BETWEEN THE LINER NOTES
Bebo Norman: Broken But Beautiful
By Chris Carpenter
CBN.com Program Director
Bebo Norman has spent 17 years building a music career that has included a climb to the pinnacle of the Christian music industry, a multitude of adoring fans, and a commitment to spreading the Gospel in song. Why then did he find himself unable to connect to his faith when work began on his latest studio album Lights of Distant Cities?
I recently sat down with Bebo to discuss this spiritual desert experience he went through in making Lights, why he chose to move away from his musically vulnerable style, and the concept of working through our desperation to find recovery through the mysteries of faith.
Your new album, Lights of Distant Cities, is an interesting one to say the least. It seems to have the same old Bebo Norman lyrics that people have grown to love. But the arrangements are sort of atmospheric with a nod to old U2. How would you describe it?
It’s so funny that you say that, because that’s exactly what I tried to tell somebody the other day. I was like, “What’s funny about this record to me is that it feels like it goes in a different direction to me in a lot of ways, but it also feels like it kind of comes full circle back to sort of old school a little bit for me in some ways, and so I don’t know.” And they said, “Well listen, if something feels new and nostalgic at the same time, that’s a good sign.” So anyway, that’s how they described it which I love. So, it’s really funny. It’s cool to hear you say that.
I hear hints of Coldplay in there, some old U2, the Cure, but yet it’s wrapped around you, the same singer/songwriter that we’ve known for years. Was it a conscious decision to go this route?
You know what? It was not a conscious decision. What was conscious is that I made this record with my buddy, Gabe Scott, who has toured with me. He’s been my band leader for 10 years now. But what we decided early on when we made this record is that we wanted to be very, very true to the songs themselves. In other words, let everything still revolve around the songwriting, which is kind of what I’ve always done, but to try our best to create a record that really was something that we kind of wanted to hear, if that makes any sense. Sometimes you start to think about what people want to hear rather than just creating something that really feels right. Or you think in terms of what may sell rather than what just feels right.
So, Gabe and Ben Shive (co-producer) thought through this idea of building these musical landscapes and creating these musical beds that represented the emotion of the song whether you heard the lyrics or not. That’s kind of where we started and just decided that wherever that took us genre-wise, then that was going to be fine.
I understand that in the lead up to this album, you were having some difficulty in connecting with your faith, and perhaps were having a dark night of the soul so to speak. Can you elaborate?
The best way I can describe it to somebody, and truthfully it’s one of my greatest fears—and I’ve even written about it in songs before—but in my song “Ruins” it says, “I have no fear of height or depth. I have no fear of falling. The simple thing I fear the most is simply feeling nothing.”
And I think that the way I’ve described it to people before or recently has been to say that I felt that on a spiritual level I had slipped into this place where I just felt somewhat emotionless spiritually. And I don’t live under this false pretense that our faith is based on what we feel in that it’s all about what we feel. I mean truth is truth and God is God regardless of how my emotions ebb and flow. But I had just been in a season where for so long I just was not feeling moved by God. That sometimes happens in our lives. We kind of ebb and flow out of those emotional seasons, and it just felt like a really long time. And, honestly, for the first time I had this fear that I wouldn’t feel, that I wouldn’t be stirred, my spirit wouldn’t be stirred by God again. So the truth is that’s how I started writing all these songs. They were really written out of that place, in terms of their origin, of just saying, “Well, here’s where I honestly am, so I’m going to start writing from this place and, not necessarily even knowing whether God would show up or not.
As I get older I see the reality of the world that seems very dark a lot of days and a world that feels like love is not winning. That started taking over in a way where I just was convincing myself every day that to just believe because I know that it’s true. Believe because I know it’s true, and I just started praying for God to remind me that it’s true in my spirit and not just in my head. And what ended up happening over the course of writing this record is that that it ended up happening in a really profound way, in a really emotional way, too, in the middle of the writing process.
What served as the turning point to kind of bring you out of this period in your life?
Honestly, and it’s something a little bit odd to talk about. It’s just something that I had never really done before, but I was emailing with a group of friends of mine, all friends from college, and one day I just kind of broke down and unloaded all of these fears and thoughts that I had about faith and where I was emotionally and spiritually. One of my friends emailed back and said, “You know, you need to go into the wilderness and fast and pray until your body is as empty as your soul.”
In that moment I read it, I just wept almost immediately, which was an emotion in and of itself right on the spot. And I had never fasted before. I’ve never done anything like that. I’ve really never even taken a solitude retreat. My world is either in my family, my community, or with a bunch a strangers every night playing shows. I’m always with people. And so I actually put it on my calendar. I called my booking agent and said, “Okay, this is a weekend that you can’t book anything,” and I went down to a little place in Georgia on a lake and was completely by myself -- no TV, no food, no internet, no music, no nothing for three days. And for the most part, I just felt hungry and bored. In the eleventh hour though, God just ended up really moving in a very simple way. For the first time in a long time I just trusted and realized that God is God and that all things work for the good of what He’s planned.
I’ve listened to Lights of Distant Cities several times and most of the songs on the record seem to be about desperation and recovery, darkness and light. What was your inspiration to include some of these contrasts, sometimes within in the same song?
That was the great irony. I think that’s what made this record so interesting to make, because it’s kind of the difference. I’m a very slow songwriter and in this particular case, I started out writing all of these songs and the lyrics are always the last thing that I finish. And I started out writing the lyrics, and then the songs. The inspiration for all of these songs came in that season of real desperation, of real darkness, and that’s where they were started. So, you can almost imagine the songs were all half written, and they were kind of structured. They were sort of songs in utero, I guess.
For me, a song where this is really evident was “Collide.” Can you take me through how that song came to fruition?
It’s actually the first song that Gabe and I have ever written together, which is ironic in and of itself. We’ve been great friends for close to 15 years. We’ve toured and traveled full time together for 10 years. The interesting thing about that song is that the only real sign of hope in it is the last line. You go through the whole song, and it’s kind of this desperate song, and the last line says, “But still you say you’re mine.” And what’s funny is that that last line is really the only line that we had not written before. I had not finished the lyrics. When we started working on it, I just said, “Here’s the deal. This is where I am. I don’t know how to write it out of anything else except for this desperate place that I am right now.” And so, Gabe said, “Well, then let’s write it. Let’s write from that place, and we’ll just let it go where it goes.” So we did, and that’s where it went. It’s real strange but it’s probably my favorite song on the record. It’s my favorite because it’s just such an honest song. It was written from that place of having watched all these kingdoms in my life that I try to build, that I try to replace God with, and I try to find value in life out of it. I’ve watched them all rise and fall, music being one of them.
“How long do I have to wait before grace and gravity collide? I’m asking you all these questions, and yet God still says to me, “You’re mine.”
It was a matter of God just very calmly reminding me in a very beautiful and emotional way that He is God and I am not. There is so much good in that, that he is God and He is good in the middle of a dark world.
What’s your greatest hope for Light of Distant Cities? What do you want people to get out of their listening experience?
I want people to hear what you described. I want them to hear what the perfect act of worship is. The perfect act of worship for me has desperation and hope in it, because I feel like if it’s all one or the other, then you’re missing some key component. What I hope people hear out of this record is that contrast between desperation and recovery, and to realize that right in the middle of a difficult and a dark world there is indeed a God who is very good and who is working things to completion. There really is a beautiful story being told.
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