For more than twenty years now, Andrew Peterson has been about the business of quietly changing lives in four-minute increments. In the city of Nashville where music is an industry in the same way fast food, generic greeting cards, and bumper stickers are industries, Peterson has forged his own path, refusing the artistic compromises that so often come with chasing album sales and radio singles and creating instead a long line of songs that ache with sorrow, joy and integrity, and that are, at the end of the day, part of a real, ongoing, human conversation.
The Centricity Music release of Peterson’s twenty-song retrospective, After All These Years: A Collection, brings into focus the ongoing legacy of an artist who has never tried to imitate the last big thing or to create the next big thing. The collection shows that Andrew Peterson has all along been playing a longer game for bigger stakes. His theology of artmaking has always been one that focuses on long-term faithfulness to gifts and calling, rather than on an immediate concern for the appearance of success—but the ironic result of that approach is an emerging body of songs that will likely still be relevant and appreciated in a hundred years.
“I’ve learned not to push too hard for what I want,” Andrew says. “Most things I’ve really fought for were disappointments, and the real blessings came as surprises. I’ve learned that it’s only after you’ve stuck with something for years and years do you really begin to experience the fruit of your labor. You see the many ways the Lord has worked through you, the way little things turn into big things, and big things sometimes turn into nothing at all. I’ve learned that family and community and church are often the clearest voice of God we’ll hear in this life.”
EASLEY: We are in the studio today with Andrew Peterson. I’m looking at your website. It’s great! It’s Andrew-Peterson.com.
PETERSON: You got it.
E: Easy capezie. I want folks to go over there and take a look at Andrew’s work. Andrew I want to read something you have written.
I’m pretty emotional so I was always looking for something that would evoke some strong feeling: loneliness, sadness, joy or peace. A great song could transport me. As a teen I fell in love with songwriting because I was fascinated by the possibility of composing something that that might move someone else. It wasn’t till later that I heard Rich Mullins music and understood later that there was something more important than just emotion; there’s truth and poetry, and longing. A song can help you to feel loved, less alone, more awake. What other art can change your life in four minutes? That’s profound to me. I love it! In four minutes. Usually it’s less than that, isn’t it?
P: Well, if it’s a radio hit. I don’t write many of those so mine are usually four minutes or more.
E: How old were you when you wrote that?
P: It was about a month ago.
E: Really? That recently?
P: Yeah, that’s all stuff that kind of like…it was for an interview for the new record. Someone was asking me what got me into this thing.
E: I love it.
P: We just released this Best Of Record called, After All These Years and it was interesting because I had to go back and look at the last fifteen or twenty years of my life because the kind of song writing that I do tends to be autobiographical stuff. So it was like reading old journal entries and I don’t sit around listening to my music all the time so it was weird to go, “Oh yeah, I remember where I was when I wrote that,” and “Ouch! That was a miserable season” and seeing the thread that wound it’s way through all of it.
E: How old is Andrew when he first starts playing an instrument?
P: I was at church camp like in like eighth grade, maybe. I learned to play a Richard Marx song on the piano and a few Journey songs. I was not an athletic kid so I thought if I can play some songs then the girls will notice me. I remember that it worked. I was playing the piano in the gym and I felt like the king of the world until on the other side of the gym another guy had a guitar and they all turned and followed the guitar player outside.
E: You were toast.
P: …outside into the soccer field so I had to join forces. So it was high school and nobody else in my family played music or anything and it was just I was drawn to it and understood a little bit of how it worked right off the bat and so I became obsessed right for most of high school.
E: Did you take lessons?
P: Not really. I took some piano lessons but I didn’t really play until I quit.
E: You really didn’t play until you quit.
P: I don’t necessarily recommend. It’s not a virtuous thing.
E: Every parent has been paying for piano lessons right now just hates you. (laughter)
P: Yeah, my daughter plays. She’s really talented. Deeply talented. She’s twelve years old and sings with me sometimes. We play together and sometimes I see her talent as a great weakness because she doesn’t think she has to work as hard. She says, “Oh, yeah. I got this thing.” She leans on it and I see how it doesn’t always work. I’m like oohh, I know how that feels. So yeah, like relying on your talent like which is what I was doing in high school, by not really being diligent about learning how to play was not a good thing.
E: When in this trajectory did you decide, “Ok now I’m going to do this as a lifestyle. I’m going to go all in and try to be an artist?”
