On a stop of The Glorious Unfolding Tour at Calvary Church in Lancaster, PA, Jesusfreakhideout.com's John DiBiase caught up with legendary singer/songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman to discuss his latest album, The Glorious Unfolding, the weight of what the album means to him, his other recent projects, and what the future might hold in store...
This interview took place on: 11/3/13.
Steven Curtis Chapman:
Yeah, there was a fair amount of pressure, I would say, mostly within myself, but some from outside as well. And not like, "Man, you better deliver or else!" More just like "Man, it's been six or seven years since you've done what we call a 'studio record'"--just a regular record because, of course, Beauty Will Rise was a very specific record about losing Maria and there was no thought, at any point, of "is this relevant musically? How does this fit lyrically, musically, sonically, production-wise into the landscape, currently, of music?" All of that stuff.
Steven Curtis: Yeah, and it was just me going "I gotta write, I gotta sing these songs, and the only way these songs are right is just to be very organic and be very raw and very real." And so I loved that, but I didn't even play any of those songs for any label people or anything because I couldn't bear the thought of somebody going, "Well, I'm not sure I hear a single" or "Are you sure that chorus is as strong as it can be?" Which, I don't think anybody would have done that, but I didn't even play it for management, because I was afraid; I couldn't bear those thoughts of people starting to weigh in with any kind of input and critiquing it...
Steven Curtis: Yeah! Right. It was just not even made to be a record. And then, there was re:creation, which was, in a similar way, definitely a step forwards/backwards toward what I had done traditionally, certainly with "Do Everything" and even "Long Way Home." Y'know, [it was] some sense of, "well, I wouldn't be opposed to something being fit for radio or being a radio single, so let me be attentive to that, but this isn't, again, a record that's designed to be my next big studio release to market. This is kind of something I need to do: go back, revisit these songs, kind of a best-of/greatest hits, but not really. Kind of a hybrid, sort of. And Americana--kind of make it all acoustic." It started out to be just, honestly, an acoustic sessions of me doing some of my hits and then it sort of evolved and grew a little bit more. So that was not a typical record release. And then there was the Christmas record, and then Deep Roots, which was a record I wanted to make my whole life -- bluegrass music, love it, folk music. Cracker Barrel came to me; we'd been talking for a few years about doing something together and, to be honest, the Christmas record started out as possibly a Cracker Barrel record. Cuz they had come to me and said, "What do you think about doing a record..."
Steven Curtis: Yeah! Yeah! They came to me and said, "We love what you do." There are some big fans of my music in the Cracker Barrel corporate offices. Actually, it's funny, one of the head guys there is a huge Caleb fan! I mean they love love Caleb. He's got kids that are big fans and he's become a fan. Caleb sang on the record because he was like, "You're going to have Caleb sing on the record, right?" It was so funny! So anyway, all that to say: when I started thinking about this record, it was the first time I had allowed myself to start getting a feel for what's going on currently in music and what parts of that would feel real natural and I can resonate with with what I would write--maybe how this record might sound, how I might produce it, so that it would sound like a current record.
Steven Curtis: Yeah! Exactly. It's not me putting on skinny jeans--they wouldn't fit anyway probably. *John laughs* But, for the last ten years, it's been a bit of a challenge to say "How do I make sure I'm staying as relevant with my music and my sound and all that, and yet not going 'OK, where'd Steven Curtis Chapman go in the midst of that?'" Y'know? Or like a friend who goes away for summer break and comes back and he's got a new haircut, he's talking different, he's acting different and you're like "Whaaat?! Where'd you go?" But if you come back from summer break and you've got some new clothes, new glasses, then it's like "Hey! That looks cool!" But trying to be true. And obviously, with all that we've been through...
