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Intersection of Life and Faith

John Tesh

  • 1998 12 Dec
  • COMMENTS
John Tesh
"I'm always rushing to happiness and having a hard time realizing that God is in control and if I just relax and get worry out of my life, it will be fine and He will provide."

by Bruce Adolph, courtesy of %%Christian Musician%%

Many people know {{John Tesh}} as the good looking guy from television's Entertainment Tonight program, while others know him from the brunt of Jay Leno's late night banter, but we found John Tesh to be a friendly man who was a committed musician long before the TV cameras gave him a public forum. We found a man who was eager to discuss both his music and his faith, a man who is walking in his musical purpose. "Well sure," you might say "he was a TV host, but does he have any musical credentials beside the pretty face?" Let's bring you up to date: Tesh has won several Emmys for his sports-themed instrumental music as well as garnering three gold selling albums. And from what we can tell, this is only the beginning.

%%Christian Musician%%: Let's get our readers acquainted with you. Tell us about your musical background and your training. Take us back to where you got started.

John Tesh: My training is mostly straight-ahead classical. That's how I learned all of the fingerings and performance. I didn't really know anything about composition until I got into college, because the breadth of knowledge that was needed to be a keyboard player when I was growing up in the '60s was just to be able to play three chords in any key, because that's really what everything was. So when Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer and those bands came along, that was totally cool and a real reason to be able to play any sort of style. Also, when the Doors did "Light My Fire," there was a complicated keyboard part, for that time.

CM: Yes, some progressive rock bands borrowed heavily from classical. Another example would be Jethro Tull.

JT: Tull is one of my favorites.

CM: You grew up performing, so do you sight read?

JT: Yeah, I was just doing a bunch of sight reading recently, and I said to myself, "Boy, I need to do this more." We're getting ready to do a special called "One World," where we're going to go all over the world and do different types of music. We'll do classical, Christian, pop, Celtic, Spanish, Native American. We'll be playing a bunch of classical pieces in Vienna, so I'm thinking to myself, "If I'm playing in the land where Mozart walked, I'd better get my fingerings back."

CM: So where did you go from there, did you start doing the "garage band" thing?

JT: Definitely. I went to college and my parents were convinced that I was going to starve to death, so they insisted that I take chemistry and physics and those types of courses. So I did that and was on my way to being a doctor. After about two semesters, I switched my major and decided to go into music composition and broadcasting. From then to now, it was an even course.

CM: Did your parents wig out when you made the switch from the medical major?

JT: I guess we all have interesting relationships with our parents. My parents are Baptist, and my dad was the minister of education at our big church, so it was a little frightening to think about telling them. I knew how much it meant to them, and I basically lied to them and said, "Well, everything's fine." Meanwhile, I had switched majors without telling them. Ultimately, any time you get involved in a lie and put off telling the truth, you get caught, and that's what happened to me. A report card came that I wasn't able to intercept, and my parents saw that Physics 201 and Chemistry 305 were replaced by Music 104 and so on. We had a big argument and I ended up getting kicked out of the house for the summer. That was a good summer for me, because I pumped gas and worked construction and played piano in bars. It was a good lesson for me. My parents were right - I could have done both. I probably should have just continued to study and done the rest of that stuff on the side. But it was also a question of me following my heart.

CM: I read in your bio that you trained with some Julliard instructors.

JT: Yes, one for piano and one for trumpet. I actually had more training in trumpet, although you wouldn't know it now. I played in a lot of the orchestras and bands in high school and college.

CM: And after college is that when you went into broadcasting?

JT: Right after college, I went into broadcasting in the same town as the college, which was Durham and Raleigh, North Carolina. From there, I went to Orlando, Florida, then to Nashville, then to New York City. In New York City, I did local news. I also put a recording studio in my apartment, and was doing a lot of theme music and music for cartoons. After I left New York, I traveled Europe for six years and did a lot of announcing for big sporting events and doing music themes for those events.

CM: Were you hired to do the music as well as the broadcasting, or did that just happen by chance?

JT: I told them that was how I wanted to be hired, and they said, "Well, fine, but we're not paying you for the music. You can do all the music you want, but we're not paying for it." I said, "Well, let me keep the publishing," and they said, 'Fine'. It ended up being worth something, which was nice for me, because I put so much time and money into all of the equipment and into the composing. It was a really a labor of love for me, and it worked out nicely. I think that anytime you make a decision that's based on true feelings and on your heart and what you really want to do, and not based on money, it ends up working out in one form or another.

