Jesusfreakhideout.com's Cathy Payton sat down with Trevor Morgan [Wonderlight, The Blessed and the Broken] after a recent acoustic show to talk about how he began his music career, his songwriting process, and what we can expect next from him...
This interview took place on: June 23, 2012.
Jesus freak Hideout (Cathy Payton): At what age did you first become interested in music, and how did you decide it would be your profession?
Trevor Morgan: Well, I honestly can't remember--as long as I can remember. Every memory I have is pretty much I was in love with music. Even before I can remember, my mom would tell me that I had a Winnie the Pooh guitar and I would watch TV and see people with guitar straps, and so I took a piece of string and made my own guitar strap. I would just sit in front of the TV and play guitar and sing along. Music was not a big thing in my house; I am an only child and didn't have any brothers or sisters that were into it. My parents weren't musical. My dad sang in the church choir, but no one-not even extended family-played any instruments. I didn't come from music and so it was just one of those things that, for some reason, God put the desire in me from an early age. I harnessed that early, starting singing in church probably when I was 6 or 7, singing solos. I grew up in choir all through church. I sang in the children's choir, the youth choir; began taking piano lessons in third grade. Music was always there, I think. When I really decided to do it seriously was probably college. When I got to college I started leading worship at a big campus ministry and while I was doing that I started a band with a bunch of other guys with that same ministry. But while we were doing that we started playing out-we were playing clubs, fraternity parties, sorority houses and all those things. And all of a sudden I started getting paid for it, and I was like, "Man, hey, can I make a living doing this?" It was a whole lot better than other things I've done to make a living. I think that kinda clued me in to the fact that maybe I could do this as more than just a hobby. And then people always kinda tie that into, why Christian music? Once I actually started writing songs that was what just came out. It wasn't an intentional thing, of going "I want to be the next Stephen Curtis Chapman" or anything like that. It was just like this was what's on my heart, and what's coming out are songs about my faith, things I'm struggling with, things I've been delivered from, things that I'm encountering, things I'm seeing in other people. Songs were coming out about Jesus and it wasn't an intentional thing, it just happened.
JFH (Cathy): I'd like to ask you more about that. I read in an early interview that when you started as a songwriter in Nashville you were writing pop and Christian songs and were working with Will Owsley [brief interruption by a listener to say thank you to Trevor]. And so you're saying it wasn't a conscious decision to choose Christian music over mainstream?
Trevor: Well, I will say there was always a part that I felt like God put me in a situation in college where I was doing both; I was leading worship and going out playing, in bars. I feel like it kinda gave me a perspective that you could do that, that it wasn't taboo to do that.
JFH (Cathy): Same music? *laughs*
Trevor: Well no, it was different. I wasn't going out there playing "Shout to the Lord" *laughs*
JFH (Cathy): *laughs* Well I guess what I meant was that some songs don't specifically say Jesus or God, but their heart is there.
Trevor: Yeah, exactly. But in that band we mainly did covers, southern rock, college bar music. *laughs* But I think it was the fact that all of us in the band were in one chord. And then when I got to Nashville, I signed a Christian publishing deal but it happened to be with a country publisher, the oldest country publisher in Nashville, Acuff Rose. They had just started a Christian division and so I was like the third guy they signed. It was brand new-we were like the guys that nobody quite knew what to do with us. I started writing country music while I was there. I started writing rock stuff. And that's the Will Owsley connection. A couple guys put us together and I wrote a bunch of songs with him and played in a band with him. He got signed to Warner Bros L.A. And that's the thing, too-I was out doing youth camps, leading worship and things, but I also had this other avenue going with a bunch of guys who were believers. Will had been around for years and played with Amy Grant and other people. Chris McHugh was playing drums at that point-he had been with White Heart and different bands. So there was a heavy Christian music alumni there, yet we were doing music that was kinda mainstream rock stuff. I mean, none of these things were things were ever like "I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that." God just opened a door and I was like, "Well let's just see what happens."
