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October 2007

Horslips - The Jim Lockhart Soul Surmise Interview

STOCKI: What are you been doing in these non Horslips years?

JIM: After the band split I got into doing advertising jingles and then into TV music "theme music and incidental music for dramas and documentaries and soaps, plus MD-ing (with Barry) on series like The Live Mike, which featured the late and greatly-missed Dermot Morgan. He was a quite a bunch of characters to work with. One of his regular personae was a manic priest, Fr. Trendy, who foreshadowed Fr. Ted. That whole period was a great training ground in terms of learning the craft" writing, arranging, scoring, producing: different kettle of fish to dossing around in a band with your mates. I went back and studied orchestration for two years to get on top of writing for strings and brass and so on. But by the end of the 80's I'd seen enough of TV and moved over to radio, which is a much more intimate, direct medium. You don't need a cast of thousands looking after makeup and wardrobe and vision mixing and whatnot, it can be as simple as you and a mic, and your vision's in your head. I was lucky enough to find myself after a few years working mainly with Dave Fanning, and we've stuck together as his territory has shifted over time. And with Ian Wilson I've produced most of 2FM's live music output, which has meant producer credits on releases by Van Morrison, Divine Comedy and the final Stone Roses live EP. Rather pleased about that.

ST: So when did you yourself hear of a reunion?

JIM: Maurice Linnane was the director with Dreamchaser, a film production company that did videos for U2 for donkey's years, as well as other projects like the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. As a kid he'd been a mad Horslips fan, and now he wanted to make the definitive film history of the band. So after a few preliminary skirmishes, that started to take shape about the start of last year. Meanwhile in various corners of Northern Ireland, Jim Nelis, Stephen Ferris and Paul Callaghan had discovered a mutual passion for collecting Horslips memorabilia, and decided that what they had amassed between them shouldn't be kept under a bushel. So they decided to stage an exhibition in the Orchard Gallery in Derry, and that came to fruition about March of 2004. They'd asked us at an early stage if we'd all come along whenever it would open and we said sure, no problem. But as the day drew near we realised we couldn't very well turn up and not a note out of us, so we got together in my front room over a few weekends, got O'Connor over from Whitby, and strung together 20 or 25 minutes' worth of an acoustic set. In fact we'd done a couple of exploratory sessions in Charles's place a year or two earlier, but there was no impetus to keep us at it so it hadn't led anywhere. But this felt like a bit of fun and the opening was a blast – both playing at it and the exhibition itself, which left us staggered at the range of posters and memorabilia the guys had collected and the sheer class with which it was displayed. It was an amazing night, brilliant audience reaction, and by now Maurice was filming away, and Pat Maguire and Steve Iredale from our old crew magically appeared and suddenly there was a feeling of momentum. So that was the tipping-point. It was only a short hop to the idea of an acoustic album.

ST: And what were your initial feelings?

JIM: Well we were all a bit apprehensive beforehand, but the rehearsals started throwing up new ways of looking at things, and voices and instrumental styles and tastes had changed and developed, so it became an unexpectedly fresh experience, exhilarating at times.

ST: Why has it not happened before?

JIM: While that whole legal business was happening between about 1980 and 2000, we couldn't really do anything without contributing to sales of the illicit copies of our albums that were in circulation and so endangering the long-term goal of getting back control of the music. So we had a sort of self-imposed radio silence. Extraordinarily effective in retrospect.

ST: The talk at the time of the break up was that there was a bit of friction in the band. How true?

JIM: What's remarkable is that there wasn't more. We were pretty exhausted after touring solidly and living in each other's pockets for ten years, putting out an album a year, and like any normal healthy individuals we'd started to grow in different directions. So we'd got to the point of being tetchy and disagreeable. We didn't realize then that many – maybe even most - bands start from there and get worse.

ST: If there was had the years healed?

JIM: Ah yeah, the nice thing about the current setup is that there's no pressure apart from wanting to do it right. So we can take it easy.

ST: Do you all remember the good times with just a little more in focus?

JIM: Focus, maybe no. It's all a bit hazy, which I have to assume means I had a pleasant time!

ST: I have to ask you Jim?On Roll Back?Where?s the flute in Trouble?

JIM: I tried flute on various tracks on the new album; it wasn't ruled out but for some reason it wouldn't sit comfortably anywhere I tried it. Didn't seem to gell with the sort of roots countryish feel. So rather than force it in, the governing vibe was if in doubt, leave it out. As for Trouble specifically, it changed rhythmically and feel-wise, with the slide guitar taking over the lazier version of the riff. So best not to muddy the waters.

ST: In the light of that how much thought went into the new arrangements?

JIM: Not so much thought, more experimentation. The Trouble arrangement grew out of a few sessions jamming in Charles's place in Whitby two or three years ago. The 3/4 versions of Man Who Built America and Wrath Of The Rain were how they were originally written by Barry on acoustic guitar. Johnny‘s slide playing and Charles's tenor and slide guitar just had everyone's mouth watering in studio, so they had to be given room to breathe. A lot of stuff came together in studio, in fact, rather than being meticulously planned. Like putting The Lambs On The Green Hills in counterpoint to Wrath Of The Rain, that was just experimenting as we recorded.

ST: Why did you chose the songs you did? Was it that they were favourites or that they most lent themselves to acoustic arrangements?

JIM: A bit of both. We tried a few others, but these were the ones that seemed most comfortable in this context.

ST: You were saying in Hot Press about which Horslips would return if you started touring? Would making an album and touring not be the way to find out?

JIM: Yes and no. Everyone's got a fair amount of work and family commitments that we didn't have before, so touring isn't that straightforward an option. A few gigs from time to time would be easier to get the head around. As for what you'd get on stage, we'd have to see what we sounded like! But the couple of live sessions we've done so far have been both fun and encouraging.

ST: So are there now some creative juices flowing for a new album?

JIM: No sign of that yet. But who knows what people have up their sleeves?

ST: Hot Press again described you as one of the ?Most culturally influential outfits.? Did you realise that at the time?

JIM: Nah, we were out for a bit of crack. We were serious about the music though. But that's not the same as covering yourself with a culturally influential mantle. Plus that's for other people to judge, and only in retrospect.

ST: Is this what the Return Of The Dancehall Sweethearts DVD is all about?

