Making the Unbelievable Believable: An Interview with Jason Gray

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A few weeks ago, Matt Conner got the chance to sit down and talk with Jason Gray about all the elements in his life that have combined to make his newest project, Order, Disorder, Reorder, and we’re pleased to share that conversation with you here on the blog.

Matt Conner: You have a newer song called “Order, Disorder, Reorder,” but if I understand it right, that’s also the series of projects you’re in the midst of recording and releasing, correct? Can you explain?

Jason Gray: Yes! Well, let me go back to before there was a formal concept for the next record.

A couple years ago I was thinking about how I’d read that [Bruce] Springsteen wrote eighty-plus songs that were pared down to the twelve that make up Born In The U.S.A. I’ve also heard that Michael Jackson had something like three hundred songs in consideration for Thriller. So I wondered what would happen if I just wrote and wrote and wrote a bunch of songs, not worrying about a theme or anything like that, and looked for which ones rose to the top. I’ve typically written fifteen or so songs for an album and then picked twelve of them to record, so this was a new approach for me. Seventy-five songs later I had a considerable well of songs to draw from, which meant that I could pretty much make any kind of record I wanted: pop, singer/songwriter, rootsy acoustic, worship. I had enough material to take a record in any one of those directions, but what was the right record for me to make right now?

Personally, I’m always inclined to make Americana singer/songwriter kinds of records, but the audience I serve doesn’t always embrace that kind of thing, and I see what I do as an opportunity to serve. Those kinds of songs always make an appearance on my records, but I haven’t ever made a definitive project of that sort. I hope to one day. Though I will say that I enjoy writing thoughtful pop music that is commercially viable—it’s so challenging! People often think of pop music as a sellout, but to do it well… it’s the peak of the mountain. “Artist types” should check their self-righteous contempt for pop at the door. It’s not easy to write and requires great, great discipline. I personally like how it sharpens me, even though the Americana singer/songwriter vibe is more like “home” to me.

Initially, I wanted to make a record of songs based on words my mentor and friends have spoken to me that changed my life—right word at the right moment kinds of songs. I felt like that could be very personally meaningful, and I’ve always believed that if something helped me, surely it could help someone else. In this case, I was thinking a lot about the life-changing power of words.

Here’s an example I’ve thought about a lot that makes me laugh: I was at a coffee shop on the road with my buddy Nathan when he ordered a ristretto americano. Watching him enjoy his purist espresso drink, I said to him, “See, I’ve always wanted to like the kind of drink you’re drinking, but I enjoy my lattes so much and how the milk mellows out the bitterness of the espresso.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Nathan said. “I used to like those, but I started to feel like I was just drinking a lot of hot milk.”

That was all it took. After years of me trying to develop a taste for more espresso-forward drinks and not making much progress, it happened in a moment when I heard Nathan’s handful of words: “I started to feel like I was just drinking a lot of hot milk.”

A moment before I was happily enjoying my caramel latte, but the moment after he spoke those words my drink tasted gross to me. I thought, “oh my gosh, he’s right…I’m just drinking hot milk!”

I couldn’t get over how abrupt the change was and started thinking about the way words shape us. I was reminded of something my mentor told me once. He believed his job was to help heal people’s language. “If I can help heal a person’s language, they’ll heal themselves.” Which makes sense when you think of the power of language. God spoke the world into being. Jesus is the word made flesh. Words have the power to form worlds and to heal hearts. So I began combing through my story for times when someone spoke a handful of words that changed everything.

In each season of my spiritual journey, God has brought one voice that cut through the noise of my doubt and confusion to give my faith back to me, making the unbelievable believable again.

Jason Gray

I still think that’s a pretty strong idea for a record, but my management was concerned that it might be hard for my team to convey it to others in a single sentence. The elevator pitch, you know? He was very conscientious of helping me create an easily relatable record with a simple concept that my team could re-articulate as they talked to radio and retail about it. Then I wrote a song called “Order Disorder Reorder,” which was definitely one of those “right word at the right time” examples that changed my life. The journey of transformation is the thing I most want to be talking about right now! And this song felt unique to me, as well. I couldn’t imagine someone else in our industry writing a pop song called “Order Disorder Reorder.” So between my passion for it, my sense that it was unique to me, and the simplicity of the idea, I was very excited to share it with my team.

