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Meet the Artist: Jars of Clay Print Email
Written by Christine D. Johnson   
Thursday, 09 September 2010 01:43 PM America/New_York

Jars of Clay Presents The Shelter--releasing Oct. 5--is the best-selling band's 11th studio project. Rhythm guitarist Matt Odmark (right in group photo) talks about the project on behalf of the band, whose other members are lead singer Dan Haseltine, pianist Charlie Lowell and lead guitarist Stephen Mason.

To which of your past albums would you compare the new release?

Probably the best comparison for The Shelter to any of our past projects would be The Redemption Songs, as these are really the only two projects Jars of Clay has ever produced where we are having a direct conversation with the church primarily. Most of our music and our art are aimed at a more general conversation, people that find that they have a faith or people that don't, or people that are just interested in music that explores the deeper issues of life and touches on those places that are universal and that are uniquely human, so that's kind of in general what most of our career has been about.

With The Redemption Songs record, we really aimed to give voice to a specific experience we had in our own home churches, specifically as there was large conversation going on at the time about music and worship music and modern worship music. We were just really during that season being moved, as our churches looked back at the tradition of hymns, so we really wanted to give voice to that experience that we had that had been so rich for us, so that was The Redemption Songs project.

So The Shelter is similar in that way, in that this is a record that is aimed at people who would consider themselves people of faith. ... There's an image I think that we went back to often when we were writing this record, and that was just as we were reflecting that so much of our time in churches singing songs especially, these days is spent all standing together either looking to the rafters or looking to words on a screen and really trying to evoke a sense of God's presence. I think we were really struck with how much we truly experience the hands and feet of God's presence through one another and through His people, and what a unique gift the body is to us individually and to us as a church. And just really were struck by this image of, what were the kind of songs in a church setting that you would sing eye to eye, one to another, that you would sing shoulder to shoulder to one another? Again, just trying to give voice and honor to the fact that we had been called into a deep relationship with one another.

You had several guests on this album--Third Day's Mac Powell, Brandon Heath, Thad Cockrell and Phillip LaRue, among others--how did they contribute?

As soon as we knew we wanted to make a record about community, that was about the way God makes us all better through our community--even the community that we don't know or don't pay heed to or maybe don't appreciate-we knew that in order for a project like this to work, it couldn't just be our voice, and we really didn't want it to be just our voice represented on it. We wanted the music to take shape by the concept that we were going after.

From the very beginning, from the writing stages, we were reaching out to our friends that we thought would really connect with this idea and could give voice to it. That was Thad Cockrell and Phillip LaRue and Sarah Groves and David Crowder and Laura Story-these were our friends we really felt like had a good sense for artistic ways to express these ideas. It was really fun for us. Jars of Clay is a pretty tight songwriting unit. We haven't done a lot of outside writing for our records before, so that was a new experience, and we carried that idea through the record.

All the guest vocalists and guest performers we had, we wanted to get out of the way of their talent and give them room to really sing and say what they felt like they could, and we were willing to allow the arrangements in the song to be bent and shaped by the individual artists, so that was again a part of what we were hoping the record would be about.

You have been learning what it means to live in community. How has that worked out in your lives?

I think the story of community is our own personal story. Doing the kind of work we do and having the story that we do in the sense that we had a lot of success in our early 20s and a brand new CD and a brand new career which created a lot of busyness in our lives, including a lot of travel--I mean, I think the community is something that has been a challenge for us. It's not been something we've found easily. It's been something that's been hard to unpack with the lifestyle like we have.

So I think it's pretty recent in each of our stories that we have really seen the body of Christ come in and gird up our families, and really as we've kind of spent upwards of 15 years in Nashville, it seems like only now are we really kind of making the counter relationships that we can lean into with the parts of our lives that are not worked out yet. The parts of our faith and the parts of our understanding of who God is and who we are that are more questions than answers. I think that's just been such a huge lifeline to us, such a huge stabilizing factor as we continue to pursue this work together. It's just been something that's really been profoundly inspiring our music over the last three records.

While we're talking community, how goes it with your Blood:Water Mission?

Blood:Water Mission is continuing to take shape and grow in ways that we could have never imagined. It's really been one of the sweetest things we've been a part of and just gives to us in Jars.