JIM: The DVD is something we can sit back and look at, since it's someone else's baby: Maurice Linnane has taken this idea from birth and run with it, so the first we saw was when it was all done and dusted. And yes there is a bit of culturally-influential going on, which is very flattering, but there's also amateur footage of us mooning from German hotel balconies, which is more like real life. And a fair bit of scene-setting black-and-white TV stuff from what seems like another era. Well, it was.

ST: Was the move from Celtic folk to American rock a sign that you had lost the art for the commerce?

JIM: I don't think so: every album we did had a different feel, a different approach, a different blend of rock and roots and acoustic and electric. Probably not the most commercially-sussed way to go about building an international audience. But we had a sort of core agenda, and we kept at it. There's traditional ingredients on the last few albums just as much as on, say, Dancehall Sweethearts or The Unfortunate Cup of Tea. Which came before Drive the Cold Winter Away, remember. So I don't really accept that we left celtic behind; the acoustic element had always ebbed and flowed. Plus which the music had always reflected where we were at personally, and where we were at was increasingly America. So that was something we were absorbing and dealing with at one remove by putting our own reactions in the context of the fierce moustachioed men 100 years earlier. And we were revelling in being a solidly honed band, as a result of all that gigging.

ST: Do you ever think if you had had the luxury that bands have now of longer between albums that you?d have been more consistent in output. I am thinking that Book Of Invasions was a big one to follow but three or four years and you might just have topped it. Aliens seemed to have a great concept but without being fully realised.

JIM: Perhaps, but then again we might just have gone to the pub!

ST: There has been some talk of legal battles to claim back the rights to the albums. Now that you have that and the profile is up? Can we hope for re-releases with extensive sleeve notes and extra tracks? Only nine tracks on the Belfast Gigs? Surely there is more stuff from the Vaults?

There was more stuff from the Belfast Gigs, but unfortunately the master tapes have gone AWOL. Other than that I think we've put out pretty much everything else that's lying around, bar a few stray tracks like Bridge From Heart To Heart. However live recordings we did for US radio stations have turned up in the last few years and we never thought they'd surface again, so who knows? Maurice has collected a bundle of live TV performances which will form part of the DVD package when it comes out, so that's something people won't have seen. Which may not have been a bad thing. I might take a long holiday.

Mike Scott - The Adventurings and Learnings Interview

The Waterboys’ mainman, Mike Scott is a gentle spirit, full of wide eyed wonder and wide hearted love. When I asked him what triggered the spiritual journey that is so evident in his music he responded “if you mean what triggered my whole spiritual journey, it was being born on planet earth of course!” For Scott life is big and every moment is full of the hugest potential. He brandishes his brush way outside of the lines but the lines are never ignored, just used as signposts to something higher, wider and deeper than the confinement of definitions. God is spirit, within and without, way in and way out. When I ask him to label his Creed he responds with a seemingly unconstrained freedom and yet the clearest conviction, “And what creed might that be? I have none. I personally believe we are truly One in our deepest truth; that there is One Life in creation, and all our adventurings and learnings are leading us to that realization. This is the perennial wisdom and it has been around as long as God.”

As a musician Scott is a performer of gigantic proportions, a charismatic rock figure who holds concert halls in the grip of his hand. As a writer he is a visionary, a man of poetic words and sublime melodies. His songs seem so familiar, so comfortable, so beautiful. His sound is big even when stripped back to the acoustic guitar. When you hit his music with his faith you get a spark that lights the entire cosmos and the tiniest most hidden corners of the soul. It seems simple but is most profound. It seems effortless and casual but is focused and driven. It is inspirational; it lifts you, buoys you up, and takes you higher, never ignoring the darker side but shining that light over it, under it and through it. You feel that you could reach for the stars and actually touch them. You get less satisfied with the crescent; you want to grasp the whole of the moon.

The Waterboys new album is another instalment in Scott’s spiritual diary. Universal Hall sees the mystical troubadour back at the Findhorn Foundation, a spiritual community in the north east of his native Scotland and the place where Scott found “my school” through the writings of the one of the Foundations founders Eileen Caddy. I suggest she is a bit of a guru to him and he is quick to deflate such a lofty title. “'Guru',with all its distortions, would be the last word Eileen Caddy would use to describe herself. She is a teacher, certainly, primarily by the example of her own life. She's an ordinary woman who has lived in an extraordinary way - following the inner guidance of the 'still small voice within'- the voice of God within - wherever it leads, however strange its instructions might appear to human values. Her whole teaching is to turn others inward to find that inner divine source within themselves (the mark of the true spiritual teacher), and that is what I've learned from her. I love her a whole lot and am very grateful for the privilege of knowing her.”

There are many Christian reference points in Scott’s writings and yet he is sometimes hesitant about any affiliation with mainstream Christianity. I asked him about his name dropping of Iona, CS Lewis and Jesus himself and he was quick to talk about each one of them. “I don't reject Christianity. It is the religion of my race and like everyone else here I grew up with the stories of the example and teaching of Jesus - and how could I be untouched by that? But I am not a practising Christian. I'm not even sure Jesus would be if he incarnated today! As for CS Lewis, yes, he was a committed Christian, but I find if a writer or teacher is infused by the true divine spirit, as Lewis undoubtedly was, this is magnified and transmitted through their work regardless of the name of their faith. Iona is well known as a Christian centre because of the work of St. Columba who brought Christrianity there in the 6th century, but it was a Druid centre of power before then, and the island has a spiritual quality or soul that is divinely and powerfully Itself - and accessible to all who have eyes to see, regardless of their spiritual background or religion. Lastly the Christ to me is the divine energy that Jesus manifested on the physical earth - hence his bearing the name 'Jesus Christ', but I believe the Christ energy existed before Jesus, and is a universal energy infusing every part of creation, and every human being, whether they call themselves 'Christian' or not.”

Looking back at the twenty years of The Waterboys there have always been hints of the divine but it was 1995’s Bring Em All In the first of two albums that Scott released without The Waterboys moniker that the spiritual became such a force. The previous album recorded in New York after his few years in the west of Ireland had suggested a spiritual awakening as he sang “I just found God where he always was” but Bring ‘Em All In recorded in Findhorn was an album of spiritual songs of a man most sure. After his second solo album Scott who told a Greenbelt 94 audience “I am the Waterboys” took the band name back and made his most rocking album in over a decade A Rock in a Weary Land which looked at the tired dumbing down that the big city brings and holding on to the transcendent when the mundane is what is being celebrated.

