Up with The Normals
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"
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."
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
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.