click here to order.]
Following is the piece I wrote as an essay for the special edition of my new record, Love Will Have The Final Word.
The suffering of others can make us talkative, loosening the tongues of even the most timid among us. We mean well, we want to help, but more often than not we end up being like Job’s comforters: doing more harm than good by offering half-baked answers, which are no comfort at all and leave the hearer feeling even more alone. When we do this we are asking the suffering person to be okay, to cheer up, and in doing so we are rejecting their pain.
The loneliness of our own suffering can make us introspective. It can lead us into the shame and regret buried deep in our hearts, warranted or not (a friend of mine who had a miscarriage told me that all she wanted to say over and over again was, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” though she had done nothing for which she needed to apologize). In this we see how pain has the power to unearth our deepest wounds, driving them to the surface where perhaps God can begin to heal them.
Several years ago, I experienced one of the most healing moments of my life. It happened in the back lounge of a tour bus. I had just poured out my broken heart to my friend, Andy Gullahorn, when I recognized in the silence that fell between us that I was bracing myself for what he would say next. Would he try to fix me? Correct me? Would he reject my pain by offering answers?
“With Every Act of Love” was the last song to be written for my new record. Knowing I didn’t really have a song that felt like the lead single, I turned to N. T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope for inspiration in a writing session with my friend Jason Ingram. I enjoy the idea of taking a compelling theologian’s idea and shaping it into a pop song that might extend the idea’s reach. What follows is the essay I wrote that is included in the Special Edition of my new record.
With Every Act Of Love
A doorway placed on a set or in a scene is often a sign of new possibilities. A wall divides worlds, and the door is a portal between them, a passageway through which change can enter from one world into another.
In his book, Surprised By Hope, N. T. Wright reminds us that though we live in the world of men, the Kingdom of God is always at hand. Statements such as “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through” are meant to affirm a deeper reality beyond reality, but they may tempt us to imagine Christianity as an ideology of evacuation and abandonment.
I’m grateful to be able to announce the official “Nothing Is Wasted” music video! Several weeks ago, I wrote a piece about how “Nothing Is Wasted” came to be chosen as the next single and why a new mix was made for radio.(You can read that here.)
Once it was decided what the next single would be, our talk turned to what kind of concept would shape the video to accompany it. We decided to gather the team who brought “Remind Me Who I Am” to life: Doug McKelvey and Darren Thomas as well as Jonathan Richter, whose art I’ve admired for years (check out Doug and Jonathan’s remarkable collaboration, “Subjects With Objects”—a book of Jonathan’s paintings and Doug’s interpretations).
The idea was to create a miniature world with scenes of brokenness and loss that I would sing over as an outside observer. As we talked about what kinds of symbols to use in our wasteland, we hoped to strike the balance of images that were not too obvious or heavy handed but that still had emotional resonance. We brainstormed a list of visual elements we hoped would gently evoke loss and regret.
In 2003 I was a dreaming indie artist meeting with people in Nashville who I hoped might champion my music and make life a little easier by rescuing me from obscurity (oh how naïve I was about the way the music business worked). I’d had many such meetings over the years, but this one was different—in my mind at least—because I was finally learning how to write the kind of pop songs I hoped might make me attractive to a label.
During that trip, one of the people I met with gave me a stack of CDs for my drive home. Among them was Love & Thunder by Andrew Peterson. It was the first CD I put in my player and it ended up being the only one I listened to for my six hour drive that day.
Before a word was sung, I was surprised to find tears in my eyes, tears that would accompany me through the entire record as not only the artistry but also the spirit of the music stirred deep waters in me. “What am I doing?” I kept asking myself, reassessing my own music and the kinds of songs I was writing in hopes of courting the attention of the Christian music industry.
I still believe that accessible pop songs with a broad appeal as well as a heart and a brain are the hardest kind of songs to write, and therefore the kind of challenge I still really enjoy, but certain ambitions in my heart were laid to rest that day and new ones were taken up. All these years later Andrew Peterson’s work remains an inspiration and a guiding light to me. He is one of my heroes. He is also one of my great friends.
