Andrew Peterson’s The Burning Edge of Dawn is a fascinating study in the eternal worth of trial and struggle. It’s a deeply personal album, and Peterson himself wrote, “It’s hard to know how to talk about this record.” So, it was with a bit of trepidation that I did just that: talked to Peterson about his new record. Fortunately (and not unexpectedly), his answers were honest and insightful, expressed with the same wisdom that produces some of the most finely crafted songs in Christian music.
Read on to learn more about the making of the record, the “two plus two” principle, and even AP’s confession of napping in the studio.
TSO: I want to start with a broad question. You’re working with Gabe Scott as producer, which is a return to roots, I guess. I wonder if you could reflect on what’s different about your sound, your songwriting, or your method now versus those early days.
Andrew Peterson: I know that for this record the biggest difference was, I didn’t have Ben Shive and Andy Gullahorn as sounding boards for the previous six months on the road. That’s usually how it happens. If I knew that I was going to go into a studio I would start working on songs, my radar would be up, and I would be looking for musical ideas in sound check, or I might hear Ben playing something and then I’d say, “Dude what’s that?” Or I’d play them songs and get their feedback. They were a big part of the last five albums or so. More and more, the longer we played together, the more they were part of the team. And this time they’re both just swamped. Ben’s producing like crazy and Gullahorn’s on the road working very hard. So I was pretty scared to be honest, going into it without these two better-songwriters-than-I’ll-ever-be kind of guys to bounce songs off of and vet the songs. So this time it was Gabe, whom I haven’t co-written with in about 15 years. And he has grown tremendously since then, and is super-talented, obviously, but it was just like a completely foreign situation from a songwriting standpoint. Even when Gabe played with me back in the day I was writing the songs and he and I would work out a guitar part or something. It wasn’t that the songs were being written together. This time though I went into the studio and I literally had one song. I played it for Gabe and he said, “What else have you got?” And I said, “I don’t have anything.” He said, “All right, pick a key,” so I picked E flat and we spent the day building the music to a track. That’s how this record came into being. I was completely unmoored as a songwriter. I didn’t have my normal routine. Routine is very comforting if you’re a person who has to travel for a living, and so I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me and I was having to find a new way to do all this stuff. The beautiful thing about all that was that Gabe is a very safe place for me. I know that he loves me and we have lots of history and I totally trust his musical sensibilities. There’s nobody else I would rather enter into this new phase than with him.
TSO: Was there any particular song that was the hardest or took longest?
AP: They were all difficult, to varying degrees. More than ever before, because I didn’t have the luxury of playing the songs live for several months before we recorded them. Usually, that’s when you work out the kinks. You play it one way and then you think, “Maybe the next time I’ll play this on piano instead of guitar.” But we didn’t have that chance. This time it was all being done in the studio.
There was lots of deconstruction. I would bring the lyrics that I had in a very rough melody and Gabe would go, “Okay, what if we just changed the time signature?” or, “What if we make it an all-piano song instead of a guitar song?” As opposed to me saying, “Here’s this thing that I made, come help me make it better,” this time around I would say, “Here’s this thing that I made, let’s take the whole thing apart and get rid of as much as possible.”
There’s a song called “Every Star is a Burning Flame” that is probably the most unconventional song on the record. It sounds the least like my stuff usually has. We removed the chorus altogether. The chorus I wrote isn’t there, and there’s a bridge that I wrote that isn’t in the song. That’s what I think of this record: fighting through a lot of, Is this song even any good? I can’t really tell right now. Then hearing Gabe put his layers of vocals and really cool instrumental stuff, and realizing he could hear the song in there that I couldn’t.
TSO: you mentioned “Every Star is a Burning Flame”, and that’s one of your songs that has a very specific reference in it, the sign about Thomas Merton in Louisville. You scatter these throughout. “The Rain Keeps Falling” mentions a scene in North Carolina. “I’m Sorry” seems like it’s very specifically directed toward one person. You also said you hadn’t played these live much. Do you expect to fill in back story when you play the songs live or when you meet with folks, or would you rather they remain sort of mysterious?
AP: It’s funny, I’m the kind of person who likes the idea of being really vague about the specifics. Meaning, I like being really specific in the songs but not filling in so many blanks that it’s obvious what I’m talking about. I love when I hear that in a Tom Waits song or a Counting Crows song. Rich Mullins was this way too. Part of what is wonderful about “What Susan Said” is I hear it and I think, Who is Susan? I fill in the blanks and it grounds the story in this really cool way. It’s almost disappointing when you hear the real story, to me anyway. Whatever I came up with in my imagination is better than the truth a lot of times. That same idea is what led me to ending the Wingfeather Saga the way I did, leaving just a tiny bit to the imagination. That said, we recorded this commentary for a Special Edition of this record, basically a song by song breakdown of where the songs came from and little anecdotes. I want people to be able to listen to the record without all the details, but then if you really want to dig deeper you can find that stuff. In the process of telling the stories in the commentary I found myself almost embarrassed, a little hesitant to tell some of the stories.
