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The Science of Song - an interview with Andrew Peterson

Posted on September 5, 2012 by John van der Veen There have been 0 comments

With strokes of his upbringing, faith, experiences and relationships, Andrew Peterson creates art. Like an intricate oil painting, the nuances, layers and textures combine to create something distinct and deep. But to Andrew, it’s just part of the process… down to the very DNA of the lyrics.

Family Christian: So tell us a little about Andrew Peterson. Where are you from, what’s your family look like?

Andrew Peterson: I’ve been married 17 years and have 3 kids who are 13, 12 and 9. I was born in Illinois (basically in a corn field), then when I was 7 we moved to what I lovingly call “redneck Florida.” So I went from having a sort of golden-boy-Midwestern childhood to [the] deep south, ya know? [With] all of the good and bad and wonderful things that come with a southern childhood. My dad is a pastor and he still preaches at the same town that I grew up in north Florida. I ended up randomly going to Bible college. Not for any noble reason, mainly because it was affordable and I couldn’t think of anything else to do (laughs). So I went to Bible college and fell in love with it almost immediately. I met my wife there, got a Bible degree, put out an indie record then moved to Nashville where I’ve been making records ever since.

FC: Which Bible college?
Andrew: It was called Florida Christian College in Kissimmee/Orlando. Just a small, really conservative Bible college within my “non-denominational denomination.” (laughs)

FC: (Laughs) You may be the first person who has publicly made that into an official denomination…

Andrew: I coined it! Yes!

FC: Would you consider Florida to be southern living?

Andrew: Oh yes, at least the part of Florida that I lived in. Florida is a funny place. I maintain that it is the weirdest state in the United States – and I mean that in a good way. I didn’t like it when I was a kid, but now that I’m a writer and part of my life involves telling stories, I feel like I could not have grown up in a richer story-telling culture than Florida. It’s this kind of strange convergence of beach culture and retired people and snowbirds and Cuban-Puerto Rican culture. If you drive about 15 minutes inland from the beach or out of any town, you’re in this swampy, unique kind of country, [with] racism and southern hospitality and Bible belt stuff and it’s just a really fascinating place. I’ve gotten to [this place that] now that I’m older, I’ve started reading books by southern authors because I’m so fascinated by the cultures there. Everybody from Flannery O’Connor to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and people like that. And so I’m really grateful. I never want it to sound like I’m talking bad about my home state but it is bizarre and I’m just delighted by that.

FC: Do people in north Florida eat grits or biscuits and gravy?

Andrew: Oh yes, as often as possible. My little town is called Lake Butler and it has three generations of family sheriffs. There’s a railroad track and the white people lived on one side and the black people lived on the other. There was a poured house and a little drug store where farmers in overalls would talk in the heat of the day and my dad is a southern preacher which means that he paces a lot and occasionally little flecks of spittle. It was exactly what you would imagine a “deep south childhood” would look like. So yeah, I think that may be part of where my love for storytelling came from. All you have to do is sit on the porch for a few minutes and eavesdrop on my dad’s conversations and you hear the most colorful, beautiful language – good stories. It’s a farm culture and yeah, I couldn’t wait to escape it when I was a boy, but now that I’m a grown up I live in a metropolitan area and the older I get the more I’ve started calling my mom and dad and asking them how to grow tomatoes and how to keep the deer out of the pumpkin patch (that sort of thing), and so yeah, I feel like it’s a part of who I am.

FC: Did you meet Rich Mullins?

Andrew: I did. Just 2 or 3 times, and each time it was in a really unadulterated fan context. I shook his hand and told him I loved him and passed him a demo. That kind of thing. It’s funny, I had just finished recording my independent record in college. I was 22.

FC: Was that The Walk?

