Jars of Clay
Band Focuses on Creating Music with Honest, Truthful Lyrics
A group of college guys take a music class, they enter a band competition and win. As a result, a bidding war begins between more than a handful of record labels to sign them and once their first single makes its debut, it becomes the biggest mainstream hit ever by a band on a Christian label. This story may sound like one only Hollywood could script as an inspirational feel-good film about following your dreams, but for Jars of Clay this was exactly the start of an exciting and challenging ride that has become an illustrious music career impacting millions of fans. Risen was able to have a candid conversation with the lead singer of this multi-platinum, Grammy Award winning band, Dan Haseltine, about fighting perceptions, cultural shifts, and the lasting power of this beloved band.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen in San Juan Capistrano, California
Risen Magazine: You had to make some pretty big choices early in life… like quitting college, moving to Nashville, and becoming a band…what went into those decisions?
Dan Haseltine: We were taking studio-recording classes where we had to write songs and then got graded on recording them – actually most of the stuff on our first record was class projects for college (Greenville. We finished recording three songs and we saw there was a band competition where you sent in songs on a cassette tape and an industry professional would critique your material. You had to send fifty-bucks and three songs. We just wanted to know from an industry professional if what we were doing seemed like it mattered or not, if it was good. Instead of getting a critique, we got a phone call from somebody saying we were one of the 10 finalists in this competition and they needed us to come to Nashville where we would have to play two songs. This was a little difficult for us was because we were in a studio recording class together, we weren’t really a band, we had never played the songs live, we only recorded them. We quickly learned how to play two of the songs, went to Nashville and ended up winning the competition.
We wanted people to know we were writing from a Christian worldview, but we weren’t writing propaganda.
That was during Spring break. We went back to school after that to finish out the year. We started getting phone calls from record companies on our dorm floor. We lived in the basement of a dorm we called The Underground, and had only one pay phone. We had to write things down because it turned out there were about seven different labels that were interested in us. We put these instructions by the phone for everybody else that lived on the floor with us, basically saying, “If a record label calls, don’t say anything about this, or here’s what you can say, here’s what you can’t.” There was sort of a bidding war going on before we ever even got to Nashville. At the end of that school year we decided that we would go down for the summer and get jobs and hang out and meet some of the labels and see what happens. We never ended up going back to school.
RM: That’s amazing. When you’re going through a process like that as a sophomore in college, where is your head? Are you thinking these decisions can affect my whole future?
DH: I was 20, and the oldest, thinking, “Wow, we’re starting our career.” I think what was hardest was that when you go to college you sort of expect that you’re going to be there for four years, you kind of get used to your community of people and friends. We felt like it was a bit of a whiplash. Just that shock of, “Oh we’re uprooting already.” I think we were worried about that. We didn’t really know anybody in Nashville so we were just there because that’s where most of the labels we were talking to were based. So we thought, “Well alright we’ll go there.” And then we had to get to know a new city and figure out how to navigate the music industry. So it was a bit of a process and it was kind of scary, but we had a lot of great people come around us early on.
I have an uncle that is a drummer and he introduced us to this lawyer, and it turns out it was a guy named Jim Zumwalt – who happens to be one of the most prominent entertainment lawyers in Nashville. We ended up having a good advocate almost immediately. What’s interesting about our record deal and sort of commentary on the Christian music community is that before we signed our record deal…literally while I’m sitting at the desk, there is a photographer and all these people from the label standing around, and I say, “I need to make one more phone call.” I’m calling my lawyer while we’re all in the office to sign the contract for the deal and asking him a few things. Although it was the end of our negotiation he said, “I just need you to know, I’ve negotiated for you guys the best contract in the Christian music industry, but this is the worst contract I’ve ever negotiated.” So you can kind of see in the Christian music community what was going on – people trying to get a lot out of you. So that’s how we started.
RM: Wow! So then your first single Flood (1995) climbed the charts and became one of the biggest mainstream hits ever by a band on a Christian label…were you trying to make a song universally appealing or were you surprised by the success of it?
