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Re-Writing Our Patterns With Music: An Interview with Christopher Williams

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting across the table from Christopher Williams to ask him about his brand new (and may I add, positively excellent) album, Gather. If you want to check out the album for yourself, you can find it here.

Drew: So you’ve been playing music and touring for twenty-three years. How’s it been? I’d love to hear the story of your career as well as the role that church has played along the way.

Christopher: My career began when I was twenty-three and I made my first record when I was twenty-four. It was a big deal to have a compact disc then! Four years in Seattle, then I moved to Boston for eight, then moved here [Nashville] fourteen years ago. I spent my first ten or twelve years chasing the singer-songwriter, folky, coffeehouse vibe.

When I moved down here, I grew really tired of that world, still feeling like I needed to prove myself after twelve years. I stepped away from that a bit and moved here for community. I moved to Boston for career, and then to Nashville for community, needing people in my life who knew me, would speak to me and walk with me. I didn’t have that. This whole new record is about celebrating that.

So one of the turning points was when I was able to tour with Jars of Clay in 2005. They were doing a hymn record, Redemption Songs.

Drew: That record has actually been a big part of my life—my sister was a huge Jars of Clay fan, so I inherited it. We played that particular album all the time. That’s where I first heard “Let Us Love And Sing And Wonder.” What a good song.

Christopher: Absolutely. So good. So we did that tour, played churches together, and I would do the exact same thing I did at a club. That opened up the idea for me that I could play pretty much anywhere. The songs I’ve written have always had the spiritual element in them—I’ve always been caught between not being Christian enough for Christian radio, but being too Christian for the folk world. So I’m in this middle space, figuring out where to land. But I’ve made songwriting the most important thing, so no matter what background you’re listening from, you can take it however you need to take it.

Drew: Classic dilemma.

Christopher: Yes. A good dilemma, requiring subtlety and transparency at the same time. Somebody said about my new record, “This is a record for the church, but you don’t mention Jesus at all.” And I’m like, “Cheers to that!”

Drew: So this is an album for the church, but it doesn’t mention Jesus. And you were very glad to hear that. Speak a little bit about that and the purpose of the album implicit in that statement.

After my last album, I thought I might be finished with my career. Christopher Williams

Christopher: I wouldn’t say that was a completely conscious decision not to mention Jesus. That has been a thread throughout my career. On this record, though, I wanted to touch on universal themes. The whole album grew out of the first track, “Do Not Be Afraid.” After my last album, I thought I might be finished with my career. I was thinking about just being a worship pastor at my church. And I felt like that last record could be a great finish.

But then I wrote “Do Not Be Afraid” and realized I was not done yet. That was two and a half years ago. The response I’ve gotten from that song really confirmed I wasn’t finished.

Drew: It’s such a solid song. You can just lean on it.

Christopher: Thank you. It’s really simple, but there’s a universal theme to it—no matter what background you come from, you need to hear this.

Drew: Something that really struck me about this entire album was that it feels very sensitive to the fact that we all have stories we carry with us, and they are deeply interconnected. It feels very emotionally intelligent and also collective in voice. You sing from your singular perspective a lot, but it’s never just about you. It’s about us, always. There is this gaping hole in our culture’s public discourse where we don’t know how to talk about us as a group, as brothers and sisters, whether as siblings in Christ or just in a broader, human sense. But as I walked away from Gather after my first listen, I felt like, “Hey, this album cares about me.”

Christopher: You know, I wrote most of these songs in about a four-month period, and I was really trying to be thoughtful about supporting that initial song, “Do Not Be Afraid.” Also, in a bizarre sort of way, since I thought I was finished after that last record, I was able to be less concerned about people’s opinions regarding this one.

Drew: So you were able to not take yourself too seriously. But maybe in doing that, you were able to take yourself seriously in a more proper way, sober to the purpose of Gather and what it needed to be.

...we’re the most technologically connected we’ve ever been, but we’re the most alone we’ve ever been. Christopher Williams

Christopher: Right. And just making this album in light of all the fear we experience as a culture, coming at us from every angle—we’re the most technologically connected we’ve ever been, but we’re the most alone we’ve ever been. We all want to let go of our technological addictions, I think. But we can’t. Or we can, but it’s very hard.

I didn’t have words for what I wanted this record to do, but you just described it so well. I love that observation that this album has a collective ring to it. That helps enable me to talk about it, especially in relation to the church, my team of people, and how they have influenced the making of Gather.