Andrew: Yeah, and it’s terrible. When I go back and listen to it, I can hardly listen to it because it’s so bad in so many ways. But at the time, when you’re 22 you feel like you’re the king of the world and I thought “Man, I’m going to give this CD to Rich Mullins and he’s going to love it and we’re going to become friends!” But he died a year later so I never had a chance to live down how bad the demo was. I later became friends with Mitch McVicker who was friends with Rich’s touring partner back at the time and I was always really self-conscious that I had met them both at this geeky fan phase so I didn’t let on that I’d already met Mitch before. Years later when we started doing shows together I was like “man, do you know that we met before we started traveling together?” and he was like “oh yeah, I remember, it was at your college in Florida” and I was horrified! I said “Ahhh! No! You don’t by chance remember that I gave you a demo CD do you? And he said “yeah”, so I said, “you guys didn’t ever hear it did you? And he goes “yeah… we hated it.” (laughs) So I thought that was delightful. There’s a part of me that’s like maybe it’s a small mercy that I didn’t meet Rich because it would have been the worst thing to find out that he couldn’t stand me, ya know? (laughs) [This way] I can pretend that maybe we would have been friends.

FC: You’ve carried the storytelling trait from your dad, which Rich had too. Was that something unique in his music that drew you?

Andrew: Yes, definitely. I’ve kind of jokingly said that Rich’s music rescued me from Lynyrd Skynyrd. I was in a rock band the year after high school, touring around, but it never ever would have crossed my mind that I wanted to do Christian music because I grew up in this goofy paradigm that meant being in the ministry meant being a pastor, or a missionary. And I didn’t want to be either of those things so I just thought, well, I guess I don’t want to be in the ministry. So hearing Rich’s music around that time opened my eyes to how powerful a song can be. C.S. Lewis described stories this way, he said that stories could “sneak past peoples’ watchful dragons.” The idea is that a sermon will hit you head-on but art can flank you, surprise you and flip truth behind your lines when you least expect it. I think that’s what happened with Rich’s music and me. I wasn’t terribly interested in the Gospel. Ya know, I would have told you that I was a Christian but I was really struggling and really trying to find my way and then I heard this Rich Mullins song that captivated me with its poetry and the roughness that I heard in his voice. He was a smoker – I didn’t know it at the time – but I heard something broken in his voice. Emotionally and physically for that matter. So that brokenness was more beautiful to me than any of the slick stuff I had heard in Christian music. And it really drew me in. What I heard was loneliness and some sadness and a deep longing, and all of that resonated with me. I felt like he was singing the way my heart felt. It was because he was willing to be honest about his own struggle and the truth about Who Jesus really is. That woke-up something in me. It took all of those Bible stories that I had grown up with over the years and my love for The Lord of the Rings and adventure stories and all of those things converged in the songs of Rich Mullins and I found something that I’d never found before. So ever since then, every time I sit down to write a song, I’m trying to get close to the feet of those mountains. If I can write something like “The Color Green” by Rich Mullins or “Copperline” by James Taylor or “Graceland” by Paul Simon I think it’s good for a songwriter to keep listening to the masters. To ask yourself “well how in the world did they write songs that move me like this?” Every time you sit down you’re probably going to fail but you gotta at least try, ya know? So I’m always trying to get back to the way that I felt sitting on the side of a mountain in east Tennessee and listening to Rich Mullins music. So that’s what I’m shooting for, whether or not I ever attain it.

FC: So then you met Derek Webb… or he found you? How did that work?

Andrew: (laughs) That was back when the internet was relatively new and I was waiting tables at the Olive Garden here in Nashville. We had just moved here. Jamie and I were childless, poor and working really hard. I couldn’t get any bookings. One night I discovered this band, Caedmon’s Call, and I really liked their music. I think I discovered them because of their friendship with Rich Mullins. I think that’s how I ended up finding their website. I ended up posting something online about how their songwriting and music was really the first thing that had moved me like that since I’d heard Rich Mullins’ music. I included a link to my really lame website, and Derek followed the link and read my lyrics and he really liked them. He saw something in them and I ended up meeting them later at a concert and he remembered me and I said, can I open for you guys? And he said yes. That was basically the beginning of my music career. (laughs) I don’t know why he said yes, he’d never heard me play a song before. Never heard what I sounded like live. But for whatever reason, they happened to not have an opener like a week later so I got to drive out to west Tennessee and play a show with them. A month later I was on the tour bus.

FC: Wow and now you’re getting ready to release your 12th or 13th album?

Andrew: Well if you included all of the little side projects [I’ve done] it would be about that many, but it’s either the 8th or 9th full-length studio record, I can’t remember.

