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Josh Garrels
2002 Cornerstone Festival
By Lisa & Robert Reid

There are certain things that one can expect at Cornerstone Festival: Terry Taylor and Mike Roe trading funny barbs, lip-smacking good ribeye sandwiches from the Bushnell Locker, and strawberry-lemon shakeups with enough sugar to make your teeth hurt. Cornerstone also has its surprises, and finding those are what you really hope for: perhaps some band in some small corner of the fest that really turns your head. This year that band was a one-man show named Josh Garrels.

This unassuming young man, who worked in the Alliance Coffee tent and had to get his shifts covered in order to play his own music, has a musical style that could be described as acoustic hip-hop with a little funk thrown in. Claiming influences ranging from The Beatles to Marvin Gaye to Booker T and the MG's, Garrels played solo sets in the food court with an acoustic guitar, drum machine, mic, and amp. Each time, his playing drew a small but appreciative crowd.

The Phantom Tollbooth caught up with Garrels one hot, humid afternoon behind the coffee tent to find out a little more about him, his music, and the CD he wrote, performed, recorded and produced.

Tollbooth: Where are you from?

Josh Garrels: Originally from Pontiac, Michigan which is near Detroit. Then me and my folks and my sisters moved down to Rome City, Indiana, and then I was in South Bend, and now I'm living in Muncie, where I'm doing an internship coffee deal.

Tollbooth: An internship coffee deal?

Garrels: Yeah. It's through my church, The Christian Missionary Alliance.

Tollbooth: More on that later. When did you start playing music, and what [instrument] did you start on?

Garrels: My dad's a music teacher. Both my folks are pretty musical, so we always had instruments lying around our house that he'd tinker with. He was kind of an instrument collector. I started in choir and band when I was young, and then when I was a teen, we had a punk rock band and then I started skateboarding and listening to a lot of hip hop. As the years have gone by, I've started getting more of funk sound and folk and kind of a mesh of all that. Some of it I've been trained in musically, and some of it whatever feels right. I've been doing music most of my life. But what I'm doing now is only for the last two or three years.

Tollbooth: And you put out your whole album by yourself?

Garrels: Yeah, I'm actually living with 11 guys right now in an intern house that my church has supplied for us while we're studying ministry. I did it all on my own in this little closet-sized room in the upstairs of the house on a digital 8-track. I just laid my voice and guitar and drums and stuff.

Tollbooth: How many copies did you bring with you?

Garrels: I only brought 70 with me here to Cornerstone. The first 70. I finished recording the thing a week before I came here and then I had to record each one individually which takes 15 minutes on my single-track burner.

Tollbooth: How can our readers order this CD if they're interested?

Garrels: They can write me at

Tollbooth: You said youíre living in a house with 11 other guys and apprenticing as missionaries. Tell me more about that.

Garrels: It could be missionaries. Itís a lot of people my age, college age and out of college, who have been called. Not only called to the Lord, but called to maybe be in some type of leadership role, whatever that means. We donít necessarily know what that means all the time. 

Itís pretty non-traditional. Our pastor is from the Jesus Movement from the 70s. So heís pretty not into formulas or any of that stuff. But he saw all of these college students coming to the Lord with a sense of (calling) who wanted to help out with the church where we can, wanted to plug in, whatever. So he made this internship for those who feel called to ministry

Before any of us got there, he was real into espresso machines and coffee; thatís his thing; thatís his hobby. So he looked into getting a coffee roaster. We got this roaster shipped over from Turkey and then learned how to roast coffee. Weíre getting better and better at it. We sell it to coffee shops as a means of support for ourselves for the internship. Thatís how weíre supported. The church pays for our housing. Weíre all living there [in a house owned by the church] and then going to classes during the week that our pastor and assistant pastor teach. And also, as we get further into the internship, we have a chance to teach too and get our feet wet teaching each other.

Tollbooth: Who are your musical influences?

Garrels: Iíll start from the beginning. First group was my dad had this stack of old Beatles records and me and my sisters really started to get into their sound. I felt [drawn] to it. Then, over the years, thereís been punk rock bands back in the day like Pennywise and Bad Religion. Then I started listening to hip-hop like Most Def and Tribe Called Quest and Guru and De La Soul. Thereís also funk stuff like Stevie Wonder, my dadís really into him, and Al Greene, Marvin Gaye, I really like that stuff; Booker T and the MGs. So stuff like that. And then Iíve also really grown to love folk music. I donít know much, Iím not fully ďintoĒ it so I donít know the whole genre, but I do like stuff like Nick Drake and Coleman and Tortoise, groups like that.

Tollbooth: Who have you checked out here at Cornerstone that youíve liked?

Garrels: I saw Brother Danielson last night. I really like it a lot. Because I have had to work, I havenít been able to check out as many things as Iíd like. I saw Ester Drang. I thought that was pretty good. Iím looking forward to tonight. I really want to see Madison Greene, and the Psalters. I saw Miranda Stone last year and I really liked that stuff, too. I wish The Seeds were playing this year. Itís fun to dance and worship to that type of stuff. I saw Over The Rhine last year, thatís the only time Iíve seen them. I have only one of their albums, Good Dog, Bad Dog, but thereís some songs on there that brought me to tears.

Tollbooth: What was your upbringing like? Were you raised as a Christian?

Garrels: My folks were definitely searchers. My dad came up in the Lutheran Church. I think my mom did, too. I know my dad did, his dad was a Lutheran preacher. And the church was just cold to them; it just wasnít a life thing. Then when they had three kids, the Bible all of the sudden came alive. They realized the church was cold to them and they realized there was life in the Word of God, so they started searching within the Word to find other believers with life. They had a revival in their life, but it didnít necessarily transfer into ours. I was brought up with the Word. Dad would take us once a week and go through, like, a Psalm with us. I always saw the Bible as the truth, and Christ as the way, but it wasnít a heart thing at all. I hadnít made any type of decision.

I would pray when things got hard, and that was about it. [I spent] my teenage years, early adulthood, just experimenting with drugs and all types of debauchery. Then, when I was in college, my sister got saved and her and her boyfriend, now her husband, starting praying for me and this conviction laid on my heart. Iíd go to church with them, and started crying during praise songs. When I was about 19, I came to the Lord. It was a pretty significant thing. There was a real decision that happened that day, where everything flipped around. 

Iíve been singing about that ever since, trying to wake up some of my brothers and friends. Iím 21 right now. Itís been a bit over 2 years since Iíve been a born-again Christian. I feel that the Lord was in my life before, but there wasnít the commitment and the living fully for Him thatís happening now. 

Tollbooth: What direction do you want to take with your music?

Garrels: I want music to [have an impact] on people who donít know the Lord. If Christian brothers and sisters dig it, thatís encouragement, thatís wonderful and beautiful. But Iíd like to [impact] people who are searching.

Tollbooth: What are your plans for your life and your music?

Garrels: Up to this point itís just been the enjoyment of playing around with sounds alone in a room. Thatís how it all started. I got this sampler and I starting playing acoustic and it was the fun of experimenting with sounds and itís grown on its own. Itís just been encouraging to me. Itís kind of done this by itself, probably because of the Lord. Iím kind of taking it as it comes right now. I would love for it to be a means of support for myself, to be something that I could do with more of my time, because I canít do it with all of my time now. Itís my main hobby. I would love to be able to dedicate myself more fully to it. I can go so far as to say itís something that I personally feel that Iím called to at this point: to make music. And what that means Iím not sure of yet. Iím going to keep making it. [That] doesnít necessarily mean that Iíll be signed [to a record label], or on Main Stage, but Iím going to keep making music, which is what Iíve been doing.


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