P: It would have been the year after high school I took what we now call a gap year. There wasn’t a name for it. It was called “loser year” when I was a kid so all my friends were going to college and I had no idea.
E: You were hanging out playing the guitar.
P: Yeah, really. I was working at the local grocery store and living at home and trying to figure out what to do with my life. So anyways I joined a band and it was terrible rock band and but that kind of lost season between high school and college is when I encountered Rich Mullins music which you read a moment ago. That just gave me a language. I went Oh! Music can do this! So it didn’t take me long to fall into…so I went to Bible college by accident right after that because I was directionless, but I had a friend.
E: After the gap year you go to Bible College, it’s kind of natural.
P: Yeah, it was the cheap option. There was no math requirement.
E: No science. No balance.
P: I loved it and got married my sophomore year and put my first record my junior year so…
E: Which is 19?
P: 1995 or 6 or something like that. It was a slow progression of realizations, I think is what it was so um…and as soon as I got out of college we moved straight to Nashville and that was seventeen years ago.
E: Seventeen years? Wow! Married and how many children?
P: Three kids. Married twenty years next month.
E: Man,you play young.
P: Yeah. (laughing) I highly recommend it man. It was nice to..I got married when I was twenty. I told my kids the other day, I was like if you guys meet someone who is awesome and loves Jesus and you’re nineteen, go for it. We’ll be fine. It’ll be hard and miserable but it’s going to be hard and miserable anyways.
E: Anyways, yeah. On that cheery note, let’s talk about integrating faith and art. Huge subject, obviously. Left brain, right brain, folks would look at this very differently. You have a gift. You’re a gifted musician?
P: I’m gifted at something.
E: Ok, you put a language to it. How do you integrate your faith with that Andrew?
P: That’s something I do kind of intuitively so it’s hard to figure out exactly how to articulate it. I think it’s that.. there’s a Frederick Beckner quote that resonated with me right after college is when I read it, “The place God calls you to is the place is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” For me that deep gladness has always been, not just art. It’s not just the way music makes me feel; it’s the fact that music creates an avenue between two people. It’s that art is like, kind of a deep calling unto deep as far as our loneliness goes and you can feel terribly alone and afraid and then some work of art expresses that, and suddenly you’re connected with another heart, and so if that’s married to the gospel then powerful things happen. So the deep gladness that I feel is when some song I wrote or story I wrote, or whatever it may be, is a source of comfort to somebody else; that my own sorrow ends up being a comfort to someone else’s sorrow, just by the fact that they’re not alone in it anymore, which is a tiny little picture of what the incarnation means to me. The God with us thing. The older I get, more and more profound that Christianity is unique in that our God is familiar with our suffering, with our sorrow. He knows us. So I think that art can do the same thing. It can kind of wade into someone elses sadness or sorrow, or joy, whatever it may be. So that’s what provides my deep gladness and I think answers some of the hunger in the world. So having found that, kind of falling into it, like I said when I heard Rich Mullins music it gave me a picture of what that might look like because it had happened to me through his songs. Yeah, so not long after that I basically asked God if He’d let me do that with whatever gifts He’d given me.
E: When you sit down to write and I presume you write all the time?
P: No, I avoid it as much as possible.
E: Really? Really? So, it’s a labor for you? It’s not a “I can’t wait to get up and write today.”
P: Yes, very much so. That doesn’t mean it’s not satisfying. I have a lot of other irons in the fire. I have to come at it slant so whatever the thing I’m supposed to be doing isn’t very fun. So if I’m supposed to be writing for a new record, I really want to work on my new book. So I usually have three plates spinning and I bounce from thing to thing.
E: What was the easiest song you ever wrote?
P: One of the easiest ones was, Dancing in the Minefields, which was one of the more popular of the recent ones. Very seldom do you get to write a whole song in one setting and that one I wrote under a lot of pressure because I was trying to get out of trouble with my wife. Thank goodness it worked.
E: Did she like it? That’s the main question.
P: She did like it.
E: Ok, ok, hardest song to put together?
P: Oh man. To me, that’s all the rest of them. They’re all hard and that all comes in different ways. There’s been a few times, there’s a song called Don’t You Want to Thank Someone, which is on The Best Of Record, on my last album that came very easily. This sounds really weird, but I dreamed this song. I woke up in the morning and I thought I heard my kid, the melody drifting from my children’s rooms, down the hallway and I ran downstairs and banged out the chorus and by the end of the day, I had written the whole thing. Those things are just very, very rare. It feels very much like a gift. The rest of the time, it’s like calling your buddies, “Hey man, I need help on this verse,” or shelving it for a year and coming back to it.