Drew: Good! Well, tell me about these last five years at Midtown Crieve Hall. What has that story held for you and how has it supported your life?

Christopher: I never thought I would love leading congregational music as much as I have grown to. When I was tasked with the job, it was essentially to make Sundays happen. And from the beginning, I knew that this means more than just picking songs. If we’re going to guide a group of people and really plant this community, we need to feel connected. So I backtracked and said, “to get to Sunday morning, we’re going to have to know one another and explore what it means to worship, we’ll need to break bread together and make music together.” All those things needed to happen in order to make Sunday morning happen.

A huge piece for me that has affected my writing is a grateful heart. People are giving of themselves and I want them to know how grateful we all are as a body for them pouring themselves out. It’s been a sweet journey of starting out really awkwardly with a bunch of people, and now last year, we were doing these hymn sings where we gathered together, had wine and food, and played music for three hours straight. It was beautiful, so beautiful. I will miss that.

I think the importance of feeling connected to one another affects what happens musically, how we hear each other, how we work together, and ultimately how we can carry each other to worship, perhaps even when we don’t want to. I’ve had a lot of conversations with song leaders about what it looks like on Sunday mornings to know in maturity where you are spiritually, where you need to be in order to guide the congregation, and what needs to happen in between. It’s really rich and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Drew: That discipline of knowing where I am and where we all are, knowing where we need to go as a group—that requires a very specific sort of awareness. I have a hunch that in our daily working lives, we don’t often need to exercise that particular kind of intelligence. Consequently, it seems to me that really knowing each other in the context of church takes a certain kind of growth that isn’t the most popular.

Christopher: It involves being aware of yourself but also taking your eyes off yourself, looking at the bigger picture. There are some songs on Gather that address how we’re so habituated to think about ourselves, and we’re so miserable in being stuck in that—both intensely connected and intensely lonely. I want to ask: how do you be sensitive to others, aware of yourself, and also inviting into your space? We’re not a very inviting culture.

Drew: Hospitality. This is my space, but I invite you into my space. We don’t know how to do that.

Christopher: It’s almost comical when you keep your eyes open to see how we function as a culture, so glued to our phones. This is not how we’re made to be.

Drew: How did we even get here?

Christopher: Yeah! And can we get out? I don’t know! And I have had so many conversations with people who say they truly want to be free from it. I don’t know what that looks like, but it’s important to encourage people—turn off your notifications. Put it down. First and foremost, the more I use technology, the more scattered I feel. It has stolen my ability to focus.

Drew: It’s this loss of the skill of sustained attention. And now, what does sustained attention have to do with this ability to interact with each other collectively? What I’ve noticed with my iPhone is that it shortens and chops up my ability to be focused on one thing. Connecting that back to relationships, what do you see in terms of that struggle and where you’ve ended up?

To be able to sit across the table from someone, have a meal, and get lost in conversation—I long for that. Christopher Williams

Christopher: I feel like it’s a daily battle of consciously deciding against it. To be able to sit across the table from someone, have a meal, and get lost in conversation—I long for that. And when that happens, I celebrate it. I need to know that I am able to block out everything else.

Drew: Sometimes it feels like we’re always either checking the time or getting lost in time. It’s paradoxical: in being so aware of the time, we sacrifice a more substantial awareness of a deeper sense of time.

I’m reminded of a couple of your lyrics from the album. One song that jumped out at me were “With Me Now.” When I thought about the album after listening one time through, I saw an image of the twelve steps from the bed to the bathroom, these daily rhythms of life we don’t really see. The way you gave that voice was beautiful.

Christopher: That’s a crazy story, actually.

Drew: Yeah, go for it! Where did that come from?

Christopher: I know I’ve been gone from home too long if I forget that path from my side of the bed to the bathroom. There have been moments when I’ve walked into the wall because I’ve forgotten all the small steps of muscle memory that get me there. I’ve always thought a song about that would be cool, but I didn’t know how to work it in. Then one day that verse came out and I was so pleased with it.

Later on, I was looking through an old journal, which I do sometimes while writing to make sure I haven’t missed anything good. And in there I found this dream I had six or seven years ago. I remember it so vividly.

In my dream, I repeatedly went into this cave and came out with massive boulders. One at a time, I would drop them, then go back in and come back out with another one and drop it a little further out.

The clarifying thing for me about the dream was the word “ebenezer,” which I love in “Come Thou Fount.” It’s kind of a cryptic word—lots of people get confused about the sudden presence of Scrooge in an otherwise perfectly understandable song—but that word means “stone of help,” from 1 Samuel when he laid the stones down and said, “This is how we will remember God’s goodness.”

