Before their stop on the Storytellers Tour in Ellijay, Georgia, I spoke with Andrew Peterson and Jason Gray. My intent was to get a few quotes for The Sound Opinion’s review of the concert. Instead, I enjoyed a free-ranging conversation about poetry, the songwriting process, and a topic that seems to come up a lot with these guys: Andy Gullahorn. Note how my first question elicited over 1,000 words in response!
TSO: What is your favorite song by the other artist?
Andrew: Not only is “I Will Find a Way” my favorite Jason Gray song, I am not joking when I say this: the first time [Andy] Gullahorn played it for me and Ben [Shive] it was like he dropped a bomb. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. The song always moves me, every night, every time. When we do the “Behold the Lamb of God” tour I do my first song and then I sit on the stage while others perform. When Gullahorn plays that song I like looking out at the audience. I usually pick a woman, because I feel that song speaks to the heart of a woman in a unique way. There was this one time in particular I remember seeing this young woman and her husband on the front row and I watched the song break her. By the second verse she was like, “This is interesting.” Then, by the end of it her face was shining with tears, which just makes me marvel at the power of song. That song in particular has an ability to work its way in to a listener, just like the song talks about. I think it’s amazing.
Jason: I had written about eight verses for that song and had been working on it for about six years and I knew I got to the point where I cared about it so much that I was afraid of failing it. And I would’ve failed it too, I’m certain. I wanted some help. I brought it to a couple of people, but each time it wasn’t feeling right. Then I brought it to Andy Gullahorn. He said, “I don’t like Christmas music. You don’t want me.” I said, “Hold on, I want to read you the story,” and I read him the source material by Walter Wangerin, Jr. He was so moved by it. I had half the chorus: “How should I come to the one I love,” but then what I had written was “so she will receive me,” and I knew it wasn’t right. And he said “I will find a way”. That was it.
Andrew: That’s one of his best gifts. He has a way of cutting through the poetic mumbo-jumbo and going, “What are you really saying?” I will find a way. There’s nothing really poetic about it. The same thing happened with my song “You’ll Find Your Way,” the one I wrote for my son Asher. I had all these flowery verses written, and I couldn’t find a chorus. I said, “I can’t figure out how to do this.” He said, “Just go home and write down what you would say to your boy.” So I went home and I wrote, “When I look at you, boy, I can see the road that lies ahead,” and that just opened up the song.
Jason: Billy Collins was on NPR talking about language and poetry. He was talking about when he was a boy and he was riding on a glass bottom boat, and he was looking down, lost in this magical world that was down there. Then, one of the other people in the boat leaned forward and her sunglasses fell off and hit the glass bottom. The moment that happened, it broke the spell, because he realized it’s just a glass bottom boat. Collins said, “In your work you never want to drop the glasses. You never want to say, ‘look at my command of the language’. You want to be invisible.” (And then I still used the word “doppelgänger” in a song! I said, “This is probably ‘dropping the glasses’!”
Andrew: David Wilcox was saying, “I remember in my old songs I was always trying to be clever.” It’s important that you don’t try to be clever. If you say, “I’m going to zing them here!” you’re probably losing them.
[At this point, Andrew paused to read a poem called “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins. That’s how it goes with these two. Interviews are paused for poetry recitations. I love it! Then, finally, we got around to Jason’s response to the first question.]
Jason: I’m going to cheat just a little bit and talk about my successive favorite Andrew Peterson songs. “Canaan Bound” changed my life the first time I heard it. I popped it in and before he even starts singing I was crying. “The Silence of God”, wow. “The Queen of Iowa”, because I got to meet the real Queen of Iowa, the subject of the song. It was so amazing the way Andrew captured who she was in that story. Beautiful. And then, probably right now my current favorite Andrew Peterson song – I have a bit of personal connection with it but even if I didn’t – it would be “Carry the Fire”. If I’m going to play somebody one Andrew Peterson song I play them that one. It was inspired in part by Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road which is one of my favorite books. That passage in the book was so powerful to me when I read the book, and then when I heard the song I said, “You’re doing the thing from the Cormac McCarthy song!”