E: We’re talking to David Arms, a painter.
P: Oh yeah.
E: Very unusual that he paints one painting at a time and completes it. No unfinished works. I was sharing with him, authors and I presume songwriters, the litany of unfinished work compared to… Is that a tension for you?
P: No, not at all. The creative process is just kind of messy for most people. I think David is probably pretty unique in that way. He’s unique in a lot of ways.
E: Extraordinary! He is unique.
P: But he didn’t pick it up until he was what? Forty or something?
E: Later in life.
P: He’s remarkable at what he does. Yeah, my sister in law is an author and she told me that ( my brother and sister in law live next door and she’s an artist and a painter and an author,) as I walked into her studio and she was telling my brother, “I need a bigger table. I need a bigger space for my mess.” Because the bigger the mess is, the more inspired she is. Isn’t that interesting? So she needs a giant, an additional eight foot table. I feel a little bit like that, like there’s something kind of fun about going, “Now what thing am I going to work on next?” So it could be this, or this or this.
E: So you’re a messy person?
P: I’m pretty messy. My wife would definitely agree with that.
E: You’ve got one child probably like you and one antithetical?
P: Well you know how it is, all your children are like you in ways, but there’s definitely.. my middle child is the one that is most like me in that way, I think. He’s the one that every Monday morning, he’s in a panic because he can’t find his homework. He’s that kid.
E: Lets’ not talk about homework. I still have nIghtmares about homework. When you sit down with the piano or your guitar, how do you start? You’re going to write a song? Is it in your head? Is it words on paper? Is it a melody?
P: It’s usually, well all these quotes. I don’t have any quotes of my own, I just steal them. Robert Frost said, “ A poem begins as a lump in the throat.”
E: “A lump in the throat?”
P: I think that, that’s how most of my songs start. It starts with some unnamable feeling that you’ve got; like you walk through..like I have to put on my songwriting hat whenever there’s a deadline coming and I begin to move through the world differently than if I was not trying to write for a record, which is really great. It’s a really great exercise or discipline. It forces you to pay attention to your day because the songs are… it’s like following clues. They’re all over the place. you don’t know until you happen upon it; like a lot of people will say, “Oh, you’re a songwriter. I got an idea for a song.”
E: Of course.
P: But what you don’t say to them is, “Actually, that’s a terrible idea.”
E: I could careless. (laughter)
P: Part of the fun of being a songwriter is looking for the valuable, little, tiny moments. If you’re a pastor; you know that, you’re always looking for, ok what is the thing that the Lord is going to show me today?
We were in Colorado last year, this past summer staying with a family, and we were asking them, “Hey, do you guys ever see bobcats, or whatever, dangerous stuff, bears?” He said, “Every now and then everytime I go out into the woods my prayer is “Lord show me something cool.” That stuck in my head. I wish I lived everyday, but it’s especially how I live when I’m in songwriting mode. I go, “Lord, show me something cool. Help me to find the thing.” So once you find the thing, then you go, “Ew, there’s potential there,” then you go to the piano or your journal, or your guitar. If you want to know practically how it works, I have three avenues: there’s the journal, then there’s the piano, and then there’s the guitar behind me. I’ll play on the guitar and try to find a melody for the lyric or some kind of thing to get me started until I’m exhausted. Thirty minutes goes by and “Ahh, I’ve only got three chords.”
E: Still don’t have it.
P: Then you take what little you found and you go to the piano and you try it there and it suggests other things to you, and once you’re exhausted there you go to the journal and you go, “Ok wait, how far in did I get? I got an inch deeper into the song this time,” so you write it all down and then you go to the guitar and try it out. I kind of end up doing this frustrated, kind of mad, musical chairs, kind of thing and if you’re lucky by the time you go to bed, you’ve got a verse.
P: Yeah. And in the morning you hate it. Usually.
E: Do you ever look back on a work, and say, “I really love that song,” or “That one I kind of live with and tolerate or..?
P: Yes, there’s certain songs you feel like it’s better than you could have done on your own. One song people request and I won’t say what song it is, they request it at shows. I just say “No no.” I just don’t want to do it. I can’t pull it off.
