Behind the Song: The Lord's Prayer

The first and last tracks on the album.  This was actually the last song that I wrote for the project, and it was a bit unexpected.

Background:  One of the other churches that I sometimes play music at is called St. Mary of Bethany Parish.  It's an Anglican congregation, and so there are often liturgical settings of texts like the Sanctus and the Lord's Prayer that we sing during the service.  Western music is full of settings of the Lord's Prayer, but sometimes it can be a tricky text to sing as a congregation (in terms of the irregular meter), so it was on my mind.

As it was, I was in a hotel room at the Trump Tower hotel in Chicago for a family friend's wedding when the initial melodic idea came to me, and I finished it fairly quickly that weekend, about a month before we were going into the studio.

As for the music, everything in art is derivative, and it seems like with the opening piano motif, I was sub-consciously referencing that song by Evanescence (alas) along with a beautiful song by my friend John Paul Roney called Missing Tooth that I got to play cello on.  I love his voice, and I knew that I wanted it for the BGVs for this song.  Lastly, there's a short cello melody line over the outro.  I'm not a great cellist, but I wanted at least a little bit of my playing on the record, so this was one of those moments.  Short and sweet.  The instrumental prelude version opens the record, and the full song closes it--bookends to the overall album arc.

That's it for the song stories.  Making the record was such a long, full process with plenty of lessons learned along the way.  I'm so glad to have finished it, and even with all its warts, I'm very proud of it.  And I've said it before, but none of this would have happened without the involvement of so many supportive friends along the way.  The credits are long and richly deserved.

Behind the Song: Balm for a Cynical Soul

I knew the title for the record well before I had the actual title song written.  I knew the overall arc of the project, and I was starting to line up specific players and planning out studio dates, but I still hadn't written the title track.  One night, there was news of another beheading halfway around the world, and as I processed the news, I wrote:

When the darkness feels like it’s winning
And your fear is stronger than your love
You wonder what kind of world your kids are gonna live in
When everything around you is so far gone

Do you want to hide away
Shut your eyes and numb the pain
Do you want to up and go
Do you need a balm for a cynical soul
Do you need a balm for a cynical soul

I built the rest of the verses off that initial structure, using faith and hope (or my shortcomings therein) as the other anchor points, together with love.  I suppose that first verse is also a less than oblique reference to Derek Webb's "A Love That's Stronger Than Our Fear" off his The Ringing Bell album.

As for the music, this was my first time writing in an alternate tuning (DADGAD).  The lyrics are fairly static--variations on a theme--and so the music is also simple: the acoustic guitar pattern throughout grounded by a steady pulse in the drums, accented by the piano, evened out by the lap steel and a touch of cello for texture.

I'm so, so grateful to have Sandra McCracken's voice on this song.  On her own albums as well as other projects like the Indelible Grace records, her voice can convey such vulnerability and heartbreak and loss, as well as strength and a deeply rooted resilience.  I'm grateful for her friendship, and for the ways that she extends such comfortable hospitality to her community in both life and creative space.

The song culminates with a group vocal swelling up over the last chorus, and I love that I was able to have a few more friends singing with me and contributing to the project that way.  Pretty much everything about this record involved my friends, from the studio spaces and engineers to the players and singers to the design work.  That's what I wanted for such a deeply personal album, and all the contributions and input and patient guidance along the way were so invaluable to bringing this whole thing to life.

Behind the Song: Why Are You Cast Down (Psalms 42 & 43)

I've appreciated the psalms for both devotional reflection and creative inspiration since early on in my life of faith.  In college, I wrote a choral psalm setting as part of my senior work--primarily Psalm 130, with some verses from a couple other psalms added in.  I think this setting of Psalms 42 and 43 was my first as a more congregationally oriented song.  I noticed the refrain that happens three times over the course of the two psalms.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

I used those refrains to anchor the song as a single piece, building verses out of Psalm 42 and a bridge out of Psalm 43.  There's memory and longing and a bit of soulache, and a turning to God in the midst of it (the hardest part for me).

As for the music, this was the song that I used as the "test mix" song to decide who would mix the whole project, and I really like where Chris Payne (also the drummer) landed in terms of the verby space.  There's a progression from an open, more sparse sonic space in the drums and the piano toward a fuller, more driving arrangement as layers get added.  I can't remember if I had initially planned on electric guitar for this song, but I'm so glad we added it here--Ben's chord swells and arpeggios add some needed sonic glue to the overall texture, along with the lead line to accent the bridge.

