If you’re like me, you have some childhood and early adolescent memories of listening to certain songs that gave you a magical impression of seamlessness ... Read More
In a recent post I talked about my writer’s block and the song that broke it. I thought I’d revisit a similar theme here and talk about the process of writing the most challenging song on my new record.
During a session at a songwriter’s retreat several years ago, I asked Pierce Pettis, one of the greatest singer/songwriters of our time, how to know when to let go of an idea that seems to refuse to be reeled in. His answer was not to worry about it, that the best ideas won’t let go of you. I went home and later that week finished a song that had been evading me for years. Since then, I’ve tried to pay attention to the ideas that seem like they won’t let go of me.
In the midst of an almost 3 year stretch of writer’s block, I was at another writer’s retreat that my friend Doug McKelvey was leading. At one point, he read an excerpt from The Lord Of The Rings – the scene where Sam wakes after the darkest day of his life to find that the worst that seemed inevitable did not come to pass.
“’Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?’
‘A great shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land… “
It was the felt truth of those words – the idea of everything sad coming untrue – that captured my attention. I felt what Frederick Buechner terms “the lump in the throat” that usually indicates that something holy is afoot. The words carried a certain coalescence of the mysterious and absolute that spoke to where I was at at the time. Here’s what I wrote about it in the liner notes of my new CD:
The beauty of those words rang so many bells inside of me: the idea not that everything sad is untrue (which would be a cruel invalidation of our present sorrows) – nor that everything will come untrue someday (which reduces the hope of redemption to mere wishful thinking) – but that somehow, even right now in the face of the saddest that we see, the seeds of its undoing are sown. In fact, they were sown the day the body of Jesus, like a seed himself, was laid in the ground. What took root on Easter is the undoing of the curse, and it is flowering all around us if we have eyes to see it.
This thought grew into an idea that wouldn’t let me go and I determined that I would write a song about it.
I quickly found, though, that it was a difficult song to write – all 5 times that I wrote it! It is a beautiful statement, to be sure, but it is also somewhat abstract, and for some people it reads like an algebra equation. How could I take the beauty and truth of the idea and translate it from conceptual abstraction into something urgent, emotional, and compellingly real? Would it move others the way it did me?
I’d play the latest version of the song for my inner circle of friends who would tell me that it was cool, but that was the problem – I wasn’t aiming for cool, I was aiming for heart and joy. Much prayer and reflection went into the process, and eventually I called in co-writers to help me bring it across the finish line. The first was Randall Goodgame who went to work with me on my original version. After several weeks of us banging our heads and hearts against the seemingly impregnable walls of this song, he put it best when he said, “it’s close… but it’s like this song has a beautiful face, but her arms are on backwards…”
Eventually we abandoned it and started from scratch. We raided the bone yard and brought some of the ideas over from the last version, but for the most part rebuilt it from the ground up. I had a little piece of music – a riff – that felt like springtime to me, like everything sad coming untrue, so we started with that. When I read the journals of some friends who had recently been to Rwanda – a country ravaged by genocide little more than a decade ago but whose rebirth through reconciliation looks nothing short of miraculous – I found a compelling real world evidence of everything sad coming untrue through the power of forgiveness. It was then that the song finally took wings for me, and after nearly two years, it was finished! This became “Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue (Part 1)” that is on my new record.
But it seemed that the idea of everything sad coming untrue was too big to be held in one song, and that the ground was still fertile enough to yield something more, so I went back to work. If the one song felt like springtime, I wanted to write one that acknowledged the winter that sets us longing for spring in the first place.
I wrote a ballad with my friend Jason Ingram that felt quite lovely and might even have possibly worked as a radio single – and yet the form of it felt restrictive to me and like I was circling around but never getting to the heart of the matter. This lead to one of the harder decisions of this project: abandoning this version – even one with commercial potential – to try to write yet another entirely new version.
I had a few lyrical starts, and I brought them to the master of the slow-building epic: Andy Osenga. We went to work on it and found that this song didn’t get any easier even after so many versions…
The goal for this last incarnation was to follow Frederick Buechner’s advice which in essence is this: that before you affirm your creeds at the start of each day, you should read the daily headlines of the worst that happens in the world. If our greatest hopes can’t hold their own against our greatest fears, then they may not be worthy of our devotion. For our hope to be believable, it must be believable in the face of the worst that we see and know. So this is what we wanted to pit our idea of everything sad coming untrue against: relationships at the breaking point, death, and the isolation and despair that is the fallout of the Fall. Could even these be coming untrue? These thoughts became “Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue (Part 2)” – the song that closes my new record
By the time I was through, I had completed 5 versions of the song – two of which ended up on the official record and two more of which ended up as bonus songs on a special edition of the project. Did I ever get it right, though?
I’m certain there are more gifted writers than I who might have served this song better, but the work seemed to fall to me, and it was a responsibility that I didn’t take lightly. I’ve never worked harder on a song, and in the end, in spite of my limitations, I hope I did it some semblence of justice and helped others to feel a little of what I felt that first day when Doug McKelvey read the words and it kindled the hope that everything sad, even now, is coming untrue. And if I failed to do that, with 5 versions of the song It could never be said it was for lack of trying…
Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue (Part 1)
Jason Gray, Randall Goodgame, Jason Ingram
In the way the shadows hide
When the sun begins to rise
And in the way the world comes alive
At the first hint of spring
The frozen rivers run
The death of winter comes undone
Whispers of Kingdom Come
While the bluebird sings
Everything that I thought I knew
Everything sad is coming untrue
From the war torn city streets
To the trash the slum dogs eat
It seems so hard to believe
And meaningless to pray
But in Rwanda’s killing fields
Forgiveness blooms and heals
And the power of love reveals
The Kingdom come today as…
Life is coming alive
Death is destined to die
When we learn to live again
And let forgiveness win
There’s no wound that love won’t mend
And finally redeem
The Son of God woke in the ground
The angel laid the soldiers down
To bring the King his crown
Oh I believe
Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue (Part 2)
Jason Gray, Andy Osenga
You had to have that hard conversation
Where nothing hurts quite like the truth
And now you wonder what she’s thinking
Who she sees when she looks at you
How could it be everything sad is coming untrue?
Another nail in another coffin
Arms that held you return to dust
Yet in our grief we know death must be a liar
For no goodbye is ever good enough
How could it be everything sad is coming untrue?
Every father helpless and angry
Every mother with her heart on the shelf
Every daughter whose innocence was stolen
By every son who couldn’t help himself
The winter can make us wonder
If spring was ever true
But every winter breaks upon
The Easter lily’s bloom
Could it be everything sad is coming untrue?
Could you believe everything sad is coming untrue?
Broken hearts are being unbroken
Bitter words are being unspoken
The curse undone, the veil is parted
The garden gate will be left unguarded
Could it be everything sad is coming untrue?
Oh I believe everything sad is coming untrue
In the hands of the One who is making all things new
When the storm leaves there’s a silence
That says you don’t have to fear anymore
The trees look greener, the sky’s an ocean
The world is washed and starting over
(Jason’s new album can be pre-ordered at jasongraymusic.com. A free immediate download of the entire album is available immediately with the purchase of any of the special editions of the album.)