After nearly a decade of success as a band, Hawk Nelson has entered a new era: new lead singer, new label, new mission, new music. But as Jonathan Steingard assures us, you can expect the same up-tempo you’ve always gotten from the band… with a slightly deeper meaning.
Family Christian: Ok Jon, before we get into the really tough “Barbara Walters style” questions, I sent out a message online and a mutual friend of ours responded by asking the question “do you have any pet chickens?” Does that ring a bell?
Jonathan Steingard: The only thing I think that would be referencing is that our manager, Ryan, has six chickens and we did a photo shoot recently where we actually were holding some of the chickens. It was pretty random. (laughs) So no, I don’t have any pet chickens but Ryan does.
FC: Alright. Ok, second question is from Twitter today… “When will Hawk Mart re-open”?
Jonathan: Oh, that’s a good question. So Hawk Mart is how we branded our online store. We’ve been going through a bunch of changes as a band the last year or so, and I think somewhere during that time we took it down. It may go up as a re-branded thing at some point. I think the biggest trick with that is finding someone to run it. Not a very interesting answer, I know… (laughs) so, I don’t know exactly when that will be back up, but hopefully sometime in the new year.
FC: Ok, now on to the ‘fun’ questions. Did you join the band right when they signed with Tooth and Nail Records, or did you join a couple of years after they were running?
Jonathan: I joined just after they signed. They recorded [the first] record with Aaron Sprinkle in Seattle in 2004 and then I joined mid-2004, so I joined right around the time that record was coming out. So I wasn’t on the record, but I toured for it and I was involved with every record after that.
FC: As a band they were doing some stuff before they signed, so they’ve been together about 10 years, which is pretty remarkable.
Jonathan: Yeah! Definitely, and that’s one of the things we’ve talked about recently. We feel pretty blessed to have had that much time. It’s not lost on us that a lot of bands don’t get to be around for that period of time. So that’s kind of special to begin with and then now we feel like we have a new lease on life in this new season…
FC: I was reading something in your bio that Daniel Biro, your bassist said “This time around we’re going through all this emotional and physical change and God breathed some new songs that channeled all those feelings and doubts and emotions into the lyrics.” So Jason Dunn, the former lead singer, is on his own now. Two-part question… Why did he leave? And what changes can we expect from Hawk Nelson?
Jonathan: I’ll try not to give you the super long answer. Basically when you start a band that young (right out of high school), there’s not necessarily a plan in place, ya know? You’re making music, having fun and it’s a great adventure. And all of that stuff is true and good. But as things progressed and we were getting older, I think we started to feel like we were growing apart. It definitely felt like Dan and Justin (who drums for us now, he joined us in 2007), the 3 of us were on the same page and we always found ourselves kind of on a different page than Jay [Jason] a lot of times musically, business-wise, spiritually sometimes, just not always seeing things the same way. But a band is like a marriage and so we were always trying to find as much common ground as we could. I think, about a year and a half ago it kinda became apparent that it just wasn’t going to work anymore. He knew it and we all knew it, but we didn’t know what to do with that, so we’re like, “what does that mean, what do we do with it?” So Jason I think decided to take the initiative – because he really wasn’t very happy – I think he wasn’t really where he wanted to be, and so he took the initiative and told us he was going to move on and do his own solo thing. I think he just wanted something that was his, where he could have the freedom to have it be whatever he wanted it to be.
FC: Was it hard for you guys to accept?
Jonathan: Oh, it was really difficult! I mean, we had been together for almost a decade. On so many levels it was all we knew. So now it was just this big unknown, like well, “what now?” For the most part if you’ve been in a band for a decade and your singer leaves, you’re done. I mean, there can be life for a band beyond that, but it’s very difficult. So we were processing all of that stuff. We had a little time off last Christmas to process this and figure out, “do we still want to be a band, or do we move on to other things?” We really felt like the answer to that question when we prayed about it was that we still really wanted to be a band and the idea of moving forward without some of that tension internally – to all be on the same page – was really exciting. Like what’s possible if we all actually want the same thing? So once we decided to move on as a band, that just meant finding a singer. We were talking to three different guys, and I think any one of those guys would have done a good job and I think it would have been great, but it just didn’t feel like it was ‘it.’
FC: Was one of them Michael W. Smith?
Jonathan: (laughs) Yeah, he would have been a good one.
FC: Kidding, of course.
Jonathan: So yeah, we were just kind of in this weird spot where we really felt like this was what God wanted us to do, and we just didn’t know who it was going to be with. We were so caught up in the notion that we had to bring someone in that it didn’t occur to us that maybe we didn’t, until we were on tour with MercyMe, Tenth Avenue North, Lecrae and a few others on Rock and Worship Road Show this spring.