I knew that I wanted Sarah Carter Wingfield on the BGVs.  She and her sisters occasionally sing as an acoustic folk trio, and Sarah in particular can carry a plaintive, almost wailing (in a good way) sort of tone that I wanted to match with the pleading nature of the lyric.  Lastly, this song has maybe my favorite drum fill on the record.  It's so simple, nothing flashy, just the moment coming out of the last chorus and into the outro.

The song might not necessarily lend itself to the easiest congregational singing--I've used it just once as a more reflective/meditative piece sung over the congregation.  But I'm glad to have captured it here.  I write songs that I need to hear and sing, particularly in the hard seasons--thirsty in the desert, drowning in the deep waters, asking "Why?" and crying out for deliverance.

Behind the Song: Jesus, Be Our Light (Glory, Glory)

After "Burdened," I think this is the oldest song on the record.  I had started being involved in the music team rotation at my church, transitioning from playing bass and singing BGVs to also playing guitar and leading worship periodically.  This was one of the first songs that I wrote with the intention of introducing it as a congregational song at my church, and it's since become a part of the song repertoire there.

Our pastor used to say something along the lines of "For every one look you take at yourself, take ten looks at Christ."  I think this song came out of that idea, together with a couple of the "I am" statements that Jesus makes in the Gospel of John.  It's a simply constructed lyric of contrasts, juxtaposing all manner of our shortcomings and the ways that Jesus meets our needs in every one of them, leading into a chorus of praise as a response to that.

As for the music, while I'm not a thorough student of the genre, I've enjoyed Black Gospel music in church and concert contexts since college, and that's an influence that's evoked here.  I asked my friends Treva Blomquist and Charlie Murphey to sing the harmonies--stacking some three-part sections, but also giving them a bit of freedom to do some ad libs here and there.  Chris Payne laid down a steady 6/8 groove.  Ben Gortmaker added some tasty, bluesy licks.  Zach Vinson played the studio Wurlitzer for that electric piano sound with a bit of crunch.

It's always a struggle for me to believe the promise that God is really making all things new.  This song is something of a reminder to me in the midst of the doubting and the longing--preaching the gospel to myself and turning my eyes to Jesus.

Behind the Song: Fortress (Psalm 46)

A couple years ago, I was a part of a short-lived songwriting group put together by some people at my church.  We met once a month and had an optional homework assignment based on a prompt assigned at the previous meeting.

One month, the prompt was simply "finish a song"--something that you had already started that had lain dormant.  I ended up picking up a seed of something that I had started based on Psalm 46, which has a repeated refrain in it (The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress).  In addition to the Psalm text itself, I pulled in some references to Matthew 16 ("...on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it") and Revelation 22 (the description of the new Jerusalem with the river and the tree of life).

As for the music, I generally tend towards slower, quieter songs, but in this one, I tried to push myself toward something more upbeat and rock and roll.  My personal bass is soft and woofy, so I used one of the studio basses that had a much brighter, punchier tone.  Zach Vinson (piano) came up with the fun sparkly part that he plays in the third verse, along with the descending piano line in the bridge--he fills up so much sonic space that I forget that there's no actual electric guitar on this song.

For some other little bits, I came up with the vocal line that Emily Roig sings during that bridge, as well as the bullet mic lo-fi texture that subtly doubles the melody at the very end of the song.  Troy Dixon (engineer) suggested the little "oh" that I sing before the first chorus.  Also, this was one of the songs that I wanted Evan Redwine to mix, to push it more in a shiny, polished direction, texturally setting it a bit apart from the rest of the album.

As I was planning the album as a whole and getting ready to start the recording process, this was the one song where I didn't already have a specific singer in mind for the BGVs like I did for the rest of the project.  I had gotten to know Emily shortly after she moved to Nashville a few months prior, and I had sung with her in a couple different church contexts--her voice has some versatility in terms of range and style.  When I eventually asked her to sing on this track, I knew that I wanted a pure, straight tone for the harmony part, and I love what she came up with.  She was just the right voice for the song.

Behind the Song: Olney Hymnal #92

For most of my time in Nashville, I've been a part of a church that's closely connected to a music collective/movement called Indelible Grace, which focuses on setting old hymns to new music to re-accessible-ize the texts and their theology and depth and beauty.  Also, the church I've been a part of has historically had a lot of musicians in it (go figure), and they sometimes sing songs for worship that have been written from within the congregation.

