His Christian music career may span more than twenty years, but tobyMac is as relevant as ever. While his music’s packed with uncompromising truth, cut-to-the-quick beats and unforgettable musical hooks, our recent chat quickly revealed he doesn’t even flinch at making himself vulnerable about his own faith-journey. From our discussion and what we’re hearing about his upcoming record, Eye On It, we can’t help suspecting that just maybe his best days lie ahead.
toby: I’ve always really loved Isaiah 43:19 which basically says God is doing a new thing in the land, it springs forth, do you perceive it? I love a lot of things about that but [especially] the thought that God can do something new. If you’re a parent, or a husband or a songwriter or all of the above, in all those things God can do something new or something beautiful. You just have to be ready to perceive it – to be looking for it.
FC: Such a good reminder. The second question is – if you were not doing music, what would you be doing?
toby: (laughs) I have no idea. I’ve thought about that a few times… I used to think I had some administrative-type skills back in the day when I used to organize for DC Talk. But nowadays… the longer you’re an artist the more those responsibilities are sort of taken out of your hands. (laughs) I think I would be working with youth culture some way. I don’t know if I’d be a youth leader or a writer or a speaker or something, but I definitely think [it would be] where the Gospel and the Kingdom meet youth culture – that’s how I think.
FC: Speaking of DC Talk, it seems like you, Kevin and Michael have periodically thrown out various bits of info about getting back together. Do you think that’s really going to happen?
toby: The truth is I don’t think there’s any reason that we wouldn’t do something sooner or later. I mean [here’s] the main thing – is there any barrier that would cause you to not be open to it? I can honestly say – from all three of us, no. Nothing negative. The only thing that would be a barrier are positive things like Tait’s success with the newsboys, or me doing my solo record or whatever Kevin’s got brewing up, whether it’s his book, whatever it may be. I will say that when it happens, I think it will be because it is right for all three of us. Not because it’s right for one or two of us, and I wouldn’t want to do it at a time other than that. I wouldn’t want to feel like I’m forcing somebody into it. I mean, is that going to happen? I don’t know. I can’t predict it, but I know I’m not opposed to it when the timing’s right.
FC: Since you’ve gone solo, are there certain elements of being in the band that you miss? Like having collaboration versus being on your own?
toby: Well I think I’m always a part of collaborative efforts, it’s just the way I’m wired. It’s probably is part of my neediness as an artist, as a songwriter, as a showman, as a guy that shares the Gospel through music. I’ll admit in those things, I’m a needy man. Obviously not only for God to breathe through me – desperately needy there – but also I’m very needy when it comes to the people around me. I do songs with Chris Stevens and David Garcia or David Wyatt or Jamie Moore and we are literally in the trenches just pushing or pushing each other. I’m not a one-man show, I’m not a mastermind. I mean, I might have vision for something, but I need people that are great at what they do. I am a needy man - whether it’s [working with] co-producers or the way DiverseCity (my band) puts together our shows, whether it’s the way Amanda and I raise our kids. I’m not the kind of guy to say “I’ve got this, gimme the ball.” I’m a team player so I’ve always been collaborative from DC Talk to today. I think my band and I – as far as climbing a mountain together [goes] – as much as an artist can include a band in that, I do. It still is a tobyMac CD, but I know my band feels very much a part of what we do and we all win if it succeeds. Something that I’ll never live through again and I hold very dear is three guys packing up a U-haul, moving from their dorm to Nashville, sharing an apartment together and trying to make a ‘go’ of something. I mean, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to go, working in the crew all day to get to do one or two songs [that night]. I mean, there’s something about that that brings people together. That joint vision, that making $10,000 the first year we moved to Nashville, ya know, there’s something about that; you can never re-trace it. Even when I started doing solo I remember I was playing in the afternoons, barely able to rent a bus and there was a rebuilding process but there’s nothing like the hunger and desire to share your music with the world for the first time. There’s nothing to compare to that.
FC: We don’t want to spend a ton more time talking about DC Talk because that was part of your past, so we’ll close that portion with this… There was something SO unique about how with each record your popularity swelled. What do you think was it about the group that made it so special?
toby: First of all I would say, we can’t leave God out of the equation – God IS the equation. I think when God chooses to shoot something through and it connects with peoples’ lives, it’s bigger than we are. If any of us took credit for masterminding that thing it would be a mistake. Just like I know when I wrote City on our Knees I know God breathed that song through me. There’s no doubt about it, I believe that with all my heart. I think that we have to realize that it’s bigger than us if God chooses to do that. We can make our best plans and work really hard and be as passionate as we can be – but at the end of the day the thing that connects with peoples’ lives is beyond our humanness. Especially if it changes their path spiritually – it’s beyond what I could write, or conjure up. I’m ready to acknowledge, to recognize that. I think that [our] different personalities played a role in that [too]. I [also] think there was enough depth when it came to the vocal-thing. It was interesting vocally because it was complex. It was not just a one guy standing in front of a band singing or another guy rapping. It was complex because you’ve got this African American guy that sings soulfully for sure, but he’s also really a rock singer and then there’s this other guy – he’s a rock singer too but he can sing R & B like nobody’s business when he wants to. And then you have this other guy that came up rapping and writing songs… when you combine those things! [Also] at that time it was either a rap song or a singing song. There were very few things that ever did what hip hop does today – and that’s have a vocal hook but a rap verse. It just didn’t happen much back then. There was one group that really did it and it was my favorite group, called Houdini. There were kind of these chant-y sung choruses with rap verses and I always loved that. I thought, people love to sing a melody– why wouldn’t you put that together with rap? Then you have something. So I mean, there was that aspect of it too. I could talk about this stuff all day, but really it was God. I think the three of us having different styles and different tastes appealed to different people. It was literally like having three front men. I think the complexity of it made it interesting, I guess.
