So the most celebrated album around here lately is easily The Ill-Tempered Klavier. Yet besides the beautiful music, you won’t find much information available about the thoughtful artist behind the release. Thus, we can think of no better artist to reveal next in our Rabbit Room Interview Series than Ben Shive himself.
Matt: Do you remember when you first met Andrew Peterson?
Ben: I came to Belmont University in 1999 and Rich Mullins had died, but I was really in love with his music. I wanted to do something in that vein. At the time, I wasn’t writing at all and I had no aspirations to do so. I actually still don’t have that in mind for my entire career. I really wanted to be like Beeker, just a right-hand man. So I had my eyes open and, through an old acquaintance, I met a guy who was Andrew’s roommate in college. He said, ‘This guy is gonna be the next Rich Mullins.’ I hadn’t heard his music, but I just thought I would be looking out for it.
I knew that Carried Along was coming out and I bought it when it came out and thought it was great. I was in a class at Belmont on arranging and I had to write an arrangement for an orchestra, so I did “Faith To Be Strong” and it was recorded, which I sent to Andrew as my sales pitch for myself. So then he liked it, or I guess he did, and he needed some strings written for “Behold The Lamb of God” because it was in its third year and he wanted to do a show in Nashville – a bigger show. So he got me to write some strings and I spent the time I should have been writing my senior recital writing his strings. Then that show in Nashville was a few days after graduation and that’s when Andrew asked me to play with him. It was perfectly timed, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Matt: So did you find your acquaintance to be correct – was Andrew the next Rich?
Ben: Oh, I won’t do that to him. I think he wants to be understood in that same vein by people, but he’s not comfortable with the comparison. I definitely think he’s not Rich Mullins but I think his writing is doing for people what Rich’s writing did for them. I think what’s beautiful about Christian music is that it really can change people’s lives if it’s done right and I think Andrew’s music does that for people. You know, the church just needs great art. It really does. And Andrew is one of the ones leading the charge.
RR: Do you feel fortunate to have fallen into this group that you’re largely surrounded by?
Ben: Oh, man. Every day. Absolutely. If I could have scripted my career back in high school when I was in love with music, this is what I would have written. You work with people who are really thoughtful about their faith and who are doggedly trying to write great music. So yeah, I’m so fortunate to feel at home with that group of people.
RR: Many of the artists you’re involved with could be thrown into an ‘underappreciated’ category – that their music really deserves to be heard by the masses or on a greater level. What is the expectation for you as you put your own debut out there?
Ben: Hmmm… first of all, we’ve had that kind of attitude a lot – that underappreciated thing. But after a while, it gets old to feel and talk that way. Not to speak for Andrew, but I think over the last few years, we’ve just moved to feel thankful for the people who listen to and like our music at all. Maybe there’s a bit of that feeling, but that’s also so arrogant. You know, ‘We deserve to be appreciated.’ So I think we just need to be thankful and not take that for granted – the people who like our music.
As far as my own record goes, I love my record and I’m proud of it but I’m just thankful that any would like it. I guess my hopes are just that the response would be good enough that it could justify me making more records. When I set out to do this and writing these first songs, I was really writing just for myself, as a hobby for kicks because I just enjoyed it. No offense, but I didn’t make it so that it could be heard by the world. There was just a part of me that needed to make a record. I love records. I’m a collector and I loved the idea of making my own music.
So it’s a wonderful feeling now to have other people hear it and it’s a pleasant surprise. But I don’t need it. I don’t know that I have a longing for a career as an artist to become my big pursuit. I have the production thing going, which allows me to be at home with my family. It’s really been a good life, so in my mind, a good template for what I want is what has happened for Daniel Lanois. People love his production and really appreciate him. And then he puts a record every few years and the people who enjoy his records, it’s a real treat to look forward to. But I don’t think he feels tied to making it as an artist. He continues to be a producer and being interested in music and then, when it’s time, he makes more songs and a record. But that’s his bread and butter and I think I’d like same thing – obviously, on a much smaller scale. I’d love to, when I’m ready, write more songs and make another record.
RR: You said that the church needs great art – was that foundational for the ethos of making this record?
Ben: Absolutely. Here’s the deal, as I said, I’ve just discovered all this new music over the last seven years and the sense that I’ve gotten is that the musical palette for those outside of the Christian music market is so much richer. When I get into artists like Rufus Wainwright or Elliot Smith, as I’ve dug deeper into The Beatles and Talking Heads, I feel they really turn me on sonically but none of them have changed my life. It’s my favorite music, but it could never do for me what Rich Mullins did for me. He changed my life in high school. Hearing what he had to say about the gospel changed my life. So in my mind in whatever position I am in, I have an opportunity for Christian people to hear my music and maybe some non-Christians.
My hope for the Christians to hear my album that it would be this great art for them. My hope for nonbelievers who hear the record would be like C.S. Lewis. All kinds of people read his books and he wrote well enough that people may have not been converted, but he was respected. His arguments and logic, they held up because they made sense. Not to compare myself with him because he’s my hero. But I would love to make a record that could swim that pond – that musically would make sense–and not just for people who had grown up on Christian music and that lyrically, with a few exceptions like “Rise Up” which is very Christian, that they would not to be able to pigeonhole it but that they would realize it says something about the world, about myself. That they would have to contend with that.
RR: How does having that as part of your ethos tangibly affect the songwriting process?
Ben: I don’t want my songs to resolve. I don’t want them to have happy endings. With “A Name, A Name, A Name,” I was writing that song and I had this story about a woman. I was praying about it and asking God, ‘I want my music and my songs to have Jesus as a shadowy figure in the corner hounding them. I want Jesus to be knocking on the door in my songs, not be the figure I’m talking about.’ Then I realized that maybe that’s what happens in this song. This woman has this day and then when she finally gets to a place of quiet, Jesus in the form of her memories, every good thing that she’s experienced knocks on the door of her office. But then, where it goes from there, because of what I believe about art, is that she doesn’t say the sinner’s prayer in her office. I hope that for that character, but that’s not what the song is necessarily trying to do.
Similarly with “Out of Tune,” I didn’t want to break the metaphor. So you’re not going to hear the name of Christ in that song. But to me, that song is the Scripture of ‘in Him, we move and have our being.’ That piano is inert until it is played by someone.
So my songs to me are very Christian songs but I don’t want to make them cheap. They shouldn’t be cheap Christian songs. I want them to be more like Old Testament stories, like the book of Esther where you don’t get a nicely packaged life application at the end of a book. But you do get a story in which you have to contend with what God did for his people. It’s still a story about God even though he’s not mentioned in the story.
That’s what I want. I like that kind of music. I like mystery. I also want to have a tangible relationship with God, but I like the fact that Jesus opened his mouth in parables. I want to tell parables, to tell stories. It cheapens it, for me, if I package it up and said, ‘Here it is,’ because that’s all you can learn from the song. That’s all you can take from it. I hope some people misinterpret my songs in a way that is more helpful for them than what my interpretation would be from it. I hope that people would get things from “Out of Tune” that I didn’t make. I want people to think and listen and be challenged a bit.
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.