I have a longstanding relationship with Sanctus Real's music. It started with their hit song, "I'm Not Alright." This hard hitting rock single was featured on the band's 2006 album, The Face of Love. Now, at the time, I was in search for hard rock Christian music. This song fit the bill perfectly.
But, after listening to other Sanctus Real songs like, "Whatever You're Doing (Something Heavenly)," from the 2008 album, We Need Each Other, I realized that the band's music was quite diverse. For me, Sanctus Real became a frequently listened to band after "Whatever You're Doing." Then, entered "Lead Me."
From the 2010 album, Pieces of a Real Heart, "Lead Me" is one of Sanctus Real's biggest hits; it's a cleverly written piece about men being the spiritual leader in the home. The band's highest charting hit to date came out just when I was getting married in 2010. I took this song seriously as a new husband. It changed the way I looked at love ballads. And, it shaped how I looked at music as a new husband, and the importance of being the spiritual leader at home. My wife, Jodi, and I played the song at our wedding.
Since 2010, Sanctus Real has gone through some transitions. Most notably, the departure of the band's lead singer, Matt Hammitt. Shortly thereafter, the band named singer Dustin Lolli as the new lead. I connected with Dustin and lead guitarist Chris Rohman about their music, their history, and their latest album, Unstoppable God.
Tell us about your new album, Unstoppable God. What’s the album's inspiration? Any specific themes?
This was the album that really wasn't supposed to happen. We released Changedlast spring, and honestly had no plans to come out with a new record so soon. We had written and recorded Changed all on our own without a record label, and the process was pretty exhausting. We were all looking forward to a break from the writing process. After the song, "Confidence," took off, we signed a record deal with Fairtrade who asked us to write a few more songs to release on a deluxe version of Changed.
We went back into the writing room and really got into a groove. Pretty soon, we were halfway through a record. And the label said we might as well do a whole new album. Unstoppable God reflects on our thankfulness to Him for the purpose He had for us even when we couldn't see it. From start to finish, it's a testimony of how He was with us through every low point, but also through some amazing high points as well.
I think one of our biggest themes in this new season as a band is recognizing God in our everyday life. Not just in our Christian safe spaces, but in the mundane stuff, too. We don't want to make it seem easy; it isn’t a one-time cry out to God. This walk is a journey, a compilation of moments both good and bad. We want to encourage people that He hasn't gone anywhere.
Talk about the album's sound. How do the lyrics and sound compare to previous albums?
DUSTIN: Obviously, the biggest change is in the vocals. I do think one of the things we hear a lot is how the band has gone "soft," so to speak. But, in reality, I just think people change and, with it, their tastes in music. I'll also be really honest and say that this is how we feed our families. So, of course we have to write music that reaches a larger group of people.
The truth is the transition began with the song, "Lead Me," and kind of continued from there. My voice is so different from Matt's, so of course the songs are going to have a different feel. He has a unique and distinct voice. And this thing would have never worked if I tried to copy that. I also love soulful music and so you can hear a little bit of that in some of the new songs as well.
Unstoppable God is Dustin's second record with the band. How has the band evolved–lyrics, music, sound, everything–since Sanctus Real got a fresh start? Also, what's it like to perform older songs with a new singer?
DUSTIN: Those are great questions. I think every evolution that has happened since I've been in the band has been a very natural process. One of the best parts of being with this group of guys is that everything has been organic from day one. Obviously, we have to stay within our market. But, we write things that we like, things that move us. Obviously, we're drawing from our own experiences. And I think that is why songs tend to connect to listeners. I love performing some of the older songs. From day one, the guys allowed me the freedom to put my personality on the amazing songs they already had in their repertoire. I think the hardest part is just figuring out ways to keep the show fresh and unique.
CHRIS: Looking back to when Dustin first joined us, I can't help but feel like we've shed multiple layers of skin already. We focused so much time on writing music that I can say that's the area we've grown the most in. We fell into a rhythm as friends so quickly that the songwriting became a natural extension of the friendship and never felt like 'work.' As grateful and excited as I am for what we've seen happen up to this point, I'm equally as excited to keep exploring this new creative relationship.
We've consistently kept a handful of our older songs in the setlist with Dustin. And we've gotten so used to hearing him sing them now that it doesn't feel unnatural to us with him singing. I love that he sings these songs with so much heart that it's never felt like karaoke hour.
"Jesus Loves You" screams out, "Even in your toughest times, Jesus is there for you." I like the real-life examples in the verses you use to illustrate this message. Are these examples real–that is, examples taken from a personal space?
DUSTIN: "Jesus Loves You" is a really special song for us. Chris and I started it almost three years ago. But for some reason, we just couldn't finish it. I don't really know why; just nothing seemed to click. Fast forward a few years, we're playing a hometown acoustic show in Perrysburg, Ohio. And Chris meets his Sunday School teacher from when he was six years old. She has this old bible that she has had for years. She opens it up and there is this picture that Chris had drawn for her over thirty years ago. She tells him that every time she opens her bible and sees this picture, she prays for him. That kinda wrecked Chris that night and he tells me that we've got to finish that song.
