Singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson has been making music for over fifteen years now and he's ventured into new territory as an artist with his latest album, Light for the Lost Boy. Jesusfreakhideout.com's Jen Rose got a chance to chat with Peterson about his new record, the writing process... and what exactly the Hutchmoot conference really is.
This interview took place on: 8/16/12
JFH (Jen Rose): So how've you been?
I've been good... I've been really good. I've been home almost all summer, working and having a great ol' time. At the same time, you know, getting a little bit antsy to get out and start doing shows. But for the most part, I'm just loving being home right now.
JFH (Jen): Oh sure! Well, I'm super excited to ask a whole bunch of questions about the new record.
Andrew: Haha... well, thank you.
JFH (Jen): So I was wondering if in a sentence or few you could tell us the main story or idea behind Light for the Lost Boy? Because I think there's a definite theme going on...
Andrew: Yeah, there is a theme. And once again, it wasn't an intentional theme, which is my favorite way for it to happen. I just, you know, tried to sit down and write a bunch of songs, and was delighted to see that there seemed to be this little boy in the woods kind of haunting the record. And so I sent several different title options to my brother and the guys in the band and my manager, just saying, "Hey, what about all these titles," and none of them quite felt right. So I found Light for the Lost Boy, which seemed to convey a lot of the spirit behind the record.
JFH (Jen): I suppose, too, the things you're thinking about or the things that are going on in your life are just under the surface, so maybe that's why your songs just interconnect, I guess, to the things you've written in the past and where you are now?
And so... yeah, there's not really a story except that it seems to be an album about... I guess for my children. It's funny... like when I say that, it makes it sound like I sat down six months ago and said, "I am now going to write an album of songs of encouragement to my children," and that just wasn't at all what it was. It was just that lines kept popping out.
Like the second song on the record is "The Cornerstone," and that first scene in the first verse, where it talks about how "I saw the desert wind tear across the wilderness." That kind of describes me as a little boy experiencing the holy terror that I encountered in the Bible. And I don't know why that was the image that popped into my mind. So what I try to do as a writer -- whether it's the books or the music or whatever I make -- I try to just keep a loose grip on the reins of the song.
So that just kind of rose to the surface, and whether writing songs or books or whatever it may be, there's a lot of following your nose that happens. You just kind of start creating. I've heard people say that you don't write when you're inspired to write. It's so seldom that you're inspired to sit down and write. Inspiration comes while you're doing the work. So I think with a lot of these songs, I just knew I had to make a record, and I sat down and started writing without really knowing where the songs were going and as the songs unfolded to me, I was able to find what the songs wanted to be. The kind of delightful thing was that I wrote an album of songs about childhood and innocence and the loss of innocence without really meaning to.
Andrew: Yeah, I think so. And I like to think of my songs as a body of work. You know, it's not like each album is completely separate from the one before it, or even each song is completely separate from the ones around it. There tends to be an image... people have made fun of me because I'm always using the word "thunder..." *laughs* Which I think is hilarious, because I don't do it on purpose, but for some reason the word "thunder" makes me happy.
JFH (Jen): It's an awesome image! I mean the sky rumbling and everything...
Andrew: Yeah! It just kind of works. It's a word that sounds like what it is, you know? And so rather than trying to not use the word "thunder," I kind of decided, well, maybe that's just one of the themes in my songs. I'm just gonna go for it. So I think that way about the images in the songs as they come up. If an image from another song shows up in the one I'm writing, then more often than not I think "wow, that makes the whole body of work more cohesive somehow."
JFH (Jen): Exactly! It's fun. I caught the little reference to "The Reckoning" at the end of the album too. Like, "Oh that's so nice!" *laughs* I get it. I think in writing that I've done too, I used to be like, "Oh my gosh, you're repeating yourself." But no, that's okay. That's encouraging to me.
So yeah, there's a lot of interconnectivity. And I like the fact that when I listen to Rich Mullins, for example, or Josh Ritter, or guys like that whose writing I really like, I hear them reference themselves. And there's this really kind of cool feeling of, "Aha!" where you go, "Oh yeah, I know the song you're referencing right now!"
Like the first song on the record is "Come Back Soon," and there's a line where it talks about the kid in The Yearling that says, "He wept at the death of his little boy heart." And if you know my music, you know there's a song on The Far Country, which came out six years ago or something, that's called "Little Boy Heart Alive," which is about keeping your heart young. So anyway, I like the idea of kind of rewarding the long time listeners with each record.
Ben [Shive] is really great about that too. Like, we'll be in the studio, and he'll recognize a lyrical reference to this or that song, and we'll find a way to incorporate a melody from the other song into the new one in a way that nobody notices but us. And then when I do get an email from somebody saying, "Hey, I noticed this little reference," then it makes us all happy. So anyway, it's kind of like some little game. It's like LOST, only with songs. *laughs*
Andrew: *laughs* Yeah.
