My entry today may be aptly titled, since I’ve been a bit of a prodigal myself here for the past several months. Over my head in the deep end of a new recording project, I’ve had little time for much else than approving mixes and rtwork and everything else that goes along with releasing a new record.
But the record is done and I’m starting to rejoin society again, and I thought I’d share something that I hoped might be of interest to rabbit roomers.
My new record, Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue (which some here may recognize as a Lord Of The Rings reference), is significant to me if for no other reason than I was afraid it would never come. If you’ve read some of the conversations I’ve had with Matt Conner and others here, you might remember that this record was preceded by nearly 3 years of writer’s block that left me afraid my music making days were over. Much of the writer’s block, I know, was spurred by the fear of men – the fear that a song would not meet with the approval of the jury I had assembled in my head ranging from fellow artists, fans, radio people, reviewers, and so on – a wide range of discordant voices who could never agree on anything. Any song start would be met by some imagined critical voice, and then the shouting would begin.
In some ways, it can be selfish to only write for one’s self and then presumptuous to expect others to love and buy it. Self-expression can be fine – great even – but if you’re making music for a living, you do well to consider your audience. The great artists usually do their best work when they’re reaching for a broader audience, but are often in danger of being irrelevant when they become too self-indulgent. So there is a balance to be struck of following the personal vision you’ve been entrusted with while not forgetting the audience you’ve been entrusted to serve. The other danger, of course, is to disrespect your audience by pandering to them. The narrow road is framed by a deep ditch on either side.
My mistake, and it’s one that I commonly make, is to imagine that I can please everybody all the time. The thought of disappointing people is often a crippling weakness of mine. And so in my pursuit of that imagined perfect balance that holds all things in tension, I suppose I assembled that varied and motley crew of critics in my mind to help me keep my equilibrium on this narrow road, but who eventually became so boisterous and noisy that I could no longer hear my own voice.
In the midst of my writer’s block, my wife – wise and insightful as she is – told me to go to my writer’s room and write a song either about explicit sex or with profanities in it. Of course the true thing she was saying was that I needed to go write something that couldn’t be useful – either to my ministry or my career. Pragmatism has long been the enemy of truth and beauty, and as I felt the weight of the need for a new recording project increasing exponentially, I was beginning to be desperate for songs that would be useful to the purpose of making a record with a record label that serves the Christian market. A song about explicit sex or laced with profanities wouldn’t be useful, and therefore might find it’s way to the surface through the myriad of conflicting voices in my head.
Well, some of you may be disappointed that I didn’t write that kind of song – that day (wink) – but I got the point and sat in my writer’s room and emptied myself of all expectations, real and imagined. There was an idea I’d been twiddling in my mind, like the young girl who sat in front of me in my 6th grade social studies class who incessantly wound her finger through a curl of hair that hung over her right shoulder. It was an idea that seemed particularly un-useful and that provided what might be an invigorating challenge. It wasn’t necessarily earth-shattering, but it was an idea I could be passionate about and seemed convoluted enough as to be exactly the kind of song that probably wouldn’t end up on a record. It wasn’t a controversial or sensational kind of idea, but an interesting one that posed a seductive songwriterly challenge in terms of translating it into a lyric.
So… I started writing. And by the end of the day I had the first real song I’d written in nearly 3 years. It had no chorus, no “hook”, it was essentially 6 long verses, and I was self-indulgent enough to use words like “doppelganger”. And I was so happy with it. This was a song I wrote just for me, for the sake of telling some truth I had experienced, and it became like a little rampart of light in the dark night of my soul, shining on the part of me that had been buried under the cacophony of a jury of strident voices, empowered by my insecurities to speak my worst fears to me. I took hold of that little rampart of light like a lifeline and let it draw me to the surface where I found I could breathe again… and I started writing.
I brought 13 songs to my last record, and we recorded 12. The funny thing is that by the time we had the song meeting for this record, I had 32 to weed through… And I’m also humbled and grateful to say that I think this batch of songs is maybe the best I’ve ever recorded – both commercially and “artistically” (an adjective I never like to use for my own music because of how presumptuous it feels, but you get the idea). It’s got songs that, of my work, stand the best chance at radio as well as songs like this one, “The Golden Boy & the Prodigal,” that have a blessed uselessness about them.
And here’s the punchline of my little story: when I wrote this song, I assumed it would never end up on a record, but I was willing to fight for it’s inclusion if for no other reason than the fact that it was the song that broke the long cold winter of my creative block. When the time came, I didn’t have to fight for it, and was pleasantly surprised to find that everyone involved was really passionate about the song. And now that people are starting to hear the record, the early feedback I’m getting is that “The Golden Boy & The Prodigal” is their favorite track. I guess the joke is on me…
The Golden Boy And The Prodigal
There are two sides to every person
Like the two sides of a dime
Heads or tails it depends upon
Who’s watching at the time
Though I hate to say it
Mine is no exception
One part is the prodigal
The other part: deception
Like the prince and the pauper
Like Jacob and his brother
Each hide a different heart
Each a shadow of the other
Me and my doppelganger
Both share the same blood
One I have hated
The other have I loved
One of them’s the Golden Boy
The man I’d like to be
I show him off in the parades
For all the world to see
The other is much weaker
He stumbles all the time
The source of my embarrassment
He’s the one I try to hide
The Golden boy is made of straw
His finest suit will surely burn
His vice is the virtue
That he never had to earn
The prodigal’s been broken
And emptied at the wishing well
But he’s stronger for the breaking
With a story to tell
I’m not easy with confessions
It’s hard to tell the truth
But I have favored the golden boy
While the other I’ve abused
And he takes it like a man
Though he’s longing like a child
To be loved and forgiven
And share the burden for awhile
So take a good look in the mirror
Tell me who you see
The one who Jesus died for
Or the one you’d rather be
Can you find it in your heart
To show mercy to the one
The Father loved so much
That he gave his only son…
Jason’s new record is available at www.jasongraymusic.com. When you pre-order it, you get an immediate download of the record. Check out some of the uber-deluxe pre-order packages being offered to find out how you can get a phone call from Jason, a shirt out of his closet, his mini-van, or a guided tour of Seoul Korea. Seriously.
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".