When I played it for my manager he immediately caught the vision for it and we started wondering if this might be the song to build a record around. I began to look through the songs I had written to see how many of them I could put into categories of order, disorder, and reorder. At that point we were off to the races. Originally it was going to be a full length album that we released all at once, but the more we thought about it, the more it seemed right to release it in three parts. Part of that on the label side was because it made sense for how they wanted to market the record.

But for me personally, I loved the meaningfulness of not only the concept of the record but also the way we were releasing it. There is a religious discipline called statio which has to do with finishing one thing—or letting it finish with you—before moving on to the next thing. It’s taking a moment to let what you just experienced sink in before chasing after a new experience. It’s a discipline I try to observe in my daily life, so I loved the idea of building the practice of statio into the timed release of this project. So Order, Disorder, and Reorder will release separately over the course of the next year.

MC: As an avid reader of Richard Rohr, the labels of our life involving order, then disorder, then hopefully coming back to a healthier place of reorder was familiar to me. Was that source material for you as well in the writing of this?

JG: Absolutely. In each season of my spiritual journey, God has brought one voice that cut through the noise of my doubt and confusion to give my faith back to me, making the unbelievable believable again. C. S. Lewis, Brennan Manning, Frederick Buechner, Thomas Merton, Walt Wangerin Jr., G. K. Chesterton, Henri Nouwen, N. T. Wright, and now Richard Rohr—all of them have played such a crucial part in my spiritual development.

Rohr’s emphasis on integrating our experiences and tendencies rather than…well, I guess demonizing or exorcising them, has been very formative for me. As a guy with a speech impediment who is a public communicator, I have had an opportunity to explore the virtues of weakness—figuring out how to integrate my “weakness” and making good use of it rather than fretting over it as a liability. Very early on in my ministry I would’ve used language like, “God will use you in spite of your weakness.” Rohr’s work has really shifted my language to something more like, “God will use you because of your weakness.”

I wrote a song called “Dear Fear” that is one of my favorites from this last season. It’s about integrating and making good use of our fear and anxiety rather than thinking of them as problems we need to be rid of. Anxiety really tunes us into something, rallying all of our mental and emotional resources to point them in a single direction, which can be very useful for solving problems and being attentive to situations. I hope the song makes the Reorder record. We’ll see. So it’s that way of looking at things.

“Transcend and include” is one of my favorite Rohr-isms. Integration. Using what’s in your life rather than trying to throw it off. This was very important to me, especially after my divorce which was dramatic and traumatic. I had this hellish experience that haunts me every day, even still. What am I to do with it? If I can find a way to let good use be made of it, I think that’s my only hope for surviving it and maybe even rising above it one day. We’ll see, I guess.

But in regards to this project specifically, I love Rohr’s valuing of disorder as a necessary and good part of our development. When I was younger, I only understood trouble and pain as evils to be avoided at all costs, and if they came upon me, it was because A) I had done something wrong and God was punishing me or allowing these things to happen, B) he didn’t care about my life, or C) he didn’t exist. Another favorite option was the notion that I was “under spiritual attack.” At any rate, any kind of disorder was “bad” and it was only something to be delivered out of. This way of seeing things made me more miserable and anxious when the hard times hit, tempting me to see myself as a victim.

Understanding disorder as a necessary and useful part of my journey of being made into the kind of person I most want to be took the anxiety and self-pity out of me and helped me learn to face it head on—engaging with it as an opportunity, bringing a teachable spirit. And that changes everything. It’s something like the difference between being the hunter or the prey. If trouble is headed our way and our posture is only to evade it, we are acting like prey. But if we turn and face the trouble head on, it does less damage and becomes the thing that can potentially make us stronger. Same trouble, but our posture makes all the difference.

If I could write some songs that helped others face the storms of life head on, seeing themselves not as the victim of their problems but as the force that confronts their problems, well, that seemed like a good thing to be doing with my time.

MC: You mentioned changing your writing habits to include so many songs. How did that work in batching the songs together, especially for this first project?