So Bart Millard [lead singer of MercyMe] had gotten a hold of a record I had done on my own 5 or 6 years ago. I had put out the record mostly because I started producing and I needed something to work on. I had really no aspirations to be a full-time artist on my own, I love being in a band. So he was playing it in his dressing room and he hauled me in there and he’s like “Why are you not the singer?” And I was like, “I just don’t think that’s my role, I’m more of a support role” and he was like “Dude, you don’t need to bring in a singer, you’re the guy.” I argued with him for awhile and eventually he kinda persuaded me to consider it. So I started talking to the guys about it and all the guys were like, “this is brilliant.” It was this idea of starting a band with guys you’re already in a band with. Because we’d already talked about how much unity we felt between the three of us and that idea that we didn’t have to bring another unknown into that was amazing. So we started doing rehearsals as a three piece kinda secretly backstage while on tour still. We’d find little dressing rooms that weren’t being used and we’d set up a little tiny recording rig and just go through songs as a three piece… and it didn’t feel weird! It felt totally natural, which was just bizarre to us. So that’s how we got to this lineup. And then we started writing for this record. I think everything that had been pent up just came out. A bunch of the songs are just really fun pop songs, there are a few rock songs on the record, but there are also a few really aching, heartfelt God-what-are-You-doing type songs. I actually wrote a song with Mike Donehey from Tenth Avenue North called “Through The Fire” that will be on the record. It’s one of those songs that basically says “God I know that You’re there and I know you love me, but I don’t see that right this second, and I want to.”
Jonathan: Well, in the old Hawk, Jay was the main songwriter and so much of the personality of the band came from his personality, sort of goofy and quirky. Those who know him know he sometimes has a hard time being serious and that’s part of his charm. That sort of quirky thing he’s really great at. So a lot times when we sat down to write a record, the rest of us would kind of search for ways to go beyond that, and that was one of the things that was difficult. On this record there was so much going on in our lives. Sometimes I really feel like (for people that write) God uses those times to really do things that are redeeming. So when Jay left the band I moved into the role of the singer and the main songwriter. I’ve written a ton for this record. I actually did a count the other night and I’ve written fifty songs for this record. (laughs) Part of that was [because] for the first 20 or 30 songs we didn’t know what we were! We are rediscovering who we are as a band. Ya know, we’ve always been a really fun band and we still really love that. This record has tons of songs that are just a blast. But we were also sort of going through this really difficult time and God was shifting things in our lives and in our hearts that were heavy. I know that we’re not alone in that feeling. I don’t know why but I feel like the last 3 or 4 years with the recession… there’s been something about 2012. I have so many friends who are just going through massive life changes this year and I don’t know what God’s up to, but I feel like we can all identify with that. Times when the tables just turn in our lives and we go through stuff that we never saw coming. In those moments it’s like, God what are you doing!? But then you look back and go, wow God, You really had a plan and I just didn’t see it. So I think all of those feelings are pretty injected into this record for sure.
FC: So, would you say you guys are growing up?
Jonathan: I think we’ve been in the process of growing up for the last few years and this is a big part of it. I think this is a period of accelerated growth – we’re relearning some things, we’re learning things that we didn’t know before. Justin’s wife just had their first baby in May, the first Hawk Nelson baby, so that’s a new phase of life for us. Justin’s a dad and Dan and I are honorary uncles.
FC: So, would you say that Hawk is still a youth group band?
Jonathan: Definitely. We’ve been playing under the new line-up for about 20 or so shows, we’ve been mostly writing and recording this record, but we’ve been playing a few shows this year. Ya know, we’re still the band youth groups will book when they want to have fun night where they can let loose. Or if we’re playing conferences or festivals. We still are that band. The way I kinda look at it is the DNA of the band is still the same. [But] when the record comes out and people hear it, it definitely sounds different. Ya know, my voice is different than Jay’s and I think that a lot of the substance is a bit more grown up but I still think it’s something our audience will connect with. There are moments that are really fun that you can crank in your car and then there are moments that will hopefully connect in a way that we haven’t before.
FC: So, not only are you going through a lot of transition as a band, you’re also on a new label. How has the transition from Tooth and Nail to Fair Trade Services been for you guys? They’re local to where guys live as opposed to in Seattle where Tooth and Nail are located. Do you find yourselves interacting with them more?
Jonathan: Definitely. It wasn’t a bad parting of ways with Tooth and Nail at all. We had a five record deal and we fulfilled that record on our last album. It was honestly just when Jay decided to leave and we decided to move forward with the sort of new version of Hawk Nelson, it was just a natural turning point to have a clean slate in a few different areas – and one of those was the label area. We always had a great relationship with Tooth and Nail, but we had sort of been getting to know some of the people at Fair Trade casually over the last little while and we really just love the way they operate. They’re all about people; they’re relational, thoughtful and very purposeful. They’re a small company, independent – just really smart and purposeful about what they do. They really believe in the power of music to influence lives for the better. It just has been a really productive relationship. I would say they are more involved in the process than we’ve experienced with a label before, but because of who they are I really enjoy that involvement honestly. The A&R guy, James, he and I are talking probably every other day or so. We’re just in constant communication about how the record’s progressing. I can’t say enough good things about them honestly.