In 2001 Scott and his wife visited Findhorn again and they “both got a 'yes' feeling to moving back.” And so Universal Hall the sacred space where both bring Em All In and the new album was recorded sees a return to the acoustic and more meditative. Without doubt The Waterboys albums are always effected by location. Does Scott go different places like you might use some musical instrument to purposely effect the music. He told me, “I generally make 'em wherever I find myself but on occasion I have made a decision in advance to, for example, write and record in the West of Ireland (late 80's), or to record the new Universal Hall album in Findhorn, in the spiritually charged atmosphere of the Findhorn Community. I am always inspired by the places I live and by what I feel and see around me, and this inevitably flows into the music and the albums.”

Another injection to the muse of Universal Hall is the reunion old Waterboys pal Steve Wickham. Wickham is a mesmerising Irish fiddle player who makes anything dance that comes into his vicinity. In the middle of the eighties Scott came across the Dublin based player and the hybrid fusion of Scott’s big music and Wickham’s folk rock fiddle brought to flower one of the most powerful live shows the world has ever seen. I still use their Ulster Hall, Belfast gig in April 1986 as a yard stick to all good rock shows and nothing has ever come close. Sadly the band took too long playing at their music and before they released their next album the sound had dropped a little too far off the Irish traditional balance scale and Fisherman’s Blues just never reached the heights it could have.

I told Scott that when I watch him perform now I get the impression of a man at peace with where his art has taken him. he could have been a megastar but decided to get off the beaten track and head west to Galway. He seems to be very content at the level of his success. The songs seem more important than the riches, fame or house in Malibu. Am I right? His answer is characteristically philosophical, “Whether I 'could have been a megastar' is unknown. As CS Lewis liked to say 'We are never told what might have happened'. Nor am I interested in what might have happened! I've always followed my heart, guts and fascinations and I have learned to surrender to the places - both physical and inspirational - to which they take me. Yes, the songs and creativity are more important than any riches that could result, but I have nothing against houses in Malibu. Malibu is a very fine place indeed.”

In November 2000 I was back in the Ulster Hall trying to revisit those old feelings of 1986 and though enjoyable it was getting nowhere near and then for the encores out stepped Steve Wickham and the crowd went wild. The old magic bow weaved again and suddenly we were transported to those enchanting places. How did they get back together? Scott tells the story, “Steve and I are great friends and even when we weren't working professionally together we were always in touch. In 1999 Steve invited me to Sligo, where he lives in the west of Ireland, to do a show. So I went over and we did a two-man concert together. It was a great success and I knew we had a lot of music still to make together. Then I asked him to guest with us at our shows in Dublin and Belfast in 2000. It went so well I asked him to rejoin the band, and, to my great pleasure and delight, he is back and playing the greatest rock fiddling ever!”

It is hard to argue with that but what then does he add to Scott’s muse well over a decade later? “Steve gives the music wings, a sense of the elemental, a sweetness, a gateway to the unseen.” Does the writing change with the fiddle on stand by? “Yes, indeed. 'Peace of Iona' was a hypnotic chant until Steve's fiddle entered the picture and turned it into a sonic evocation of the island and the elements.” Last Wickham question has to be about how he feels with the spiritual concentration of the songs and recording in a spiritual community. Scott is loathe to speak for his friend, suffice to say, “Well, I can't answer that for him, though we had a great time together in Findhorn making 'Universal Hall'. He has visited many times.”

Universal Hall is an album full of spiritual reflection, meditation and at times almost corporate worship. Many of the songs have only a few lines that become almost like Taize prayer chants. I wondered what had inspired him to the economy of words. “I'm familiar with Taize chants because they are very popular in Findhorn, and I also work with affirmations, so I'm used to the idea that a few short lines of words, carefully chosen and repeated aloud or inwardly, can have a powerful inspirational effect. When my songs started coming in this minimal form, with only 2 or 3 lines, the challenge was to allow them to be so, and not to be tempted to flesh them out into a 'normal' structure. I resisted the temptation!”

Finally, I was curious to know if the spiritual belief that ignites these songs gives an extra expectation to what Scott hoped that they might achieve. Again his answer is intriguing showing so clearly that we should never differentiate between the so called sacred and secular. If it is important enough top provoke songs it all should have similar hope of impact. “My hope is the same whatever kind of song I'm writing - that I may express myself and my inspiration authentically, in a way that thrills me and takes my writing somewhere it has never reached before, and that the listener will have every chance to 'get it' and receive the same inspiration I did when writing.” And what would he hope we might take away from Universal Hall? “A feeling of love inside.”

Festival of Faith and Music 2005 - A Personal Response

There are moments when the space blows up to a size that is way beyond our normal daily allowance. In that space the energy of mind and heart and soul is quickened and vocabulary falls effortlessly onto the pages of dreams and discernment. It might be the place where songs and poems are caught, where the plots of novels are conjured and where the artist sees colours shimmy and shake into beauty. In the space life takes a perspective that transcends and divine grace drenches. Life gets a little more sorted, redemption visits and births new convictions.

The Festival Of Faith and Music at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan has become such a sabbatical for me. As I moved between seminar, concert, creative worship and conversation I found myself in a community whose lungs had been filled with a short sharp burst of oxygen that might just keep me spiritual alive for months to come. Calvin’s Head of Student Activities Ken Heffner has created something that is too precious to have been planned. In 2003 some of us came. When we reconvened in 2005 we were embraced by simply being back in each other’s presence and then we got to add new touches of brother and sisters, many hitherto unknown to us. For thirty six hours we shared something above us, underneath us and surrounding us and we basked in the sacred space.

For me there were a few moments of disbelieving that the ridiculous grace that follows my life should be lavishly poured out again. I got to hang out with the best man at my wedding David Dark. In a bizarre beyond coincidence David and I met in Ireland in 1992 and in a story too long to trace here we find ourselves living a long distance apart in Belfast and Nashville but somehow living this twin tracked connection where we both just released our second books and I was key note speaker at the first festival and David at this one. That his wife Sarah Masen did her first gig in many months and simply reached beyond her phenomenal potential with a performance that stole the weekend.

The Calvin College Theatre is perfect for music. The big stage, the crystal clear sound and an audience of hundreds of students who have a unique discernment in quality music maybe as a result of Hefner’s shaping in the great artists he brings into this College based upon the theology of Dutch Reformed thinker Kuyper; culturally engaging Calvinism. This weekend saw Brother Danielson build on his zany concert in 2003. Dressing himself inside a tree he threw out all kinds of high pitched songs of practical Christian challenge leaving many wondering like Bob Dylan, “Something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Jones.”