DH: I think we didn’t see the lines between what was Christian and what was mainstream music because all of our influences were mainstream – that’s what we listened to growing up. None of us had really grown up in Christian music. Most of us were listening to The Beatles and The Who, Led Zeppelin and stuff like that. I was a huge Depeche Mode fan and so we were just making music that was born out of our influences. But there was always that question, “Why does Christian music not sound like mainstream music?” To this day it is hard to put your finger on what was different, but some of it was that there’s no tension in it. People didn’t like to use discordant tones; everything was very clean and pretty; but you need tension to have a good song. Anyway, we were trying to let all the doors open at the same time – that’s what we wanted. If we were going to be critiqued for our music, we wanted it to be by our peers and the people that represented innovation in music. We wanted to be a part of the greater conversational shifts in culture that were happening. I don’t know that we intentionally wanted to be Christian or mainstream as much as we just wanted to be everything back then. It was interesting because we would do both at the same time.
When Flood was beginning to hit, there was a station in Seattle and one in St. Louis, Missouri, that started playing this song. We were out on tour with Michael W. Smith, so we would do an opening slot, then get in a van and drive into the city and play in some crappy little club every night. We’d do two shows. One in the big arena and then one in the little club for the rock radio station; it was sort of this schizophrenic environment. We did the same shows because we were all too scared to talk in any of our concerts, so we just played the 10 songs that we knew. [Laughter] There was never an evangelical bent to what we were doing at all; we were just making music that was formed by people who had grown up hearing the Gospel from our families.
We had to continue to make music and be honest and let the music be the argument.
RM: Flood is such a recognizable song now, when you were writing it did you sense that…did you know you had a hit on your hands?
DH: No, we actually fought the label on releasing Flood because on that record it really is the only song that is different. We actually thought, “This isn’t representative of what’s going on…we really wish you’d release something different.” Just proves how much we knew about radio back then. [Laughter]
RM: You have had a lot of success and fame; that doesn’t come without its challenges, especially when straddling Christian and mainstream lines. What would you say you struggle with the most?
DH: These days we don’t really wrestle with it as much, the markets have changed as well as the perception of what Jars is and what it isn’t. Back then though it was really complicated. What we were doing was something that we thought was really simple – playing music for people and being honest. But all of a sudden, you start feeling like everybody wants to own you. The Christian community wanted to be able to call us their own so that they could feel credible for some reason. A fan would call the radio and be like, “Did you know they’re a Christian band? Can you play this song?” There weren’t any Christian bands playing on Rock radio – the only band that had ever sort of done what we had done was Stryper, but that was more of a novelty, and then Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant who were in the pop world. In the modern rock world there was nothing.
They [stations] were very hesitant to play Christian music on modern Rock because they felt like people were trying to co-opt their station. As if we would play a song and they thought we would use that platform to present an agenda. They were very wary of people that were Christians. So we would walk into a mainstream radio station and they would look at us like we were aliens. We would spend all of our time trying to convince them that we were human beings and that we didn’t have an agenda, that we weren’t an evangelical group; we wouldn’t get up and start preaching on the radio station. We were musicians, not preachers. We would talk about Led Zeppelin and The Beatles and what’s going on in music to kind of let them know we were students of culture, but we weren’t freaks. And in the end, we would win in the sense that we would become friends.
It was hard though [because] we would feel like there was always this push for people to want to dismiss us because of the Christian label. The record was produced by Adrian Belew – legendary guitar player for Talking Heads – who had just finished playing on the Nine Inch Nails’, The Downward Spiral record when he came to work for us. [He was] not a Christian producer by any means, which is also rare for the Christian community. We never worked with Christian producers, we always worked with people we thought were innovators. Adrian Belew produces the record, we’re playing on Rock radio, we’re signed to Jive Records/Silvertone – (they were just about to jump into Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and all of that) – so we’re in that culture playing in bars and clubs and we’d get into town and the entertainment guide would say: “Bible-thumpers Jars of Clay,” or “Holy Rollers Jars of Clay.” I would get on the phone and call the editor and basically say look, “Come out. You’re making assumptions of who we are based on some baggage that you have with what you think the church might be. But we’re not that. You need to come out and you need to change that.” I did that for two years. Whenever I got into town I would fight that.
