Just as mountaintop experiences are a part of the Christian faith, so are valleys; moments of struggle and searching for truth. Bebo Norman’s new album Lights of Distant Cities was forged through just such a time. What Bebo discovered through the process was this: sometimes it takes a dark time to see just how beautiful the light is...
Family Christian: So could you start by giving us some personal background?
Bebo Norman: I grew up in a town called Columbus, Georgia, about 90 miles south of Atlanta. Not a super-small town – probably a couple hundred-thousand people. Definitely off the beaten path, a little bit. I honestly grew up in a Christian home, in a strangely functional family. I say that with a grain of salt, because we definitely have our dysfunctions just like any family. But it was a pretty beautiful environment to grow up in, honestly. [I had] believing parents, but also parents who sort of gave us… well we grew up under their strict guidelines in a lot of ways. [However], they also allowed each of the four kids in our family to have their own sort of freedom in finding our way to faith, if that makes any sense. And so all four children did, in their own unique time through some labor and struggle. That’s were I grew up and what my back ground was.
FC: Where did the name “Bebo” come from?
Bebo: My younger sister; the youngest in the family. When I was probably 4 or 5 years old, she couldn’t say “big brother” and started saying “Bebo” instead. Which is super cute when you’re four, and not quite as cute when you’re about to be 40. Know what I mean? [laughs] So I have had to sort of adjust, but it is what it is.
FC: It is what it is.
Bebo: People ask me a lot if it’s a stage name that I made up. And I’m like “seriously?” If I was going to make up a stage name I can promise you it wouldn’t have been Bebo. It would have been something much cooler like “Sting” or something… Well, I suppose Bono is not exactly too cool, but he is a pretty cool guy.
FC: So at some particular point the persona out weighs any type of difficulty with the name.
Bebo: That’s what I like to tell myself anyway.
FC: So how did you get introduced to music and songwriting? Was that a part of your upbringing?
Bebo: It was. My dad played this thing called a Uke which is basically a four string guitar or an oversized ukulele. He [also] played guitar. And he didn’t play it extremely well. And honestly I haven’t seen him play it since I was a kid. He used to play these old folk songs, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez songs and really old folk traditional folk songs. And he would make up songs about our dogs and anything random that he could. That’s my first real memory of loving music – my dad playing those songs to me and my brother. We shared a room, and when we would go up to bed at night, he would come and play a song every now and then. And the truth is, he may have only done it a handful of times… I don’t really remember, but it was enough to make a significant impact. And I think the interesting thing was he was playing these old songs that were really written about kind of plain, ordinary life. And sort of finding these strangely profound things within the context of playing in a plain and ordinary life. And I think in a lot of ways that’s why I write the way that I write. And of course that has a lot to do with what influenced me once I started playing music and once I started writing music.
I still listened to a lot of singer/songwriters at that point. But it has a lot to do with the fact that that’s how faith is played out in my life... in finding the profound and the extraordinary in a plain and ordinary life. I think that is kind of how God has moved in my life. And so it tends to be why I write about the things that I write about. So I think my dad’s influence early on had a lot to do with that.
FC: So at some point did something happen in your heart or your head where you said “I want to switch gears and maybe make this a full-time gig”?
Bebo: Well, honestly, it was definitely an end-of-college/post-college sort of thing. I tell people all the time that I have a degree in biology – that is what I studied in college – and my plan was to go to medical school. Which is just insane in my mind to think about now. Mostly because that was almost 18 years ago now. The thing was, I started writing songs and playing the guitar when I was probably 16 or 17 years old. I started writing songs pretty quickly after that. Once I knew a few chords – and ironically I write most of my songs with the same few chords. It was an interesting process going through college and starting to really focus on songwriting more as my own sort of personal therapy sessions, more than anything else. There was no desire in my mind at that point to play my songs for people. I mean, I did, but that was not at all where it came from. I played them for friends and every now and then for small groups of people, but I never really performed for people – it was more just something that I did. And if somebody heard me singing they might ask me to play it for them or something. Right before I was graduating from college I just started feeling this intense sense of “Hey I need to at least see what would happen with this music.” A lot of that came from people in my life where they sort of forced me to ask that question, and they would say, “Hey, you need to at least see what would happen with music.” So, I tell people all the time I took a year off after college before I was going to go apply for medical school just to see what would happen. If I am honest about it, it was probably a little more intense for me than that. It was more of an intense “Yeah, I am thinking about taking a year off to see what happens, but this is really what I feel like what I am supposed to do.” In an intense calling sort of way. And oddly enough that year has turned into seventeen years.
