Is this your first experiment with fiction whatsoever, or have you ever done anything with fiction type stuff in the past at all?
No, I think it is the first whatsoever. I haven’t ever really written any fiction. Not every single poem ever released was entirely autobiographical. I think the majority of it was stuff like “Kaleidoscope” from Monologues that wasn’t about anyone in particular. It could be considered fiction, I guess.
For the most part, as far as putting together any sort of narrative or storyline outside of a more topical thing or outside of just a strictly autobiographical part of my life, Correspondence is kind of a first.
I know a lot of your past stuff has been a lot of personal outpouring and putting basically what’s on your heart into a poetic format. What was the difference in this writing process as opposed to other albums?
I still got to pour a lot of myself, my personality and my experience into the album as a fiction, but it stretched me as a writer to do something outside of, “This is something that’s happened to me. This is my angst.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I did three albums that way, and I really enjoyed that. This isn’t like, “I’m going only in the direction of fiction, and I’m never turning back. Never going to do anything but fiction anymore.” The idea to write this story popped into my head. Honestly, it sounded fun to me. It stretched me as a writer for sure. … I think I’m not in the same place. I’m not the same person. That’s life, and people grow. I had this (fiction) idea while I was in the middle of a tour. I was doing a lot of that old stuff and hearing a lot of other poets and writers, (and I realized) they were doing their own “life-woes” type of thing.
I guess that sounds mean, but that’s not the goal. So much of a writer’s stuff comes out of their personal experience, and it’s pretty neat because you have something to sympathize with and other people have something to relate to. But in the middle of this run, I thought, Hey, literally, I got this picture in my mind. What if I wrote a children’s narrative love story that had something to do with a tree house and the ocean? It allowed me to experiment with letting some of my ideas flow through different characters, which I guess every fiction writer probably does. Whether they feel like they have an agenda or not, it all comes out through their art. You’re a person that informs the art that you create. The fiction, I mean; there’s still a whole lot of nonfiction in my fiction. But it was definitely something new, as far as creating a whole world with these people inside of it.
You perfectly lead into something else I wanted to ask. You said something like there was nonfiction in your fiction. If I’m getting the purpose of what you do, those things in the past, at least, you use to inspire somebody who’s going through the same type of stuff. To be vulnerable, to inspire vulnerability so that people might recover from stuff they’re going through. Since this is different, in a big sense, what’s your hope for the impact to the listener?
If I’m going to be honest, regardless of how noble it would sound to say, all of my art, thus far, has been for the purpose of helping other people. That sounds great, and I want it to do that. Sure, you are strategic about the stuff that you put out, and you want it to be helpful. I do. I want it to be of service to other people and want it to inspire and all of that. But definitely when I started doing LTP stuff, it was like, these are journal entries I have I’m now recording and that’s it. I’m just doing it.
I wanted to create good art, and, by the Grace of God, a lot of people were able to relate to it. It has helped a lot of people. I have been allowed to be a part of helping other people, and hopefully inspiring them. I don’t think I necessarily see myself as a forerunner there, or as someone whose every piece of art has to be for the purpose of impacting my audience in a certain way.
But you’re right. Up until now, my goal has definitely been to release something I have tried to pour excellence into, and other people can decide whether or not they agree with that or not. I want to create good art.
One of the hopes I have for Correspondence, for sure, is to be able to give people something they might be able to connect with inasmuch as art goes. That maybe wouldn’t be interested in listening to Levi the Poet’s past stuff.
And it gets kind of tricky because I feel like the majority of the audience I have has been a Christian audience. I don’t know what the deal is, I guess. I feel like whenever Christian artists talk about expanding their audience or doing something to be strategic about engaging culture outside of the culture they’ve always been a part of — because that’s where people followed them or that’s where they’ve been placed by people — there’s a stigma that surrounds that. If you try to do something that’s even a little bit different, then people get mad at Lecrae for — “Oh, he must not be a Christian anymore.” There’s this weirdness about it. I’m no Lecrae or whatever, but I really respect that type of stuff in those artists.
I would like people who would otherwise not listen to anything I have to say (because of the explicit Christianity in the last few records) to be willing to appreciate the art that is there. And, hopefully, more opportunities will come out of that, too.
There’s definitely a place for that explicitness. I’m a firm believer in an explicit Gospel, and that’s great. But I also think it can be implicit in other things and I think good art carries over and is touching to people. It points to a good Creator, and I hope that’s what Correspondence can do. This idea of being loud without making a whole lot of noise. This idea of being able to interact with the people I actually care to interact with or care to grow closer to or care to be able to bring something to that is of value and worth that will hopefully point beyond itself towards the ultimate value and worth.
I really do hope that. And even that, in this interview — there’s a lot of theology stuff here — but even if somebody never comes to believe the things that I believe or whatever, I want them to be able to appreciate it for what it is.
I don’t know. Maybe people will be bummed there’s not a motive they would like to hear in what I’m saying. But ultimately I believe the direction I went was something inspired by the same God that inspired the other records. So I’m comfortable with it.
In regards to the actual content of Correspondence, first of all, do you have a favorite character, and, second, is there a character you think you align with the most?
Favorite character… I think there are aspects of myself in all of the characters. That’s a cop out answer. My favorite is probably the boy who is at home. He’s building this tree house for his love, who is away at sea. There’s a naiveté to him. There’s a maturity in the things he’s gone through, but there’s this childish innocence in him I tried to capture, as well. As we grow older, that’s something we long for.
It’s a nostalgic type of thing to consider and to think about. I really appreciate that aspect of this character. Unfortunately though — maybe this is being hard on myself, but it’s true, nonetheless — I probably relate most to the father. I don’t want to ruin the whole story. It really is a short story. The essence of the father’s character is that he is this idolatrous man who wants to chase this great white whale, almost like a Moby Dick, Captain Ahab character. He’s doing it because he’s fixed on it. He’s doing it to the detriment of everyone else. But this is the thing he longed after. There are these concepts of slavery to something, idolatry and worship of something, of negligence towards the things that truly matter, of indifference towards the way that his goals are affecting his daughter and their relationship. There are all these things… They so closely relate to the idols I know and see and recognize in my own heart. That I know, and a lot of them I don’t, but I’m sure other people see I’m blind in the same way the father figure was in the story of “Blind to his own.”
I feel like, a lot of times, artists and authors aren’t really asked this question, but what’s your favorite chapter in the story?
I’m trying to think of the names of the chapters. Hold on. Let me look it up here really quick (laughs).
I think “Orphan Theism.” “Orphan Theism” is Chapter Seven. If I have it right, it’s a track that talks about beauty that points beyond itself. The boy is writing to the girl and he says, “I have no idea what to believe but beauty points me beyond myself, so I know I don’t believe in nothing.” Then it concludes with the statement that says, “When I don’t know how, help me embrace the mystery.” That’s kind of a theme throughout, too. It’s like, if you can hear me, I would rather have you than all of my answers. In this idea, we don’t really get the answer to our “why” questions. For some people, that leads them to unbelief and despair, and I’d be lying to say that I haven’t gone into those places as well.
Me, too. I’m right there with you.
It’s a C.S. Lewis concept. He talked a lot about how he didn’t know what beauty was. He couldn’t reconcile beauty with his atheistic meaninglessness, because he always knew that it caused him to believe beyond that beauty and beyond what his mind could understand.
I thought that was such a fascinating thing, and that was also one of the thoughts behind doing this album, the idea of art pointing beyond itself to the truest thing. Not to mention, it was probably the most hopeful thing that I’ve written in a really long time. My family always joke about a track from my album Seasons that talks about how I haven’t written one joy-filled song. That finally ended on this album. This time, I’m going to be able to write some things that were truly filled with hope, filled with the joy I feel. Even though this record is somewhat of a tragedy, if you’re going to talk about it in a literary sense, there’s so much hope in it.
Switching gears, we were talking about how this was an album of a first for you. Was this your first experience with crowdfunding, and what was that process like? Also, going along with that, some people see crowdfunding as a cop out. Were you worried about that?
Yeah. I saw it as a cop out. I didn’t want to do it at all. I hated it. I hated the idea of doing it. I was annoyed I had decided to do it, and yet, for a long time, people have been challenging me to let go of some of my preconceived ideas about it. I think it was probably my arrogance just wanting to do it by myself.
The next year was a different kind of a year for my wife and I. We got into a house in Albuquerque; we took a lot of the year off to seek that out and try to get a couple things settled out here. We weren’t on the road as much, which translates into the income was not the same as it might have been otherwise. We had been well overdue for an album, and I had this concept that was written, but it didn’t really look that feasible for us outside of crowdfunding it.
We took a shot, and it was… I don’t have any words other than that it was amazing. I’m so humbled by it. I’m humbled by the people that wrote in almost exasperated, like, “Hey, thanks for finally doing this. We’re excited to have a part in something you could do.”
It caught me off guard. It took me by surprise. Other people had told me that was going to be the result. My own wife said that would be the people’s response, but I didn’t want to do that.
When I did, I finally saw people’s excitement behind it. It was a really cool and special thing. It had been a while since anything new had come out, and, as an artist, everything ebbs and flows, and you get to feeling really great about yourself, and then you get to feeling really bad about yourself.
It was cool, man. I’m really glad we did it. I’m really thankful for it. Honestly, I’ve never really invested in any sort of PR or anything like that, but the word of mouth that came from doing the Kickstarter alone was probably something that money can’t buy.
We tried to brand the entire thing around this idea of a story. I don’t think I ever called it an album. Maybe I did, but for the most part, it was like writing a story upon a story. I really feel we had so many people invested in this.
I did an interview earlier, actually, with a friend of mine at XXX Church, and we were laughing because he was asking me about the crowdfunding thing. There’s this idea behind it that the artist could crowdfund or you could just work really hard. We have never worked so hard on a release, crowdfunding or not. The crowdfunding was the most work. It definitely shattered a decent amount of preconceived notions I had about it. I understand you have to be sparing with that stuff, and I definitely still think there are a lot of artists out there I see abusing it, and that bombs me again.
Now, I don’t ever want anyone to think they’re being taken advantage of. I’m not going to speak for any of those artists that do what they do. Personally, it’s not something I feel like I would do every time or do them all the time, but it was a really special thing, which I’m just so grateful for.
I think your heart speaks for itself, and that’s probably why you got such a great response. Do you feel like you grew closer to fans through it?
Yeah. For sure. I struggle with this, too. A lot of artists are like, “There should be a barrier, there should be a mystery to your product, there should be fans and then there should be the artist.” I’ve never really been that guy. There’s a degree to which I appreciate the mystery in something, and there’s a lot of artists I would never want to meet or talk, or get really close to because it could probably shatter my love for them or for whatever.
I don’t know. Maybe that’s happened to other people now because of me. I hope not, but definitely through that Kickstarter thing, it was constant very personal communication with people. It’s a lot of daily updates. It was interaction with comments and messages, people having questions. It was Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, really shattering that line between myself and anyone else.
Yeah. I saw that.
For a minute, there was a lot of freedom in that, but there’s been this constant thing in the back of my head saying, “Why did you do that? What does it matter? Wasn’t that the thing people enjoyed?” I don’t know. I gave a lot of good reasons for why I did it, but I could see myself switching sides again. That’s something that was cool about getting to have those personal interactions with people through the making of this record.
This record is 100 percent different than any of the last Levi the Poet albums. There’s music throughout, it’s fiction, there’s no screaming. There’s just so much different, and I wanted to be able to walk people through that rather than just drop some random genre twist into their laps without carrying them through the change and walking through it with them. The crowdfunding thing allowed me to be able to do that, and I’m thankful for it.
Did you try to recreate your influences in your tracks, especially at the end of the album? I thought the music, personally, was awesome on the album. I loved it. I thought it added a whole new level.
Thanks. I can’t really even speak to that. I’m no musician. One of my best friends here in Albuquerque, his name is Alex Sugg, he has a project called Glow House I’ve toured with a few times. He wrote all of the music for Correspondence. He was a freaking genius. I know, of course you’re going to say that about who did your own album, but I love his music. I love the music he writes for other people. I didn’t give him any direction, really. I said, “Hey, I’m writing a fiction album. Here are the lyrics. Read them and write what you feel in it. Then we’ll get together and talk about direction and see if we like where it’s going.”
So he just had as much creative freedom as he wanted, and the soundtrack for Correspondence is what transpired. He just killed it, man. The stuff he wrote is uniquely his, and I’m blown away by it.
I think he did an incredible job. I would agree with you.
Yeah. It’s haunting.
Correspondence also had its own unique album art. Could you speak to that a little? Did you have most of the say in the art direction?
Yes and no. The direction, yeah. There’s a painter in Denver. I don’t know where you are.
I’m in Fort Collins, about an hour north.
Yeah, my aunt and uncle live in Fort Collins.
His name is Timothy Ryan Turner. He’s a painter. He did a show with me a year and a half ago, around Christmas time, so I guess a year ago. But he just read some poems in a show and showed me a couple of pictures of his painting on his iPhone. I was like, “That’s cool, man. Whatever” (laughs). Not “whatever,” like, he was cool. But I didn’t think anything of it, really. Then I started to follow him on Instagram and saw more of the paintings he was doing and fell in love with it. I love his work. It is so good.
Anyway, I called him up and he had mentioned he did some commission work back in the day. So I called him and said, “Hey, this is what I’m doing, I need five” — it was maybe even going to be more characters; we settled on five — “I need five characters for this album. These are the characters in it.” Then I sent him the story. Then he sent me a few old portrait photographs from God knows when that he was going to use as templates for the characters. So he spent his time doing that. They’re all very well done paintings on these wood blocks that he then shipped down to me and we photographed.
We’re printing vinyl for this record, too. I’m really happy with the way stuff is coming out. And we have more coming out, alongside the release in the upcoming months, too, which is exciting.
I’ve seen your live show once before. I know it’s not just an audio thing. It’s an entire — like you said — aesthetic experience. Since it’s Christmas time here in a few weeks, what’s your favorite Christmas memory or favorite gift?
Wow. Favorite Christmas memory. I’m sure I’ve got a decent amount of them. One that I can remember is, we spent the day cutting down our own Christmas tree out in the east mountains, outside of Albuquerque. That was fun but freezing, and it drove us all insane, because you had to cut it down, take it and then do all the stuff. Everything…
We get home and try to put the lights around the tree and a light bulb would be out and then the whole strand would be. Then my dad would get pissed and I’d get frustrated. My mom would be in the kitchen doing something and Brie, my sister, would be…Christmas is funny. I love it.
So we cut down our own tree. Maybe that same Christmas, my sister and I always slept together in the same room and then we’d get up so early and bug my parents. I remember, I had just gotten P.O.D.’s Fundamental Elements of Southtown album. It was my first introduction to any sort of harder music, like anything heavier than Creed.
As P.O.D. is to most people.
Oh, dude. So good. I hope they still are. But that album… We stayed up listening to a lot of P.O.D waiting for Santa to come or whatever.
I just like those memories with my family. We definitely tried to make it a family ordeal, read the Christmas story from Luke, every scene together. I really love Christmas.
If you were to get one album, even if you already have this album, from 2014, as your only Christmas gift this year, what would it be?
That was quick.
Dude, I love it. Every year, I write a top ten blog post and I post it publicly, but it started with a bunch of friends here in Albuquerque. We would all just share it among ourselves. So we always have so much fun with it. There are probably five or six of us in town that do it. We always ask each other about it, talk through records and stuff. I’ve thought about it all year. I’ve listened to a decent amount of new music this year, which, honestly, I hadn’t in years past. So it was always kind of a struggle even coming up with ten. But I loved the ’68 album. I don’t know why I like it so much, but it’s great. That’s it. That’s the album. That’s going to be my number.
A little sneak peek.
Unless P.O.D. puts out something as good.
Levi the Poet was posted on December 20, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by Nate Lake.