The term “god’s gift” is used flippantly in our society today. Rarely, is it literally true. God gave Josh Garrels a transcendent talent that he has used to make beautiful, compelling music for us over the years. In the past two years, God gave Josh Garrels Love & War & The Sea In Between, and then commanded Josh to give it to us to glorify God. I don’t care what style of music you like or don’t like. You need to download Love & War & The Sea In Between, put your headphones on and spend an hour with this work of staggering beauty and compelling complexity. God gave it to you. Take advantage of His free gift.
Now that Love & War & The Sea In Between is officially One21music’s 2011 Album of The Year come spend a few minutes with Josh Garrels to dig deeper into the artist who created the masterpiece.
Interview with Josh Garrels
One21: Many of our readers are just discovering you. Can you take us back to the beginning and give us the story of Josh Garrels the musician?
Josh Garrels: I was born outside of Detroit 1980 but grew up most of my life in South Bend, Indiana. My dad was a music teacher and my older sisters were also avid music collectors, so music was definitely the common language in our house. Whatever music I was into at the time, I always had a sort of compulsion to not just listen but also create. So, early on I would record myself by cycling tapes and layering overdubs on a double tape-deck. My dad would always bring home old instruments and keyboards from the schools he worked at, so our basement was full of stuff to experiment with. I made a lot of punk rock in middle school and early high school, and then started making east coast sounding hip hop later in high school using four-track recorders and such. Really though, when I think back, I wasn’t aspiring to do go anywhere with music, mostly it was about creating a soundtrack for skateboarding, which at the time was my main focus. It wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that I realized how important creating music had always been to me.
One21: Josh Garrels folklore includes being “discovered” street singing at the Cornerstone Music Festival food court. Can you tell us that story and share how the musicians from that community helped you get started?
Josh Garrels: At the time I was an intern with Alliance World Coffee’s which is a coffee roastery out of Muncie, Indiana. Each year AWC would set up a coffee tent in the main vending court and we would serve coffee and espresso to the festival crowd of about 25,000 for the full week. I’d recently come to the faith, so Cornerstone was an awesome change from the tripped-out drug haze of the Phish festivals that I’d previously frequented. Once again, my compulsion to not merely be a listener. but also to create and share got the best of me. Despite 30 plus stages showcasing bands that actually got invited to play at the festival, I set up one little speaker in front of our coffee tent and played one long set of music. Looking back, it was so confirming to me that people actually stopped, sat down, listened, and even bought my home-made CD’s! The next year people were actually waiting for the performance. The year after that, I was invited to play on a “real stage” at the festival. Years later I was asked to play on mainstage. It was a fun progression, and along the way I became close friends with many of the folks at JPUSA.
One21: We believe your sound is unique into today’s music scene. Some compare you to Citizen Cope but your discography parallels his. Who were your early influences as you developed your “signature sound”?
Josh Garrels: Like so many of us, finding my dads old Beatles LP’s was a transformative experience for me, as well as Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young etc. As a youth I absorbed a lot of my older sisters’ music as well, so I was affected by the The Cure, Pixies, Morrisey, Bjork, Pavement, and Fugazi among others. When I started skating I fell in love with punk rock, and spent several years listening to Bad Religion, Pennywise, NOFX, Good Riddance, and No Use For A Name. Practically overnight I abandon Punk Rock for the layed back poetic aggression of east coast Hip Hop, which at the time was still a form of “struggle music”. Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Guru and Gangstarr, Jeru the Damaja, Nas, and Wu Tang Clan were my constants through high school and into college.
In college I came to faith while studying art and my musical taste fractured in every direction. I began listening to folk artists such as Nick Drake, Elliot Smith, and Ben Harper, and also old recordings from the Mississippi Delta, Appalachians, and church spirituals. All of these sounds I’d grown up with suddenly had the freedom to be mashed, juxtaposed, and fit together like collage work. I’d never felt the freedom blend sounds and genre’s until I became a believer in the Lord, and realized that music no longer had to be subject to strict sub-cultural laws but had the freedom to breath, and blend, and be made new. In many ways, 10 years later, I’m still completely captivated by this freedom to blend genre and influence…sort of like breeding all these different species of animals together to see what new creature might come about…
One21: I know many musicians dislike the term “signature sound” but, so far, you have maintained, and built upon, the Josh Garrels sound. Very few musicians in the history of popular music have been able maintain a core sound while successfully expanding their artistic reach. How have you maintained your musical vision while developing and growing the artistry and complexity of your music?
