ALBUM REVIEW: Bebo Norman’s “Lights of Distant Cities” features songwriter’s strongest material since “Ten Thousand Days”
Full disclosure: I’ve been a fan of Bebo Norman’s songwriting since I first discovered it more than a decade ago via Napster after reading an insightful interview with the contemporary Christian songwriter. I was immediately won over by his detail-oriented songwriting, on “Deeper Still” and “The Hammer Holds” from Ten Thousand Days, which radiated the depth of his faith without resorting to beating listeners over the head with theology or empty praise. Since then, he’s proven to be Christian music’s most consistently underrated songwriters, putting out album after album of heartfelt music of intense honesty.
Nothing he’s done since Ten Thousand Days has resonated quite as much as the songs on his latest album, Lights of Distant Cities, out October 22nd on BEC Recordings. “Daylight Breaking” is his most stunning single track since “Deeper Still,” raw in its multi-sensory presentation of every detail. “I can still see the daylight breaking,” he sings of an experience of true earthly beauty, backed by a propulsive melody of interwoven guitar and bass. “At The End of Me” opens the album with a surprisingly radio-worthy example of his elemental songwriting: “I’m like a promise broken every time I open my mouth,” he sings. “Under the surface, sometimes I want to slip right out of my skin and tell all my secrets.” The theme building just below the surface is of terrestrial experiences juxtaposed against the heavenly. “Do you remember when I was young and knew everything about everything?” he asks, hinting that we have to get over that sense of knowing it all before we can come to grips with what true celestial beauty is.
The great thing about Lights of Distant Cities is how, while writing songs about real people living honest lives in search of Christ, Norman continues to subvert expectations from a pop music perspective. “Outside Her Window Was The World” channels Coldplay through Third Day to create a sound truly his own. The element which propels these songs beyond his peers is the ability Norman has of cutting right to the core lyrically as he chronicles the lives of his subjects. “Come on, come on, set fire — burn through the pain, set it on fire,” he sings of a woman trying to cover up a “broken piece of love as sharp as a razor blade,” mourning the loss of of everything in her life which has fallen apart, as she’s left with nothing but the world outside her window. No one else in contemporary Christian music comes even close to this level of mastery.
For long-time fans of Bebo Norman’s work, Lights of Distant Cities is a stunning masterpiece which reveals more and more upon repeated listens. Those who haven’t heard him before, likewise, will discover an album of intimate depth and raw beauty which transcends its genre to become a pop album about which all lovers of meaningful music can rejoice. It is his strongest work yet, managing to stand out even in a discography as solid as any contemporary Christian songwriter has produced. In other words, get ready: this album is soon destined to rule the space between your ears, as one of the best albums of 2012.
Andrew Ripp may be better known for the songs he’s written for others than for the one album he released under his own name in 2008. He co-wrote half of Ryan Cabrera’s 2005 album You Stand Watching, including “You Shine On,” which actually made Billboard’s Hot 100.
But on his own, Ripp has made enough of an impact for fans of the Palatine, Illinois, songwriter to realize he’s got the pop music chops to craft meaningful lyrics around mind-bending hooks that demand repeating. His live shows are eclectic enough, whether he’s solo or with his full backing band, to siphon audiences away from the headliners they’ve come to see. Fans of Stephen Kellogg, Fiction Family and even Robert Randolph have been won over by his distinctive pop-rock performances.
Now, with his sophomore album She Remains The Same set for release on September 21st, Ripp gets the chance to expand his audience while experimenting with deeper explorations of the blues idiom, merging the sounds of New Orleans with contemporary Christian-tinged lyrics which dare to be introspective without becoming overtly preachy.
Ripp took the time to sit down and speak with me this week about the new album, his songwriting process, and his take on the value of pop music.
- – - – -
You’ve said the new album’s about “truth, faith and finding a way to find hope in what’s painful.” Do you think you were successful in that?
