Formed in 1993 at Greenville College in Illinois, the group never made a Creed-like crossover ("Flood" was their last Hot 100), but they have become one of the most successful Christian bands of the last 20 years, winning three Grammy Awards for Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album and multiple GMA Dove Awards.
You've probably heard "Love Song for a Savior" - a track from their 1995 debut album - in a Christian Mingle dating service TV commercial. Our discussion about re-contextualizing the song took us down a path where lead singer Dan Haseltine explained what they are trying to convey in their songs and the nature of their art. The big picture: there is pain with the glory, and to acknowledge that is to be honest.
That first Jars of Clay album was produced by Adrian Belew, who returned in 2013 to play guitars on the band's release, Inland.
Dan Haseltine: Well, Adrian's a really good, innovative guitar player. He was always willing to take sounds and turn them on their sides. Even the drum sounds that we used on "Flood" were this "over-compression," as he called it, where you kind of flip it backwards - things are either soft or really loud. He just came at it with this really creative angle.
He played some of the string parts on "Flood," also, and really helped orchestrate that whole piece in the middle. All of it made that song incredibly unique-sounding. So he's never lost that.
That's what's amazing: over the last 15-20 years, in between when we had worked with him last, he's still as innovative, still as creative. We went out to dinner with him and he was describing some of the musical adventures he was starting, and it's just mind blowing. He's been in music for a long time, and is still like a kid in a candy store when it comes to the creative palette that he wants to use. So it was very inspiring.
He brought a lot to "Flood" - kind of made that song feel less like a rock-folk tune and more of a bit of an experimental piece.
Dan: Yeah, I would say. One of the reasons Jars music never sounds the same from record to record is because of that very thing. We get in, we have that blank canvas, we're excited to find new sounds and turn things on their side a bit. Definitely.
I think we have that same kind of bent to be innovative and just keep pushing the bounds of our own creativity and seeing how far beyond our own limits we can get. What ends up on a record for us typically is not as experimental as the things that we do in preparation for making a record. We do a lot of what we call "lab work" - experimenting with the chemistry. All of that happens ahead of time; experimenting with drum loops or different noises and stuff. Then we take all of that and that informs the final versions of whatever ends up on an actual album.
So this time around we did a lot of that creative work ahead of time, and then when Tucker Martine joined the conversation and produced it, we were able to pull all these different pieces from our experiences through molding and stretching the songs as far as we could get them and finding out what was the best skin for them, what was the best delivery of the songs. We definitely care about that creative process and feel like we're still striving for that kid-in-a-candy-store kind of innovation.
Each member also plays a variety of instruments - banjos, organs, mandolins and steel guitars have all shown up on their recordings. They will often bring a drummer and/or bass player on the road for live performances.
Dan: For Jars it's a very collaborative experience. Everybody is really actively involved in the songs. Occasionally, someone will bring a song or an idea to the group, but the ones that typically last the whole process are the ones that the four of us are working on together - they have a different tone to them and the sum of that whole is better than the parts. So we do everything collaboratively, and it's democratic to a point. Everybody's invested in finding a new sound or a new lyric. Even the lyrics are a democratic process now.
Songfacts: Have lyrics not been so democratic in the past?
Dan: Yeah, not typically. We all kind of assumed different roles in the band, so I was doing a lot more of the lyric writing early on. Then we tried to open that up a bit.
I've been challenging myself to write from some different perspectives and find my voice. It is helpful to have other guys speaking into that, and certainly finding the right balance for the band. It worked out great because a lot of the songs, where it was collaborative, I think that we have some of the best lyrics on the record.
Dan: [Laughing] I know.
Songfacts: And that always struck me as a worship song, not a dating song. So were you a little concerned that it might be misunderstood?
Dan: I don't think so. Look at hip-hop culture and how they sample part of a chorus of a song. They pull it out of context and just use it for a new context, and in a sense, create a derivative work. When they use the line "I want to fall in love with you" on its own, apart from the full body of that song, it certainly works in that context for them, so I don't look at it and go, "They've pulled this way out of context." It's not a scripture verse or part of the constitution. It's the song with a different meaning. So I think it worked for that.
