Interview: Jason Gray

Mar 16 2020

Jason Gray is set to release his new EP 'Disorder' this month, the second volume of his three-part album, 'Order Disorder Reorder'. In this in-depth interview with Louder Than The Music, Jason talks about the inspiration behind the new EP, and explains the process for creating his three-part album. Read on to be inspired by Jason's passionate insight into his music!

Tell us about your Disorder EP?

“Disorder” is part two of my three part project, “Order Disorder Reorder,” songs centered around how I think transformation works. “Disorder” focuses on the experience of what happens when the bottom drops out of your life as you have understood it. These are “Saturday” songs if you think of it in terms of the Easter story.

Order is when things are going the way we want/hope/expect them to go. Disorder is where we find ourselves when our expectations are upended and things fall apart. Maybe it’s a health scare, job loss, the breakdown of a relationship, a betrayal, or a failure, but whatever shape it takes it’s a catastrophe that turns our world upside down and reminds us that we are not as in control as we thought we were and our answers were not as sufficient as we had hoped.

This is a painful place to be, but it is also fertile ground for transformation, right?

It’s good and right that we spend so much energy working toward establishing order in our lives. That’s exactly what we ought to be doing. But we can tend to cling too tightly to our order and defend it against everything that threatens to undo it - even when that threat might be something new we need to learn! When we love order too much our thinking hardens and we become closed off to new ways of seeing. It’s a real problem!

But our order will eventually fall apart, thanks be to God. When the new things we must learn come breaking down the door of our well-kept order, it can be confusing, painful, and terrifying. But in the end, when we look back, we very often end up being grateful for what we learned because of the hard times.

A part of what I’m trying to do with the songs of “Disorder” is give people what I’ve needed in those seasons of life: handrails to hold on to in the storm so I don’t lose my head. I hope that these songs encourage people to lean into the storm, trusting that God is with us in it, working, making us more of who we want to be.

Did God send the storm? Did He send us into it? These are mysteries too big for me to understand… I can’t say with certainty how all of that works. Regardless of whether he caused it, I do believe he’s with me in it and that he won’t let it be wasted.

There’s a quote by Richard Rohr that I love: “Faith is not for overcoming obstacles; it is for experiencing them - all the way through!”

In times of pain, we so often look for escape, which means that we don’t experience the pain authentically, looking for ways to avoid it rather than letting it roll through us and eventually out of us. When I refuse to feel my pain, it usually gets trapped inside of me and eventually manifests itself in unhealthy ways: addiction, self-righteousness, depression, etc.

Religion can so often become an unhealthy escape. When my pain brings up difficult questions, rather than authentically engaging them I may be tempted to hide from them by saying things like “well, God’s ways are higher than ours…” or “God is good all the time, all the time God is good.” These sentiments are fine in and of themselves, and even true, but I may be using them to avoid confronting difficult realities while telling myself that I’m “trusting God.”

Interestingly, in the story of Job, it is Job - the relentless questioner - who God praises as being the only one who spoke truthfully. God gives a sharp rebuke to Job’s worthless comforters who said all the things a person of faith “should” say. This is worth thinking about.

“The weight of these sad times we must obey; speak the truth, not what we ought to say” says Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear. God seems to be saying the same thing.

Maybe that’s because two of the things that God desires most - intimacy with us and to see us become all that we might be - meet at the blind intersection of honesty and transformation. “Unless a kernel of grain falls into the ground and dies…” how will it become what it’s meant to be next? Death and resurrection - this is how God makes us new. And running alongside that is the fact that you can’t have intimacy without honesty.

So there’s bound to be some pain and some hard conversations. But these make up the furnace where we are being refined, and we aren’t alone in the fire.

Why release this album in three parts?

There are a number of reasons that made sense for us to release them this way, but for me the main reason was to build the practice of statio into it. Statio is a spiritual discipline that more or less is about finishing one thing completely before moving on to the next. We may be tempted to rush into the next thing before the previous thing has finished its work in us. Skipping ahead to the next song, the next meeting, the next conversation, the next bite… but if we slow down and let each thing have it’s moment, we are better able to receive all that it’s offering us. It’s kind of like the art of savoring something, being present to it, disciplining our mind to not run off ahead.

Releasing it the way we have encourages a listening experience where each part of Order Disorder and Reorder gets to have its say before moving on to the next part.

Which is your favourite track off the latest EP?

It might seem funny to some who know me as a lover of confessional singer/songwriter kinds of songs, but I think I’m the proudest of “Through” - which might be the most “pop” track of the bunch! I feel like it’s one of the more legit pop songs I’ve gotten to write. I’m so proud of it! And I think the track has so much vibe. Feels cinematic to me.

I wrote it with my friends Ethan Hulse and Colby Wedgeworth. I had hoped my label would’ve picked it as the single! I had a fun idea for the video and everything. But I’m not sure if it’ll be released as a radio single. I hope lots of people discover it, though!