Josh Garrels: I think if one doesn’t purposefully embed themselves squarely into a specific genre or industry, the better his/her chances are of being free of the particular rules and limitations that that closed sub-culture/club would threaten to impose upon them. As humans we’re drawn to rules because they give us a standardized method of judging success or failure (aka religion). When we follow the rules we’re “in”, and when we don’t we’re “out”. Bob Dylan picks up an electric guitar and his faithful following of folkies are so disgusted they want to burn him at the stake as a traitor. My guess is that he wasn’t trying anxiously to “reinvent” himself like Axl Rose in corn rows, but was merely in the mood to play some rock and roll, and it’s honest decisions like this that make an artist great in my book.
There can be a fear of following through with new artistic interests, desires, and influences, because of the possibility offending those who embraced our previous work. This is called “fear of man”, and any work produced under the compulsion of fear will come off as pandering, soulless, and inferior to ones previous work. For an artist to refuse to evolve because of fear, or to attempt reinvent oneself out of fear, are equally destined for failure. If I’ve had any success in the evolution of my sound, I think it stems forth from my impatience of using any sounds, ideas, or influences that are not captivating to me. Throughout the years some aspects of my music have come and gone, only to be heard during that particular season, yet other aspects that have remained as constants through the years are simply the things that never cease to be of interest to me. I believe that if I can keep my heart and mind fully invested in all aspects of each song then the end product will contain something of integrity.
One21 : You have a distinct lyrical vision. You drive home unflinching truths about our faith appropriately wrapped in the joy and hope of redemption. Some of the best examples of this I can point to are “SISU” from Over Oceans, “Zion & Babylon” from Jacaranda and about five songs from Love & War (“Beyond Blue”, “The Resistance”, “Farther Along”,Etc.) Can you tell us how you craft your lyrics?
Josh Garrels: Faith is an interesting animal to grapple with and “work out in fear and trembling”. Two people can be looking at the same thing, one through the eyes of faith and the other through the eyes of unbelief, and the thing will be seen entirely differently by the two people. When I came to faith in Jesus, it’s as if I stepped through the looking glass, and the things that had once been confusing, distasteful, angering, and impossible suddenly began to glimmer with a new shimmering light of hope, forgiveness, redemption, and eternity. This is how it’s possible to sing of confusion, darkness, spiritual bondage, and betrayal, without resigned to these being final. I’m seeing and experiencing the same anger, depravity, hurt, and brokenness that the rest of my generation is, and to neglect these would be untruthful and dishonoring to our shared human experience. Yet, I can also see Gods spirit hovering all around us, waiting for any invitation to break into this reality and bring utter transformation. So with the darkness I can’t help but point to the coming dawn.
One21: Starting with Jacaranda but fully delivered on Love & War, your musical arrangements have grown more complex and more beautiful. What is your process for developing your musical arrangements?
Josh Garrels: I had a defining moment years ago while watching Michel Gondry’s film, “Science of Sleep”. I was really affected by artfulness and presentation of the movie so afterward I watched all the bonus material, and in doing so, I realized just how much time, attention, and energy was needed to create such masterful work. At that moment I also realized that I had a lot of work within me that was waiting to come out, and that it would take my full attention and time to realize it. Up to this point I had been bi-vocational with music, either working at Alliance World Coffee’s while making music, or pastoring a church plant in Indianapolis while making music, and this was the moment that I decided to enter into music full time. The first thing I did was to move with my wife Michelle to a guest house in the country where I spent the next year of my life fully dedicated to the creation of Jacaranda. It was the first album in my career that I allowed complete focus, and in so doing, pushed myself to take more time with arrangements and poetry.