You asked me if it was a hard decision or if there was a definite moment where I felt compelled to see what would happen with it. But I never felt like “hey this is going to be my life or my career.” I just thought that this was something that I needed to dive into and see what could happen – and still [all these] years into it, I feel kind of surprised a lot days that I am seventeen years into it. So, it’s been an interesting journey to say the least.
FC: So then you met the guys in Caedmon’s Call? Or somehow you were introduced to Watershed Records and did a deal there... How did you feel after that first record came out when you realized that you had national exposure?
Bebo: Well I was completely surprised by it. I was in the independent music world for years. So I really didn’t know what I was doing. Honestly I took out a loan when I graduated from college. My dad co-signed the loan for me to make an independent CD. And it was the beginning of the days of being able to make a CD digitally. We recorded it on these digital machines back in 1996. And that is when it released. So it was one of those things where I didn’t have any real expectations except, I am going to make this record and if I am making a record then maybe I should try to find places that I can go play, because I made a record before I played any real concerts. Then I started playing for Young Life camps and things like that back in the day. And that led from one thing to another…[So] this independent music scene was sort of rising up at that point and I had heard of this band Caedmon’s Call through independent music circles. And they had heard of me. And oddly enough, I was traveling through my home town, (I wasn’t living there at the time, I was living up in North Carolina), to go play a show in Florida and Caedmon’s Call happened to be playing a show in my home town and a friend of mine was promoting their show. So I went over to see the show. It ended up that these guys knew of my music and I knew of their music and we sort of hit if off that night. They asked me that night if I would tour with them the next spring. They were releasing their first national record at that point.
So that was the beginning of this process of getting real national exposure. That’s when record labels started talking to me. And I ended up on Watershed/Essential Records with Caedmon’s Call and Jars of Clay. Andrew Peterson came shortly after. That record label is now Provident Records which is probably one of the largest record labels in the Christian music world. Definitely an interesting journey. That is how it all sort of unfolded early on.
FC: So was it in your time with Young Life that you learned how to play wiffle ball so well?
Bebo: [Laughs] Such an obviously leading question.
FC: Well I remember reading something about that a couple of years ago – didn’t you break a bone?
Bebo: Yeah, I did. That was it. I would love to be able to tell people that I broke my leg doing some extreme sport like sky diving or something, right?
FC: I was going to say, don’t you play wiffle ball with a plastic ball and a plastic bat?
Bebo: In my way of wiffle ball, it’s a high collision sport. That’s the way I see it. High impact. It was a random, random thing on a Memorial Day. I can’t even remember how many years ago it was now. In fact, it probably was six years ago, because I broke my leg right before we had my first son, who is five now. So anyway all that to say – yeah, I had to have surgery, three pins put in my leg all from a silly, little game of wiffle ball. I was running home and jumped up and landed funny. Just a complete freak accident.
FC: Did your team win?
Bebo: No! [laughs] I tied the game up when I landed on the home base. And then we went into the bottom of the last inning. The other team scored. Not even worth it… It was not even worth it.
FC: Great story, nonetheless. Maybe someday wiffle ball will be at the Olympics.
Bebo: That’s right. That’s right. And if it is, I won’t pretend to be a player, maybe I can be an honorary coach or something.
FC: So since your time at Watershed, you’ve moved labels and are now with BEC Recordings. You’ve been really active since signing with them and have a new record coming out called Lights Of Distant Cities. We came across this quote recently and wondered if you could kind of talk us through what you meant a little bit. “The last few years have been pretty intense - a long, slow progression, or digression, into a spiritual desert. I struggled to write anything hopeful. But I wanted to be true to the season I was in, so I simply wrote about the hopelessness I was experiencing.” Now often times, Bebo, throughout the history of Christendom, there are people who follow Jesus and they say “there is absolutely no darkness once you are with Jesus.” From your quote, it doesn’t sound like that’s necessarily the case.
Bebo: Well, I certainly don’t fall into that camp. It wasn’t given to me as my spiritual gift. And I say that honestly. There was a time in my life where I really found great frustration with God in the sense that, in the fact that I felt like, that was sort of the thorn in my side, in my flesh, if you will. Which makes me question the whole [idea] that when you become a believer, there is no darkness. Just because Scripture doesn’t seem to back that up, at least the Scriptures that I have studied. So I struggled with the fact that I had this tendency towards that doubt. Tendency toward questioning. And this tendency toward this idea that I sort of spiral at times into a place where I look around the world and it seems – and this is where I was writing from on this record originally – looking around the world and seeing so much that is dark and difficult and confusing. So much that is broken about the world.
I just started asking this question “It just doesn’t look like love is winning in this world. So well, if love is not winning, then is God not winning? And if God is not winning, then who is God? And if I am wondering who God is, then, who am I within the context of who God is?” So much of my identity is wrapped up in what I believe and not just in just my Christian world view, but in how I have been transformed by who I believe God is.