There was literally this force just pushing against the band. We wanted people to know we were writing from a Christian worldview, but we weren’t writing propaganda. After a couple of years I realized I hated what I did. I spent so much time fighting that perception and it just keeps winning because there is a lot of baggage in American culture against the church. A lot of it is warranted, so you realize, that’s what we were fighting against. There’s no other genre where an artist carries that weight of every other band in that genre. So we eventually stopped fighting it and just kind of said, “Okay we’re a Christian band, so what?” We started asking, “Is it a good song, or is it not?” So many times you just spin all this energy and we hated what we did because they was no joy in it at that point. We had to get back to that place [of joy]. We had to continue to make music and be honest and let the music be the argument.
RM: What then is your take on Christian music now, and I guess genres in general? What do you think is the current perception of Christian music?
DH: I think the more Christian music defines itself, the more room it’s leaving for bands to be outside of it and not get trapped in that Christian perception. [The one that says] If you want to be a Christian band, then to fit that Christian mold you have to sing worship music. And if you’re not singing worship music, you actually don’t really have a place in the machine of Christian music – the marketing dollars, the attention – those don’t get put on you. I feel like bands are being allowed to look at the world and describe it and write honest songs about everything, even from a Christian worldview, not having to contend with the pressure of the Christian music community in a sense.
RM: Do you recognize that you and Jars have been a major player in paving the way for future artists?
DH: We don’t think about it that way…only because it’s not like we knew what we were doing. We weren’t trying to be frontrunners. We literally were just trying to be a band. We weren’t trying to be a Christian band that broke new ground and crossed over into mainstream music. Again, these were all terms that other people were using for us and we were saying, “We just want to write songs, we just want to play music.” If our songs encourage people, that’s amazing and we love that. Any artist would hope for some of the things we’ve been able to see happen with our music. I would never change what I do as a writer at this point because I’ve seen enough encouragement. I’ve seen the songs make their way into people’s worlds and the soundtrack of their really hard circumstances. I don’t think everybody’s songs get to do that, and especially artists that don’t care if they’re lying. That was sort of the one criterion we put on ourselves from the very beginning. Everybody probably has certain barriers they put on their songs, especially within Christian music. The only criteria we’ve ever put on our songs was that we wouldn’t lie. If we’re writing about sex, we’re not going to lie about it or glamorize some part of it. If we’re writing about brokenness, we’re not going to lie about it. If we’re writing about victory, or mercy, or grace, we’re not going to lie about it. We’re just going to say what we think is true, which allows us to write about anything and everything from an honest perspective.
RM: That perspective makes each of your albums so uniquely different. Your latest album, The Shelter, was much more collaborative…what prompted taking that direction?
DH: The Shelter was really supposed to be a side project. It wasn’t actually supposed to be a Jars record. We wanted it to be more of an artist-collective project. We enlisted everybody to be part of the writing. The Shelter was going to be its own brand; its own thing. The label couldn’t really get their head around how they would present this artist-collective group to the world and we were having a hard time getting them to understand what we wanted to be about. So they said they really needed it to be more Jars-centric. It was a record intentionally for the church community and to kind of find its way into congregational singing and stuff like that. But we didn’t want to feel like we were jumping into the worship song movement because that’s not really what Jars is. We’ve written a few worship songs over the years, because why not? It’s part of our DNA. But we weren’t trying to enter the worship-conversation so much as we were trying to enter the community-conversation. This is a very communal project, that’s what we were trying to create; we wanted everybody to be working on everybody’s songs.
RM: Even with the album being for the church audience, it’s not filled with church language. The words you tend to write for all your songs are very universal so everyone can understand and relate.
DH: I remember waking up one day, we had finished the record Good Monsters, and there were all these declarations on that record. I came out of that and found myself using some lofty church language and some of the times it sounds poetic, but most of the time it’s because I’m not spending the right amount of time trying to get underneath and figure out what I really want to say. I decided at that point to stop using that language. We got into making a record called, The Long Fall Back to Earth, which was all about human relationships. Within our circle there were just a lot of really hard relationships. Steve was going through a divorce and the rest of us were all wrestling in our marriages to kind of pick up a lot of pieces of things that just happened over the years of being a band, and touring, and being part of a lifestyle that isn’t set up to sustain families. That was the season where everything started to fall apart for everyone. We wanted to write songs about relationships. That was the point where I said that I’m not going to use a single bit of church language because that would do a disservice to the humanity of what we were trying to write about. From that point on it’s really been the key boundary that I’ve put on songwriting.
RM: The lifestyle is tough for a family, so what does that look like? Do your wife and kids travel with you? Does the band have accountability on the road? What have you found to work?
DH: We all have people in our lives that are our community. We don’t all live that close to each other in Nashville. When we’re home we don’t see each other unless we’re working. It’s hard to integrate family into what we do out here [on the road]. We’re still trying to figure it out because as the music industry becomes more niche markets, touring becomes a more important part of it. You end up doing more shows for less money to get out in front of people. It’s more work and backwards from where I think we are as a band. We’ve been making music for almost 18 years – that’s a lot of time on the road. We’ll do four shows a week, [usually] Thursday through Sunday, and be home Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Consistency is actually the most important thing for families, knowing that we’re home on these specific days, especially for our kids. It matters to us that our kids know when we’re going to be home.
RM: As the culture shifts, and the way people get music and hear music shifts, how do you adapt with the change and do you ever think, “We’ve accomplished so much, maybe this will be our last album?”
DH: We’re still music fans so I think we still love the discovery of it and that will continue to fuel what we do creatively. I think we are very aware of music, culture, and technology and where it is moving. We’ve even amongst ourselves said, “This may be our last album.” It doesn’t mean we’ll stop making music. We actually might start making more music, but this might be our last 10-song record. We might release a couple songs a month or build our own subscription service, where we can release everything and give it all to our fans. It’s hard to know, but we’re all in the conversation. There is a shift happening and we don’t have to be in the album cycle where you make a record and then you tour it for a year or two years and then you go make another record. There are so many new ways that are more creative. I think we’ll still make music for a long time.
RM: The band’s name comes from a verse: 2 Corinthians 4:7, which reads “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” When in your career has this been most real to you?
DH: The name matters to us mostly because it was a metaphor for the frailty of mankind. Paul [the apostle] was writing this and describing that human beings are fragile, frail things and yet God instills something so valuable as the Holy Spirit within us. And you know our soul. Just like people would take their most precious belongings and put them in clay jars – something so easily broken. That was the metaphor for humanity. That’s what we wanted to write about. A friend of mine was asking us at one point, “If Jars didn’t exist, would there be a space or would other bands fill it up? What makes you guys unique?” At the beginning of our career, we were writing about humanity. Christian music at the time involved people always writing about that one day when you are victorious; that one day when you know Jesus and things are all right. We were writing about the 29 other days of the month. The rest of the month when things were crappy, when life didn’t really change, when you had to muster that kind of hope and faith; when it all didn’t come easy. That’s what we were writing about and it didn’t seem like anybody else was hitting that…I think we’re still in the space.
Making a Difference:
Jars of Clay Helps Provide Clean Water Through Project
BLOOD: WATER MISSION
Risen Magazine: Tell me about this non-profit you started. I understand you founded it after a trip to Africa. What grabbed a hold of you and made you want to start this organization?