And I thought, “Oh, that’s what my dream was about.” I carry these massive stones out—it’s horrible and difficult and heavy, and my back hurts—but I lay them down, and every time I go back in, I’m able to find my way further back to God by following the stones. And that’s how they become a “living legacy of every hardship,” as I sing in that verse.

These stones are all really difficult things from my story, but every one of them is working together to build a trail out of the darkness and into the light. That came out and I knew that song was finished.

Drew: What I love about that is that God is not redeeming you in spite of these heavy stones you’re carrying, but rather through the process of carrying them. That’s a holy thing: your back hurting, the pain, whatever emotional difficulty—that’s holy. And how that relates to the first verse with the twelve steps—I feel like I’m talking about AA now, but that wasn’t purposeful.

Christopher: Funny you should say that: we thought about changing it for that very reason. It actually is twelve steps from my bed to the bathroom, but we went with ten for a while. I decided not to edit that, though, because it really is twelve. That story has everything to do with walking through addiction though, whether directly or not, so I didn’t want to prevent it from carrying that extra meaning.

Drew: Right, and there’s yet another dimension. You were saying earlier that to overcome the numbness of our unconscious connectedness to technology, we have to develop consciousness. Sometimes it’s strangely difficult to maintain that state of real consciousness that allows you to make decisions with full presence of mind, to put down whatever the addiction is.

That first verse in “With Me Now” is such a great analogy for this struggle. Do you want to draw some connections there between that image and the larger context of our conversation?

We need to remember where we were before and where we’ve ended up. And what I want to tell people, no matter what the destructive habit might be, is simply that it’s possible. It’s possible to rewrite the patterns of your life. Christopher Williams

Christopher: It’s definitely a struggle for awareness. I also think we have to engage in a rewriting of the harmful patterns we’ve fallen into. We need to remember where we were before and where we’ve ended up. And what I want to tell people, no matter what the destructive habit might be, is simply that it’s possible. It’s possible to rewrite the patterns of your life.

Drew: Even neurologically, scientists are talking so much these days about how the brain can do that. “Spiritual” voices are not the only ones making that claim.

Christopher: Right. We’ve gotten ourselves into whatever place we’re in, and we can get ourselves out. In some senses I want to fight for the simplicity I had when I was in my twenties. I used a road atlas. I made phone calls from a pay phone. There was something really tangible and present about those memories that I miss. And it’s possible to regain it. There was a beautiful thing about carrying a pocket-sized notebook to write lyrics in. I used to carry that thing around all the time, and it’s just not the same to jot stuff down in my phone.

Drew: How do you think worship rewrites our patterns?

Christopher: Great question. I have a friend who teaches at Vanderbilt, and he and I have talked about that a lot. People are coming in with all sorts of stories, and the goal of Sunday morning is to reawaken. So I would look at the service and think about how to take the congregation on a journey. The whole process is taking the congregation, facing them in the same direction, reorienting them slightly, and giving them a renewed vision of who God is in respect to our brokenness in order to send them out for the week.

And I can’t make people worship. I can present all the pieces and lay the groundwork, then it’s out of my hands; it’s not my responsibility past that point. But that idea of reorienting, creating that rhythm, that’s why Sunday mornings are so important. We constantly need to reorient, step out of ourselves, remember what’s important and who’s in charge, a letting go of sorts.

Drew: I really love how you said there’s a point at which your responsibility in people’s worship ends. You’ve done what you can do. The laying down of our pride involved in that is tough, maybe tougher than we think.

Christopher: It’s so hard. It’s really amazing how hard it is to be content with that lack of control.

Drew: If you were to zoom out and look at your life ever since you made your first record and started touring, what trajectory would you see?

Christopher: I have toured by myself pretty much throughout my entire career. It’s awesome, but also lonely. It used to be more lonely. In the last ten years, I’ve experienced a real shift towards living in community. I feel more protected and cared for. I think differently about why I’m going on the road in terms of priorities. Am I going out to sell records or step into people’s lives?

As I’ve become less insecure, it’s changed my perspective. A lot of it has to do with being grateful for provision rather than calculating how I can provide for myself.

Drew: Sounds like a relinquishing of ownership, like letting go, or at least holding everything more loosely.

Christopher: Yes, and I think this particular record has a flavor that feels like the culmination of that transition.



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