Only So Much You Can Say

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It was an unexpected interview. Not that fact that I was interviewing Roger O’Donnell, longtime keyboardist for The Cure and Thompson Twins, since I had it scheduled for a few weeks in advance already, but rather that I actually enjoyed it so much. I’ve interviewed nearly 1,000 musicians in my time as a writer so the process has become rather dull for the most part and rare is the interview where the conversation is as stimulating as it was with this one.

Of course, as a music industry veteran for the last 30 years, O’Donnell’s perspectives are quite interesting to say the least. However, it was one thing he said in the middle that stays with me long after we both hung up our phones. When I asked him about the demise of the Cure into what he earlier called “the best Cure tribute band ever,” O’Donnell said the reason was that an artist only has so much to say and after that, they just repeat themselves.

I’ve heard this mentioned before in a couple places from a few artists in my time and I wonder about its truth. I’m also a pastor nearly five years into a church plant and I can easily see from time to time how much a fresh voice would help in this place. As a sports fan, I’ve definitely seen how the firing of an old coach simply helped for the sake of bringing in a fresh perspective. And I wonder, does this holds true for the artist?

Perhaps an even better question to ask is what does this mean for the Christian artist? Is it true that there’s only so much that we can say and then we need to move on? Of course, it’s impossible to create a formula that everyone should only make 10 albums or 20 years of playing shows or whatever. But rather than shrug and say “we can’t figure this out,” I think it’s worth asking a simple question of “is there a time to stop, at least for some people?”

I don’t play an instrument (at least to the level that anyone at all, even my mother, would pay to hear me), so, as I said, my venue is the church. And I definitely see this in play there. Here in the Bible Belt, there are many more churches alive than there should be – several in each surrounding city seem to be holding on only because somebody left some money in a trust fund or will, died, and then the church lives on its holdings.

A friend of mine runs an inner city church and non-profit and most people reside right next to an old Methodist church. They’ve asked to rent from them, partner with them, meet at all separate times, etc. but to no avail. The same 10 to 12 people continue to drive in from “safer” areas (read: white) and refuse to allow anyone else to use the building. And I suppose it’s their right to do so since they own the building and are able to pay their utilities. But is there life there?

It’s a natural life cycle to die and live. We’re so scared of one that we can’t embrace the other. But it’s death that gives nourishment to life. In fact, it’s even the promise of death that brings life to some things.

We almost closed as a church plant three years into it. I grew up in a Pentecostal, money-manipulating atmosphere, so I promised if I ever led my own church that I would never do the same thing. But I went in the extreme other direction – never, ever mentioning the fact that it takes money to run things, like it or not. And because of that, we were going to shut down.

I stood in front of our church that Sunday morning and explained it out. I said that I wasn’t afraid for us to die, that we had a great three year run and that I wasn’t going to manipulate for money, but that the reality was that this was our last week if things didn’t change. Since then, we’ve never looked back. There was something in that moment – knowing that everything has a limited run and that we can be okay with that – which has propelled us in a way we’ve never experienced.

I wonder about this within our lives, wherever we are. What does it mean for the artist to know there’s only so many records to make and to make them well? And what does it mean to know when the life is gone and we’re stuck in our routine and comfort zone?

Matt Conner is the teaching pastor at Trinity Church in the heart of Indianapolis and the founder of Analogue Media.


7 Comments

  1. Paulh

    Matt,
    I like your thoughts and have had questions about some musicians/pators out there and keep on asking why.

    Let me give you another view on this though and see if it might make more sense.

    Monet, Rembrandt, Hershfeild, Sloane, Shultz, Mullins, Lewis. All artists who I believe had a God-given talent and their lives, for however long-lived, expounded on their style of art.
    Yes, it may look the same or similiar in some degree, but that is the artist style and he or she is expressing it.

    Who would ever tell Rembrandt, “Hey, buddy, ya’ know this painting looks an awful like the last you did. Whats up?! you dried in the creativity dept.??”

    Ridiculous to say

    SO, the question should be, is the Artist/Pastor the geniuine thing? Are they really doing what was intended by God or are they trying to force creativity/calling?

    I would like to think this is the reason why there are so many bland churches with preachers who should never have gone into pulpit and why there are so many wannabe’s in the music industry – because they never really had anything to say to begin with, they just copied someone’s else’s style and tried to make a go of it.

    I know art is subjective, but most folks can tell if someone has it or not.

  2. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Matt,

    Being a long-time member of a band (over 17 years) I can speak from experience.

    The continued growth of a band – or a church – or a marriage – depends upon the growth of its individual members.

    It is true that we must hold things with an open hand before God, whether our band, ministry, our finances, or even our families. To hold tightly is otherwise known as idolatry. “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

    A year and a half ago God kicked my rear end out of my comfort zone: the band I’m in. A band can be a beautiful thing, a symbol of union, unity, oneness. When we play I feel us doing one single thing, together. It isn’t five people playing; it feels like one sound. We know one another, and play off one another.

    But how I deal with that means everything. Do I hold it with an open hand before God? Am I straining toward what is ahead, and leaving behind those things that are past? Am I interested in improving, bringing more to the band sound – or being merely comfortable with the status quo?

    The questions I have had to answer are these: Do I really believe that “Whom the Lord calls, He enables?” Do I really believe that Eternity – and how Eternity plays out here – is all that matters? Do I really believe that Christ is my All in all, that I am complete in Him, that I have no needs? Do I really believe in the musical ability God gave me, and am I working that out with fear and trembling – or am I letting the Devil rob me of my life’s work by hanging on to the band with a tight grip rather than an open hand?

    I’ve had to take a deep look at my life in the last two years, about where I am headed, about what I can do in my own personal career apart from the band. Like you, I go to extremes; when I joined Union Station I let everything else go – my personal recording, my personal musical explorations. And I centered on “What The Band Needs” to the exclusion of what I needed to do. Of course I’ve practiced and worked on music, but usually in light of my job with the band.

    As the years went on the noose felt tighter and tighter. More and more tension crept into my hands; more and more unbelief crept into my heart about my own music.

    There is a time for things to go. But there is also a Sabbath rest for tired lands and tired bands, where each member goes on their own particular journey to find what needs finding – and in that finding they can bring an entire new perspective to a band sound. I’m looking forward to a fresh perspective when we get back together this year.

  3. Nathan Bubna

    You’re right, death and change have their times. But i don’t take O’Connell’s insight to mean repetition is a sign that the time to move on has come. There are some things from which to move on once said. But there are some things always worth repeating and rehearing.

  4. Micah

    The idea that an artist has only so much to say is something that I’ve thought about a lot. When you think of an extremely talented writer such as J.D. Salinger simply ceasing to write, you wonder if maybe there is some merit to it. But I think that Christian artists should always have something to write about, something to talk about. If we truly serve an infinate God, then I doubt that in our brief lifetimes we will ever be able to even come close to reaching the depths of His Truth. I think the Christian artist should be writing and creating based on what they are learning, and how they are growing in Christ, and a Christian should never stop learning and growing. Therefore, the Christian artist should never stop writing. I should note too however, that this idea of creating based on what you learn means that your content will inevitably change over time. If you continue to rehash the same themes in your art, then you are not growing. However, if God continues to draw the artist into Himself, then that which the artist creates will continue to be fresh.

  5. Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    Matt, I can’t begin to tell you how personally I relate to this post and to the many wise responses (post-post?). I myself have been pondering the same questions in my own soul the past several months and years: What am I trying to say as an artist and a person of faith?, What am I actually saying?, Is it worth listening to?, What do I ultimately believe about God, his direction, his sovereignty, his will, his grace? Is he merely a safety net, or is he none, some, or All of Everything?

    I have been pondering this treacherous theme as I go about making my new album. Keenly aware of finally being found out as a singer-songwriter fraud, I find that this attribute works both to my benefit and to my detriment. Since I have no desire whatsoever to further plague the world – or at least this tiny niche – with more of the same old-same old, I am constantly alert to the possibility of my songs sounding the same after all the years, after all the good and bad songs I’ve written. I am borderline fearful of this. This, in my estimation, is not necessarily a terrible thing. But when the well seems dry and bare to the bone, it is not an easy concept to consider finally throwing in the towel on the whole deal. Moving on from a 15+ year middling career into a new chapter of vocation is not something easily considered or done. I work so hard (sometimes) to find the art. In this season of my life, I can only hope that the Art finds me.

  6. Kevin E

    I think there is a distinct difference between a band and an artist. I was part of a band for about 10 years before we parted ways and to be perfectly honest I probably stayed too long in what was comfortable and expected of me. As individuals we should never stop growing, however there is often a limited space of time when a group of individuals is in the same place, moving at the same pace and contributing to the synergy of the band. I also think that we need to make sure not to expect our journey ahead to look just like the it did in the past. If we follow Gods leading it will lead us in new exciting ways but it requires us to lay aside preconcieved notions of what this will look like.

  7. Mike

    The first Andrew Peterson song I ever heard was “Nothing to Say” and 8 albums later he’s still saying new things. What a liar. The Christian artist who is being sanctified will write sanctified music. His music, (story) will never be the same because if he is growing will always have somehting new to say. The problem is when there is no growth, no ripping away of the old. no shedding the seeds from the flowers that have died. Maybe its easeir for the individual musician than for the band. Rarely does God grow us at the same rate.

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