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 An Interview with Andrew Peterson

Andrew Peterson is at the top of his game. He has already released three critically acclaimed albums (Carried Along, Clear to Venus, and Love and Thunder). His latest offering, Behold the Lamb of God, presents a vivid tapestry of songs which spin the true tall tale of Christmas in a fresh manner sure to leave listeners misty eyed and full of wonder at Godís mystery and handiwork.

Andrew is currently headlining a unique Christmas tour in which Behold the Lamb of God is presented in its entirety to convey its story. In the midst of his hectic schedule, Andrew graciously found the time to chat with about music, Christian radio, and white Mexican cheese sauce. Tell us about your background as a musician and a songwriter.

Andrew Peterson (AP): I grew up in the church as a preacherís kid, and for as long as I can remember, I have loved music. The problem was that I was really bad at it, and I lived in this little town where there were no other musicians to play with and learn from. And I didnít really like Christian music for the most part. So I found myself spinning my wheels and dreaming of going on the road to play music one day.

After high school, I had a chance to tour with this rock band for awhile, and we were really awful, but we thought we were so cool. Once I got off of the road with them, I found myself at the most hypocritical point in my Christianity. I had been baptized when I was nine years old. As a preacherís son, I went to church all the time growing up. I even made a serious spiritual commitment to the Lord when I was seventeen. I went through all these stages where God was trying to get my attention to show me who He was, but I just didnít get it. I knew how to go through the motions really well, but I just didnít care that much.

So after getting off the road with this band, I moved in with a buddy who was at the opposite place in life as me. He was not going through the motions, and he was really being changed by Christ. He gave me this Rich Mullins tape, and asked me to learn a song off of it. I didnít really want to learn it because it was Christian music, but I listened to the song anyway Ė and Iíve never been the same since. I was heart-broken and moved by Richís music, and I knew almost immediately that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

The thing about Richís music, and all great art for that matter, is that itís a combination of beauty, truth, and honesty. A lot of Christian music these days contains truth Ė people are singing Bible verses and things that are true, but it doesnít necessarily contain a lot of honesty, like about how people really feel. It doesnít talk about the darkness and ďalone-nessĒ that we feel. So much of Christian music just tends to be so happy all the time, and being a Christian is not always a happy thing. Itís a hard thing. Thereís certainly joy in being a Christian, but itís not all happiness. Richís music is honest about these feelings. It speaks of an ache for heaven, a discontentedness with who he was, and a deep longing to be like Christ. Thatís the kind of music I wanted to write and sing.

So for several years, about half the songs I played in my concerts were Rich Mullins songs. I still play a Rich Mullins cover in every show I do. Anyway, one day Caedmonís Call saw some of my song lyrics on the web, and through a series of serendipitous events, they offered me the chance to tour with them. Soon afterward, I was able to quit my job at the Olive Garden and feed my kids with music.

So thatís kind of a nutshell version. Once I realized what music is really for Ė to glorify God Ė I discovered that the only way I would ever be truly satisfied playing music was by using it for itís intended purpose - to glorify God. And thatís why I started writing the songs I write; I wanted to reach into that deep, scary, and honest place I saw Rich reaching for in his songs.
Andrew Peterson All these years later, you have a new album called Behold the Lamb of God. Can you tell us about your motivation behind this project?

AP: I am so excited about this project. Itís something Iíve worked on for five years. I wanted to approach the Christmas story from the tradition of the old bards who traveled from town to town telling stories with their music and recording history that way. I thought it would be really neat to make a record that did that, one that was lyrical in its content, and whose songs followed the progression of the Christmas story through the Old and New Testaments.

Also, I knew that I couldnít compete with the great Christmas albums out there. So instead of containing arrangements of traditional carols, this album is full of new original songs which attempt to tell the Gospel story in a new way. The entire first half of the album dwells on the Old Testament (which often gets overlooked nowadays, but is really just as much about Christ as the New Testament). It paints a picture of Israel through the stories of Moses, the Passover Feast, the kings like David, and the prophets Ė all of which point to the coming of Jesus. And itís such a depressing picture. After doing the first half of the show each night, when we finally get to the song that bridges the gap between the Old and New Testaments, I feel so tired from singing about all the Old Testament stuff. The album really tries to convey how Israel must have felt. All the songs are minor and dark. We often forget about how long Israel waited and yearned for a Messiah. That song you mentioned that bridges the gap between the Testaments is called ďMatthewís Begats.Ē This song is a romping and tongue-twisting rendition of all the names in the genealogy of Christ.

