It's been a few years since rock band Anberlin called it quits, and lead singer Stephen Christian has kept busy leading worship for a church in Albuquerque, New Mexico and working on musical side projects, like Anchor & Braille. Just after releasing his first solo album with BEC Recordings, Wildfires, Stephen chatted with JFH's Roger Gelwicks about the new album, Anberlin, and what life is like now...
This interview took place on: June 20, 2017.
Click here for Stephen Christian's Artist Profile page.
It's a huge jump. I think the only thing that synonymous is basically the fact that I'm still in music. But other than that, life is completely different. I think the biggest thing is being able to wake up next to my wife and kids every morning, which is the biggest thrill of my entire life. It was rough, 12 years on the road, seven of that married, and a couple of those years with kids. It takes a toll on the soul, and I think that's the number one change. But other than that, God still opened the doors for me to write music and play music and record music. What an amazing outlet, and I'm so happy to still be surrounded in the creative world.
Stephen: I think if I'm completely frank and honest, it's being able to run my own life. I know that sounds sarcastic, but for me, I had to succumb to the opinions of many other families and many other people who dictated where life took me, whether that's physically or spiritually. If you're part of a company, I don't care if it's a band or you're part of, like, Apple… when you work for Apple, they kind of dictate your life, where you go, and the projects you work on. And it's just liberating to be able to do what I want to do and go where I want to go. I think that's the biggest... I don't want to say "adjustment" because that sounds negative, but it's one of those freeing, relieving things. And as you said, I definitely dealt with anxiety. I was ready years before Anberlin ended. I was ready in 2011 or 2012 to be done, but I just didn't feel a release from God. I didn't feel like it was time. So, finally, when it came in October 2013, I was sitting at the O2 Arena in London, and I just kind of got that overwhelming what you know the Bible calls "the peace that surpasses all understanding." And I just sat there and I was like "that's it. I feel it. I know it. I know it now." God works all things together for good. So I don't know if I would have this job If I had quit earlier. I don't know what would have happened. I feel like I would have been out of the plan God had. And everything just kind of fell into place. But it was just perfect timing. If it had been up to me, it would have happened earlier, but I made some incredible memories with some incredible people, and I don't regret a single moment of it.
Stephen: I think the first thing I have to say is that leadership is so crucial and vital. Everyone wants to pretend "if we could just do this together," almost like a pseudo-communist ideology, where everyone is equal, no one is better than anyone else. And not that leaders are any better by any stretch of the imagination. Actually, if you subscribe to servant leadership like I do, you put yourself last. You eat last. Servant leadership is saying "I will serve you, and this is the way we go." But when you have a lot of Indians and no chiefs, you will see a dissolution of anything. Whether it's a company or a worship team or anything like that, there's got to be a clear-cut person who's entrusted by the fellow man. And I think that's where Anberlin began to dissolve in 2008 and 2009. I definitely felt like I was the leader of the band. And we were moving us all forward, but as we all grew to be adults, I think everybody began to say, "Oh we can all just do this together." And I think at that point, at the time, it felt right, "Okay, everyone's in charge. It's a democratic system and we're all equal." But I think that's where things turn south. Because it's very hard to explain as a leader, "Okay, but what if we try this differently?" or "Why don't we look outside the box?" It was just some poor decisions that were made because I neglected the role that God called me to. I see that now, but at the time, I thought that was the natural evolution of a band. When you start out, you're all young and I said, "Well, I'll take the charge as the lead singer" and that kind of thing. After a while, it just kind of dissolved. So, I think that's a massively important lesson. When you have all Indians and no chiefs, it just makes it so that there are no decisions are actually made. You spend more time chasing your tail than you do implementing the dreams and concepts that a team can put together. So I would highly suggest a book called "Servant Leadership," where it points to that. Another one is "21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership" by John Maxwell, where it basically says it's innate in us that we follow a leader. That may not necessarily be right when it's taken to the degree of a dictatorship, but when it's done right, it's an institution that we've come to see that works. You've got CEOs and decision-makers to be in charge of those decisions. That's a powerful position within a worship team, and I don't care if it's five people; I have 144 volunteers, and you have to have someone take the lead on that.
Stephen: There's a multitude of factors, and it's not just being a worship director. These songs are basically the cultivation of a lot of stuff that I was writing between December 2014 and December 2015, the year after Anberlin stopped. There's an underlying tone of why Anberlin chose never to be in the Christian market. The first year that we were asked to attend the GMAs and the whole Dove Awards thing, we got a whole horrific taste in our mouths, as far as what the Christian music world was. Being that we were backwoods, Polk County Florida [boys] next door to Orlando, we had no exposure to the Christian scene. The closest we ever got was that we may have gone to a DC Talk show at one time. And that's all we knew. When Tooth and Nail pushed us originally as a Christian band, we wanted nothing to do with the Christian market. For me, I love Jesus Christ with all of my heart, and I felt called to this mission field, and we are the body of Christ and we are the feet that are treading where many Christians wouldn't, but I also had to come to the logical conclusion that not everyone in Anberlin was Christian and no one in our crew was Christian. So, for us to call ourselves a "Christian band," where we would play mostly churches, it would be fake. Everyone was fine with playing a Christian festival here and there. But at the end of the day, I felt transparent. I felt that, at any moment, someone was going to try to see through our band and ask "what are you guys even doing here?" But everyone was very respectful, and nobody trashed Christianity, and nobody wore some crazy T-shirt at a Christian festival. It wasn't like that. They knew the roots of the band, and the roots of my life and the direction I felt called to. I just wanted to be completely honest.
