It's been three years since the lights went down on Anberlin's illustrious alt rock career. Those three years have seen a lifetime of transformation for lead singer Stephen Christian, whose smooth, dynamic vocal tones guided Anberlin's 12 year trajectory. That transformation has led him to a rebirth, and now with Wildfires, his voice soars once again--this time, leading the Church in worship.
I had the chance to talk to Stephen about his new music, his transition to ministry and his journey to this unlikely musical location.
Anberlin disbanded at the end of 2014. Since then you've moved, you've been on staff with a church and you wrote a new album. Do you want to walk through the timeline of how all those things fit together?
So 2014, we had ended the band. I was very excited because I had been ready for two or three years to finish Anberlin, but I just didn't feel the release from God. I felt like something was left unfinished, and I should stick around. Finally in 2013, I really felt like OK, one year left, that's it. And we finished (in my opinion) very strong. We put out one last record, we did a world tour from Australia to Brazil to Asia to the United States.
When I got out of the band, I had already lined up three jobs. I felt like all three incomes together were good, and I could work from home on all of them. But by the end of January, they were all three dissipated. The record label I was working for folded. One other job outsourced my job. Then one was wanting me to transition from social media to sales, and I'm just not a salesman! So it felt like OK, I'm on my own here God. I don't know what to do.
In that time I said "OK, I'm going to do whatever I can, whatever's at my fingertips--I'm just going to work hard at it." And what that was, was a publishing deal with Word Records. I was writing for other artists. And a lot of those worship songs that I wrote for other people, I realized shortly "man, this is the overflow of my heart."
So in that time, that torturous time, that anxiety, stress-ridden time, is where a lot of these songs came from. That's why a lot of these songs are about trusting in God, holding onto His promises, realizing that tomorrow is in His hand. All those kinds of lyrics are not cliché, are not just cutting and pasting something from Proverbs. They're literally the overflow and the heartbreak of that time period.
And much later--like I said, I lost the jobs in January--it wasn't until May that I finally took a job here in Albuquerque, New Mexico working at Calvary Albuquerque as the creative pastor. And then after I got my sea legs, as it were, as worship director, I felt kind of the release that OK, I've got this, so I'm going to put out my worship record now.
So were all of these songs created before you took the job, or is it kind of a mix of when you were with Word Publishing and then after you moved?
It's definitely a mix. I would say the majority were written in Nashville before I left, but a lot of them have not only been revised, but been rewritten since that.
You've got Sarah Reeves doing a guest vocal on this album. Aside from that, did anybody collaborate with you on the writing stage?
Oh absolutely! After signing with Word Publishing in 2014, I would go collaborate with different people for their own projects. As soon as I saw people putting holds on these songs, which is what they do to say they wanted to put it on their record, I realized like oh my gosh, that's me! Those are my songs! I needed to put those out, I needed to tell those stories because I believed them, every time I was able to sing them or will sing them. That's my story. Those are my songs.
Do any of these songs specifically stand out as helpful in processing what you were going through at that point in your life?
The song "Trust." You know, "I will trust You with my whole heart." I had to do that, I had to sing that, I had to write that, as almost a reminder to me. Like I am going to fail, I'm going to falter, I have no clue about the future. It is absolutely imperative that I get that off my chest and kind of reiterate that to God.
As you were putting this together and you had all the lyrics that were, as you said, that natural overflow of your heart, how did you figure out what you wanted this album to sound like? Where did the sonic inspiration come from?
I'm worship director at a church of 17,000. You look out and see faces, and not a single one of them will look alike. The age demographic is so broad, the color, the race, the creeds, the theology, the stories behind all those faces. They are all so different.
For me, I wanted to reach everybody. I wanted to reach as many people as I possibly could, understanding that if I just made an Anberlin 2.0, I couldn't. I really felt like I wanted to reach out to someone who's 80 and somebody who is 14. So I think sonically, that's where the record's gone. I really drew a lot from my Anberlin days as far as writing stories that were absolutely personal about my life and sharing them with the masses. Also, I was always influenced by 80s and electronic music, and I see them seeping their way into this music as well.
Are you thinking that this is a one-time deal, or do you have more songs to keep releasing more records in this vein in the future?
I'm absolutely going to put out more records in this vein in the future. I love it, the process was incredible. I love studio life, I love songwriting. And knowing at the end of the day that these are for the glory of God? That's all that I'm in it for.
I don't want notoriety. I don't want fame. I literally walked away from all that stuff. I don't want to tour. I don't want to see another tour bus for as long as I live if I can help it! But these are strictly from an overflow of the heart. Like even if for instance tomorrow "Gloria," my lead single, blows up and is number 1 in the nation, I'm honestly going to show up tomorrow to work here at church. I love this job, I love the pastor, I love the people that I work with.
So all that to say: yes. I absolutely want to put out more records like this. For God's glory and, again, just the overflow of my heart.
You've kind of mentioned elsewhere that your time in Anberlin prepared you and equipped you in an interesting way for being a worship pastor?
Yeah, absolutely. It did in many different ways. Prior to being in a church, I still loved to talk to fans and get their stories. I loved to hear their hearts, I loved to propel them in life and inspire them to be more, to live a life that not only was glorifying God, but to be an inspiration to others. So that's one way. But also obviously in songwriting and being on a stage.
I think that they're different in many ways as well. For instance, in Anberlin, all the members weren't Christian. So it's not like I could get on a stage and really let the Holy Spirit move and talk about Jesus every night. It was more of a source of entertainment. Coming to a worship team, there's nothing more different than entertaining. If you're up there to entertain, you're in the wrong motivation. If you're up there to propel your solo career or your career as an artist, you're up there for the wrong reasons. You are simply there to be a catalyst in the throne room of God. And anything other than that is borderline blasphemous.
You said that you don't have a lot of desire to tour this album heavily. Is there a future for you playing these songs live?
I don't know--I really don't. Part of me is just kind of like "that's the natural progression of a record cycle: you get into a tour bus and drive around and play new songs for people." Then the other part of me is like, I have missed so many first steps and first words and first smiles and moments with my family that I'm not sure if that's ever even plausible in my foreseeable future.
But as cliché as it sounds, it's up to God. I'm sure that He can work it out. He understands, and He knows the desires of my heart because He planted them there. And He knows that I love my family. And if there's opportunity to tour a couple dates here and there, with my family? Then I am all about it. But other than that, I really don't feel the need to jump back in and do it all over again.
Wildfires by Stephen Christian is available now here. Stay tuned for part two of our conversation next week.
Associate Editor Mary Nikkel’s love for writing, photography, videography and rock and roll have all been bound together by her love for Jesus, leading to her role with NRT. Her favorite things include theology and Greek language studies, obscure Nashville coffee shops, all things related to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and pushing the boundaries enacted by societal norms. She blogs at Threads of Stars.
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