Somewhere on a Virginia highway, the old school bus finally gave out. The 1987 Ford, painted gray like a prison bus--this is Josh Smith's unsparing description--had served Ashes Remain well for years. Its top speed was 47 mph. It had no shocks. Yet it was also the band's touring home. And in so many ways, it fit them. They'd traveled from coast to coast, feeling every bump in the road. But the bus had faithfully taken them to venues where they delivered their brand of raw, honest rock. It was a sad day several years ago when they stripped the bus down and sold it to a scrap yard. "I think it built us," says Smith, the band's co-founder and frontman, literally and figuratively meaning the bus and its rough ride. "That's why we are the band we are. It's never been easy--but I don't know, we just love it."
Smith knows, too, that the journey--all those years touring as independent artists, building a core of committed fans while commercial success sometimes seemed tantalizingly just out of reach--isan authentic testimony, much like the message through the years in their music. Even as Christ-followers, the road isn't always smooth. It's a fight to break addictions, to overcome doubts, to forge past failure, tofind and maintain faith. But it's well worth it.
More than 15 years since their founding, the journey continues for Ashes Remain with the release of Let The Light In(BEC Recordings). The band, which has carved out a place in Christian rock, sees its first full album in six years as both a "thank you" to its fans and a continuing effort at, as Smith puts it, "a simple conversation." Smith and his bandmates--co-founder Ryan Nalepa (rhythm guitar), Rob Tahan (lead guitar), Ben Kirk (drums) and Jon Hively (bass)--have always been committed to the idea that they're not role models but "broken people who need Jesus," and to the truth that many of their fans are going through the same struggles.
Let The Light Inis a musically diverse collection. Its 10 tracks encompass everything from hard-driving rock to melodic pop ballads. "I feel like it's everything we've ever done," Smith says, "and it's things we've never done." The title flowed from the cut "All I Need," which Smith wrote about his marriage and how he and his wife have come through hard times through commitment. He also sees parallels with his relationship with God. "I know every generation feels that the world is getting darker, turning more and more evil," he says. "But I really believe that if we cling to God and cling to each other, that's how we let the light in. That's how we change the world. We've just got to love each other. It's important for me to remind myself every day that no matter where Ashes Remain is, the best thing we can do is love the people in the room, the people right in front of us."
For lead single "All Of Me," the band worked with GRAMMY® Award-winning producer Seth Mosley and Mike "X" O'Connor. Smith calls the experience and the vibe "incredible, probably the easiest we've ever recorded." But Smith likes the song equally as much for its lyrics. He calls it "the most honest song I've ever written," beginning with these opening lines: I'm a mess of contradictions, I'm a doubter who believes.
"For me personally, and I have to believe for so many others, we feel like we're not allowed to say, 'Hey, I've got my doubts here,'" Smith says. "When you become a Christian, it can feel like you need to have most of this stuff figured out and your doubts should be a thing of the past. I don't doubt God, or who He is, or my salvation, but I'm still working through so much."
The rest of the album was produced by Mikey Howard of 7eventh Time Down and has a cohesiveness that is a byproduct, Smith says, of the group's longevity. Thematically, he adds, the album is encapsulated in a lyric from the song "Greater Things," where he wrote about "the little things that matter so much more than we know, like a simple conversation. I was trying to get across that 'Hey, we love each other. We love you. And that to me is the biggest and smallest idea in all of Christianity at the same time.'"
Let The Light In also showcases rock single "Rise," a guitar-driven anthem Smith says is a signature Ashes Remain song--the one song that, both musically and lyrically, captures "who we are." "Captain" tackles addiction--and if the subject is dark, the light breaks through with the truth that freedom is found in God. "I'm so tired of seeing people in my life just destroyed by addiction," says Smith, and he thinks the song is destined to become a staple at Ashes Remain shows. Nalepa takes a rare turn on vocals on the cut. Smith also is proud of "Six Feet Down," which explores the theme of sacrificing your life for a cause. He wrote it while studying the history of the Alamo and relates it to military personnel and first responders, "anyone who puts their life on the line knowingly--that concept of bravery blows me away."
Ashes Remain has a softer side too, spotlighted in ballads like "Follow" and "All I Need"--but it's rock that has defined the band throughout their career, and there's plenty of it on Let The Light In. Reaching those who might not be listening to traditional worship and pop music, Smith says, "I feel like people need this. I need this. The reason I write these songs is that it's therapy for me, and the bands I choose to listen to speak to me on this level. We've stuck to our guns musically not because we think it's cool, but because we think it's necessary."
That was true from the very beginning when Smith and Nalepa met while leading worship at a youth camp in Maryland. There was an immediate connection. Over the course of four summers working at the camp, they began to wonder whether there was more in their future and prayed about the opportunity to play together. When Smith got a call from a church in Maryland to be their worship leader, he knew they'd gotten an answer. He moved. They started making music together. And it all made sense.
Years earlier, Smith's personal journey into music grew out of tragedy. His father is a country musician and his older brother, Robert, was also a talented musician. In 1996 Robert was killed in a car accident and Josh, a teenager at the time, was shattered. "It has impacted my life in that when you lose someone that close, you grieve differently going forward," he relates. "Nothing else carries that impact. Everything else feels more peripheral."
It also poured ambition into him. Where he'd been content to watch his father and brother on the stage, after Robert's death, Josh's desire to make music grew. "When we lost Robert," Smith says, "there was a part of me that realized, 'I need to answer this call.' There's always a part of me, it'll probably never change, that feels like I'm carrying the family torch."
And Ashes Remain continue to carry the torch for Christian rock as well with Let TheLightIn, and with the authenticity built mile after bumpy mile on that old school bus. "I'm super thankful that God somehow gave us the drive," Smith says.