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The Gray Havens Interview

Indie duo The Gray Havens just released their full-length debut, Fire and Stone, so Jesusfreakhideout.com's Michael Weaver hopped on the phone to talk to one-half of the group, vocalist Dave Radford...
This interview took place in January 28, 2015.




  • JFH (Michael Weaver): I'm sure many of readers are pretty new to The Gray Havens. For those that aren't familiar, can you explain what the name is all about? I'm sure several nerdy people, like myself, will really like the reference.

    Dave Radford: Yeah. It's kind of a funny story with that one. We Kickstarted our first album… It was about 2 weeks before we had to print the album to send out to our backers and we still didn't have a band name. So, we were kinda looking through books that we liked -- looking for different ideas. We actually passed over The Gray Havens once and thought, "That's kinda cool, but nah, let's look for something else." We actually reached out to our backers -- we were getting desperate - and said, "Hey, could you guys give us some suggestions for some band names? Here's some words we like." We got a lot of responses and one that came back was The Gray Havens, so that kinda forced us to take a second look at that name -- Which actually is a reference to one of the chapters in The Return of the King from Lord of the Rings. So, we love Lord of the Rings, -- I'm actually re-reading it right now and just started the third one last night -- but it's the elven seaport, or harbor, at the end of The Return of the King that Gandalf and Bilbo get on to go to the undying lands. I think it's called Valinor if you want to get really nerdy. So, yeah, it's kind of a harbor that sets sail for Heaven. We read a lot about Heaven. We already had the song "Gray Flowers," from our first EP -- so 'gray.' The only difference is we spelled it with an 'a' instead of an 'e.'

  • JFH (Michael): I didn't even realize that the fans helped name the band. Speaking of [the fans]... It's been almost two years between Where Eyes Don't Go and Fire and Stone. During that time, you had another successful Kickstarter, raising around $26,000, to record a full-length album. So what has this time period been like?

    Dave: In 2013, we released Where Eyes Don't Go in January and then these last few weeks we released Fire and Stone. We had a good two years. Truth be told, we actually finished the album [Fire and Stone] last January. During that year, we were just in this mode where we had unexpectedly gained a following through Noisetrade. We had put our album up on Noisetrade and they reached out to us and asked if they could feature it. We did and we got a good amount of e-mail addresses back. So from that group, we kinda reached out and said, "We kinda want to go on a tour. Would anybody be up for hosting a show at their house, or church, or college or wherever?" We said, "We'll go up to six hours away." From some reason, everybody and their brother from Pennsylvania e-mailed us and said, "Come to Pennsylvania," and more east coast things kept coming in. So we did our first tour -- for like two and a half weeks -- out on the east coast. We went to Pennsylvania and New York and Pennsylvania again and I don't know... I forget all that we went through. But, yeah, it was kind of this weird following that started from Noisetrade. From that group, we also Kickstarted our first full-length album, which is this project, Fire and Stone. The reason why we didn't release it last January was because we wanted to make a good presentation of ourselves, so to speak, on the first major project that we did. That meant getting a good website, getting some good quality video content together, getting a manager and a publicist. You know, getting the right team around you to make a good go of it.

  • JFH (Michael): Makes sense.

    Dave: You're hoping that you make back, at least in digital and physical sales of the album, what you put into the project so that you make another one. It's hard to do that unless you have a lot of people on a team. That was kind of our last year.

  • JFH (Michael): Speaking of Fire and Stone, what kind of response has that gotten so far?

    Dave: It's been really unexpectedly accepted. It's gotten good reviews... Our manager, the day before we released it said, -- he's the one that takes all of our incoming e-mail and filters through it or whatever. We said, "We really don't want to be in the loop on what's going on on release day." We were moving out of our house and needed to get other things done. He said, "Ok, I'll just let you know if you guys start charting on iTunes." I laughed and said, "Well, that's probably not going to happen, but you can let me know if it does." I woke up to this text saying, "You started out the day at #10 on iTunes." I was just kind of astonished. If it wasn't for dang Ed Sheeran, we would've been like #6, because he had like four albums in the Top 10. It was weird that it got the success that it did; we were very surprised.

  • JFH (Michael): That's good, man. So far both of your releases have been done completely independent. Is that what you hope to keep doing in making your music, or do you think maybe eventually you'll move over to a label? I see benefits on both sides, but it seems a lot of established artists are trying to go towards what you're doing right now.