So that’s where I started this record. And even coming out of my last record which is really a record that is a lot about longing for something and being honest in writing about being in that place of longing for something. And I think this record, in a strange way, ended up becoming about finding that something. Because where I started writing from has a lot to do with the quote that you just read, this place of really struggling with the idea that our faith has these two counterpoints to it. One side is what we know to be true, and the fact that we make choices and the “decision” part of our faith. The willing ourselves toward love and toward faith because we know that truth is truth. There is a decision part of that and a will part of that. The other end of the spectrum is the emotional part – the part that feels what we feel. The things that when the Holy Spirit sort of overwhelms us, and gives us a sense of what it means to really fall in love with God. With a real understanding of what God is doing in the world.
I think when we are young, our tendency is toward that emotional side, and it can tend to really sway and lean heavily on what it feels like to have a faith experience with God. Then we get older and we begin to realize that our emotions ebb and flow. They wane at times. Then they are full of hope at times. They are full of desperation at other times. We can start to really rely heavily on that decision. That “will” part of faith. I think I just found myself in a place, that slow digression that I mentioned, where I have been praying for so long to God. To find that first love again. To experience that feeling of falling in love again. That emotion of faith. That being overwhelmed with the Holy Spirit. I had been relying on for so long – it felt like years really – on the will part of my faith, on the decision part of my faith, to trust that truth is truth, regardless of what I feel. I just started praying real honestly to God as I looked around the world and saw all things that were wrong with it. Love was not winning. Just praying that God would really give me a sense in my heart and in my emotions again, that He really is who He says He is. And that He still really is in control of the world that just feels so out of control from time to time.
What ended up being profound to me while writing for this record is that I started writing in that place of desperation and kind of about half-way through the writing process. And by that I don’t mean that I had written half of the songs, and then wrote the next half of songs. I had written half of all the songs. All eleven. They were all, kind of, half-written. I was writing again from that honest place, wanting to convey those emotions. The desperation. About half way through that process, God sort of met me in a really profound way.
There were three days that I went and spent in solitude by myself. And God just showed up in a pretty moving way. For me. In an intense way. I just felt overwhelmed with a sense of what it means to fall in love again. To be moved by what God is doing in this world that feels so out of control at times.
So in a strange way, all the songs on this record sort of represent that transition. That transition from the season of desperation to the season of recovery and renewal. So the title, Lights in Distant Cities, that’s what that song and this record is about in a lot of ways. As I look back on the writing process, it’s that moment when you come around the bend and you see something in the distance that is beautiful. And mysterious. And moving. And that thing, sort of likening that to lights in distant cities, it’s what pulls you forward in life. It’s what draws you in that direction again.
And that is how I would describe what God did. How He pulled us into those places where He gives us those glimpses of who He is. A profound sense of who He is. That really draws us forward in life, and pulls us out of a season of darkness that we might have been in.
So that is really where it was written from, where the title comes from and really what I was hoping to convey. Or what turns out was conveyed on the record in the long run as a whole.
FC: Do you think that’s indicative of the Christian walk? That there are times in our lives – in a true, authentic walk – that we go through periods of wilderness or desperation?
Bebo: Absolutely. I don’t know how… well… it certainly has been in my life. Like I mentioned earlier, there was a time in my life where I really felt frustration with God. That He gave me this tendency to doubt, this tendency to sort of move into the wilderness places. I sort of came into this place of real gratitude for that. Because in a lot of ways I think it sort of keeps us as a church, at least from my perspective. I think most often in walks of faith that I have seen in my life, from people, whether they are authors or friends in my life, they have all gone through these seasons of real wilderness. A sort of dark night of the soul.
It kinda keeps us from becoming that church of Ephesus. The church that Revelation 2 talks about, the one that becomes the “loveless” church. They were the ones that had done so many profound things in their faith, but then became [the church] that lost it’s first love. I think when we go into those seasons of desperation, when everything else gets stripped away, we can’t become fat and warm and lazy. Or sort of lukewarm as a church. Because we feel desperate. And we feel lost. And we realize that we can’t pull ourselves out of it. It’s really about relying on a God Who’s bigger than the burdens of this world to pull us out of it.
