In my interview with David Crowder below, we discussed his first solo album (Neon Steeple), songwriting, and more...
David Crowder, Neon Steeple
Nate: Hey David. Thanks so much for taking time to do this interview with me. Let’s just dive right in.
The new record has 17 tracks. It seems this has been your M.O. even going back to the DCB records. With so many folks doing shorter EPs these days, why the longer recording format?
Crowder: I'm rebellious. Maybe. Or, I just find it really hard to say everything I want to say in a season of life in an EP type format.
It's probably not the smartest thing to do, but I love when there is an album that is released that I get lost in for a while.
I like trying to discover everything that might have been banging around in the creators of the thing, what themes they may or may not be reaching for. I think it's as simple as that.
I want to make something I would find joy in consuming. Personally, I enjoy those projects that are worth me investing time and energy and thought into, to find a work that has more to say than will fit in a 4 minute song. I do love listening to singles casually, but that moment, the thing I'm mining the singles for, is something that makes me dig deeper and find a layered offering that allows for discovery after discovery.
Nate: Tell us about the title. Why Neon Steeple?
Crowder: It's past and future in one place. Neon is an inert gas that is most associated with the announcement of a product that is diversionary. A thing that allows escape. We don't build a lot of churches with steeples any more, but it used to be the case that if your eyes were downcast you could look up and in the center of town was this edifice pointing to the truth that there was something more. That things are not right, and there is better intention for life than what we often experience.
Both of these things, neon and a steeple, acknowledge our condition and promise something better. One is the stuff of science and is most often misdirected or misplaced hope. Another has more subtle flaws but does intentionally point to the story of redemption. I think my music is that. Flawed for sure, given my depravity and human misguidedness. But I hope it, in an undeniable way, points to grace and rescue.
Nate: You’ve done an amazing job blending electronic music with bluegrass. What is it about these two very different genres that you’re drawn to?
Crowder: I think the underlying foundation of both of these genres is community. One, EDM, has the individual moment of creation and execution spotlighted, but its intent is to be a catalytic event that is communally based.
Bluegrass is obvious to point to, you just grab some instruments and start playing and singing and community forms. With the players and with the people present. It's meant to sing along to, and tap your foot to, and clap your hands to. Players trade off solos, connected in the root system to improvisational jazz, everyone having their piece to say in the conversation.
Electronic dance music typically has more of an individual approach on the front end, as in some dude like me sitting in a room by themselves somewhere creating a track whose sole purpose is to get a large group of people feeling the same thing. Great DJs take a crowd on a journey, they control flow. They bring people together for a common ecstatic experience. Music is a powerful thing and they wield it in a way that is very pied piper. In Vegas, the djs get a cut on the bar. So they move people, they move them together and then they shove them to the bar and then move them back to the floor.
It's crazy. It's science. And it also has big implications for music in the church.
Nate: This is really clear in the track “Come Alive”. Tell us more about how that song was written.
Crowder: That song was written with a bouzouki. This weird mandolin type instrument. So, it started in a very analogue way. Just myself and a couple of my friends on a bus. We formed the outline of the song but didn't land on the full arrangement until we took it into computer land. I had myself and two other programmers working on it. I sent a rough to the first guy and he spit something back.
I grabbed what I liked from him and sent it off to another guy and he spit it back to me and then I fiddled with it a bit. For a lot of the songs in this record we would track a full band unplugged type thing and then tear it apart and put it back together in a more typical electronic production approach. We looked at the initial tracking as an attempt to capture that magical bit of community that happens when people start playing music with each other in a room and then use that as ammo to make the final track being very careful to keep that elusive communal thing intact.
Nate: “My Sweet Lord”. Beautiful song. What was it like working with Emmylou Harris?
Crowder: What a genuinely sweet, sweet lady! She really was so kind and I don't even know where to start, in terms of a mind blow of a thing to get to work with her, and have her sing on a track. Unreal!!! I've loved her voice and her music for a long time. She's just a legend with the voice of an angel. And I love meeting folks whom I have admired and then have my mind blown with how kind and personable and caring they are. She exceeded expectation and is for me the highlight sonically of the album.
Nate: What about your current band? After 12 years and several releases with DCB can you speak to what it’s like working with other musicians on your first solo record?
