The only true alchemy in this world occurs when trials turn to gold, the debris and heartbreak of life transformed and polished into shining beauty by a loving, unseen hand. We try to catch a glimpse of this remarkable change in action, yet human eyes fail us. However, once these storms of life pass, we see the afterglow through signs as sure as Noah's ancient rainbow. A loved one overcomes. Morning breaks after an impossibly long night. Grace thunders through spiritual drought with a mighty downpour of living water. All of this, and more, affirms the fact that yes, life is beautiful.
Such was the thought going into the new album from The Afters. I sat down with lead singer, Josh Havens to discuss the lines between the lines of what made up life and it's beauty.
John: New record. Life is Beautiful. Josh, what is underneath the title? What is the theme of the record. When you guys are singing about the idea of life as being beautiful, what does that mean for you guys?
Josh: Well, this record is really a collection of stories that comes straight from life. It's little vignettes that come straight from our lives. It's the beautiful things that we experience in life, the things we're thankful for and the good things, but also some of the pain and the struggles that we go through. What ties this record together is how God is present in every moment of it. He's with us on the beautiful sunny days and the good times in life, but he's also there when we face the valleys in life and walk through the harder things too. That's why the stories on this record are a real collection of some of the joy and the sorrow that we've walked through and just God's faithfulness through all of it. Ultimately, I think no matter what situation we find ourselves in, God can make beauty in anything. That's definitely been our experience as we were walking through the making of this record.
John: Was there ever a moment in the recording process where either you, individually or the four of you guys together, after a lyric is written or a song is recorded, you kind of just step back and go, "Okay, this is a God moment." Where the song almost becomes outside of who you are and God is speaking to you?
Josh: Absolutely. Yes, there's definitely been songs where it's almost like you blink and you're like, “Okay, where did this come from? Where did this song that did not exist just a little while ago come from, because there is no way we could have just done this ourselves?” There were moments for instance in the song called “Broken” where I remember looking up, and we were all in tears as we were writing that song. The subject matter was so personal to us, and you know, I think writing in a way is therapy for the people who did the writing because you're dealing with the harder things that you go through and you're facing some of these things that are sometimes difficult to confront. For instance, with the writing of “Broken,” we were all discussing different losses that we've been through. I had just come out of being in the hospital with my son. When my son was born he had some unexpected complications and had to spend quite a while in NICU, and that was a pretty crazy experience. We saw other children there who never left the hospital. Parents that never brought their children home, and it was a difficult thing to be there and see all the suffering. We also saw God do some pretty amazing things and he really did show us His faithfulness in those times. I remember being in the hospital and reading the book of Job for comfort and seeing a man who lost everything in his life. I mean he lost his family. He lost all of his possessions, and then in the midst of that loss and brokenness he shaved his head and took off his clothes so he truly had nothing left, and then he fell to his knees and worshiped God. I just remember being so inspired by that and just thinking, “Wow, that's the man I want to be.”
John: You guys had the opportunity to partner with the Erwin Brothers on their film October Baby. Then you made a music video for the song "Life is Beautiful" that was in correlation with the movie. What kind of experience was that like seeing your song being such an integral part to the message of that movie?
Josh: Well, the way that that all came about was pretty interesting. We were actually on tour with Casting Crowns and we were working on songs for the new record. Most of the venues were these sports arenas, so we would have stinky locker rooms that were basically our dressing room for the day. So we would bring out equipment into these locker rooms and set up kind of a little mini studio. The idea for “Life is Beautiful” is one that's been kind of in my head for a while. I've wondered about that song and thought even about maybe doing a record with that scene for a while. We started discussing the concept of it and it just flowed out. It was one of the fastest songs we've ever written. We had it written and demoed within a day. Sent it to our manager. It was almost like once we started talking about the idea of things that we're thankful for in life and things that make life beautiful and those little gifts from God, it just started flowing. I remember sending it to our manager the next day after we had demoed it, and he said, "I've got to send this to the Erwin brothers because they just did a movie that this would be perfect for." Well, they had already finished it and turned it in, but they actually pulled it back and asked if they could make a tweak on it and they put the song in the movie because they felt like it would be a perfect fit. Then we did the music video for it. They had a whole campaign surrounding this film called “Every Life is Beautiful.” They didn't know about our song and we didn't know about the campaign. It just happened to be the perfect blend of ideas and the right thing at the right time that got put in place. It's been cool to see. It's such a great film. It's been cool to have a song that was a part of it and see the lives that were impacted by that movie.
John: Josh, are you always writing songs?
