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Interview: The Gray Havens

While some of our readers will be familiar with your music through the Local Show or other members of the RR family, so to speak, a lot of others will be completely unfamiliar. For those readers, is there something you want people to know more than anything about who you are?

I remember listening to N. D. Wilson on a panel with some other authors. They said, ‘What are you aiming to do with your novels?’ He thought about it for a bit and then I forgot everything he said except for one sentence. He said, “I want to awaken wonder.” I think his example was for the guy who has ceased to be in wonder about anything, just a regular joe going about his life and is stuck in the mundanity of things. That really struck me.

I’d been thinking about that over the summer as we’d been writing for the record and as we’d been recording it. I would say something similar about what we’re trying to do. The sentence I’ve come up with is that we want to awaken wonder and joy for the Lord and his glory through song. When I hear the word “wonder,” I don’t think straightforward presentation. I think of story and awe and beauty. Those words are the ones that come to mind when I think about wonder.

I heard Tim Keller talking about the difference between ethos and pathos art. I’m sure the Rabbit Room being an art savvy community knew this way before me, and he might have gotten this from Lewis, but one tells someone how they ought to feel in a story. You can say in a story that someone came upon a waterfall and it was so beautiful and they were filled with joy, something like that. Or you can say they came upon the waterfall and describe it in such a way that the reader, him or herself, is filled with joy without being told to feel that way. One is a shortcut that’s more straightforward, that’s almost helping the reader/listener along, and the other is writing in such a way that they just feel it and don’t know why. That’s a definite aim that I keep in mind when writing.

What was the last piece of music that did that for you?

I know exactly what to say. The Oh Hellos have a song called “This Will End” on their new album, Dear Wormwood. Listen at about 1:41 seconds. That is the point, the last time I can remember just completely . . . I was no longer critically listening to the music. I no longer had my critic’s cap on. Being a music major and songwriter myself, I was totally lost in this music. I turned to Alicia and said, “This makes me happy to be alive, whatever this is.” It might be significant because that’s also the part of the song where there are no words. It’s just so good.

I like them a lot, too. Have you seen them live before?

We actually opened for them last Saturday.

How was that? Was it a total party?

Yeah, it was so good. They’re such great people and we got to talk with them. They’re so fun and have an energy about them that’s contagious. I also got a chance to talk books with Tyler, their lead singer, and we’ve both been fans of Patrick Rothfuss’s In The Name of the Wind series. Andrew Peterson actually recommended I read the book not having read it himself. I went to the bookstore and devoured the first one. The second one was a bit of a letdown, but the first was totally transportive, so we were speculating on what was going to happen in the series.

How they are positioned as a band feels like a perfect space for you guys to inhabit as well?

Yeah, it felt like I was talking to a kindred spirit when we were talking after the show. It felt like we’d be friends, and they’re doing such a great job with what they are doing. That’s also right where we want to be. It’s toeing the line, but it’s a good space, as you said, to inhabit.

I want to talk about that line for a second since I know that’s where you both want to be. It’s been a few years ago now, but one time I was given an assignment to write a feature on a band who will rename nameless, but they’re arguably the most popular Christian band then and maybe even now—

[Laughs] Okay, my head is spinning.

So the head guy of the band interrupts my second question and says, “I feel like you’re going to keep asking down this line and I don’t want to answer those. All of us in this band couldn’t care less about the music. The message is the meat and the music is just the plate we serve it on.” At that point I got up and walked out and told my frustrated editor that I wasn’t going to have a story after all.

Now here you are, as another person of faith, talking about wanting to evoke awe and wonder and saying the last time something reached you in this meaningful way was the time when the lyrics stopped. What informs that for you?

Well I think you make a big mistake if you pit one against the other. I don’t think they’re enemies. I think they’re companions and meant in the form of modern song to inhabit that same space and to complement each other. I don’t see how the music bit couldn’t be really important. In fact, I hesitate to say more important, but I always start with the music when I write. I know other writers are totally opposite, which is fine, but I started as a trumpet player. That was my first instrument. I played it through middle school and high school and eventually picked up the guitar and piano. But I was a player before I was a singer or writer, so maybe that is a reason.

I always start with the music in the writing process, and I’m always asking the music what it is that it’s trying to say. I’ll start writing a melody and, if I get something I like, I’ll put gibberish to it. I put everything else before the words, before I put pen to paper. So I’ll have wordflow going and it needs to make sense. Then out of that jumble, out of the music and the wordflow, will come an idea. Then I’ll just chase that.

C. S. Lewis, I’m not putting myself in the same sentence as him, but I read something where he was talking about how Narnia came about. He said at first it began with a lamppost in this wintry wood or whatever. Narnia isn’t the lamppost. It’s about Aslan and his presence. But the lamppost was a way of getting there. In the same way, the music creates the space to find the rest. That’s why I think music is so important.

I also want to say one more thing. You simply cannot deny the intrinsic and universal power that music has on its own. Just without any lyrics, just on its own, it’s taken over every culture as a significant center. I don’t think you can make a good case that the music isn’t essential. Anyway, I’m done with that. I’m done with that guy. [Laughs]

Let’s talk about the music then. Did you guys have a distinct musical vision when you came into the process with [producer] Ben Shive?

We sat down at the beginning of the process, and our initial goal was to just say, “Licia and I are a duo, so let’s do what we can to make this semi-replicable on stage.” It’s not that we can’t do that, but we gave up. The songs themselves were asking for heavier instrumentation, so we gave ourselves permission to chase the ideas down that we were having, that we were inspired to record. That ended up being this bigger, more epic thing you wouldn’t necessarily attach to a duo, as in two people on stage.

Working with Ben was gold in the studio. He’s an amazing musician. He’s an amazing arranger, and he has an amazing ear. But for whatever reason, his personality and creative vision seemed to be working really well, just clicking with us. We were a good complement and a great team. There were a lot of late nights until 3:00 a.m. just chasing down ideas. He brought so much to this record and I told him when it was done that whenever we talk about this record in the future, we will always take it to mean that it’s Ben’s record and ours. It was that much of a team effort and he deserves just as much credit as anyone. He’s phenomenal.


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