JFH (Jen): So the first thing I noticed when I listened to it was that the sound is really different from your past work, but it still sounds like you? I was wondering, was that something you guys set out to do, or did it just happen? Because there's just a different vibe about it.
Andrew: Well yes, we did set out to do it. It's funny that, in light of the fact that we're talking about repeating ourselves and allowing yourself to do that, in this sense I didn't want to repeat myself? *laughs* From a musical standpoint, I realized that a lot of the music I have been listening to lately doesn't sound like the stuff I've been putting out. And I realized, man, I don't wanna get stale. I don't wanna fall into the same musical routine. With some of my very favorite artists in the world, there's something comforting about the fact that their records all sound the same, but then there's another part of me that gets really excited when I hear them pushing themselves or experimenting a little bit. It may backfire or it may not work, but if I'm a big fan of this person, then it doesn't mean I'm not gonna buy their next record. I'm willing to let them try something weird, and if it doesn't work, I'm still with them.
JFH (Jen): Well, I hesitate to say it's more pop, but I noticed the drums were really different, and that -- like you were talking about Paul Simon -- it sounds alive, very fresh, but it still sounds like you. It doesn't sound like you went crazy.
And so I just kind of decided that I wanted to be willing to make the album that my listeners would hate. *laughs* And of course I want them to like it! But at the same time, I want to be willing to take that risk. I want to push the music and try things I've never, ever tried before, because what if there's something really beautiful at the end of that tunnel? I'll never know if I don't shake things up a little bit and try it.
So yeah, we definitely kind of set out with a different approach than previous records. And part of that involved Ben and I asking Cason Cooley to co-produce the record, because Cason doesn't do really weird production. Most of the albums that he produces fall roughly within the kind of music that I already play. But there was something about fresh blood in the studio, like somebody to make Ben and I feel fairly uncomfortable with their way of doing things, or have a musical idea that we wouldn't have thought of doing before.
So we definitely set out to make something that was going to sound fresh and alive. And part of that was from listening to the newest Paul Simon record. It's just a really alive sounding record... and he's so old. I think he was 69 when he made this record. And at the same time I felt like, "listen to that! It sounds like he really cares about music and he still loves music!" And that was inspiring to me, because I fall in and out of love with music over the years. I have to be reawakened to my love for making music every year. And it's usually because I hear the right song at the right time, and I remember how magical a song can be. So hearing Paul Simon made me go, "Wow! You'll never run out of ideas."
If it's true that inside of me lives the Holy Spirit of the Living God, and God is the source of all beautiful, true, and life-giving things in the world, and if I am called to make things in his name and for his glory, then that is an infinite well of inspiration. That's something that I don't usually believe. I usually think that I've written my last song, or God is gonna turn off the tap because I sinned. Or I've said everything that I can possibly think of to say. All of this fear and doubt is involved in the recording process. So hearing Paul Simon's record reminded me that we don't ever have to be afraid of running out of different ways to say something beautiful.
In our first meeting where I sat down with Ben and Cason and [Andy] Gullahorn, that was the thrust of the conversation. "We don't know what we're doing, but we're gonna try really hard to make something beautiful here. It's up to you guys I guess to decide whether we pulled that off."
Andrew: *laugh* That's good.
JFH (Jen): Were there any other artists or sounds that inspired you?
Andrew: Yeah! Well, if you've heard Bon Iver's new record... that new record especially is so beautiful! And I couldn't stop listening to it this last year. It was funny because it sounded new and it sounded old to me at the same time. So a lot of the um... how do I describe it... (Jen: Soundscapes maybe? Presence?) Yeah, soundscapes. That's a good way to put it. It felt like the camera was swinging kind of wildly between different beautiful sounds over the course of a song. Like you would hear one thing and go, "wow! Listen to that!" and then whoosh, that thing would sweep over to some other beautiful sound.
JFH (Jen): Do you have a favorite song on the record?
I realized as I was listening to that record that I didn't want to know what the lyrics were. At no point last year did I think I wanted to look up the lyrics and know what he was really saying, because I almost felt like if I knew what he was saying, it would kill a little bit of the magic of the song for me. I was filling in the blanks with my own story and emotion and stuff. So I don't know, I just realized that when I typically make my own records, I'm mostly focused on conveying the lyrics, and trying to make the lyrics speak.
The music is almost secondary in a lot of ways. And obviously, we try to make it sound pretty and stuff, but there aren't very many musical interludes in my records, because I always feel a little bit antsy, like I'm afraid the listener's attention is going to drift away if there's not some lyric playing along all the time, which is just showing a great lack of faith in the music itself. So with this record we tried really hard to allow for there to be musical moments that were going to speak, take some of the pressure off of the lyric and allow the music to work. And Bon Iver is a big reason for that.