FC: Ok, before talk about the new album, let’s talk a second about this “Square Peg Alliance” group you created. What is it?

Andrew: Well, it’s funny, The Square Peg Alliance is not as active as it was maybe 3 or 4 years ago. Basically, I didn’t start it – it was just something that grew sort of organically at our little songwriting community here in Nashville. In reaction to how a lot of us had been on Christian record labels, some of us had had radio play and then as the industry started to change we all found ourselves not “pop-Christian” enough to get by in the Christian world and “too Christian-y” to ever have a chance to get by in the mainstream world. And so we didn’t know what to do other than lock arms with each other and just try to help each other survive and stick to the calling of the type of songs we were writing. We kinda jokingly named ourselves the Square Peg Alliance. Ya know, all we did was give a name to this thing that was already happening. The same thing is still happening, we just don’t officially gather under that name anymore.

FC: Did the Rabbit Room kind of morph out of that?

Andrew: The Rabbit Room didn’t morph out of it, but it came for the same love for community. Ya know, I went to England and saw the pub where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams and their buddies used to get together and read their stories. And around that time I read a book about the Pixar company and I started to recognize that really good art thrives in the confines of community. We had some of that happening with music already, but I was writing my books and I wanted to grow into a better writer – and I knew a lot of people who wanted to do that same thing. So The Rabbit Room was kind of an experiment in community. We thought, what happens if we get some authors and pastors and songwriters and artists all joined together with the hopes that we’ll learn to make excellent work? And invite people into that conversation and see what happens? So we didn’t really have a clear direction, I just bought the domain name and made the website and invited some friends to be a part of it, and that was about 5 years ago. It’s doing really well. It’s been a pleasant surprise at almost every turn.

FC: And so now you’ve written 3 books?

Andrew: I’m [currently] writing my 4th book.

FC: Obviously you’re an artist, but do you have a preference between writing music or books? Is one easier for you?

Andrew: Um, I think that the easier one is whichever one I’m not doing. (laughs) Yeah, it’s all hard. There’s a part of me that really loves the book making process. Part of that is because I can stay home, it doesn’t involve a lot of travel, [it’s] a slowing down. It’s work, but it isn’t frantic work. Being on the road, playing music, there’s a lot of travel and deadlines and craziness, whereas book writing is probably more diligent work. It just doesn’t take me away from my wife and kids, so I really love that. With that said, I’m supposed to be writing book 4 right now but it’s been like trying to push-start a semi truck. Like I’ve had a really hard time mustering the discipline to really dig into it, so ya know, it’s all really hard, man. (laughs) It’s like planting the garden, the only way to get good fruit is to sweat and bleed for it, so that’s where I am right now.

FC: But maybe that’s due to the fact that you have a new record coming out too…

Andrew: Well, that’s part of it. I have been pretty busy with the record thing. I feel a little bit creatively capped ya know, from writing the songs probably too quickly. So that’s part of it. If I’m really honest with myself I am also just trying to avoid it because it’s a lot of work. (laughs) When I was in Bible college I wanted to be a youth minister because I thought he was the one who did the least amount of work in the church. (laughs) I did it for a year and realized that the opposite is true. So I quit [youth ministry] thinking, well maybe I can get out of doing work if I play music. And that wasn’t really true either.

FC: You’ve touched on various themes in your previous records… What is the name of the new record, and is there an overarching theme?

