To just say Jonathan Green plays hymns is a bit deceptive. Posted up in Edinburgh, Scotland, this native Bostonian, weaves the stories of the past with the realities of the present, glancing towards the future. His “hymns” blend the ethereal thump and fuzz of his electronic equipment with the warm strums of obviously human instrumentation. He lives with one foot in a local congregation (Free Church of Scotland) that until recently hasn’t used instruments in its Psalm-heavy worship. And one firmly planted in the realm of indie-rock experimentation. JG Hymns’s newest release, Lots, delves deeply both into the stories of Scripture, plumbing some of the nuance and texture of familiar stories that even a good reader glosses over or dismisses due to familiarity, and then launches from these stories, trampolining these ancient (and less than ancient) encounters with God into relevant parables and challenges for here and now.
I sat down to chat with Jonathan about Lots, congregational music, hope, grief, and experimentation,
Hopeful Realism: Tell me about your newest work, Lots. You’ve described it has the telling of nine different ways in which people from past and present times have responded to significant events in their lives. You’ve appropriated scripture stories (Deborah, Leah, Samuel) but also H.G. Spafford (writer of It is Well With My Soul). What was it about these people, these stories, that particularly piqued your imagination?
Jonathan Green: There’s a couple of ways that works. One is from hearing sermons. When I first heard Tim Keller preach from Old Testament stories, I feel like I was hearing them for the first time, in the ways that he moved Old Testament stories from a moral lesson into a shadow of the story of Jesus. I found that incredibly profound. Part of me was just responding to this new way of looking at those old stories. So on Hymns Vol. III there’s this story of Joseph, that is basically a Keller sermon in three minutes. Part of it is me interacting with Old Testament characters afresh. Taking potentially flat characters and bringing them to life. It’s kind of like the HBO series about John Adams. Before I saw that, early American history was just weird guys with wigs in a history book. There’s no connection whatsoever, they were just a funny painting. And after I saw the series, they’re flesh and blood. And the situations which they find themselves in come to life. So I started looking at Old Testament characters as real people, in real situations and had newfound sensitivity towards them.
I think also my wife [who’s a native Palestinian] being from where the bible happens, and now spending some time over there, I look at these stories in a new way. Connecting with Near Eastern culture, I look at these situations differently. So a story like Leah’s connected with some of the things I was thinking about for this record. Namely that there is this woman who tries so hard to get the attention of a man. In the first part of the story, she has several children, and after each one she thinks, with this child, my husband’s going to love me. And it just doesn’t happen. And then finally, there is this moment where she recognizes that her relationship with God is paramount and when she gets that settled her identity is no longer in the man that she’s trying to win but is fulfilled.
And it’s this nice story, but the whole cycle happens again and it seems like there’s no resolve to this desire that the two women have, both Leah and Rachel. I feel like, with Lots, and thinking about stories in the bible, I don’t know that there’s always necessarily a resolution to the story that we want to put on it. It’s more often open-ended, almost like a question asking the reader, what they want to do about it. Like the way Mark ends. Like the way Jonah ends. It really asks the listener to be drawn in. Sometimes as a songwriter you provide the beginning, middle, and ending for the people. And they end up having that movie theatre experience, where it is all provided for you. You go and you are passive, rather than engaging with the situation and the person.
HR: You talk about this idea of the listener participating with the story, narrative, and music. It’s interesting though; the first and last tracks are hymns, usually understood as highly participatory, congregational music. But in some ways you’ve completely “de-congregationalized” these hymns. They’re no longer sing-able. And that’s okay. What I find interesting is that they do beckon the listener to participate, but in a much different way. It seems that approaching hymns in this way is closer to the kind of apparently passive participation that happens while contemplating art at a gallery, rather than the effusive participation that happens via traditional congregational singing and interaction. If you “get it,” you are engrossed in perhaps a more complete way than unison singing can even afford.
JG: I feel like the world doesn’t need many more congregational songs. There are so many people, past and present, with this new hymns movement, how have a great vision, there are plenty of people “on the job.” Writing local songs, for local congregations is great, but I feel like there is a lack of music that isn’t just stuck in the pews and can work in other crevices of life. Music that you can have a personal, private relationship to, a different one than just on Sunday. I’m really wrestling with the extent to which Christian music can go on a Sunday. Can it really work in a rock club, both textually and texturally?
HR: Some of the focus of this site is the dialectic of hopeful realism. That our Christian faith has something integral to say to “the way things are” in its imperfect beauty and brokenness but also witnessing to the fact that because of Christ we live in an overlap with our hopeful future, anticipating and being pulled into that reality. Tell me about how that sort of Christian eschatology might play in the aesthetic of your recording projects.
JG: It’s always a constant fight to be super concerned with both the present and the future. And it is always a fight. You can fall in love with what you’re making and forget about the future. You can think about the future and forget your community and the needs of people around you. And for an artist, some of those needs are aesthetic needs. Handing people arena rock again and again and again is kind of like pulling the wool over people’s eyes. When you look at the bible, it is the most incredibly diverse book. The stories and styles, even the responses it warrants: confusion, frustration, incredible excitement, it changes your life, embarrassment. It is an amazing range and yet for some reason it is not always fully represented in Christian art. So when I feel like I’m most human and most spiritual, when those two really fuse together, I have to explore places I don’t really want to go or have been before, because I know they’re good for me. And I know that I’m going to have the same dumb tendency to find a hit song and repeat it twenty times. The people I most look up to, both on a human and spiritual level, are the ones where those two facets are tied together. Where they have an authentic response to the situations of life, like Jesus did. Where they don’t recycle things, live through the quotes of other people, the anecdotes of other things, they can be fully engaged in the present while fully confident and aware of what Christ has done.
HR: Tell me in particular about Funeral Song. Though nearly wordless, this song struck me as able to carry this weight, to epitomize this kind of bifocal vision. The title already betrays a grim reality at hand. Then there are nearly five minutes of instrumental before haunting and hopeful chorus. What did you experience that went into the making of this song?
JG: We had a crazy couple of years. There was a couple in our church who’s sister had a child born with cancer who lived for a couple of months and died on Christmas day. What are you going to say to that? About a year later, another couple in our church she had a miracle baby, born three and a half months early. He could fit in your hand and had like a ten percent chance of survival and is now a laughing, crawling, walking toddler. But got pregnant again and went into labor early again had twins, and they lived for twenty minutes. What are you going to say to that?
Meanwhile, my grandmother passed away this last year. She lived to be 101 and was set to turn 102 in a couple of weeks. So you have the most extreme lengths of life imaginable. And I found myself thinking about the way God sustains and takes people. Sometimes it is absolutely inexplicable. So the natural Reformed response is to read books on it and come up with a really smart answer and feel good about yourself because you did your homework. But I’m not sure that that’s always the best way to go about things. So this song was my attempt to be still and trust in the truths of Lord. And that’s where I think that music can step in, where words and books can’t.
I tried to tie it with the track before it, the Horatio Spafford track. Here’s a guy who wrote a hymn after his four kids drowned on a boat, the least likely response you’d imagine. I quoted his hymn in Funeral Song, but I didn’t want to do a big treaty on life and death, I just wanted to give an offering for people that would hopefully encourage them.
HR: You alluded to the things that music can do that text and typical ways in which we process cannot. When I listened to Funeral Song, I was reminded of something Bonhoeffer notes in his Letters and Papers from Prison. The repetition, but also the horn flourishes off of the baseline and standard movement, feels like how Bonhoeffer talks about Christ as the cantus firmus , which we hold to and, by the Holy Spirit, improvise off of. He offers that this baseline holds together the polyphony of life, the fragmentation on the verge of disorder that we experience around us. This song seems to make sense of the wordlessness we may feel at those times.
JG: I suppose you can get that in the Taize tradition, where you repeat a chorus. When you’re not used to it, you feel like you’re going nowhere. I had a funny experience visiting a local Greek Orthodox Church. We went to a day service, the guy leading the prayers repeated the “Christ have mercy on us sinners” portion a hundred times in a row. It was like a road trip: exciting, miserable, exciting… Musically, aesthetically, there is a time and place to repeat and just sit in it. And it’s not a stagnant thing, there are subtle changes. There is movement within the meditation. It is definitely something that was important to that track. But I thought a hundred times might have been too much.
HR: This record seems to have much more electronically manipulated vocals and instrumentation than your previous works. It’s interesting considering the content of the record, the ways you’ve taken “synthetic” music and managed to communicate the earthiness of these stories. Listening to some of the recent music that does this, Bon Iver, James Blake, or Animal Collective, they use manipulated sounds to communicate disintegration, confusion, alienation. It makes sense though; it’s rooted and earthy. In some sense, those songs and sounds can only happen now, describing the way things are. Right now most of us live virtually and realistically. So it would make total sense that real voices are run through Autotune over a real piano. We have a hard time discerning between “manual” and “automatic”, but at the same time emotion that results seems no less organic or real even though the ingredients have been manipulated and are obviously not completely “real.”
JG: People might not know the technical details of why that’s successful. But I do think they come into play. If you have a drum machine and you hit the play button and let it loop, there’s no fluctuation in what’s happening. There’s just a drone. But when you take that same loop and cut it up and manually paste it in, so that it’s slightly off. It immediately becomes that much more human. The way those guys produce their music, they treat the electronic elements in a way that a violinist approaches her instrument, so that it still breathes.
 Bonhoeffer Letters and Papers from Prison (Touchstone, 1997), 303.