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
Back in November of 2017, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andy Gullahorn about his new record, Everything As It Should Be, the craft of songwriting, the balance between boldness and humility, and what he has learned from the arc of his career. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
Andy is currently in the middle of a Kickstarter project to fund the finishing of his new record, and he’s got twelve days to go. Click here to learn more about the project and choose how to support him.
Andy Gullahorn: In 2016 I didn’t write any songs. It was just a slump. I don’t know if you know this, but there was a political campaign going on that year—
Drew Miller: Oh really?
AG: Yeah, for president or something. Anyway, for me, it’s hard when people don’t get along. So if I write a song, it has to be the one that brings everybody together. And that song didn’t come. I was kinda waiting on that one to show up all year.
Drew: Did you have an ideal for what a song like that would be?
AG: Yeah, and it was paralyzing. I was thinking, “Okay, if I write this song, it’s got to be something that will get people on both sides of the issue to really see each other.” But that’s such a huge task.
Drew: Well, it’s hard to do that without it becoming kitschy.
AG: It was stupid for other reasons, too.
Drew: Do you have a list?
AG: It was stupid of me to think that I could do that—not that songs can’t do that, but it was stupid to think that I particularly have some power to do that.
Drew: To elect yourself to that task?
AG: Yeah. So I had to back off and start thinking and writing small and close to home. There ended up being a couple songs about wider culture on this record, but for the most part, the songs ended up becoming an exercise in living on my side of the street, tending to what is before me rather than trying to think so big.
So I had the songs, but it was a really busy year with working on other people’s records, which always come before mine in my pecking order. So rather than rushing the whole process, I made a completely acoustic version of the record. The full version will come out later in 2018.
Drew: So if you were thinking too big at first, wanting to bring the whole world together, and then you decided to stick more to your own story, how did the writing go when you started to think smaller? Did you ever feel like you hit a moment where you found where the songs were?
AG: The truth is, I hadn’t even picked up the guitar and tried to write in a while. There were seasons when I was really busy, so that would make it hard, but even when those seasons were over, I would realize I hadn’t written a song in a couple months and then get scared. Like, what if it just won’t happen, or what if I fail? And then if I try and fail, that’s worse than not trying at all.
So sometime during 2017 I began to take my own advice: I put my guitar in my bedroom and committed to playing five minutes a day, just picking it up, and then within a few days a song came right out. It’s what I call my middle aged love song—the title track, “Everything’s As It Should Be.” It’s about life being imperfect and messy.
I came to a point with writing songs where I thought, “If I don’t write another song, I’m okay.” It’s not even that I didn’t write any songs because I was depressed or there was something wrong. It was that good things were happening, I was happy with where I was, so maybe the fact that I wasn’t writing anymore meant I had finally figured out who I was.
Drew: Is that a major component of songwriting for you, to figure out who you are?
AG: It’s certainly part of it. I mean, I’ve been writing songs since I was fifteen. And there was definitely a time when I asked, “If I’m not a songwriter, what am I?” It’s the reason I got into music.
So I just forced myself to write out of sheer exercise, and the song that came out ended up being about marriage and family. That’s what it needed to be.
Drew: That’s helpful for me to hear—the role of songwriting in your life shifting over time. Being able to ask yourself the question, “How else can I make myself useful in the world?” is its own tough but liberating process.
AG: I don’t even feel like songwriting is the best thing I have to offer my community—I may be better equipped at other things and enjoy other things—but it all stems from that sense of identity I receive from songwriting. I also have never had another job, so I don’t know what else I would actually do.
Drew: I’d love to hear your take on the arc of your career in general, to put everything in context. How do you interpret that story for yourself?
AG: There have been plenty of iterations of what life and music have looked like, and they have all been ultimately anchored to songwriting. I began as a student at Belmont University. I wanted to live in Nashville.
I got married right out of college to Jill, and she got a Christian record deal. I started writing for a Christian publishing company. I played guitar for my wife and stopped playing my own music. I was happy to do that; I loved being a guitar player and writing with her. We did that pretty much from 1998 till a little bit after my daughter was born in 2004. So about six years of that.
Then, when Jill wanted to be home more with the kids and not travel as much, that’s when I realized I had only really been a guitar player for the last six years. So what should I do? That’s when I did another record, and Andrew asked if I could open for him on tour and play guitar for him. That was the beginning of about ten years of traveling with him and Ben Shive whenever I wasn’t traveling with Jill. There were some shows with Andrew, lots of shows with Jill, and a few of my own, and in time, my own shows began to outnumber the other ones.
Drew: And that sounds like growth.
AG: I guess—it wasn’t my game plan, though. I would have been fine playing guitar for other people the rest of my life. I love traveling and playing music. And playing with others helps me know what I want to write and say.
To me, songwriting has been the boat I got into that has taken me to a bunch of different places. If I wasn’t writing songs, how would I have been on the road with Andrew for ten years, for instance? So I trusted it enough to wait and see which doors open and which doors close, to just follow it. In that way, my role has been almost a passive one.
And recently, I’ve found myself in many therapeutic settings—playing at counseling retreats, for instance.
Drew: One of the first impressions I receive in listening to your songs is that they are emotionally intelligent. Whatever the song may be, it is holding the complexities of multiple feelings at the same time and navigating through it.
AG: It’s a common thing for counselors to use my songs in their practice, then have me come out and play for some retreat, and then by the end of that, I’ve been inspired to write more songs. It’s definitely become a cyclical, self-reinforcing thing. And one reason for it is that I’ve needed a lot of therapy myself. I love the recovery community. I can write songs in that language because I’m lucky to be around it and immersed in it.