    Dave: Yeah. We've met with a couple of labels to just kinda see what the options are. At this point, we were kinda choosing to stay independent for a while. I think so much is available to independent artists now [that wasn't available] ten years ago that makes it feasible for us to do it independently. The label can help a lot, but really, a label is a team of people who have connections and who are working to get the music out. If you can assemble a good team of people around you independently... In a sense, independent artists have kind of a [label] -- whether it's an official label or not. They to have a team around them that functions as the label. So that's kinda what's happening with us right now. We like that model now, -- that's where we're at -- but we don't think poorly of artists that are affiliated with labels because that might be something that we explore in the future. For now, we're just keeping it independent.

  • JFH (Michael): For me -- I'm involved on the outside of the industry looking in. To me, it seems like with fan support, where you can actually make albums that way, your biggest issue is marketing and distribution. If you can get that taken care of... The goal is to get your music into people's hands, so if you can have control over all of it, then why not?

    Dave: Right. Exactly. Of course, it makes sense if you can pull it off by yourself and make a living doing it independently, then why not? The problem is just that that's still really hard to do.

  • JFH (Michael): Yeah. I can't imagine how much work goes into all of that.

    Dave: It's a lot. A lot of entrepreneurship needs to go in with independent artistry.

  • JFH (Michael): Especially for someone newer. If you have an established artist that's been out for twenty years, they know how everything works; they've been around the block. They've had labels and plus they have their name. Their name carries a long way [in most cases]. I can imagine it's a lot of work.

    Dave: Right. It is, but it's fun.

  • JFH (Michael): I don't know what else to call it other than pop/folk, or folk/pop, or something… That genre is really starting to gain some traction and is becoming its own little monster. I think it takes a style of music that really is an acquired taste for a lot of people and makes it really accessible for those people. In my opinion, where you excel, is in capturing that narrative and story-telling that folk music is known for. Were you raised up on folk music or was that something you discovered for yourself later on?

    Dave: You know, that's a good question. I'll say that I don't know that I was raised up with folk, but I was raised listening to great story-tellers like Simon & Garfunkel. I think Paul Simon might be my favorite lyricist of all time. James Taylor. Cat Stevens. These guys were super influential. Maybe James Taylor was the most. Well, he was more pop/country than folk, but even still, all of those guys were really good at telling stories. Even The Beatles did some narrative stuff as well; they also told stories. These guys are really who I was looking to growing up. Not even to write music, but that's the kind of music that spoke to me. When it came time for me to put pen to paper, it was more natural for me to just go in that vein because that's what I loved. As far as the pop/folk sound -- I mean we don't sound like Simon & Garfunkel or anything like that necessarily -- I think that's more of product of the current uprising; that climate. We've been influenced by that for sure. So I think that's coming out a little bit in the music. I was heavily into big band and jazz growing up as well. So, vocally, I take my cues, in lots of ways, primarily from artists like Jamie Collum; he's from Britain. He's a great vocalist; kinda more jazz/pop. You know, Frank Sinatra, Rat Pack guys, Dean Martin. Even Michael Bublé, though I don't have as buttery of a voice as he does. So [The Gray Havens have] that kind of vocal styling put on top of this pop/folk style, lyrically inspired by story-tellers like Simon & Garfunkel, I think.

  • JFH (Michael): That's a lot more layers than I expected, man. *laughs* There's nothing wrong with that though. I don't connect so much with some of the people, but when you start talking about The Beatles and James Taylor then I get you on that.

    Dave: Totally. Totally. Amazing artists.

  • JFH (Michael): Since we're talking about story-telling, to me, one of the best examples comes in "Jack and Jill, Pt. 2." Can you explain how you came up with the idea to take nursery rhymes, and the beauty of Heaven, and what it's all about, and kind of mash them all together?

    Dave: Well, I should say at the outset that I never begin a song with a lyrical idea, or a theme, or a point that I want to make. Or even a direction... I always begin my writing process with either a piano or guitar lick; just a chord progression. From there, I'll sing gibberish over the chord progression that I like and try to create some kind of melody. Usually that's the beginnings of the lyrical direction because I'm a very visual person. I'm usually doing this with my eyes closed, and more often than not, images will come to mind and scenes will come to mind. If one sticks out, maybe I'll go with that. The direction that I want to go doesn't even need to be the central image in the story, or the world in which I'm going to write this song, it's just needs to be a part of it. I actually read, about a year ago, about C.S. Lewis' writing process for writing novels. He said it so well and I was like, "Yes, that's how I'm thinking about writing music!" He did the same thing with images. It didn't really start with an outline, or a direction he wanted to go. So with "Jack and Jill," it kinda sounded -- with the melody I was going [with] -- it sounded more fantastical and whimsical. The images that were coming to mind were kinda otherworldly and I thought, "How can I even enter into that world without sounding weird?" Because here's this song that takes place in this foreign place that's not going to really work. I thought, "How could a real person, or real familiar character, get there?" Then I thought falling down and hitting your head and waking up in this dream world, or this other place, would be a way to do it. Jack, from "Jack and Jill" came to mind as a character, so I just explored it. My brothers and sisters were actually right there in the room while I was writing it and a couple of lines in I asked them, "Is this really lame? Is this just really stupid?" They actually said, "No we like it; keep going with it." I just did an interview where somebody was impressing upon me the riskiness of writing that song of such familiar characters, kind of equating it to a mine field. I told him, "Man, if somebody was there in that room who had warned me of the dangers of writing [that song] -- and this could be really cheesy, but -- I might not have attempted it." I just didn't have that and I wrote this before I was doing this professionally at that time. I mean, I wrote this before we even recorded the first album when I was still in college. This is a song that I've lived with for a long time and it was just a hobby back then.

