Josh White isn’t interested in fads or trends. He doesn’t worry about radio trends. In fact, his latest album, Achor, which incidentally may be his finest yet (with or without his band Telecast, which made brit-rock palatable to a contemporary Christian audience) wouldn’t have seen the light of day outside his Portland, Oregon church community had it not been for his record company expressing interest in a wider release. Merging folk musical expression with spiritual lyrics which feature far deeper explorations into theology than you’ll find in most contemporary Christian releases, White has struck on something unique to him and his church that is definitely worth a listen for believers and non-believers alike.
I sat down to speak with White back in October, a few weeks before the album’s official release, to talk about his unique take on worship music, the role music should play in the context of church worship, and how he’s managed to build his church, Door of Hope, into a thriving religious hub in a town formerly believed to be “un-Churched.”
FREE DOWNLOAD: Josh White – “He Who Feeds The Ravens” (MP3)*
FREE DOWNLOAD: Josh White – “To Burn In You” (MP3)
* fixed incorrect download link for “He Who Feeds The Ravens.” Sorry for the inconvenience!
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I was interested in that you took the name of your album, Achor, and your church’s name, Door of Hope, from a verse in Hosea which proclaims that God’s restoration will transform a valley of troubles into a door of hope. How do you go about exploring that theme more deeply in your music?
I’ve always held really tightly to the idea of Achor as Calvary, as a picture of the Cross, and that place is central in most of my songwriting as well as all of my preaching. I love the imagery that it paints, as the place where hope is made possible. I think all the songs on Achor are very much about making sure we have our center right. They’re all very centralized upon Christ.
I’d noticed the music on Achor is rooted in the worship and Gospel idiom, but it doesn’t seem like what most listeners are going to expect. I wondered, as a worship leader and a songwriter, can you explain your creative process and what you’re trying to achieve through these songs?
As much as I hate to admit it, I have never been much of a “Christian music” listener. I was saved pretty late, at 28 years old, and I’d been very involved in the Seattle-Portland music scene during the nineties, and I’ve always been a major folk lover. In my idea of a perfect world, worship music would be when Bob Dylan rewrites old hymns. So I’ve always wanted to marry solid theology with the music I love and understand.
When I recorded albums with Telecast, we went into it as a specific challenge. I love British rock, so I went with that and it worked for worship music in that stadium rock vein. But secretly what I listened to was folk music: Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, all the songwriters from the late-sixties, early-seventies folk movement. So when I started my own church, at that point I finally had the opportunity to explore the kind of worship music I really wanted to be making.
There are a lot of misconceptions that worship music has to follow a certain formula or people won’t sing it. And I decided when we started Door of Hope that I would basically push the envelope as far as possible musically, while always keeping the lyrics very focused on the theology, on Christ. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I was right. People will sing anything if they hear it enough and it moves them. And it helps that the music is very reflective of the neighborhood that we’ve built in here in Portland, where there’s a really strong underground folk element coming up in the community. So the musicians who are coming into the church lend their talents well to the kind of worship music I’m producing.
I was raised in the Mormon church, where the only songs you performed in church were hymns. The idea of praise and worship music, which you might hear in a contemporary Christian church, was seen as something akin to bringing God down to your level rather than raising you up to his. And I always found that rather stifling. What role do you feel music should play in worship?
I think one thing you’ll find about most mainstream praise and worship music is that it’s often very self-focused. It can very frequently be about what Christ can do for you rather than the other way around. It’s very much an element of simplicity, and while I like simplicity, there can be a real over-simplification of things onto purely the music over some of the message. Whereas with hymns there’s often more of an emphasis on theology, with praise and worship music there can be more of an emphasis on self-expression. But as far as music’s role, I really couldn’t care less what genre it is as long as the music brings a listener closer to an understanding of Christ. I think the format of the song is less important than the meaning behind it.
I knew you’d worked with Telecast before, but the songwriting process had to be different working on a folk worship album compared to a contemporary-themed worship release. Did you go into a studio to record the songs for the album or were you recording this in a church setting?
We did it in a studio, but the process was incredibly different. Sebastian [Rogers, the album’s producer] wouldn’t let me do any of my takes with headphones, and everything was recorded totally live. So I performed and recorded my guitar and vocals at the same time. Basically it was like, “Josh, I want you to come in here and play these songs for me like you’re playing in my living room.” So I did that, and then he starts bringing in a bunch of musicians – many of the players on the record are from the church, but he started bringing in these session guys. What they did was they built their performances around my performances, so it built from the ground up, far differently than any other album I’ve worked on.
