Thursday, May 27, 2010

Interview with Jars of Clay

My interview originally appeared in the North County Times. The band performs on Saturday in Del Mar, Calif.

Earlier this month, the lyrics to “Flood,” a top 40 hit single for Jars of Clay in 1996, became an unexpected reality for the Nashville-based pop/rock band and area inhabitants after torrential rainfall caused the Cumberland River to crest.

The natural disaster resulted in at least a billion dollars in damages, much of it falling on the Christian and country music industry nerve center. Now Jars of Clay is assisting flood relief efforts headed by The Grammys’ MusiCares foundation through the digital release of “Flood(ed) – A Benefit” EP (five versions of the song for $1) via the group’s web site. All proceeds go to the charity.

“We wanted to figure out a way to engage our audience – especially those not in Nashville - with a way they could help,” explained guitarist Steve Mason, during a phone interview at the group’s studio/rehearsal space Gray Matters in Music City USA.

While the Jars of Clay complex wasn’t totally saturated by water, “it really could’ve been a lot worse for us. We found structural damage to the building…but we weren’t harmed much.” Fortunately, Mason said, they managed to get most valuables like “vintage guitars, amps and things we can’t replace” to a safer location. “The cleanup is ongoing.”

Still, with “some elderly folks, friends and neighbors dealing with entire floors of their houses destroyed - and those that lost their lives for Pete’s sake - we’re feeling really thankful.”

No stranger to helping people in need, Jars of Clay launched the non-profit Blood: Water Mission organization in 2005, providing those living with HIV/AIDS in Africa with clean water and sanitation. Band members try to travel to the continent on a semi-annual basis to gauge the progress being made.

“It has been extraordinary to experience the work there because it’s so much larger in scope than what we had ever dreamed,” noted Mason. “One of the things we’ve learned is the difficulty in trying to do a good thing. It’s one thing to be compelled and another to put wheels on it.”

Their most recent trip to Kenya “allowed a deeper engagement of the songwriting process and what we’re doing in Jars of Clay. That makes it all the more [worthwhile] …over 800 communities have been impacted by the 1000 Wells project. We’re reaching the end of that goal.”

Jars of Clay returns to Spirit West Coast this weekend, having played twice in the past. One of the largest Christian music festivals in America, SWC features 50 entertainers on eight stages, late night comedy shows, film screenings, speakers, seminars, a skate park, sports center and children’s area.

Among the scheduled acts are Skillet, Tenth Avenue North, The Afters (Friday), Steven Curtis Chapman, Matthew West, Stellar Kart, Family Force 5 (Saturday), Newsboys, Seventh Day Slumber, BarlowGirl, Kutless, Hawk Nelson (Sunday).

Last year, Jars of Clay released “The Long Fall Back to Earth,” a synth and keyboards-heavy album that recalls British alt-pop bands like James and Tears for Fears. The alluring songs (“Two Hands,” “Closer,” “There Might Be a Light”) illustrate how far the platinum selling, multi-Dove and Grammy winning foursome has evolved since unveiling a smash self-titled debut in 1995.

“We’re not saying ‘no’ to anything in terms of what we’re interested in and what moves us. We really have the freedom in our muse to try stuff we haven’t yet.”

Mason believes singer Dan Haseltine “has gotten even better at what he does” lyrically over that period of time. “That gives me hope, because as a guitar player, I always want to be improving as a musician.”

Recent months have seen Jars unveil the first in a seasonal series of EPs (“Live at Gray Matters”), which could be their preferred future format. “The world is whatever we dream it. If people want to maintain an album cycle, they certainly can. The exciting thing now is there’s a choice where artists can put out music as it’s finished.”

Once the group’s studio is back at full capacity, work will continue work on “The Shelter,” a collaborative project due in the fall, featuring vocalists from Dave Crowder Band, Switchfoot, Tenth Avenue North, Burlap to Cashmere and more. Jars serves as a house band of sorts.

“For me, it brings home the idea of embodying things that we sometimes speak and pray abstractly to God. We are God’s manifestation of forgiveness to one another.”

More than anything, Jars of Clay is grateful to have maintained a steady career path and accolades (they just picked up two more Doves in April) this far down the line. “We’re still doing something that we really love…and is generating a conversation that is inviting to those listening to the music for the last 15 years.”

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