I really hope so. That’s what we were going for. I call it “speaking life,” and what I mean by that is speaking truth as much as I can. My relationship with God is very important to me and I’ve matured in that relationship over the last couple years. And that’s been the timeframe during which I wrote much of this new record. That’s been a main focus for me. Through my story and my life experience, that’s where my songwriting inspiration comes from.
It must have been interesting working with Dave Barnes, if that was the mindset you were coming from. I know he’s worked with Ed Cash, and Ed Cash has worked with Caedmon’s Call and Bebo Norman. I’ve spent time talking to Bebo in the past, and these all seem like guys who know what they’re trying to say and why they feel compelled to share it without feeling like they’re beating you over the head with their Christianity.
Yeah, you have to be careful about how you present it . . . but I think if you’re being honest, it doesn’t matter because it’s one thing to just talk about things you’ve gone through and it’s another to get preachy. I think that’s where those guys do really well. They just talk about their own experiences, rather than telling someone what they should personally be doing. You know?
Well, I really enjoyed the preview of “Savior,” off your new album. It reminded me a lot of Marc Broussard. But I loved the line: “I found my Jesus on a city street / He gave me freedom through a trash-can beat / Some kind of symphony . . . Don’t worry ‘bout me, ‘cause I know where I’m going.” I just found it really refreshing to hear a Christian message coming across without sounding forced.
I’m glad you picked up on that. A lot of people have asked me what that tune is about, and it’s just about seeing that you can find God in people who don’t even know who God is, or who don’t even claim that there is one. From my viewpoint, we’re all created by Him, and I think depending on the way we look at people, we can find God in anyone, even in the guy who’s standing on the street corner, playing the drums. That chorus is just making the statement: “I know where I’m going when I’m gone.”
I know you’re from Chicago, and your last album was called Fifty Miles From Chicago, but the new material on She Remains The Same sounds more like Fifty Miles From New Orleans. Have you been focusing more on the blues sound within your music?
It’s more of a Southern deal, which makes sense, as I’m living in Nashville now. So that had a lot to do with it, and a lot of the players on the record who make up my backing band are from the South. Dave [Barnes] is from the South. And I just love country music, but my voice has more of a “soulful thing,” so when you put all that together that’s the sound we wound up with.
A lot of the last album sounded like what we were hearing on the radio, the Jason Mraz sound, or Ryan Cabrera. This album sounds more down home, like you’re finally singing what’s comfortable to you.
That’s definitely what’s going on. If there is a single on this record, it’s this song called “Star,” which is geared toward that kind of “modern radio” sound. But it wasn’t about that with me, spreading my music around, because I’m not in that position. I’m not with a label, I’m totally on my own. So even if I do have a smash, break-out single potentially on this album, what am I going to do with it? What I’m trying to do right now is build a solid following of people who like good music.
I’d talked to Hanson a couple weeks ago and they’re going through the same thing. They’re completely independent, they know they’re not going to have a hit, they just want to make music that says what they want to say.
Yeah, and they’re in a great position because they’ve got like a million fans who still actually buy their records! Which is amazing that they’ve been able to do that. Have you been to their shows?
Man, they’re so awesome. I say that, and I’ve done a writing thing with them, in this writing group called “Fool’s Banquet,” which they put on once a year. And they definitely know how to write a song. And even if they never have another hit, it’s okay.
I don’t know if you read Bob Lefsetz’s stuff, he’s a blogger in LA who’s really savvy and smart about where the music industry is headed these days. But Lefsetz is talking about how the “new radio” is just pumping great video out, constantly putting out great new material. It’s not even about radio anymore. How many people actually listen to radio anymore anyway? It’s a weird thing, but it’s exciting, for people like me, because you don’t actually have to have that big single anymore. It’s more about writing great music and just continuing to get it out there. The internet makes it accessible to the entire world from your bedroom, and great stuff spreads . . . it takes time, but it spreads.