JFH (Cathy): You said in that interview that you learned to write not only for yourself, but also for the person who is listening. Does that still hold true? It's related to something that has happened to you, but is it written with a conscious thought about how the person who hears it is going to perceive it? Do you edit yourself? Or-not edit yourself-but consider that?
Trevor: Always. I write pop music. So the idea behind that is to write something that's universal, something that people can latch on to and sing along. I believe that's what worship music is. The element of worship music that makes it worship is that people can all join in, and not only sing along with the melody but also feel that "this lyric applies to me." I think all of us, at least everybody I know-that's what we as songwriters want are songs that people can identify with. I look back and the bands I really clung to as a kid wrote songs that I felt like, "Man that's me," or "That one, that's talking to me." And I would love for people to look at my music and feel that way.
JFH (Cathy): Kind of like every man, accessible, in any stage of your life, in any part of your life, you can relate to?
Trevor: Yeah, you want to write a song that's just like a best friend for somebody. Cause for me music has that power to transcend all these other things and really speak to you and get to the heart. And if there's something I could write that could have that affect on somebody, either comfort or peace or hope, or different things like that, man I hope…
JFH (Cathy): You've done what you wanted to?
JFH (Cathy): You have two albums, Wonderlight and The Blessed and the Broken. There's a good span of time in between these two.
Trevor: *laughs* Yeah, a long span of time.
JFH (Cathy): What was that? Was that just life, in there?
Trevor: Well, yes, but it was a lot of things. Wonderlight came out in 2004, and I actually did an independent CD before that which is what got the attention of the record label to sign me. I put out Wonderlight and I worked hard, I toured, did tons of festivals, opened for Jars of Clay, opened for Natalie Grant. While I was out with Natalie, opening, basically everything fell apart with my label. And I was kinda just floating out there a little bit. She had become a really good friend, and I was going through it in the midst of being out with her. And if there's anybody I could have been with, she was the perfect person.
JFH (Cathy): She mentioned you to me.
JFH (Cathy): I met her and said something about Third Day, and she smiled and said, "Aw, Trevor! He's touring with them. He used to play guitar in my band." I didn't know the connection between you and her.
Trevor: Yeah, we've known each other a long time. And she's on her third record label right now. So as I'm wrestling with my first record deal going down in flames, I've got somebody that's been through three of them and went through the fire and came out the other side. The encouragement I got from her… *shakes his head* She said, "I don't know what you're doing but I would love to have you stay with me, if you'd like to. You can continue to tour, you can play in my band. I'll give you a chance to do your songs in the middle of my set whenever I can." And she did that, and so I played with her for five years.
JFH (Cathy): Oh, wow!
Trevor: It was one of those things that I never, either of us, thought it would last that long. You kinda turn around one day and "Okay, five years later I'm still doing it." That was the span of time. During that span Mac [Powell, of Third Day] had also pulled me in on a couple things, we did the Glory Revealed projects. The first came out in 2007, I went out and toured that. Did another, came out in 2009, toured that. So I was always still, you know, had my feet in the artist's pool. I played on the road, played on a lot of albums in the studio. I began developing more and more session work. So God was faithful, he was showing me that "Man, I'm taking care of you." It just wasn't what I thought it was gonna be.
JFH (Cathy): ): It wasn't you, in the spotlight, having an album, played on the radio...
Trevor: Yeah, and I think there was a reason for that and God brought me through it.
JFH (Cathy): Do you have a song on either album that is your favorite or that the one that gets the most response from folks? I know most of what you've been playing has been from The Blessed and the Broken while you've been on tour with Third Day.