His pal Sufjan Stevens is the current critical success garnering entries in many of the world’s most prestigious magazine’s albums of 2004. At the festival, his entire band dressed in angels wings (well he did follow Brother Danielson!), he played the most beautiful songs, subtle and sophisticated in their delivery from a band that traded so many instruments it was impossible to keep up. Danielson and Steven’s other co-conspirator Half Handed Cloud gave an equally quirky flavour to Saturday night. Sort of stuck inside one of Larry Norman’s humourous songs he lets toy mechanical sheep off across the stage as he sings about The Lamb Of God. It is full on Biblical content played more regularly far from Christian ghettos.

David Bazan, from Pedro the Lion and a new incarnation The Headphones, was a surprise addition to the Saturday night where he did his now traditional question and answer sessions between songs. His songs have Flannery O’Connor’s gloom and doom but somehow redemption lurks. He covered Randy Newman’s politically provocative Political Science which perfectly showcases his humour, cynicism and prophetic punch. Moments later he is ranting against Blockbuster Video censorship and singing the hymn Come Thou Fount as response to a question about which songs touch him the most.

Another of those “I don’t belief this is happening” moments was when Pierce Pettis approached me after my seminar and asked if he could run a song past me. “Yes, I reckon that would be ok!” Pierce had written a song about Belfast called Donegal Road and wanted a cultural editor so that he wouldn’t look like a dumb yank! Far from it the song which he added to his brilliant solo set was so spot on to the Irish contradictions where the stranger is loved like nowhere else yet we hold up our own at knife point. God Believes In You is always a song and truth worth hearing and again was a highlight of Pierce’s set.

Both Pierce and Saturday night headliner Bill Mallonee asked for prayer for their Pope who had passed away in the afternoon. Bill, now without his Vigilantes Of Love did the best solo set I remember him do, showcasing songs from his new album Friendly Fire. Highlight was his classic Resplendent which deals with natural disaster and humanity’s culpability in the plot.

But it wasn’t the gigs that made the biggest impression. Just hanging out, going out for food and watering at the end of the two days, moving and breathing in an air filled with imagination and spiritual intention makes this a unique place. I need to save for 2007.

The Frames - Glen Hansard Soul Surmise Interview

For some time I have been waxing lyrical about the magnificence of The Frames live. On the eve of their live album SET LIST I got a chance to email Glen Hansard a few questions as he was holed up in Chicago putting down tracks for the next studio album. He waited until he got back to Dublin but he took the time to tease out my questions of art and faith as they apply to this man who have been following closely since I was first blown away by The Frames in London way back in 1991.

Claire Leddbetter gave the word on the release to the fan base this week:

“it is finally hitting a store near you in ireland on may 16th. the tracklist is: revelate, star star, god bless mom, pavement tune, stars are underground, lay me down, rent day blues, what happens when the heart just stops, perfect opening line, santa maria, fitzcarraldo, your face and the blood. we've left the bit in in the middle of fitcarraldo where the amp blew up and caught fire and a story about a dog.....part from that, its full-on music/crowd/music/crowd/music etc from start to finish and is a very nice addition to one's collection :0) the version of your face is particularly fine i think.....3mv in england will be making the record available in stores in the uk from the 26th may. little big in australia will be making the record available in stores as soon as humanly possible - in america - i dont know yet what we're doing with the record. hopefully it will be available in stores too at some point soon, or on amazon sooner, but im sure we'll bring over a suitcase to sell at the shows in june for those that cant wait. i beleive that konkurrent in the benelux countries will be taking some set lists too to get out in their territories.”

See Glen solo at Killyleagh Castle on may 25th with Van Morrison, Juliet Turner, Brian Houston and Juliet Turner!

So here is the interview…

STOCKI: How does it feel that after 13 years The Frames have finally got some of the recognition that you deserved all along?

GLEN: We feel that were doing what we set out to do. It was never a case for us of getting recognition from media… us, our audience and our peers have always been our concern. The media has never been a particular friend or foe, it’s just never been our goal to be its favourite band. We’ve done what’s been asked of us in regard to press, and no more. I think its a dangerous place to put yourself…at the mercy of something so insecure…it seems to me that popular culture has always been led by those who care least for it, not those who follow it's lead… if it truly matters nothing to you, then you may just end up its darling one day, although if you were truthful you won’t notice it either way.

STOCKI: It seems that since I first saw you in the Subterranean, London in 91 that you have been on the cusp but never dropped over the edge. How have you found the stamina to not say SOD IT and walk away?

GLEN: Because walking away has never been an option. I left school at 14, I’m not qualified to do much else. Which puts me in a strong position…do this well or give up…the latter is not a very promising prospect. I never gave myself that choice. Whether on a stage or on a street…music is what I do.

STOCKI: The Dublin scene is so strong at the moment with Damien Rice, Gemma Hayes, David Kitt etc. This is a new generation but you seem more part of it than you did of the old regime so to speak. Do you feel it is a good time for the Irish scene?

GLEN: Yes I think there is a very healthy atmosphere in Dublin, I think a large part of it is to do with the confidence of the Irish nation rising…people are no longer afraid to like bands that come from there own town. When The Frames started back in 1990 you had to get some nod from foreign press in order for people at home to pay any attention…we were ruled by the English music press…which is purely based on the cult of personality and not the tunes, fashion and rock ‘n roll stories are its agenda. I don’t regard it, and I’ve never bought it. Dublin is thriving because there is so much great music being made here. It seems that every decade, real quality emerges.

STOCKI: For The Birds is a little more laid back and ambient than most of what you do. What as the reason for that? Was it the Kittsers et al influencing the sound?

GLEN: No, it was just time to make a record of what was coming out…the natural stuff. For so long we'd been told by the industry that fast means big, loud means lots, slow means nothing and i was just so sick of that logic. The songs I was writing were slow…so that’s what we did. We were happy to make a record that might show our natural selves even though we might be ignored for's not like we were applauded for our other records anyway… it just didn’t matter as long as we could stand by it and be proud..

STOCKI: What happens next? Is there a temptation to do For The Birds Part 2 to keep the new fan base?

GLEN: Records are just what they turn out to be. There’s no radical game plan…that’s for the world domination bands… I’m just mapping a life with songs. We don’t stand around under lit tables and plan our fan base strategies…forget that…if those who like The Frames like the record then great. I won’t try to con anyone that we’re the horse to watch. How base would that be!?

STOCKI: There must be songs sitting ready. What stage is the follow up at?

GLEN: We’ve just finished the basic tracks in Chicago, were happy with the work we’ve done and we will do some more work on it in the coming weeks and mix it sometime soon after that. If the basic emotion of the songs translate well…then we’ve done our record justice.

STOCKI: What kind of sound can we expect?

It's a collection of songs and so it has no set thread other than we made them. There are elements of our last two records in there and some new elements too. The song in its basic form is often the most pure…then we throw the bells and whistles on and sometimes it looks ridiculous… other times a new beauty emerges.. it’s alchemy it’s fun and at best it's art.

STOCKI: Are there more of those sad love songs about waking up in the ex's garden?

GLEN: Yeah! Lots more..

STOCKI: Are there any themes taking shape?

GLEN: I suppose a sense of well f*** it we’re lost in the middle of this life and each day brings a new possibility for adventure and safety. It’s more about enjoying the chaos now and not moaning about it anymore…what’s the point…the whole thing is so much bigger than us…so lets just enjoy the time we have here.. with its questions and doubts and abstractions and joy. The human condition is the basis. Connection with other humans is what we crave…and sharing the light keeps us alive…very Christian eh?

STOCKI: Thematically where do the ideas come from?

GLEN: From a life of map making and song. Everything’s an influence… everything.

STOCKI: How will losing David Odlum affect the next record?

GLEN: It won’t. He's still my friend…we still make music together. He's following his own north star and it's leading him toward a life of engineering and producing and there's nothing in the world that justifies keeping a person from their dreams. With regard to a noticeable sonic difference? Well I’m sure his presence will be missed…but not his spirit.

STOCKI: The live show is simply astounding. Do you prefer the stage or the studio?

GLEN: The studio and the stage are such different environments. For the longest time I thought that to recreate the live energy on tape was the desired effect...but through tearful endeavour I’ve realised it's a different process…one which we are still learning about…playing live is definitely where we are comfortable…the energy is clear and it flows in one direction…away from the band.. and the energy that returns is then converted and used instantly…it’s a very random animal the live show.

STOCKI: Covers of Tim Buckley and Van Morrison sit side by side with the Pixies in live shows. Would you call the things you listen to eclectic?

GLEN: Yeah growing up as a busker it’s all about songs and not styles.. a good song crosses the street and unlocks the passer by…to achieve a response no matter how small.. these people write great songs and I thank them for many a meal I’ve eaten through singing their tunes. Thanks from all the buskers!

STOCKI: You specifically mention Morrison as an influence to not just yourselves but to David Gray et al. For you is there an Irish kinship there?

GLEN: I think it’s the troubadour thing…the power of a man with a guitar and something to sing about. I don’t think it's particular to Ireland…it's the old way.. the poets take on the world around them.. a solitary voice that sings of a territory that’s unseen…that’s inner and abstract and emotional.. and somehow comments on us all. There’s great medicine in ramblings of a lost soul…no patronising tone to the words. I love Van Morrison because he always seems to be searching.. never found…I don’t know about his personal life but in his music he gives the listener only a question…the answer lies elsewhere…to be attained someday.

STOCKI: There is also a depth of religious imagery to what you and Morrison do. East Belfast and Dublin city have not been great ads for the Jesus of the Protestant and Catholic faiths of those respective places. Yet the message both of you have is a positive spiritual vibe. Why do you think that is?

GLEN: I’m not really sure where that comes from. My earliest memories of singing was being bathed in the sink by my mother with the suitcase record player on the sideboard, playing Leonard Cohen and Simon and Garfunkel records. She taught me the words to Bird on the Wire and the Sound of Silence, and as a very young child I just learned the sounds of the words. I was too young to know what they meant, never mind their deeper meanings. As I grew up those songs got deeper and revealed more to me. We weren’t a church going family, although my mother was and is very catholic. Apart from a 5 year falling out with God in the 90's she has always been a very strong believer. She always said, “we don’t have to go to church to talk to God”… and she viewed the church as a place of gossiping and comparisons. The whole wearing the Sunday best and showing up with the rest of the town for the weekly sermon just wasn’t high on her list of priorities. She stayed at home and cleaned on Sunday mornings with the record player so loud that she could hear it clearly over the Hoover…the rising dust caught in the sunlight were the angels ascended.

STOCKI: At a recent Belfast gig, you mentioned Jesus whipping the money changers out of the temple. Do you read a lot of stuff about him?

GLEN: I find the Bible fairly tough going as a book, but I love the imagery. It’s full of great tragedy and redemption, the fire and brimstone nature of it definitely appeals to me, although I suppose that the whole style of writing at the time was very poetic and decorative so when it says, “Jesus healed the blind, it may mean that he gave the unsee-ers back their faith…therefore restoring the vision…therefore healing the blind… and if you apply this method of thinking to every aspect of the bible and it's miracle stories then it becomes much easier to believe he really was as powerful as the book describes…because these surely were miracles, real miracles. The power and vision of a man to change the minds of people, to change laws to overthrow powers that be…it took the will and strength of a true prophet…and the book of Luke was the place were this became most clear to me. The idea of an angry Christ struck a deep chord in me…because the floating yoda we see so often in imagery never convinced me. I think he must have been a very strong and powerful man to have had such a lasting impact on the Christian world…and the whole world in fact… a great revolutionary and a deeply spiritual leader.

STOCKI: Finally, how do you go about "making your life make sense and make amends?"

GLEN: I suppose I try to remain open to the signs and to the moment I’m in. I really believe in the idea that if we are open, the mystery and the wonder are revealed to us through everything we encounter…the magic is in the moment. Although that line was born out of a sense that I wasn't in control of my own destiny anymore and I and we The Frames needed to get clear of the place we were, and to strike out on our own path and see where it brought us. So the amends we made came partly through making For The Birds and setting up our own record label and being our own bosses. The personal amends never stop…that’s the work of the everyday.

All Star United - The Soul Surmise Interview

(This interview was done before All Star United released Revolution in 2002)

Yes, a lot can change in a couple of years. You get a little older, hopefully a little wiser, and you meet new people (wife Peggy).

I'm not exactly sure what the ASU sound is. The band has been an amazing outlet for my rock and roll outpourings, and I've been fortunate enough to record with a number of my friends over the years. It's exciting to witness a group of guys transform an idea in my head, into a listenable recorded product. Well, sometimes it's listenable. I try to write songs that are short and to the point, with a singable hook, and with the occasional touch of wit. Add my odd voice, my cast of rock and roll pals, and there you have it. Maybe we do have a sound? Not to mention, I'm drawn to a sort of low-fi production style. Less is more. Most of the new record was done in only a few takes.

This is a very personal project for me. I spent a lot of time cratfing songs for this record and they come straight from my heart. There is a co-write with my friend Doug, my friend Chris Smith, and others with Richard Evenlind.

That's a good question. I guess I got a little "John Lennonesque" lyrically on this album. There are several songs that deal with the idea of change. With all that's going on in the world, there must have been some sort of sub conscious element within me craving a revolution. I personally rest in the fact that God has the ability to take our problems and change them into something perfect.

The track "Kings And Queens" is a song that touches on the idea that we are all future royalty waiting to receive our Heavenly crowns. Life can be tough sometimes. However, we have the choice in life to exist in emptiness or accept the invitation to one day sit at the side of majesty. I love this imagery. "Sweet Jesus" is a track that I wrote in a time of searching. I remember sitting on my roof, with guitar in hand, overlooking downtown Nashville. The melody and chords just started to come. Sometimes I fall into a comfort zone where I put God on the "back burner". It's easy to take your salvation for granted when everything is going smoothly. This song is an actuall moment of getting reaquainted with an old friend. "Global Breakdown" was written on 9/11/01 watching CNN in my underwear. Not Doug's part of course.

I tend to come up with the tune first. Then I stumble across a motorway billboard that gives me the title. And as the engineer is setting up the microphone I'm usually scribbling down the rest of the words.

Not many people know that I have a bizarre day gig writing country songs for BMG Nashville music publishing. So----------Johnny Cash.

I find it quite exciting to be involved in an industry that needs to be shaken up a little bit. Humans have divine creativity flowing through their veins. Do not be afraid to create. The rest will happen as it should. I've seen a ton of young CCMers come and go. Many new bands get bummed out and jaded when their debuts don't go triple platinum. It can be a struggle, but you have to ask youself why you do it.

We hang out with the Supertones a lot (about an hour ago). But we don't like each other that much.

I don't know, I have an amazing capacity to leave entire cd collections in rental cars. However, I have hung on to the new Weezer, Jimmy Eat World, Pete Yorn, and Stereophonics. It's funny though. I don't listen to a lot of music when I'm writing.

I have often said that writng songs within the Christian box is the most challenging song writing gig on the planet. There are huge limitations on subject matter, and what the perceived audience will actually buy. However, I find this challenge exciting. It really is a thrill to devise new and creative ways to talk about your faith with metephor and imagery.

Ironic isn't it.

What can you say about the Brits? I mean, come on! Without you, I might be writing this in Portuguese. God save the Queen, I mean it man.

Joseph Arthur - Exhausted by his own Imagination

I left Joseph Arthur’s small and intimate gig at The Errigle Inn, in Belfast, speechlessly quiet in my half yard of spiritual solitude. And it wasn’t the gig, though we’ll get to that. After the gig as this lanky, arty and obviously laid big dude just sat down at a table alone, someone asked about product. Not for Joseph the table at the back strategy. No he got up almost hesitantly and opened a bag full of EPs, some on CD but some on 12” vinyl with individually sketchings by the man himself. I stood in line, two from the front and one from the back, and when it came my turn I asked my prepared question.

During the gig I could not help, as a Presbyterian minister, be aware of the copious amounts of spiritual references. When he asked what people do for fun in Belfast and one, inebriated to the point of loud wag, shouted ‘Church’ and everyone laughed. Joseph said that after his 10 mile 4am run he always went to Mass. When asked what Americans do for fun he replied that he just sat in front of the TV and smoked pot. There seemed to me to be a great deal of irony in both statements and so my question stuttered out, “So, does the spiritual depth of your lyrics come from going to Mass or smoking pot in front of the TV?”

Arthur’s laid back eyes gained a sparkle and we began to converse about faith. He chatted excitedly about how it is his subconscious coming out and how it is his search and struggle and holding on to faith when the world suggests giving it up. I shared the frustrations of a preacher, the lines of whose picture are always too confining to really get to the soul of the human experience like a singer can; like he had just done. Immediately he proved my point, had the house sound switched off, lifted his guitar and sang to the thirty of us who remained a new song called Redemption’s Son that was simply breathtaking. It was all about Jesus being the only one who really knew him and the struggles of relationships of father and son. It was a prayer for the angel of light to shine upon us. And of course it was far from theological watertight, that is not his trade or his concern but it opened spiritual pores in the soul’s of that crowd that Billy Graham could never do. It was like he threw out these melodic seeds that fell, where the fell only God knows, but they fell and they were potent because as he threw them they were landing in the depth of the man who sang in the same sense as the ones who listened. Not the arrogant aural brutality that closes the heart but the humble, honest, vulnerable sharing of the search that smashed down the thickest doors in the gentlest way.

And ooh yes, the gig. Well I arrived not sure what to expect. I loved ‘In the Sun’ the most famous of his songs, covered by Peter Gabriel and the single off his last album Come To Where I’m From. Yet I thought that sometimes it was over cluttered and too harsh for my forty year old ears. When Arthur walked out and started singing I was blown away. The voice, the melody, the articulate poetry of the songs and the depth of the questions. Every few songs he’d use his foot pedal echoing effects to conjure rhythms and guitar layerings that made it sound big, big, big and though there were moments when he got so into his art that this became just a little over self indulgent, it made the gig flow up and down and kept the whole thing fascinating. Though a more than original artist there are the parts in Arthur’s influences, that add up to way beyond their sum. The poetry of a Cohen, the harmonica of a Dylan, the clutter and clang of a Waits, a bit of melancholy trip hop and the angst of a Cobain. Yet, that angst never goes the nihilistic way of Cobain because it is always wrapped in the flickers of light that the search always seemed to let seep in. God, and Jesus seems His incarnation in these songs, is a given but who and how and where are the search at hand. There are strongest hint of resurrection and eternity and the cross as a main mover in these things is never far away.

The bottom line for Arthur is a world of dreams that clashes too often with the reality of the day and his prayer is for understanding and a way through. He sings, “Will you help me to understand/'Cause I been caught in between all I wish for and all I need.” It is the most satisfying of journeys to share. He sings elsewhere “I’m exhausted by imagination” and I believe him. But imagination is the most vital ingredient in lives searching for the betterment of self and mankind and so I’ll milk this man’s creativity dry, if he doesn’t mind.

Dan Wheeler & Cathy Burton - Put the Kettle on ... Here come the Prophets

It was a wonderful moment. I was hosting a Songwriter Circle at The Greenbelt Arts Festival and two of my guests were Cathy Burton and Dan Wheeler and I was trying to provoke in them a response to the purpose of their songs. Did they write in order to change things? What impact did they think their songs could make? Knowing Dan and Cathy’s gentle modesty and unpretentious demeanours I should have not been too taken aback by their quiet shrug of shoulders and “I don’t know…hopefully!” responses. I was though. So I turned to my non musical guest, the ecologist and activist, Alistair McIntosh and asked him whether he thought music could change things and as his wonderful want – he went off on one.

I had noticed him jot down some notes during the songs Cathy and Dan had been singing. He reached for these notes and quoted back to the performers their lyrics and concluded “there is a profound prophetic nature to your work. You are bringing together the integration of the head, the heart and the hand in the tradition of Celtic Spirituality and you are in the line of the bards in the powerful way that you can transform society.” I looked across at my humble songwriters and their mouths were wide open and their eyes were popping out of their heads!

Burton and Wheeler have quite a pedigree when it comes to their art. Both are songwriting partners of number 1 song writers. Wheeler has been writing with Paul Field who sent Cliff Richard to number 1 with Millenium Prayer and Cathy could actually be described as a songwriter-in –law of Britain’s biggest thing in 2005 James Blunt as both have co-written with Ricky Ross who of course himself knocked Madonna off the top of the album charts in 1989 with his band Deacon Blue.

How does that come about? Dan’s diffidence raises its’ head again, “Paul and I met on a recording session and, knowing his track record as a songwriter, I nervously handed him some demos on the second day. He must have taken pity on me or decided I wasn’t a total write-off because we later fixed-up a writing day together and it worked out really well.” It has worked so well that maybe the best song on Field’s new album is one of the songs written during that session, Bringing It Round Again. “The thought behind the song is finding something unchanging in all the changes.” Of course, those who know where Wheeler is coming from will know that the love is God’s love. Wheeler’s raison d’etre could be seen as a search for belonging, meaning and healing and the answer is always love whether that is God’s love or the many ways that God allows us to experience and give love in our every day living. You always feel that you are getting the joys and struggles of a real flesh and blood life.

What we have is an authentic journey of life. These are the thoughts of a man with the compass of faith in his hand, trying to read it and then honestly share it to help all of us read our own compasses better. It is a sharing of authenticity and that is such an important contribution inside and outside of Church life. And yet when I asked him what he hoped people would take away from his album Long Road Round he answers, “Ideally I’d want people to put the kettle on and take another listen!”

That title track was co-written with Burton who when asked how she got hooked up with Ricky Ross we find ourselves back at the very Songwriter Circle at Greenbelt that started the piece. “We met at Greenbelt on The Rising and I approached him. We met in London for a writing day.” What did he bring to the table? “He brought a mature simplicity to the songs I’d sent him. I think I was busy busy, busy with lyrics. He seemed to just bring in a purer version of what I was trying to do.”

Is there a danger that Cathy feels under pressure to preach in that “purer version” of what she’s trying to do? “I do feel a pressure. I feel that being in the public eye I need to be saying more than I do. I'm very aware of it. So I'm trying to grow in my writing and be more up front with the message of Jesus without scaring people of with brush that tars us of being accused of doing "religious music". I think the Jesus stuff of Grace, Forgiveness and Love is what I'm thinking of whilst writing for this next album. I hope I get there!”

So do we. I ask about McIntosh’s comments and that prophetic role. She’s done some thinking in the interim. “Well I've thought about it often. I do think music that is written out of our being can be prophetic. I think it can communicate God in a way that nothing else can. I just think it's kind of embarrassing and big headed to go around focusing on it. So I try not to think about it for fear of loosing any gift that God has potentially given me in thinking I'm some kind of big important prophet.”

Of course! Humble but purpose driven. It’s why we love these two south coast singers. We need them. The powerful of the song should never be underestimated.

Derek Webb - The Soul Surmise Interview

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

DEREK: 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 10 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.

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

DEREK: 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 7 reputations riding on the outcome. It's just me now. So that makes me a little more fearless.

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

DEREK: 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.

ST: 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?

DEREK: 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 it's 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 it it's role in culture, and what's my role in it? And these were big questions for me. That records intended audience 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.

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

DEREK: 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.

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

DEREK: 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.

ST: 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?

DEREK: 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.

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

DEREK: 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.

ST: Where can we begin to redress the compromise?

DEREK: 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.

ST: 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?

DEREK: 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.

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

DEREK: 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.

ST: What books have been challenging you?

DEREK: 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.

ST: You hit CCM hard to with “I love the Lord but don't hear a single.” Justified cynicism?

DEREK: 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.

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

DEREK: 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.

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

DEREK: 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.

ST: 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 my 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. On the whole, anyway.

Switchfoot - Interview with Jon Foreman

Seven years on and part time surf boys Switchfoot are on the cusp of a place of belonging in the big bad world of rock n roll. Their fourth album Beautiful Letdown has been picked up by Columbia Records and they are off across America on their first ever headline tour, strategically working out where their songs should live and breathe and make their mark. Jon Foreman sees himself as the “shepherd of the songs, pushing them where they want to go.”

Speaking to Foreman on a telephone that connects Alberquerque with Belfast, N. Ireland I get a real sense of ease with who this twenty six year old is. There is a deep sense of belief in his and his band’s ability. There is a confidence about his songwriting vocation. There is an energetic idealism that wants to change the world. Put these things together in your everyday rock star who has just surprised a major label with the demand for their newly released CD and the danger is that you get a huge ego that massacres humility and leaves a distant, cold pain in the neck or every other part of the body you can mention. Not so with Foreman. He confesses his desire to change the world but adds his saving grace, “we want to change the world but that is not an arrogant statement that we are more important than people who do not put guitars around their necks.”

Quite. As Foreman talks about how he goes about his songwriting craft you get the evidence to believe that we are not dealing with a band not looking for top ten hits alone, though you always get the feeling they would take those in a most grateful and balanced way. Foreman says that he writes most days, “it is like a diary thing for me.” Doesn’t that mean being prolific in writing bad songs? “You don’t realise its crap until the morning after,” he laughs, “and there is probably always some part of the melody or idea worth salvaging and even if there isn’t you can just forget it and go off and surf!”

So what about Beautiful Letdown, what was going on in his diary? “Well I think it was about change,” perhaps a reference to his marriage to Emily during the writing process. She gets name checked as he continues, “I write from and for myself and play the songs for myself and God and my wife. They have to cross a boundary before the band get to hear or influence them.” Did the other change of major movie soundtrack (A Walk To Remember) and big record company involvement change the songwriting craft this time around? “Well, we decided the where, when and how of this album. We had a great idea of what we wanted. Columbia did not come in until after the album was done.”

What ideas did they want? This is where we get to the most precious commodity of Switchfoot’s mission. Depth and thought. “Pascal says something about the total depravity of man sitting along side the beauty of the human condition. This album is about that mix. And hope. I believe for hope to be truly hope it has to reach deeper than the wound. We can take away the pain but hope for me has to go deeper and deal with the cause of the pain.”

That is how they want to change the world, going deeper, touching the cause of our hurting. As they are coming out of a Christian music industry their “deliberate decision as to where the songs would be heard” has and might continue to cause a stir. “We want to take these songs into the clubs and bars and the smoky corners.” The songs are strong enough to be live anywhere. This is thinking man’s poetry dressed in the most contagiously catchy melodies of emo rock. Jon Foreman’s thinking has come up with the songs now it is up to their record companies at Columbia and Sparrow (and Furious? In the UK) to allow the same source and power of thought shepherd them home.

SARAH MASEN - a precious commodity

Sarah Masen is a precious commodity, though she detests that whole concept. "I'm not about selling an image, capitalising on the individual who then becomes not an individual", she asserts. That is why she is so precious. Sarah Masen is not afraid. She is not afraid to take on the system that is, in her case, Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). She is not afraid to explore the messy complications of the world in which her faith inhabits. She is not afraid to ask questions. She is not afraid to explore the whole vast realm of the kingdom of God and not just the entrance doorway. In the adventure that that is she is not afraid to make paradigm shifts. She is not afraid to be a afraid.

As a result, her new album, Carry Us Through, is one of the most artistic and satisfying pieces of work to ever emanate from the world of CCM. Sadly that can be a little bit of a misfit in the current world of CCM where quality can mean nothing in the realms of sales quantity. That is one of the very provocations that Sarah is throwing out into the conversation that surrounds the commercial end of Christendom. When I asked her if touring her album was all that it's cracked up to be she was quick to deny that illusion. "Nothing is all that it's cracked up to be if it's sold. It's always suspect when you add lights, hype, promotion, style and packaging". Now isn't Christianity about turning the world upside down, exposing the absurdity of our futile minds. Unfortunately, and surely disobediently, Christian economics is made in the image of the world. It has to sell. Sarah's asking why it is how it is. "I think it's healthy to ask these questions."

That questioning is another vital ingredient in the raison d'être of Sarah Masen's work. Looking for insights into what she hoped people might gain from her songs she says, "To be humbled and strengthened and to find some hope. I hope people are welcomed in to ask questions, to explore what's true. We learn through dialogue. I want to invite people to talk"

People. This twenty two year old's work is littered with people. In a world where song ideas seem to revolve around some three minute epilogue about some punchy evangelical idea, Masen prefers to tell stories and to, as she says, "make the mundane look beautiful or look glorious in a new way." So in Beautiful Dream Visions she sings about her hometown Detroit friend, Jake, and lifts him out of what would be considered a very ordinary job and makes his everyday spectacular - "the sky's a wonderful place/kind of like the garage where my mechanic friend creates." Her cousin Jenni gets a song named after her, baby brother appears as does her dad, working on a car assembly line -"And it's beautiful in Detroit/Because someone's getting through/And it's work at building delight/It's what we do." Stories In Our Pockets seems to give a few diary snap shots from people met on tour. That meeting of people seems, to this reluctant star, to be as important, if not far more so, than the performance itself.

Stories about people of course are never easily tidied into clichéd conclusions. That again adds interest to Masen's songs as she rises above the pre-packaged safe and sound Christian radio friendly hit. Her latest single indeed was three weeks at number 2 in the CCM chart because one DJ didn't understand the theological point. What have we done to Christianity to only be able to sell neat crystal clear answers. As I wrote this article we in Northern Ireland have been plunged into shock, confusion, anger and mourning after the Omagh bombing became the worst tragedy of our troubled recent history. It was not a time for pious sanitised niceties. It was time to echo the psalmist's questions and uncertainties but I found hardly one CCM song to express our despair; as though our very genuine feelings were somehow sinful. Songwriters like Sarah Masen are to be given thanks for. For her, "I want to help people out. To ask the right questions in order to get the right answers. Learning is uncomfortable and I love that. It's a challenge that lets you know you're alive". You see, she's not afraid.

So if you're not afraid to investigate and think and explore than Carry Us Through is to be conversed with. The obligatory reference to her contemporaries is probably somewhere between Maria McKee and her main influence, respected Canadian songwriter, Jane Siberry. McKee's purity of voice and Siberry's whimsical zaniness. The songs are beautifully produced in what must be CCM veteran Charlie Peacock's most adventurous work to date. The instrumentation is like a sketch book of twists and turns and delicate surprises. Lyrically of course Masen is mature beyond her years in both content and craft. She tackles our hypocrisy and lust for shallowness in The Double; reminds us of the lessons of hindsight and time in 75 Grains Of Sand; Carry Us Through is the poetry of prayer as is Wrap My Name Around You of worship. Stories In Our Pockets is probably the song that gets closest to the heart of this tender human soul. It probably is her statement of intent for where she goes from here and assures us of a bright musical future, in spite of her suspicions of the circus that we call pop - "the stories in our pockets are the best we've ever known/So what if they don't sell, sell sell".

Indeed Sarah, so what? Keep on asking. Keep on exploring. Keep on telling our stories because in those stories there is truth and mercy caressing and colliding with our fallen humanity. We find God right there in the middle of our stories. Thank you for welcoming us in.