E: I guess that’s every bands nightmare the one song they hate. As a preacher, I don’t know about others, but I’ve never preached a sermon I like.
E: I’m always going, “Why did I say that? I should have done this. I needed more time to study. I didn’t help these poor people. What did I do? Did I leave them with hope? Did I make them feel guilty?” That’s my own torture journey.
P: That’s how I feel after every interview.
E: Ok, we’re on track.
P: I think it’s because it’s more of a fluid thing whereas a song is something that you…
E: Start and finish?
P: Yeah and it’s the same every time.
P: You work out exactly how you want to present it.
E: A pastor friend of mine and I complained about this “Why is it if we use an illustration twice, someone will come up to us and go “You’ve used that illustration before.” But if you’ve written a song, you can play it over and over and over. People love it.
P: That’s why I’m glad I’m not a pastor.
E: We have to come up with new material every week. Every week.
P: I can’t imagine.
E: It is what it is. Play somethings for us.
E: And as you’re getting ready, who besides Mullins inspires you? We always want to know what preachers read? What do artists listen to?
P: Well from a musical standpoint, James Taylor, I learned to fingerpick listening to his records. I love Paul Simon, the way he comes at songs, the really surprising way he gets an idea across. It’s fascinating to me. He’s a genius. I love Mark Coan, he was one of the first writers I really fell in love with post high school. Then to be honest, most of the stuff I listen to is this amazing community of Nashville Songwriters: Jewel Phillips,Andy Gullahorn, Ben Schieb, Ellie Holcomb, people like that who are piers, but just do work that I aspire to in a huge way. But honestly, sometimes it’s music that inspires me, sometimes it’s movies, books or whatever. Stephen King said, “Every writer has a gnome that lives in their basement.” He passes manuscripts up through the floorboards and if you don’t feed the gnome he gets angry so I really love feeding the gnome. I like looking for art that is going to lead to something else. One of the best little bits of songwriting advice, I forget where I learned it, but if you can’t think of a song to write, try to write a Springsteen song. Go, “I’m going to sit down and write a James Taylor song today.” You just completely channel it, just rip it off, you know. What you end up with is yours. It may sound a little bit like theirs.
E: Hopefully not much so they come after you with a lawsuit.
P: Yeah, exactly, but stealing from the masters is a good thing. (laughter)
E: What song would your kids like to hear you play?
P: Probably something by somebody else. Like Coldplay or Bone of Air, which I can’t pull off. I could do one that I wrote for one of my kids. I wrote this for that middle son, Asher, whose just an endless delight to me. Of the three kids, he’s my favorite. I’m just kidding. You give a certain part of your heart to each one of your kids and I feel like I know the way he thinks a lot of times in a good way and a bad way, so I wanted to write a song that would be my encouragement to him when he turned thirteen last year. So here you go.
E: Andrew, somebody out there is listening to you and maybe they don’t know who this Jesus is. They don’t know where they are spiritually what would you tell them?
I would say, He loves you more than you could possibly imagine and that the stories are true. Chances are people have heard stories about the best kind of love being the kind that is willing to die for someone else. If everyone was honest with themselves we would want the Christian story to be a true one. I just really deeply believe that it is. I think that the song I mentioned earlier is called, Don’t You Want to Thank Someone. The whole song is kind of an apologetic of gratitude. Chesterton said, “That the worst moment for an atheist is when he realizes he has no one to thank; that he’s overcome with blessing and he has no one to give thanks to.” I think it’s a very human impulse to want to say thank you for this when you see a sunset, or when you see your child born. That suggests to me that there’s a great and beautiful goodness in the world and that we want it to be true that that goodness has a name, is a person, and actually loves you more than you can imagine. I don’t know. My hope is that my music would wake up longing in people and that they would pay attention to that longing, like ask themselves what that longing is pointing to. That’s the way C.S. Lewis describes his conversion is that old German word, sehnsucht, which means longing, this deep and kind of painful desire that you have. I’m pretty sure I would wager that everybody has felt that at some point. Everybody knows the feeling of something beautiful taking your breath away or a door opening up to a kind of longing for something. I think that the journey that we’re all on is finding the name that, that belongs to.
E: Andrew Peterson, thanks for stopping by. Thanks for being on the broadcast.
P: Thanks for having me.
E: Again, thanks for listening to the broadcast. You can find more information at MichaelinContext.com This is Michael Easley inContext.