New songs, old jars

Q&A | Christian rock band Jars of Clay returns this week from a five-year hiatus with its 11th studio album
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 8/29/13, 10:30 am

Jars of Clay released its 11th studio record—its first in five years—on Tuesday. Inland, which isn’t based on any particular theme, features tracks the band’s four members wrote together in their Nashville, Tenn., studio during an 18-month collaborative spree. As he looks back over the band’s last 20 years, Jars of Clay co-founder Dan Haseltine evaluates the Christian music industry and talks about reclaiming their business amid the challenges of building community with fans.

Why are you still making music after 20 years? What is your motivation? When you start out you don’t expect to be making music with the same guys for that long. You tend to think music is somewhat fleeting in that regard, and so we didn’t expect to be around still. But what we’ve found is that we’re the best at what we do musically when it’s the four of us working together. There’s something in that collaboration that’s surprising every time we get in a room and turn our chairs toward each other and start to make music. It’s different than when each of us goes off on our own to do projects. So this record took about a year and a half to just write songs. Most Jars records are very concept-oriented. They start with a concept and then we write songs around those concepts. This time we didn’t do that. We decided we were just going to make a record that was a collection of the best songs we could write in a span of time. 

Do you have a favorite song on the album? The first radio single we have is “Inland,” the title track for the record. It is a song about moving into a space of mystery. It best describes the Jars of Clay world, what we’ve been going through over the last couple of years. It’s a bit of a mystery to us. It’s not a familiar landscape. But we feel like it’s the right one and it’s the important one to try to navigate.

What did the songwriting process look like for this album? Did y’all get together in a room to write songs? Did everybody bring songs? Nobody really brought songs. It was very collaborative. We had a studio in Nashville so we literally just sat down with a bunch of instruments and we wrote. … I think we wrote about 50 or 60 songs that we had to pull from to finally pick the final ones for the record.

But just listening to you describe this process is hearing a guy talk about having his own studio for the songwriting, of having the luxury of hiring a top producer. That’s exactly what causes some bands to lose their sense of urgency, to become an imitation of themselves. How did you avoid that? We probably have more of that sense of urgency now than we ever have. One of the other things we’ve done this past year is to reclaim our business. I think most artists, when they get into music, don’t consider themselves small business owners, but they really are. Young artists come to me and ask me for advice on what they should do to further their music or their creative process. I say, “Get a business degree.” … Music has changed a lot. It’s not the 90s anymore. Just like every other band, we have to feed our fan base and give them what they want, while doing the best we can to feed our own families while we’re doing it. 

So have the changes of the past 10 or 15 years been positive or negative? I would say positive. When a lot of the changes in the music industry were happening there was a lot of doom and gloom, a lot of people reporting, “Oh this is the end of the music industry. It’s terrible what’s happening.” But really it was just terrible for the larger record companies and larger institutions. What it meant for artists—what I tend to call people in the music middle class—is it meant that we had greater connections with our fans. 

So these technological and cultural changes have affected the music industry. Have there been any specific impacts on the Christian industrial complex, the whole Christian music world? Contemporary Christian music was very radio-centric. It really mattered that you had a big radio single. That’s what drove everything. That was a major label, record label, kind of process. Now Christian radio has become less of a focal point for artists. The Christian music industry has some unique touch points that a lot of other parts of the music industry don’t have because there’s motivation for fans to like an artist not simply based on their music. Most of the Christian music world revolves around large events where you can go see 20 other bands for the price of seeing one. And so you kind of get mixed in as an industry or as a genre more than you would if you’re outside the Christian world. So what that means is that it’s more kind of diluted connection to fans because you’re never quite sure if a fan is a fan of your music or if they’re a fan of Christian music. If they are enjoying a song because they like the style of music it is or because there’s a message in it that connects with them and a group of people that they’re with. It can be confusing to try to figure out how we communicate to fans at one of these big festivals. 

Are you saying it’s harder to build community, to build a true connection with your fans, within the Christian music world than it is within the secular music world? Mostly it’s just harder to identify those communities and to speak to them directly. The channels that you have to use to let people know about concerts or to let people know that records are out are different. They’re harder, I would say, in the Christian community, especially if you don’t have the ear of the overall church network, which was not where we existed most of the time as Jars. We know there are a lot of people in the church who love Jars music, but we don’t really know how to communicate with them. So we’re trying to figure that out and say, “Alright, we’re still out here doing this and we’d love for you to still come to the shows.” 

Where do you go to church? I go to an Anglican church in Nashville called St. John’s. It’s a really small community of people, which I love, because it’s nice to just know everybody in the pews there along with you.

Tell me about the Jars of Clay ministry, Blood: Water Mission. We looked at the world to describe it and found it necessary to get our hands dirty. The organization has been around now for 10 years. We’re helping people have access to clean water and proper sanitation and proper health care all over Africa. It’s probably as much a part of Jars of Clay now as the music and touring and making records. It’s a story that we hope more people will connect with and get involved.

You had a heart attack a few years ago. How’s your health today? My health is good now. It’ll always be a constant battle for me. I have heart disease in my family and it is aggressive, so that just means that I have to pay attention to what I eat, exercise—do all the things I should do anyway. But now I know these things matter. 

Did your heart attack change your thinking, not just about your health but about your music, about your family, about the way forward for you in life? Yeah. Anytime anybody faces their mortality, you have that gift of presence. You tend to want to be in the moment and take it all in. And I think it fades over time but that’s probably the gift of it all is … being with my family, focusing on my friends, and the work that I was doing. You tend to see what’s important and what isn’t and there’s a perspective there that really is a gift that comes from almost losing everything.

Listen to Warren Cole Smith's interview with Dan Haseltine on The World and Everything in It:

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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