The following is an email conversation I had with Ben Mace of the Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times in Delaware in support of a recent concert I did there. I thought readers here might enjoy it!
BM: How did you get “discovered”? What was the break that led to being signed with Centricity Music?
JG: Well, Tom Hanks is said to have told an audience of drama students who asked him what the secret of his success was that for him, it was not quitting – that if you hang in there long enough, you’re likely to get noticed. I guess that’s my experience – I’d been doing music independently for years and over time had crossed paths with enough people and nurtured enough relationships that it accumulated to bring me where I am now. I’d known John Mays, director of A&R at Centricity (my label) for years and we’d always talked about working together, and I guess the right time to do that presented itself. Labels are looking for artists who don’t need them, or in other words have their own momentum. That’s who they prefer to partner with, and I think they saw in me an artist that already had the ball rolling a bit and fit with the personality of their label. But it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t developed relationships years earlier with the people there. I really feel like God opened doors over the years, and I just did my part to walk through them. So it was less a “break” than it was a steady faithfulness, in the same direction.
BM: What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
JG: We work for World Vision – a humanitarian relief and development agency that serves the poorest of the poor in the world through child sponsorship. I advocate for the poor and present an opportunity for my audiences to partner with World Vision in their work and it’s been a great source of inspiration, motivation, and passion for us (my wife Taya and I). We sponsor 4 kids ourselves, and a few years ago my wife and I got to go to Africa to serve AIDS orphans. While there, we were able to go visit Otillia, the first little girl that we sponsored from Zimbabwe. When we arrived at the village, everyone had gathered to receive us and sang the words “well done, well done” over and over to us. A powerful moment in our lives that we’ll never forget and that happened because of my music career and the privilege it affords me of serving the poor. That’s the biggest highlight, for sure.
BM: Do you write all of your own songs? What do you like most about that process?
JG:I do, but more and more I collaborate with other writers instead of writing them all on my own. Early on I preferred writing solo and found it difficult to write with someone else, but the exact opposite is true now. I find having another person in the room gives me confidence to take risks because I know someone else is in the room watching my back. They also help me think of things I wouldn’t think of on my own, which is exhilarating and keeps me fresh. I feed on unpredictability, and the truth is I can pretty much predict what I’ll write – because it’s me! But adding another writer to the process means that we’ll go to places that neither of us could have predicted. I was reading an interview with Bono (of U2) recently where I discovered the same is true for him. He’s much more productive as a lyricist if Edge is in the room with him. But as an artist I will say that the writing is one of my favorite things. I’m much more of a writer than I am a singer or even a musician. Writing is this mysterious act that is the hardest part of what I do, and is also a grace. I never work as hard as I do when I’m writing a song, but when it’s finished I feel graced, like I received something as a gift. It’s at once this thing you work for and labor over, but that you also receive like a gift. It’s hard to explain…
BM: Could you elaborate on your childhood challenges? What was it like growing up with a stuttering problem in an abusive home?
JG: Well, my stuttering is I suppose a kind of scar I still carry from difficult moments in my childhood. I was genetically predisposed to stuttering, but it lies dormant waiting for a trauma to trigger it. For me it was the ugly divorce of my parents followed by a lot of tragic drama that followed, including my mother remarrying an intensely emotionally abusive man. But all of these things, while they leave their mark, don’t define me and in fact are becoming a part of a larger, redemptive, and maybe even beautiful story of the power of Grace. I find myself grateful for my experiences and even my speech handicap because of what it produces in me. It has made me compassionate, a safe place for others who carry wounds themselves, and able to speak to the brokenness of others. My new album is called “Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue” (which is a quote from Tolkien’s “Lord Of The Rings”) and explores these ideas of what can happen when we bring the worst that happens to us to God, and how he makes it “untrue” by stripping it of its power to define our lives and imprison us. Because of my experiences and my stutter, I get to talk to my audience about their own wounds, and what a privilege it is to be able to speak to people’s most intimate places. My stuttering is a ticket that gains me admittance there.
BM: Who or what influenced/inspired you to to become a professional musician?
JG: I was always around music. I grew up on the road with my mom’s bar band, so maybe it was in my blood. But more than that, I think, is my experience of music being such an intimate comfort to me and how it speaks to my innermost being. Music gives our lives meaning (by shaping and helping us understand our experiences) and helps us feel – we feel less alone and our joy is more joyful because of music. I always wanted to participate in that and have hoped that my music could help others like I’ve been helped by music. Besides that, guitars are cool – 😉
BM: What’s your live-show like?
JG: Well, among other things I hope it’s fun! I feel like we’ve talked about some serious things, but another side of me and what I do is that I love to laugh and try to bring a lot of laughter to my concerts. Some people tell me I should do stand up comedy. I wouldn’t presume to say that about myself, but I’m so grateful that people feel like they can laugh at my concerts. I hope at a Jason Gray concert that we’ll laugh, we’ll cry, and hopefully touch upon the deepest, most human and holy parts of our journeys, and hopefully in those moments be tuned in to the voice of God and be brave enough to hear the life-changing words he would whisper to us. I try, humbly, to create an atmosphere where God can speak to hearts.