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: