What Stonehill describes as the "miraculous, other-worldly relationship at the center of my life" has overflowed into what may well be the best album of his career.
I've come to the conclusion that Randy Stonehill will never grow old. Oh, his body may age, and they may even bury him someday... but the heart that stops beating will be that of a child. Despite the adult appearance, this is a person still easily overcome by the wonder of knowing God and the adventure of each new day.
But if it's simplicity of heart that has enabled Stonehill to remain fresh after almost 28 years in Christian music, it's accumulated wisdom that accounts for the lyrical depth on his new project, Thirst. The album is Randy's first in nearly four years, and the general reaction has been that it is one of his best, if not the best -- and this in reference to an artist with 16 other albums to his credit.
As has oft been mentioned, Randy Stonehill has been doing contemporary Christian music since before there was anything called contemporary Christian music. He recently turned 46. ("Yeah?" he teases. "You'll never prove it in court!") In reality, he's rather laid-back about his age. "You know, I don't cringe at each birthday, I don't cringe at being thought of as one of the elder statesmen of the genre," he says. "I think that as you keep giving your life and your work to God, He's the one that keeps it fresh and vital. There is wisdom that comes with the years that shapes your writing, and there's more intensity in the music because you realize that life is short and you'd best not squander your opportunities. Time is more of a precious commodity and so that ups the ante; it adds a healthy sense of urgency and punch to the music."
Attribute it as you wish to time or to talent, but the material on this album is both spiritually potent and musically creative. There's poetry here, such that The CCM Update describes this project as "beautiful cubes of truth in a long, tall drink of lyrical imagery."
One song replete with such images is "Angels' Wings."
...I have struggled so long on this strange pilgrim journey
And the wild wind has cut me as the sands of time blow
But it all will be worth it when I kneel before Jesus
And His face has been carved in the stone of my soul...
At first Randy wasn't even sure that the song should be on the album. "I didn't know if the song fit the record, but when I played it in the midst of the other material for [producer] Rick Elias and for Dean Diehl of Brentwood Records, their eyes just got wide and they said, 'Man, that's gotta be on the record!' Rick is the one that had the production vision for this. He fell in love with the song and really took it under his wing and came up with an arrangement that I think galvanizes the power of the song in a way I could not have anticipated. I did a lot of concert work as we were recording, so I would fly out of town for a day or two and come back and see what progress Rick had made. I walked into the studio one morning and he started rolling the tape and I just gasped: I heard this beautiful guitar thing he'd played that sounded like the fluttering of angels' wings. I came back from another concert and Linda Elias had sung this beautiful, Enya-like background part that just brought tears to my eyes. I thought, 'This is really amazing.'"
Another surprise came during the production of the album's first single, "Hand of God."
"I was describing to Rick my vision for the song," Randy explains, "and I said, 'Remember the Scottish band Big Country? Remember how Stuart Adamson played the wonderful Celtic electric guitar that almost sounded like a bagpipe? That's what I'm looking for here.' Rick got a funny smile on his face and said, 'I know that guy. Interestingly enough, he's come all the way from Scotland to Nashville and we've become friends. I'll give him a call and see if he'll come play on the record.'
"And he did," Randy laughs, "and it blew my mind! He just showed up. What a thrill.
"'Hand of God,'" he continues, "is a song of celebration. I guess the longer I live the more I realize what a miracle and a privilege this whole adventure is, and every once in a while that just hits home with me in a deeper way. It's a song about God's faithfulness, that in all the ups and downs of this life I can declare that I've seen God's hand. Not just in the good times, but when the tough times come and shake you and it strips everything down to the crucial realities. You sort of stand there beneath the sky and you think, 'I know Jesus is real, I've felt the power of His Spirit, and I now look at even difficult times not with trepidation but as an opportunity to again see the demonstrative work of His hand.' I wanted to write one of those songs that would ring off the mountainside, that kind of a feeling. That's a special one to me."
