Tenth Avenue North writes and records songs that go straight to the heart, which is why they have touched a nerve with Christian radio listeners. Their song, "By Your Side," for instance, ended up on the charts for 48 weeks and won the GMA Dove Award for Song of the Year in 2010. The more recent single, "You Are More," with its words of Biblical encouragement, is having the same positive impact on listeners.
Mike Donehey is the humble singer/songwriter for this Florida band, which continues to bond with fans in a unique and meaningful way. It just makes sense that the group is having fans sing on some of the act's new songs because there isn't a whole lot of separation between artist and fan base. In fact, Donehey tells us that he sometimes writes songs directly to himself, which proves even further that Tenth Avenue North and its fans are all in it together.
Mike Donehey: Yeah, yeah. Sure do. I mean, it's cool when you hear about accolades and awards and stuff, especially a song like that, you're not writing for the chart position. You're writing to the person that's hearing it. I got my award on that song a long time ago just from letters from people saying the song helped them see things clearly and helped changed their lives.
Songfacts: Was it inspired by any particular person, or is it a sort of composite of people that you know or have known?
Mike: Yeah, it's more a composite. The main thrust of the song began with an irritant. I heard Jon Foreman from Switchfoot talking about songwriting once, and he said often he writes songs like an oyster makes pearls - it actually begins with an irritant, and you're forced to make a pearl around it. There's a saying that it's the choices that make you who you are, and that sort of rubbed me the wrong way. I felt like it was doing injustice to grace and mercy. So I started that lyric that way.
Songfacts: You're definitely picking good inspirations when you look to Jon Foreman. He's one of my favorite songwriters.
Mike: Yeah. He's not bad.
Songfacts: You said that you'd gotten letters and e-mail from people. Are there any stories that stand out in your mind as far as people that had been affected by that particular song?
Songfacts: It's interesting that you mention that, that even in the church there's cutting. Because we've had testimonies in my church where people have been delivered from that. It's kind of shocking to realize that some of these social problems are not just things that we think of as "the world," but things that are happening even with Christians.
Mike: Maybe that's something that I hope to communicate in our songs. I actually wrote a song for our next record called "The Struggle," which basically says, "Hallelujah, we are struggle, we're not struggling to be free." And a lot of times it's almost like the church doesn't give people permission to struggle with things. Even though in the Scriptures we're called Israel. We've been grafted in Israel. Israel means "Struggles with God" or "Wrestles with God." And a lot of my songwriting comes out of the struggle between what I believe is God's truth and then where my heart's at and how there's always a collision process that takes place of the truth trying to win out over my emotions. And my emotions having to meld to what truth says. And so it's usually a big inspiration where the songs come from.
Songfacts: Have you completed the new album?
Mike: We have. Yeah. We're just finalizing some mixes now.
Songfacts: And do you have a title for it?
Mike: Not quite yet, actually. We're still sort of up in arms about it.
Songfacts: Is that a democratic decision?
Mike: Well, I guess if I came in guns blazin' and I said, "This is the way it's gonna be," I think maybe I could... I try to make everything a little democratic just with five guys in your band and a label that you want to be happy about the venture making.
Songfacts: What can you tell me about the album? Is there a theme that runs through it, or are you still too close to it to really see that yet?
Mike: It's kind of funny, we haven't quite finalized on the album title, but the theme that's been very evident to me way before we even finished. I think it's empowering people in the midst of temptation, and how to deal with it. And not temptations that you and I typically think of, but like the temptation to lose hope in God's goodness. It's one of the themes, the temptation to be bitter and to not forgive.
Songfacts: Why do you think that that's something that has been running through your mind and through your songwriting? Is it what you're encountering with people that you meet at shows, perhaps?
Mike: One song I wrote for my sister, because her and my mom were upset at each other. And one song I wrote for me - it's the call to look ahead to my reward and how this earth can't really satisfy me anyway and the beautiful you that actually is.
We got a bunch of letters to a radio station, and almost all of them dealt with this idea of struggling with forgiveness. So we wrote a song called "Losing," about how when you forgive people it actually feels like you're losing. But that's what we're called to do, called to absorb more pain than we inflict. But to give grace actually means someone has to die. Spiritually speaking, you have to take that pain in order to get back mercy, you have to absorb the pain of defense.