What else have I been listening to? The National? Their newest record, High Violet... and this is really heavy, weird, dark music, but from a strictly musical standpoint, I was just entranced by the drumming especially, this kind of brooding, dark sound. And that's part of the reason we brought Will Chapman, Steven [Curtis Chapman]'s son, because I've heard him play in his own band Caleb. I think in sound check I walked into a show, and Will was playing. They were jamming to this National song, and he was just really passionately wailing on the drums because they have this really explosive way of playing. And so right away I was like, what would happen if you added that kind of drumming to my little folky songs?
So, little things like that happened where we were like, let's try to make these songs speak in a way they haven't before.
JFH (Jen): Hard question, I know...
Andrew: Yeah, I don't know. I think if I had to pick a couple favorite songs, it would be the first one and the last one. I was telling my kids that the electric guitar in "Come Back Soon," right before the second chorus... there's this musical thing that happens where Tyler Burkum, the guitar player, plays I think five notes over the course of fifteen seconds. And those five notes give me goosebumps every time I hear them. So that song has a lot of moments that I really love, and I like the idea of it being the first song on the record. It kind of set the stage for the fact that this is sonically different from what people have heard before, but it opens with a pretty painful image that I hope creates a question mark that carries the listener through most of the record, that it starts with a question mark and ends with an exclamation point.
JFH (Jen): I guess it's kind of like asking you to pick a favorite child. That's probably not a fair question. *laughs*
So the other favorite song on the record is "Don't You Want to Thank Someone," which just satisfied all my nerdiness. I love the fact that it's too long. *laughter* It's ten minutes long, and there are lots and lots of lyrics and lots of images in it. So we all kind of indulged ourselves a little bit with that song. But it closes the experience of the record in exactly the way that I wanted it to.
I think those two songs are my favorite and everything in between... well, I like everything in between.
Andrew: Yeah, it's a hard one depending on what I had for breakfast.
JFH (Jen): In the past ten years or so that you've been making records, what would you say has changed about your identity as an artist?
Andrew: I think... there are some things that haven't changed at all. Like, I don't think my sense of calling has changed. I felt called to use my gifts for the kingdom when I was nineteen, and I didn't know what that was gonna look like, but that's been like a compass star over the years. There have been plenty of times where I've wondered if I can keep it up, whether for financial reasons or spiritual reasons or family reasons, just because there's a lot of weird stress that comes with this job. But over the last fifteen years or so, I've always fallen back on the sense that I don't know what I would do if I wasn't doing this. I feel like the job I do is something that satisfies every creative itch I have, but it also satisfies my spiritual desire -- on my good days *laughs* -- to draw attention to the gospel and to tell not my story, but the Lord's story well. So that doesn't feel any different. From record to record; that's been the thing that has given me the guts to keep doing this over the years.
JFH (Jen): Is that kind of the inspiration behind The Rabbit Room website and the community that's built up around that?
I guess from an identity standpoint... I don't know what's changed other than I recognize now more than ever how desperately I need my friends around me. There are moments where feel like I can pull off a concert by myself with a guitar. And I can; I do that sometimes out of necessity. But when I do three or four of those in a row, I start thinking "yeah, this isn't so bad! I actually enjoy doing shows that are totally solo." But then as soon as I start to feel some sense of false security, I fall off the wagon in another way. I'll have my own personal demons on the road that come after me, or terrible insecurity will come, or I'll just realize how out of tune I sing so often. And I'll have all these moments where I realize that I would not be able to do what I do if it weren't for the fact that I have guys like Ben Shive and Andy Gullahorn, and my family, and my community of musicians in Nashville to make me better than I really am.
A great way to illustrate that is when I decided that for the deluxe edition of the CD, I was going to go into the studio by myself and record the whole album acoustically. I was gonna get a guitar and play through all the songs. And Ben and Andy were really busy, so I was like, "don't worry about it! I'll just shut up inside the studio and do it myself." It's just me and a guitar, so it shouldn't be a big deal.
And maaaaan... it stank! I recorded allllll day, I was there for like 18 hours, and by the end of the day, I was just like, "I wrote these songs! I should be able to play my own songs on the guitar!" And I just couldn't! I couldn't pull it off in a way that sounded beautiful, and we ended up having to trash the whole experiment. After two days of working and mixing and trying to edit it all, we realized it just didn't sound very good. Which was really humbling. I felt for like three days, "What's wrong with me, man? Why do I stink at music?"
So I had to go back and approach the whole project in a different way, record guitars separately from the voice and find a way to make it work. It was a great, eye-opening moment, because I realized, the Lord showed me in that moment, I can't take much credit for any success in my career. Sure, I may have been able to write the songs, but they would have fallen flat if I hadn't had a wonderful community around me and the support of a lot of people who are just truly musically and spiritually better than I am. People that have pulled me along and helped me walk. I don't know if there's a strange irony in the fact that I'm the one at the microphone and whose name is on the record, and I feel like the people around me are the ones who have really made the record, made it as beautiful as it may be.