Then there's the supplication contained in "Every Heartbeat is a Prayer:"
Won't You take me as Your child of light
Break me if You must, I do not care
'Til every breath I breathe is a song of praise
Every heartbeat is a prayer
I remark, "'Break me if You must, I do not care' seems to express 'I want You at any cost.'"
"Well, it does capture the sense of abandonment to God that I've been embracing these days," Randy responds. "A line like that is like my way of saying, 'O Lord, save me from myself.' I think as younger Christians we have a tendency to say 'Please bless me Lord and make this quick and painless.' We just want it to be a picnic with Jesus. But I think the more you focus in on the essence of life being communion with God, the more desperate you become, in a healthy way, to cut to the chase and just be completely His. That's the wellspring of real life."
"I wrote that song while sitting in my car by the ocean, watching the ships come in and out," he adds. "It's extra-special to me because I think it qualifies as my first bonafide praise and worship song in that it captures the essence of what a praise and worship song is about, which is that vertical relationship between you and the Lord and total abandonment to that relationship. I've been ending my concert performances with that song, because there's also a sense of finality about it -- in other words, that this is the last word about my life. It's a very personal song, and a declaration from my heart."
This perspective toward God was brought more into focus by the vagaries of the music business.
"Success by the music business standards is very fragile and short-lived, so I've sort of watched with a bemused smile and a sense of gratitude to God as my work comes in and out of vogue," Randy chuckles. "You know, over almost three decades, I'm seeing a pattern here! But the music business is ever-changing, so if you are seeking your validation from that source alone you're going to be a very frustrated, insecure person. That reality causes you to turn your sights to the bigger picture, and I've realized in the ups and downs of my career that God has always been there and that the best stuff comes from Him. I believe that He has used the challenge and the dynamic of my time in the music business to point me back to the truth, which is that all that stuff is the frosting on the cake, but He is the cake."
Stonehill had been quoted previously as saying that he defined success as surrender to the Lord and communion with Him. I ask, "If time with Him is of this importance in your life, in what form does it come? Can you describe your relationship with God?"
"Well, I do try to set aside a little time each day, usually in the morning," Randy begins. "I like to sit in the sun in front of my house, look at [my wife] Sandi's rose garden and watch the cats play with each other, and sit there with my Oswald Chambers book and have thirty minutes to an hour just to start the day by giving it to Him. But even beyond that, I've just found that slowly but surely over the years it's like my prayer life and my thoughts about this miraculous, other-worldly relationship at the center of my life have saturated most of my day. You know, I used to listen to the radio a lot more when I was driving my car. I used to read a lot more on airplanes. I still do that, but it's taken more of a back seat. I just spend a lot of time thinking about my relationship with Christ and trying to listen for His voice and see His hand. I think it's just His faithfulness over the years as He continues to narrow your vision until it's like He's all you can see on the horizon, you know? So I'm not a one-track guy, but He certainly is the central theme and thought of most of my waking hours."
Randy pauses. "Hey, you know, I hope that doesn't come out as -- what's the word I'm looking for? -- pompous, or spiritually hokey. It's just true. It's just that He has faithfully continued to crowd my vision until I'm more obsessed than I ever was with trying to be spiritually aligned with Him and with what He's doing in any given moment in the seemingly inconsequential comings and goings of each day.
"I guess part of the key, too," he continues, "is that I've been asking Him over the years to haunt me. Just because I'm a confused little human being and I'm easily distracted. But I think He's honored that prayer. Day by day I feel more haunted by God, in a good way. That's all. He haunts me. And it's wonderful."
Thirst features the work of a number of notable musicians (keyboardist Phil Madeira, guitarists Jerry McPherson and Rick Elias, bassist Jackie Street, pianist Tom Howard and others), who enhanced the atmosphere of creativity. As previously mentioned, Elias (most recently involved with producing the upcoming final release from Rich Mullins) produced the album.
