In a genre where listeners often complain that music isn't genuine enough, Jason Gray stands tall as an absolute exception. While the case may be made that much of music these days is fluffed-up or sugar-coated, Jason is among the bold few who still write gut-wrenchingly honest songs, and he does so in a brilliant way that makes his music a source of comfort for many in difficult seasons. Though he writes largely about pain and loss, hope and redemption are threaded through each song as a refreshing reminder that it's fully okay to not be okay and to admit our brokenness, knowing that Christ is with us in our grief, and because of that, our wounds are Where the Light Gets In.
I caught up with Jason this fall at a tour stop in North Carolina, where he graciously sat down for a deep, wisdom-packed conversation about his creative songwriting tactics, the hard situations that sparked his last few albums, the way God has turned his worst circumstances into meaningful moments through shared honesty and the Hope that keeps him looking forward even in darkness.
You are one of the most honest and profound songwriters I've ever heard. Is that something that you have to try for every time you write, or does it just come naturally?
Gosh, I hope I'm being honest. I want to be. I think I'm being truthful. I would say that I've always valued risking complete disclosure, like, "here I am, here's everything that's going on in my own heart and life." I've always tried to just be an open book.
I would say in the last 4 or 5 years with all that was happening in my life and in my marriage, I had to learn how to be careful because there were other people's storied involved. So I had to become more and more intentional about the language I used so that I could protect everybody. There are other people in my life and their story intersects with mine--an example is my ex-wife--but her story is hers to tell, it's not for me to tell. So how do I tell my story being respectful of that and our kids and all that kind of stuff? So it has become a very narrow path to walk with words. That's not a bad thing, I've just become aware of it.
Then there's also considering the audience and what they can bear and understand. I want to do what I do as a service to my audience, and so I have to be mindful of what language resonates with them.
Here's something I learned from one of my heroes, Walt Wangerin. I was talking with him about how I share my story as I just came through this divorce. I struggled with wanting to be authentic and telling my audience where I was at because it was six years of a living hell for me, and then feeling like I couldn't talk about it was awful. I'd have to be what they needed me to be when they picked me up at the airport, took me to the church to meet everybody, then I'd go in my green room and I'd sit in the corner and cry, then pull myself together and do the show, meet everybody afterwards, and then I'd go back to my hotel room and crumple on the floor and just weep. It would feel more honest if I could have just told everybody "this is the storm I'm in." I was afraid I wasn't being authentic.
But Walt said, "no, you're doing the right thing. It's important to wait until a chapter closes before you talk about it with your audience." If you're in the middle of the chapter and you talk about it, you don't realize it, but you're asking your audience for something. You're either asking them for sympathy or support, or to be on your side or something like that. If you wait until the chapter is closed, then when you talk about it, you actually have something to give. My authenticity and my honesty, I reserve most of that for my friends, my family, my mentor and the people who speak into my life, and then I bring as much of that as is helpful to my audience. Telling the truth is very valuable to me, and I try to do it in a way that is loving for my audience. I believe my main job is to love my audience, and so in all that I share, I try to do it in a way that is loving. I don't want to bleed on people.
As for the profound part, I am curious. One of the things I value most in people is curiosity, and I feel grateful that I have a curious mind. I'm curious enough that I'm interested in seeing a common truth in an uncommon way, with just that slight change in perspective that gives more understanding than I had before. I like to write songs that accomplish that in people's hearts.
I think the deepest truth is essentially paradoxical: it's through our weakness that His strength is perfected, it's our failure that puts us most in touch with grace, it's destruction that brings about renewal. It's these opposites. I think Jesus' teaching almost always defied expectations. You couldn't predict what He was going to say. I'm always looking for a way to have those moments in my own songs.
So when you write those hard songs like "Not Right Now" or "Death Without A Funeral," what is it like for you to release them to people? Is it scary?
No, songs about pain like that are very meaningful for me because I'm taking awful circumstances and trying to make them work for God. So it feels like this thing that happened in my life is death, but if it can be used to bring a little bit of life into the world, then it's not wasted and it becomes meaningful. I never imagined this would be me, but it seems the part I get to play is that I get to write songs that are with people in their grief. There's just something really beautiful about that.
Love Will Have The Final Word was more about brokenness and pain, and Where The Light Gets In is more joyful and celebration. It has some of those other elements as well, but for the most part it's more upbeat. What's the transition between those two albums?
I think the songs on the new album reflect that I'm entering a new chapter in my life. When you go through something hard or painful, you talk about it a lot. You're updating the people in your life a lot about what's going on, and it dominates the conversation, but then after a while you might still be in the midst of the hardship, but you're like "I'm just kind of worn out about talking about this--I want to talk about something else, I want to talk about the things I'm looking ahead to in the future." I think that's a good way of understanding the songs on my new record. I needed to change the conversation. I'm still in the midst of a lot of pain, but looking forward.
So Switchfoot also released an album this year with a title very similar to yours. It was among a string of light-themed releases this year. What do you think the draw is to that topic, and why has so much of CCM centered on that?
I'm encouraged by it. I remember when I wrote "Remind Me Who I Am." I wrote and we recorded and released it, and then I discovered that a lot of conversation in the church at that time was about identity. That made me feel that whatever the Holy Spirit was doing, somehow I got to be a part of that. I feel that way about this too. Jon Foreman--of anybody who does what I do, he's the best. It was a bummer at first, mostly because I didn't want people to perceive that I was copying them. But yeah, I think there's been so much anxiety in Christendom in America about performance and getting it right and living a victorious Christian life. I think the way this new conversation is going is that failure, pain, difficulty, imperfection--these all precede transformation. These are what God uses to make us new. So you don't have to be anxious about these things, you just have to be surrendered and trust. I think that's one of the most healing truths.
You just announced your Christmas Stories Tour, and you've said that that album is the one you're most proud of. Tell us about the tour and why you love that album so much.
As a songwriter, it was an interesting challenge to write songs from the perspective of each of the characters in the Christmas story. Again, I wanted to look for that angle that at least I hadn't heard before. I think because I knew that there wasn't as much pressure on those songs to be radio-ready, I got to just dig in to these characters and their stories, which meant digging into my own story. It was so much fun. I think anything that we can do to humanize others and become more human ourselves is very healing. When I play the songs, their stories bring healing to me, so hopefully that happens to other people when they hear it.
How can people be praying for you in this season of your life?
If people would like to pray for me, I'll let the Holy Spirit reveal that. It's a new season, it's a challenging season. A lot to be thankful for... so yeah, I would appreciate the prayer.
Caitlin Lassiter is a North Carolina girl that loves Jesus, music, concerts, writing, C.S. Lewis, and sweet tea... She's also a worship leader dreaming of traveling the world to share God's love.
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