A Conversation With Wild Harbors: Part I

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[Editor’s note: When I conduct interviews, I enjoy letting myself and the person I’m interviewing be as long-winded as we like. The goal in the moment is to get out all the thoughts so I can transcribe and edit them to concision later. My interview with Wild Harbors felt a bit different. It was full of digressions as usual, but the trouble was they were all so terribly engaging. I came away from our conversation with a big smile on my face and the foreboding feeling that editing would be an impossible task…

And impossible it proved to be. So, rather than suck the life out of this lively time we had, I’ve decided to trust in the attention span and sheer reading capacity of The Rabbit Room community in all its glory, opting to share this conversation in two lightly edited installments.

In case you haven’t heard, Chris and Jenna have worked tirelessly and done a terrific job with their Kickstarter campaign—they are so close to reaching their goal with only five days remaining. You’ll receive an immediate download of their record upon backing, so do yourself a favor and put your chips in with these kindhearted people.

You can support them on Kickstarter here. Scroll to the bottom to watch their Kickstarter video and stream a song from their album.]

Drew: It seems that the backdrop to this whole record is you making the leap into music full-time. What were each of your professions, how did you get from there to here, and what’s the narrative arc to that? When did music begin for you, even as a hobby? How do all those threads weave together?

Jenna: We’ve been playing music together in some capacity since 2004, that being the “hey, there’s an event on campus that needs a cover band, and I like to sing so can you play guitar with me” age. Very informal, not knowing what we’re doing.

Chris: For me, I knew you were pulling out your Howie Day covers, so I wanted to be there too.

(laughter)

Drew: Howie Day! Yes. That is 2004.

Jenna: Exactly, it was my Howie Day and Chris’s punk rock music that led the way.

Drew: So y’all met in college?

Chris: Yeah, Jenna got to college a year before I did. So when I was a freshman, she was the peer mentor for my freshman class.

Jenna: Yeah, I was a TA. We were great friends all throughout school. And originally we just played music with other people who could actually play instruments well, but then they went to go study abroad, so we were forced to increase our skill a bit.

We dated for a couple years after college, then broke up and did not think we would ever speak to each other again, let alone play music together. But when we started to talk again, Chris had begun work on a recording project and invited me to take part in it with him. As we came back together, we found ourselves hitting the reset button, seeing that music was something that took up quite a lot of our time. We called ourselves “Chris and Jenna,” started pressing into songwriting more, and people would invite us to come play. We realized we were having a great time doing that.

Drew: It sounds like there was something important about that, even from the beginning, if people were asking you to share.

Jenna: Yes, I think so. Figuring out what we had to say. Beginning to write songs, sometimes saying it well, sometimes not.

I was a teacher for eleven years in public school. Over the last five years of that, my position became gradually more and more part-time. God was so kind to me in letting me baby-step away from teaching instead of breaking away from it hard-core. So we started to see the possibility of really prioritizing music as a career path.

And then last year, the edge of the cliff finally came. We had been going on the downhill slant, but there was the drop off, and we could either fall or fly.

Chris: It’s like the slant doesn’t go all the way to the bottom—you’re still going to have to jump and it will be scary.

Drew: That’s a great analogy.

Jenna: It is! And we had started talking about making a new record.

Here I am at 33 years old, not 23, and I was afraid to admit I wanted anything. I was fearful and apprehensive about doing things that don’t make conventional sense. But there’s only so much time to do the things you feel like you need to do in life.

It was important for me to realize that while I am creative and a dreamer in a very real sense, the practical side of my brain had kept me from making big decisions like that for most of my life. But my resolve was strengthened by knowing how supportive Chris was in doing music full time. We realized that if we try and fail, that’s okay. We have people who love us, we have each other, and we have the Lord. If this bombs, we won’t starve.

Drew: Chris, what was your role in all this? What were you doing before the jump into music? It seems like Wild Harbors has come largely from your persistence in this calling.

Chris: Yeah, I was just thinking about how music has not been part of my life for that long, really. I bought my first keyboard in 2006, and before then I had never even thought of myself as a musician. I was always an art kid growing up, but I bought a $99 keyboard on Amazon one winter, and that’s where it began.

I was never that kid who was eager to have a job. That’s probably an earlier seed of this for me. I had that classic dialogue in my head, “So, you’re going to school and then what happens?” “Well, you get a job and go to an office or something, and then your life ends…”

(laughter)

Drew: And you’re like, “Really? Do I have to do that?”

