Andrew Peterson - The Rhythms
Of Redemption Interview
Sat 20 Nov 2004
Interviewed Steve Stockman
Stocki: You have
parted company with your record company recently. There seems an air of
relief about that for youÖ
It would be easy to act like the record label was a bunch of goons who
wouldnít know good music if it bit them in the rear, but itís just not
true. Well, not totally true. The folks at Essential were kind to me, and
thereís no denying that most of the people who listen to my music and have
any idea who I am have the record label machine to thank. That said, about
five minutes after the phone call, I was feeling fine about it. There were
occasional mental battles I had to fight, but they were thankfully few
and far between. I remember that day I had a conversation with my good
friend Jill Phillips (www.jillphillips.com ) about it, and when she told
me that she had received a similar phone call (which baffled meher
last record was amazing) I got off the phone and felt genuinely honored
to be in the same company as some of my favorite artists in the world.
I kept feeling this voice say, ďThis is not a bad thing.Ē Itís been six
months or so, and Iíd have to say that I agree with the voice.
ST: Did you find CCM [Christian
contemporary music] confining?
AP: CCM is a hard nut to
crack. As soon as Iíd think I had the industry figured out Iíd realize
I was on another planet. I have a theory that CCM radio is the root of
my frustration. Record labels know that in order to sell the gajillions
of records they need to sell, having tons of radio play is crucial. So
when a label guy hears an album heís listening for the million dollar song.
(Though in CCM itís more like a ten thousand dollar song.) Artistic compromises
are made because a song doesnít sound ďradio friendlyĒ, or itís too long
for radio, or the subject matter isnít appropriate for radio. All these
things make sense to me. I understand that we donít have five different
genres of Christian radio to listen to, so the hip-hop guy and the boy
band and the singer/songwriter are all competing for air time on the same
station. So all the labels are trying to put music out there that the radio
stations will play. But how do radio stations decide what they will or
Most of the time, itís a
person called a program director, or a PD. If that guy behind the desk
doesnít like your music, or thinks that a song ďdoesnít fit the stationís
format,Ē or ďloves the song, loves the lyrics, but thinks your voice is
a tiny bit too nasally for his listenersĒ (Iíve really heard that about
my music before), then thousands of potential fans will never hear my song.
When I play a concert in a city that hears my music on their station, there
are at least twice the number of people in the audience. So what does a
guy with a wife and three kids to feed do? He tries to write his songs
in a radio friendly way without compromising his art. Is that confining?
Yes. Whatís frustrating is feeling like I pulled it off, like I wrote a
good pop song thatís deep and musically satisfying and have them say that
I didnít leave enough space at the top of the song for the DJ to talk over
it, so theyíre not playing it. Or that they love the lyrics and the message,
but could I remix it without the twangy dobro?
I confess, Iíve met PDís
at radio stations who seem to enjoy the power they wield over labels and
artists. They know we need them to pay the bills, and I honestly felt like
I was pandering at times. Another dirty secret is that many of the reporting
stations pay this one guy (Iím not saying who) to be their radio consultant.
That means they fork over money to him to tell them whatís ďhotĒ or whatís
not. So then the labels fork over money to get the artists in front of
him so that heíll decide that their art is worthy of radio play and we
can all sleep easier because we made a good impression. Iím not saying
that things arenít this way in mainstream radio. I am wondering whether
things should be this way in the Kingdom of God.
ST: I remember Rich Mullins
getting frustrated when he wouldnít be allowed to put songs on albums and
having to sneak songs on. Your "Silence Of God" seems a tricky subject
for CCM. Any problems with that one?
AP: Like I said, Essential
was great about allowing me freedom in those areas. On my first album the
word ďfagĒ is in a song called ďCome, Lord JesusĒ. Itís a song about feeling
frustrated when people claiming to be Christians wave picket signs at the
funeral of a murdered homosexual that say ďGod Hates Fags.Ē I was prepared
for the label to cut the song from the album but they never said a word.
I heard a rumor that one Christian bookstore in California refused to sell
the CD with that word on it, but other than that, there was no fallout.
I was even asked several times to perform that song during church on Sunday
mornings, which shows that the church at large is probably mature enough
to handle far more than we give it credit for. CCM is probably afraid of
backlash, so theyíll opt out of the tougher messages or artistic statements.
After all, lots and lots of money is at stake, so it would be too risky
to ruffle any feathers; they mustnít rock the boat. The thing is, I donít
really want to ruffle feathers for the sake of offending someone. Iíd rather
just be true to the songs inside of me and share them with people in the
hopes of healing, not hurting. But it sure was nice having a guy like Rich
out there, who figured out a loving way to challenge and agitate. I miss
ST: Of course this all begs
the question as to where art, commerce and ministry meet. Any thoughts?