  • JFH (Michael): I had never thought of that way either, until you mentioned it. If it would've messed these characters up it would've been pretty obvious.

    Dave: Right, exactly! Or if I would've done it in... Maybe people think it is cheesy, but if I would've done it in a quote-un-quote "cheesy way," it could've been a real buzzkill for the album.

  • JFH (Michael): Yeah, but it turned out well though.

    Dave: Thank you.

  • JFH (Michael): In the Kickstarter concert that you did, you mentioned that "Under the Mountain" probably wouldn't end up on the album. It's one of my favorites from an imagery standpoint. What changed your mind in putting it on the record?

    Dave: You know, the honest answer is: I thought we had more songs going into the studio than we did. We didn't have more than ten; we just had ten. We wanted to make ten songs and "Under the Mountain" was in there. Sometimes I'd ask Licia, "Maybe we should cut 'Under the Mountain' from tonight's set?" It's not that I don't like the song, I think it's more so that I've never really felt great about how we perform it live. She's always telling me, and other people have said, "I really like that song and the imagery." I think it's more of that and the fact that it's also a song that I've lived with for years. I've had that song written since I was a senior in college. So I have at least 5 or 6 years now of playing that song. So, I think it's just one of those things that I maybe need to re-work to make it fresh. You know how some artists, I'm sure who are much bigger than us, people go to their concerts to hear their new stuff, but everybody's requesting the old stuff -- the stuff they've played a million times. It's not that that's happening to me, but I just feel like we've played it a million times. I don't want to say, "I'm sick of it," but somehow it needs to become fresh. That's why I was hesitant to put it on the album.

  • JFH (Michael): Exactly. I've seen, let's use Jars of Clay for an example, several times. It seems like every time I've seen them, it's been a few years and they always have some new twist to "Flood." I'm sure that's one that they have played an innumerable amount of times. I guess it's that same idea. "We have to change it up for us to give them what they want, but so it gives us something so it's not the same thing we've been doing for 20 years."

    Dave: Exactly! I think that may be something we need to do. Hey, we're rehearsing today, so maybe we'll rework it and do it different. That's exactly right though.

  • JFH (Michael): From "Under the Mountain," my daughter, when she heard it the first time, thought you were singing about Ninja Turtles. *laughs*

    Dave: *laughing* Because of Michelangelo!

  • JFH (Michael): So we had to go back, listen to it again, and explain to her who Michelangelo was. Then she was good; so there you go. *still laughing*

    Dave: We just had a mom e-mail us that very same comment. So… Oh dear.

  • JFH (Michael): We're still kinda talking about Fire and Stone and I just mentioned Jars of Clay… I was pretty excited when I read the liner notes and realized they were involved. What was it like working with Stephen and Mark?

    Dave: We had Stephen Mason play lap steel, electric guitar, and mandolin on the album. I have nothing but good things to say about Stephen Mason. He is a phenomenal musician and he brings an energy to the room like you wouldn't believe. The difference between -- not that the players were worse the second day -- We had two studio musician days because we tracked the album live with all of the instruments. So all of the musicians showed up for two days, but he was only there on the first day, and a different guy came on the second day (Who is super, super talented; I'm not dissing the other guy). Stephen's energy, that he brought the first day, was just infectious. Everybody was focused and having fun and I equate it to him just being there because he's just that kind of a personality. He actually cut my hair last week when I was in Nashville; he opened up a barber shop. It's called The Handsomizer. He's good, man; he does a good job. He does a full-on, like it should be, barber kinda haircut that's better than your average bear, quick in and out, place. But no, he was great. Matt Odmark didn't play on the record, but he mastered it. We were thrilled to be able to work with him. That's Mitch Dane's, our producer, go-to-guy for mastering. Yeah, Mitch was also incredible to work with. Really, we were stacked.

  • JFH (Michael): Those are some good guys to look to for an example. After twenty-something years, it seems like they almost reinvent themselves with every album. It's always good. It's just always good.

