CMR: You've been around for over twenty years. Give a little history of what it was like in the early 70's. Now you started in 1970?
Stonehill: I started in 1970.
CMR: But Welcome To Paradise didn't come out until 1976. So there's five or six years that you were just playing?
Stonehill: I did one underground project, Born Twice, with Larry Norman, and funded by Pat Boone. It's underground because of limited distribution. It didn't have the national machinery like Word Records would have.
I did one album in England, for Phonogram, in 1973, but I think there are about five copies of that record in this country and, given the quality of the record, that's how it should remain. It was called Get Me Out Of Hollywood, which was sort of ironic, becuase I really wanted to come back after that experience. Basically what was happening was that the situation was wide open. You had a generation of disillusioned hippies sort of wandering the streets, or being assimilated back into the mainstream culture in the late 60's and early 70's. The dream was over, pretty much. Some of those people, like myself, had become Christians, and found that this is the heartbeat of love and this is the only way that love remains real and a true force in your life.
The sixties was a classic example of how we try and fail without God, so guys like Larry Norman and myself started writing about our faith and Truth, and we were just doing what was second nature to us. We were utilizing the tools that we had been given. Rock and roll had always been our natural form of expression. Little did we know that we had stumbled onto this new kind of cultural/spiritual hybrid that was a highly inflammatory kind of thing, both in the Church and outside of the Church.
A lot of the old-school thinkers of the Church were just up in arms, saying "you can't do this. Rock and roll is of the devil. How dare you cheapen the gospel in this way." So the very people we thought would support us were, a lot of times, very critical. But that helped us to develop our own sort of apologetics. It helped us to think through why we did what we were doing. We said "music belongs to God, and it can be used or misused. We know who we serve. We know from what we've been saved. We will agree to disagree with you and love you even though your tastes are different, and we hope you will do the same with us." So we just kept marching on.
Outside the Church, a lot of people in mainstream rock and roll were hearing what they thought was good rock and roll, but a message that was very foreign to them. There were factions out there that were saying "how dare you do this with rock and roll. Rock and roll is fun, party music and don't try to preach at us through the music." Of course, my whole directive, as an artist, has been to be honest. I don't want to preach at people. What I want to do is communicate the truth in the most compelling, fresh, and challenging way I can. I just want to be the best songwriter and performer, unto God, that I can be. That's the main thing.
What happened back then was very wide open. There were very few people doing what we were doing. It caused a big stir and it became news. The media picked up on it. Even Word Records in Texas, which was very conservative, saw there was something going on which was relevant and could be profitable as well. So they started to lend an ear, and now it's become 70-80% of their profit base. So then it snowballed into an industry. It became a big media parade around '73 or '74, and then the press moved onto other things, as they always will. They were saying "It's the Jesus Movement." And we said "No, no, no. It's one little step in the long progression of the Jesus Movement. The Jesus Movement started thousands of years ago. This is just a part of it and it's going to go on long after you don't think it's hot news anymore." And, of course, it has.
CMR: As the Christian music industry has grown, have they tried to change how you perceive and react to your audience?
Stonehill: Yes, and the very thing that was on the edge, they try to co-opt it or rein it in to what their idea of what the broadest, or most palatable approach, musically, is that will help them to sell the most records. So on one hand, it's nice to have the support of the Church but, on the other hand, that support is a two-edged thing. It's sort of an underhanded support because now they're saying "don't get too passionate; don't rock the boat too hard; don't challenge us too much. Just tell us the comforting news about Jesus, but don't call us on the carpet too much or we're not going to buy these records. We don't want that."
So that's been very difficult, because I've been with Word Records, in one way or another, for thirteen or fourteen years. So the only thing that's changed for me is I've realized I'm not an island. I can't let anybody mess with the heart of my vision, and I won't, but I realize I'm a team player.
Sometimes you have to be a bit of a philosopher about it and say, "OK, I'd like to reach a broad audience without sacrificing my vision. If I can write something that still fits on my records but is acoessible and friendly enough for radio, and will help the record company sell more of the records I pour my heart into, I'll do that, but there are lines I won't cross."
CMR: Along that line, back in most of the 70's, Christian music seemed to be very evangelistic-oriented. If there weren't non-Christians coming to the shows, you'd bring them. You'd say "let's go see Randy Stonehill, or Larry Norman, or Daniel Amos." That seems to have changed a lot in the last five or six years. Christian music has seemed to become very church-oriented. They realize that it's mostly Christians coming to their shows, if not all. Have you noticed that as well, and has that affected you?
Stonehill: No, not really. I never really know who's out there. I think you're right, in talking about the trends, and it frustrates me becuase there is a diverse cross-section of music. There is something for everyone. I would like the core group of the audience, which is primarily Christian, to embrace their responsibility to bring non-believers. This is the perfect turf for that, and I don't know how much of that happens.