We have always believed that we're writing songs that aren't just going to sit in our vault and be what we listen to. We have to be ready for letting other people interpret them differently and let them have different meanings for different people. That's the great thing about art, is that it's open to interpretation. I know that there is some controversy surrounding that and people who would say, "We can't believe that they would take a song that was meant to be about God and turn it into a person." I tend to think that we care so deeply about our personal relationships that if they want to use it that way, we're happy that they did. So it doesn't bother us that it gets pulled out of context that way.
Songfacts: You said it's not the constitution, it's not a scripture. It's a song lyric. But some people may over-spiritualize things a bit.
Dan: Well, yeah. It's a song that has a 20 year history with people and so I understand how it can be frustrating to hear it in that context, and I can certainly understand and agree with that. It's hard when you hear one of your favorite pieces of music pulled in amusement for context. But it's a balance. You have to deal with it and say, Well, it isn't the whole song, it is this chorus. And if you were just to take that chorus out, it fits their context very well.
They saw something in that chorus that a lot of people didn't see, or they found a meaning in it that other people didn't, and that's great. I think that's art.
Songfacts: A lot of artists record songs that end up being played at people's weddings. People say, "Your song was played at my wedding." And now you're going to be able to have people say, "I met my mate and it was partially because of your song." That's a different benefit.
Dan: If the art - the music - finds people in that context, then who are we to try to prohibit that, or stifle the movement of where that music can be played or heard or interpreted?
Songfacts: Let's talk about the new album. Just off the top of your head, what do you like best about it?
So we took the time to just write for a long time and see if we could identify those voices and then filter that out and get to what we think is the Jars of Clay voice. That was a lot of work because there were a lot of songs we wrote where we would get to the end and be excited about it, then really look at it and go, "Well, we cared about a few things in this song that we didn't need to care about," or "We let one of those voices influence it. Let's see if we can get better and pull out that." So when I listen to the record now what I hear is the songs that are much more in tune with our voice as a band. The things that we want to say, they're not specifically for any one group of people and they're not songs with an agenda. They're really just us looking at the world and describing it in our season.
I know it's a catchphrase to say "This is our most honest work." But I think we can say that for this record. Because not that the other stuff wasn't honest, but I think we've found a more pure version of our voice in these songs. So that's why I love the songwriting, first of all.
Secondly, the production value on the record, the textures and the layers that Tucker was able to pull together with us, kind of surprised me and blew my mind. He really made the creative process surprising and startling for us, so I hear that in the songs, too. When we're doing these individual pieces or playing as a band and not sure where the song's going, he kind of throws a bunch of stuff all together and it makes a new noise that we couldn't have really heard otherwise, and so he's set things in their rightful place.
So I listen to the record and I think, Wow, it's a beautiful, layered kind of record.
Songfacts: It's interesting; one of the words that stuck out that you said was the word "agenda." And I imagine that because you're outspoken about your faith, people have expectations. They have their own agendas for what a band comprised of Christians should be doing. How difficult has it been for you to fight against the agendas that have not been your own?
Dan: Really difficult, I would say. Even to say that we've been really outspoken about our faith... we aren't intentionally doing that. It's a part of who we are and so it comes out in the songs. But it's funny, people have this idea that when we got out into the mainstream that we could have totally sold out and gone to the dark side, but we chose not to and we chose to stand firm on our feet. That is a version of the story that assumes there is this "us" and "them" mentality. Like the world is out to get us and we are fighting against them.
And we don't see it that way. We never really have. We're just: let's write these songs from our perspective. The only boundary we've ever put on our writing is that we don't ever want to lie in our lyrics. But it's funny, because these ideas of faith are there in some songs more than others, but we've never really looked at it and gone, "Okay, we need to make this more Christian because the walls are closing in around us to not be."
We've always felt like we just are a band, and we write honestly from our perspective and our world view. All of us grew up in the church, all of us have had this experience with faith and have found that there are elements of it that have rooted themselves in our hearts and our lives in ways that we can't separate them from the way that we write. It wouldn't be honest if we were to do that. So it all comes out.
So, essentially, the challenge of being a Christian or being perceived as a Christian band, the challenge has really just been to say, Look, we don't fit that mould very well. We probably don't have as much of an agenda or the intentionality about serving a community as people might put on songs. That gets challenging: people adding more spiritual depth to certain songs than they really have. Which is fine in one regard, because that's art, and it's their interpretation of what we do.