    Dave: Yeah, and their last one, Inland, they were really excited about that and the creative direction they took with it. Yeah, they're great.

  • JFH (Michael): It's from your EP, but I'd feel a little remiss if I didn't ask you about "Train Station." It seems to be a big fan favorite and is another great example of story-telling. I know you already went over your process, but the analogy of Jesus and a train?

    Dave: *laughs* Well… That's a good question. Let me think. Again, that one started with the guitar lick that kinda begins the song. I actually wrote that lick by accident *sings guitar part*. I meant to -- this is really technical and nerdy -- instead of hitting that major seventh, the *sings note*. I meant to go *sings intended note* so it sounded more complete, but I missed it by one when I was playing through it. It kinda sounded cool to me, so I just did it over and over again. Because of the non-resolution of the lick, like it doesn't land on a nice one chord, or home-base chord -- whatever you want to call it. It can cycle over and over again without it feeling like it stopped. So that just brought up the image of a train station. Things are coming and going and it's cyclical. From there, "There's a train station inside of this train," is how I open up the song. I still didn't know where I was going with it when I wrote that, but the image in the song is like: the earth is moving really fast. Faster than we can even imagine at crazy, crazy speeds, and yet we can't feel it. But even while we're moving fast, we can be on a train here moving really fast and feeling that we're going really fast. So that's where that imagery comes from of the train station being the one that we can sense inside of this bigger train -- one that's large and really moving fast like the world. From there, I just thought of the station being a place of escape, or deliverance, and that the conductors could represent different religions. Obviously, Jesus is representative of the Christian faith. I thought, "What would be different about His train than others?" It probably wouldn't look as good. It wouldn't be steel or gold. It wouldn't cost anything to get on His train because He's paid everything. So, I just started asking myself those questions and it turned into this… thing. I don't know if that's helpful to answer your question, but I'm just kinda taking you through that mental process. I didn't have a clear direction with this; it was just kinda one thing to another.

  • JFH (Michael): No, it makes sense. It's neat to hear how you progress from point to point to point and it all falls into place so nicely. When you listen to it, it seems like you had this idea and boom, there it was.

    Dave: No, not at all *laughing*

  • JFH (Michael): You've been on tour a little bit; how's that going?

    Dave: It's going well actually. I wanna say that we've played about four or five shows doing lots of new songs from Fire & Stone. We're about to kick off on a three week tour on Friday. We're going to do three of those this spring. The first one is going to start in Michigan, oddly enough, and then head down to Texas then Louisiana and then loop back up towards where we live in Chicagoland. The second tour loops will be kind of similar, but in different directions. We're gearing up for a wild ride, especially since my wife, Licia, is twenty weeks pregnant. So we are anticipating a wild, kinda unpredictable, road ahead. We have some good friends, Jenny and Tyler. They're another husband and wife duo. Jenny has toured before being pregnant [with their first child]. So we'll kinda look to them to see what's doable; to see what's too much, what's too little. So we're trying to take precautions, but we've still got a lot of shows ahead of us. So, we're excited.

  • JFH (Michael): Good deal, man. I imagine being twenty weeks pregnant would add some stress to the situation.

    Dave: Yeah, probably, *laughs* but we'll see. We'll see what happens.

  • JFH (Michael): If it's anything like my wife, she was miserable. Hopefully she's not going through that.

    Dave: No, she's not. We're going to get our first ultrasound today. So, we'll find out what it is.

  • JFH (Michael): Just to wrap things up. Do you have any last thoughts? Anything you want to leave the readers with?

    Dave: Good question; I wish I had something clever ready to go. I don't know who your average reader is -- what your demographic is…

  • JFH (Michael): We've got a little bit of everybody!

    Dave: Well, I would just say… Maybe I could recommend some artists to listen to that I like? The ones I mentioned, obviously, -- the story-tellers -- but people who I think are doing a good job: You've probably heard of them already, but Josh Garrels is doing a great job in the industry. We like Judah and the Lion; they're doing good. I mentioned Jenny and Tyler; they're a good band to listen to. I'm sure you're familiar with Andrew Peterson; he's a good story-teller.

  • JFH (Michael): He and Josh Garrels are both favorites among the writers at JFH.

    Dave: Good! They are both amazing. On the more CCM side of things: Obviously, Shane & Shane; they're great guys and are doing a good job as well. I just want to give a "hats off" to those guys because they are all encouraging us as fellow artists who are doing a great job.

  • JFH (Michael): I love it, man. I gave you a section to really promote yourself, and you give it up for other artists. That's awesome!

    Dave: Thanks. They're good people.



    The Gray Havens new album Fire and Stone is available now!

     

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