In Search of Simplicity: Jeremy Casella on his New Album

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In case you haven’t heard, Jeremy Casella is working on a new album, and it will be his simplest and most vulnerable project yet.

Getting to hear him talk about it was one of the highlights of my week. He spoke with great care, emphasizing his desire for his forthcoming songs to speak directly to his listeners.

I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did. When you’re finished, consider supporting his new album on Kickstarter here.

Jeremy: Spirit will be a vulnerable, bare collection of songs. The reason for that is that I played more shows last year than I ever have before. When I tour, I just play guitar or piano and sing. I’m working with those two elements, the voice and the instrument—so I just started thinking in twos: a melody and a lyric, soul and a song, bringing things down to the bare essentials. Which forces me to really focus on getting the best songs I could, so they stand on their own two feet without layers and layers of production.

I’m really proud of my older albums, but there’s so much going on musically that they’re difficult to play live. But this record will be a really straightforward, honest record. If I do my job well as a writer, you will feel very moved by the space left by the sparseness of the arrangements. Hopefully this album will draw you out as a listener in a more direct way because of it.

In terms of subject matter, about five years ago I went through an extremely painful divorce. During that time, I reached out to God in a way I had never reached out to him, for strength, guidance, and sustenance, as my world had been blown apart. It was not something I saw coming or desired in any kind of way, and yet I found myself in this situation I could not fix. So as a result, I went through this long period of pain and loss. In a lot of ways I’m on the other side of that now, but in other ways I’m also not.

From that experience I have learned a ton about how close the Lord is to his people, how he truly does shepherd us and meet our needs in surprising ways. So thematically, many of the songs are about walking with God through pain and suffering, how the Lord tends to us with his Holy Spirit like a shepherd with his sheep. It’s a tender record because the Lord is tender with us. That’s the goal for this project.

But man, although there are some heavy themes in there, it’s going to be fun! Instrumentally, I’m having a blast writing the songs. Knowing that I won’t have much production behind me is a freeing thing. I hope it disarms and moves us all.

Drew: It seems to me that the spirit of the record has grown out of your experience performing live. I imagine there’s an analogy there between how you’ve related to your audience and how you want listeners to feel with the record. Could you speak to the relationship between those two dynamics, the similarities and differences that come along with a record rather than a live performance?

Jeremy: In a live performance, there’s an interplay and exchange of vulnerability that happens if you’re doing it right, whether it’s a giant U2 concert or a really personal singer-songwriter concert. So a lot of this album will be recorded completely live. I think that lends itself to a more honest dialogue. Listeners can tell if somebody is being straight with them or not.

I played so many shows last year that I got to a really healthy place with my audience. I started asking, “What’s the best way I can serve these people?” And the answer was to make another album built on live performance as a gift for these people who come to my shows and listen to my songs. I’ve heard people like Bono and Tom Petty say that simplicity is the most powerful approach to music, so I’d like to find out what that means for me.

Drew: That’s fantastic. We often think of tours as supporting records, but it sounds like you’re making a record to support a tour. I love flipping it on its head like that.

Jeremy: That’s where things are now. To make a living as an artist, you have to tour. And I’ve made other albums I’m proud of that are impressionistic and ambitious, have a ton going on—but for this record, the punch will come from its soul, from its vulnerability. My prayer is that God would show up in a major way, that you will be able to feel him speaking to you through these songs.

Drew: As an audience member, your project makes me think about the difference between coming to a show excited about a record with a lot of instruments on it, anticipating hearing those songs stripped down, versus coming to a show knowing you’ll hear the songs performed just the same way you fell in love with them as recordings: simple, just guitar and vocal.

Jeremy: That’s exactly right. And as a performer, you want to satisfy people and leave them really happy they came. Live performances and concerts are everything. Music is the reason we go to a show now, not necessarily a record anymore.

Drew: Do you have any stories of particular shows that have really stuck with you after all the touring you did last year? Any specific evenings that have guided the way for this album?

Jeremy: That’s a great question. Last fall I was in downtown Pittsburgh and I was halfway through a show—there were probably about a hundred people in this tiny little chapel—and in the middle of the show, a man stood up. He was a Jewish man; he had a yamacha on and a big long beard. He stood up after a song and said, “I don’t mean to interrupt. I have to go, but first I want you to know that your music tonight was like David playing his harp for Saul when Saul was anxious. Tonight, you were my David.”

So he said thanks and asked me if he could come up and give me a hug. So he did, and he kissed me on the forehead, too, which was interesting, and then he left, just like that. But everybody in the audience saw this moment unfold.

Music has so much power to do beautiful, beautiful things, to encourage us, calm us down, bless us. I’ve kept him in mind ever since. So this is a record for that wonderful man at the Pittsburgh show.

Drew: What a champ. That is magnificent. How did the audience react in that situation?

Jeremy: They seemed very surprised and also moved. Afterwards, one of the ladies who was there—she’s a therapist, and she said that she works with that man at a therapy center nearby. They had a meeting earlier that day and she prayed for him, that God would give him some relief.

So it was very encouraging to hear that God had used some of my music to bring relief to this man, and that he even took the time to let me know it.

Drew: It’s huge to let each other know that kind of thing. It goes so far.

Jeremy: Isn’t it? And that gets into deeper themes, too: that we’re not alone, that God sees us and hears the cries of our anguish. He is not blind or far; he is extremely near. That’s going to be the main theme of the album, that God is for us and with us. It’s his name: Emmanuel. So when we draw near to him, he’s right there to meet our needs, interact with us, and speak to us.

During my divorce, I experienced God’s voice over and over again. It utterly changed me and I feel like a different person as a result. I’m so excited about this album because it’s probably the first one that’s not about me in any kind of way. I’m hoping it will be useful because of that.

You can support Jeremy’s new project on Kickstarter here.


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