CM: It was during the Tour de France when you released your theme music cassette?

JT: Exactly. When it came time to release a record and nobody really owned the music but me, I was able to do what I wanted with it.

CM: We remember back when they were playing it and saying that the theme music was available. Did you sell quite a few right out of your garage?

JT: We did, and that's still sort of how we do it now. We're involved with a big company, Polygram, but we still keep in touch with our fans and have our own record company and we basically do it out of a larger garage.

CM: You were successful with TV, but a few years back you made the choice to make the jump to purely music. Was there some strain there, did the TV people not want you to go?

JT: Basically, I was sued. I wanted out of my contract so I could spend the summer touring. I told them they wouldn't have to pay me and I wouldn't go to work for another station. They got angry, and we got angry together and a year later I ended up getting out of my contract and leaving. I loved Entertainment Tonight and I loved working there, but it wasn't the right thing for my lifestyle. They were really good to me and very supportive of me, but I was trying to raise a new family. I have a four and a half year old now, and a seventeen year old, and I was trying to tour and trying to record and run a record company and also trying to work on this entertainment news show, and it just wasn't happening.

CM: Was your wife behind you when you made the decision to just do music?

JT: Not at all. Of course, she supports me. I shouldn't say she wasn't behind me, but she definitely disagreed with me. I think it was more that she was just being protective, saying, "This is your base of operations. This is your fan base. If you leave this, maybe you'll lose your music fans." I just said, "You know, if that's what happens, then it's what happens." I feel really honest doing this.

Speaking of honesty, I was talking to Elisa (Elisa Elder is VP of Word Records) about this yesterday, and I said, "You know the difference between working with you, Mike Atkins (management company for several Christian artists) and {{Point of Grace}} and the rest of these people, is that it's a much more honest feeling than working with a conventional, secular record company." I'm doing both, working with Polygram and also with Word. Without stiffing anybody, being out of television, I definitely feel a little cleaner. Television is there, and everyday there will be another show to spill out onto the carpet and replace another, and then it will be gone the next day. With music, you have a chance to be a part of someone's life. We get letters from people who say, "I used to this song to get married to," or "My son was born to this song," or "My daughter was named after this song," and you realize that something you're doing is actually important in other people's lives. That's when the music becomes a ministry.

CM: I asked the question about your wife because wives seem to bring great balance to our lives. It seems there's always that little bit of tension between the musician and where they want to go and the practical question about what's going to put bread on the table. I think that hits a lot of players where they live.

JT: Fortunately, I haven't had to make too many of those compromises, which has been nice. I had a job on television for years and I got to a position to where, more than anything to me, more than money certainly, having the freedom to do what I want to do is really important. If you don't overextend yourself and don't take too many risks, although you do have to risk to make a step forward, you can have that freedom.

CM: How do you describe your musical style? What type of music do you play?

JT: It's mostly instrumental. I'd like to stay with that, although I've been lured into the world of collaboration. I've collaborated with James Ingram and my friend Dalia and we're doing a {{Point of Grace}} song on the next record. I don't sing. It's a method of expression that I don't have, so it's nice to do that, although I'd like to be true to the foundation and continue to write instrumental music.

CM: So {{Point of Grace}} is going to be on your project for Word?

JT: Yes, we're going to perform the song, "Who Am I" from the ==Steady On== record, but with a little different arrangement. We may end up getting them to Europe with us.

CM: Do you do the orchestrating and arranging for your albums?

JT: Arranging, yes. Orchestrating is done by a friend of mine, Eric Schmidt.

CM: And you do the producing as well?

JT: Yes. Producing is just basically what the record sounds like.

CM: How is your approach to creating your music?

JT: It's pretty painstaking. It takes me a long time to write a song. I like to sit and fool with it and tinker with it, put it in the car and drive with it, play it for my wife. I like to perform it live before we record it. I think musicians will tell you that songs are a lot like kids. You work and work on them and you kick 'em out the door, and maybe they graduate or maybe they end up taking a year off. You never know what's going to happen, because you're so close to it.

There are songs I've written that I never really thought were all that cool and people will say, "Please play that song." There's a song called "Bastille Day" which is one of the simplest songs I've ever written. As a musician, sometimes I'm thinking, "Gee, I need to put in a couple of really complicated chords here so I can be cool," but sometimes people don't react to that. "Bastille Day" was a song that was written in the middle of the night in France. I think the people who have heard it know that it's an important song.