As you noted, Love & War was a continuation of this process of focus and dedication that began with Jacaranda. We began Love & War upon moving to Portland, Oregon, and overall it took us about a year and a half to create. With Love & War, I took new steps forward in both music engineering and collaboration. I’ve always recorded and produced my own work, but I’ve had no formal studio education, so engineering my own albums has always been an exciting yet frustrating process. With Love & War, I was able to to invest in some better studio gear, and also work with other engineers to help refine the sound in ways that had previously eluded me (thanks Dave Wilton!). I also collaborated with about 15 other artists on the album. Part of my own growth as an artist was the realization that I’m bound to hit my own limitations and begin repeating myself if I don’t invite in some outside influences. So, on almost every song in Love & War I brought in other musicians, whether composer, instrumentalist, vocalist, or producer, each song has the fingerprints of more people than just me. The album would be far less exciting and dynamic if not for the team of people that surrounded it and infused there own sound into it.
One21: Now, let’s talk about Love & War & The Sea In Between. We are telling everyone who will listen that this is a masterpiece of monumental proportions, and we are not the only ones. It is an epic album of 18 tracks and it has been over two years since we heard from you. How did you come to releasing a huge album in this day of artists rapidly turning out eps and singles for iTunes?
Josh Garrels: First, when I sat down and began writing…a lot of songs came out! Initially I had over 30 songs that I subjected to editing and the ears of my wife, and I began moving forward with many of them. Once the album was really underway I considered breaking it up into a few separate albums, but the songs all felt as though they had a common enough center that I knew I had to keep them together. This may be a source of eye rolling for some, but as best as I can discern the voice of the spirit of God, He kept telling me to “make new songs”, and to “fill up ALL the jars with water” with each song representing a humble clay jar. For whatever reason, I felt commissioned to not only write songs, but a lot of them, so I followed through the best I could. More is not always better, in fact maybe rarely so, but I think with the current trend of bite sized musical works perhaps an epic album at least peaks folks interest.
One21: Each of the songs on Love & War are beautiful on their own, but the entire recording feels like an integrated work. Is there an overriding theme or message you were exploring with this work?
Josh Garrels: Well, the title of the album is fairly self-explanatory in presenting the themes of love, war, and the sea, but I suppose the overarching story is one of navigating life in a dark and mysterious world with the hope of a homecoming where God has set all things right. I never cease to be intrigued and in awe of how the physical world affects the spiritual, and how the spiritual interacts with the material, so all of the songs tend to be telling stories with dual realities. Not separate realities but hopefully a holistic vision of our epic journey.
One21: We could spend hours discussing each song, but I will limit myself to two. First, let’s discuss “Slip Away”. I will let you tell us your heart behind the song. In the song someone is relentlessly plucking and strumming what I think is a mandolin, which creates a subliminal sense of urgency. That is contrasted by a lilting cello, which sets a melancholy tone. How did that song develop and what are you trying to convey?
Josh Garrels: Once again, two realities were pressing upon me during the creation of this song. One was the flesh and blood reality of many of my peers getting divorced, including one of my best friends who plays on the album. The other reality is experiencing my generation falling away from the faith, including some of me and my wife’s closest friends who literally walked away from Christ to become pagans and worship the individual spirits that reside in tree’s and deer and mother earth. Both of these realities, divorce between humans and divorce from God, are tragic and have deep ramifications. The urgency is that we only have a short time here in this life, and to reach the end of our life without coming to a reckoning of our own betrayal and finding forgiveness will be to live an eternal separation…and that’s a very heavy reality indeed.
One21: Secondly, I want to discuss one of the most striking songs of your career. ”Ulysses” is the type of song that makes a person stop in their tracks to listen. It may be the most ambitious vocal performance of your career. Please, just tell us about “Ulysses”.
Josh Garrels: It was one of those melodies that came to me and made me cry before any words even written yet. When that happens I know there’s something substantial happening within a song, and I’d do well to pay attention. My wife Michelle was also in love with the melody, and the song reaching it’s final refinement is as much her work as mine. She was an english literature major, and she was so jealous for the song to reach the high mark she felt it deserved, that she was a brutal critic and editor of my lines. We had a few “marital moments” of real anger and frustration towards one another, as I just wanted to be done with the song, but she would keep pushing me to find the best way of saying something. I love my wife for this. I kept wavering between abandoning the classic story of Ulysses (which I’ve loved from the time I was a boy), or making the song so literal that it was no longer personal and emotional. With my wife’s help, we reached the delicate balance of honoring the classic epic, while breathing into universal elements that we all can deeply connect to.