Steven Curtis: Well that was important. Part of the reason why I wanted to make this record was because I really felt like I want people to feel as much as anything that our--and I say "our" ministry, because Mary Beth and my family have been such a big part of it--is for people to see God's keeping and healing work in our lives still at work. And the testimony that is, hopefully, to people to be able to say, "Man, whatever we're going through, here's an example to say 'God will carry us through this cuz we can look at this family, look at the Rick and Kay Warren's of the world who walk through these dark, dark places and yet can say "Blessed be the name of the Lord. He gives, He takes away."' But by His grace, we're healing, we're still carrying this, it's redefined us, it's not like we'll ever get over it, we've been changed forever by it. But what does that look like five years down the road and what can I communicate now that I could not have said five, six, seven years ago? I could not have written "The Glorious Unfolding" or "Finish What He Started"--so many of those songs, because they've come from that place of saying, y'know, "Life is nothing like I thought it was going to be, but can I believe that God really is going to finish what He's begun, that He is gonna make something beautiful out of all these broken pieces?" And I can say that from a place, now, of there's some real authenticity to those messages. I believe when I say that.
So, lyrically and thematically, all of that, I pretty much knew going into it. Musically, sonically, that was where I kind of began to say, "man, there's a lot of music that I hear that I'm really excited about and I'm influenced by--from Mumford & Sons to Imagine Dragons, to Fun." There's stuff going on in music that I'm like "Ahh, yeah, I like that!" When I hear it, I kinda turn up the radio and go "That sounds cool!" What parts of that can I incorporate into the music I make that would feel natural? And so, I think, that's where we started with this record, just on the production side, almost saying "Let's do as much with the rhythms and build these songs with a lot of hand claps and foot stomps, before we even put drums on, just to kind of create a different sort of sonic foundation and a feel and where would that take the song?" So that was a kind of intentional thing. I'm hearing that in a lot of current music and it feels good, it feels right, it feels sort of corporate; it's got a corporate element where everybody's clapping along and the foot stomps and there's something real purposeful about it, like I'm making this declaration and marching forward with this, which seemed to be right for the whole theme of this glorious unfolding. We're moving forward and God's carrying us forward. So all of that felt like the right template for where to start with the music. And, of course, there's ballads and the song for Shaoey ("Only One and Only You") and the song for Mary Beth ("Together") and the song for my grandmother that passed away ("See You In A Little While"), a lot of that. So, I guess, answering the question, circling back around (*John laughs*) if I can, there was definitely a sense of wanting to explore some new ideas production-wise and sonically and musically, and yet still keep the heart and soul of the friend that so many people have come to listen to, and thankfully, I still have those friendships and relationships intact and people still want to hear what's going on.
Steven Curtis: Yeah! Good, good. Thanks! I think anthemic kind of music is something that I--I mean you can almost hear it from the very beginning of my music, but especially around For The Sake of the Call, and those records, and The Great Adventure, anthems that kind of make you want to stand on the mountaintop and go "Yeah! We're in the adventure! We're diving in! We're going to abandon it all for the sake of the call!"
Steven Curtis: Yeah! Yeah! And then, for a while, it didn't feel like the right thing for a season, but this record I felt like "Yeah, I'm ready to make some of those anthemic kind of sounding songs again," because I'm ready to do that again.
Steven Curtis: I will say this about this record, I mentioned earlier that I was feeling pretty intimidated by this looming idea that "this is your first studio record after six years," and then marketing departments and record labels and management, they all put that in the press and people are going, "Well that's not true because you had all new songs on Beauty Will Rise! And you--"
Steven Curtis: And I'm like "Guys, c'mon! Don't confuse people! Why did you have to say that?" But, y'know, I knew what they meant and they were trying to make a deal of "Hey! It's the first kind of 'back-to' the full spectrum of ballads and up-tempo and fun!" But I was intimidated by this thought that I really need to deliver this record and it needs to be all that people might expect it to be and that I would expect it to be, and it needs to be great! *laughs* It needs to be fresh yet familiar and not "sound like," y'know, but "sound enough like!" And there's no way you're going to please everyone. Somebody's gonna say "Aw man, it sounds all the same!" and somebody else is gonna go, "Man, it sounds so different!"
