Exclusive Interview with Bebo Norman
We recently had the opportunity to interview songwriter/artist, Bebo Norman, about songwriting, his new album release, and more.
Joe: Congratulations on the imminent arrival of your latest release, Lights of Distant Cities. This is a captivating collection of songs that feels very personal. How did this project begin and how does the result compare to that initial seed?
Bebo: First of all, thank you for the kind words...I’m not certain what the “commercial viability” of this record will be, but I think this is my favorite record that I’ve made in a long, long time.
I started writing most all of these songs very much in the middle of a sort of desert season in my life, spiritually, but finished them after a sort of recovery process had happened. Honestly, in the beginning I was struggling to find a way to write about anything hopeful at all, but I really wanted to be true to the season that I was in in life, so I simply started to write about the hopelessness I was experiencing.
Thankfully, the writing process for me is a very slow one, and the timing was such that I finished nearly all of these songs after having come through that hopeless season. So I think what I ended up with were songs that speak whole heartedly to the desperation that comes with an almost emotion-less desert season, but also speaks to the hope that always seems to come out of those seasons.
So you have these individual songs where that whole process of desperation and recovery, of darkness and light, is represented within the same song. It’s as if two years of this spiritual journey are contained in 3 or 4 minutes of most every song. Rarely have I ever had songs that really represent a process in motion like that, songs written in real time, rather than reflection…where the whole story can be represented in one song. So there are songs like “Sing of Your Glory” that read like this:
When all I thought was sacred
Was shattered in the fallout
And my feet of clay the weight can no longer carry
When love is not a feeling
And hope feels like copout
The ground beneath my feet a sudden shift and I’m buried
But I’ll sing of your glory now
I’ll sing of your glory now
I’ll sing of your glory now and forever
Sonically this record is indeed quite a bit different for me. But I can say in all honesty that we didn’t set out to make it sound more like one genre or another. Gabe Scott and Ben Shive joined me in producing this record, the first we’ve all done together, and both of them have an intense ability to build these critical musical beds under songs that speak volumes into how the songs communicate. Since I wrote more than half of the record with Gabe [Scott], we had a vision from the very beginning to craft these songs as genuine classic songwriter songs (honest, personal, relatable concepts) and then treat them in a way musically and sonically that could capture some deep and vivid emotion.
What does joy sound like? Or serenity, ache, uncertainty, hope etc...what do all these emotions actually sound like? So that’s where we started on every song. We tried to answer those questions in the writing AND recording process. And wherever that led us musically, that’s where we went. So in the end, we just created music that we felt best voiced the emotion of each song, regardless of what direction or “genre” that music landed in.
Joe: You’ve mentioned that, in writing songs for this album, you’ve returned to a “place of freedom again creatively”. Have you felt creatively constrained in the past? If so, by what?
Bebo: I think in some ways things have sort of come full circle for me. In the beginning, as a young songwriter, I wasn’t thinking about “career”…I was just writing songs. There was so much freedom and beauty in that. But when people begin to hear your songs, and it does end up becoming your career, whether you admit it or not, you begin to be consciously or subconsciously influenced by what you think people want or need to hear.
I think having come through these last 17 years and having seen my career pass it’s “commercial peak” in many ways, and to realize that I’m still standing as a musician, I’ve sort of landed back in that place of freedom again now - where I don’t pretend to know what people want to hear anymore…because I genuinely don’t know. So now instead, I can write from that place of freedom and rawness again to just say what is true, where both beauty and ugliness have a voice. In that sense, this record might be more honest than any I’ve ever written.
Joe: You noted this album was written as if there was no such thing as radio. What does that mean and how does that change the resulting song?
Bebo: Yeah, we definitely decided that we would truly write and record every song as if there was no such thing as radio or “commercial viability.” Not AT ALL because I think radio or commercial success is bad, but because I genuinely wanted to make a record that was true to the spirit of creativity and not the spirit of "what do people want to hear."
Besides, I can say with all honesty that I have absolutely no clue what works and what doesn't work on Christian radio anymore. I think it's confirmation that I'm officially an old man in this business. In the end, I can’t think of a more fulfilling process of making a record…genuinely one of the most creative experiences of my life from start to finish.
Joe: Many of the songs are co-written with Gabe Scott, a multi-instrumentalist and long-time live collaborator. How did your relationship as performers translate into a songwriting partnership?