Crowder: One of the things I was most nervous about in this new venture was losing the comfortability I had with my band mates. It was a special thing to get to play music with your friends for so many years. Music came out of friendship and it was a special thing.
Music is a powerful thing and I knew and believed that friendship, or relationship, that is deep and meaningful, could come from music, but that wasn't the starting point for DCB. It had been the inverse. So I was both excited and terrified, because honestly, it was relationship that I was after.
There are so many great players walking the planet but it is rare to find musicians that can live life together in a way that isn't ego centric. For whatever reason, musicians are just bizarrely composed humans. I think I'm living in the middle of a miracle.
Every single person that I'm currently playing with have the strangest story to tell about how we wound up together but honestly, in any setting, I've never been around kinder, more intentionally loving people. Each of them are monster players, like pinch yourself I'm on stage with this guy or gal type good, but the way they love one another and me, I'm just happy to call them friends.
Nate: At the recent “LIFT” conference for worship leaders, you did a workshop on creativity called “How To Drink Water”. Would love to hear you talk about your own creative process. What ingredients are always present?
Crowder: I think, to summarize my approach best, is that I am a collector. I am constantly listening and reading and paying attention to small moments of life as well as the big cultural moments that we all feel, and storing them. I'm hoping to filter them well when that fleeting moment of inspiration hits. For me, moments of creation are like the wind moving over a field, you can see it coming, the wave over the grass a long way off, but you can't control it and you have to wait for it to get here. You just have to be ready.
I feel like most of my work is done so that I'm ready when it starts to blow. I often say songwriting is like trying to climb down a ladder at night. You put your foot on the next rung and test it out and make sure it holds and then you reach for the next one.
Nate: Let’s talk “worship music”. The “worship industry” has blown up in the last 10 to 15 years. What encourages you about this?
Crowder: I think a very large part of it is that there is less an apparent divide between the sacred and the secular. To rewind not too many years ago, there was a need for a sound-alike Blink182 because it would be considered less than righteous to be listening to the real Blink182. That line has dissolved for the most part. And yet, there is still the need in the human to respond to God in a way that goes to the deepest parts of a person. Music does this. It brings us into relationship with each other and in the same way, it brings us into relationship with the creator.
Just as music is not to be trusted in relationship with other humans - meaning you may have a phenomenal session with a great drummer but it would be a terrible idea to let him watch your dog while you're on vacation - it is also suspect when gauging where we are in relationship to the divine. It can create false expectations. I think that stuff sorts itself out.
I'm grateful to have industry lean further into this need, to have funds to find more songs and artists for the church to be allowed to participate with and through. In the balance of things I think it is a very happy thing.
Nate: You’ve obviously been through some big changes in the last couple of years. One being a move across the country to Atlanta with Louie and the Passion crew. How has this impacted your new music?
The Passion gang have been such great friends since the beginning of my musical journey. They have had impact on me in a way that is incalculable since before we even signed as a band. What I love most is that everyone values each other as uniquely composed individuals with various gifts that add to the whole.
That approach frees up people to be who they were created to be rather than striving to be something other than that. It's so easy to get into comparative thought and from the very beginning of Passion Conferences, and the subsequent Sixstepsrecords label, that proclivity in the human has been intentionally diminished. The relationships have such history now, with so many twists and turns of life that there is a safety and comfortability that allows for everyone to flourish in very different ways. It's truly beautiful.
With the move from a church I helped start in Waco, to this new upstart of a thing in Atlanta called Passion City Church, I have been exposed week after week to songs and an approach to leading that I have only gotten to be around in conference settings where I was sharing responsibilities as well. It has been amazing and reforming to be sitting week after week in the congregation. I feel like I've been learning how to use music in a corporate setting all over again. I don't know that I can quantify the impact just yet but for sure in the writing of this latest album I had a larger demographic of the church in mind.
Nate: Thanks so much again for your time today. One final question….
In regards to future music coming from the church, what do you hope to see?
Crowder: I would love to see leaders who invest their time and energy into theological education and theory training. It's a really beautiful moment in the history of the church, to be able to learn a few chords and get up and lead a band on a Sunday morning, but if I am looking at church history correctly, we are heading into another pendulum swing with the next generation of folks coming.
There is a simplicity to song structure and arrangement now that is just a dream for a church music leader. But there will, I believe, be the want for more complexity coming. This takes education. I want to see the church be ready.
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