Delving into the many nuances of the journey of life and where it converges with the realities of faith with incisive songwriting and musical acumen, Bebo Norman has been a mainstay in the Christian music world for nearly all of his 17 year career. With his new release, Lights of Distant Cities, Norman again lays his heart on the table and invites listeners to join in his fears and doubts alongside his faith and joy. We had a chance to catch up with him. After you hear his thoughts, go here for a free download of the song “The Broken” fron his new release.
What’s the meaning behind the title of your newest album, Lights of Distant Cities?
One of my favorite things about the writing and recording process is that you sort of just put your head down and pour out until it’s done and then sit back and try to reconcile what it all means … how it all represents and speaks to what life has been the past few years. The title itself, Lights of Distant Cities, is a nod to all that draws us forward in life—all that stirs our hearts and peaks our imaginations in a way that reminds us that there is still so much to be hopeful for, even in a dark and confusing world. I think maybe that’s the thing I keep coming back to in almost all of these songs … the goodness of God in the middle of everything, as the foundation for everything. I often find myself asking God why things are the way they are, why this world can seem so terrible some days and so beautiful on others, but there is a basic and simple truth that a German mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote in 1300 that I keep coming back to…“If the soul could have known God without the world, God would never have created the world.” Simple. Like the mystery that plays out before us in lights of distant cities that we’ve dreamed of and never seen. It pulls us forward into that mystery and reminds us that there is indeed so much to hope for.
How does your life outside of music affect yourself as an artist, and vice versa?
For me, as a writer, life outside of music has everything in the world to do with what happens within music. Life is the stuff of music. Life is also the “why” of music. I don’t know how to write songs that aren’t written out of real life. The challenge for me these days seems to be finding time to express what life is constantly trying to speak into songs. We all live such busy lives, and this particular season for me is the busiest I’ve ever had—attempting to balance being a husband to a wife with a successful and busy career, being a stay-at-home-dad during the week and all that entails while self-managing my music career with promo, scheduling, booking travel, interviews, and rehearsals, not to mention traveling for shows on weekends, and all the while trying to continue to write and create. There’s so much beauty and suffering and mystery mixed in with the busy-ness … the initial challenge is recognizing it; the ultimate challenge is finding time to sit down and write it.
Who do you want this album to reach out to?
I never know quite how to answer that question. I’ve always felt committed to just making the music I feel compelled to make and letting it land where it lands. But when a record is all said and done, there inevitably is a thread that runs through it, a sort of theme that ties it all together. I think ultimately this record will truly be “heard” by people who really struggle in life, people who feel hopeless and lost from time to time, people who have a hard time reconciling the darkness of this world with the hope of their faith. In the end, this record is about the goodness of God in a terribly messy world. The quote I mentioned earlier from Meister Eckhart was a beautiful answer to my constant tendency to ask “why?” and it became a real catalyst for the writing of this record, “if the soul could have known God without the world, God would never have created the world.” This record to me is an invitation to dive into the mysteries and complexities of this world with complete and utter confidence in the simple goodness of God.
What propelled the creation of material from Lights of Distant Cities?
That’s a big question to answer. And the answer is two-fold: the creation of material from a writing/inspiration standpoint, and the creation of material from a production/recording standpoint. I’ll stick with the writing/inspiration in this answer and focus on the production/recording side a little later. The songwriting process on this record might be one of the most unique things about this record for me. Most all songs for me are first inspired somewhat randomly … reading a book, watching a movie, driving down the road … mostly in solitude. And then it’s a long, slow process from inspiration to completion. This record was no different on that front except that most of the inspiration for the songs happened in one particular season in my life, and the culmination of the songs in another, quite different season. I started writing most all of these songs very much in the middle of a desert season, for lack of a better description … sort of a long, slow, mostly heady and internal digression into a spiritual wasteland that felt very “emotion-less.” So most of these songs were started in that season, and begged to be written about things like despair, and hopelessness, heartache, loneliness—particularly from a spiritual vantage point. I’ve always promised that I would write from an honest place, so that’s what I set out to do in the early stages of these songs. In a beautiful twist of irony, the few months leading up to the actual recording process—the months where songs are fine-tuned and finished, mostly lyrically for me—became an extremely intense season of recovery and renewal. So I have all these songs that started out (musically and lyrically) from a pretty dark place, now needing to find their final voice in places like hope and recovery. And that was just it for me on this record … the recognition that God is indeed in the middle of both of these vastly different seasons. So the reality of the goodness of God became the adhesive that drew together ideas like despair and peace, hopelessness and hope. So this record became a group of songs that seem to deal with “grown up” issues I suppose … how to maintain hope in a world that feels so dark so much of the time, how to love my wife well, how to ache and hurt and suffer “well”, in a spiritual sense, so that my faith doesn’t spiral down towards despair. In the end I think what I ended up with were songs that speak whole heartedly to the desperation that comes with a broken desert season, but also speak to the hope that comes out of those seasons when we persevere and God shows up. So you have these individual songs where that whole process of desperation and recovery, of darkness and light, is represented within the same song. It’s as if two years of this spiritual journey are contained in 3 or 4 minutes of most every song. Rarely have I ever had songs that really represent a process in motion like that, songs written in real time, rather than reflection.
How can the process of recording an album be worshipful?
I don’t know how the process of writing and recording an album can NOT be worshipful. The act of creating, in and of itself, to me, is one of the most profound ways that we were created in the image of God. It is ultimately an effort to imitate the Creator Himself. And the imitation of God seems to be the essence of what worship is. Offering up what we’ve been given, what has been instilled and created IN us, is the ultimate act of worship. When we love, we worship, when we serve, we worship, when we lay down our lives, we worship, when we pour out our gifts as an act of creation for the Creator, we worship.
What is something about God you’ve gleaned during your experience in creating Light of Distant Cities?
I’d reiterate what I answered earlier in the question about who I hope this record will reach: In the end, this record is about the goodness of God in a terribly messy world. The quote I mentioned earlier from Meister Eckhart was a beautiful answer to my constant tendency to ask “why?” and it became a real catalyst for the writing of this record, “if the soul could have known God without the world, God would never have created the world.” This record to me is an invitation to dive into the mysteries and complexities of this world with complete and utter confidence in the simple goodness of God.
This is your 10th full-length album amongst many other projects in your 17 years as an “professional” artist, how have you managed to keep endurance and freshness throughout the years?
I think one of the ways has been being willing to simply sit down in a room with other writers. There was a time that I thrived on writing alone, and really resisted the idea of writing with other people … under some presumptions that it would lessen my ability to communicate my own thoughts. But the truth is that every writer, whether they admit it or not, falls into certain patterns and, it seems to me, eventually begins to repeat themselves. For me, as uncomfortable as it may have been at first, being willing to be challenged and stretched by other writers—even ones that might have an entirely different approach or even genre—moves us in different directions until we land somewhere that’s new and unique.
Tell us how this recording process was unique.
The recording process was very different on this record, so sonically this record is quite a bit different for me as well. I can say in all honesty that we didn’t set out to make a record that sounds more like one genre or another. My longtime friends Gabe Scott and Ben Shive joined me in producing this record, the first we’ve all done together, and both of them have an intense ability to build these critical musical beds under songs that speak volumes into how the songs communicate. Since I wrote more than half of the record with Gabe [Scott], we had a vision from the very beginning to craft these songs as genuine classic songwriter songs (honest, personal, relatable concepts) and then treat them in a way musically and sonically that could capture some deep and vivid emotion. What does joy sound like? Or serenity, ache, uncertainty, hope etc…what do all these emotions actually sound like? So that’s where we started on every song. We tried to answer those questions in the writing AND recording process. And wherever that led us musically, that’s where we went. Since Gabe played a lot of the instruments on this project, we had this great freedom to be able to articulate and record ideas as we were writing as well, which eliminated the need to try and explain to someone else what you’re hearing and have them try to sort through it and deliver that particular idea sometime later. So in the end, we just created music that we felt best voiced the emotion of each song, regardless of what direction or “genre” that music landed in.
We also decided that we would truly write and record every song as if there was no such thing as commerciality or radio. Not at all because either of those are bad, but because we genuinely wanted to make a record that was true to the spirit of creativity and not the spirit of “what do people want to hear.” Besides, I can say with all honesty that I have absolutely no clue what works and what doesn’t work on Christian radio anymore. I think it’s confirmation that I’m officially an old man in this business. In the end, I can’t explain what a pleasure it was making this record with Gabe and Ben. One of the most creative experiences of my life from start to finish.
What are your hopes for the future?
I’m not sure that my hopes for the future have a lot to do with music. Not that I don’t hope to still be able to create music in the future, but I think the thing I most struggle with as I enter my 40s in 2013 is the thing I’ve always struggled with: how best to know what I’m being called into. Be it marriage, fatherhood, community, or music, I don’t want to do things simply because I can. I genuinely want to be inspired to act and move in a manner and a direction that is compelled by the gospel lived out daily. That sounds awfully noble as I read it because I fail at it so much of the time, but I genuinely hope that sort of gospel-inspiration would move me into whatever I do for the back half of my life. The future really is wide open, and that’s exciting to me, but I fear the most just “moving along” in life rather than living by something that truly compels and inspires me.