Redemption Songs: The Music and the Journey of Shawn McDonald
By Jennifer E. Jones
It’s easy for a guy to feel insecure sometimes. You wouldn’t know it by looking at his album sales and nationwide tours, but soft-spoken Shawn McDonald is not entirely comfortable in the spotlight. “I’m not a person who likes attention and likes being up in front of others. I’m kind of quiet,” he tells CBN.com
It’s an odd description for the Sparrow Records artist who recently released Live in Seattle, a concert album where he plays many of the hits from his debut record Simply Nothing. Strange indeed but nothing about this Oregon native’s life is typical. Shawn is a walking, breathing testimony of how far God is willing to go to rescue one of His own.
It’s been almost seven years since Shawn saw rock bottom. “I can’t communicate how crazy I was,” Shawn says. “Who I was then and who I am now is like night and day. You name the drug and I was selling it and doing it. I was a confused kid, and my confusion boiled up into bitterness and anger. My life had become a hard, closed shell. I was extremely rebellious, miserable, and lost.”
No one would have picked him to be successful at life, let alone at music. He didn’t sing or play an instrument. Raised by his grandparents, Shawn was constantly in and out of jail, and his extreme party lifestyle was driving him over the edge. At one point, police rang up nine felony charges against him for drug abuse. Although he’d tried to mix his deadly habits with the spirituality of Hinduism and Rastafarianism, like his idol Bob Marley, he realized that there had to be something more to life. With the help of his college roommate, Shawn found Christ.
“What God has done in my life is amazing,” he says.
In spite of his inability to play, Shawn always loved music. After getting saved, he found the easiest way to express his feelings for God was through song. “I was sitting in my room. I had this old, beat-up guitar that I would learn worship songs on – just in the quiet of my own house,” he recalls. “That’s where it started, and it was very simple -- just chords. I never expected it to go anywhere else.”
Unbeknownst to him, those simple songs were the humble beginnings of Shawn’s remarkable music career. “It’s really fun and exciting,” he says. “It’s almost like you plant a seed. The seed sprouts, it begins to grow and out comes this bud. When you finish a song, it’s like that bud finally decides to bloom, and you see this beautiful flower. It doesn’t always happen that way but that’s the way I look at it. I think our goal is to make something bloom.”
Shawn still doesn’t consider himself a guitarist although his smooth urban-folk style of music would beg to differ. Shawn is among a growing genre of singer/songwriters (such as Paul Wright and Mat Kearney) who play hip-hop rhythms on guitars and sing with an honesty and vulnerability that’s almost uncomfortable. And yet, it’s a quality that’s clicking with fans.
“People never cease to amaze me. It blows me away when people come up and say, ‘God uses you to draw me closer to Him’ or ‘God saved me through one of your songs’. I hear that kind of stuff, and it’s crazy [to think] God’s at work and using me,” he says. “I’m just an average joe like everyone else. I’m just this kid that somehow, for some reason, God decided to instill some songs in.”
Shawn confesses that some of the stories that fans share are encouraging yet heart-breaking to hear. “I’ve heard some really crazy stuff. There was this kid in the Iraq war driving a humvee. I guess he was listening to my record when a bomb blew up underneath the humvee. So it wasn’t the greatest story but it came back to me that they found my record in the CD player. That’s just crazy to hear that people are being touched by it.”
Today, Shawn is one of CCM Magazine's "Artists You Should Know". With a solid debut that unleashed radio hits “Gravity” and “All I Need”, a brand new live album, and a new studio record slated to hit stores in the summer, Shawn is one “Sparrow” that’s flying high. However, staying grounded doesn’t seem to be a problem.
“It’s very humbling. Who am I to write something that someone else enjoys? How is it different from another? It’s random. I think it’s easy to want to take the credit for that [but] it’s a gift. It’s a miracle.”
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