AP: Iíve had several conversations
recently with artist friends of mine (not just in the music field) about
how frustrating it can be to have a vision for something but not the financial
ability to achieve it. Chances are, weíll go into debt if we do figure
out a way to pull it off, which is scary when there are families to care
for. And to make it more irritating is hearing about superstar million
dollar shopping sprees that would pay off my mortgage, my familiyís mortgages,
my childrenís college, and allow me to make music without having to sweat
out how to make ends meet. What makes it even more irritating is when what
weíre trying to do is in the name of Christ, and the tendency is to whistle
and wave at the heavens as if to get Godís attention and say, ďHello up
there? Iím trying to do this for YOU. How about surprising me with a phone
call from a millionaire whoís looking for an artist to support?Ē But the
thing is that our idea of success and Godís idea for success are vastly
different things. Iíve thought about that verse (I forget where it is)
that says that God wonít tempt us beyond our ability to withstand. I take
great comfort in that verse, because maybe Iím not rich because if I were
Iíd be a royal jerk. Maybe thatís why I never had good looking girls throwing
themselves at me in high schoolGod knew that if they did I wouldnít
be able to control myself. Itís hard, but whenever I donít get what I want,
or even what I think I need, it is God exercising His mercy on me.
When I think like that (which
is rare, I admit) it frees me from feeling the need to be successful. I
can focus on the art, the writing, the chicken pot pie Iím making, because
what God wants us to be focused on is the present. The next few seconds
are just as hidden from me as the next million years, so why do I need
to make this song a radio hit? I can sit down with my guitar and pour myself
out, lose myself for His sake, and let the creation be what it is.
It is our job as Christians
to obey our King. He said that we should love one another as Christ loved
the church. He said to consider the lilies of the field. He said that whoever
loses his life for His sake would find it. He didnít say that we should
try to make as much cash as possible by writing jingles out of Bible verses.
He didnít say that we should spend our time gawking at Christian celebrities
or obsessing over our own lack of star power. For an artist of any kind
whoís a Christian, our call is to be obedient to our God. He gave us a
passion for creating, and forbid it that we should create for a purpose
so low as mere human success. We ought to hunker over our canvas and with
the holy fire of the image of God burning in us be a conduit of that image
and likeness so that the world may know that He is good. He is life, and
the world was not made out of nothing. It was made out of God. As long
as we are thinking in the wonderfully simple terms of our own place in
the universe, which is that we are at the same time helplessly wretched
and unimaginably loved, I believe that commerce, art and ministry are ideas
that dissolve. We are free to simply obey and love and take each moment
ST: So now that you are
free have you any plans?
AP: I have almost enough
songs for a new record, and Iím so thankful for that. I have a tendency
to nurture the fear that the last song I wrote is the last good one in
me, so Iím pleased and relieved to have written a handful of new songs
that I love. Iíll hopefully be in the studio not long after the first of
ST: There was some talk
on a web forum that there were a little collective of you guys thinking
the same way. Is there a radical new approach being dreamed up?
AP: More and more singer/songwriters
are no longer on labels. When artists like the ones I have the honor of
knowing are no longer on a big label, the conclusion I reach is that labels,
or at least commercial music in the Christian market, no longer knows what
good music is. Thatís a dangerous statement to make because of how arrogant
it sounds. I donít mean it that way. There are eight or ten of us who have
talked about banding together to help one another out. If itís hard to
make ends meet alone, maybe thereís a way to share resources and let the
hungry public know that thereís a movement of Christian musicians who theyíve
probably never heard of. Most folks donít realize that what they hear on
the radio is only a fraction of whatís being created. Thereís a machine
of hard working, committed, Christ-loving artists out there under the radar
who ought to be supported, and weíre trying to figure out a way to let
people know that.
ST: It must be easier now
with Pro Tools and online sales to make it outside the ďindustry.Ē
AP: It is. Many of the pillars
that were the reason record labels were founded have crumbled. Records
are far, far less expensive to make, and distribution, if limited, is at
least possible via the Internet. There are still services that record labels
provide that we arenít yet capable of, like distribution into retail stores.
Thatís why I chose to enter an agreement with Fervent Records to have my
newest album distributed. I called my old producer Steve Hindalong for
advice on the deal. I told him that I didnít want to sell out, that I could
still sell records on line and I thought I could get by that way. He said,
ďWell, you made the record for people to hear it, right? Not just to make
money.Ē He was exactly right. If Fervent could get it to more people, it
was the thing to do. I still own the album, and in two years the license
they have on it expires. That shows that labels are finally starting to
think differently about how to help artists. I recorded the album myself.