So absolutely, I think that’s indicative of what it means to walk and live our faith. Do I absolutely understand it? Absolutely not. Do I wish in a lot of ways that it wasn’t that way? Absolutely, because it can be painful at times. But my goodness, it makes for a beautiful experience. And one of the real quotes that moved me in the writing process for this whole record was a quote from an old German mystic from the late 1300’s, Meister Eckhart was his name. A lot of times when I have fallen into that place where I say “God, why did you build us this way, where we have to go through these seasons of the desert? Why is the world the way it is with all this darkness built into it?” Meister Eckhart said simply “If the soul could have known God without the world, God would have never created the world.” So, in some way we are built so that our soul, to really truly know God, has to go through those seasons; has to go through a world that really is a bit broken and dark, in order to really know who God is.
That quote was a pretty massive turning point for me in the writing of this record. As simple as it is, it was pretty profound and foundational for me in a lot of ways.
The Broken - lyric video
FCS: We so appreciate your honesty. Bebo, what would you say to brother or sister who is struggling right now in the wilderness? Who seems either overwhelmed by sin, whether it be their own, or sin in the world, or just overall darkness. That they just don’t feel like their prayers are getting to God. Like they would feel like their prayers are just hitting the ceiling. How do you speak to somebody like that?
Bebo: The first thing that comes to mind and that would come out of my mouth is I’m with you. I mean, I have been there. I will be there again. I happen to be in a season right now where God has really kind of “shown up” for me. In a way that I was just describing to you before. But it came out of a long season. A really long season, honestly, of feeling like my prayers were going unanswered. Feeling like… you know there is a song on the record called “Collide” and it’s probably the most indicative song of what you are talking about. That talks about these kingdoms that we build. When I don’t feel love. When I don’t feel saved. When I feel emotion-less in my faith. When I am thriving and surviving only on will and decision. Knowing that truth is truth, regardless of what I feel. When I go through long, long seasons of that, which I have done several times in my life, my tendency is to start looking for that feeling elsewhere. So I start to build these kingdoms up. And I might be peoples’ tendency to be in a dark place right now, or overwhelmed with their own sin or the sin of the world or the brokenness of the world or their own brokenness. We start to build these kingdoms up that are our attempts to fill that emotional need in our life. And those kingdoms can really be beautiful things. Things like family. Like our children, or our spouses. Or community. Even my music, for me, has become a kingdom at times. Where I seek to find my value and my worth in that kingdom. And I seek to be filled in that emotional sense. Or what strangers think of me as a musician. Of filled or completed by what my wife thinks of me. Or how I am as a father with my children. Those can be beautiful things, but when they become the center, when they become what we are drawing our emotional value from, they are bound to crumble. And truthfully, every single kingdom that I have ever built in my life has crumbled in one way or another, because they are all temporal.
My wife is not meant to be the source of life for me. And I am not meant to be the source of life for her. My kids are not mean to be that for me. That’s too heavy for them to carry, and my wife to carry or for me to carry. Certainly our music or our career is not meant to be those things for us. They are meant to be beautiful things, but they not meant to be the source. So the song “Collide”, that is what the whole song talks about, is these kingdoms that we build. And we continue to do it over and over. The whole song is written from this desperate place and the very last line of the song says “I build these kingdoms. I continue to build them. I continue to watch them fall.” Then the last line of the song says “And then You say to me, “You’re mine.’” Here I am, this desperate guy, seeking to find you in all these other ways, and you still continue to manage to show up in some way, and remind me that I am still yours.
And that’s what I would say to someone who is in a desperate place. Hang on for that “bend” that comes when we go around the corner as we see lights in the distance. [Lights] that are mysterious and beautiful and intriguing and they pull us forward in life. Because that to me, is how God has worked profoundly in my life and in the course of writing this record.
FC: Are you a book reader?
Bebo: I am. I love to read. I am slow book reader. So I tend to read just a handful books a year. And a lot of times I read them several times, to try to soak them all in.
FC: What are you currently reading?
Bebo: I am reading a couple right now. I have gone back to sort of start a book again. I love Tim Keller. He is one of my favorite authors, or really pastors. He has a book called Reason for God. Which every now and then I just need to go back and be reminded of the details of what a real, healthy Christian worldview is. I am also reading a book by Bob Goff right now called Love Does. He is a friend of mine. So both of those I love. But my staple, that I go to a lot is an author named Annie Dillard. They are not novels in any sense, but she has a profound spiritual sense in how she writes and what she writes about. That’s what I go to a lot. I am reading a book from her right now call the Maytrees that I just started. So those are the ones that I am reading currently. I read a whole bunch all at the same time.
FC: One last question for you. When you go into a Starbucks, what drink do you order?
Bebo: A decaf triple-tall, Americano. That’s my drink. I haven’t done caffeine in ten years, but I love coffee. So I pay a little bit more to get good coffee, because bad decaf is horrible. So good decaf may seem like a misnomer to some people, but I am here to vouch for the fact that it’s true. So that’s my drink at Starbucks.
The making of Lights of Distant Cities: