Meet Across the Sky

Meeting the members of new Word Records duo Across the Sky at Starbucks is like being with a child on Christmas morning—their enthusiasm is that tangible. And the caffeine doesn’t hurt either.

Both 21-years-old, both full of passion for God, and both brimming with musical talent that had drawn the interest of the record label, Ben Kolarcik and Justin Unger had never met before early in 2002. By the end of August, the two were “close as brothers,” as they will quickly tell you. “It’s been really cool getting to know and respect each other.

We really feed off of each other in our personalities and humor. It’s funny—some days it’s like we have too much coffee, but I think some of that comes from so much excitement about what we’re doing,” says Justin.

The result is their eponymous debut, Across the Sky, filled with a swirling blend of sounds that makes them completely unique, in Christian music and beyond. Hope-filled lyrics, primarily written and co-written by the two, permeate the disc alongside a true blend of pop and rock—blond Justin claiming the more pop and ballad-focused influences, while Ben is the shaggy dark-haired rocker.

“I tend to be more eclectic, more like the rocky-edge sort of guy,” says Ben. “Our sound together is a really cool thing that we hadn’t realized would happen.”

Although their list of differences runs a mile long, the paths of the two had paralleled each other in many ways, finally meeting in Nashville under the insistence of the higher-ups at Word. Ben and Justin each originally came to the label as solo artists—Ben hailing from Louisville, KY, where he’d found an avid following, and Justin calling Phoenix, AZ, home, where he’d also built an extensive fan base.

Recognizing the talents of both young men, the label had their own ideas for musical futures. The two eventually met in the hallways of the label, and as they spent time together, hanging out and writing music, they realized that there was a greater plan at work.

“Ben and I talked about it and said, ‘Let’s bring a duo to the table’,” says Justin. “We played a demo for the record label of some songs we’d been working on, and they got our vision.”

“We all have plans and ideas of what’s going to work, but then the Lord changed our mindsets and ordained this meeting, opens the door, and we find ourselves walking through it,” Ben agrees. “He’s always opening stuff that wasn’t our idea in the first place.”

The label was in agreement, and with the musical and songwriting chemistry at work under the Lord’s guidance, Ben and Justin quickly abandoned their solo careers and became Across the Sky.

With the production team of some of Nashville’s finest songwriters including Jim Cooper and Kenny Lamb working half of the record and co-producer Jeremy Bose rounding out the other half, Across the Sky brought over 50 songs for consideration out of their songwriting sessions. The duo ultimately settled on 12 songs for their self-titled debut, which range from upbeat radio-friendly hits to poignant ballads. Their writing talents were complemented by sessions with such noted songwriters as Cindy Morgan, Scott Krippayne, Matthew Gerrard, Jeff Borders, Kyle Matthews and Tony Wood, among others.

“Our songs are full of hope and faithfulness. Everyone can relate to at least one of them. It’s life—we’re talking about life.”

For two guys in their early twenties with such enthusiasm running through their veins, life includes songs like “Exciting Times.” Seeing the path before them, both Ben and Justin find excitement in the challenge that lies ahead.

“We have a lot to do, but we have so much to say. We are excited because we have an everlasting message to share with people,” Ben says. “Then you see the scope of the world today, and people are afraid—the war, the economy. ‘Exciting Times’ was written because of a message that was needed in the church, but now even more so in the world.”

Another stand-out cut is “Shooting Star,” a ballad co-written by Justin and Jason Ingram, which reflects personal experience and God’s faithfulness. “Everyone makes mistakes, but no matter far how far away you are, God’s there when you’re ready to come home,” says Justin, noting that God’s faithfulness is a theme that’s also reflected in “When I Open My Eyes,” which teams Ben and Justin with producer Jeremy Bose.

With Word Records now a part of Warner Brothers, also home to bands like Sixpence None The Richer, who have been torchbearers in reaching out beyond the Christian fan base, Across the Sky is hopeful that they will be able to make an impact as well.

“The Lord’s people should be known when they are seen,” says Ben. “It’s more than just being a ‘positive force’.”

“I can see us moving out in the darkness,” Justin adds quickly. “The little light that we have can overcome so much, and make such an impact. We will go onstage and be real, with a message about God in our lives and where we’ve come from.”

Artists who have done the very same thing, and as a result are veritable Christian music legends, have affected Ben and Justin the same way they hope to affect others. Ben can quote the exact date that Steven Curtis Chapman came to his hometown for the Great Adventure Tour, where he was able to go backstage and meet the multi-award winning singer/songwriter himself. Justin cites Michael W. Smith as a huge influence because of his integrity on and offstage.

Family has also been a huge influence in both of their lives. While music runs in the veins of both young men, and their families have always been supportive of their endeavors, other differences are obvious.

Hailing most recently from Louisville, KY, where his family has lived for most of his life, Ben’s father was in the military for over 21 years—which meant lots of moving around with his five brothers and sisters, including Australia, California, South Carolina and Virginia. Although Ben is number four in the lineup and the only one to pursue music full time, he is quick to note the musical talents of his siblings. A talent easily traced to his father and both of his grandfathers, one of which was a well-known Irish tenor.

Raised in Christian schools, Ben has been doing solo performances since his high school years. This also included leading and organizing worship for the weekly chapel services at school. Opportunities at both school and church eventually led to the decision of becoming a full time independent artist. Shortly after graduating high school, opportunities came about to perform consistently in several regions of the U.S. and all over the world, including Australia, Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Poland. A self-taught guitarist, the multi-talented artist also dabbles a bit with piano and lap dulcimer.

While Ben’s musical influences range from The Beatles, The Police and Jeff Buckley to Keith Green and Rich Mullins, Justin grew up listening primarily to Christian music. Born and raised in Phoenix, AZ, Justin is the middle of three brothers. While his mom held down the fort as a stay-at-home mom and sometime helper at his elementary school, his father had the musical instincts in the family, finding time out from his roofing business to teach himself how to play numerous instruments by ear. Justin followed in his footsteps, and began playing piano at age 10 and playing trumpet in the school band.

His songwriting career began at age 17, as he began co-writing music with his grandfather, a local pastor. Soon after, Justin started a Christian band called “Emmaus,” performing as lead vocalist the songs that he and his grandfather had written. Within a few months of the band’s creation, money was given to them to participate and compete in the Gospel Music Association’s Seminar in the Rockies at Estes Park, CO. With the forms filled in and their slot confirmed, Emmaus broke up three months prior to the event.

It is easy enough to call the next turn of events “divine intervention,” as Justin decided to go ahead to Estes Park on his own. In addition to taking a few seminar classes, he competed in the vocal competition in the 12 to 19-year-old age group, accompanying himself on the piano on the songs he had written. Justin took home the grand prize over all of the age groups, and knew that God had a plan to use his talents. Back in Phoenix, he soon heard from several different label executives, including Word Records.

Both Justin and Ben took the first major steps in their careers by making the move to Nashville. Now roommates in the suburb of Franklin, TN, the members of Across the Sky have already been on the road performing the songs from their self-titled debut.

“We have a vision to make a difference in the world. Our desire is to share our hearts and make excellent music to reach the masses, whether that’s to the church or outside the church,” says Ben. “It doesn’t matter if we’re on Jay Leno or talking to the Christian radio station morning drive guy—we will be faithful and declare the Truth, and after that it really isn’t up to us anyway. It’s really liberating to realize that God is in control of all of this—it takes us out of the picture and lets Him do His work.”

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