With the release of his third full-length album from Inpop Records nearing, Jimmy Needham took some time to answer a series of questions from JFH's Samantha Schaumberg about the new record, Nightlights...
This interview took place on: 5/10/10.
Jesus freak Hideout (Samantha Schaumberg): How would you say your sound has progressed from previous releases into Nightlights?
I think the best way I can describe it is - As I've gotten older, so has my sound. This is the closest I've ever been to the way my music sounds in my head. I grew up on older, vibey music. Stuff like Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and James Taylor. It's only fitting that this record would have that flavor to it. In fact, in honor of James Taylor's music, I did a cover of "How Sweet It Is" on the album. I feel like I'm finally arriving at my own sound. It's taken some tweaking over the past 5 years, but I would hope that my fans would appreciate the maturation that has happened from the last two albums to Nightlights.
JFH (Samantha): The concept of being nightlights when compared to Jesus is expressed in “The Reason I Sing,” and in the benediction at the end of the record. Could you elaborate on this idea?
I find that there is a big tension in the Christian Music community. On the one hand my mission from the stage is completely about the promotion of Jesus. On the other hand, if you come to my shows, you won't find Jesus in the spotlight, you'll find me. You won't find Jesus' face being sold on paper for $3 at the merchandise booth, you'll find me, beaming out at you with my pearly whites. My point is, there is a big element of self-promotion that happens in this business, and I struggle with it. This really came to a head for me about a year and a half ago. I realized that I had lost my joy for what I did. Stepping out on stage used to be this rewarding experience where my biggest concern was whether the Gospel was presented clearly to the folks there. Now it was, "how many CD's did I sell tonight?", "How many folks came?", "Where is my song on the charts this week?" Let me tell you, too much of that can wear a person out. I was spent. If this is what making music was all about, I wanted out. But praise God for opening my eyes to my sin, and to the truth. At about that time, I was reading a book called "The Pursuit of God" by A.W. Tozer. At the end of a chapter he had written the following prayer. It convicted me so deeply then and still does today: "Be Thou exalted over my reputation. Make me ambitious to please Thee, even if as a result I must fall into obscurity and my name be forgotten as a dream." That's the hope of this new record: That we would care so deeply and singularly about the fame of God on Earth that we would be completely indifferent to what happens to our own name in the process. When we see God for who He really is, like a bright blazing sun full of strength and wonder, we can begin to see ourselves properly, as nighlights against a blazing sun.
JFH (Samantha): Can you tell us about how fans were involved in choosing the album's cover?
Jimmy: Well, the scoop is: My label and I found ourselves in disagreement about which cover we thought was best. We had a couple variations of the same idea but couldn't settle on one. So we thought, "Who better to ask than the people who are buying the CD?". So, we posted the 2 possible covers on my facebook page, facebook.com/jimmyneedham. A few hours were given for votes and then we tallied them up. Of course, the one I liked best won. My fans have such good taste.
JFH (Samantha): Do you have a personal favorite song that you're most excited about on the album?
Jimmy: I'm very much excited about the opening track, "Moving To Zion." I wanted to start the whole record off with this song because it is the epitome of the new sound that I've tried to create on Nightlights. It's very funky and almost has the feel of an old "spiritual." Plus, it is one of those songs that I feel like I communicated exactly what I wanted to. A lot of research and thinking went into the crafting of "Moving To Zion" and I am very pleased with it. It's also super fun live.
JFH (Samantha): What music have you been listening to lately?
Jimmy: I'm kind of unusual when it comes to listening to music. Chances are, if I was listening to a handful of artists 4 years ago, I will be listening to the same 4 artists today. So, with that in mind, lately I've been listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder, Michael Buble, Adele, and folks like that. The newest addition to the Jimmy Needham palette has been Jon Foreman and Randy Newman. Honestly, when I'm running or on long drives I'm usually listening to sermon podcasts. I highly recommending checking out my friend Ben Stuart with Breakaway Ministries. One of the best expositors of the Word and communicators I've ever heard.
JFH (Samantha): What is the story behind the song, “Grace Amazing”? It definitely seems like a new sound for you.
Jimmy: "Grace Amazing" was a sort of a dream-come-true for me. It started with a song idea I had about God's sovereign hand in our salvation and how truly remarkable it makes His grace look. I called up a friend of mine, Shane Barnard from Shane & Shane, to help me write it. For those who don't know, I've been a Shane nerd for years. He graciously accepted and we wrote most of the song together. I really felt like it needed one last surprise though, so I gave Trip Lee a ring. He's a hip-hop artist out of Philadelphia and a good friend of mine as well. Somehow, from this hodgepodge of songwriters, all with different musical styles, the song "Grace Amazing" came about. It has such a cool and unique feel and the response to it in concert has been outstanding.
JFH (Samantha): On your last album, Not Without Love, there were a couple love songs, and more come out in Nightlights. Is the creation process different for you when you’re writing songs for your wife when compared to writing more praise-directed songs?
Jimmy: Believe it or not, the songwriting process is very similar for both. This highlights a very important point I'd like to make about Christian music. The reason this process is similar is because as a Christian I believe that creating a song that celebrates my wife can be just as spiritually significant as writing a song that is explicitly about God. Why? Because for the believer in Christ, everything is sacred. For the Christian, everything should be an act of worship. "Therefore, whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). Even the eating of food can be worship, so why should a song about the wonderful God given gift of my bride be any less God honoring than a worship song? For the spiritual, all things are spiritual. Therefore, in my writing process, I still pray that God would give me creativity and an ability to communicate the truth that I want to express. I still thank Him alone when the lyrics come, and I still consider it Christian music.
JFH (Samantha): What is the background behind the song, “Part The Clouds”?
Jimmy: Have you ever just come to the place where you're tired of all the fluff? One thing that frustrates me deeply is beating around the bush. We're all guilty of it on some level. The fear of being rejected and the need to be liked paralyzes us so often from saying what's true. This song is an invitation to change all that. What if we began to treasure the God of the Gospel more than our own reputation? How much more boldness would we have to preach the truth to our friends, our neighbors, our family? I am not calling us to be jerks. The Bible clearly commands us to "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). But I am calling us to have honest, truth-filled dialogue with the people in our lives, even if the content of that dialogue might be hard to swallow. The truth is, the gospel of Jesus is offensive, no matter how nice you make it look. It's like trying to sugar coat a steak: It will never improve the flavor. So knowing this, let part the clouds of vagueness and half-truths and show the world the Son for who He is.
JFH (Samantha): What has God been teaching you lately?
Jimmy: I've been really learning a lot about what it means to feast on Jesus. What I mean is, the Bible uses a lot of food and drink analogies when it refers to what Christ should be for us. He is the "manna from Heaven," the "fountain of living water," "the bread of life," His body is like wine to us. All this language has deeply convicted me because it's made me realize that I seldom feast on Him like I would a good meal. Often, I am content with just knowing facts about my God, and not really knowing Him. I've decided I want to treat Him like He says He wants to be treated: He is the all satisfying, savory, wonderful, filling Bread of Life sent from the Father for my satisfaction. I want to feast on Christ like this.
Jimmy Needham's new album, Nightlights, is available May 18, 2010
wherever music is sold.