First of all, congraulations on the upcoming release of The North Star. Tell us, how long has this record been in the making and what does it feel like to have the finished product ready for release?
We started recording these songs a year ago in Southeast Asia. We had some melody ideas and a ton of the lyric written already at that time but most of the lyric was in the form of couplets - little bunches of rhymes without a home. Some of the lyric started falling into place on tops of buildings within a couple blocks of the red light districts that I’d work at night doing casework with Matt Parker of The Exodus Road. The way I work lyrically is collecting a bunch of thoughts and turning them into rhymes. From Psalms or lines from movies and documentaries that move me - or from stuff I read from people I look up to. Philip, my brother who produced this album, wanted to be able to more accurately tell the story so last January we took our wives on a trip to put ourselves in close proximity with the sorrow and the horror of sex trafficking. It is from those streets and those jungles that these melodies began the birthing process.
How would you describe the sound of this record to brand new listeners? And, how does it compare and contrast to your prior work?
There’s way more lyric on this album than ever before. I’m reaching back into my early days writing songs 20 years ago. No need for typical song structure. In the 90s I listened to a lot of rock that was influenced by hip hop. Some of my favorite bands from that time period used fast spoken word. So there’s that hip hop element, combined with my first love of the rawness of the grunge movement but then there’s the electronic element that Philip is so great at. The nostalgic sounds of the JUNO synthesizer act as a kind of glue between elements that we are borrowing from such opposite genres at times. This album doesn’t sound as polished as Daylight or Resuscitate. It’s more interesting than Commodity - it’s more rock and roll than Commodity even.
Can you give us some insight into your motivation to spotlight human trafficking victims and the anti-slavery movement with this new release as well as prior collections?
I’m more motivated to use my platform, my melodies, my time and my art to help shine a light on slavery and injustice. This motivation is amplified by continually being in the presence of enslaved, exiled and marginalized people. The only way we can do this work is if we stay in love with these precious people. There’s a desperation in these melodies which comes directly from a desperation in my heart. I want to see change. I want to see freedom. I want to see justice. My heard aches for justice. I really want something different for my friend who is being sold night after night. Her feet are tired. She misses the simplicity of her former life farming in the countryside. She misses her mother. She misses her sister. I want something else for her than the awful reality of her life stuck here in a brothel at the age of 15 or 16. I know her story and the story of hundreds of girls and women just like her because I spend a lot of time with these ladies. My friends work tirelessly in Latin America, India and Southeast Asia with children and women being trafficked across boarders and coerced into the sex trade. Our team here in the US is amazing and the technology that we’re operating is helping in the fight. I see what can happen with a song, an album, one voice, five loaves and two fish, one concert, one deployment - seeing the results of those small contributions to freedom and justice have moved me to continue to do what I can to recruit ordinary humans to frontline work. I’m not just spotlighting the problem of slavery with this music - I’m trying to amplify the voice of the abolition. I’ve been inspired by human beings that have decided to lay down their life in the service of a Kingdom where the oppressed are cared for, where the exiled are taken in and where the captives are set free. These songs are a celebration of the rising tide of ordinary people who are not content with looking the other way.
Can you share some of the most moving experiences you have had on your deployments with the international anti-trafficking organization The Exodus Road?
I’ve spent the past five years of my life in close proximity with extreme sorrow and suffering. I am consistently in rooms full of teen age girls that are being sold for sex to men who fly from all over the world to take advantage of them - being sold by men and women who are taking advantage of their extreme poverty. What moves me is the resilience in the eyes of these girls. The defiance in the face of their enslavement. It’s hard to describe it but there is a gleam of hope I get. These are some of the most gentle souls I’ve ever met. They are smart but uneducated. Their high heels are often times too large. Poor in spirit and full of grace. Almost all of my time spent with girls in the sex trade has been undercover with the pretense of wanting to purchase them. A couple months ago I got to go to Cambodia though. All of Remedy Drive’s t-shirts are being made by survivors of sex trafficking. This was the first time I got to spend some time talking to girls that have been rescued. It was really moving and inspiring to me to see them on the other side.
How would you say your walk with God has developed while writing and recording this new record?
I think my whole life I’ve been told that a “walk with God” is all about reading and praying. Something clicked five years ago - technically that’s called a “talk with God”. The walking part has to do with following the instruction that is so clearly laid out over and over again in scripture - we’re required, by the words of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus Christ, to lay down our lives. The poor and the oppressed are mentioned 2100 times in scripture but this culture of ours minimizes the instruction of scripture to a mere afterthought. People say consistently - “what’s really important is your relationship with Jesus” - all that social justice stuff is something he’ll fix when he comes back. You can’t fix it anyways”. But then when I read about what God says about what it means to know him it looks like something the prophet Jeremiah said:
“He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the Lord.”
So my walk with the Lord, or my relationship to the King of the universe has become more focused on what Jesus talked about when he talked about his kingdom. He summed up the whole of the writings of scripture by equating loving God with all your heart with loving my neighbor. In 2018 our neighbors are looking for freedom from slavery, for clean water, for refuge from exile, medicine and shelter from war. “let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” It’s so easy to look the other way when someone is literally bleeding in the ditch while we travel on our way to worship as they did in the parable that Jesus gave about the Good Samaritan. There are about 10 mentions in scripture where God says “I don’t want to hear your prayers or your songs because you shut your ears to the cries of the oppressed”. I don’t want that to be said of these songs. Like Frederick Douglass says “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
At the same time, when we’re heading into a dangerous situation with The Exodus Road or pretty much every time I’m getting onto a flight, if you were inside of my head you’d hear the ancient words of David the psalmist crying out for protection and guidance to the King. I’m quite in love with scripture but in the last few years I’ve stopped editing out all the 2100 parts that tell us our religion is a sham if it isn’t about daily taking the cause of the marginalized.
Were there any songs that were particularly challenging to write or record on this new album?
There are a lot of questions in the song Sunlight on Her Face. It’s a song that really bled from my veins. It’s a conversation with God about his apparent absence in the life of child stuck in prostitution. It was really hard to write the words “I write a love song for a prostitute”. It was a hard for my wife to hear me sing that at first and we talked a lot about it. But then she came with me a year ago to see first hand and we sing that song together. “She prayed to you but you never came” - that line and a few others sound a lot like my namesake. A shepherd that became of a king in ancient Israel. He said a lot of similar things - fortunate for him he had a career in politics to fall back on in case people weren’t comfortable with the questions he raised with his songs. I’ve got all my eggs in this basket. We’ve got to write honest songs. We’ve got to ask hard questions. God knows that our children are asking the same questions. God knows the girl that is stuck in a brothel is saying “where are you God? Why don’t you show up?”. Maybe he’s just waiting for us humans to start showing up before he moves in the way that we’re all hoping for.
Which track are you most excited for listeners to hear and why?
Brighter than Apathy is the best song I’ve ever written lyrically. There’s a lot of heavy material on this album and a lot of hard things to say. This song is a celebration of those who are using their time and their talents in arenas of mercy, justice and compassion. “And when we’re gone - in ages to come the sages will write - so raged the bearers of the light - so waged the few with all their might against the terrors of the night”.
Are there any plans to tour with the release of the upcoming album?
We’re putting together quite a few dates for the spring, hitting the festival circuit this summer and we’re in negotiations on some international dates. I’m also speaking a lot on college campuses about the abolition movement and The Exodus Road.