Dan Haseltine: We [Jars of Clay] had been approached in 2001 by World Vision asking if we would start talking about AIDS from the stage. They had just received the results of a poll taken in the evangelical community which asked evangelicals if they had the opportunity to help somebody with AIDS in Africa, would they? Only three percent said they would. World Vision was shocked by the results and this sense that the church didn’t understand AIDS in Africa. The church in America knew AIDS as the gay cancer… the loudest voice in the church at the time was saying people in Africa were reaping the [consequence] of their sin and we should just ignore them and let them die. But obviously, we would all think that [sentiment] is crazy.
We told World Vision that we would talk about it so they started feeding us statistics for a year. After the end of a year, I just didn’t feel any closer to it, it was just information. So I decided to take a trip; I went to Africa for 10 days. I went to three countries; South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. What’s funny is Bono [U2’s Lead Singer] had been making his rounds on the Heart of America Tour to try to get artists involved in what he was doing. He was in Nashville the afternoon I left on my trip, so I met with him and a few other artists. We actually had a nice connection because his first trip to Africa was Malawi and that’s kind of what changed his heart and made him want to do stuff for Africa.
I went and experienced a lot of things, but the one thing that I saw that shocked me [in Malawi] was that while driving from this one community out into the Bush, we drove over a dry river bed and there were people in the river bed digging holes and sticking their faces down into the holes. I thought that was really weird and didn’t know what they were doing. Our driver told me they were drinking. That was the first I had heard about communities that didn’t have access to clean water and that obviously started a line of questions. AIDS is a disease that destroys the immune system, but AIDS isn’t actually what’s killing these people, it’s the water that they are drinking and all the diseases that are in the water. If you don’t have clean water in your community and HIV/AIDS is prevalent, then the water is just killing everybody. I realized what the puzzle was; “How do you talk to the church or evangelical community about engaging in HIV/AIDS; something that is tied to the sexual culture, which the church can’t seem to handle?” All of a sudden I realized the answer: water. It’s really hard to argue whether or not a person should have access to clean water. It was the entry point. It meant, “Okay we’re going to get them to care and do something about HIV/AIDS, because we are going to get them to care about clean water.” So we started Blood: Water Mission.
We began on college campuses. When we were doing shows we would rent a lecture hall in the afternoon and I would invite anyone to come and would tell them about what I saw in Africa, what was going on. I wouldn’t ask them for money, but instead I would ask them to write a paper, or an article for their newspaper, or one for their classes; to tell their family about it and make it part of the conversation. We did that for a couple of years. Then one day, we were on the campus of Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, doing the lecture and a girl who was graduating that year named Jena Lee was listening. We left, went back to Nashville and a week later received a 22-page proposal from her stating how she thought Blood: Water Mission should operate. It was like a manifesto from this graduating college student. I read through it and a week later, I got a revised version of it.
RM: Wow! So you hired her?
DH: I called her up and said, “Hey, when you graduate, come to Nashville.” She lived in my basement with my family and we ended up renting a room at an old church building and started Blood: Water Mission there. Now, nearly 10 years into the organization, she’s still the director. She and I have developed the 1000 Wells Project, which was our big campaign. I found a statistic from the World Health Organization that had said one dollar can equal clean water for an African for an entire year. Everybody talks about issues from the 40,000-foot perspective; every issue is in the millions of people. There is no way for people to really get a sense for what is going on. I realized the opportunity we had was the human story. All we are asking people to do is care about one person. We can tell that story. We started the campaign with a plan to have clean water in one thousand communities in Africa, but we didn’t really know what that would look like. We weren’t water experts so we had to learn and enlist the help of a lot of people that were actually good at that sort of thing. Just this past year we reached that goal and the result is that about 700,000 people have clean water now that didn’t have it before.
One of our mentor’s describes Blood: Water Mission as two rescues: In Africa it’s the rescue of the tangible effects of poverty and disease, and in the U.S. it’s the rescue from our trivia. And that’s equally as important. We’re creating a shift in culture.
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