So it's definitely on all sorts of things, ourselves and the people that we interact with, for sure.
Songfacts: I'm so encouraged to hear you talk about that bond you have with your fans. It kind of reminds me of my pastor tries to stay in touch with what our church really needs. He tells us that when he plans different sermon series, he thinks, "what do our people need?" And you almost sound to me like a musical pastor in that sense. Is that putting you on too much of a pedestal, or do you sometimes feel like you're playing that role as almost like a pastor?
Mike: Oh, I wouldn't view myself as a pastor as much as a disciple maker. Which is actually what we're all called to. All of our calling, whatever our occupation is, we're called to use that occupation to make disciples, I believe. So we're just trying to think of creative ways to stay in touch, because we do travel so much.
I used to work at a church and I have conversations over and over, so it's a bit easier. So we're trying to come up with ways to do that. One of the ways we did is have our fans sing on our next record. Bunch of cities we went around to, on radio stations and on Facebook we called people to meet us at a location, and we taught them parts on the songs, and we recorded them all. So we've got this like 1,000-person choir made up of people from all over the country, Boston and all different parts. It was great for us, because we got to really explain our hearts behind these songs, what we're hoping they'd do, and we really got a great vibe on what songs are really speaking to people. It's just cool to have them really be a part of it. So there's less of "I'm a fan of you" - it's more like we're partnering together on this.
Songfacts: Which song is that that they sing on?
Mike: There's four different songs they sang on. So you'll hear them, a big old gang choir vocals come in. It's pretty awesome.
Songfacts: And is that going to be difficult when it comes to divvying up royalties?
Mike: Well, we had them all offer up their services for free.
Songfacts: There you go. It's unusual for one of the most popular songs on radio to also be one of the my favorite songs. But I really like "By Your Side."
Mike: Oh, thanks.
Songfacts: Can you tell me, is there a story behind writing that song?
Songfacts: So you're singing to yourself when you sing that song?
Mike: Yeah, it's sort of, like, in Corinthians Paul said that Christ pleads through us. And so it's sort of like writing a song allowing Christ to plead with me. Zephaniah, an old Hebrew scripture, says that God actually sings over us and stuff. I took that license.
Songfacts: Was that a hard song to write?
Mike: It's incredibly intimidating. You don't want to get it wrong. You definitely don't want to put words in God's mouth that he didn't say. I take it very seriously.
Songfacts: What kind of responses have you gotten from listeners to that song?
Mike: Oh, man. You know, we won an award for that song at an awards show, and I'm looking at this little trophy and saying, you know, what's the purpose of this little trophy? And we walked backstage and this girl was volunteering, and she's in college, and she grabbed me by the arm and she said, "Hey, I want you to know that that song that you won that award for, that song changed my life when I heard it January 3rd last year, and I became a Christian that night from hearing your song." So that was pretty ridiculous.
Songfacts: Isn't it wonderful to think that here you have this creative gift, and yet God can use it in such amazing ways. It must humble you to see how God can work through something like that.
Mike: You know, we're out on tour with Lecrae right now, and he says something every night in his set. He goes, "You know, you praise us, but we're just the mailman." He goes, "When the mailman comes to your door with a package, you're not excited about the mailman, you're excited about the giver of the gift." And time and time again I'm just baffled how I feel like these petty little offerings that I bring, I've redeemed and used to turn things more powerful than I can imagine.
Songfacts: I like that analogy. And it makes me wonder, Lecrae has recorded with a number of different people. I know he had a thing with Chris Tomlin recently on a live song. Do you have any rap music that you want to incorporate into the Tenth Avenue North Sound?
Mike: Yeah, we'll see. You know, there is a bit of rapping on our next record already. And before we met Lecrae. So we'll see if any joint efforts come together here before this tour is over.
Songfacts: Well, I would like to hear a more urban contemporary sound. That would be a lot of fun.
Mike: Oh, yeah. He's such a great guy, we love where he's at. And he's a decent guy, excellent songwriter, too.
We spoke with Mike Donehey on March 2, 2012. Get more at tenthavenuenorth.com.
More Songwriter Interviews