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Keeping Up with The Normals
Glenn McCarty 

When home is, of all places, Normal, Illinois, life anywhere else will always seem a bit out of the ordinary. For The Normals, the folk rock band hailing from the aforementioned town, the dusty plains of Tucson, Arizona must seem like the end of the world, but not a bad place to do a telephone interview with lead singer Andrew Onsega. I soon discovered that their quest as a band has left "normal" far behind.

Grace
The current tour has been personally challenging for Onsega, he explains. It is the first time on the road after a four-month sabbatical, plus, "there's someone at home missing you also. It's teaching me a lot about patience and grace." Grace is a theme that runs close to the surface in much of the band's work thanks in large part to Onsega's lyrics. Rather than preach, Onsega says he approaches the songs from the standpoint of a journal. "It's more of a 'It's 4:00 in the morning, I can't sleep, so I might as well write,' a lot of working out your salvation with fear and trembling; I think I understand this, I don't understand this." This honest approach, drawing largely from his personal experiences, has helped Onsega create a link with his fans who see the band's music as fresh, immediate, and honest. This also filters into their live performance. Onsega states flatly, "We're not rock stars. We're a band, guys that make music. The real joy is playing and improving. We feel called to get up and create and be honest. People seem to enjoy that and respond to it."

Miles Away
Audiences also respond to a surprising musical maturity and dexterity from a band so recently formed. Just two years ago, The Normals were a trio, comprising Onsega, Lockett, and bassist Clayton Daily. After catching the ear of industry vet Billy Smiley, the debut record Better than This released, but it was a little raw. Even now, the record is clearly not a hot topic with Onsega. "I won't even listen to it," he explains. Though it yielded one # 1 single, "Everything (Apron Full of Stains)," Onsega says he feels miles away from the album, as if it were the product of a different band altogether. As it turned out, this quickly became the case. Daily left the band, citing personal and musical differences, leaving the original duo of friends Onsega and Lockett.

New and Improved
Quickly, however, the pieces for a new and improved Normals began to fall into place. Drummer Mike Taquino, who had been recruited by Smiley for session work on the first album, joined, followed by B.J. Aberle, who had been filling in at several shows by Andrew's request. The last piece came in the person of road manager and soundman Cason Cooley whose keyboard skills added the final touches to the band's new beefier sound. The five guys all moved to Nashville and got an apartment, a move that can be credited for their newfound chemistry. Onsega already had a huge backlog of songs, so the new ensemble decided to head into the studio, choosing veteran rock producer Malcolm Burn to lend his expertise to the second record. After months recording in the dead of winter, Coming to Life  released last summer to critical acclaim, and perhaps more importantly, the guys actually liked it. "It's more mature, more diverse musically. It's the first band record, recording together as a band. We made these songs together," says Onsega. After the album's release in mid-June, Onsega knew that despite the critical acclaim it was receiving, the band had some work ahead of them. The album wasn't selling well, and they had missed out on some much-needed publicity on the summer festival circuit. The biggest blow, however, was yet to come.

The Biggest Blow
In mid-October, after a frustrating lack of response during the months following the album, the band was dealt a crushing setback: their trailer was stolen while it was parked at bassist B.J. Aberle's apartment. "All our gear, instruments, CD's, T-shirts, merchandise, gone," remembers Onsega grimly. They were only able to recoup a quarter of the value from insurance, leaving the band dangerously close to hanging it up. "It really made us take a good hard look at ourselves, made us re-think everything." After taking some advice from a fellow band that had the same situation happen to them, the band posted the news on their web site, asking fans to help financially in whatever way they could. The response couldn't have been more overwhelming. "People sent whatever they could, from five dollars to 1000," says Onsega. "And they'd send us letters explaining why they'd helped, and how our music had touched them." Even music stores offered to sell instruments at cost to the group. Eventually they had recovered nearly everything, and in retrospect Onsega says what started as a potential tragedy ended up as an overwhelming source of encouragement after he saw the numbers of people who had responded to their music.

Signs of Spring
Since the "trailer incident," as Onsega now refers to it humorously, other positive signs have begun to accumulate: a nomination for a Dove Award for Modern Rock/Alternative album of the year, and a spring tour opening spot for best-selling collegiate folk band Caedmon's Call.

On the Edge
This sort of success doesn't seem to affect the mild-mannered Onsega, though, whose passionate vocal delivery and intense lyrical bent aren't revealed often in conversation. Beneath the surface however, lies a true thinker, concerned with issues far deeper than awards or airplay. A listing of his musical influences begins to reveal Onsega's metaphysical tendencies, among them U2, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, Rich Mullins and Bruce Cockburn. Perhaps these influences explain why topics such as guilt, salvation, eternity and physical temptation are at the center of Onsega's lyrics. When prompted with a quote on rock and roll by U2's Bono: "Pop says things are fine; Rock says that they're not okay," Onsega agrees eagerly, linking his faith with his art. "Christianity is in its very nature conflict. There is more nature of conflict in being a Christian than anything else," he explains. "I am sinful, who God sees as pure and am being made holy. Love, hate-- there are lots of opposites and contradictions. The very nature of being in this world, yet home in another one. The dichotomy of living here, and longing for the next world." But isn't this in contradiction with the Christian's call to an optimistic way of living? "We understand truth, and sin, so we also understand the hope we have from our own inability to succeed on our own. We have a reason to create." Onsega goes on to use an illustration from author Kurt Vonnegut who compares artists to the canaries used in coal mines, sent ahead to see if the mine was safe for humans. Living on the edge like this is where the artist belongs, says Onsega, probing those issues and experiences felt by all in ways that will illuminate the human condition.

At the Crossroads
Even as we speak, the band is at a crossroads of sorts. Onsega tells me about the decisions the band faces before they begin production on the next record. They don't feel comfortable in the Christian music industry anymore, and trying to reach as wide an audience as possible is the chief goal now, he explains. "We're doing a lot of things to try to bridge the gap, but we really don't know where to go." This is due to the fact that "we're feeling a backlash against church music and we just want to get out of the subculture." He wonders aloud whether his record company-- at the center of the quickly growing fortress in Nashville that is the Christian music industry-- will be willing to follow them on their exploratory quest. It is clear, that their intentions, although not worked out, are firm, since as with most of Onsega's thoughts, they come from an active mind and a probing spirit.

As time waned and the conversation wound down, having run its course from Plato's philosophies to a humorous anecdote about an ex-girlfriend, I, suggested we finish. The show in Tucson was less than two hours away, and Onsega sounded as relaxed as when we began. I can almost picture him in ripped jeans and a scruffy white T-shirt, which would more than likely be his garb of choice on stage that night. He may not be a rock star, but to Andrew Onsega, there are certainly more important things to worry about.

 

 
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