While anticipating the release of his new album, Yellow Balloons, singer-songwriter David Dunn took some time to chat with JesusFreakHideout.com's Nicole Marie Vacca about childlike faith, social media, and how he channeled his grief into music for his latest album...
JFH (Nicole): When you were writing Yellow Balloons, did the album come together slowly over time, or did it all kind of happen at once?
This interview took place on: February 9, 2017.
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JFH (Nicole Marie Vacca): How would you describe your evolution as an artist, from your self-titled EP to Yellow Balloons?
What a loaded question! Here's what I would say--it's a whole lot easier for someone else to answer a question like that about me than it is for me to answer a question like that about me. I can tell you what my intentions have been, but kind of like a 13-year-old kid, you ask him what's the difference between you at 13 and you at 8, he's lived with himself for those years so it's difficult for him to tell you. You ask his parents, and they'd be able to tell you spot on. So much to say, I don't know. The main thing that I hope has happened is that I have become much better at creating, that I'm a much better creator. That is the goal that I set forth to myself [with] basically every project that I do. It's that I want this to be a better creation, I want to do a better job of creating when it comes to this record, and that means a whole bunch of different things, in that the actual recording process I want to be more creative and be a better creator while we're recording, and I want to be a better creator when I'm crafting songs. That's what I'm attempting to do, and whether or not I'm doing that, I'd say, is up for debate, for what it actually looks like. It's probably a question you should ask not me, but somebody else.
When I write a record, you're almost always shown a snapshot of my life. You're getting a taste of what my life looks like for some time period, and that's what this record is, of the last two and a half years. Did it come together all at once? Not really. I probably wrote for 8 or 9 months for the record, and that's pretty typical, I would say. It accidentally kind of ends up being a concept album. It sort of always is that way because of how I write, but this one ends up being more like that. So, it depends on what angle you look at it. It took a long time to write these songs, it didn't come together immediately like that, but when we were picking which songs--I wrote about 40 songs for the record, and we used ten of them. When we were picking songs, that came together pretty seamlessly, and I was astonished that the album actually glued together.
JFH (Nicole): Can you tell us more about the concept of Yellow Balloons?
Yellow balloons are actually a thing that you release, which is a common thing, to release at a child's memorial service. The entire record, basically every song is inspired by a tragic thing that happened to my family a year and a half ago, two years ago. I was in Midland, which is where they all live, I've got five brothers and sisters and they have a host of children, and I was running around visiting nieces and nephews, before soundcheck. I went to go see my two year old and four year old nieces, they were with my sister--her name is Kathryn--and when I left, Moriah, who was two, went down for a nap and didn't wake up--for really no scientific reason. Just left the earth.
JFH (Nicole): I'm sorry...
So, that is a very difficult thing to stomach, it's hard to put a good spin on it, it's hard to explain why God does what He does, in areas like that. The majority of the record was me thinking about that in some way, shape, or form, so most of the songs actually ended up being about little kids. The first single I ever released was "I Wanna Go Back," and it's me thinking about kids, about what the difference is between kids and adults and why the Bible tells us to be more like kids, not less, and there's a whole bunch of songs in that same vein. There's a song called "I Don't Have to Worry," which is basically me thinking about vacation Bible school, and how all of these really powerful stories we hear our entire lives as church kids, and they actually lose their wonder because we hear them so often. They are true, they are factual, He actually saved the guy that went down to the lion's den and they just didn't eat him, and there was actually this boy who threw a rock at this massive giant and killed him, all of these things actually happened, and we act pretty often like they didn't, because they're just the stories we heard when we were kids. And then there's a bunch of songs on there that are talking about heaven, which is kind of the other main topic. That's another thing I'm thinking about since it pertained to the situation.
JFH (Nicole): When you were writing the track "Yellow Balloons," after your niece passed away, did you write the music first or the lyrics first, and what was your process like for creating the song?
"Yellow Balloons" the song, the title track, is the most time I've ever spent writing on a song. It took me about eight months to finish. The reason it was so difficult was because it's the only song on the record that was exactly about the story. It's me telling about my niece who died. What I wanted to do was to go "here's what happened, this is why it's okay"--and I just couldn't, it just didn't work. I don't have that. I know that to be true in my head, I know that God is good, and I know that He is working all things for the good of those who love Him, but it doesn't feel like that in this scenario. It feels like I'm being mad because He did something that to my perception, and every perception and angle I look at, is unfair. So I went back and forth on this for seven months, and I was stuck because I couldn't make that work. I had no insight. I called my sister, Moriah's mom, and I told her about the song, and she basically says "it's okay to not have an answer." That was the breakthrough for me, to just say "here's what's happening, and I don't have an answer, I'm mad about it, I'm hurt, that we're all hurt, it makes no sense. Though we do know that He's walking with us in the midst of it, it's an insurmountable mountain to climb. So, that's "Yellow Balloons."
JFH (Nicole): You've said on social media that sometimes you quote your songs to yourself to remind you of truths that you already know. Which songs from Yellow Balloons do you find yourself quoting to yourself?
I haven't started quoting Yellow Balloons to myself yet! *laughs* I do, with my friends, pun "I Wanna Go Back" pretty often. That is something people will say, and they go "Get it?" Like, "Hey, did you enjoy that pizza place that we went to last night?" And they would go, "Huh, I wanna go back! Ha, get it!?" Thus far, that's about as far as I have gotten with quoting my own lyrics at myself. I'm really playing them for the first time this weekend. I've played "I Wanna Go Back" and one of the songs from the record, and that's it. So, this weekend coming up is probably going to be the first time that I've played more than just those two songs, for the next two weeks.
JFH (Nicole): Which tracks are your personal favorites from Yellow Balloons?
My personal favorite is probably "Open Arms" or "Vacation." Those are my two favorites I think, mostly because they're outside the box, and they're my opinion of really good songs that won't get a ton of attention, so I feel as if I need to care about them the most.
JFH (Nicole): Aw...That's a good lead-in for my next question, because one of my favorites is actually "Vacation." Can you share the story behind it?
"Vacation" is a song about heaven. It's almost like a depressing song, I would say. It was a pretty dark moment when I was writing that one, of me going "This is too much, this earth is too much, and there's too much pain going on here. There's too much wearing on my soul." A lot of the effort that's extended just to exist is not fun, it's not something I want to be a part of, and a lot of times it just sucks to be here. So I'm looking forward to a moment in time when those things are no more, and to where the only thing that I need is right in front of me, and it's Him. So, it's a permanent vacation. I don't say that in the song, but it is.
JFH (Nicole): That's interesting. I kind of listened to it more on the surface level, and I thought of it more as like going on a retreat [David: *laughs* Yeah!] But I definitely see that angle. *laughs*
Yeah, I think that's what everybody's going to think when they hear that song. I didn't actually think about that until I started passing the song around a little bit. I had a couple of people tell me they hated the word "vacation," but that didn't actually click with me why they hated that word, actually because it's disingenuous kind of to what the song is about, but I actually like that. I actually like that on the surface it sounds like something different than it actually is.
JFH (Nicole): What inspired you to write "I Wanna Go Back"?
"I Wanna Go Back" is me thinking about kids, again, and really thinking about myself. Actually I started with the Bible, is Jesus encouraging us to be more, not less, like children, to be more like kids? I tend to speak in derogatory terms most of the time when I'm referring to children. You'll go over to somebody and go "Stop picking your nose like a little kid!" Things like that--mostly you admonish people for acting like children, but Jesus mostly encouraged people to be more like kids. "I Wanna Go Back" is me investigating what that looks like from the kid me to the adult me. The kid me, when it came to faith especially, there were only two things that were important to me: that Jesus was, that He existed, and two, that He loved me, and that was it. That was the entirety of what was important to me when I was a kid. And then I grew up, and I felt like faith was no longer that He is and that He loved me, now faith was a culmination of my steps up this giant theological mountain. How much knowledge could I accrue about Jesus, so I could have this big punching bag of faith that I could delve into? This is not facts. The facts are is that faith is holding onto the important things. Whereas knowing about Jesus is a good thing, the important thing is that Jesus is and that He loves me.
JFH (Nicole): I definitely see that, as I get older, there are a lot more questions that I have, whereas when you're a kid it's more easily accepted, especially when you sing songs like "Jesus Love Me." *laughs*
: Yeah! And you get these questions and they tend to minimize the power. I don't think asking questions is a bad thing, I think it is a good thing. Asking questions about your faith is a really, really positive thing. If it takes the place of what's important, you're in trouble. That's the difference, I think. If you start accruing knowledge, and your doubts become the foundation of your faith, then you're in trouble. What you want to be the foundation of your faith is that Jesus is and that He loves you.
JFH (Nicole): One of the lines in "I Wanna Go Back" is "When I was young, I didn't care about keeping up with the Jones' / I was just happy that they lived next door." Do you find as an artist and a human being that there's this constant sense of competition to keep up with your peers, and if so, how do you deal with it?
Oh yeah, especially in the music industry. You see it in social media in general--you post a picture, and how many likes do you get is indicative of how good your music is. And when I had a song go to radio, what number did it go in the charts? How many people are coming to my shows? These are all things I have a hard time not using as validation for me as a human. So, absolutely, that's like an ever-present thing. How do I deal with it? First step I think is becoming aware that that's an issue, and it is for me and I would argue everybody else, maybe not everybody, but everybody else that I know, and usually when people say that they don't it's because they're unaware. I think that we are created to belong. If the record had gone a different way, there would have been a song in there that is called "Belong." I really was passionate about it but it didn't make the record, maybe it'll make the next one. The main point of the song is that's what we were made to do--we were made to belong. In Genesis, when God made us, He made everything to belong at that exact place. Everything across the board--men, women, animals, the earth, He made it all to belong, like a big puzzle. The thing about belonging is that we tend to, like with any other kind of sin, point something that's good in the wrong direction. Like sex is that way--sex is a really good thing, until you point it in the wrong direction. You do it in the wrong environment, it's a mutation from the way that it was created to be. I think belonging is in that same boat. Nobody talks about this, but one of the biggest things in the world is belonging, people trying to belong. Why do we spend all our money trying to buy the biggest, baddest cars and houses so we can feel like we're someone? Someone to who? To everybody else--because we want to belong. I think if you point the longing at God, the way that it was intended to be pointed, it's actually an excruciatingly positive thing. But that's a really difficult thing to do, I'd say, so I try to keep that in mind when I'm comparing myself to other artists and their success level.
JFH (Nicole): Can you share some behind the scenes stories from the music video for "I Wanna Go Back"?
Absolutely! That video took a really long time, from my perspective, at least to film. There was this one scene in there that took us three and a half days to film. I might be exaggerating a little bit. It was multiple days. Normally, every other music video I ever filmed, we filmed for one, maybe one and a half days and we're done. None of the music videos I've ever done are like massive budget things where we're laying it all out. None of that really occurred. This one was a little bigger of a project, and that one scene was ridiculously difficult. I don't know if you know this about that video, but the majority of it is in reverse. A lot of it is in reverse, and I'm actually doing things in reverse, so it looks like I'm going forward, but I'm actually not. So I'll be doing things backwards, we'll flip it, and it will look like I'm going forward, except for environmental things, if you notice it. This one scene was a really long forward-and-backwards together scene, and it's all one shot. So we had three or four different people doing things, pass the camera through a hole in the wall, and somebody throws me some keys from the ground, and there's some other things happening in the background, and it all had to be perfectly on time, and we kept doing it over and over again. I suppose we shot it 18 times before we got it correct, so that was my favorite behind the scenes moment, was when we nailed that one.
JFH (Nicole): Did you ride the bikes backwards?
I did not ride the bikes backwards *laughs*. The bikes are actually being ridden forwards. I tried to, I guess we couldn't make it look right. I tried to learn the words backwards too, actually.
JFH (Nicole): Oh wow, that's tough.
I did, it just didn't look right. You learn the words backwards and you try to play it forwards, and it looks like you're singing in reverse, which is really cool, but I didn't pull it off that well.
JFH (Nicole): I know Mutemath actually did that for their music video for "Typical."
Uh-huh, that's where I got the idea from.
JFH (Nicole): Oh, I see! But yes, it's really difficult to learn the words backwards.
JFH (Nicole): What message do you hope to impart to listeners through the album Yellow Balloons?
I don't really know how to answer this one. I want to give them the snapshot, rather than give them a message. I want to give them the snapshot into my existence, you know, what my life entailed in the last two years. I want to relate to people with records, as opposed to saying "here's what I'm going to teach you." I really don't have anything to teach you. I have something to tell you about my life, that I believe to be true, but I'm trying not to teach. Why? Because I'm not a good teacher, and I might be wrong. So I'm trying to tell you what I know to be true in my life, rather than imparting something to you, and I hope that it helps you in yours.
David Dunn's latest album, Yellow Balloons is available now wherever music is sold!