If you see a yellow balloon floating in the sky, say a prayer. Somewhere a family is mourning the loss of a loved one. A yellow balloon has come to symbolize hope effortlessly drifting into the expansive blue abyss above. In need of hope, a year-and-a-half ago, singer/songwriter David Dunn and his family released balloons the color of sunshine into the sky at the memorial service for his 2-year-old niece. It was a blow that hit without warning and a cloud that hangs over the singer's head to this day.
"We tend to have these catastrophic moments where things implode and the world we know goes up in smoke," Dunn observes, reflecting on the time that's passed since the release of his debut, Crystal Clear. "The majority of my heart and mind have been focused on really just one big event that happened to my family." During a rare visit to his hometown of Midland, Texas, for a show, Dunn stopped by his sister's house to visit his two young nieces. Before he left, his sister put the youngest down for a nap, but she never woke up. To this day, the cause of death remains illusive, leaving the family with a broken heart and a well of unanswered questions. Over the course of nearly nine months, Dunn channeled his grief into his sophomore set for BEC Recordings, Yellow Balloons.
His 2015 full-length debut was well received and even spawned a Top 20 radio hit with "Today Is Beautiful." Dunn originally began performing his own songs during his college years. He graduated from Texas Tech University with a degree in engineering and then spent a transformative 13 months in Africa doing mission work. It wasn't until he returned to the States that he started pursuing music full-time. Dunn now calls Nashville home and has had the opportunity to write with some of the Christian community's finest songwriters, many of whom he collaborated with on Yellow Balloons, a synth-soaked pop album boasting heavy beats and honest, heartfelt lyrics.
For the Texas-native, his niece's passing caused an explosion in the midst of his quiet world. "A 2-year-old is just coming into their personality. She had really started knowing and loving her people, just started talking, and she knew she loved me," he offers. "So it's hard to put any kind of good spin on it, or even when it comes to God, it's really difficult to do anything but get mad at Him."
The singer co-produced his new album alongside Josh Bronleewe (We Are Messengers, Ginny Owens). With his niece at the forefront of his thoughts, Dunn began to pen cuts that fell into two categories: songs about kids and songs about heaven. "Almost every record you listen to of mine, all of them are snippets of some period of time in my life," Dunn shares. Yellow Balloons is no exception.
The title track, a moving slow burn of a ballad that closes the collection, chronicles the incident and the aftermath that followed in heartbreaking detail. Dunn says it took him eight months to finish the song after reworking it countless times. He asked his sister who had lost her daughter to write it with him.
"I wanted to write a song that went, 'This terrible thing happened, and it might've happened to you in some way--whoever you are, listener--but God is in control and he knows what He's doing.' And I believe that," he says before adding an addendum. "I do believe that, but I don't feel that way. There's no explanation. And so it ended up just being a song saying, 'This is really bad, God, and I'm not going to pretend like it's OK because it's not; but the one thing that I do know is that if You're not here with us--with me--when we're going through this, then it's an unscalable mountain.'"
In contrast to the dark, deeply emotional overtones of the title cut, sunny, nostalgic lead single "I Wanna Go Back" reveals a resolute longing for childlike faith. "We almost always talk about little kids in degrading terms. 'Stop acting like a kid. Act like an adult.' We say things like that all the time. I do it all the time," Dunn confesses. "If you look in the Bible, the majority of the time Jesus speaks about kids, it's almost always in positive terms. He's encouraging people to be more like kids, not less like them--especially when it comes to faith.
"When I was a kid, the only things that mattered were that Jesus was--He existed--and that He loved me. The rest of it didn't matter," he continues. "'I Wanna Go Back' was very much a wishing to go back to the time where I hadn't gotten so smart that I became stupid."
The pop-laden backbeat of "Worry" also hearkens back to simpler, carefree times experienced during the wide open fields of childhood. "I started thinking about why little kids don't really worry," Dunn shares of the impetus for the new track. "When I was a kid I went to Vacation Bible School and heard all these crazy stories about a God who was so big and so powerful that He could part the sea; and he could keep a man from getting eaten by a lion in the lion's den; and He could have a little boy kill a giant guy with a stone. These stories I ended up hearing about God made the world a place that was the opposite of scary... There was no reason to worry, and that still holds true as an adult."
Dunn penned the hopeful "Grace Will Lead Me Home" with A-listers Hank Bentley and Benji Cowart. "It's outside the scope of what I would normally record," he admits of the corporate worship track, originally intended to be pitched to another artist. "'Grace Will Lead Me Home' is really just a song about looking forward to being with God. This world is a difficult place, and there's a lot of things that happen, and I'm just looking forward to being with Jesus."
Staying true to his left-of-center sonics explored on Crystal Clear, the percussive "Kingdom" draws from the parables of Jesus that point to true kingdom work. "Most of the time when He refers to the kingdom of heaven, He's talking about the way we treat one another," Dunn observes. "The main difference between heaven and earth is that heaven is a place where exclusively God's will is done; and so when we do that here on earth, we are actually bringing heaven to earth. The kingdom of heaven--the kingdom of God--I think is a thing that exists here and now if we are ushering it in by treating each other the way God wants us to treat each other. Just like the Lord's prayer says: 'Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.'"
Perspective shifter "Ruins" serves as a reminder that God is using the shattered pieces wrought from immense personal loss to build something beautiful. "Your world implodes, and it's in pieces. From our perspective, that's really awful, but there's a really good chance, even if you can't see it while it happens, that it's actually one of the better things that could happen to you," he says. "My life might be crumbling to pieces and wasting away to ruins, but God needs those pieces of rubble to build the new bigger and better me."
In the midst of their own ruins, gradually, Dunn and his family are beginning to see the first remnants of God's faithfulness following his niece's unexpected passing. Shortly after her unexplained death, his sister and brother-in-law learned they were pregnant again, quiet proof that beauty exists amidst ashes. "There's no doubt in my mind that God is moving in the situation because there were some touches of grace to our family afterwards," Dunn concedes.
And while questions remain and grief is still palpable, Dunn is certain that the God he continues to put his faith in is constructing a work of art--piece by broken piece. "God is this master builder," he explains. "He's a craftsman, and if He doesn't have the correct pieces to be able to build the best version of you, then a lot of times the best thing that could happen to you is that your life goes up in smoke."
Just when we think we've lost all hope, the clouds part, and through the fog we see a helium-filled reminder that God is at work in all things. Dancing an unmarked course across the sky, when you least expect it, there it is...a yellow balloon.