We are within months of completing our first public campaign ... called the 1,000 Wells project. That's just been an amazing story of ordinary, normal people. These are not people of extraordinary means or talent or vision, but these are just our friends who have connected with this idea that there is a bigger story going on. And the way you tap into that bigger story is by leaning into the suffering and broken parts of the world, and that is a privilege. That is a means of grace to us.

To those of us that lean in from the Lord, we begin to experience Him in ways that if we keep ourselves detached and safe from suffering, then we never will, so that's been the story of Blood:Water Mission. Thousands and thousands of people have done what they could, have given their time, gifts and talents to see that clean blood and clean water is made of available to communities in Africa that desperately need it.

Like I said, 1,000 Wells is dangerously close to being completed and we are looking to the future and the mission. We just scratched the surface. Nothing would make us happier to continue with these friends that we've made in 11 different countries across the African continent that we want to continue to see their communities and their lives flourish because that's we would want for us as well.

What is the album's lead single, and why did you choose it?

The first single is "Out of My Hands." ... We chose it because it's just really, again if you're thinking in terms of church music, it's just a very poignant and simple sentiment which is this constant reminder. I don't know if many people are like us, but the longer we walk in this journey of faith, the more we just realize how hard it is to live in the reality that there are so many things about our lives that we can't control, and nothing makes us more keenly aware of that than relationship, than community.

For those of us that wrestle with trying to keep our lives under control, relationship is usually the first thing that blows that paradigm out of the water. I think as we were writing a record that was really about the beauty and the complexity of relationship and community, it was important for us to just express this idea that there is so much that is out of our hands. There is so much of this life that is laying it down, so that is what that song is about.

We had the privilege to work with Mike Donehey from Tenth Avenue North on that song and Lee Nash from Sixpence None the Richer, who just really gave beautiful performances on that tune. It's really just turned out to be a special song and it was one that really early on we thought that people were really going to like this song, so that was one of the reasons it was chosen for our first single.

What are some of the other highlights?

Other highlights of the record would be the song "We Will Follow," on which we had the privilege of collaborating with Gungor on that song. Gungor is just an amazing up-and-coming artist in our community and was a new friend to us, someone whose record we stumbled across early on in this project and who just really inspired us and felt like a kindred spirit in what we were hoping to express.

That and the first track on the record, "Small Rebellions," is another favorite, which features Brandon Heath. We are just excited about so many tunes. It's funny how giving away part of the record and really inviting friends to be a part of it has, on the back side, made me love it all the more.

If you had to pick a favorite song on the album, which would it be?

If I had to pick a favorite song on the record, I would probably pick "We Will Follow." I just love that tune. It gets me every time. (It's a) simple expression about choosing where our loyalties are ultimately going to lie. It's a choice that we are never done making. It's a day-by-day and a minute-by-minute (choice), so I'm grateful to have written that song.

I see you're headed to Europe for several dates. Do you look forward to that?

Yes. ... Jars does not get overseas very often, as much we would like to at least in our minds, primarily just because we've been doing this for 15 years, and we all have grown up touring and now have families and extended families. As our community personally grows, it makes the idea of touring and of traveling and being gone more complicated, so for that reason alone we don't get to Europe very often, so it makes it kind of a special treat when we do. We're really excited. We are going to be in Switzerland and Austria and the U.K. for the Greenbelt festival, which we are really excited to be a part of, so yeah, we're packing it in, can't wait.

Then, what's next with your touring?

On the touring front, beyond that we are headed out this fall with Brandon Heath, which we are really excited about, then we are going to pull some Christmas dates again after that. The tour with Brandon we're excited about. It's going to be fun. We celebrated 15 years this last year since our first record came out, so it's been kind of a fun moment to look back and remember that first record, and we are going to be featuring a lot of songs off of that in the set as well as sneak-peaking some of the new Shelter tunes.

Have any thoughts for the Christian retailers who will be putting your new album in the hands of their customers?

We are just really excited for you all to have this record. We just think there are so many amazing voices from our community represented here. I hope you see that this is more than just the next Jars of Clay record. This is less about some new idea that Jars of Clay had, but this is us shining a light on our rich and deep community that has shaped us and trying to feature them on our record. Many of these people you probably love their other records and you probably love the other songs that they have written, so I think this is a real special project and I think it deserves being kind of pointed out to consumers because there is not often a project that comes along that has this spirit about it, so we're really excited about people to catch wind of it.