Understanding that sometimes the only way out is through has been one of the more helpful things I’ve learned in my life. Do you know that the damage you experience from a traumatic event is up to you in many ways? If you look at trouble as something to run from, you’re treating it as though it’s the predator and you’re the prey. That will dramatically increase the trauma you experience from it. But if you understand your trouble as a challenge to be faced and you turn toward it, it will greatly reduce the likelihood of having PTSD. You are not prey. You are not your problems or the victim of your problems. You are that which confronts your problems with God behind, above, and before you. Sometimes the only way out is through. Understanding this dramatically changed my life.

This is something different, was the song writing process different for these releases?

I remembered reading that Springsteen had written more than 80 songs that were pared down to the 11 that made up “Born In The USA” and that there were more than 300 songs in consideration for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and so I thought I’d try something like that - writing a bunch of songs and then seeing which ones rose to the top. 75 songs later I started wondering how we’d go about choosing which ones would be a part of my new record. Order Disorder Reorder was one of those songs and seemed like a “house” where a lot of these songs could live under the same roof.

Then it became a matter of identifying which songs fit into which category in a way that made for a meaningful narrative - songs of order, songs of disorder, songs of reorder. With most of that in place, I decided to write some more songs with this project firmly in mind to fill in any gaps thematically. It’s been fun to write this way - a very different experience for me! It also means I have so many songs leftover that I hope will see the light of the day further down the road.

In your opinion how has the music industry changed over the years?

Hmmm… I’m probably in danger of sounding like an angry old person clinging to the glory days of the way things used to be haha! I try to be flexible and optimistic in my thinking, though, trusting that we are always finding our way in a world that is always shape shifting.

One thing I think is interesting though… I’m grateful I grew up with the experience of buying a record and that being the music I listened to until I could afford to buy my next record. That meant I was trained to listen to an album as a unified artistic statement. I learned that my favorite songs off of a record were often the deep tracks. The radio hit may have brought me to the record, but it was the obscure album cuts I ended up loving the most, as well as loving the whole album as one piece. I’m grateful that I was trained to think of music releases that way. It’s a richer listening experience than just listening to single songs, in my opinion.

It was limitations that trained me to appreciate albums. For instance, I could only afford to buy one or two albums a month, and so that was it… if I didn’t love a record at first, I had to learn how to let it grow on me or just go without music until I could afford to buy something else. A prime example is Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” record - I really didn’t care for it at first. But… it would be in my CD player until I could buy something new. And because of that, I heard it over and over and it grew on me, so much so that it actually became my favorite Coldplay record! It took time, though, and the limitation of it being the only record I could listen to for several weeks is what helped me learn to love that record.

With streaming, there are hardly any limitations, which means all music is available to me all the time, and so I’ve had to develop a music listening ethic where I choose to listen to a record all the way through 2 or 3 times before moving off of it.

I’m proud of my son Jacob who decided to not listen to music on his phone years ago and instead have a dedicated music listening environment: his car. Creating limitation can be helpful for our enjoyment of things. It actually may be necessary! Limitation is our friend.

Does it get harder writing fresh new songs?

It gets harder because as I grow, I’m less and less satisfied with my work. A line I might’ve loved a year ago may not get a pass today. The bar keeps getting higher.

If you could work with any songwriter, who would it be and why?

Oh wow… what a question! I tend to not want to work with my heroes… I like to protect their hero status in my mind haha! That said, I would love to get to be in the room with Bono when a song is being written. I think he’s a remarkable and wise truth teller. Same with Paul Simon.

Actually, I’d love to get to write with Jon Foreman. And Kimbra, partly because I’m a fan of her writing and maybe partly because I kind of have a crush on her.

How would you describe your style of music and what are your influences?

Oh gosh… I don’t know. I’m just trying to be as truthful as I know how. I hope I’m being truthful and authentic and that people experience that with my music.

My enduring influences are Paul Simon, Bono, Rich Mullins, and beyond that it’s any number of artists or bands who currently have my attention. Lately that’s been Bon Iver, Billie Eilish, King Princess, Lord Huron, etc. etc.

How would you define success in your career?

Someone told me recently that for the two hours they’re at my show they feel like they’re okay and that the world is okay and that everything is going to be okay. That’s about as meaningful of an indicator of success as I could hope for.

As a meaning junkie, those are the kind of markers that tell me I’m on the right track. However, it’s really good that I have people on my team who are looking at chart positions, radio airplay, units sold and streaming numbers and help shepherd my ministry in a way that tends to those metrics. If I kept my eye on those kinds of things it would take me to a pretty dark place, but I’m glad that other people in my life do.

What is your favourite album of all time?

Wow… hard to pick… but I think “Surprise” by Paul Simon holds that place currently. He’s asking a lot of the big questions of life, death, love, and God on that record, and he does it well. And it’s playful and experimental and beautiful and funny.

You're stuck on an island, it's hot, you only have enough battery life left to listen to one song on your phone. What track is it?

That’s too much pressure… the battery would probably die while I was trying to make a decision.

What does the next year hold for Jason Gray?

I’m curious what the next 10 years is supposed to look like, so I’m really praying and seeking God about that. I think I have a book in me. I just need to find the time and space to write it.

I’ve also got lots of songs… so I hope to keep making music for many years to come.

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