Stephen: Anchor & Braille to me was a conceptual idea in that I wanted to write songs with feeling and depth - hence the name "Anchor & Braille," - in that I want to explore not just my songwriting abilities, but I wanted to coexist within a producer's ideology. So for the first one, you could really hear Aaron Marsh coming through on that record. And the second one, Micah Tawlks from Nashville. For the third one, I purposely sought out an EDM producer, because I wanted him to speak into the record. With my worship stuff, I led the ship. Riley Friesen is an amazing producer, but it was very hands-on. Even though he was very helpful and very easy to bounce ideas off of, the direction was fully mine. It's exciting because both [projects] are kind of an outlet for me. Anchor & Braille is one of those projects that's about whatever I'm into wherever the moment of music takes me. But with this worship project, I understand my community. With the church I go to, Calvary Albuquerque; those are the people I want to reach. If these songs bounce off other churches in communities, that's awesome, but really, Calvary Albuquerque was my focus. It's like, man, I just wanted to write worship for this church. Many of these songs are inspired by the community I was surrounded by here in New Mexico.
Stephen: That's a great question because to be frank with you, if we're not singing it on the weekends, it's probably not what I'm listening to. Hillsong, to me, is incredible. I love the fact that 10 years ago, you could flip through the dial and I could tell which radio stations were Christian. Christian music back then had a "sound" to it. I tried it one time I was in the car with a friend and I was like, "I'm going to play three radio stations for you and I want you to tell me which one's Christian." It's like, "which one had the 90's keyboard?" Somebody's got to scientifically analyze this. *laughter* It's like, you just know. The people pushing the envelope, like Hillsong and Jesus Culture, all these other bands, they're so phenomenal. For me, I was most influenced by the people I was writing songs with for Word Publishing in Nashville. For instance, I did a song with Mike Donehey. A lot of those songs were just a give-and-take with whoever I was in the room with. That was a lot of fun. Without Mike Donehey, this record would not exist. When I first moved to Nashville, he was one of the first people who demonstrated the antithesis of what I experienced at the GMA years before in the fact that the words he was saying on the stage were the same words he was living in real life behind closed doors. It's very real. And I met a series of people like that. That feels legit. That was the aversion of what I had in the early years of Anberlin; it just felt like Christian music was fake. I hear what this one band has to say, and I'd see their actions after they got off the stage, and it's like, "What's different between you and the rest of the world right now?" It was an almost creepy feeling. What were these people here for? Fame, notoriety, and money. That's the same thing with these other bands I've toured with. Just because of use the word "Jesus" instead of the word "baby" doesn't make your band Christian.
Stephen: Real life people. Before I got to Calvary, I would have looked out on a sea of people, I would have seen faces and I would have known a few names, but I would have never had a chance to really hear stories. And now, since I'm also a pastor here, I hear the most insane stories. There's people I thought had it all figured out, and I realize now, no one does. Everyone is struggling and everyone is hurting. And I say that based on circumstantial facts. I had a woman come into my office recently who basically said "I'm struggling with homosexuality." And this lady was the quintessential soccer mom with a minivan, kids, and a husband. She has it all figured out on the outside. Or I'll have somebody tell me they're addicted to pornography or to gambling. Or "I'm struggling with this," or "I'm homeless." And so it's all these stories. So now, when I see a sea of people, I don't see faces or names; I see stories. And that's what this record says to me. I want to meet the needs of these people. I want to talk about real hurt I want to talk about real life. Not only does their story count and matter, But there is hope at the end of the day. I think that's what sets Wildfires apart from any other record I've written.
Stephen: Oh man, that is a great question. I think right off the top of my head, "Gloria." The song is about how intimate God is. If he wanted to, he could be a "Thor-like" God from afar, and watch from a distance, and not care. And yet, he chooses to be a part of our everyday life. And he chooses to be involved in the most intricate details of our lives. That, to me, is profound. He knows us better than our wives or husbands; he is closer to us than our own children. And he takes the time to count the hairs on our head. That is beyond words. That's crazy.
Stephen: That's totally correct. I think two things: One, I think vocally I'll never be able to get away from my voice. That's who I am, so that's obviously going to carry over. Second, I'm a massive fan of super poetic verses, really getting deep into a personal experience, while making the chorus broad and accessible. And I think that hasn't changed. When you look at love, The Beatles did it all. There is no topic from holding your hand, to a song in the dead of night. They touched everything. But still, pop stars find a way to reinvent the word. They're taking the same concept and flipping it upside down. That's the same thing that Christians have to do when they're singing about God. I kind of use a chair as an analogy. We're all singing about the same chair, but we have to flip it upside down and look at it from a different angle. The best worship songs were written in Psalms thousands of years ago. The Bible has said it all. There's nothing in the Bible that has not been said about God. I didn't want to be stereotypical, but I want it to reach a wide array of people. I want people to give it a chance before they know it's a worship project. First, obviously it's a niche genre, but secondly, I want fans that are not Christian (and I'd say 65% of Anberlin fans were not Christians), I want them to buy it and for them to ask what this is even about. I want them to dig deep in the music before they think about it being a Christian record. I don't want it to sound sneaky, but I wanted to sound like what Paul said "Become all things to all men." And I'm sure there's people out there who will never listen to Anberlin the same way again. And they may not like Anberlin anymore, but that's a sacrifice I'm willing to take for the Kingdom of God.
Stephen: It's one of those things where I begin to start craving it. Right now, Wildfires is fulfilling that creative outlet. If I were to guess, we'd record a new Anchor and Braille next July or August and then release it October or November, but I'll definitely tour Anchor and Braille. I miss kind of being on the road, so I want to get a group of guys just to hang out. And I want to put out the first three Anchor and Braille records onto vinyl as one complete set. That's the great thing about making these myself. I'm not in it to make money; I just want to make them so I can own it. It's something I want to show my grandkids someday. So it sounds kind of selfish, and I'll do it on the cheap, but it's something I want to do right by the fans also.
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