But when it becomes so faith-based, and then that meaning becomes a thing for people to argue about and it becomes a separation between mainstream music or a general market and a Christian market, that's when we have to start fighting against it and say, "We're not really here to have an agenda, we're not an evangelical group."
We do this because we feel like our voice and our observations about the world are worth speaking about, and it's our way of organizing our own life, our own existence. This is our therapy in ways. This is how we interpret the way the world is, is through art. I don't know if that makes sense. [Laughs]
Songfacts: It does, actually. In a number of places during our conversation you've talked about not wanting to lie, wanting to be honest. And I guess I'm wondering where that comes from. Is it that you think maybe you haven't as a band always been completely open and honest or is it that you see other artists that you feel are not being as honest as they could be, and you want to avoid those pitfalls?
Dan: I think some artists have presented a version of the world and life that isn't really true. That happens a lot. It still happens, but not as much as it did when we were beginning our musical career.
The Christian artist community is painting a very one-dimensional picture of life as people who believe in Jesus and follow Jesus. They paint this kind of joyful existence that was devoid of suffering and pain, and I felt like that was a huge disservice, because I couldn't relate to it. As a kid, if I heard a Christian song, I couldn't relate to those kind of happy clappy ideas that they were putting forth. It just didn't feel human - it wasn't my experience. And I think it was a disservice to what Jesus was trying to accomplish on earth, to kind of paint the picture that it was devoid of real suffering was a lie.
So we looked at that and decided we weren't going to do that. We're not going to lie about the pain that we experience or our humanity and the things that we get frustrated by or the pain and the suffering. There's a context for that and that's what we want to be presenting in our music. So some of it was probably borne out early on. The philosophy of the band was just to say we don't want to do what we've seen other artists do.
We had done a Details magazine interview where one of the guys from Details came out to a Christian festival and he talked to a lot of different artists, and we were one of the bands that he talked to. He was just observing what a Christian music festival was.
I just remember him writing this whole article going, "I can't relate to these people. Most of these people, when I asked them, 'Do you get angry? Do you get mad? Do you have bad days?' They would say, 'Oh, no, I don't do that stuff. We have Jesus.'" And he was like, "I can't relate to that as a human being. It's very inhuman."
I was like, "Yeah." Because it is, it's a lie. It's not true.
So that's the piece where we've spent a lot of our career trying to be really honest and say, "Hey, we're telling the truth about our writing." It also opens up the palette of what we can write about. We can write about everything. There are a lot of boundaries, it seems, that Christian songwriters have - maybe for a lot of different reasons - but it keeps them from writing on all topics of life. And I feel like, as long as we say we're going to tell the truth to the best of our abilities and our perspective, we can write about sex, we can write about every aspect of life and not feel like we're doing anything wrong. In fact, we feel like we're doing something right.
Songfacts: Did you say you've been together 20 some years now?
Dan: Yeah. 20 years this year.
Songfacts: 20 years. I think The Beatles lasted about half that long. What do you think is the key to your success?
Dan: I think we have a very loyal fan base, to start with. If we're not selling music and people aren't coming to the shows, then it ceases to be a viable way to live for us. So the first thing is we have fans that are really supportive.
The second thing is we've taken the time in our relationship as a band to work through some hard things, and we've said if we're ever going to break up, it's going to be on our terms. It's not going to be because of a silly guitar part or because of a bunch of unspoken things that were going on that we just couldn't find a way to talk about as a band. So we've spent time on the relationships, and that has helped.
And then we're a songwriting band, which helps. Also, because we don't have a standard rhythm section, we don't have to be as concerned about making every record sound the way the one before it did. And that helps. The creative process being fresh and new every time breathes new life into the group every time we go to make a record or record a song. And that's nice, because I think a lot of bands probably break up just because they feel like they've said all they need to say. We don't need to make another record that sounds like the one we just did.
So without those restrictions on the band, I feel like we've been able to keep the creative process fresh and surprising, and that's kept us going.
Songfacts: Can you see yourself being like the Rolling Stones, doing a 50 year anniversary tour?
We consider ourselves a creative partnership even more than a band, and we do a lot of different things that are beyond music, certainly with having Blood: Water Mission as a nonprofit, and we've done recordings for soundtracks and produced for other artists. Things like that as a creative partnership we'll just keep doing, because it's fun and we love it.
January 2, 2014. Get more at jarsofclay.com.
More Songwriter Interviews