I think that I've changed over the years in that way. In the beginning, I felt like I was... you know, you have to have a little bit of audacity to do this. You have to feel a little bit too cocky or self-confident to call up a church and say, "Hey, can I come play a concert? I don't have a CD yet, but I think I'm good enough to do a concert at your church." There's a little bit of recklessness that comes with doing that. But anymore, after fifteen years of doing it, I can take so little credit for the successes that I've had.
The Behold the Lamb of God Tour is a great example of that, too. I can't pull off those songs by myself! The only reason that show works is because of the community that's involved with it. I feel like I'm... I'm really not trying to be falsely humble. I really feel like I'm just part of the band and along for the ride, trying to make these songs as pretty as they can be and get them out to the people.
Andrew: I think so. I don't think I did that on purpose, but those things are all evidence of the fact that I am deeply lonely and crave community, and God is taking that insecurity and secret loneliness in me and allowing it to bear fruit. Some of that fruit is that I really enjoy trying to build community and start things like The Rabbit Room or the Christmas tour.
JFH (Jen): Like songwriting! You don't know where you're going until you look back.
None of that was intentional. It wasn't like, "I'm lonely! And I'm going to build community!" It's just the thing that I do, and I look back and realize, wow, the root of this is some brokenness and even cynicalness that the Lord has redeemed and made into something beautiful in spite of me, you know?
Andrew: Yeah, you look back and see, "oh yeah, that's how that worked."
JFH (Jen): So, speaking of The Rabbit Room, Hutchmoot is coming up... how do you explain Hutchmoot to people? Because I have a hard time explaining just what this thing is I'm so excited to go to!
Andrew: *laughs* Yeah, that's a good question. I have a hard time, too. I just tell people, well, there's The Rabbit Room, and it's this website, and it's kind of a community that's based around a love for stories and good music, and Hutchmoot is our annual conference where we just get together and have speakers and hang out. *laughs*
JFH (Jen): I think so. My experience last year was that it was so relaxed, and genuine friendships happened. This year it feels more like I'm going to a family reunion than a conference. When people ask what it is, I'm like, ummmmmm.... a gathering of nerds? I don't know! *laughs*
What I love about Hutchmoot is that it's not very cool, you know? It's not very stylish. We don't have the most famous speakers and a huge budget for all this fancy production or website. But what I love about that is it works because of the community and the people who are involved in it. Like when we do our pre-Hutchmoot meeting with all the speakers and stuff, we kind of remind them every year, "hey, just so you know... sit with somebody different at every meal." And there's no green room at Hutchmoot, so there's no place for the speakers to go hide, so you have to finish your talk and then hang out with everybody. Which I love, because I've heard stories about other conferences where it's really hard to interact with the people you came to learn from. And so, I think that sense of community is crucial to the whole deal.
Andrew: Yeah, conference does imply a sense of, well, we're sitting in workshops all day.
JFH (Jen): And we're networking. *laughs*
Andrew: Or networking... one of the worst words in the world to me. Yeah, I just love that during the time on the last day, when people share what they got out of Hutchmoot, we see what God is doing. We're speaking about books and music and all this kind of stuff, but what God is doing... like the first year I remember someone saying, "I wasn't sure if I could be a Christian before Hutchmoot, and now I think I can do this." And when I hear things like that, I just go, "wow! It's just like the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." There's something more at work than we intend, and I think that happens when we take our hands off the reins of planning a bit. Like [my brother] Pete planned a lot, but we also don't have an agenda. We just kind of go... we're just gonna do a bunch of stuff and trust that something cool can happen.
JFH (Jen): Okay, so now for the really important question... if you had a superpower, what would it be, and how would you use it for good and not evil?
Andrew: If I had a superpower? Haha! I would fly. I'm pretty sure I would be able to fly. You need to listen to This American Life... there's one of them where there's this great story where they ask a huge swath of people whether they would rather be able to fly or be invisible. And most women said invisible, and most men said they wanted to be able to fly. Isn't that interesting?
So they get into "why?" And one of the reasons from women was that a lot of them were moms who feel like they want to be because there are so many demands on their lives, and the ability to kind of just vanish when they wanted to appealed to them. Which is just so fascinating from a sociological standpoint, like "wow! What does that say about women and men?"
Anyway! I would say that I wanted to be able to fly just because I've parachuted before, and it was one of the most intensely beautiful feelings I've ever felt. So, I don't know how I would use it for good. Maybe I would use it for good in that I would be able to get home from concerts way faster.
Andrew Peterson's new album Light For The Lost Boy is available now!