I would imagine, in any audience, if you have 500 people, you're going to have a core group of two-thirds that are believers, and you're going to have peripheral participants. So I think I'm doing something that's two-fold: I'm encouraging believers, and I think that's certainly valid because the church needs to be awakened and encouraged, and they need to develop some muscle to face the challenges of the dark times in which we live. But I think it is also an evangelistic tcol. Perhaps not as much as I'd like, but at the same time, just because somebody goes to church, it doesn't mean they've got all their spiritual ducks in a row.
I have come to a place where I think I'm going to do what I do and play for whoever shows up. However, my ideal concert setting is colleges and universities. I love doing stuff where a Christian student union will bring you into Penn State, and you can play on the quad during lunch. That is such a rush to me.
CMR: I've found there's a lot of criticism from people who don't like Christian music because they think it's not real. They think people are giving candy-coated messages that are very trite. Would you agree with that, or do you see a lot of value in Christian music?
Stonehill: I'm really troubled by most of what I hear. I find it's either gotten very lazy and derivative in its artistry, or lack thereof, because they feel they're playing to an in-house crowd that already agrees with them philosophically or spiritually. It may be, and I'm not saying this is all malicious or contrived, because the musicians are just as much victims as the audience is - of being sequestered off into this subculture and speaking that language and playing to that subcultural audience without much vision beyond that. So it's gotten lazy and derivative but also they've learned, subliminally or consciously, how to "sing that talk" - how to sing Christianese and give the people the comforting, warm-fuzzy kind of stuff like "the Father loves you and it's going to be OK." There are a lot of hurting people out there that need to hear that, but to say that, without undergirding it with a lot of the challenge that comes with facing up to our own humanity in the holy light of God, does them a real disservice. Because when the people have heard the music and think "hey, this is a neat, tidy little box and I'm going to go forth into the world" and they do that, and the bottom drops out for them because they really aren't facing up to the challenges.
God is an almighty mysterious God and that's what makes you worship Him. So when the weather gets a little rough for them, they're not going to have been equipped to deal with that. I think music is as loud of a voice as the guy in the pulpit, in our culture. Music is a big, big thing, so I think there's an insidious thing, and it's dangerous.
CMR: How much do you think Christian music is just reflecting the church, in that sense?
Stonehill: I think as the Church goes, so goes Christian music, because a lot of Christian music is born out of people that are in the church. Also, they get this confused kind of spirituality: they forget to be in the world but not ofthe world, so they don't listen to what else is going on out there, not even to guys that are Christians that are in mainstream music, like Van Morrison or Bruce Cockburn. They think "that's secular stuff, so that's not of value."
CMR: Within four weeks of each other, Amy Grant's album is going to be released, which is much more of a mainstream, secular album than anything she's done in the past and Steve Taylor and the boys in Chagall Guevera do their album, which is certainly not as obviously Christian. How does that strike you? What do you make of the whole "crossover" thing?
Stonehill: I think it depends on what the artists make of it. If they feel they can be true to their spirituality and their artistry, I think that's wonderful. Frankly, I would suspect that it would be easier to be truer to your spirituality and artistry in mainstream music than within the confines of the church. I think the church, as I said, has a hidden agenda. There are guidelines and if you rock the boat, you don't smell right to them anymore and, all of a sudden, you're on the periphery, you're ostractzed. I love the church - I'm not apologizing - I love them but I love them with a tough love.
I think in mainstream music, all they want to know is are you real, are you transparent, are you good at what you do, can you communicate your viewpoint in an artistic, entertaining way that makes us want to buy your record? We don't care if you're a gay druid. Can you rock? I think that's a wonderful, fresh breath of air. It's very different than Christian music that says "you've got to say it in a way that doesn't make us too nervous. We want to get it and we want to get it on a spoon."
I've heard the Chagall Guevara record once, and I'm going to go home and listen to it more. It is wild, sweaty, college-student stuff, but if you listen to the heart of what it is, they're talking about the human dilemma, and I think they get down to the heart of the matter - they just don't club you over the head with it. Then you look at Amy, and Amy is one of the most genuine Christians I've ever met. Of course, she has much more of a mainstream appeal, and that's fine. That's who she is. She's not some sweaty, leather, rock vixen. She's a lovely lady who's thoughtful and likes pop/rock music and does it very well. It's going to be interesting to see the response to her record on both sides of the fence.
CMR: Speaking of changes, when you did Return to Paradise, that was very much a stylistic change from The Wild Frontier and Love Beyond Reason, much more to the acoustic feel of Welcome to Paradise, which it obviously refers to. Why the change? Was it something within you, or did you feel it was time to go back to the beginning?
Stonehill: I suppose I had come full circle. I enjoyed experimenting with different facets of things I liked, musically, and things I could do. I had just gotten done making two full-blown, sweaty, rock and roll, band records, and I thought the heart of rock and roll is anger, which in the case of Christian music you hope is righteous anger, and honesty and the tension that stuff creates. The heart of rock and roll is tension and rebellion and certainly Christians have more to rebel against, in a world of lies, than anybody else. So I thought "I want to strip this all back down to the basics, to the way I started out."
