The diversity of Josh Garrels’ music represents the textured patchwork of both the nature and nurture of his upbringing. The roads that draw the map of his life trace through various stops. At one time or another, Garrels has been a “son of a hippie commune, skater boy, suburban drug dealer, music/design student, coffee roaster, urban shepherd, and now nation- and globe-trotting minstrel of hope and healing.”
As he reflects back on those experiences and contemplates the way forward, he leans into his faith, his family. His new album, Love & War & The Sea in Between, serves as the canvas onto which he sketches those thoughts in musical forms. Regardless of one’s own stance on matters of such import, the album is a gorgeously transcendent collection of songs. Garrels is the first to offer that people don’t have to agree with his beliefs to dig his tunes.
And he’s right. So much of pop music, these days, is overflowing with nothing more than ego and posturing. When an artist steps out of that mold to offer something truly of themselves, the impact is felt in ripples and waves. Anyone in search of music that speaks to their better angels, as it were, would do well to check out Love & War & The Sea in Between.
NoiseTrade: Some artists make the same record over and over. You don’t do that. You continue to explore and expand with each new work. Do you think what holds some people back is a lack of imagination? Talent? Courage?
Josh Garrels: I think the key idea that you hit upon is that of “exploration.” Imagination, talent, and courage all require an inquisitive spirit to be the power source in propelling us forward. There are infinite variables and configurations to explore within any one song – from melody to performance to engineering – and as a writer/performer/engineer, I’m always searching for what will make each song emerge as a unique entity. The thing about exploring is that you hit a lot of dead ends, but when you find something that works, it’s exhilarating. Without a fascination with unexplored possibilities, the creative process grinds to a halt and, sadly, we’ll end up repeating ourselves as we camp out on the grounds of familiarity and safety.
NT: Explorations of longing in poetry and song are some of humanity’s most beautiful expressions. You contribute your fair share to the lot. As the Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “Everything has to do with loving and not loving.” Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
JG: I think so. Yet, the word “love” itself is so hard to pin down in our culture, that that quote could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For me, “loving” would be defined as a selfless giving of oneself for the sake of others, without condition of reciprocation or return. As faulty humans, we experience this truly divine form of loving sporadically, and, for some, it’s never experienced at all. Most mass culture and media culture are driven by the precepts of “not loving,” which would be withholding ourselves from each other, exploiting others, and demanding our rights in return. Yet we’re made for loving, so we live with a deep longing that continues all our lives. When a song or poem truly reminds us of what we all know is there, we can’t help but respond.
NT: Do you find that people are hungry for musical connections – and other interactions – that address life’s larger questions? That invoke and relate to something deeper in themselves? After all, there are no “baby, baby, baby” lines in your tunes.
JG: For sure. Ultimately, I think that all people, either consciously or subconsciously, are drawn to the arts, because art speaks the language of the soul. And every soul is searching for connection to transcendent answers to life’s over-arching questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What happens when I die? Is there a God? These are some of the questions that form every person’s worldview, and how we answer these affects how we navigate life. As Pete Seeger says, “[there are] people who say that music is just an attempt to make life live-able. It’s true to a certain extent, that’s one of the purposes of music – to help you survive your troubles, help distract you from your troubles. But some music helps you understand your troubles, and as you see here … some music can help you do something about your troubles.”
NT: Your sound is a hybridization of Citizen Cope, Sufjan Stevens, M. Ward, and Jose Gonzalez – but, in some ways, is more accessible than any of them. Do you ever consider making your lyrics more broadly inclusive in order to reach a wider audience?
JG: It’s an honor to be compared with the likes of those guys, for I’ve got ‘em all in my iPod. I’ve always known that choosing to explore the intricacies of my faith in Christ would be a potential disconnection for many listeners. Yet, I’ve been compelled to do so, not out of a sense of obligation or to proselytize, but because when I’m honest with myself … I can’t escape how interesting, mysterious, and life-changing the whole thing is. I turn these things over in my mind and heart a lot, and the songs become a sort of tool or vehicle for me to flesh out what’s happening within. I do this as much for me as for the listener. I think to abandon this subject matter for the sake of being palatable to more listeners would be dishonest, both to myself and to them. I think it’s authenticity that people listen for first. I can connect with songs from Black Sabbath, The Sex Pistols, Prince, or Polyphonic Spree without being compelled to believe what they’re singing about. Yet, I’m compelled to listen because they’re believable.
NT: The monetization of art is an interesting topic. Why have you stepped away from that model by offering your new album for free? How do you see the intersection of art and commerce evolving in the future?
JG: A few things came to play in my decision to give away this latest album for free. First, I asked my fan base if they would be willing to help fund the project on the front end, and their response to this invitation was awesome. Because of fan-based funding, I was able to finish the project without going into debt. (Every other project I’ve done has put me in debt $10-12,000 … which then is paid off with album sales.) I had no hole I needed to fill in with this album, so to speak.
Second, this may sound weird to some, but at a crucial moment near the completion of the album I sensed God ask me, “Will you give this one to me?” It was actually a hard choice for me. The practical man in me pondered the ramifications of this decision for not only myself, but also my wife and two children. But then, if you think God might be asking you to do something, you kind of know what the right answer is the moment the question’s asked. All this to say, giving the album away wasn’t some high-risk promotional idea I dreamt up. It was actually never my intention. Yet, the fact that the work was already paid for (by others!) set me up to let go of it seamlessly, and demand nothing in return. Now, on the flip side of the decision, it’s been such a joy to give away something that was so precious to me. I feel like I blindly stumbled into a wonderful new way of approaching my vocation and the transmission of my work. Just as there are limitless possibilities in regards to how to craft a song, I’m learning there are new and creative ways to be a working artist in the global marketplace.
Writer Kelly McCartney recounts savoring Bread, the Fifth Dimension, and K-Tel compilations as a kid. Her palate has since matured to favor Death Cab for Cutie, The Avett Brothers, and NoiseTrade samplers.