Here is Josh doing a stripped down performance of “Ulysses”
One21: Okay, so the question everyone is asking, “How is that Josh Garrels is giving away this epic masterpiece?”
Josh Garrels: In all truthfulness the idea wasn’t mine, and initially the thought of giving it away actually made me angry. I was fighting sickness during the final 4 or 5 months of the creation of the album, and I had literally built the entire album around scratch vocal tracks, for I hadn’t had my full singing voice needed to record the final vocals! I was down to my final few weeks of recording and the lack of a voice had reached a point of crisis. I fasted and prayed and shook my fists at God exclaiming, “why would you lead me to create an album that I can’t even finish!”. When he answered I was put in my place like Job before his Maker. My response was, “Lord, let no one rob You of Your glory!”, and his response shocked me for he said, “Will you?”. I said, “No Lord!”, and he said, “then give it to Me!”. And at that moment I knew what he was asking for. He was asking for me to let go of the album, and all the funds that would come from it! I sat in silence for 20 minutes, let down and angry, as I counted the cost of what it would mean for me and my family to let go of our work and income. And he waited in silence for me to give my answer. I finally exclaimed in true stubborn child fashion, “Alright Lord, it’s Yours!”, and I sensed his pleasure upon this decision. He then proceeded to lay out the ramifications and parameters of the decision, which were; For one year give away as many copies of the album as you can, this will be a year of Jubilee, any money that comes in from the album through itunes, amazon, or song placements must be given away as well, keep nothing. He then asked me what I needed to complete the work and I responded, “A voice! and ten thousand dollars!”. That week my voice came back and a complete stranger from another country wired thousands of dollars into my account. It was unreal. The rest as they say is history.
One21: Wow, that story gives me a deeper appreciation for Love & War & The Seas In Between. This leads me to another line of discussion. If you have a few more minutes I will try to sum it up in one question. John Thompson of EMI and the Wayside has declared that were are returning to a time of the musical troubadour where only the best of the best will be able to make a reasonable living over their lifetime. But none of us yet know how musicians will be able make a living. For you, a man of undeniable musical gifts, a man who is driven to speak truth, a father and a husband, how do you provide for you family while exercising your calling?
Josh Garrels: I agree with John, in that it’s common knowledge that the music industry is like the wild west right now. It’s anyone’s game, but that also means there’s now millions of people trying to win the lottery. For me, six months after the release of Love & War, my plans on how to proceed after this “year of jubilee” are beginning to really take shape. I believe we’re actually on the verge of a new Renaissance in the arts, and that similar to the days of old, artists will be commissioned to create new work, rather than trying to win the attention of potential buyers with sexy packaging. You can already see this happening with the explosion of fan-funding sites like Kickstarter, free music sites like Noisetrade, and the fact that Love & War was completely listener funded . The difference in a new Renaissance, is that the work will not only be funded by wealthy benefactors and royalty, but the “direct to fan” marketplace of the internet will allow the general public be a part of commissioning their favorite artist to “bring forth” new work.
In the recent past, big companies would front a lot of money to an artist to make an album, but the investors main motivation would be to make product that sells, for their goal is to not only recoup their investment but to make money. In this model the artist is left with a huge debt to pay off, so they become motivated to create work that is marketable as well. So in a sense the art becomes merely a product, seen in units to be pushed, and this kills the passion of many honorable artists. However, with commissioned work, the public will take the responsibility of investing in work that isn’t yet created, which is an act of trust and a calling forth, rather than the consumeristic view of art as “product”. And this paradigm shift will also bring new freedom to the artist, to not be ruled by the desire to create something that will merely sell, but to create art that is of worth and service for it’s own sake. In my case, I’m then going to give away my most recent work for free, as a thank you to all who freely give to me. I intend to continue inviting my listeners to invest in new work, and I also intend to give away each new album for a year, along with all revenue from the new work.
Check out the music video for “White Owl” below
you can listen to Josh Garrels incredible new album below in its entirety and download it for free