Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
At Hutchmoot 2014, a lanky, sandy blonde-haired stranger sat down across from my friend Michael and I in the Church of the Redeemer fellowship hall. As fate would have it (or perhaps God’s provision), his name was Arthur and he, like I, had recently changed jobs and, as our conversation revealed, was also walking through a valley. I remember mentally noting that God gave me this conversation as a gift to know there are others in the valley. It’s apparent from our conversation, and from Arthur’s lyrics on The Shadow Can’t Have Me, that while the valley is a low place, it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.
Given our history, I was excited to have the chance to catch up with Arthur this fall for his album release. I wanted to hear how his time in the valley had been since our brief fellowship at Hutchmoot. What I learned was that God had walked with him, like the psalmist David, through the dark valley and… well, read on to find out the rest.
So we haven’t heard any new music from you in a while. Your last album came out in 2012, I think. So why the silent musical years?
Mainly it has to do with what was going on in my life. I partly got burned out on music and touring and also went through a tough season. Things go by the wayside when you’re in the middle of something really hard, so I just kind of stopped writing. I had lost the joy and passion and didn’t feel like I had anything I needed to say. I was in a stagnant period and felt I would eventually move out of it, but I didn’t feel like I needed to put pressure on myself to pull myself out of it. Does that make sense?
Yeah, totally does. And, you know, one of the first things I observed when I first listened to the new album is that the first song really isn’t a song. It’s a recitation of the Twenty-third Psalm. You chose to break your silence with a scripture recitation instead of a song. Why did you decide to do it that way?
Yeah. So much of this record is pulling pages out of my life or a prayer journal or something like that. These recordings are very personal and this particular one I took on my iPhone at my grandfather’s funeral. He passed away this past summer. I had had this surreal experience the day he passed away.
I was up in Tennessee and he was in South Georgia. I knew he was fading and something compelled me to write that day just thinking about what he was going through. I ended up writing the title track to the album (“The Shadow Can’t Have Me”). I wrote that the day my grandfather passed. I didn’t know he would go that day but I knew he wasn’t doing well.
I had this weird experience where, of all places, I went into the bathroom and just stood there with my guitar. On the wall is a stone-etched copy of the Twenty-third Psalm and I was just looking that and remember closing my eyes and saying, “The Lord is my shepherd and all I do is want.” That line just came out and literally that whole song was written in about thirty minutes. And I remember I came out of the bathroom and felt like I had come out of a cave and fell to my knees. I had this sort of experience with God and just fell to my knees and wept.
So I found out that night my papaw had passed away. I went down to the funeral and was a pallbearer with my cousins. When we get to the graveside the pastor says, “I’d like for us all to recite the Twenty-third Psalm.” My whole family on both sides was reciting this text which I had just had this intense experience with. In that moment I pulled out my iPhone and recorded it. I felt like it was a holy moment. I felt like my grandfather was saying, “It’s going to be okay. I love you and I’m here.”
I wanted to begin the record that way because it feels like an invocation, like this is why we’re here. It just felt right to treat the psalm as its own song and not just a background sample. I wanted to begin with that and go on a journey through a valley and get to the other side eventually.
You know that really speaks into where I wanted to go next. You mentioned the title track “The Shadow Can’t Have Me.” I was wondering about the “Me” woven throughout this album. I was wondering if the “me” in this album is “you” or is it more of a generic “me” that could really be about anyone?
Yeah, it’s definitely me. I hope people can, when they hear “me” in the album, see themselves. To me this is—though it’s not really telling details of my life—the most autobiographical album I’ve ever done. It’s the most connected with an experience of a certain season of my life.
When I did my first couple of run throughs listening to the album, one of the things that struck me is how similar it felt to Rich Mullins’ now iconic but very minimal The Jesus Album. I noticed very quickly in both the content and the recording that this was a raw album. Is that something you were hoping your listeners picked up on?
Yeah, I didn’t want to dress these songs up. I wanted these songs to be a marker for a season of my life and that season was really broken. So I didn’t go into the studio and hire a bunch of players. I feel like they are broken songs but I wanted them to sound broken.
A friend was telling me when his friend first heard the album he felt like he had walked into a room and entered a conversation he wasn’t supposed to be hearing. I felt like that was so interesting and encouraging, because that is sort of what I wanted it to be. I have sat on these songs since last summer. I wanted them to be naked and bare and broken because that was the place where I wrote them. So yeah, it was pretty intentional.
The raw feeling permeates every area of the album and when I listen I find myself saying, “Wow, these are my thoughts,” and I bet a lot of folks will find themselves saying the same.
I don’t know if this intentional or not but when I listened through I felt like the first half of the album, with maybe the exception of song one which sets the stage for the rest, focuses on lament and loss while the second half zeroes in on hope and healing.
I know you said you weren’t giving specific personal details of your life in the lyrics but can you tell us the background of a song from the first half of the album?
Yeah, the third song, “Right Where I Am.” There are so many stories of these songs where they came in a very short period of time. I’ve never really had a collection of songs where they have happened like that. I guess my struggles were just so tangible that they were on the verge of spilling over at any given moment.
I know it sounds crazy but I think that song came at a K-Mart parking lot. [Laughs] I was on my way to the studio and I was a little bit early so I just pulled over in the parking lot and wrote the song. Then I get to the studio down the road and the producer says “What do you want to start with?” and I said “Well, I just wrong this song down the road,” and he’s like “Are you serious?”
So we recorded it in, I think, one take and he came on the speaker and said, “Uhm, when did you write this song?” I was like, “Seriously, I just wrote it.” He said, “This is incredible.” I was like, “Really?”
It was so fresh and I’d never gotten to that experience where I wrote a song and immediately recorded it. There’s usually time between those two but this was quick and I’m glad because when you sit on something you tend to overthink it.
But yeah, I mean, all the songs—we didn’t do more than two takes. That was kind of a rule. You know, we’re not going to do eight takes of a song and splice that stuff together. We did it totally live, me and a guitar and just wanted to see how it happens.
What about the second half of the album? It feels more oriented toward hope and healing. Is there a song to highlight from the second half?
Yeah. The song “Brothers” is, I think, the last song I wrote for the album.
I’m glad you are highlighting this song by the way. It’s one of my favorites!
Yeah! Well that is one that is completely, 100% true. Like, that’s a page from my life. You know the last couple of years I’ve been going through a divorce, and I just realized through this process that for most of my life, I’ve been incredibly isolated. So in this valley, I just start reaching out to people. I ended up going to this morning Bible study at 6:30 on Thursday—it mentions that in the song—and it changes my life. I ended up meeting a guy named Tony who’s seventy years old. He’s now my mentor.
Through this, so many dear, dear people have come into my life and become friends and I wanted to honor these people. I wanted to say, “Thank you for how you have helped me through life.” Also, this is a song that says, “I can’t go back. I can’t go back to isolation. I know too much now. I know I need people. I can’t go it alone. I need others.”
So I wrote that in a kitchen and thought, “You know this really works with those songs I wrote last summer.” I feel like that song in many ways solidified that I needed to put these songs out, because it was kind of like the last puzzle piece. Everything about that song is about my life for the past two years.
So what can we expect from you in the future?
Well, I’m working on an album that hopefully you can hear in a year or so. It will be as opposite this album as it can possibly be. [Laughs] This album will have a band and I’m producing. I’m having fun playing around with it.