Steven Curtis: Cuz everbody hears it different, y'know? So you start reading the reviews and critics and you're like "Well which one is it?!" You just try to get rid of all that stuff and do what feels right and seems like God has given you to do. But I knew it was time to make this music and it was time to really commit some of these songs. Because ideas have been floating around and I've been throwing ideas down on my little voice recorder, and musical ideas, for a year or so. But I felt like I didn't have nearly what I needed in terms of just "this has to be so great! I need to go write ten more, twenty, thirty more songs! I need all these songs to draw from." But the clock was going and there was a lot going on at home. We had done some major renovation stuff at our home since losing Maria, kind of wrestling with "Do we move? Do we sell our house and leave? Is it too hard to stay here?" My wife came to me and said, "I can't live here, but I can't leave here. What do I do?" So we kind of wrestled through that and I tried to love my family, love my wife through the hard stuff we were in, and so I just felt like I needed another year or another 6 months, but I really knew that it was kind of time. In one way, I felt like God was saying, "It's time for you to do this," but I was looking at the amount of songs I had and what I felt like I really had and, honestly, I felt like I kinda kept getting this image of the loaves and fish in the basket and going, "God, this isn't enough to feed 5,000, this isn't enough to do what I feel like this album is supposed to do." And I felt like God was saying, "Y'know, you offer that up to me, what you have, and ask me to bless it, and then just start serving. Get to work." And that was really a profound thing. But what I did know--what I was confident of--I thought, "Well I need lots more fish and loaves! Lots more songs that I won't even record, I just need a surplus so I can narrow it down to 'this'"--cuz that's what I've traditionally done. I'll go in sometimes with 40 song ideas to the record label and play all those ideas and we'll cut it down to the 12 or 15 I feel strongest about. But I had this sense that God had really said "You have a message, a theme, and that theme is that God does know the plans that He has for you. And He has committed to finish what He started. And there's a story that's being told with your life, and you may be in the most difficult chapter you can ever imagine, but can you trust God that there is this incredible story that He is going to unfold and your life is going to be this process of this unfolding story that God is writing and it's good and His plans are to give us this hope and this future, like Jeremiah says." And that's what we were living as a family. I mean, I had seen us go from a point where I didn't know how we were going to survive. I didn't know how my marriage was going to surive, I didn't know how our children were going to survive--emotionally or even physically--and then watch us move from that to: Emily got married and Caleb got married and Will Franklin gets married and then we have a grandbaby and we start to see new chapters being written in this story that are hopeful. We stood at Eiley's crib, and from Maria's gravesite--where I'm holding on to my wife thinking how are we going to make it--to three years later, we're standing at Eiley's crib in Northern Ireland she was born (in Belfast where my daughter and son-in-law were at the time) with my arm around my wife just weeping at this newborn life, saying "Man, we made it. We're moving forward and there's a new chapter and I can't believe we survived that." Y'know? *chuckles*
So I felt like that, I knew, very definitely, that that was the theme that God was putting on my heart. And that it was this unfolding story and I kept going, "It's going to be incredible! It's an amazing unfolding. It's going to be"--and I don't usually use the word "glorious," but it's just that that was the word that came to mind. And, of course, I immediately went "Surely, somebody's used 'glorious unfolding,' I mean that sounds like it belongs together, y'know?" Kind of like "Magnificent Obsession," y'know? *laughs* And I love those words that you don't normally see together that make you go "huh?" So I just had that idea sort of come into my head. I had written several song ideas around the idea, like "This is only the beginning of the beginning" was one song I'd been working on. I had two or three songs that ended up being in that song ("Glorious Unfolding"), and they were different songs of "this is just the beginning," "we were made to run through the fields of forever" that just [stated the idea] that this is not the end of the story--even though it may feel like it. And more and more, I've obviously thought more about Heaven in the last five years than I ever have before, and I think that it was more and more that idea that this life seems, on some days, so long--"Long Way Home," y'know? *chuckles*, those thoughts--but that it is just the very beginning of the very beginning of eternity of what God has. And that's what's carried us. That's what's kept us moving forward on a lot of these days. That this is not the end. One message that came to me, right after we lost Maria, from Greg Laurie--and it, ironically was just about a month before his son was killed in a car wreck--he sent me a message and said, "I just want to encourage you to remember Maria is a far greater part of your future than she is of your past." And that was, of all the many things people were saying--well-intentioned and truthful things, it just was so hard to hear anything at that point--but that was just one that was like "Yes! I can hold on to that!" There's this story that's unfolding and this is a hard chapter right now.
