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Intersection of Life and Faith

Great Expectations

  • Christa Farris Contributing Writer
  • 2004 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
Great Expectations

A few streets over from the quirky, vintage clothing shops, rows of quaint fixer-uppers and eclectic eateries nestled in Nashville’s Berry Hill neighborhood, Jars of Clay seems right at home at Blackbird Studio this particular Wednesday. The foursome is taking a break this evening from putting its creative spin on a U2 track (“All I Want Is You”) for the upcoming benefit compilation, "In the Name of Love: Artists United for Africa" (Sparrow).

While many artists in Nashville’s music community always seem ready for their close-up with a deliberate “rock star” look in place, even during low-key moments like recording, Jars of Clay’s Dan Haseltine, Charlie Lowell, Stephen Mason and Matt Odmark skip the fanfare on the fashion front. When they walk into the studio’s kitchen, they look as comfortable as people lounging in their Saturday-morning attire. Tousled hair. Baggy jeans. Wrinkled tees. Cool gym shoes. And with the exception of Charlie’s clean-shaven face, a few days worth of stubble completes the band’s nearly no-frills appearance.

As the guys crowd around the rectangular wooden table, they amuse themselves by arranging magnetic poetry into clever musings. “There are never enough articles,” Matt points out as he puts his wordsmith skills to the test, while his cohorts chuckle at a recent word pairing they’ve concocted. Meanwhile, Steve is happily typing away on his Mac laptop as Charlie mentions Steve’s hidden talent of creating specialty icons for his computer’s desktop. “Just send him the pictures, and he’ll make you a computer icon of your family,” Charlie offers in a pitch reminiscent of a late-night infomercial. Laughter ensues.

Throughout the course of the evening, it’s the band’s easy rapport, non-stop humor (which often involves quoting popular movies) and the maturity that comes with growing older and raising families that really stand out. After 10 years of making music together and enduring a demanding tour schedule, Jars of Clay hasn’t become the usual band statistic someone might read about in Rolling Stone or watch unravel on a VH1 “Behind the Music” marathon. Instead, they genuinely seem to enjoy and thrive off each other’s company; and this unique camaraderie and a return to musical simplicity are the prominent trademarks that shine through on Jars’ latest studio effort, "Who We Are Instead" (Essential).

“This record, for us, seems to represent something in the way of maturity.” — Dan Haseltine

With 15 No. 1 songs to Jars’ credit (along with three GRAMMY Awards, six Dove Awards and countless other accolades, including more than five million units in career sales), confidence in creating its art would almost seem like a given. But that reality didn’t come to fruition until recently.

“We’ve been a band for 10 years, but it was really strange to walk into the studio this time around, begin the process and actually feel a little different,” Dan says. “I feel like we actually matured and walked into something we knew how to do. We went into the recording and writing process going, ‘We have confidence; we know how to make this work.’”

Cliff Young, front man for Caedmon’s Call (who’s now with Jars of Clay on the second leg of what’s been dubbed “The Thinking Man’s Pop Tour”) was also excited to hear the fruit of the band’s latest artistic labor. “They bring an authenticity to Christian music and raise the bar on quality musicianship. It was amazing to sit and watch them write and sound check each day.”

And with Jars’ new-found clarity, longtime listeners can’t help detecting new confidence in Dan’s vocal delivery on tracks like “Amazing Grace”, “Trouble Is” and “Show You Love” that richly resonate in stark contrast to the songs on its self-titled debut in 1995. “Well, that was a different singer on that first record,” Dan jokes before Steve jumps in with a story.

“We actually watched something that Charlie had unearthed from a closet recently — a Hi-8 tape with some band named Jars of Clay. And it was like, ‘Man, we didn’t know how to play or sing.’ But we were all having fun, and you could see the raw elements that we’ve been able to watch grow and expand to different places,” Steve recounts. “It should be a general kind of inspiration for life — that if you keep at it, you’ll get better at some point. If you give enough, and you’re passionate enough about something, you won’t remain the same.”

Our desire is to take a Christian voice and elevate it on the more artful side of what pop music is.” — Matt Odmark

When recording "Who We Are Instead," the Jars of Clay guys say they were determined to keep the music simple and concentrate on what makes their faith genuine. Usually choosing to record in the familiar quarters of their own Sputnik Studio, flooding led to a change of venue. “Our studio kind of broke down, so we wrote at Matt’s house for a while,” Dan recalls. “We weren’t really sure if we were going to find that creative place we needed in a different atmosphere, but we did. We ended up writing six of the record’s songs there.”