I think the song has a little bit of all of us in the verses. From the nervous kid--which is Chris--to the feeling lost and empty--which is all of us--to walking with your daughter who is now experiencing the same things you did growing up. It's a song, for me, that helps me realize the importance of laying the foundation of faith not only to the strangers I meet, but to my own children.
CHRIS: I remember when we had the initial idea for the song a few years ago and recorded a voice memo of it on my back porch. I knew the song had something special even in that moment. But we didn't have a landing place for what the real message was going to be. Ultimately, it became so clear to us after that run-in with my Sunday School teacher that the song's message needed to be as simple as the messages I heard when I was six years old. If there's any song at this point I could say is the most important to me, in terms of the powerful message it conveys, it's "Jesus Loves You."
Death to life. "Lazarus" uses John 11:1-44 to illustrate how we're saved by God each and every day. How can a song like this be applicable to someone suffering from cancer, anxiety and other health issues, as well as grief and other life struggles? Do you think this song could minister to seekers?
DUSTIN: We have so many songs in our Christian world that are about God fixing things in our lives. We see mountains in our way, or big valleys we have to cross and we want God to get us out of those things pronto. The problem with too much of that is there are too many episodes of God not repairing things. People still die from cancer; we see grief and anger and hurt all around us. Are we just doing mental gymnastics or does God really make a difference in our lives?
I think the song, "Lazarus," is more about living a lifestyle of freedom. It's about recognizing that love has overcome and even death has been defeated. Hope for someone with cancer is about more than being healed, it's about being loved and knowing that death is not the end. I believe you can be dead while still being alive. But, true Christianity says no matter what situation I'm in, I am content, because He loves me and has made me alive. That is true Kingdom living.
"Lead Me" is one of Sanctus Real's best charting hits. It's obviously a personal story for Matt. What song have each of you written and recorded that comes from your most personal moments? What are the key messages in each song?
DUSTIN: I'll speak for myself here and go back to a song on the album, Changed. I was new to the whole Christian music scene and really just trying to find my way. Most people don't really understand how difficult the process is of taking over for an established band and a very talented and successful singer, especially when nobody knows who you are. There wasn't a ton of support from the industry. I think most people didn't believe that this could work. They took more of a 'wait and see' approach. However, we really did feel that God called us to this. And, we did our best to trust that somehow this thing was going to work.
I had a particularly difficult weekend with a person who took the opportunity to make sure I knew that I was a nobody. It was a rough weekend and I had to work through a lot of fear and feelings. When we got home, I was sitting in Chris's basement just talking to God while strumming a guitar. In that time, I wrote a song. It is the only song on the record I wrote by myself and it happened in about 15 minutes.
The chorus says, "And I am blessed beyond compare/To find my joy in things that last/ Finding peace in who I am/Rather than my circumstance/And I'd rather hear one simple phrase from my Fathers loving voice/Than to hear the praise of strangers/For my hope is in the Lord." "My Hope Is In the Lord" was my anthem during some of the most difficult times, and will always be a very personal song for me.
CHRIS: It seems some of my favorite and most personal songs are the closing songs on our albums. On both Changed and Unstoppable God, the last songs hit closest to home for me. On Changed, the song, "Breaking Point" is such a beautiful conversation between ourselves and God, talking through the daily moments we have of fully surrendering our lives to Christ. On Unstoppable God, the song "More" is one that I instantly felt a connection to while we were writing it, because I so often don't feel worthy of God's love. The song reminds us that God's capacity to love us is literally endless. And there are no limits with God. What a huge concept to close a record with.
In early September, a pastor took his life. This event shines the light on suicide in Christian circles. Do you see this being a theme you'd write about in the future?
DUSTIN: Oh, man. When I first saw this on the news, I honestly felt a little bit of anger. Not at the pastor, or anything even related to the event, but an anger that the message of Christ seems to be failing this generation. Or, is it that what we believe about Christ is failing us.
I have been a pastor for quite a few years, I have talked people down from suicide. I have seen depression and know just how real it is. My heart breaks for those who are quietly suffering through anxiety, fear, but most of all, lack of importance or value. Yet, the message of Christ is one of inherent value and worth.
So, where is the disconnect? Are we looking for a God who just makes us more important, more favored, so to speak? Or, are we looking for a God who says you are already valuable, so go tell others that they are, too? If Jesus' whole purpose was to offer hope and value and our leaders are taking their own lives, I have to ask again, where is the disconnect?
We must recognize that gain in this world is not necessarily the blessing of God in lives. Fame and social media tend to cover up the pain that many people feel. It is a barrier to actual hope. Social media has made everyone the counselor and, quite frankly, most of us need to be counseled. Not with pithy quotes, or feel good statements. But with real faith in a real God who sometimes calls us to suffer for others, and still be content. Sometimes people need to step back from wanting more from God, and just be God to someone else.
What's next? How can we be praying for you?
DUSTIN: What is next is in God's hands. We'll be doing some touring here in the fall and through the spring and we are praying that the songs we have will impact people the way that God wants them, too. We'd appreciate prayers for the future, just to stay within whatever plan God has. Oh yeah, and for this new baby of mine due in the spring.
Paul Phillips is a Canadian journalist with over 10 years of experience writing and editing digital and print content. He specializes in health, fitness, nutrition, and travel. He loves music, movies, and, of course, living for Jesus.
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