Tell us a little about your songwriting process. What makes a song meaningful to you, and how do you go about getting that feeling out on paper?
It comes in all sorts of ways. For me, a lot of great ideas come while I’m driving. There’s really no secret to it though, you just have to recognize when you have a great idea and make sure you document it so you don’t forget it. Sometimes a title for a song comes first, but other times it’s just some really cool chords or a groove that you think of. You’ll be messing around with chords on the guitar and there’s really no right or wrong way to do it.
For me, in order for me to connect with a song, it just really has to be “truth,” coming from something I’ve experienced. It’s hard for me to write just a fun song about something that hasn’t happened, just telling a fictional story about something. I’ve tried to do that, it just doesn’t work for me. But the more I dig into what I’ve gone through and what those emotions bring out, the better the song.
What would you say makes a strong pop album?
Pop music, to me, is just “popular” music; it doesn’t have to be cheesy. All pop music isn’t cheese. I consider my music to be pop-rock, but a lot of people think of pop and it’s just Katy Perry all day long and that’s just not the case. Although I don’t know if you’ve heard her record, but it’s awesome.
You can have the guilty-pleasure pop, but if you malign the entire scope of pop music because you don’t like one kind, you’re going to miss a lot.
Oh, yeah. Absolutely . . . and I’m not afraid of it! I used to be afraid to call my music pop, but whatever. I love a good strong pop song. I love a Katy Perry song. I don’t necessarily see my career going in that same direction, but that’s okay. I’m glad somebody’s doing that.
What do you hope your fans will take from the new album?
I hope my voice comes through. On the first record, I don’t think my voice came through a hundred percent, so I hope my voice shines on this one. There’s a lot you can take from hearing the raw passion from somebody’s voice, and that’s something I felt like I needed to take to the next level on this record.
I was impressed seeing you open for Stephen Kellogg, it was just you and a guitar, and yet you drew the crowd in! And I know, Stephen Kellogg’s fans are about as rabid as anybody. You knew they were there to see him. Is it hard to be there playing as an opening act when you know the audience is there waiting for the “main event”?
Honestly, I don’t really know much other than being the opener at this point in my career. I could headline in maybe five different markets. But my main thing the last two years has been to really focus on the act of touring. I was living in LA for a long time, and LA was all writing. There was no touring scene out there.
But the second I finished working on that first record, I knew I needed to move away. So me and the band moved back to Chicago, where I was from, to start touring. Out in California everything’s so far-flung; you can play LA, and maybe San Diego, but where are you going to go from there? You’ve got so much driving. But the midwest is laid out to where every two hours you’ve got another city, which is great for building an audience.
And it’s a different music scene. In LA, my kind of music really didn’t make sense, nobody really understood it. Everybody in LA is trying to reinvent the wheel, and that’s not how I was made.
And it’s been a long time since the Bakersfield Country sound was big out there.
Exactly. So we moved back to Chicago and started touring, and that was really my first time on stage, actively working to build my fan-base. I had no fans. The only people who knew my music were the people who knew me. So we needed to get out of that world and start the journey.
So I’m excited. This is our second record, and finally we do have legitimate fans out there . . . the base isn’t huge, but it exists now and it’s cool to have something now to build on. That first record it was a matter of just putting it online, we didn’t have an official “street date,” it just became available.
What do you wish someone would ask you but they never do?
I don’t know. At some point in every music career you end up with a few situations where you have fans who you’ve let get a little too close, to where it starts getting weird. They are fans, but they also want to be friends. So sometimes, and I’m not there yet since I haven’t been doing this long enough, but I can imagine guys like Hanson who must have some freaky fans. I just wish people would ask questions because they care about your music, and not just because of the guy you are on stage.
You’re not into the whole “cult of celebrity” then?
Right, I don’t want people showing up because they think I’m cool. I want them to show up because they believe in what I’m doing and because the music moved them.