AP: Yeah, I still sometimes forget some of the words to that song in concert. One time, this pastor from Mount Carmel in Israel came up to me after a show, and he told me how his church is reaching out to Jews there. He told me that there have been cases of Jews being converted to Christianity just by the reading of that passage on Jesusí lineage in Matthew chapter one. I think thatís amazing, because this is a passage that we so often just skim over wondering what its point is. So there you go. God knows what Heís doing. Later in the album is a haunting song entitled ďLabor of LoveĒ which offers a very different perspective on the birth of Christ than most of us are familiar with. Can you talk about the inspiration behind that song?

AP: I try not to write songs that have already been written. So, in this case, the song ďLabor of LoveĒ is about Mary, but not the peaceful Mary we see in nativity sets holding Baby Jesus. I have three kids, and I was there when my wife gave birth to each of them. Now, if my wife had given birth in a barn, in the dark, in the middle of the night, there is no way she would have looked as nice as Mary looked in these scenes. Childbirth is violent and painful, and so the first line of this song is ďIt was not a silent night. / There was blood on the ground.Ē I think thereís significance in the fact that God chose to come into the world that way Ė bathed in blood and pain.

The first time we incorporated this song into the Christmas show, Jill Phillips, who sang it, was eight months pregnant. So she got up on stage with her beautiful voice and her pregnant body, and just sang this song about Mary having a baby. And I was sitting behind her, and I had to hide my face because I was weeping so hard. What is one of your favorite moments on Behold the Lamb of God?

AP: Near the end of the album is the title track, which presents Jesus as the culmination of all the Old Testament stories and prophecies. He is the Lamb of God who takes away our sin. At the end of that piece is a musical transition to a reprise of an earlier song. This musical transition takes elements and lines from several songs on the album and weaves them together as a reminder of the messages in all those songs, and how they all reach their point in Christ, like pieces of a puzzle. I get the biggest goose bumps when we play this transition in the show, because it reminds me of Godís genius in fashioning such a great story.

Christmas is not just a holiday. Itís an amazing story, and because of Christ, itís not just a story that resonates deep within us, but we are all a part of the story. Weíre wrapped up in the history that God is writing. You are part of a group of artists called the Weaklings. Can you tell us about the nature and purpose of this group?

AP: When I was touring with Caedmonís Call, I discovered a movement of independent musicians who are making great music. For a long while, whenever Caedmonís Call went on the road, they made a point to not take a big well-known band with them. Instead, they found somebody they believed in to show audiences that thereís music out there that record labels might not ever touch, but is great music. I was a beneficiary of this, and it was fun for awhile until I signed with a record label. Independence was never a badge I wanted to wear. I just wanted to make great music and feed my family. Being on a label was the way to do that, at the time.

In the last couple of years, though, itís gotten a little bit weird in the music business. Record sales have been dropping and iTunes has been invented. Things are changing. The way people are making money and paying bills, the way record labels are operating is changing.

One day back in February, I got a call from my label saying that I was released from my contract with them. This wasnít really a huge surprise to me. It was actually freeing because it meant that I could pursue the Behold the Lamb of God project, which my label had been hesitant about. What did surprise me, though, was that five other artist friends of mine got calls the same day releasing them from their contracts as well.

What you hear on Christian radio is not representative of the music thatís being made today. There are Christians creating great music with real beauty and depth, telling how their lives have been ruined in the best way possible by the love of God. Their art is speaking this so powerfully, but Christian radio will never play it. Christian radio has too much power over what the audience hears. Iím not trying say there is no good music being played on Christian radio. There is. But I have a friend who wrote a great song about resurrection and Christ, and thereís a line in the chorus that contains the word ďsad.Ē And because the word ďsadĒ was there, their label would not let them put this song on a record because the song would never make it as a radio single.

Anyway, I can go on ranting about all this, but I donít really have a solution, except to keep writing the best songs that I can write, and not giving into the pressure to become slick and pop and shallow. There are a lot of artists out there who are making great music, and somehow, we need to find a way to let people know about it. So the community I am involved with [the Weaklings] is a group of songwriters and bands in Nashville who are committed to Christ, and committed to telling their stories regardless of what CCM tells them they are allowed to do. And I am honored to be a part of that group. Can you give us any clues as to what we should expect from your next project, and when?