One example is “Be Kind to Yourself” with [daughter] Skye. I talked to her after I recorded it and played it for her and asked, “Are you okay with the fact that I’m telling people you don’t know this very private and painful part of your story?” I’ve had this conversation over the years with my kids: “I hope you know that I don’t ever want to betray your trust; if I tell anecdotes from the stage, tell me if there’s something you don’t want me to say.” Most of the time they get it. I think they have seen how the Lord uses our stories to bless other people. “Be Kind to Yourself” is a really good example. It was very painful for Skye but I’ve forwarded her the emails that I’ve gotten from people who’ve heard the song on the radio to show her that the Lord uses our brokenness to help others to feel less alone.
I’m trying to balance giving away all the juicy details with also grounding it in something real. I admire the way Pixar tells stories. One of the guys, Andrew Stanton, who wrote WALL-E and Finding Nemo, said that one of the principles they arrived at is that you give your audience two plus two but not four. The audience wants to work for their entertainment. but not too hard. You feel insulted if the storyteller gives you all the pieces of the puzzle, but if you’re given just enough to where you get the pleasure of filling in the blanks easily then you’re engaged in a good way. That’s what I’m trying to do. I want to give enough details where listeners can connect the dots on their own.
TSO: I wonder if there any little “two plus twos” in a song — something you really worked hard on about sequencing or a subtle turn of a phrase — that no one’s ever asked you about, and you’re afraid everybody missed it?
AP: I’m sure that it’s happened before. You wouldn’t be able to tell from listening to this album, but we had written all the songs, and I think the last song that I wrote was the last song on the album, “The Sower’s Song”, which is my favorite one and sums up the whole record. The last song on the record tends to be the one for which I’ll grab little themes and motifs that have shown up through the rest of the album to give the record a kind of cohesiveness. The first song of the album was always going to be “The Dark before the Dawn”. It had this tag in it that was a Counting Crows lyric. There’s a song called “A Murder of One” from their first album (which is one of the best records of all time, I think). At the end of the last song he repeats that great lyric: “I walk along these hillsides in the summer ‘neath the sunshine, I am feathered by the moonlight falling down on me”. I put that in “The Dark before the Dawn” when I would sing it live at the end so people like you and I who grew up with Counting Crows would catch the reference. So we contacted Adam Duritz’s people and said, “Can we use this little snippet? How does that work legally?” And the answer was that we would probably have to give him half the publishing. That was a little too painful for me, so I decided to forget it and write my own. So we finished all the vocals on the album and forgot to write that lyric! There was this blank spot at the beginning of the first song. At that point I had named the album The Burning Edge of Dawn, so I wrote, “I had a dream that I was waking at the burning edge of dawn, and I could see the fields of glory, and I could hear the Sower’s song.” It had the perspective of the whole album. That was a really nerdy moment for me to make the first song foreshadow the last song. But the last song was written first. What a geeky moment that I doubt anybody would ever notice.
TSO: “I was seized by the power of a great affection” is mentioned in the Ragamuffin Gospel. Is that how you came to know the phrase for the song “Power of a Great Affection”?
AP: I probably did read it first there, many years ago, and then I think it was Michael Card was teaching a Bible study at the Rabbit Room, at Northwind Manor, and he mentioned it and it just got my attention in a way that it never had before. It’s such a beautiful phrase. That was another one where Gabe had written this musical little thing. He would give me literally 30 seconds, sometimes even less, a little musical thing that was vibey and had a tiny hint of a chord progression and I would go to the other room in the studio and close the door, and while he was working on vocal tracks and stuff I would be in the other room trying to find a lyric.
TSO: That’s similar to how Elton John and Bernie Taupin write together.
AP: Do they really? That’s so cool. I get it now. There’s something really cool about going to work in the morning and saying hi to each other in the studio and he’d be like, “Well, I’m in here if you need me.” A lot of times I would take a nap. It was dark and cold and I would end up just laying down on the couch and sleeping, and I would wake up and push a little harder into a song. I’m not much of a musician so having somebody who could come up with some musical parts that I never would’ve come up with opened the door to me for a lot of spiritual ideas and moods. That’s like the song “The Far Country”. Ben [Shive] was playing that music in a sound check and as soon as I heard it I could imagine the song that would be, and I said, “Hey, can I write a song with that?” That’s how it was; Gabe would give me these little pieces and I started singing. I realized there was a little pocket in that music for that phrase, “I’ve been seized by the power of a great affection.” And that led to that song.