Bebo: It’s hard to make sense out of the fact that, after more than 10 years of working together on the road, Gabe and I had never written a single song together. In ways I think it’s because Gabe is really just now coming into his own as a songwriter and producer - hard as that is to believe considering how incredibly gifted he is as a musician, I think it’s just been in the past few years that Gabe has realized how much he has to offer to the actual “song creation” process.
And, I think also that Gabe and I have had a genuine friendship all these years that wasn’t really based on music. So when we weren’t “working” together on the road, we just spent time together as friends, with our families, not thinking or talking about music, but thinking and talking about life. I think in a way, we both worried that if we tried to write together and it failed, it would be hard on our friendship, so we just spent our energy pouring into each other as brothers, rather than as co-workers.
In the long run, I think that’s what made this process of writing and recording together come so natural. As my friend, Gabe knew nearly every detail of this desert season that I was in before we ever even attempted to write a song, just because we’ve always shared the details of life with each other. So when we did stumble upon writing our first song together (and I still don’t know exactly how that happened), we could almost complete each others sentences instantly. And musically, so much the same thing: after 10 years of touring together, Gabe knew the ins and outs of my songs more intensely than anyone else, so we instantly spoke the same language on a musical level as well.
Joe: This is your eighth studio album in a 17-year recording career. Compare Bebo Norman the songwriter today to Bebo Norman 17 years ago.
Bebo: Such an interesting question to try to answer. This is actually my 11th studio project (so hard to believe) dating back to my 1996 Independent record The Fabric of Verse, a 1997 Independent Christmas record called Joy, and Christmas: from the Realms of Glory from 2007.
The truth is, I still really consider myself an “accidental musician” in so many ways…sort of an experimental year after college to see what would happen with music; and that year has now turned into 17. I do feel like, as I stated earlier, that songwriting has sort of come full circle for me, so in terms of really writing from an honest, no commercial pre-tense space, I hope I’m more like the songwriter that I was 17 years ago than ever.
Joe: In that same period of time, what changes have you seen in the landscape of Christian music? What changes do you embrace and which do you wish you could pack up and send away?
Bebo: Definitely a lot of changes over these last 17 years. In so many ways, I feel like the mid 90’s were sort of the “salad days” of independent Christian music. There really weren’t too many independent Christian songwriters/bands out there, so if you were willing to stay on the road, you could sort of create your own career map. There was sort of a revival going on of songwriter-based music that sort of became the sound dujour, even for Christian radio at the time.
So with bands/songwriters like Jars of Clay, Caedmon’s Call, Chris Rice, etc there was this real freedom to sort of establish yourself without a real “commercial” or pop sound. There definitely seems to be more conformity these days, but there are still some really unique and creative musicians out there (indy and signed alike) that manage to stand out and make their mark - songwiters like John Mark McMillan, David Crowder, Michael Gungor, and Derek Webb.
Joe: Do you face writer’s block often? What ways have you been able to successfully deal with writer’s block?
Bebo: I think the main way I’ve dealt with writer’s block over the years is to get into a room with other songwriters. I don’t usually have too much trouble with the sort of initial inspiration for a song, but finishing songs tends to be where I struggle. I think mostly because I have a fear of just saying the same things over and over again. All songwriters fall into certain “patterns” both musically and lyrically. I think sussing ideas out with other songwriters pulls us out of those patterns and helps us grow creatively.
Joe: For the next generation of burgeoning Christian songwriters, what is the key piece of wisdom that you would like to impart?
Bebo: I would tell young songwriters to, as best you can, not look for what you think people want to hear, but to just write your story. Honest. No holds barred. The ugly and the beautiful. Don’t hold back the things that make you look bad...those are the things that ultimately glorify a grace-full God. And play your songs wherever you have the chance, but don’t be afraid to uproot and travel when you’re young, if you have that luxury. My two cents : )
Joe: Lastly, what’s coming up for you in the next 12 months?
Bebo: Fall is the busy season, always, but particularly this year with the new record releasing. Even still, when I’m gone on weekends, the weekdays are a similar struggle to everyone else’s. How best to balance the demands of profession and family and community. My wife has a successful career and I self-manage my music stuff, so I’m a busy stay-at-home Dad most weekdays while still trying to write, record, and keep up with artist and management demands. It’s a crazy life these days, but the time at home with my wife and two boys (Ages 5 & 3) has been far more rich than I could have imagined.
Huge thanks to Bebo for taking the time to encourage and inspire us by sharing his story. Be sure to check out his music at BeboNorman.com
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