So the theme of that was very clear to me from the beginning. So I just began to take another step and another step--as the song says--in that direction. And as I did, it was literally like, almost as I held that basket up and said, "Alright God, I'm kind of terrified of this, cuz there's so much expectation that I'm feeling--putting on myself about this record being fresh and new and great and all the things my old records, the best ones, were--and even more because it's a new record, yadda yadda yadda! I gotta give all that to You and just offer up what I have and start the process." And then God really started to--y'know, the song ideas started to come and I did end up writing a lot more than I needed but felt like I had what I really needed to communicate.
Steven Curtis: Yeah! And then back to the old problem of going "Well, I gotta do that one! I gotta do that one!" *laughing* Yeah, such is life I guess.
Steven Curtis: Yeah, absolutely! I heard Laura [Story] say the other day from stage that all these songs we write, these are not truths that we have mastered and then therefore now we are ready to share them with you from our place of great wisdom and conquering this, they're all written from--as I've often said, I feel like every song [I've written] I have the word "wanna" in there somewhere. I've overused that word so many times because I feel like all these songs are like "God, this is what I want to be true of my life. I'm writing this from a place of 'this is what I desire, this is what I want to believe. Help my unbelief. I believe it, help my unbelief." So all of those are written from that place of "for me," y'know, I'm reminding myself, I'm reminding my family, my wife, that this is going to be a glorious unfolding, that we gotta keep taking the next step even when it's dark. Because it's not like we're "over" this or we've come through it. You don't ever come through losing a child or losing any of the loss that we experience in our life. We carry that all the way to Heaven with us--that broken heart, broken parts of our story. That's why it matters so much that God says, "I am working all these things together for good. You're not going to see it completely realized until Heaven. Will you trust Me, will you trust that this promise is true." So for sure, these songs--this was a very healing process for me as much as it will be an encouragement to anybody who hears it. Every one of the songs are me reminding myself of these truths, which is why I write them.
Steven Curtis: Wow. Yeah.
Steven Curtis: *laughing* Yeah! Exactly! I mean, how else could you write the song unless you've mastered that! And that's a very good point because in that--which I think is human nature, because we want to believe that there's somebody who's figured it out, cuz there's a longing in us to want to know that it's all right, that there's a place that I can finally arrive where it's all going to be figured out. And that is a very right--I was just talking about this just a couple of weeks ago with a pastor friend of mine--that is a longing put in us when God made us. It's for Heaven! Because we were made for a relationship with Him before the fall, before sin entered the picture and broke that, and that's what is coming. So we're longing for Heaven, that's right. But we read books, marriage books and parenting books and so much of it sets us up to feel like "Well, I don't have it all together. I'm blowing it! I can't do it like these guys!" Or people would hear a song and think "Man, my life doesn't feel like a great adventure! I don't feel like saddling up my horse. I feel like I'm sittin' on a stupid donkey that's just sitting here still, going 'I ain't goin' anywhere!'" *laughter*
Steven Curtis: Yeah! Right! Yeah! *laughter* "I don't even have a donkey! I got nothing! I'm just standing here in the middle of the desert, no water!" and it's understanding, which is really important, that people--that we keep saying, that I keep saying (and these are songs written to encourage myself and you) that this is what we were made for. This is what we're longing for. This is where we're headed. And this is what we desire, but it's not, "Hey, this is my life experience every day." I mean, "I Will Be Here," y'know, I wrote that for Mary Beth. And I've had so many people over the years say, "Man, I just hope I can have a marriage some day like you and Mary Beth" or "Mary Beth's so fortunate to have such a wonderful husband that can write this song" and Mary Beth's the first to go "He's great... *laughing* But he's still got a long way to go!" Don't get the wrong idea from these songs that we've got it all figured out, cuz we really, really don't! And I think, as time goes on, you realize that, but--
Steven Curtis: It can be frustrating.
Steven Curtis: Yeah! *laughs*
Steven Curtis: *laughing* "When's all this going to come together?"