I made all the calls, and I get to own it. Theyíre just helping me get
it out there. So thereís hope that in the future labels and indie artists
will find ways to help one another.
ST: The Christmas albumÖ
Is there a danger that you just change the voice on the same old compilation
of traditional carols?
AP: I donít know if you
got the copy I sent across the pond yet, but youíll find that theyíre all
originals, with the exception of two instrumentals. One of the songs is
an old hymn called "While Shepherds Watched," but I added a chorus and
changed the music. So no, thereís no danger of it being just another smattering
of classics. I have no interest in that, mainly because there are so many
amazing Christmas records my family and I listen to yearly. Thereís no
way I could compete. I donít even think of this record as a Christmas album.
Itís more of an album about Jesus, focusing specifically on Jesus as the
Lamb of God, which is as much Easter as it is Christmas. My buddy and co-producer
Andrew Osenga said it well, that Easter and Christmas are really celebrating
the same things.
ST: What made you think
of doing your own?
AP: The story of what led
up to Jesusí coming is largely overlooked at Christmas time. We usually
focus so much on the fact of his birth that we miss out on the significance
of it. I didnít realize that the whole Bible was about Christ until a few
years ago. We tend to trivialize the Old Testament and consider it marginal
to the Story, but all of the Old Testament leans toward the coming of a
Messiah. Prophecy after prophecy, foreshadowing with the Passover way back
in Mosesí day, the Day of Atonement when the lamb was yearly slain for
the sins of the people; all these were fulfilled in an astounding way in
the person of Jesus. Knowing all that led to his coming allows us to see
his birth for what it really meant. Thatís what this album is about. Itís
a story. Itís the story. C.S. Lewis said that the Christian story is the
ďtrue myth,Ē the mythology that resonated with all the pagan mythologies
in which a hero god shed blood and died for humankind, with one great exception:
it really happened. If it werenít grounded in history, it would seem too
good to be true. But there really was a Jesus, there really were prophets
who foretold his coming, and it was part of Godís great plan throughout
history. The world around us is a part of that great Tall Tale. Thatís
what this album is about. Not Santa.
ST: Getting back to Rich
Mullins. He has been an influence. What legacy did he leave?
AP: Ah, Rich. I never got
to spend any time with the guy. I was fairly obsessed with his music in
college because Iíd never heard any music that moved me the way his did.
I never really liked Christian music, and when someone gave me one of his
records when I was 18 to learn ďIf I StandĒ on the piano, I was skeptical.
I learned the song and it changed my life. Iím not a great singer. I never
sang in public really until college (with the exception of a really lousy
rock band I was in), and for the first year or so, half of my concerts
were Rich songs. He didnít sound like a trained singer to me. He sounded
like a smoker. He sounded like a regular guy whose songs were pretty much
in my range. Most importantly, he was saying something. That was the big
difference to me. His songs were actually about something; they were honest,
true, and beautiful. And I loved him for all his quirky, wise and profound
mysteriousness. I canít tell you how many times Iíve wished he were still
out there stirring things up, writing those songs that leave me dumbfounded.
I try to do a Rich Mullins cover at every show, and Iím thankful every
time I sing ďLand of My SojournĒ or ďHello Old FriendsĒ that God led me
to his music. His legacy is the great number of singer/songwriters like
me who aspire to one day teach, lead, and write half as well as he did.
And there are a lot of us. I think heíd be surprised.
ST: What is the writing
process like for you? Is it slow day to day inspiration or do you take
yourself away for a period of inspiration?
AP: Writing is a mystery
to me. It is a frustrating, gratifying, curious process that Iím as baffled
about now as I was ten years ago. I tried in vain to write something a
few minutes before I gave up and sat down to write this. I feel as powerless
to call a song from the ether as I do to levitate my couch Luke Skywalker-style.
Sometimes though, it comes as easy as, say, pushing my couch across the
room. Which isnít really that easy, but I at least know I can do it if
I wrestle it hard enough.
ST: Will being free from
record label open up new subjects youíve avoided Ďtil now?
AP: I was thinking of writing
a series of songs about cheese in its many forms.
|Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian
Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community
with 88 students. He has written two books Walk On; The Spiritual Journey
of U2 which he is currently updating and The Rock Cries Out; Discovering
Eternal Truth in Unlikely Music. He dabbles in poetry and songwriting
and he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster (listen anytime of day
or night @ www.bbc.co.uk/ni/religion/rhythmandsoul). He has his own web
page--Rhythms of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org. He also tries to spend
some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine.