Bebo Norman, signed to BEC Recordings, was kind enough to answer some email questions by Christian Music Zine’s Joshua Andre! Below are his responses:
Q1: Can you tell us about the heart behind Lights Of Distant Cities and how the themes differ from Ocean or even your 2008 self titled BEC debut?
In ways, I think Lights of Distant Cities is an answer to my last record, Ocean. If Ocean was a record that sort of embodied and idea of longing for something, I think Lights of Distant Cities embodies the idea of finding it…or maybe rather being found. One of my favorite things about the writing and recording process is that you sort of 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 the 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 lays 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.
Q2: For those who haven’t heard your sound, how would you describe it? In my opinion you are similar in style to Steven Curtis Chapman, Josh Wilson, and Brandon Heath!
First of all, thank you for putting me in such good company. I’m not sure how to describe how people might perceive my music, but I can tell you my goals in creating it. On this record in particular but really ever since I started writing songs, I want them first to be honest. The ugly and the beautiful. And I want them to be image driven…to create a visual image with the lyrics and a musical landscape with the production that could each stand alone as individual works of art, both (hopefully) capturing the emotion of the content.
Q3: Can you give us a behind the song background of your lead single “The Broken” on your latest album Light Of Distant Cities? How did that song come about?
The Broken is one of those songs that seems to have just written itself somehow one afternoon with my friend Matt Armstrong. In a season of really struggling with the darkness of the world around me, as we all see on a daily basis, much seems to be crumbling around us on so many different cultural, political, spiritual, and social landscapes. I wanted so desperately a definitive answer from God, a shelter from the madness, a rescue of sorts, some glimmer of hope.
And then I went to a Compassion International dinner and heard an African man speak on poverty – first hand, his own account of growing up among the extreme poor. And he surprised me with his take on things. Real poverty, he said, is not simply a lack of food or water, a lack of clothing or resources, a lack of sanitation or education. REAL poverty, he said, is a lack of hope. The poverty of the soul. This man had escaped from the chains of poverty in his life, as he put it, not as much by finding more food or more water or more “things”, but by finding Christ Himself – the Hope of the world.
Here in America, we live in a world abundant with “things” and yet can be so desperately poor in Spirit, impoverished by the absence of Hope. This song is a prayer to the absolute and definitive Hope of the World. A prayer that He might give each of us – The Broken – eyes to see Him, hearts to receive His abundance, and then hands to reach out to a hurting world – the physically and spiritually impoverished world around us – that we might live in such a way that the true Hope of the World is undeniably present.
Q4: You’ve co-produced this album along with your friend Gabe Scott, and Ben Shive, who has also worked with Andrew Peterson and Sara Groves. How was the recording process like with them?
Sonically this record is quite a bit different for me. But I can say in all honesty that we didn’t set out to make it sound more like one genre or another. Like you mentioned, 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.
Q5: Can you tell us about your favourite songs on this album? Were there any songs that were difficult to write? Is there a song on the album that is special to you personally, that you feel was handpicked by God to show you something new about your walk with Him?
In all honesty, I can’t think of a song on the record that wasn’t handpicked by God to show me something profound about who He is. I think that’s the whole reason I write songs…such a beautiful and strange process to, every two years or so, have this strange and beautifully personal chronicle of what life has looked like, and where God has taken me. There are some intensely personal songs on this record. ‘Wine from Water’ is about my wife and I and the struggles and miracles of marriage. ‘Go With You’, is another song about my family, obviously a personal expression. But then again, I don’t know how to write songs without them being deeply personal expressions. Here are descriptions of a couple that really jump out at me:
Collide – Collide was the first song that Gabe [Scott] and I ever wrote together, and the first song written for this record. It immediately set the tone for the rest of the record and also sort of became a benchmark to measure the rest of the songs against. It’s an attempt to explain the kingdoms that we to build in this life, or at least the ones that I’ve built. It’s about how the rise and fall of those kingdoms somehow doesn’t seem to stop us from trying to build more…the fruitless search to find meaning in things temporal. And then there’s that underlying, undeniable truth the despite our best effort to find our value in pretty much everything else, there is rest in wait for us at the end of our search, in the infinite patience of God – in the place where “grace and gravity collide.”
Sing of Your Glory – Sing of Your Glory is a song that Gabe and I stumbled onto at the end of soundcheck one day on tour. He was playing a piano part that for some reason really resonated with me, and I started singing the lyrics and melody for the first verse almost immediately. As I continued to write, I felt very alone in the verses, and they became a quick and honest outpouring of feeling very spiritually isolated from God. But when I was back home alone in my writing room I kept coming back to this chorus that was ironically the most worshipful of the entire record. It was a very emotional and conflicting song to write, and it almost felt like two different songs. To be honest, I didn’t want to worship God when I was writing the verses. I wanted to just vent my despair, but somehow I couldn’t escape the Chorus… “I’ll sing of Your glory now and forever.” I was expressing to Gabe one day back in the studio that it felt too conflicted to me…like the chorus could not be true next to those verses. And that day we wrote the bridge, inspired almost subconsciously by an old hymn… “hold tight, the sacred ties, that bind my weary soul…Oh God of light, of ancient skies, I sing it out, You’re alive.”
Sing of Your Glory is probably one of my favorite songs on the record, mostly I think because of the stark contrasts in the song. It is perhaps the darkest song on the record in lyrical content, ripe with the deepest of my fears that tend me so often toward spiritual despair. But it is also possibly the most worshipful song on the record because, for me, it most closely captures that moment of transition from the depths of desertion to the rapture of recovery. It is my reminder to sing always of the goodness of God, regardless of my temporal emotions.
Q6: This coming year, what does touring look like for you? There’s a tour with Sara Groves lined up- how did that come about? Are there any countries and places you are looking forward to visit in the near future? What should people expect from your live shows? Besides touring, what is the one thing you must do before the end of 2012?
Definitely a lot of travelling for the rest of this year. So excited to do this little run with Sara Groves. We are old friends and toured together years ago with Fernado Ortega – one of my favorite tours I’ve ever done. Sara and I have talked and tried for years to get back out on the road together, but finally the stars aligned this year. Besides touring, I’ll be spending as much time at home with my family as I can. And the MUST happen is watching my beloved Georgia Bulldogs win a national championship!!
Q7: Is there an album speaking into your life right now? Who did you admire musically and lyrically, growing up? Are there any artists/writers/producers you would like to work with in the future? In terms of future albums, what is in the pipeline?
Kind of all over the map in terms of musical influences…a lot of legendary (albeit probably less well known) singer/songwriters from the contemporary folk world like David Wilcox, John Gorka, Shawn Colvin, Nancy Griffith, Marc Cohn, and of course folks like James Taylor and Jackson Brown – those are all the folks whose music inspired me to be a songwriter in the first place and continue to do so. But musically the gambit is wide – from singer/songwriters like Sufjan Stevens, David Gray, and Patty Griffin to bands like The Killers, Travis, and Coldplay. As far as my contemporaries go, Gungor, Matthew Perryman Jones, Jars of Clay, Switchfoot.
As far as artists/writers/producers I’d like to work with in the future, honestly, I couldn’t love more what we landed on for this new record, Lights of Distant Cities. Producing and writing with Gabe Scott and co-producing with Ben Shive was such a beautiful experience…right now I can’t imagine working with anyone else.
Q8: What is the most important take home message for listeners of Lights Of Distant Cities? What would you say to those reading this right now who need encouragement?
Well first of all I would say, I am with you. I have been there. I will be there again…in that ever desperate place of needing encouragement. And I would also say hold on. There is a great and certain Hope, even when our lives don’t feel great or certain. What I hope people take away from this record is 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.
Q9: Throughout your almost 20 year musical career, what is the most exciting thing you do every day that makes writing, recording and performing music satisfying?
I am still enamoured with the songwriting process…the mystery of it, the beauty of it. Like I mentioned earlier, it feels like such an utter gift to have these chronicles of life and the hand of God every two years with a new record. All the sudden, you look up one day and the majority of your life is laid out and traced back in song. Pretty amazing.
Q10: What is God teaching you lately through Scriptures, other people, or the media? Is there anything you can share with what the Lord is showing in your life that is relevant to listeners?
I would say to reference the answers above for this question…most everything that God has been teaching me lately is chronicled in these songs, in this record. In particular, again, the goodness of God in a messy world.
Q11: Is there anything else that you’d like to add that we haven’t covered? What advice can you give to young songwriters looking for guidance?
I would tell young songwriters to, as best you can, not look for what you think people want to hear, but to just write their story. Honest. No holds barred. The ugly and the beautiful. Tell that story as often as you can and trust that God will show up in the middle of it. My two cents.
God bless you Bebo! Have an awesome 2012 and 2013 with Jesus!
Bebo Norman’s new studio album Light Of Distant Cities releases via BEC Recordings on iTunes, Amazon mp3, and other digital media outlets October 22nd 2012. Check out the lyric video for “The Broken” below!