Chris: I just had a hard time getting excited about that vision for adult life. As a result, I’ve always kept my career at an arm’s distance. I was a mail delivery man after college, I’ve done after-school teaching, I’ve been an art teacher, I’m now a children’s librarian. I’ve never put too much stock in the job I’m doing—instead, I’ve always thought, “I really want to make art. So if I have to have a job to help me be able to do that, then that’s what I’ll do.”

Drew: Visual art? You said you were an art kid growing up.

Chris: Yeah, pencil and paper. I wanted to draw pictures of Super Mario Brothers, anything I saw on TV. But when I wasn’t doing that, I was playing air guitar in my bedroom pretending I could do that. I always dreamed of music, but it seemed like such a foreign world. It was something my older brother did, so in some ways I felt like I didn’t have access to it. You want to be your older brother, so when he’s in a band, you think, “ah, being in a band! That’s cool, why didn’t I think of that?”

Drew: “But he’s in a band, so now I can’t do that!” Right?

Chris: He was born first, so he got to pick “band”! And I got stuck drawing pictures…

(laughter)

Drew: Oh, so true! Such mutual exclusivity going on there.

Chris: Yeah! All that is to say, I am now a children’s librarian with our county’s public library. That’s how we’re providing health insurance. It keeps my life at least somewhat in Normal Person World, where I have to put clothes on in the morning and leave and go see people. It’s an excuse to be out in the world.

Drew: That’s important, to have that anchor somewhere, especially when you’re pursuing something so amorphous like music.

Chris: The nice part about that is that I’m still part-time, and when I took that job, I had written into my hours that I could have every Tuesday off. That was the beginning of us looking at the band as more of a business idea. Jenna said, “You’re off every Tuesday! So you’re not just going to sit at home and play video games on Tuesdays, are you?” And I was like, “No, no, no, of course not! I’ll be working on stuff, yeah…” as I kicked the video game controller under the couch. “I’m shocked you would even say I would do that.”

(laughter)

That was the shift for us to set aside more consistent days to treat the band as a business, rather than just stumbling through it.

Drew: As you guys talk about your relationship with music, feeling somewhat like late-comers to the game, I remember that your record came off to me as very lyrically driven. It sounds like words, melody, and phrasing are all leading the way, rather than chords and instruments. And that seems to resonate with what I’ve heard so far about your experience with music, too.

Is there a way songs typically begin for each of you? One track that really struck me was “The Ballad of Wallace and Jessie.” It sounded like it was taken from an old story you stumbled upon somewhere.

Chris: You’re right on track with that one. It started with me wasting time at work. As a children’s librarian, part of my job is to clean up my section, make sure old books are taken off the shelves if they aren’t pulling their weight.

One of the ones I took out was an old, eye-witness history book on the Titanic. So I got lost reading it and found this story about an orphanage in Scotland. It’s one of those unverified legends, so I didn’t care if it was true or false; I just thought the story was interesting.

In this story a girl named Jessie is crying and screaming in the orphanage, and a person from the Salvation Army comes to check on her. And she says, “There’s a man on a boat and he’s playing the violin and they’re all going to die.” And about an hour later she has a high fever and suddenly passes away. And then as the story gets around town, they learn that there was a band on a boat thousands of miles away that very night, playing music on the Titanic as it sank. And it was led by a man with a violin named Wallace.

Drew: That’s nuts!

Chris: I was just captivated by this story. And this is a bit of an exception for me—most of my songs don’t start like this, but I just began researching. I read about it and decided to attempt condensing it into six verses.

Drew: You did a great job condensing it, because I really got the idea. As I listened and read the lyrics for the first time, I started realizing the first four verses were all about Wallace, and eventually I saw there was only one verse for Jessie at the very end, which of course made me very nervous. What’s going to happen? And I got there and thought, “You did not just introduce a character at the end of the song, only to promptly kill her!” Terrible, but I loved it.

(laughter)

Jenna: Which is hysterical, because when we brought the song to Andy (Osenga), it had an entirely different structure. Same idea, same story, same melody, but the order of the storytelling and positioning of the verses was quite different.

Drew: So he suggested a few structural changes?

Chris: We had tried to bookend the song a bit so it would begin and end with Jessie. It was this Lost-style thing, flashing sideways, but ended up being too convoluted for a three-minute song. Clarity came first, so we shifted it a bit.