JG: The tricky thing with volume one was, “Who cares about order?” [Laughs] I mean, we watch movies and read books to see the protagonist overcome some difficulty. That’s where the drama is and the inspiration is. Originally, when the project was going to be one full-length record, there was just going to be one song depicting order and then the rest of it would be about disorder and reorder. Switching to the three-volume format meant I had to come up with five songs that would depict order, which was difficult at first!

Then I realized that seasons of order happen when we are putting our lives together with all that we’ve learned so far. Which means that today’s order is yesterday’s reorder. That helped me to look for songs that represented a kind of baseline wisdom that, in my mind, form a foundation for future growth. The humility that recognizes we are works in progress (“Becoming”), the simple gratitude for the gift and giver of life and the fundamental experience of being loved (“Maker Of Mornings”), the wisdom of childlikeness (“The Wonder”), the peace of living surrendered (“I’m Gonna Let it Go”), and the hope that the author and finisher of our faith is always at work in the roller coaster ride of transformation (“Order Disorder Reorder”).

It was fun to live in the settled hopefulness of those songs, but I’m excited for the next volume, because that’s where transformation begins. As sweet as seasons of order can be, disorder is where I am made new and learn the things that, even though it cost me so much, I wouldn’t go back and change the circumstances that made me more of who I most want to be.

MC: So is there a timeline in place, given that you know the next three projects that are coming? What else is on the horizon for you?

JG: There is a timeline, though I can’t remember the specific dates. They’re basically spaced six months apart, so I think March and then August 2020, but with songs released here and there throughout.

Beyond that, you know, that’s the big question for me. Music will always be part of my life, but I find myself continually curious about if there’s something more for me to do. I’ve felt a pull to write a book for a long time and have done a good bit of writing for that, but that’s been a daunting task for me. Some of it is pride disguised as humility; some of it is fear of letting people into the inner parts of my mind and heart. What will they think? Will it be boring? Will I be brave enough to tell the truth? Will it, or will I, be good enough? Does anybody care about books anymore? Is that the best place to have the kind of conversation I’m most interested in having?

Some of it, too, is…well, if I’d written a book three years ago, I’d probably disagree with half of it today, meaning that I feel like I’m in a very reformational season. So it’s hard to be transparent and vulnerable about what my mind is working on today when it’s possible I’ll feel totally different about some of these things a year from now. But I’m writing anyway and finding a path forward. It’s exciting and challenging and producing good things in me, so we’ll see.

The way I see things today, Christian faith is the locus for transformation and healing. It looks to me like that’s what the whole thing is about. It’s the buried treasure in the field, so I’m trying to sell everything I have in order to buy the field.

Matt Conner is a former pastor and church planter turned writer and editor. He’s the founder of Analogue Media and lives in Indianapolis.


2 Comments

  1. Mark

    Excellent conversation with Jason Gray, a favorite artist whom my wife, Karen, and I got to see and even meet last year in Phoenix, Arizona. When I mentioned to Jason during our brief “meet & greet” that Karen and I were that very day celebrating our 39th wedding anniversary, the ever so slight flatness in his “Congratulations!” stuck in my subconscious. Later that night at our hotel, I remembered it and googled Jason’s biography. Karen and I were grieved to read about Jason’s recent divorce a couple of years before. We prayed for him and his ex-wife and his family. We love him, his story, and his music very much.
    I must have heard Jason Gray’s contemporary Christian music over the last decade or so, but I never really tuned into it until one day when for some reason I was remembering how a friend had mentioned in a Facebook post that God’s Name, YHWH, comes from the sound of our breathing, and I wondered if that could be true and if there was something written about that idea on the internet. When I googled that concept, one of the things I found was Jason’s song, “The Sound Of Our Breathing!” I loved the song so much that I googled Jason’s name and found this wonderful catalog of songs in albums that I’d never remembered hearing but loved everything I heard. I downloaded the albums onto my phone and became hooked with the beauty and power of Jason’s songs that reminded me of the beauty and power in the music of Keith Green or Rich Mullins or Matt Maher.
    Thank you, Rabbit Room, for being there and doing what you do. Thank you, Jason, for being you!

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