Usually you’d make a scratch track, ghen a click track and you’d lay the drums first, then the bass, very meticulous. This was done in a “who’s available today?” mode; they’d come in and would have never heard the songs before. They’d listen to it maybe three times and then we’d tell them to go for it and we’d record. So all the flute parts on “To Burn In You,” that guy wrote those parts in fifteen minutes. That lent itself well to a very spontaneous quality for the music, which I thought was really cool, and it took a certain kind of player to do it. I couldn’t do that.
Sometimes that can be the best way. On some albums someone like T-Bone Burnett will layer on dozens of musicians for a bluegrass album, and then he’ll take someone like Brandi Carlile and he’ll say “you tend to overdo it, so we’re going to sit down in the studio and just play it through. And if I like the first take, you’re stuck with it!”
And that’s exactly what Sebastian was going for, since I’m used to overdoing it. I’m a bit of a perfectionist in that sense. I’d be like “I don’t like that, I could do it better,” and he’d say “No! That’s more honest!” I think on “Holy Ghost Revival” there was a part where I just fell apart and I felt like I just couldn’t use that take – I wasn’t even keeping good rhythm. And he says “no, I’ll just make the whole band fall apart with you.”
The album itself was a slow-grower. I heard it, then put it aside and rediscovered it suddenly, finding myself listening to it constantly on repeat. It reminded me a great deal of folk-pop artists like Sufjan Stevens – I don’t know if you’ve heard Seven Swans.
Yeah, I love that record. And that is definitely an influence on this album. If I could go in a certain direction with the music of my church, that’s the direction I’d like to go. He’s brilliant in his arrangements.
Well, you’ve got the complicated arrangements, but they all sound so simple. When you listen you can hear how everything just fits into its own place. I could tell immediately this wasn’t your normal worship album. You weren’t going after radio play.
The funny thing is I had one record left on my contract with Tooth and Nail for Telecast, so I did this album with the intention of just making it for the church, and I’d intended to just release it for free to our church body. And I finish it, and since I’m still under contract I have to send things to Tooth and Nail. I tell them: “hey guys, I’m not going to do another Telecast album. It’s been awesome working with you guys but now that I’m pastoring a church, this is where I’m at musically.” I thought they’d just laugh at me. “We can’t do anything with this!” And then Brandon Ebel, President and fuonder of the label, got back with me and said “I really love this record and I think you should put it out.” So the whole process has been a real shock.
So you intended it to be used for your church?
That was it. We have several amazing young songwriters here within the church writing worship already, and the church is exploding in size. It’s been a really exciting time seeing what the Lord is doing in this city, especially in an area which is supposed to be so “un-Churched” … I really do pray that a new worship movement can come out of Door of Hope, and I think that it will. And if this record can be a catalyst for that, that’s great because my goal is to leave something with the young songwriters who are coming up.
It takes a little time to soak in, but you can pick out what has influenced you. It’s an album that rewards you the more deeply you listen. And if you’re wanting people to contemplate more serious things, maybe it shouldn’t hit you so bluntly the first time you listen.
It’s supposed to be very introspective. A few of the songs are more fun than others, “Holy Ghost Revival” and “Let Me See Your Hands,” but for the most part it’s meant to be an intimate album.
It’s interesting to see that you could set something up in an area where no one was seen as being overtly religious, and have it be so successful.
Portland is just such an intriguing city. There’s so much culture for how small it is, and it’s filled with musicians and artists in general, and there’s pride in the liberal nature of the people who live here. There’s always people riding around naked on bicycles here, it’s a weird place. And what’s interesting for me is that my fascination is with revivalism. I’m intrigued by historical revivals, and I think the last real authentic revival in this country was the Jesus movement of the 1970s. So I came into this district with that in mind – I wanted to go into an area where they’d say “you shouldn’t preach the Bible,” and just totally preach the word. I could keep church really simple, just have Christ and his worship, coupled with solid Bible teachings, really nothing else, and see what happens. And yeah, it’s been pretty crazy to watch.
You can’t gauge success off of numbers, but there is something to it when you’re a brand new church and you go from zero to six hundred in a year. It’s been a really intense experience watching the people coming, many of them people who had never gone to church. But here they are bringing their lives to Christ and actively enjoying studying scripture. I guess you could say there’s a great deal of spirituality here in Portland, which has got to be a big reason people have been so open to it.
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