When Centricity is considering which song should be the next single to promote to radio, they will do “pre-testing”, which means they hire a service who plays a portion of the song (sometimes only 8 to 16 seconds of it) for the target demographic of listeners. If it scores poorly, it’s not a single. If it scores well, then that becomes part of the case they’ll build when talking with radio about the song.
If you’re anything like me, this whole business of pre-testing 8 to 16 seconds of a song is . . . discouraging. What happened to listening to a song? And what happened to the romantic image of DJs who played music because they believed in it? Well, that still happens, too. And while it’s tempting to feel “pre-testing” lacks soul and conviction . . . well, I guess I just don’t want to give any more energy to judging it (or anything else for that matter).
I bring it up, though, to highlight one of the reasons I’m so grateful for my label, Centricity Music. As they wondered about what the next single would be, pre-testing revealed a clear front-runner. However, as we talked about it (and please understand what a remarkable thing it is that I get to be a part of the conversation!), their conviction was that, though it wasn’t the obvious choice, “Nothing Is Wasted” is the song they think people need to hear most. I’m beyond grateful for their belief and willingness to go with their heart on this rather than the numbers.
We recorded two versions of the song—the album version and then the solo piano alternate version for the Special Edition—but neither were deemed radio ready, so a remix was proposed. I get a little nervous about that kind of thing because it’s often the best way to ruin a perfectly good song. But when they decided to hire Ben Shive (producer of Andrew Peterson’s last four records), I got excited.
The other night while we were washing dishes, my son Jacob said he’d seen a trailer for a movie he wanted to see. “Oh yeah? Which one?” I asked.
“The new Red Dawn.”
“Ugh.” I said. “Why would you want to see that one? You know they’ve been sitting on it for a couple of years because they knew it was a stinker. I think they’re only releasing it now because it’s got Thor and Peeta in it and they’re hoping they can cash in on their popularity and at least get something back for their poor investment.”
Jacob continued, unfazed. “It’s also got an actor in it who I used to love when I was a kid—Josh from Nickelodeon’s Drake and Josh. I’d really like to see what he’s doing now.”
Undeterred, I continued my diatribe. “Well, I loved the original when I was a kid in the ’80s, but this one got TERRIBLE reviews. It’s going to be bad. I’m just telling you because I don’t want you to waste your money.”
About the time these last words came out of my mouth, I began to realize how much of a self-righteous jerk I was being. Unfortunately this is not uncommon for me—I can be oppressively opinionated and uppity. By God’s grace, however, I am learning to recognize it better and quicker. I’m so grateful for growing conviction, the evidence that God is still at work in my life.
There are two songs on “Christmas Stories” that are meant to give context and a theme for the rest of the record. I wanted to take kind of a bird’s eye view of Christmas here and now before zooming in on the characters in the Christmas narrative.
“Christmas Is Coming” and “Children Again” open and close the record and I imagine them as bookends with the stories of the Christmas characters lined up on the shelf between them. They’re both about my belief that Christmas is an invitation to be restored and renewed, that Christ comes as a child to make us children again.
Here are a couple videos we made about these two songs:
Since we’re fast approaching Halloween, I couldn’t resist an opportunity to write about one of my favorite books of the last few years: Russell Kirk’s Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales.
I’m not typically a reader of scary books or ghost tales, but my wife Taya and I read a review of this book (in some intelligent faith-based magazine whose title escapes me now) prompting me to give it to her as a birthday gift. She gushed about it after reading it and told me I HAD to read it right away. Reluctant at first, I finally got around to it this summer and was immediately hooked.
As I approached writing songs for each of the characters in the Christmas story, I felt particularly protective of Joseph, who I think sometimes doesn’t get the attention he’s due. At the very least I know that I’ve been guilty of not really “seeing” him for the remarkable man that he was, and I wanted to amend that. I enlisted my friend Andy Gullahorn, one of the most masterful storytellers I know, to explore a particular moment in Joseph’s story with me.
Taking my cue from Frederick Buechner’s book, “Peculiar Treasures,” in which he breathes new life into biblical characters who have grown so familiar to us that we no longer experience them as real human beings, I hoped to recapture some of the humanity of the people in the Christmas narrative. It was also important to me to try and write songs that were relevant beyond the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas day. I wanted to tell timeless human stories, and with Joseph we have the makings of just that with a love triangle, a question of revenge or forgiveness, and the age old drama of fathers and sons.
Christmas greetings from the Gray household! I know that normally it’s a little early to be thinking about Christmas, and I’m typically a take-one-holiday-at-a-time kind of guy—we haven’t even had Halloween (don’t get me started) or Thanksgiving yet! But though the weather outside isn’t frightful, Christmas has come early to our little corner of the world with the release of my Christmas Stories: Repeat The Sounding Joy.
But before I get into that, a word about another record that you probably all know and love and that in its way shaped my record.
I’ve always been inspired by Andrew Peterson’s Behold The Lamb of God: The True Tall Tale of The Coming Of Christ—not only for the beauty and AP-ishness of it, but also for the daring scope and sheer nerve of it. It stands in opposition to all the prevailing wisdom of the music business. Simply put, if you want to make a Christmas record that won’t sell, make one like Behold The Lamb Of God. It’s too conceptual, too heady, and not Christmas-y enough for your average holiday music consumer to buy into. His own record label at the time didn’t believe in it and passed on it.
But Andrew did it anyway. All on his own. And the punchline of the story is that—as I understand it—it’s his best-selling record to date.
[Editor’s Note: Jason’s new album, Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy, releases on October 9th. You can now pre-order it now from the Rabbit Room store, in both physical and digital formats. Download two songs immediately when you pre-order: “Christmas Is Coming,” written with our own Randall Goodgame, and “Easier.”]
“Easier” was anything but easy to write and is the song that gave me the most trouble as I wrote it with my friend Joel Hanson. When we started it I knew right away that I really cared about this song, which always complicates things because I start to get nervous about failing it!
I recently spoke at a songwriting workshop and used this song as an example of how many drafts you might write before you find the final iteration of a song. I wrote pages and pages of lyrics (I just went back and counted: a total of 42 pages). At one point I pared the song down to 7 minutes and it had this extra bridge that I really liked. But less was more and I remember the day when I finally surrendered, threw away about half the song—including parts I really loved—and finally found a way through to the end. It helps me to test a song by playing it for real people, so I played it one night on the bus for the guys I was on tour with and after months of working and reworking it finally felt like it was the song it most wanted to be. I hope you agree!
Here’s a look at the way we approached the stories of Joseph and Mary for my Christmas record:
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! Well, at least it is for me as I prepare to release my Christmas record in less than a month.
Here’s a video we made about the story behind the making of Christmas Stories: Repeat The Sounding Joy.
I hope to post soon about the process of writing for it and my awesome experience working with the esteemed Cason Cooley to bring this record to you.
But for now:
In a conversation with a pastor friend of mine who is also a screenwriter, we talked about human nature, hypocrisy, and what makes for a good villain.
“We reserve our harshest judgment for hypocrisy. We think hypocrites are weak and petty and so it’s hard for us to relate to them since we think we would never be one. And since a hero story is only as strong as its villain, a hypocritical bad guy won’t do. We won’t care about a hero’s story unless he faces a worthy enemy. The most compelling villains are driven by an ideal that justifies everything they do, no matter how monstrous. In their own story, the villain sees him or herself as a hero, the champion of a righteous ideal.”
This is what makes baddies like Christopher Nolan’s The Joker and Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men so chilling and terrifying—they are idealists. Chigurh is arguably the character in the story with the strongest conviction of right and wrong. The purity of his devotion to his ethical ideal—twisted though it may be—is what makes him one of the most frightening villains in recent memory. This bears out in real life, too, in a world of terrorists who believe they are messengers of God and cruel despots who imagine themselves to be the saviors of the people they oppress. Hitler was convinced that he was doing the world a favor by zealously carrying out his final solution. The terrorists of 9/11 gave their lives to a cause they believed was righteous.