Trevor: Yeah, I mean I feel like if I had to say one is my favorite, it's probably "Jericho." Just because I can look back on writing that song and I worked really hard on it. I'm really proud of how it came out. As a writer, that's one that I love musically but I really feel like the lyric says exactly what I want it to say. I feel like it says it a little differently than other songs. So that's probably one that I would say is one of my favorites. Another one is "Jesus Rides the Subway," and you talk about… *pauses for a moment* I've always loved that one, but I feel like it is one that's really connected with people, just, man, it speaks to them in ways I didn't really think it ever would. And it reaches deep places that I didn't…, that I hoped that it would.
JFH (Cathy): It's kind of a show-stopper, I can tell you, from this side. Everybody just kind of pauses, gets quiet...
Trevor: Yeah, and I mean, you know the thing that I love is that it makes people think. And that's what it did to me. It kinda came out of nowhere. I mean, "Jesus rides the subway?" Why am I even saying that? I wasn't saying it just to be tough or different, it was just this vision that I had. I've been blown away actually to see the response to that, especially live. And having a chance to play it, night after night, on the Third Day tour-it was a special thing.
JFH (Cathy): Who have been your musical influences? I know who I hear in your music, but who would you say? Mainstream or Christian.
Trevor: Man, Rich Mullins was a huge influence. Especially kind of right in that formative time when I was just learning to play guitar and write songs, to have somebody like that, that was putting out music that said something pretty profoundly and pretty artistically... I couldn't get enough of Rich Mullins. And U2 was a huge influence. You don't hear it so much in my music, but I feel like more lyrically and musically, Bono just always had a way of saying things that was unique but yet poetic and they were so spiritual. And it was like, even later down the road, I didn't know for years that "Until the End of the World" was about Judas. And then when I found that out, it was like, "Oh!" -it was like I heard the song for the first time.
JFH (Cathy): I think a lot of people just sing along and say, "Oh that's U2, and that's a great song" and don't know that there's so much spirituality in their music.
Trevor: Oh yeah, and when you put it in that context, it just blew my mind. It was like, "Wow, I want to do that." I want to write a song that someone hears and thinks they get it, and then all of sudden somebody goes, "Well it's really about that," and then it takes it to this other level. I just think that's brilliant. And so from a lyric-writing standpoint he's always been someone that I've tried to chase, and I'm not there by any means. But he's fantastic. And then you know just your all-American rock, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen; both of those guys were huge influences. And even more recently people like Sheryl Crow and the Wallflowers, people that are just doing that-it's your classic American rock and roll. It's got a a little bit of folk to it, it's got a little bit of rock to it, you can't quite say exactly what it is. That's the kind of stuff I gravitate to. There's a guy, Ryan Adams, that does the same thing-I just love that style of music. I think from a music standpoint that's definitely been a huge influence.
JFH (Cathy): How did you become involved with the Glory Revealed project?
Trevor: Well, that's all Mac.
JFH (Cathy): He found you?
Trevor: We were friends, and we just connected-it's probably been 11 years ago. A buddy of mine was playing my CD. It just kinda caught Mac's ear, and he was like, "What is this?" Found out it was me-and this was during their Offerings tour. And he was like, "Play this CD every night-man, use this as the preshow, intermission, post-show"-and it was my independent CD. So that was crazy. They were just starting to skyrocket, and they were using my independent CD. And I was actually selling CDs. My buddy said, "Make some business cards, cause people keep asking me what this is." And I started selling CDs online, where people had heard my CD playing at a Third Day show-the most random thing in the world. So Mac and I just developed this friendship and he was always trying to pull me into anything he could. The Glory Revealed thing came up, and he called and said, "Hey man, I've written these songs. I think we're going to do it through the record label, they want me to pull in some friends. Would you sing on one?" [I said] I'd be honored. You know I didn't know what it was going to be. I'll never forget I got a CD, the prerelease of it, and I had no idea who else was on there. So then it's like me, Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Mark Hall, and I'm going, "What, are you kidding me man?" *laughing* And I'm listed on it, I'm like, song number one is me. And I'm like, "This is crazy!" But he's always been that guy that has just continually, faithfully, pulled me in every time he could, and Glory Revealed is a huge example of that.
JFH (Cathy): I heard rumors of another one [Glory Revealed], is it still a rumor? Or do you not know?
Trevor: *laughing* Well, we talk-every now and then we get the ability to do a night like we did with Glory Revealed-and we just did the other night with a bunch of us.
JFH (Cathy): Yes, I saw it online [Bigstuf Daytona Beach Conference 2012].
Trevor: And after that night, Mac and I were talking, "We gotta do another Glory Revealed." Because there's something so neat about all these artists coming together and there are no egos. Just this cool thing of back to when I was a kid and we sat around with friends and played music.
JFH (Cathy): And that's what it sounds like to the listener too, like when I was watching online the other night. It wasn't a performance per se, even though you expect a performance-I mean, that's what you do on stage-we expect the artists to go through their steps, but that's the way it feels.
Trevor: Yeah, there's something really neat about that. So we're talking about it. I think he's got the bug to do it; he's got some ideas. Hopefully. We all want to do another one.
JFH (Cathy): Now you're doing acoustic shows across the country, as people find out about you and book you? And you're coming off from being on tour with Third Day, what is for the entire Move tour?
Trevor: I did three tours, so yeah, spring, fall, spring; almost 150 shows over the last year and a half. It was awesome. But it's a whole other ball game from getting out like tonight.
JFH (Cathy): It's probably nice to kind of scale down for a while, you travel less...
Trevor: Yeah, I mean it's different. I really enjoy this, there's a lot more personal interaction when I'm doing the smaller things. I get to just walk around and talk to people and whatnot. You know the other times are awesome, but it's more of just, "Hey sign this, take a picture." I don't get to know people, where as when I'm out in these intimate settings I actually get to know people, find out what's going on in their lives. I enjoy that, and then I get to play more songs and that's been good. I mean opening is an amazing thing but after awhile I start forgetting that I have more than four or five songs in my catalog. *laughs*
JFH (Cathy): I was just saying that having seen you before, it was wonderful to hear more songs, different songs, and new songs-ones that I hadn't heard before.
Trevor: Yeah, and I get to talk a little bit more, it's not like, "You got 15 minutes man, chop chop." So yeah, I do really enjoy it, and I also enjoy the other too-the touring. There's a camaraderie out there that's pretty amazing, that a lot of people don't get to see. It's the life off stage that you miss a lot. And of course getting to play in front of thousands is always good-it's pretty cool. I feel like I still have that every now and then, and there's a good balance. You get to do that stuff, but then you get to come here and do these things, too. I think it's a good balance for me, because it's easy to get on tour like that and forget those people aren't here to see me, they're here to see those guys. So it's a reality check. They put in a lot of hard work to get to that point, I gotta do that too. There's nowhere in life you can take short cuts to get anything of value, and so I'm kinda looking at it like that. I gotta put in the same work that everybody else does.
JFH (Cathy): Last question, what's up next?
Trevor: That's a great question, Cathy. *laughs* I'm writing and trying to figure out what this next record is-I know I'm going to do another one. Not exactly sure when it's going to come out, still not a hundred percent sure of what the touring is gonna be, but I know there's going to be something. But still working on it.
JFH (Cathy): Will it be from Consuming Fire [Third Day's independent label]?
Trevor: Don't know, this has been a hugely successful for me and for them, just the way that we've done it. The platform they've given me, the amount of CDs that we've sold, considering there's been no marketing, no radio-it's crazy. So I think it's something that we look at and, man, this worked, but I think we're trying to figure out what the next step is. Could be that, could be another label, could be just me going independent. I don't know, I think we're just looking at what makes the most sense. And the guys, they want what's best for me and I want what's best for them. I know that I'll always have a relationship with them. Because I came into it as Mac's buddy, and since then I now count all those guys as some of my closest friends, so it's been a real blessing, you know. They're my brothers and I'm eternally grateful for what they've done. So we'll see.
Trevor Morgan's latest album The Blessed and the Broken is available now!