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Derek Webb

Stocki: Derek, You are not the sort of guy to do things on a whim. What were your reasons for leaving Caedmon's Call?

Webb: Honestly, I left Caedmon's for the only reason I could have. I was called out. Caedmon's was more than just a steady job over those ten years--it was my family. We all grew up together during those years, and with family you work things out. While we had the same types of dysfunction and communication problems that any family does, nothing like that could have pulled me out of that band. It was nothing more or less than feeling a sense of being called out of one situation and into another.

Stocki: Has independence been liberating, not only in band terms but in record company terms?

Webb: It has been liberating. And like you say, it's not just that I can travel so much lighter now--two guitars and a five minute sound check and I'm ready to play, as opposed to two trucks and an all day load-in of gear with Caedmon's--but there's a real feeling that I can do anything now. But it's not like I suddenly have unlimited potential, I still feel very limited artistically--and maybe even more so now that I'm solo. It's more like I don't carry the burden of all the success that Caedmon's had. A good friend once said that there are two things that can kill a band, and that's failure and success. It wasn't until I left Caedmon's that I felt the creative freedom to write and sing songs like "Wedding Dress" because suddenly there weren't seven reputations riding on the outcome. It's just me now. So that makes me a little more fearless.

Stocki: So is that liberation both in terms of art and content?

Webb: It definitely is. I feel more ambitious creatively than I ever have. You have to remember, with Caedmon's I would write maybe half of the songs on any given record so it was hard to be focused from a content standpoint. Even if my songs had a theme of some kind, by the time they were mixed in with Aaron's songs it was just a hodgepodge. That discontinuity was what, in my opinion, gave those Caedmon's records their charm. And for years that was fine with me. More than fine. What a great job, only requiring that I write between five and seven good songs every year and a half. I didn't know how great I had it! So while now the writing obligation can be a bit of a challenge, I can suddenly think in terms of whole records' worth of material. No wonder my first record was a theme record. I was dying to write a batch of songs that all belonged together, that could live together. It's brought things out of me that I honestly couldn't have found only writing five to seven songs every year and a half.

Stocki: You have taken a very conscious decision to work within the Christian community just as your wife Sandra McCracken has decided to work outside of it. What do you feel you have to say within it?

Webb: It's been a strange thing actually. I don't think anyone really pegged me as the guy who would intentionally stay in an industry that categorizes its music as Christian, mostly because I just don't believe in that sort of thing. In the real world, where things don't have to have categories for the sake of marketing, there is no such thing as Christian music and secular music. There are Christian and secular people who make music, but there's no music that is inherently redeemed. There is good music, and there is bad music, and that's it. As far as why I've stayed in it for my solo career, I think it's just been logical. My first record was a collection of songs that were all on the idea of the Church. What is it, what is its role in culture, and what's my role in it? And these were big questions for me. Those records intended audiences were folks like me, trying to find the necessity for moving from the fringes of Church community into the center of it. And I did. And I wrote about it. So it seemed to make sense that that record would be distributed to those folks. But with this newest record, I'm starting to feel less and less at home in this industry.

Stocki: The new album is a real departure artistically. The production is fascinating. What influenced the changes?

Webb: I have been getting more and more into experimental music and art rock. That's what I really listen to and enjoy. And since I have the fortunate combination of having absolutely no commercial ambition and being on a label with a band that sells enough records to pay all the bills at my record company (MercyMe), I am in a unique position to make just the records that I want. It's ideal really. I sell just enough records to keep me working and recouping but just few enough to stay off the commercial radar. The greatest success I would wish on anyone in the business is terribly moderate success.

Stocki: On a similar theme who would your musical heroes be?

Webb: I love honest songwriting, which draws me to folks like Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Bob Dylan, U2, Indigo Girls, Elliott Smith, and the like. I just think it's fascinating to hear such honest writing. It's a sad contrast to look at the life of someone like Elliott Smith who wrote so much about his addiction to drugs and his incredible melancholy until quite tragically and poetically, he killed himself. While it was certainly heartbreaking, it wasn't really a huge surprise. We had been honest about that stuff for so many years, and how close he had come so many times. But then you look at so many Christian musicians who end up in really sad situations that end in divorce and abuse in their marriages, addictions of all kinds, and so on. But it's always such a total shock because we never heard anything leading to it. Everyone is so happy and sinless. You never see the warning signs in the music like you should if people were really being honest. And if there's anywhere where folks should feel liberated to be honest it's in the Church. It's just terrible irony.