CM: On ==Grand Passion==, you recorded live on different stages throughout the world?

JT: When we do sound check while traveling, a lot of times it's just me and the piano and the engineer for maybe the first half hour, just getting the piano sound, because each venue is different and the speakers may be different. While we were out a couple of years ago I said, "These halls all sound different and they're all very cool. I have some new music. Why don't we just record this stuff and do it on stage, bring some recording gear with us?" Ross, my engineer said, "Yeah, cool, that'll be fine," and so that's what we did. The songs that you hear in ==Grand Passion== were each recorded 20 or 30 times, because we were out for 60 days.

CM: And you just picked the ones that you wanted?

JT: Yeah, it was really painful. Some were too fast, depending on what mood you were in on any given day. With a piano solo, you can't just punch in and edit, because you always hear it, so it's just start to finish for four or six minutes, and you either get it or you don't. I left a couple of little things in there. If you listen really close you can hear a door close every now and then way in the back of the theater when an usher came in early or something. I love that stuff. That's the things I remember about my Tull records.

CM: Do you do any endorsements for gear manufacturers?

JT: Yamaha is really the only manufacturer that I deal with. I use a lot of Kurzweil stuff, they've been great to us. I still have my original Synclavier. I still use that. I only sketch in the studio. I have every sound that you can imagine. Nowadays, with samplers and stuff, we have ProTools 24 and a 52 track hard drive recording system in the studio where everything is fully automated. We have every piece of gear you could possibly imagine.

CM: Is this your home studio? Do you have two studios, one for the record company, or is it the same thing?

JT: It's the same thing. I have a portable studio that I move around with me with a Macintosh. The studio has a system Atari mix called Radar. We use a Radar 48 and a Radar 24 and we have a Euphonix board. That's really the key to the recording process. We can move that stuff around, but not the Euphonix. We're going to Atlanta this weekend so we'll take the Radar with us and do some stuff. As far as the computer things go, though, it really is, for me, sketching. I'll sketch everything out on my keyboards and drum machines and have real people come in and play it.

CM: Is it in the basement of your home?

JT: No, it's in a trailer beside the house because my wife, who is very smart, said, "I'm not having this in my house."

CM: 'Cause all the guys come traipsing through all the time?

JT: They still do. It's funny, because whenever my wife goes away, that's when we record. It's greatwe'll get the percussion and set it up in the kitchen and run lines from the trailer through the air vents to the kitchen, and have saxophones in the bathroomit's really pretty funny.

CM: Your label is called GTSP. Is that just for your projects or are you developing other artists?

JT: It's basically for my stuff, only because I have a real hard time having somebody else's career in my hands. It makes me really nervous. I've used a lot of people as collaborations, but I like to have people go on their own. I hate getting those phone calls like I used to make, "Hey, I can't find my record in the stores," and that's always going to happen. I've tried it a couple of times. My guitar player and my violinist have released records on the label. It's so time consuming for them and for me that I'd rather them be with a bigger label, because we're small and independent.

CM: What projects are you currently working on for Word? Are you doing a Christmas album down the road?

JT: Yes, we just started working with {{Point of Grace}} on a Christmas record that will be out in 1999. We're both getting our feet wet doing this One World concert.

CM: Give us a little more detail about the One World project. Is the project for Word or for general market?

JT: Word will definitely release it.

CM: So it will have a Christian slant to it?

JT: Parts of it will, yes. We're going to Ireland, we'll do a couple of Irish pieces with dancers. There's a lot of dance in this, too. We'll go to Spain and do a thing with a flamenco guitarist and a Spanish dancer. We'll be in Vienna with a ballerina and a full orchestra.

CM: Are you going to shoot this for PBS again?

JT: Exactly.

CM: Do you usually perform in large venues?

JT: We do anything between 3,000 and 12,000, depending on which city we're in. If we do 3,000 seat arena, we usually lose money because of what we bring with us.

CM: What did you ever do to Jay Leno?

JT: (laughing) I love that, because he's relentless. We're actually friends.

CM: I can tell you're friends, but he is relentless in picking on you.

JT: He is. He grabs somebody fortunately the Clinton thing happened, so he's kept his hands off of me for awhile.

CM: How did your relationship with the Lord start to happen and your feelings towards going into Christian music?