Josh: Try to. Right now we're writing songs, but not necessarily for us. We're working with some other artists on some songs. I try to keep fresh. It's one of those things like a muscle. If you don't work it out it gets flabby and you've got to work it back up and tone it again. It's better to not get out of shape. Songwriting is the same way. You don't want to lose it because it seems like once you practice the songwriting muscle as they say, you get better at it and faster at it and you're able to collect your ideas a little better. I definitely feel like once we're in the songwriting groove it's easier to finish songs and to channel ideas. I try to stay up on songwriting. I heard Charlie Peacock, he said he writes a song everyday whether it's good or bad. I think that's a great discipline to have. I'm not that disciplined, but I definitely try to stay up on it.
John: What does this year look like for you guys? You're going on tour?
Josh: Yes, we just finished a tour that we did together with Francesca Battistelli, and then during the summer we're basically just traveling all over doing festivals and fairs and things like that. Then come fall, we're doing an exciting tour. We're partnering with our friends Building 429 and we're going to bring out Hawk Nelson, some good buddies of ours as well. We're going to do a big fall tour so that's going to be really fun.
John: Awesome. Josh, when you look back at The Afters touring experiences through the years, through all of your records that you guys have done, is there a most embarrassing moment that comes to mind?
Josh: Most embarrassing moment. We've had quite a few numbers of them. We've had a number of embarrassing moments. I think for me, I've had some pretty epic falls on stage because I'm pretty mobile. I move around a lot and I go into the crowd and I climb on my piano and things, and I've had a couple of instances where I’ve had some pretty big falls. One of which was actually collected on video and somebody put us on You Tube. That's always fun. I think just the shear length of time that we've done this, we've all had our fair share of embarrassing moments.
There's been times when I walked on stage and said the wrong city’s name and that's something I think most singers have done at sometime or another, and that's always something that's hard to recover from. And it’s like, no really, I am glad that I'm in your city.
John: Yeah, wherever we are.
Josh: Wherever it might be.
John: Have you ever broken a bone on stage?
Josh: No, I've been fortunate to not break a bone, thankfully. I have broken equipment before. My guitar has suffered through my falls.
John: What has God been teaching either you personally or the band in the last month? You had mentioned a few minutes ago in looking at some of the songs you guys were wrestling with the fact that God is present in all things, both good and bad.
John: What about today? What would you say ... you're a married man who has children. Speak to other guys that are just kind of hitting the daily grind, attempting to love their wife well, love their children well, and pursue Christ. What does that look like on a daily basis for you, Josh?
Josh: I think that the reality is we all struggle with very similar things. We all want to be better husbands. We all want to be better parents. We all lose our temper at times. We all say things that we regret. We all make mistakes. I think what God has really taught me on a family level here recently has really been showing me through having kids is a little glimpse of the picture of grace. It's kind of given me an understanding of grace that I didn't have before being a parent, because anyone with kids knows that kids can be rotten sometimes and I have great kids, but they can still be rotten sometimes. No matter how rotten they are, it's not going to change my love for them. If they lie or if they hit their brother or sister or if they do something that I've asked them not to do and are disobedient, that's not going to change my love for them and they can't make me love them any less than I already do, and they can't make me love them anymore than I already do because I already love them as much as possible. That's given me a little glimpse of what God's grace for us is like and His love for His children. That no matter what we do in life even though we can be rotten sometimes and we make mistakes, that doesn't change God's love for us. He loves us so much that nothing we can do can take away even a single bit of that love.
John: Amen. That is a good word, Josh.
Josh: On the band side of things, I think gratitude has been something that God has really shown us through the years. We feel really fortunate to have done this as long as we have. Matt and I have been playing music together for going on 14 years. As a band, we've been touring full time since 2004. So we feel really blessed to be able to do what we do. I always remind my guys, if there's a day where people are complaining or maybe the bus breaks down or we miss flights or things happen that make the day difficult, I always remind them even on the worst of days that we're living somebody else's dream and we're so fortunate to be able to do this day in and day out. We definitely feel gratitude. It's cool to be able to see the fruits of what we're doing because when you write music you never know how God's going use it. Through touring you get to see a little glimpse when people come up to you and tell you these stories. We'll never hear all the stories, but when we do hear those little glimpses of what God has been using the music for, it's definitely encouragement to keep going.
So what are the beautiful things in life? Havens sums it up thus: "Our hope for our record—and a lot of heartache went into this album—is that it will encourage people to see how God is working in their lives. He's not just there on the sunny days. No matter what we go through in life, God is still with us and life is beautiful—God is beautiful."