A few years ago, some folks at my church had a workshop day for anyone who wanted to come over and work on re-writing hymns together.  We gathered and talked a bit and then broke out into pairs and groups to spend a bit of time being creative together, no strings attached.  Old hymn books weren't necessarily printed with music--they were just texts in meter and rhyme that lent themselves well to musical settings.  One of those collections is called the Olney Hymnal, which contains hymns by John Newton ("Amazing Grace") and William Cowper.

My friend Neal Carpenter found a hymn (#92) that was a telling of the story in Mark 5 about the man called Legion.  I've never seen a hymn quite like it--a narrative hymn with each verse telling the next part of the story.  Neal came up with the melody.  (I might have made a comment here and there, but honestly, as a "co-write," I was really just in the room at the same time.)  Later on, I tweaked a couple words and inverted constructions for consistency (you can see the original text here).  It might not necessarily lend itself to congregational singing, but I think it could still fit in a worship service setting in the right context.

As for the music, with the fairly static chord structure and laid back tempo, I envisioned some sort of drum loop element, which Chris Payne skillfully put together (I think goat toenails were involved?).  I also heard a specific melody line in the turns between verses--to be sung as well as played on a baritone guitar that I borrowed from a friend (hinting at a bit of a western twang).  And of course, Neal had to sing BGVs for this one.

The long outro of the song is one of my favorite parts of the whole record.  I asked Zach Vinson (piano) to channel some Over the Rhine for that section, and I envisioned it as something of a duet with the electric guitar (Ben Gortmaker, tasteful throughout, as always).

I love the way the story comes to life in this hymn.  A full narrative arc.  Different characters addressing each other.  Insights into human nature (and my own heart) along the way.  There's an immediacy to the memory, and an urgency for him to share the story:  "Come here, a little closer.  Let me tell you about something amazing that happened to me.  Legion was my name by nature..."

Behind the Song: Burdened

The record's been done and out for a few months now, and I've had it in mind to write up a few thoughts about each of the songs in track order.

I think Burdened was the first song I wrote in Nashville.  I moved to Tennessee in the fall of 2006, and I might have had this one started at the time, but after a few months I finished it here.  I think the initial seed was a letter I saw written by a person under some heavy financial debts.  Then a hodgepodge--the inertia of memory; a longing for relief (but a hesitation to be too hopeful about it); a recognition that getting better might hurt like hell; and a bit of Atlas and Sisyphus and Job.  I remember the first time I played it for someone, in the upstairs of E's house, for our mutual friend R, who had been in and out of rehab a few times.

I'm generally bad at editing my songs, even when I see something that feels clunky and needs improvement, but at some point later on, the bridge changed from first person declaration ("I've never...") to second person rhetorical question ("Have you ever...").  Also, I've always been a worrier, ever since I was a child, and while that's tempered some, a lot of the song is still true for me now.

As for the music, this is one of the two non-congregational songs on the record, and I always heard it with a more Americana sound.  Train beat in the drums and acoustic guitar.  Upright bass.  Pedal steel (Adam Ollendorff!).  And uncredited mystery singer on BGVs--I'm so grateful that she was able to sing on the song as a friend favor.  For the most part, I had specific people in mind to sing BGVs on each of the songs, and I really heard her voice and timbre for this one in particular.

Anyway, I've been procrastinating on these posts for a while now, so hopefully I'll get around to the rest of them over the course of the summer.  I still can't believe that I made a record of my own (I'm such a sideman), and with all of its warts and wrinkles, I'm really proud of it.

Balm for a Cynical Soul (songs for the church)


I'd had the idea in the back of my mind for quite a while to make some kind of recording of some of the songs that I had written over the years.  I told friends, "Sometime in the next three to five years."  I probably said it for at least that long.

I started to have concrete conversations with friends in the fall of 2014 to plan and brainstorm and dream a bit about what might be possible.  I'm not generally a vision-oriented person, but I've lived in Nashville almost ten years at this point, and I've had the privilege of being involved in all kinds of recording projects in studios and houses all over town.  I'd been able to be a part of and support so many of my artist friends as a side man for their records and live shows and tours.  And over that time, I'd built up a community of musician and engineer friends whose skill, creativity, and experience I trusted to help me try to make my own record.

Most of the tracking and mixing took place in stages over the course 2015, spilling over into 2016, finishing up with the mastering process these last couple months.

I am so heavily indebted to all of the people who were involved in the creation of this project.  So much creative input and graciousness and encouragement from so many people over a very long haul.  I'm proud of it.

At some point, I plan on writing entries periodically about each of the individual songs, maybe with some background on the writing or particular memories from the recording process.

But for now, I'm content to just put on my headphones and listen.  Finally.