FC: Through all of your music, it’s easy to start picking out some overarching themes. Transitioning to your new record, Eye On It, what is the overarching message that you hope to come across with?
toby: I think there’s a kind of decisiveness about this record that I like. I do think that the themes of my life and the way I write are not going to venture too far because they’re foundational to my life. But what a record is to me is, you take those foundational themes and you rub them up against the world, what the world is doing to you. Whether I’m 26, 36 or 46, that world is ruffling me in different ways. I’m being hit in different ways but the foundational themes stay the same. So the perspective of continuing to fall back on what I know to be true in the midst of this world coming at me is what these records end up being. I am singing about my spirituality and my faith in Christ as it relates to this world because that’s what I see, what I walk everyday. As I grow in age I also hopefully grow in wisdom and temperament, so it’s all these things coming at me – I’m also looking at how it’s coming at my 13 year old son Truett. I’m writing in these dynamic ranges, these wide frequencies and I think that I continue to draw back to my foundation. My life, as it relates to my writing has been – I’ll write songs like “Tonight” all the time because I’m always re-deciding that I’m going to walk strong and fall passionately into my pursuit of holiness. But then two months later (or even two days later) I’m in the midst of grabbing things of the world and trying to let them satisfy me, so then I decide again, it starts tonight! (laughs) I know some people might just ride out this spiritual life really well and consistently, but for me I feel like it’s always a struggle. I think it comes out in lyrics. There are other themes [too], but there’s this foundational knowledge that we’re supposed to love people well and love God well as we walk on this earth. [Also about] how loving people encompasses all races and denominations and inviting everybody. Instead of arguing, why can’t we just meet at the cross? It’s all these things that have bugged me to death. I’m not really into debating scripture but I know there’s a need for it. I know we need people out there on the cutting edge of that, but I’ll be my own little part of the Body and continue to try to help us to get it right by loving each other well and loving God with all of our heart.
FC: So you’re not just an artist - you’re the co-owner of Gotee Records, you’re a father, a mentor to hundreds of artists and a youth leader to thousands (if not millions) of people. How does one like yourself (who we suspect views himself as a normal, average follower of Jesus), go through your life in a godly manner in all of those aspects?
toby: I think first of all my life revolves around trust – trusting God and the promises that He offers us. Amanda has this really intimate walk with the Lord that sometimes I’m jealous of. It’s real intimate and I love that about her. Me, it’s almost a little more that I just completely trust God. It might not be as intimate as I wish it was sometimes, but so far (thank God) it’s just been unshakable trust. I guess I’m just aware of how much I need Him and how much I don’t have the skill set that I need to make it in this life without Him or without friends that tell me the truth. They are living examples of people that love God more than I do! When you surround yourself with people who love God more than you, those people inspire you to love Him more, to walk more humbly, to walk more meekly and depend on Him more. Not only am I surrounded by amazing talent, but I’m surrounded by people who love God with all of their heart. They’re so willing and care enough about me to tell me the truth about myself. They’re willing to tell me the things I’m missing about myself that I need to hear, and also encourage me when I need to hear it. I’d say that’s exactly how.
FC: Thanks for the honesty there. Ok, let’s transition to a few “bullet” questions, just one or two word answers.
toby: If I can manage that. (laughs)
FC: Ha! Ok, so what is your favorite cookie and why?
toby: I don’t know what it’s called, but that peanut butter cookie with the Hershey’s Kiss on top; that’s my stuff right there. I have a friend of the family that makes them for us sometimes and she knows I just look forward to that day. (laughs)
FC: Favorite restaurant?
toby: Oh man… In Franklin (TN) we have one called Red Pony. It’s, uh… the chef would probably kill me if I called it an American bistro, but it’s a local restaurant. If you want something that more people could relate to outside of Franklin, believe it or not, Whole Foods is way out there. (laughs) Just go to the food section and dine like we did last night. I also love Asian food.
FC: Have you ever been cow tipping or snipe hunting?
toby: I’ve been snipe hunting. I got absolutely bamboozled on the snipe hunting – I was ALL in. I have been cow tipping, but we couldn’t find any cows.
[For more Four Questions With... blog series, click here]
FC: Are you a book reader?
toby: Yeah, I just finished The Hunger Games series and I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. I love that book. I’m just kicking it a few pages at a time, but it’s rocking my world.
FC: What music are you listening to?
toby: We listen to a lot of reggae at my house. And of course I love to go back… The Police, the things I loved growing up, Hall and Oates. Currently in regular rotation at my house would be anything from modern worship to Mat Kearney. It’s kind of just on. [What’s playing just] depends on who has the wheels of steel in their hands.
FC: Thank you so much for taking time to chat with us today and for being so vulnerable. We really appreciate you.
toby: My pleasure. Thanks so much.
Bonus - Toby talks about his new single, Me Without You
Lyric video for Me Without You
Are you as excited about Eye On It as we are? Prebuy today and get a special premium offer. Keep your eyes peeled for the release August 28th.