TSO: there’s a line in “The Rain Keeps Falling”: “I’m scared if I open myself to be known, I’ll be seen and despised and be left all alone.” Those are hard words to say. I wonder if you sometimes feel like people are listening in on your counseling sessions, and if that’s awful?
AP: It is kind of awful. I don’t enjoy that part of it. The first time I played that song was in Texas at Laity Lodge. It was a very safe audience because I knew a lot of the people there and I had been feeling really uncomfortable playing it for people. The one thing you don’t want to do is turn your audience into your counselor. It was hard for me, because I was in it at that time, when I first wrote the song. There’s a sense in which this stuff is always going on but by the time I sang it in the studio I was removed enough from the pain of having written it to where I could do it in the appropriate way, hopefully without burdening the audience. That’s what I don’t want to do is put an unfair burden on the audience. It’s a principle that Walt Wangerin talked about that Hutchmoot a few years ago. When you’re a pastor you can’t really tell your personal stories until there’s been some arc to them, until the story is over and you can see from a bird’s eye view the way the Lord has taught you something or carried you through the thing. Then you are allowed to bring it to the pulpit. Otherwise you’re up there bleeding on the audience and that’s not what you want to do. So I had written most of “The Rain Keeps Falling” but had begun to see the sun coming up, which is kind of where the title comes from, enough so that I was able to write the and yet the Lord is with me part of the song. The first time I played that song Jonathan Rogers came up to me and said, “Are you okay?” And I was like, “Yeah? Kind of? As okay as anybody I guess.” And it worried me a little bit, hoping this doesn’t turn into one long counseling session when I put this record out, but for the most part what I found is the very line in the song that was the scariest to write, or the most raw – the one you mentioned – is the one that tends to have grabbed the most people. The reason I’m okay with it is because the last verse, which is the Luci Shaw reference, the poem Forecast, that’s when I had the realization that, Oh yeah, that’s right, the rain is doing more than depressing us. The rain is feeding the garden. That realization allows me to end the song in a way that makes me okay with the rawness of it.
TSO: you mentioned adding the “and yet” part of the song. For this album in particular, even though it’s almost a cliché now to say things are Psalm-like, it really fits here because you have these straight up moments of praise, like ‘”Rejoice” and “Great Affection”, and then you have these songs that literally talk about a cave. Do the Psalms intentionally inform your songwriting structurally or thematically or do you just happen upon the similarities?
AP: That’s a good question. Maybe not intentionally, but I have spent a lot of time in the Psalms in the last three years of my life. One of my mentors, who has is just one of the guys that I go to when everything hurts, he and I locked arms about two years ago when I was going through this really dark season of depression. His counsel to me was, every day let’s read the same Psalm together first thing in the morning. Not only was it a way to stay close to Scripture, it was a state way to stay close to my friend. That started me down the road of, with discipline, stepping into the Psalms every day. That was the same year that Kathleen Norris came and taught on the Psalms at a Laity Lodge retreat. They open themselves up to you in a way that takes your whole life. You circle back around to these things and they become more personal as you go because there is a Psalm for every single thing that you’ve ever felt. For example, Maundy Thursday, which is the church service that happens on the night that the Lord was taken. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of those before but they can be really painful. It ends with the stripping of the altar, where the priest takes everything, all of the elements that are on the altar and it’s a drama that’s enacted where he actually grabs the cross and the pole that the cross sits on and he throws it in the closet and he grabs the stuff and kind of violently removes everything from the altar. He’s embodying the violence that happened to Christ that night. It is jarring and painful and that’s how the service ends. And while he’s doing it they’re reading the Psalm that Jesus quotes on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” While one person is reading the words of David that Jesus quoted on the cross there’s this violence being enacted in front of you. It’s so painfully beautiful to see that happen and to be comforted by the voice of frustration and pain. So the Psalms have been in the last couple of years of my life one of the great nourishing parts of Scripture for me. I hadn’t thought about it until you just brought it up but I’m sure that there’s some subtle connection between the way these songs are written and the Psalms. Michael Card talked about how in the Psalms of lament there’s this phrase, “and yet”. And all of the lament songs (except for one — it’s never all of them because you can’t pin God down to that!), no matter how angry or pointed these prayers are at the Lord, there’s always a moment of, and yet You are the Lord and I’ll praise You. This whole record is kind of like the “and yet”.