Steven Curtis: Yeah! Yeah! "So were you just winging it? Were you faking it?" Y'know?
Steven Curtis: *laughs* Yeah! Which is what I love! Like, if we look at scripture, and even I think--my tendency is to even read it through a lens--like when David is in the Psalms, saying "How long, Lord? How long?" Until we went through what we went through five years ago, I didn't really see the reality of what David, the Psalms, are doing where in the same breath, he's saying "How long, God? Where are You?! I'm dying! I'm sinking in the quicksand, it's gone over my head, I'm dyin', I'm goin' down. Fine! I guess You're just going to let me die!... But Your love is better than life!" Y'know? It's like "WHAT?! Are you schizophrenic?!" And I realize "yes he is!" because it's like he's holding on to what's true, but he's pouring his heart out to God and he's saying, "What I feel, what I see in my circumstances, there's no way I'm going to survive this! But--" then it's like he'll grab ahold of himself and say, "Wait a minute, soul, why are you so downcast within me? Hope in God! Trust in God! Believe His promises again." That's reality. That's what the faith journey actually looks like.
Steven Curtis: I've got a lot of them. I will say one of my musically favorite moments is the way "Finish What He Started" turned out, just kinda overall. I love the vocal texture, singing those low--I call it sort of my 'the natives are getting restless' singing these low kind of things. And as I'm gettin' a little older, the depth of my voice has gotten deeper. It's really fun to get to use that part of my range that much. All those vocals that that song starts with, it almost sounds kind of like slaves-in-the-field kind of singing, those kinds of songs about freedom. That was just the feel I had while doing it--just the way that one came out. And then Will Franklin played drums on the majority of the record that has drums on it. He played on just about every cut, which was very cool, not only because musically I think he's a great drummer, but just what that meant to have him a part of it, with just sort of saying, "this is a glorious unfolding story God is telling with all that Will has been through with his own part of the story." But on that song in particular, he had this idea (he'd been listening to this Boxer Rebellion record) and I was actually having a hard time with that song--I actually wrote it more kind of pop, a little different style when I first presented it to the label. It kept feeling like that that doesn't feel weighty enough for what this song needs to say and I was afraid when I'd get to producing it that it'd feel more like a fun song. It needs to feel hopeful and driving, but it needs to feel sort of longing, too. And so I retooled it and kind of went back at it and Will heard it and he said, "Dad I got the perfect idea for what we need to do drum-wise." And so he did this drum thing that never really resolves into this typical groove. It's got this sorta, like this... tom thing...
Steven Curtis: Yeah! And it just stays that through the whole song and it just felt like that's right cuz it's not finished, cuz the song is saying "God will finish what He started," but it feels so purposeful, so much like "We are going somewhere, we're definitely not sitting still!" It never sorta settles in to something. And, I dunno, I just love that about the way that song felt, and the vocals and just everything about it. So that's one of my favorite musical moments.
I love the song I wrote for Shaoey, "Only One and Only You." And "Together." Both of those I didn't play--Mary Beth didn't know I'd written a song for her and Shaoey didn't know I'd written a song for her, until they were all finished and recorded so I could sit them down and give them the real, full presentation. That was a special moment, just to sit Shaoey down. She had heard--actually, I'd been talking to Mary Beth about it. She told Shaoey, "Hey, did you know Dad wrote a song for you?"
Steven Curtis: *laughs* Yeah I know! She gave it away! But it was cool, cuz Shaoey had heard and then Mary Beth is at home sayin', "I don't think I was supposed to tell you that, so don't tell Dad until he tells ya." So she knew kind of what was going on. And then I finally got to play it [for her], that was just so special. She cried and just thanked me for it. And then the song "Together," that I wrote for Mary Beth, I sat her in my studio. I actually recorded this record in my studio I'd just finished like a week before we started the record, as part of the renovation that was going on at our home. So there's this kind of rebuilding in our own lives and in our hearts and there's this new studio that's a new chapter. So a lot of it was very significant to the new sound, even the sound of all the hand claps and the foot stomps and all that. We ended up doing all that in a room in my studio that we didn't even design to be a recording room. It was a lounge but nothing was in there, and it's got this tin on the walls, kind of an industrial looking treatment that we did. And it turns out that it was like the perfect room for all these gang yells and vocals and hand claps and stomps because it's a real bright, live room. Even the drums sounded amazing in there. We put 'em in and turned the mikes on in that room and it was like, man, it sounds so big, just this big expanse. So just things like that that were kind of parts of the whole sound of it that felt very new and fresh.
