Bebo Norman Gets Real
- Janet Chismar Senior Editor, News & Culture
- 2002 22 Oct
"There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man that cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by the Creator made known through Jesus Christ."
While 17th-century apologist Blaise Pascal may have penned the famous line, another more contemporary philosopher has replicated the concept perfectly in song. The yearning for a touch of Divine love echoes throughout Bebo Norman's third release, Myself When I Am Real.
And real it is. While the CD's cover art may be abstract, the songs inside are not. Norman seems to invite the listener right into his living room as he pours out joy, love and frustration to his Lord. Eavesdropping is not required.
“I feel like, in the last year or so, and especially in the process of writing these songs, that there’s never been a more honest representation of me, and where I’m coming from, without an attempt to manipulate anything,” says Norman.
With this release, Norman finds himself in uncharted territory: “It’s been a new place to be, although I don’t know that it shows outwardly,” he admits. “It’s more about what motivated the writing of the songs. That part of the process was really visceral and gut-level, and there was no false pretense to it at all.”
He’s quick to point out he has always aimed “to be honest and to be vulnerable” in his songwriting. But during extensive touring over the last year, he realized that even in being honest, “it’s possible to manipulate honesty to look a certain way.”
Norman explains: “If I was standing on stage, talking about my weaknesses and how I struggle, there was a part of me that subconsciously was going, ‘You know what? In talking about my weaknesses and my struggles, really I am showing you that I am strong and that I’ve really got it together because I am willing to admit that I don’t have it together.’”
At times, the stage serves at Norman’s fiercest battleground--the place he is most aware of his need for God’s grace. “The fact that I exist on stage, and the audience exists under this pretense that I am supposed to have something to say, if I ever feel inadequate, it’s when I feel people have expectations of what I am supposed to offer them.”
He realizes he’s not able to sound profound 100 percent of the time, nor meet the sometimes lofty expectations of the audience. “Being on stage makes me realize that I don’t have that much to offer.
“It’s not that I don’t feel like God uses the music,” Norman adds, “but when everyone’s looking at you, and looking to you, for some amount of wisdom or depth--that’s an intimidating moment. You’re in a moment where you feel, ‘I have to give this to them, but I don’t have it to give to them.’ So all I do at that point is trust that God will give them whatever He wants to give them.”
According to Norman, being on stage can be “somewhat depressing” if you dwell on your human weaknesses. “But the beauty of it is that when I am aware of my humanity on a very real level, then I am fully aware of God’s grace. That’s ultimately what I have to offer to people.
Exit Stage Right
Audience expectations can also lead to an occasional sticky situation after a concert, when Norman spends time in the trenches. “The hard part is when people expect that you should be a personal friend or they expect that you should offer them counsel. I can have a five-minute conversation with somebody after a show and they will lay out to me stuff that I don’t know about some of my closest friends--severe stuff--stuff that should be shared in counseling.”
At such times, the usually talkative Norman finds himself at a loss for words: “I don’t know how to stop somebody or keep them revealing these things,” he admits. “But 99 percent of the time, people aren’t really looking for an answer. They’re just looking for an ear. And I don’t mind being that.
“I’ve just spend an hour and a half playing a show, telling them where I am coming from, and letting them listen,” he continues. “So they just want to give me two minutes of where they are coming from and let me listen. I think that’s okay--I think that can be a really healthy thing."
The only time it ever gets a bit scary is when somebody doesn’t take “no” for an answer, when a person pushes past Norman’s boundaries. “I’ve got certain parameters and accountability set up with my friends and we have drawn lines in terms of what I will or won’t do,” says Norman.
“Some people set themselves up for you to have to be really adamant with them,” he explains. “People will say, ‘Hey, can we go get coffee?’ or ‘Hey, will you come stay at my house the next time you’re in town?’ Then I say, ‘No, it’s not a good idea.’ When they don’t accept that, it sets them up to be in a place where I’ve got to be firm. So that can be hard.”
For Norman, a self-described “people pleaser” who never wanted “anybody to ever feel awkward,” it was especially hard. In the recent past, he would muddle through an uncomfortable situation, “not being adamant, letting it be ambiguous--just for the sake of wanting people to feel okay about themselves.”
He has since learned that is not the best way to serve people. “In essence, I was lying to them. Even if I knew I couldn’t hang out with someone, I would say the contrary just to make the person feel better. The way I see it now is, ‘Don’t lie and let them down a little bit at the beginning, rather than giving them false hope and letting them fall harder at the end.’ There’s been a lot of growing with that in the last year.”
Into the Private Places
Norman’s quest to be “real” extends even to his private life. “In terms of some very real relationships with the people who are around me, it seems like the theme for my life at this point is that I want everything on the table--good and bad.
“I’m also learning that having everything on the table can make things incredibly hard at times. There are lots of things that we have to deal with and work through. A lot of relationships right now are stressed and strained--in healthy ways--and ultimately in good ways, where you learn so much about yourself. But we’re not to that phase where we can look back at it. We’re in the phase where we are looking at it straight on, and so that’s been interesting.”
The most personal of Norman’s relationships is with the Lord, and there, he is most free to openly express himself. A majority of songs on “Myself When I Am Real” are love songs to God, a concept some critics miss entirely.
“Much of the criticism that I have aimed at me, in terms of the Christian community, is that in the songs that I write, sometimes you can just replace the word ‘God’ with the word ‘girl’ and it’s like a love song.
“But that’s what my relationship with God is like,” Norman explains. “It’s a love relationship, so I write about it in the first person. I don’t write about it in the third person. When I am writing to God, I don’t say ‘God,’ I say ‘you.’”
Even “Beautiful You,” which has some wondering if Norman’s days of singleness are dwindling, is written about and to God: “It speaks about the desperate need to be in a relationship with the God who made me.” The chorus, “Please don’t go away” isn’t begging a girl to stay. “It is about the realization that I would be nothing without Him.”
That’s how Norman prays and that’s how he talks to God, “so when I write a song, that’s how I speak. And I hope that somebody else can plug themselves into that and speak to God through my songs.”