"Rick approached the entire project as a labor of love," Randy says. "He'd been listening to my work since he was in college, and it really touched me when he said 'You know, this is more than just a job for me. Your music has always spoken to me, and I want to help create an album that will speak stronger than ever.' So he really dug in."
Jimmy Abegg, who is responsible for the album's artwork, contributed as well to
"Fire," the most noticeably-different track on the album. The song has an
atmosphere all its own due to the inventive use of sitar and Indian lap
I did not know my savage thirst until You led me to Your well
I did not know I lived in chains until You freed me
I did not know I was afraid until You gave Your perfect love
Love that casts out all my fears
Fire, holy flame
Walk with me
One of the more moving songs on the album is "Lonely House."
"That song was born out of seasons of time in my own 17-year marriage where it felt like a lonely house," Randy explains, "times that I just felt like I couldn't connect with my wife or she felt like she couldn't connect with me. I've come to realize that God uses all of those dynamics of a relationship to sand your rough edges and to bring you to a place where you have a sold-out servant's heart toward your spouse and toward Him.
"God is faithful, and He is the author of love," he continues. "And as you draw closer to Him as a couple, He's the one that heals the wounds and makes your love come alive. As you spend time together you learn to hear each other and to help each other, and you learn to give not fifty percent but a hundred percent. The fact of the matter is, that through all the dues that Sandi and I have paid together, the good times and the bad, because of God's grace and because of all that history, I love her more now than I ever did. She's my best friend. There's more commitment and intimacy now that have been hammered out through those hard times than there would have been if it was all smooth sailing. I think God uses the difficult times to bring two people to their knees before Him. When you bring Him into the center of the relationship, He's the one that teaches you how to love."
I ask about the song "Father of Lights," which is one of those crank-it-up- let-the-wind-blow-in-your-hair things.
"The song is based on a quote from scripture [James 1:17]," Randy says. "I think a lot of times we tend to plow through our days taking for granted all the little blessings, while really that's the stuff of which life is made, you know? I was driving down the road early one morning here in my little beach town and I started making up that chorus as sort of a simple, heartfelt tip- o'-my-hat to God as I looked around and realized just how good it is to be alive, even in the midst of being too busy and all of the challenges. It was my way of saying that I know all these simple things -- the sun on your face and the freshness of the morning and just the buzz of a new day -- are manifestations of God's love."
Those who recall the "Uncle Rand" who produced songs like "American Fast Food" and "Great Big Stupid World" will not be disappointed: The wackier side of Randy makes an appearance on this album, as well. "Baby Hates Clowns" is a fun yarn about an aversion to clowns (I'm not sure whether it's a colorful quirk or some flavor of dementia... / Let the truth be known, I'm in the twilight zone / Some guy dressed up like Bozo gets the thanks), while the hidden track "Keeper of the Bear" is in a category all its own.
Randy has been affiliated for 15 years with the relief organization Compassion International. Two songs in particular reflect his involvement: The first is "Little Rose," inspired by a Haitian girl whom Randy and Sandi sponsored; the other is "Sleeping," a song Randy says "is special to me because I wanted to find a fresh way to address the issue of Third-World poverty and our need to act like Christians in that arena." Thirst is dedicated to Compassion.
"I'm excited about this record," Randy says in conclusion. "This is my life and my work before the Lord, so while I don't take myself that seriously I do take the privilege seriously, in that I keep trying to stretch for the next high-water mark with each new project. And I believe that by God's grace I did that with this record.
"My directive has been, if I just stay true to my own artistic vision and true to the Lord, that the spiritual potency of the work will continue to ring true over the years. It will stand on its own, which creates a place for you as a writer and as a performer. So I try not to pay too much attention to what's hot and what's not. I'm just trying to create the most real and compelling music I can, and trust that God will make a way for that to rise to the surface."[Thirst is available on Brentwood Records]