Andrew: Now I say feel like I should say a bunch more Jason Gray songs! I will add “Jesus, We are Grateful”. I marveled the first time I heard it and I thought, “Where did he find this old hymn how have I never heard it before?” The jerk wrote it! I’m jealous.
TSO: What is it about a song that tells a story that resonates with a live audience?
Jason: I think people care about stories. One of the things that makes the story so powerful is that in a well-written story a plot emerges. There is a sense of order. I think in the middle of our lives it’s hard to discern the plot, especially when things feel out of control. There is something about storytelling that helps gather all these things. I feel gathered and put together when I hear a good story. I feel like that’s part of what I try to do in my songs. Madeleine L’Engle talks about art making cosmos out of chaos.
Andrew: I remember Wangerin at Hutchmoot saying storytellers are heapers into heaps and pilers into piles. It’s great because it’s humbling. There shouldn’t be anything terribly glorious about the work of it. Rich Mullins talked about as quilting. You try to make some sense out of these little things.
TSO: Are there any challenges associated with being branded as a “storyteller-artist”?
Jason: I think it comes naturally for us. But there is a decision you make, about talking before your songs or just playing the song. I’ve had to be conscientious that I don’t always introduce the song. Part of this whole thing was owning it for this tour, and just agreeing that we’re storytellers.
I think that deep down I might have more like a pastoral kind of calling. There is something in me that is “teacherly”. I try to not always be like that. Andrew is more of a true storyteller and that’s been wonderful to sit under that and watch that
Andrew: What’s funny is that we both came into this tour with a fair bit of insecurity. For me, I had never seen anybody in our circle communicate with an audience as well as Jason does, because what he says is great every night and you can tell he cares about saying it right. I’ve learned so much from watching him do it. I came into this going, “Take notes, pay attention to the way he brings it home before a song,” because it’s so good. I feel like I ramble and I can’t wait to be done with the talking so I can play the song.
Jason: That’s funny, because his stories are so cinematic to me – images of storms rolling in and trees swaying and I say, “That is so great!” and I’m like, “If you consider that in the Hebrew blah blah blah….”
Andrew: It was refreshing after the first show – we both kind of confessed to each other our insecurities, but I think that’s part of why the tour is working. They are two sides of the same coin. What we want to have happen in the heart of the person in the audience is the same. We are going at it with the same general concept with I think wonderful differences between the way we approach it I like the fact that Jason seems to really love the audience. He really cares about them receiving what it is that the Lord has for them, and he sees music as a vehicle through which that light can shine. So, being considerate to the audience in really practical ways is something I think is really good at.
Jason: I don’t think I’ve ever vocalized this before but sometimes I think the pastoral thing, whatever that is (and I feel presumptuous even saying that), the danger of it is that everything can become kind of a tool to convey to convey a message. “Here’s a story that I know will accomplish what I needed to accomplish.” I have to be mindful that I don’t always have an agenda. I have heard pastors who speak and they begin to tell the story and you can feel that it’s a sermon illustration. There is something that can be unauthentic about that. I can be in danger of falling into that, using a song practically as a tool. My favorite kind of music, the songs that I love the most, are the songs that don’t have an agenda. They are what they are. I feel like that’s more what Andrew does and when I’m listening to music that’s what I love.
Andrew: Jason and I both could name significant moments in our lives where a song hit us in the exact right place at the exact right time which ignited in us a desire to enter into that kind of ministry. As much as I love playing music, when a person gets something out of a song that I didn’t intend it’s further evidence that the Lord is at work. I think Jason and I both have reverence for the magic that the Lord put in songs and to get to be a little part of that, to let the songs do their thing, is pretty awesome