JT: I grew up in that whole environment, and the way my dad was so involved in Sunday School. I went to church three times a week, and went to church camp since I was nine years old. Now my son goes to church camp.

The best time of my life began seven years ago when I met Connie and she brought me to this Messianic congregation. Oddly enough, I'm sitting at the record company right now, and the record company is in the same building as the church. We just happen to be all together at the same time. It's a very accountable church congregation. There are only one hundred of us. That's really where it became less of a Holy Spirit feeling and more of an education. I think you need both. I think you need the feeling when you're in prayer, but you also need to know something about the Bible. It's a Messianic congregation so there are Jewish believers. I play in the church band, and there's some really funky music. That's when I really started getting much deeper and exploring more of the Christian music, and that's how I met Smitty ({{Michael W. Smith}}), {{Point of Grace}} and {{4 Him}}. That's when I ended up meeting Elisa Elder. She said, "We should do some stuff together," and I said, "Absolutely."

People have asked me to get a statement of faith and mail it to the radio stations and Christian bookstores. I'm not doing that. These people can have tickets to my concerts if they want to come hear what I'm saying. If they want to know what I'm about, they can listen to the music. I don't really believe in waving my hand and saying, "Yoo hoo, I'm a Christian." At %%Promise Keepers%% a couple of years ago, a guy named Tony Evans said, "It's not OK to be a closet Christian." I don't believe in being a closet Christian, but I also don't believe in proselytizing by jumping up and down and waving your arms. I think there's another way to do it. I think the gentle way is the best approach.

CM: We saw Donna Summer once performing a secular concert and she worked the crowd so well. She brought the non-Christians in the audience to a place where you could really tell that she was witnessing in such an effective way, not in a waving-the-banner type of way. It stunned us, she was just so great at it. The audience walked away clearly knowing it was Jesus that was the focal point.

JT: That's one of the things that's really scary to actors and actresses, but not so much to musicians. If you go to a Emmy or an Oscar Awards ceremony, everybody thanks their agents and managers. If you go to a Grammy Awards ceremony, everybody thanks Jesus. If you want to take that one step further, you go to the Dove Awards. I'm not a big fan of awards and awards shows. I think they're really a popularity contest, but when you go to the Doves, they're not giving credit to their agents, they're giving the Lord the credit. It's just such a clean feeling. There are some Christian artists who complain that Christian radio has blocked them out because they don't mention Jesus four or five times in a song. That's their business, but I think we need to be really careful about that. That's being judgmental. I think it's more about what's in your heart than what comes out of your mouth. It's how you live your life. Gary Smalley told me, "It's not OK to tell your wife that you love her and then never spend any time with her." It doesn't work that way. It is experiential. You have to look at somebody and see how they live their life. Then, if you want to buy into them or approach them or play their music, it's more important that way.

CM: If I sat through one of your concerts, would I know that it was Christian music?

JT: Absolutely. My pastor has become my best friend. Before we do a concert series, I sit down with him and ask him to listen to the songs. I say, "Help me. Let's go with parables and let's find stories that are going to relate to five or six of these songs," and we'll talk maybe five or six times. One example, which doesn't really relate to scripture, is a story that grabs people and they walk away knowing what my beliefs are. I tell the audience that the next song is about patience. I'm at a time in my life when I'm having a hard time. I'm always rushing to happiness and having a hard time realizing that God is in control and if I just relax and get worry out of my life, it will be fine and He will provide. It's hard to do, though, because we're constantly hearing, "You need to get this now, do this now, order this, microwave your dinner in 20 seconds, be thin in three weeks, etc."

My pastor told me a story about a man who was on a hike in the woods with his son. They came upon the cocoon of an emperor moth. They thought it was cool and decided to take it home and watch the miracle of life as the moth emerges from the cocoon. They took it home and put it on the kitchen table. Nothing happened for a couple of days. After the third day, a small crack appeared at the bottom of the cocoon as the moth began to emerge. But then after another 3 hours, nothing much happened and the man panicked, thinking the moth was dying. So he took a pair of scissors and cut of the bottom of the cocoon. At that point the moth easily escaped, but to the man's shock and horror the moth had wings that were small and withered and its body was big and bloated. What he had not realized was that the moth needed to struggle out of the cocoon to force the blood out of its body into its wings. And so in his rush to happiness, he had cost the moth any chance at flight. The lesson here is very simple... God has placed our struggles in front of us for a reason.