Have you listened to the new Jill Phillips record yet? If you haven’t, stop everything and listen immediately. Then, when you’ve finished crying, come back here and read this beautiful interview where Jill asks Ben Shive (who worked with her to produce the record) some questions about the heart of his love for music, the complimentary gifts of writing and producing, the diverse destinies of various songs, and much more.
Jill Phillips: I would love to know more about what moves you in a song these days, Ben. What are you focused on in your writing and what do you
love listening to?
Ben Shive: I had a pivotal moment about ten years ago when I was driving home, passing the Tigermarket on Nolensville Road, listening to a Local Natives record. Every sound was fresh and cool and the melodies were great and I was somehow totally unmoved. Until then, anything cool and indie was interesting to me, but since that moment I couldn’t care less about those values. Alt-rock is still a go-to for me but it can’t just be about the aesthetic. If it doesn’t move me, if it isn’t resonant on some deeper level, I just can’t be bothered.
What moves me is truth and beauty and the joy of language. That’s probably why Andrew Peterson and I have always had such a great synergy. Stephen Sondheim is a big one for me because he does that so well. Paul Simon also checks that box. Skye Peterson turned me on to this new Anaïs Mitchell record and it really grabbed me for that same reason.
In my writing, if I can find a structure that interests me and get myself into puzzling mode, that’s when I sound like myself. I like to write a line and then turn it over and over and replace one word at a time until there’s as much assonance, alliteration, and rhyme as possible. It’s one of the happiest feelings I know. One time I spent the whole day at a theme park writing a verse in my head where the game was to make every syllable in a 10-syllable line rhyme with the corresponding syllable of every other line so that syllable 1 rhymed with syllable 1 of every other line in the verse and so on. I got it done just before the park closed and I probably had more fun than anybody else. I’m surprised by how often just faithfully solving the puzzle unlocks a truth. I’m looking for an internal rhyme and next thing I know I’m crying because I just learned something I didn’t know I knew.
Your work is now focused largely on writing and producing for other artists and I think you are uniquely gifted in this calling. At the same time, I am longing for a new Ben Shive record! I know you know how much Andy and I loved your albums and I think The Cymbal Crashing Clouds is a work of
pure genius. What are your dreams for your next solo project?
That’s a good question. After Cymbal Crashing Clouds, I realized in a painful way that I had been idolizing other people’s opinion of me. This resulted in a turning toward home. I was sitting in church and I thought “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” To me in that moment, that meant I would rather be known by the little flock of my church as a Sunday School teacher than be admired by a bunch of people that don’t even know me and that I don’t have the bandwidth to know and love in return.
But I was still in good writing shape from the immense challenge of writing Cymbal Crashing Clouds. I wrote an album’s worth of songs for my family. I’m really proud of those songs. The idea was that these songs were only for their ears. It may have been an over-correction, but the idea of writing an entire album only for the five people I love most in the world appealed to me as a little revolt against my fame idol.
The song I wrote for Beth was called “Ordinary Magic.” I got the idea that I wanted to record that one with Ben Rector singing, but when he heard it, he decided to release it himself (as “Extraordinary Magic”), so it has had a sweet little life in the world.
I’m interested in recording the rest of the songs. I think it might even be necessary for me creatively at some point. But at the moment I’m raising four teenagers and production demands so much of me that I don’t know how to make it happen.
I write best when I’m writing the things only I would even want to write. I don’t want those things to stop being born into the world. It’s just difficult to be human and have very limited capacity. You make sacrifices and you’re never sure when you’re making the right ones.
I mentioned Galatians 6:4-5 in the first part of this interview and how I am trying, with God’s help, to make a careful exploration of who I am, the work I have been given, and sink myself into that without comparing my calling to that of others. What is bringing you the most joy in your work these days? What is the best frame for your unique gifting as you see it?
I am working with JJ and Dave Heller on their I Dream Of You records. When we’re doing those I get to write for orchestra and it’s a great deal of material, so over the course of three months I’ll write 25 pieces for orchestra. I’m growing in my competence and my arrangements are starting to have a little more elegance about them. I’m also getting faster and more decisive. I just love to feel like I’m inside of a particular discipline and getting to know it intimately. In the process I’ve gotten to do transcriptions of some of the great arrangements of the 20th century—“Snow Snow Snow” from White Christmas, Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” etc.—so it’s been like getting a master’s in arranging.
Working with the Gettys has been cool. I’ve longed for a long time to be a part of a big team. They’ve got this team of ten writers, of which I’m one, trying to give this beautiful gift to the global church. These are brilliant people. Everybody in that room knows all kinds of things I don’t know but I also have my little gift that I bring. It’s been very meaningful.
I’m surprised by how often just faithfully solving the puzzle unlocks a truth. I’m looking for an internal rhyme and next thing I know I’m crying because I just learned something I didn’t know I knew. Ben Shive
Production is really a good use of my gifts. I like furthering other people’s careers while practicing my craft. More than musical talents, willingness to play second fiddle and go the distance with people are what make me a producer. It took me a long time to see that. I can be pretty hard on myself for being grouchy with my clients but then I step back and go “I’ve been creating with somebody looking over my shoulder all day every day for twenty years.” I can have a little grace for myself and recognize that God has gifted me to be strongly opinionated (enough to get crabby when somebody asks for something I think is a bad idea) but willing to defer and see a different perspective. If you aren’t willing to put up with people, you’re not a producer.
This is a different season of life for both of us as our kids are in or nearing adulthood and some are leaving home for the first time. What are you learning and reflecting on in this season?
I have teenagers, so I’m learning how powerless I am. When I try to control them it always backfires. I had been feeling sidelined and then I heard an interview with John Eldridge where he talked about giving everything and everyone in your life to God and that has been very helpful. He calls it benevolent detachment and it doesn’t mean you abdicate your role. It means you play your role and recognize you are completely dependent on God to save and bring a good outcome. He also gets to determine what “good” is and I have to trust him. So I’m learning that dance of saying what needs to be said and being present but leaving the outcome to the Lord.
There are always great books out in the studio when we are recording. What are the best books you’ve read lately? Are you drawn to particular themes or authors?
Honestly, reading has been a struggle! I hate to say it, but it’s true. My circumstances at the moment make any kind of practice very difficult, and I’m poorer for it.
My current book club book is The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s and it’s such an enjoyable read. It stirs this ache in me to be a part of something bigger than myself. I have that with Behold The Lamb and that community but I wish my production work wasn’t so solitary.
The last fiction book I really loved was A Gentleman In Moscow. I love that book. And my last poetry find was Malcolm Guite’s collection, David’s Crown. There you go. Ask me again in about eight years.