When you talk about the songs sounding emotionally intelligent—I always feel like they’re way ahead of me. They’re paving the road before me. I want to be that emotionally intelligent, so I write myself into it.
Drew: You know, you mentioned off-handedly that you feel as if you’re a passive participant, just riding this boat of songwriting to see where it takes you. I know that especially in Nashville, there can be a sort of opportunistic, self-promotional culture around music. Is there any correlation between that culture and your inclination to wait and see rather than seize and grab?
AG: Maybe. I think part of it is just my personality. Part of it can also be fear. It’s not all a good thing. It could be that it feels better to have somebody ask you to do something than to make it happen on your own. That could be pride. But there is something good about it, too—personality-wise, Jill is the same way: first day of school at Belmont, people are out on the yards showing off with their guitars, and they’re good at it. But when we were students, Jill and I were both reluctant to mention that we were songwriters.
Over the years, there have been a number of times when I could have cashed in all my chips. There’s part of me that wants to take advantage of situations, but there have been enough times of not forcing it that I’ve built up trust: maybe this waiting will come back around someday and pay off, and maybe it won’t, but I’m happy with what I do.
In a world that’s pretty ambitious with self-promotion, I find that it is a liberating posture to cultivate contentedness. I mean, I have other things I enjoy besides music—badminton, you know. Music is everything to me, but it’s not that important. Jill and I see plenty of young artists come around who make their first record, do a big marketing blitz, have a bunch of publicity, you see their name everywhere, and we think, “Man, they just left us in the dust,” and then three years later they’re burned out because they’ve played too many shows.
We’ve watched that happen, and that’s one way to do it. It may even be the right way to do it for some people, but I would be happy if I was eighty years old traveling around and doing what I’m doing right now. It’s more of a long game for me. So if we’re in it for the long haul, it’s important to be kind to people.
Drew: I get that reservation and the value of that reservation. There is something valuable about waiting to be noticed and asked to do something. If you just insert yourself into every opportunity you have, you’ll never know if you would have been appointed, rather than appointing yourself.
AG: I remember I was at this retreat sometime where the speaker was talking about a meeting at Mars Candy Company, and their question was, “How much money should we make this year?” Not how much could we make, but how much should we make.
Drew: What an admirable question for a candy bar company!
AG: Yeah, like what would it mean for us to do this? What are the other costs? Having a balanced, healthy life is priceless. Could I be on the road 200 dates a year? Maybe. Could I make a lot more money than I make now? Maybe. But I’ve seen the cost of that in other people’s lives and I’ve seen the cost in my own life, so how much money should I make?
Drew: Well that’s coming from an entirely different ethic of life, right? One thing I’ve heard Danny Bryant say in a lot of his sermons is “Be your strand.” If the Kingdom can be described as this intricately woven tapestry, you are no more than one strand in it. So be that strand, wait patiently, do what is before you, and be faithful to where and when and who you are. Do you have any thoughts on that, making those spiritual dimensions more explicit? I think that’s an urgent issue for Christians who are artists.
AG: Part of that process of figuring out whatever it is I’m supposed to be and do is figuring out what I’m not supposed to do. So I could lead worship. And I have nothing against that, but I know that’s not what I’m called to do. I can do it well, but I don’t think I should.
Am I called to write the biggest hit on pop Christian radio? I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work out very well. That’s not to say God can’t work in mysterious ways, but at a certain point I had to realize I needed to stop trying to write this generic pop Christian song.
And especially in artistic circles, people will say stuff like, “I didn’t write that song—God wrote that song. I’m just a vessel.” And I honestly think that’s ridiculous. God would write a much better song if he was writing it himself! So the key is being small, but it’s also realizing that in that small strand, there’s responsibility and there’s power.
I can be humble and believe my songs have the power to save lives at the same time. Because if songs have that power—and I don’t think that power is from me—I can hone my skills, take what I’ve learned, and let it become more than what it is with the help of God’s grace.
Drew: That’s the mark of a truly good song, too. I would go so far as to say that any truly good song is more than what the writer brought to it.
AG: Yeah. And for me, it’s about being small and humble, but also recognizing that being small doesn’t mean shrugging off your job. To pretend that there’s not power in my music is to disrespect the one who gave me this music.
Drew: And that’s such a problem in Christian culture: being overly minimizing of human effort and ability out of “humility.” If we are to believe the gospel, we have to believe that God has invested in our flourishing, in our dignity and freedom and responsibility. So sure, we’re vessels, but we’re also active participants. Our call is to both actively participate in redemptive work and do so in such a way that we’re treating everything as a gift that ultimately has a greater source.
AG: One of my songwriting heroes, David Wilcox—I could see him walking up to someone and saying, “I have a really important song for you that you need to hear.” And years ago I could imagine myself thinking, “Gosh David, calm down. Don’t be so self-important.” But to him, he’s not attached to the song as if it’s his. Anyone who’s written a good song knows it’s not really theirs. So when you show up with your gifts, but aren’t totally attached to them, you can say stuff like that. You can be bold. You don’t have to apologize for what you have to offer.
If you’re a doctor and a patient is telling you about their symptoms, it would be crazy for you to say, “Well, I mean I don’t want to play the hero here or anything, but if you’re interested—I mean, I know there are so many drugs out there on the market that you’re inundated with every day, but—I have this medicine that could help you. If I may be so bold.” No! You say, “Here, this medicine will help.” Because you’re not overly attached to it. You’re doing your job.
Drew: You’re being faithful to what’s before you.
AG: And David has been a huge part of that growth for me. He does that so well. He shows up to write the songs, then holds them lightly and can let go of them, too. That’s what I hope to be able to do myself as well.