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Jon Foreman, the Grammy Award-winning artist and lead singer of Switchfoot, has been in quite a whirlwind lately. He’s released four EPs in a series called The Wonderlands, writing a song for each hour of the day. Meanwhile, he concocted a matching concert event, with 25 shows in 24 straight hours, in the midst of a full-on concert tour. I recently caught Foreman’s concert at The Loft in midtown Atlanta, and before the show I asked him about the new music, his approach to writing it, and the chaos he’s created.
There’s quite a contrast between Legend of Chin and Fading West and even The Wonderlands work. How would you describe your growth as a songwriter and performer?
On the one hand, everything has changed since then. We were still in high school and college. On the other hand, everything is the exact same; I am still writing songs about the questions and the things that are on my mind. Maybe it’s not so much a chemistry class anymore as it is death or faith or doubt. The other thing that has stayed the same is as a musician you hear something that challenges you musically from someone else and that inspires growth. Man, I’ve heard so much music since then, and hopefully that has challenged me to new places as well.
The Wonderlands has 24 songs, one for each hour in the day. How much did you stick to that formula in the songwriting?
I totally broke the formula. I’m going to put 25 songs out, because it feels more fitting with my life right now. Maybe it’s like daylight savings time. I’m always trying to get another hour of the day, so this is doing that. Maybe it is wishful thinking or a nod to the fact that I’ve got too many things going on right now, but there’s one per hour except for I think 11:30. Darkness has one extra song.
What’s your favorite hour of the day?
My favorite hour of the day is the golden hour, when the sun is just going down. And if I could pick anywhere to be, it would be in my hometown, Cardiff by the Sea, in the water either with my daughter or on a surfboard. That’d be the best place and time on the planet. When you’re in the water, on the right day, it feels like you’re paddling through a painting. It feels like some sort of molten gold that you’re paddling through. It’s remarkable.
Each of the 25 songs is produced by a different producer? Where did that idea come from and how did it work?
That was unintentionally the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done. How do you do a record when you’re touring? A friend of mine and I had the idea to give the songs out to other producers to produce while I’m on the road. So I would be recording in backstage dressing rooms, they’d be recording in studios, we’d be talking on the phone and over email sending files back and forth. Voila! The song is born.
So this was how it happened for all of the songs, but then you have to try to make them all sound like one cohesive body of work. Not 25 different records. That was the most difficult thing, trying to keep the idiosyncratic elements that each individual producer added to the song and yet make it feel like a cohesive statement when you play the whole thing together. That was the most challenging thing of this whole project, but I’m really proud of where all the songs ended up and all of the producers did some incredible work.
For me as a songwriter, I love having a sparring partner. I want someone to hit back and who has their own musical muscles who isn’t just saying yes to all my ideas but who adds their own ideas as well.
Why is the project called The Wonderlands?
I wanted to create a place and build it out of melody and lyric. Music was always this space that I would go to that would give me objectivity as I look back at the planet. So I figured, what if I could create my own planet of sorts, cosigning God’s blank check, with that kind of concept? That’s where the land comes from.
And wonder: to create art, wonder is the first step. You acknowledge your own finite elements and you acknowledge the infinite. When you realize the wonderful and mysterious is around you, you kind of assent to the idea that you are not in control and you begin to wonder. And that’s where the songs are born.
You reference that mystery in “All of God’s Children,” when you write “I believe in a world that’s beyond me, I believe in a world I ain’t seen.” How was that song born?
That’s been around for a little while. A lot of these songs have taken a long time to come out, some of them even ten years. Other songs were written specifically for the project. “All of God’s Children” was written around the Vice Verses era for Switchfoot. Whenever I write a song, I never know which way it is going to go, I just try to chase it down. Sometimes it comes even when you don’t want them to come and you’re stuck with them.
After watching the news and reading the newspaper, I had this objective view of the planet. But each one of the men and women making the headlines by the atrocities that they commit or the atrocities committed to them are all just kids. You add 20, 30, 40 years onto them and maybe deep down underneath, that kid’s still there.
At The Loft, though our interview was long over, Foreman might have given his most insightful answer to my questions. He strummed his acoustic guitar, and the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of strangers in the sold-out club paused their dance. He explained in casual California voice that he was a guitarist, so sometimes he explained life with guitar metaphors. The string of the guitar is stretched between two ends, he said. He asked us how often we are stretched between two ends, be they fear and love, what is and what will be, or the beginning and the end. And then he offered a challenge, one with a different meaning to every story-maker in the audience: “Embrace the tension, because in the chaos, there’s music.”