Steven Curtis: Yes! Yeah! (*John laughs*) In fact, that's where my daughter-in-law, Jillian Edwards, just finished her new album. She just finished a CD that's amazing. She is amazing. She has two or three EP's on iTunes under singer/songwriter. Little six, seven-song EP's. She's just got the coolest voice. She just finished a new [solo] CD, and then her and Caleb and Will have actually done a thing called The In-Laws together. So they're doing a few things. They're doing a few shows with Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors and they do some stuff together.
Caleb didn't get to work on their new CD [at my place], because it was under construction at the time, but now he's doing an EP in interim while they're introducing the new [Colony House name], getting the record deal all figured out. I think he's going to release a little 4-song EP of new music under the Colony House name. Yeah! I'm excited to get to do new music. I'd love to make another Deep Roots, Volume 2 at some point, because that was such a fun record to make. So who knows what all I might get into in the next few years. It'd be sweet to get to get in there and create.
Steven Curtis: Hmm. Well, people will often ask the question, "What's your favorite song?", which is always like "There's no way to answer that!" but I often say, "If I could only sing one song, what would that be?" and I've always, for whatever reason, gone to "My Redeemer is Faithful and True." And that's why I redid it on the Deep Roots CD. I just feel like if I had one last breath, you got the mike one more time, you've got three minutes *chuckles*, what's it going to be? That would be the song, because it's just what is true--and what I hope all of my songs communicate. God is faithful and He's true to his promises. Now, obviously, when I see Him face to face, I can't imagine singing anything (*John laughs*) or saying anything.
Steven Curtis: Yeah, "Speechless." There ya go! You answered it for me! That's it! I will sing "Speechless," only in fact I will BE speechless! *laughter* For the first time in my life! *laughing* And God will say, "Yeah, I know better than that! You always got something to say, Chapman! Go ahead, let it out!" No... but, I can't imagine. I think it will be--y'know, I've often heard people say that the first sound you will hear in Heaven will be this corporate "OHHHH!!" *laughter* Like "Wow! That's what you were doing! That's what was going on!" So I'm sure it will be a combination of that and it'll be obviously be seeing Maria's face and it'll just be some version of "Thank you." Y'know? "Thank you for Your love and Your faithfulness." But now you'll have me thinking of that question and I'll kinda be going "What would that be?" Probably about an hour from now, go "YEAH! (*John laughs*) That's what it is! That's what I shoulda said!"
Steven Curtis: Yeah! Y'know, it's funny when you say that, because--and I may think about this later and go "No, I'm gonna retract that"--I do think a lot Heaven and I even talk about it--man, how awesome it's gonna be! The worship when we're there and when we're in Heaven and we get to just be in the presence of Jesus and we're singing 'Blessed Be Your Name' and all these worship songs that--I didn't write, that I just love to participate in--and we're singing Psalms and "Holy Holy Holy" and we finally "get it." It'll be those that I think that I'll probably be [singing]. Y'know, "It is Well with My Soul." I mean, can you imagine singing that--finally--in Heaven?? And I think that's funny, because I think most of my songs are written from a place of longing and waiting and hoping for that day that, it's almost like, when that day finally comes and I'm finally there, so many of my songs will be washed into this hoping and longing and waiting is over and it's realized. It's almost like many of my songs won't even be necessary, in a way, anymore. Which isn't sad to me to think about, it'll be the final, full realization where they'll all kinda melt into this one "Finally!" Which is a pretty awesome, incredible thing! Y'know what? I think it'll finally be able to sing "It is Well with My Soul" and just fully mean it and get it and know it and experience it. But that's a cool thought, that's a cool question.
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