Light For the Lost Boy

Andrew: The name of the record is Light for the Lost Boy. And if there was a theme (I think the title kind of sums it up), [it’s that] a lot of the songs on this record are about growing up. There are a lot of aspects to what it means to grow up. There’s the exit from Eden, this aspect of childhood that we are all kind of exiled from as we sin and grow old which creates this longing for restoration. There’s this longing for Jesus to hurry up and come back, to let us enter this Kingdom where we’ll have undying bodies [without] the pain of age or wasting away. Ya know, the effects that occur. There’s a lot of longing wrapped up in [this record]. I’m just trying to figure it out myself too. I don’t know. I’m watching my kids teeter into adolescence and the conversations with them have gotten more difficult. It’s not like we’re having problems with them, [it’s just the] preparing them for the world they’re growing into. It’s been pretty sad for me. I mean, I’m excited because they’re amazing kids and I think they’re going to do great things for the Kingdom, but at the same time, I’m grieving a little because I know that part of the process, the discipline that we receive as children of the King is sometimes painful. They’re going to make mistakes. The older they’ve gotten the more I’ve remembered my own childhood, ya know? I remember the sweetness of it, but I also remembered some of the moments that have continued to cause me pain over the years. So I’m guessing that’s why so many of the songs deal with childhood and the longing for restoration. But honestly I don’t know. I’m trying to be better about writing the songs I write and letting the listener add his or her own DNA to the thing. Most of us have seen the movie Jurassic Park, but I don’t know if you remember the scene where they’re going through the ride and the little computer thing is animating how they recreated dinosaurs from the DNA they found in the mosquitoes. And it shows these cartoon DNA strands and they’re like, well, we couldn’t really complete the DNA strands from the dinosaur so we used some from a turtle (I think or maybe it was a lizard) to complete the DNA and we created these dinosaurs. And I think songwriting and art are like that. My songs are these strands of my own DNA but there are all of these holes in them, like the songs aren’t a complete story. So the listener then brings his own DNA to the song and it begins to mean something specific to him or her. I remember that happened with “Dancing in the Minefields” this song about my marriage. The first line is “I was 19 and you were 21 the year we got engaged…” And I’ve gotten so many emails from people who are like “your story is just like my story, she was 19 and I was 21 the year we got married” and those details aren’t right at all! (laughs) They got the numbers backwards and they got the engagement and the wedding different because these people have brought their own story to my song so much so that the details of my song becomes irrelevant. So I’m hoping that with this record that whatever I meant by it will only be the beginning of the story for what the songs do in the heart of the people who are hearing it.

Rest Easy

FC: What music are you enjoying lately?

Andrew: I have been listening to a lot of the new – I’m trying to be careful not to say anything “bad” because I’m talking to Family Christian (laughs) – I’ve been listening to the new Bon Iver record a lot. As soon as I said that I remembered there’s a bad word in one of the songs. There’s a band called Fleet Foxes that my sons and I really like. It’s really creative, almost classical sounding folk music, “chamber folk” is what some people call it I think. And then there’s this new Ben Shive record, he’s the guy who produced my new album – he’s really great. There’s this guy Josh Garrels, he’s great. We’ve connected and I tried to talk him into the Christmas tour this year. His wife is going to have a baby right before the tour so he couldn’t do it, but I’m a huge fan of his. Josh makes me feel the way I felt when I listened to Rich Mullins, I think Jon Foreman (of Switchfoot) is like that too. There are very few people who have such great music that is so unabashedly about the gospel. I think Josh is one of those guys. Man, when I’m jogging and I hear his music, sometimes I “ugly cry.” (laughs) He’s so explicit about the God that he’s singing to and about. I’m deeply moved by that. So there’s a short list.

FC: What kind of dog is your pet, Moon Dog?

Andrew: (laughs) He is a Great Pyrenees. He’s a white, bushy, sheep-herding kind of dog. That’s Moon Dog. He’s white so he’s easy to see when he runs around at night. I also have to say, my father-in-law worked for NASA back around the time of the Apollo missions, he lived right there in Cocoa Beach where all of the astronauts were and sort of ‘lived among them.’ So [he] had a dog named Moon Doggie because he was working on the moon mission. And I always thought that was a great name, so when we got this dog I liked the idea of Moon Dog Jr.

FC: Well Andrew, thanks for talking with us today. We can’t wait to hear the new album.

Andrew: I can’t wait for you to hear it either. Thanks so much for doing this.

Andrew’s new record Light for the Lost Boy hit stores this week! Pick it up here and check out his previous works here.

To look into some of the artists that Andrew mentioned in the interview, follow these links:

C.S. Lewis

Rich Mullins

Caedmon’s Call & Derek Webb

Switchfoot

 


This post was posted in Music, Interviews and was tagged with Featured, Rich Mullins, Andrew Peterson, Derek Webb, Caedmon's Call, College, The Lord of the Rings, Switchfoot, C.S. Lewis

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