But even before one lyric was set to music, Dan seriously questioned whether Jars of Clay’s musical well was running dry. “Sometimes we wonder if we’re going to be able to write, to say things that are important. You wonder if it’s worth it to even write music,” he says. “But when you have a day like that, where the songs really come together and they’re not fluff — they’re about real things — it’s why we do what we do. A day full of creating like that is powerful. That keeps us going.”

With the band in “creating” mode, many of the age-old discussions that began with Jars’ mainstream radio success of “Flood” and gigs alongside Sting, Sheryl Crow and Matchbox Twenty sparked new dialogue on Christian music message boards: “Is Jars of Clay planning to cater its new songs to a primarily mainstream audience?” When asked about the debate, Jars emphasizes a commitment to make music that communicates spiritual truths in a way that’s relevant to modern culture — whether the band performs in a church, college campus or in a bar.

“I think we can say our philosophy about our music has never really changed in terms of where we’d like to see it go,” Steve offers. “The encouraging thing is that a lot of people seem to be identifying with what they call ‘spiritual music.’ But we can never hope to ‘mainstream’ the message of the gospel to any fantastic degree. At the end of the day, what is the gospel but confessing that we have a great need that we can’t fulfill on our own? And that’s contrary to what’s going to be preached by the world. Pop music is a disposable medium, and you’re trying to put a message that’s not disposable on any level with something that is.”

“We’re not just doing something and trying to pay the bills. God is working in our relationships with each other and in us as individuals.” — Stephen Mason

Looking back at the last 10 years, it doesn’t seem like there’s much left for the band to accomplish, even if they do joke about “making a big comeback.” After remaining quiet most of the evening, Matt thoughtfully pipes up when asked to look ahead: “I have a desire to see the Christian voice in the arts elevated. I believe that the key players in the Christian story are some of the key players in any art form. But for the most part, as a body, we’ve lost our ability to communicate in an ongoing dialogue with our culture about man and what he’s here for. Maybe we got tripped up in our own language. Perhaps we lost a connection to it that feels authentic. So, for us, each record has been an attempt in that journey of trying to strip away all the things that could cloud what Christianity is all about — expressing it through art and letting it speak for itself.”

While Charlie, Steve and Dan applaud Matt’s thoughtful aspirations with affirming nods in his direction, the serious turn of conversation morphs back to being humorous once again.

Charlie: “Another thing we haven’t done yet as a band is swap out the band members a few different times — except for Dan.”

Steve: “Yeah, get some kids who can dance or something.”

Charlie: “Maybe some modern ballet? Or choreography?”

Matt: “Oh there’s been choreography!”

Steve: “Yeah, we had to stop because I couldn’t do it.”

“In some ways it feels like a lot of the stuff we spend our time doing is about building up our little Jars of Clay ‘kingdom.’ Then all of a sudden we talk about Africa, and it’s Jars of Clay what?” — Charlie Lowell

When all is said and done, Jars of Clay also hopes to be more than just a band that talks about important issues from the stage — whether it’s addressing the plight of the persecuted church in China or the poverty and AIDS crisis in Africa. Instead of being content simply to recite the horrifying statistics about the AIDS pandemic, Dan experienced the devastation firsthand during a stint with World Vision and African Leadership last year.

While a naïve cynic might claim these efforts to educate the world about AIDS are just a way to ride Bono’s advocacy coattails, the band took a personal stake by reaching out to victims and recently forming its own non-profit organization, Blood:Water. The effort was developed to encourage the band’s core audience of college students to invest in community development in third world countries by using their resources, ideas and passion to improve the lives of others.

“I think one of the things that drives me, whether I like it or not, is to work with people outside the scope of my community,” Dan says. “I know that God seems to work best to grow faith in people when they’re really outside their comfort zone. I think when we first started having encounters with people who are suffering and trying to make sense of how the gospel lived in that kind of place, I realized that I’ll be challenged in ways I never could be otherwise. When God says you’ll always have the poor, He almost says that as an encouragement because He’s saying you’ll always have the opportunity to experience real giving, real mercy and what real grace looks like. I think that’s a big part of why we do what we do because we recognize that there are challenges within that kind of activity that are life-changing.”

To read Dan’s recent letter to the Christian music community about the AIDS pandemic or to find out more about Blood:Water and Jars of Clay, check out CCMmagazine.com.


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