I first came across their music on a lark, one of those “fortunate falls” of internet browsing and music streaming that yielded a font of good tastes and great content that hasn’t let up since. You see Deeper Well, a recording arm of Door of Hope Church, fashions themselves as a “Gospel Collective.” They manage to heard some or most of the creative cats in their care to produce startlingly original, well perhaps not original at all, but at least refreshing, music from, by, and for the Church (and anyone else who’s listening). Led by pastor/musician Josh White (formerly of the Christian Anglo-invasion-philic pop outfit, Telecast, and Evan Way (currently fronting the sunny vintage pop act The Parson Red Heads) this motley crew has been busy, diverse, prolific, and generous in its mere two or so years of existence. The result is a wild panoply of scripturally rich, aesthetically integral tunes. Songs about mystical experience with the living God that beget Spiritual experience.
My entry point into their ever-expanding catalogue came by means of the outrageous cover art for Wounded Healer, a sort of coming out party for this self-styled collective. Many of the songs formed congregationally and became fixtures in their corporate worship gatherings. One listen and you get the sense that you’re hearing imminent throwback music, what hippies hoped for before they were tamed by age or hormones or the eighties. They pulse and throb with immediacy and playfulness.
Just when your ears begin to adjust to the textures, intricacies, and excesses of Wounded Healer, they put out Wesley Randolph Eader’s record, another favorite, but for completely different reasons. If Wounded Healer takes us back to a Jesus People commune, Eader’s record rewinds the tape all the way back to the Dustbowl. With the precision of Charles Wesley and grit and ease of Woody Guthrie, Of Old It Was Recorded takes some pretty familiar forms and incarnates them, indeed overflows them, with nothing short of the story of the Good News.
All this brings us to their two newest releases, all of which are offered as free downloads, a grace-gift to the public. In December 2013, they posted an album of reworked, stripped down in most cases, Josh White-Telecast tunes. Listening to these next to their predecessors really shows the original strength of their writing and how they were built. In some cases, the songs reveal a superior beauty not unlike a lady without her makeup. Fresh, innocent, and perfect not despite but often because of their blemishes.
What’s even more impressive is when one of these gems gets recorded a third way, given to someone else’s facilities, surrendered to their minor variances, and phrasing decisions. Take Liz Vice’s shot at “Enclosed by You” on There’s a Light (released TODAY 1/14/14!). Originally a Telecast tune, then stripped to its bones on Josh’s record, it might actually sound best out of Liz’s soulful mouth. The rest of the record effortlessly shape-shifts, like trying on clothes at a thrift shop or spinning warped LPs (mostly Shirley Ann Lee, Roberta Flack, the Staples Singers, and Nina Simone). You want to go back there, wherever then and there was.
I had the chance to chat with Evan Way, Pastor of Worship and Arts at Door of Hope about their approach and some of their hopes. When I spoke to him in November, I caught him in the middle of an odd stretch where he’d just returned from a trip to Manhattan to perform children’s music in a band at a church, and was about to go on the Portland NPR affiliate to promote his band, The Parson Red Head’s album release. Music. Faith. Bicoastal. Bipolar. This mash-up seems to characterize the church’s approach to music, and an offhand comment revealed something of the power of art’s ability and relation to the life of faith, “I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.” I asked him about some of those bands and some of that intersection.
Hopeful Realism: What are some of your greatest hopes in making this kind of art?
Evan Way: We just want to see music that is good, quality music that is theologically sound, Christ-centered, and scripture-formed. I don’t think we’re necessarily trying to just react to Christian culture, because even the lousiest Christian music can do good things. My desire is to see really quality music that can actually transcend boundaries of “Christian music” that someone normally might not give the time of day.
We’re created in God’s image, part of what that means is that we’re creative people who are naturally bent to need to create things and hopefully they’re things that reflect Jesus. As much as I’d love this music to be great for us to sing together in the church or for the people of the congregation, my heart is for those outside the congregation to hopefully hear it and have it speak to them in a surprising way.
HR: Making something that is musically excellent, that sounds good and has integrity, is pretty tricky. It seems to me that a lot of Christian producers and musicians don’t know what to do with the imperfections in music that, despite their technical error, actually give a song, or album or moment “soul.” Frustratingly, it seems like excellence, in Christian music circles, is usually equated with “perfect,” impossible, or fake sounds.
EW: Yeah, you really start getting down to defining what one person means by “perfect sounds.” Do I think those sounds are perfect sounds? No, I’d much rather hear a gritty guitar played through a crappy tube amp. To me that is a more real, more perfect sound. It’s really been important to us to not try to make these records into something that they’re not.
I know that there has to be more quality Christian music out there. I haven’t quite solved the mystery of why you can’t find it. Rather than solve the mystery, we just thought we’d try to make the kind of records we’re interested in and make them available.
HR: Why has giving away your music for free been so important?
EW: I never wanted to do it if we were going to be selling the albums. The idea is to be generous with the things and the talents we’ve been given…to say “this music is our gift to you.” Our business model has been to create music focused on Jesus and to give it away because it’s never been about us. It’s very dangerous, the moment you start making money. You start to think about a bottom line, and not what you’re making. Giving our music away puts your goals in the right place.
In this we’ve learned a lot from Josh Garrels and his music. He always gives his newest album away for a year. After a year, he “retires” it. This came about because he was making a record and having a hard time, going through a dark season with his career, and he said one day God told him, “if you love me and you’re doing this for me, then give it away for free.” He did it. And when he did he had more success than he ever did before.
HR: As a touring musician and as a worship leader, what do you find in common with those two roles? What’s different? What do you find you have to unlearn?
EW: When I first started leading, I had to keep reminding myself that leading worship was not like playing a concert. It’s tempting to forget that you shouldn’t be getting the same sort of attention or glory from putting on a show. There are a lot of similarities between the two roles, but in many ways they’re totally different.
It’s been interesting how leading worship has affected my playing with the Parsons. I’ve been focusing more and more about making that band about giving God control and allowing Him to do whatever he wants with it, even though its not a worship band. Everything we have we have because God’s blessed us. I view both as ministry.
HR: Is the music you’re putting out in these albums only possible in Portland?
EW: Maybe more than just being in the city, it’s the part of the city. Here in the Southeast part there are so many creative artists. There seems to be a real revival of faith and people really trying to live their faith out. I don’t think we’d be doing what we are without these people, not only musicians and songwriters, but visual artists, photographers, and filmmakers trying to use their gifts for Christ regardless of how the money works out. I can’t say that this could only happen in Portland, but I also can’t say that I’ve ever been around something like this before, anywhere else. A lot of things have come together and God has really brought people together.