FC: So besides the new record being available on April 2nd, what else are you guys most excited about this year?
Jonathan: We are just really excited [in general]. It feels kind of bizarre because we’re technically on our 6th album, but it feels like our first in a lot of ways. We kinda have that honeymoon phase thing going on right now. The three of us have always enjoyed hanging out – we’re not one of those bands that don’t like each other. We love hanging out – we’re best friends. We really genuinely are. We’re going to do a tour in the spring. We’re taking Hyland and The Wrecking so we’re excited about that, but honestly, I think we’re just really excited to get this music in people’s hands. We’ve been crafting it for almost a year now. There’s so much going on behind the scenes that we can’t wait to get out there. The record is called Made and that comes from the title track. It’s basically this idea that when something is fashioned intentionally instead of just sort of happening and everything about it is on purpose – it comes back to the way that God made us. If something is created with purpose, the only appropriate response to that is to live with that same amount of purpose. On a personal level that is true, and then also as a band, it’s really what we feel right now. More than ever we are really enjoying having a purpose behind what we do and I think the record will show that. We’re also reaching out to a few people that we haven’t worked with before to maybe do some cool things we haven’t done before. It’s not official yet (I don’t think), but we have been talking with Food for the Hungry about getting involved with them to help build infrastructure in a specific community, probably in Central America. The cool thing is that they work through a child sponsorship model, but that money doesn’t go directly to that child, it goes to the community [they live in], and Food for the Hungry has a 10-year plan to build up infrastructure so that the community is completely self-sustaining by the time they leave. It’s a pretty cool process and the idea that we could partner with them to help one specific community and maybe over the course of a year see the funding go from start to finish is pretty cool.
Also, I told you the story of Bart encouraging me to step up and be the singer, so we asked him to sing on our first single. It’s called “Words” and we’re really excited about it. It was kind of a function of us wanting him to be a part of it because he was such a big part of really encouraging us to move in this direction and he’s been a huge part of our lives this year. It’s really a special thing for us.
FC: That’s great. We’ve heard the track and it’s awesome. So knowing your audience, when you’re up on stage, what are you hoping they see? What’s your goal as a band?
Jonathan: Mmm, that’s a good question. I feel like on any given night it might change in small ways but more than anything, man, I just want people to know that they are loved and that right where they are God has a plan for their lives. That even if it doesn’t look like it right this second, God is always working behind the scenes. And that they could just take a step forward in life joyfully and confidently knowing that God goes before and behind them. That purpose might look a little different each night, some nights the show is just an absolute party and those nights I wonder if maybe God uses those times to just give people a night to let loose and remember that life is full of joy. And other nights… There was a show recently where we did an encore acoustic song and we’re not a band that normally does worship music – we love to partner with other events that have that element in them, but it’s not usually what we do – but on this particular night, for whatever reason, I just felt super prompted that we were supposed to have a moment of worship and so we did that… and it was awesome. It was unplanned and we just sang through a couple of songs and it was a special moment for me, maybe because it was unplanned. We all grew up in youth group and I see a massive amount of value there, it’s such a crucial point in the lives of people that grow up in the church. There’s so much to figure out because not everyone’s church experiences are all that awesome, sometimes they’re scarring, so I love getting to know youth pastors and coming into churches and serving them in a unique way where we’re hopefully able to bring something new to what they do. I really think that youth groups are an area we feel pretty passionate about. We’ve always kinda connected with a younger audience and we haven’t always been good at growing with that audience. We’ve always sort of been that fun band that does that punk rock song or whatever, and while we still are that band, we are keen to really grow with our audience. A lot of songs on this record will connect on that level hopefully.
FC: So what do you guys do to get ready for a show?
Jonathan: (laughs) Well I’ve started warming up vocally which I didn’t used to do because now I’m the singer and I’m terrified of getting sick. When it didn’t used to be a big deal I was the guy that if I had the flu, would just put a bucket on the side of the stage and rock it… but now it matters. (laughs) So I have a few vocal exercises that I do. Justin does some rudimental exercises on a drum pad and Dan mostly just hangs out with people. (laughs) We do have a coffee road case and we told our road manager that it’s the most important road case in the whole lot, so he knows to keep it around so we can make coffee whenever we need to.
FC: Have you turned into a coffee snob?
Jonathan: I’m not a snob necessarily; I still do Starbucks and some of my friends who are coffee snobs feel more like that’s a corporate offense. Mostly it will be right before the show that we’ll connect with the youth pastor of the church we’re at or the promoter who may have brought us in. That’s a lot of times where the more personal connections and meeting people will be, right before the show.
FC: Well Jonathan, thank you so much for talking with us today. We’re just thrilled for you guys and know that good things are ahead. We hope you guys have a great
Bonus video: Dekalb High School Choir from Waterloo, IL performs Hawk Nelson's "The Show"