AP: Yeah. Iíve got the songs all written, as well as the musical direction in mind for the next album. Weíre lining up musicians so we can hopefully start recording in February. Weíll release it as soon as we can after that.

Iím probably going to release a live CD of B-sides and fun stuff through my web site between now and then. Looking back through eight years of touring, Iím sure weíll find some fun and nostalgic stuff for a CD, and that will help fill the gap until the next record comes out. Youíve talked about how you enjoy telling stories with songs. Is it in your heart at all to write some songs for use in corporate worship settings?

AP: I have a couple songs Iíve written in that vein, but it seems to me that worship music is kind of a fad or craze right now. Iíve got something of a rebellious streak in me (probably from being a preacherís kid) that makes me reject stuff like that. There are people in Nashville who say things like, ďWow, worship music is selling. Quick, put out a worship record.Ē I donít want to be a part of that, because that is not what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like.

The approach I take to songwriting is that I just kind of write what comes out. Sometimes a song will be inspired by a Scripture that moves me, and it will end up being a worshipful song, but other times it will just be a song about some guy. I really try not to contrive anything, but I would love to one day write a worship song as good as Rich Mullinsí ďSometimes by Step What three albums have had the most profound impact on you and why?

AP: A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band [by Rich Mullins] because lyrically, musically, and production-wise, that album is just incredible. That record represents a moment in time where everything just worked. One of the most exciting things about the Christmas tour I am on now is that we are covering ďThe Color GreenĒ from that album. Iíve always wanted to cover that song.

I would also say Marc Cohnís self-titled album, and The Counting Crowsí first record [August and Everything After]. And Graceland by Paul Simon. Those are some of my desert island albums. The consistent thing in all those albums is great songwriting that takes you places. What advice or encouragement would you give to aspiring musicians and songwriters?

AP: Learn to be content playing wherever people will listen to you, whether thatís on a street corner, at a lock-in at four in the morning for church kids, or in somebody's living room. When I was getting started, I made a commitment that if somebody asked me to come and play, no matter how much they were going to pay me, I was going to come do it. I met some of my closest friends, and I had doors opened to me because of an attitude of being willing to serve with my music.

On a more practical level, you need to record something. There are people who ask to open for me, but if they donít have anything recorded, thereís no way I can tell what they are going to sound like. Recordings are also one the best gauges of how youíre doing. Sometimes weíll listen to our live shows and cringe, but hearing how bad you were last night is one of the best ways to help you get better. Also, you can try to sell your recordings. If they sell, maybe youíre doing something right. If not, maybe you should be a banker (though this is not always the case). What is the most challenging thing about being Andrew Peterson?

AP: My love for white Mexican cheese sauce. I just love Mexican food, and now that Iím thirty, Iím starting to get fat, and I canít eat that stuff without feeling it.

Honestly, my biggest spiritual struggle is forgetting who I am in Christ. Iím bad about believing praise. After a show when people are telling me I did a great job, I take a little too much comfort in that. Thereís nothing wrong with compliments, but the problem is when you believe it when you do well, you will also believe it when you donít do well. I start to think, ďNo one came to the show tonight, and no one told or emailed me that they liked my concert or CD. Therefore, Iím a failure.Ē This struggle seems to come with being an artist; itís hard to separate yourself from what you do. As soon as you start to believe what Satan is telling you, that you stink or that youíre a sinner, then you start to act that way.

For me as a musician, itís hard for me not to compare myself to other peopleís success, or compare my songs to other peopleís songs, like Rich Mullinsí, or to judge my worth by how well Iím doing on an earthly success level. I constantly have to remind myself that I am a child of the King of the world. If I go on stage and the audience doesnít like me, I try to remind myself that I am a prince in the Kingdom of God. If they donít like my music, thatís fine, because I know that God thinks so highly of me, and that I am a treasure in His eyes.

To rest and take comfort in that fact is kind of like Neo at the end of The Matrix, when he finally realizes who he is. He stands up, kind of coming back from the dead, and whenever Agent Smith opens fire on him, he just calmly lifts his hand up, and the bullets stop in mid-air and fall to the ground. I think that we as Christians have the power to do that when Satan starts letting loose with lies like ďYouíre a failure. Youíre stupid. Youíre a lousy husband and father.Ē All we have to do is remember that we are children of the King, and you can almost feel that ammunition Satan is firing at you fall to the ground.
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