Bebo Norman talks about his new label, his new perspective and his new song about Britney Spears …

If I told you Bebo Norman is a dishonest songwriter, you’d laugh me out of the room. The singer/songwriter has long been known for his honest, poignant lyrical gems of life, love and faith. So to think anything else would seem, well, dishonest.

Yet, that’s exactly how Bebo describes his past songwriting in our interview about his new, self-titled album. After being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the Georgia native says he’s now more open and vulnerable than ever, and he’s ready to write about anything … including Britney Spears.

CMC:  How has the new start with a new label, a new child and some time away affected your songwriting?

Bebo Norman:  I think it's really affected it fairly tremendously. The last few years for me have been pretty transforming in a lot of ways. It's kind of strange because I just got married five years ago, and my whole last record was all about peace and living in that and relishing that. That was really happening there, and still is in some ways, but therein lies the irony of it. Right in the middle of this peaceful season is when I realized I was dealing with anxiety—which I didn't know it was that at the time—but it's been clinically diagnosed now. So I was dealing with whether or not I wanted to keep doing music at all, since that's where the struggle or the anxiety was coming from—even though I'd been doing this thing for such a long time.

So that laid the framework for this context of stepping back and saying, “I don't know if I have the energy to do this anymore.” So there was this strange battle, and all that to say, with that as the foundation, signing this new record deal and having a baby, it's been so interesting how it's all shifted my perspective. The realization is that while I love playing music, it can't be where my identity is. It can't be where I draw my life from. I have to draw that from relationships and the context of community, from my wife and my son. It's been a whole rearrangement of things in a profound way. So that's completely affected how I write songs because I've always written them out of my own life.

CMC:  When you realize that it's not all about the music, how does that affect the music?

Bebo:  I think it freed me up a little bit. I've always written out of my life, so I don't know how to do it otherwise. But it allowed me to step into it knowing that I wasn't going to draw my life from the response to this group of songs. It allowed me to make a record and then let it go. It was more of an internal struggle than an external struggle.

CMC:  Internal struggle?

Bebo:  Well, whether I admitted it or not, for years I was drawing my identity from how people responded to my music. I always talk about writing honest songs, and I think I do, but in terms of how they are received, it was an intense struggle for identity. I think this battle with anxiety has put me in the right place. I questioned whether I was supposed to do this, and I've learned that I am supposed to, but it can't be about how people like me or how they respond anymore. So now the internal part is that I'm beginning to be in a place where I can say that I'm OK with whatever the response is. This allows me to write songs that might be a little more pointed at culture that I might not have written before. I can take risks with this record that I couldn't in the past.

CMC:  Is that weird to be known for being an honest songwriter, and, yet, you're saying you're just now finding the ability to be completely honest?

Bebo:  I was just talking to a friend about this. The first single is called “Pull Me Out,” and I've been doing a lot of media for the new album. I told him it's really funny because after an interview, people will thank me for talking about anxiety and say, “Thank you for being brave in that.” That's the word that people use, but it's funny because I'm talking about this weakness of mine after already dealing with most of it. I'm talking from a place of strength about my weakness. I've come through it a bit. The reality is that I'll always be dealing with it to some degree. But if I were to stop in the middle of a song [during] a concert two years ago when I literally thought I was going to die, then I'd be really honest. I couldn't breathe. That's real honesty, because I would be talking about it in the concept of not knowing what to do with it.

I would love to be in the place of being that guy. I don't know if I will ever get there, but that's what I am shooting for. I'm aiming for the day that I can stop in the middle of a song and say, “Hey, I'm feeling insecure” or “I can't breathe right now.” I think [I’m] moving toward vulnerability constantly, especially in my own songwriting, but I still have a long way to go.

CMC:  Looking back, were there ever any moments to let the “cat out of the bag” at one of those shows that you felt that way?

Bebo:  I was absolutely tempted to do that. In those moments—and this is the craziness of it—I didn't know how to literally do the next song. Honestly, I was struggling so much that I didn't know how to play a song. It was beautiful in the sense that I literally had to pray constantly in the middle of a song to get through it. I know that sounds crazy, but that's literally where I was internally. But what stopped me from saying anything was my insecurity. That's always what stops me. I think that's what stops all of us. I've always wanted to be in control, and I was not in control. So this has been a huge struggle, yet beautiful in a way.

CMC:  Can you tell us about this new song, "Britney?" It seems ...

Bebo:  [Laughs] I get it, man. Who writes a song about Britney Spears, right? I totally get it. It's an odd thing. I feel very proud to have written this song, and this is why:  I really struggled with this song when I wrote it. I was up really late one night, and a news story came on where she was being taken out on a stretcher from her home to a mental hospital, I think. It's a tragic story, but the thing that shamed me was my first response. My gut response was to scoff about it:  “Is this another story of Hollywood excess or whatever?” But there was one moment where they zoomed in on her face, and this look paralyzed me. It was of complete confusion or brokenness and being completely gone. This is from a girl who had every accolade the world could throw at her.

I remember being frozen in that moment and, for the first time, having compassion on her. And it's because the look on her face was one I recognized. I've had that face at the dark moments of my life. The response I can imagine Jesus giving to me in that moment is not one of condemnation, but one of “Hey, I'm sorry [about] what this world has done to you, and I'm here.” What we are telling young girls these days is a lie, and this was the first moment I recognized that. So maybe I saw her through the eyes of Jesus for the first time. So that's why I wrote it.

So I sat down in my study that night, and I wrote a 15-minute song, apologizing for everything I could think of. We had to narrow it down to a normal sized song, but I didn't play it for anyone for three months. Again, who writes a song about Britney Spears? Finally, literally the day before we went in to track the record, my friend who produced the record convinced me to play it. I did, and he said that he felt it belonged on the album. We recorded it the next day, and that's been the process.

That's one of those moments that we were talking about. Putting that on the record was one of those moments where I had to say, “I can't care how people might respond to a song about Britney Spears. I have to say what I feel called to say. However they respond to it is OK.” I feel proud to have gotten to be a part of this.


For more information on Bebo Norman and his self-titled album on BEC Recordings, visit bebornorman.com.

 

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**This interview first published on September 30, 2008.