I had experimented with pop stuff. I had experimented with all kinds of weird and wonderful roller-coaster music, working with Terry Taylor on a couple of records. I felt like it was time to strip it all back down and do it like I had started out, sitting on the edge of my bed, writing my little songs and playing my guitar like when I was sixteen.
I think that one of the key elements in any recording that gives it longevity is humanity. Do people get a sense of a real guy singing from his heart? That's when they listen and if that's there, that's going to make the album breathe and keep it alive to the listener. I had been taking chances, experimenting all along, but now it was time to take chances in a different way and just get up there and be spontaneous and leave the rough edges on. It's like it was time to unlearn some of what I had learned. You can learn so much about studio dynamics and how to make a state of the art studio record that, if you're not careful, the heart of who you are gets a little masked, a little lost.
So I thought "let's not do this. Stand me up in front of the microphone, and let's roll the tape." I worked with Mark Heard, who is one of the best at that kind of recording, and we called it "vibe over precision." That was the directive: vibe over precision. If the music has "the vibe" - the humanity, a real honest performance, let's keep it. If you can get both vibe and precision, then truly you are a "rock hero." (laughs) But if push comes to shove, sacrifice precision and let the album be real. When I starred getting a little too neurotic and kind of get the tunnel vision as an artist in the middle of the project, Mark would slap my knuckles and say "hey, vibe over precision." So he helped remind me of what we were doing, and Return to Paradise ended up being one of my personal favorite recordings of all the ones I've made.
CMR: You've gotten very involved with Compassion. How did that start? How long have you been involved with that, and I know you've gotten very involved over the last couple of years. I know that's very dear to your heart.
Stonehill: Before I got involved, I felt like I wasn't maximizing my opportunity as a public communicator. I felt like I had been given the opportunity to speak and sing in front of thousands of people every year, and I want to share the salvation message with them, but beyond that, I want to take it more steps down the line, and say "how do we respond to a hurting world, and how do we take God's love to it in tangible ways?" I was feeling this restlessness like it was all too easy for me. I get on my airplane, I sing my little songs, I get back on the airplane and go to the next town. And just as I was feeling that this was pretty comfy, I met a journalist who also worked with Compassion, a guy named Devlin Donaldson, and he started telling me about this ministry, and my heart just started pounding and I thought "wow, I'd love to be a part of this." And he said, "I think you are a very special communicator. I'd like you to come to the headquarters and see how we make this all work and pray about participating in some way."
The thing I do best is write songs, so I thought that I could write a song about the plight of hurting children and world poverty and they could utilize that as sort of a theme song. So I wrote "Who Will Save the Children," and it was strange because, out of all the songs I've ever written, I get the feeling that, somehow, God whispered in my ear on that one. I'm always hesitant to say that because I hate that old cliche of "here's a song that God gave me." And if it's not really a good song, you feel like saying "He must have given it to you because He's trying to get rid of it." (laughs) The strange thing was that when I played it for Devlin and the people at Compassion, their eyes sort of got wide and they said "this is uncanny. You were able to articulate so clearly and powerfillly something that you've never seen. You've never been to a third world country, right?" and I said "no" and they said "wow, that's strange." So they were very happy, and I was honored that they felt that way.
Then they said, "Thank you very much. Now if you want to continue to participate with us, here's where the rubber meets the road. You have to come with us to a third world country. You have to be willing to touch the pain. You have to see how the other half lives." And I really bucked. I was scared. I didn't want to go. I realize it's because I did not want to look in the eyes of these children, because I thought it would break my heart, and I was right.
Then I realized how wrong I was to have that attitude. I thought "you fool, this is one of the main problems in the Church. We want to hear the good news of the gospel about how God loves us and He's going to take us home to heaven to be with Him, but we don't want to hear about broken people and about how we need to be in the world but not of it. We don't want to get our hands dirty. We don't want to get our hearts broken, but getting your heart broken is the beginning of having a new heart. The Bible says "0 God, create in me a new heart. Renew a right spirit in me. That's the beginning. It's like the kernel of corn has to be broken in the ground so that the corn will grow. And I was ashamed of myself and I realized what a flake I was, so I said "I'll go."
It changed my life forever, because you see that the majority of the people in the world don't live the way we do, at all. Not even close. You see this sort of genocide of the innocent, and it's not because of war. It's because of neglect. And you see the tools the church has been given, in terms of the power of prayer, the hand of God, the abundance of resources, and you see we are much to blame. It's been invaluable for me to work with Compassion. I can't help but feel that at the end of my brief little time on the planet, when I stand before the throne of God, He's not really going to be interested in my record sales or my press. He's probably going to look at me and say "you're a basket case, really, but you got this one thing right becuase you had the faith and wherewithal to receive my mercy and realize you respond to that by sharing it with others. You got that right."
That's really how I feel. So much of the stuff we value is going to burn up and blow away, but the mercy that we share in the name of Jesus will bear the fruit that will last. I also found going to a place like Haiti, Thailand, Brazil, or Ecuador that, on the one hand, you see the brutal reality of a world that lives primarliy under the control of the price of the air, and that makes you realize that the heart of what your life is about is receiving God's love and giving it away. Everything else is fairly disposable.