Drew: I mean, talk about turn of phrase, structuring words so carefully—I love the line, “He gave them a gift they could not give him back.” Hit me right in the chest.

Chris: I like that one too!

Drew: Very well executed! And I had another moment like that, too, on “Come Clean:” “You’re going to be what you love whether you like it or not.” Mmm! So nice. Jenna, is that your song?

Jenna: Yeah! That one was such fun. We had a drum sampler and I started playing chords over it, singing syllables, not knowing what it was about but having fun. So that was the exception to the rule for me, where what it was about only evolved later on.

Drew: Chris, didn’t you say “The Ballad of Wallace and Jessie” was an exception to your writing rule as well? I just randomly picked the songs from the album that don’t represent the way each of you write.

(laughter)

So if you had to pick a song that feels the most like the way you typically do things, what would each of you pick?

Chris: The two that felt most typical for me this season were “Monument” and “House On Fire.” Both began with this general, broad-stroke idea. For “House On Fire,” weeks went by before I finally found the lyric, “It’s like running headlong into a hurricane” to describe that broad-stroke idea. And that was all I had. That’s usually how it is: it becomes this long-form, back-and-forth process.

Jenna: Totally. And I think Chris is the one to have a general idea, then write pages and pages of lines that will maybe end up in the song, but maybe not. I’m much more into starting with a very potent emotion, then developing lyrics and melody alongside each other. Sometimes that’s great, but other times it makes it harder for me to edit because the melody and lyrics already feel so attached to each other.

An example for me would be “Battle”—it started with a strong emotion I was having, so I played minor chords on the keyboard and started singing about what I felt and took it from there.

Drew: That song did seem to me like it rose out of a very elemental emotion, and you captured it so well.

The other very emotional song I was going to mention is “Abigail.” I’d love to know the story behind that. Such a powerful song; I wasn’t sure if I could make it through without weeping.

Chris: Yeah, I didn’t see that one coming at all. We had a loose date where we were planning to sit down together and try to work on a song. I had in my mind a certain song I wanted to work on, but everything unfolded so differently. That morning Jenna got a call from a friend to come visit her in the hospital.

Jenna: We have a friend whose daughter is frequently ill, and we had been invited to come see her that night. And to be honest, neither of us felt like going. We had plans with our own family, but we felt like one of us should go, so I carpooled with another friend to make the hour-long drive. And being down there in Baltimore, at John Hopkins Hospital, really conjured up a lot of memories for my friend, Anastasia. I had known—she has four children in total, and two of them are twins. I had heard that one of the twins was a sort of “miracle baby,” but that was it.

So on the way back from Baltimore, she really shared all the details of the twins’ birth and how Abby almost did not survive. Not just this general, “she almost didn’t make it and it was so sad,” but truly, she was reliving this experience in the car next to us. So many lyrics from “Abigail” were basically direct quotes from her that night. She described the depth of grief she and her husband experienced when the doctors told them to be prepared for Abigail not to make it. In those moments, Anastasia said she prayed the Prayer of Hannah: “If you spare this child, I will dedicate her life to you. She will be yours.” And he did spare her life.

Years later, the twins were about eight years old and they discovered that because the doctors didn’t think Abigail would survive and there was so much else that was wrong at the time, she had a heart condition that was written down, but hadn’t been flagged. So at eight years old they discovered Abigail’s heart was beating ten times as fast as a kid’s heart is supposed to. She had to have heart surgery because it was in danger of giving out. They had thought for eight years that she was fine, but the whole time, this little girl was exhausted because her heart was working so hard.

So I came home and relayed all of that to Chris—

Chris: Right, and hearing that story triggered an empathy I had never been able to access before. Learning that this thirteen year-old girl I know and love has been walking on a razor’s edge between life and death—the specificity of that really changes things.

We decided to stick to our plan and try to write a song, but it was eleven at night, we were so tired, and the only thing going through my head was the story Jenna had told me.

So here I am, trying to be creative and insightful or whatever, but all I can hear is, “If you’re listening, please spare my baby.” We just sat there and sobbed and sang the words we knew to sing. It was one of those songs where we were like, “I guess this is the song we’re writing now. Didn’t plan it this way, but here we are.”

Jenna: I felt that confirmation from God: don’t just turn on Netflix and say, “Well, too late!” Do the thing you said you were going to do. You have to follow through.

Learn about Wild Harbors’ Kickstarter campaign below:

Visit their campaign by clicking here.

And stream a song we talked about called “House On Fire” below:


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