Stocki: The content of the album is as hard hitting as the production. Sadly, what is the standard Gospel call to follow Jesus is very fresh and somehow quite jarring. What provoked the repentance from the American Dream?

Webb: I think that most Christians in the West believe that the world revolves around them. We are so wrapped up in the idea of our country that we've started to mistake Christianity for a heightened sense of nationalism. It's very much in the whole "God bless America" idea. It makes for bad foreign policy and even worse theology. There's much still to repent of here in the west, and I want to explore that to the ends that I would be a more faithful follower of Jesus, and an honest patriot.

Stocki: Why do you think a Church that supposedly follows Jesus has bought into the American Dream?

Webb: Rich Mullins once said that Christianity is not about you and your perfect wife and your perfect children, carving out a perfect little place for yourselves, far away from any gays or minorities or risk. And I totally agree.

Stocki: Where can we begin to redress the compromise?

Webb: I think the cross is the only place we can go. At the cross we will receive both the humility and the boldness we need to grieve and repent of where we are coming from and where we are, and the hope to move towards our glory.

Stocki: T-shirts (what we should be known for) is another provocative challenge. What has been the inspiration for such a hard look at the way we do discipleship?

Webb: Even as a Christian, I've started to get more and more offended at some of the t-shirts and billboards that I've seen, either putting a clever marketing slogan on Jesus or putting words in His mouth. I think we need to pause and think about the mixed messages that we're sending into culture by calling ourselves Christians or ambassadors of Jesus, and yet acting more like Pharisees. Jesus spent the majority of His time here with the most overtly sinful people in culture loving, living, and weeping with them, and ultimately redeeming them. Yet He reserved his most harsh and judgmental language for the arrogant church leadership. The devastating contrast is that we do almost the opposite, and we do it representing Jesus, very much in His name. For that reason, I'm not all that surprised that Christians have such a bad reputation in this culture.

Stocki: Your title. Have you read Don Kraybill's Upside Down Kingdom?

Webb: I haven't actually. But I have gleaned quite a bit from folks like Tim Keller in New York who speaks quite a bit about the upside down nature of the Kingdom of God, the first being the last and the weak being strong.

Stocki: What books have been challenging you?

Webb: Lately, I've really enjoyed Imagine by Steve Turner, which is probably the most Biblical and balanced treatment of the Christian's engagement in and with the arts that I've ever seen. Don Miller is a friend and has written some pretty extraordinary books lately as well (Blue Like Jazz, Searching For God Knows What). In addition, I've really been getting into guys like Jim Wallis, Denis Haack, and Ronald Sider.

Stocki: You hit CCM hard to with "I Love the Lord" but don't hear a single. Justified cynicism?

Webb: Well, that song ("Ballad in Plain Red") was written entirely from the perspective of Satan, so I thought a little cynicism was in order. But truly, I think his worst work is happening right under our noses in the Christian' sub-culture, much more so than in adds for beer and cigarettes. It's our slow and progressive compromises where he really gets us.

Stocki: What do you feel needs to change within CCM?

Webb: I honestly have no idea. And it's not that I have no hope for CCM, I just don't have the answer. It is an industry and not a church, but artists should feel like they can be honest without it ruining their record sales. It's a really difficult question, and probably better suited to someone like the great Charlie Peacock.

Stocki: How do you think CCM will respond to that song?

Webb: Honestly I don't think they will. Records like mine don't get much press in an industry like this. They don't have to respond to it. The radical thing about a guy like Rich Mullins wasn't necessarily that he lived and said things that were so damn countercultural--it's that he wrote "Awesome God." He was one of the biggest Christian artists that our industry has ever seen and he was nearly homeless and smoked like a smokestack. I haven't written my "Awesome God" and probably never will.

Stocki: What reaction have you had to the album in general?

DEREK: On the whole it's been very encouraging. I'm so blessed with a community of fans that have followed me from my days with Caedmon's and really keep me going. They put a context around me that help to make sense of who I am as an artists, of where I've come from and what and why I'm doing what I'm doing now. Sometimes I think they understand me a little better than I understand me. Those are the only folks I aim to please, and so far they seem happy with the new record and direction.

Steve Stockman
 
 

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
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