Moving Forward

Derek Webb's latest record opens a new chapter for the singer-songwriter

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Photo by Zach McNair

Derek Webb is not the kind of guy to focus on the past. He did that once earlier this year, with the 10th anniversary of his first solo album, She Must and Shall Go Free. He is focused on moving forward, and his new album, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You, opens a whole new chapter for the singer-songwriter. I got the chance to talk with him about the inspiration for his new album, his songwriting and more.

So we just interviewed you a couple months ago for the 10th anniversary of She Must and Shall Go Free. Ten years later, you’re releasing your eighth album. What kinds of things have changed for you, over those 10 years, and how have those things affected the new album?
Well, touring my first record over the last few months, and reconnecting with a lot of those songs, I was really grateful for all the things that hadn’t changed in 10 years, in terms of the content of some of those songs. I feel like in many respects, that first album, those songs, had been such a gift to me. I feel like it’s been a real gift to have those songs, to get to play those songs. I also realized a lot of things that have changed. For instance, when I made my first record I didn’t know much about who I was as an artist yet. I’d spent 10 years in Caedmon’s Call, but my time there, as a writer, I was only writing half of most of the albums. I was writing four to six songs on most of those records, so I wasn’t really developing my voice or developing my perspective a lot at that point. I feel like I was making three to four minute statements that were all fairly disconnected, one from the other. I really only had about three to four minutes with a listener, three to four minutes of attention at a time, and then there’d be a disruption, there’d be this other song that someone else wrote, then it would come back to me.
So I think there was some of that, there’s been a lot of learning over the 10 years about how to make more nuanced statements, how to make broader statements, how to write 10 or 12 songs that need each other in order to survive and make sense. So it resulted in a more nuanced statement. I feel like with the majority of what that I do now, I don’t feel like I’m interested, at this point of my career, in saying anything that I can say in 3-4 minutes. I like to take a good 40 minutes or an hour to say something. So rather than writing 10 songs and saying 10 things in them, I’m writing 10 songs and saying one thing. And as a writer, that’s just a different skill. It takes time to learn.

The other thing is that I didn’t really know who I was at that point. I didn’t know what path my career would go. I didn’t know how gratuitous it was, that some of the songs on my first record were there; and some of the trouble that some of those songs stirred up for me — the way that was good preparation for the rest of my career. I didn’t have any idea that when I went to make my first record that I would discover certain gifts for asking questions and agitating a little bit. That’s really part of who I am, that part of how I make art; it’s part of what I bring to it and why I do it. But I didn’t know any of that on my first record. I was really grateful to have a few songs that, to me, felt really honest and naturally sit there, but that did cause trouble for me. That trouble was a good thing, and how to deal with trouble, and how to put that into context was a really good preparation for me and for my record label, who I’m still with now, 10 years later.

So there’s a lot of that sort of thing. The more of that work you do — of developing your voice as a writer, figuring out who you are, what your perspective is, the role you occupy as an artist in particular — the more you learn about those things, the better the work is going to be. So I think that’s a lot of what’s changed.

Did the songs from the new album come from thinking back on that first record? What was the process with that?
Yeah. That’s a lot of where it came from. At the end of this last year, I had just come off of making easily my most ambitious and complicated piece of work, which was this strange, electro rock opera about the singularity. It was just the most complex — if it had been one more degree of complex, it wouldn’t have made sense to put it out as music. It would have needed to be something else. It took me two years to conceptualize, and make it and put it into the world. Those were amazing years. The time I put into that project, it was so gratifying and such an incredible ride. I was so pleased with what we were able to make and how close it came to the vision of what I wanted to do. And it just hit the market like a rock. It just dropped like a rock. Because a project like that requires so much attention currency, and attention is in such short supply nowadays. People just didn’t have the time or the brain space to dedicate to that project in order to connect to it or deeply enough to really love it. Some people really did and I was thrilled to see that, and they really got it and really resonated with it, the same way that I have.

My music has never been for everybody. My most accessible record wouldn’t be for everybody. I know that about myself. I’m not a mainstream success type of artist. I’m a niche artist. I’m comfortable being a niche artist, and I like being a niche artist. But this thing, Ctrl, Sola-Mi, was even more hyper-niche than ever before. Coming off of all that and thinking about the 10th anniversary of my first record, which was right at the beginning of the year; thinking about the questions that I was asking 10 years ago about my role in the church, the church’s role in culture; just thinking back on the album and when I wrote those songs and rehearsing them for the tour I was going to do … It did really get me thinking about those questions again. It got me thinking about the things that didn’t change, and the things that really do change.

I’m not that prolific of a songwriter. So when songs show up, I take note. There’s something coming; there’s something on the way.

 

I definitely was not expecting to jump right back in the studio. It was the last thing I wanted to do, because I’d been in the studio, working on or producing overlapping projects for four straight years. I was never not recording a record or working on a project, for four straight years, I was not out of the studio. And touring all that time as well. For me, I was looking forward to a break. And here I was, the first week of the Ctrl tour thinking about all the things I’ve mentioned. That was all the inspiration and answers to the questions I was asking myself; that was why I made my first record. Thinking about them, I was shocked to find myself writing more songs.

I’m not that prolific of a songwriter. So when songs show up, I take note. There’s something coming; there’s something on the way. So I was shocked to find myself back in the studio making another record that quick. And the songs were done and the record was just about recorded in such a time frame that I really could have put it out six months after I released Ctrl. That’s how close it was. So we decided, we’ve got this huge, ambitious thing we’ve put out that people are really not connecting to, or understanding, or having the time to understand. Even though this thing’s happening fast, even though the record is pretty much done, let’s give the market a breath. Then really make a plan of how we want to push this thing out, and be careful about it just so we don’t exhaust anybody. But I did not see this record coming.

So you did get a little bit of a break?
Yeah, after the record was done. But then there was this situation where the record was finished, and it was finished six months or more before the release; a really insane amount of time for those kinds of schedules. I typically deliver my records finished to the label the same weekend I put them up for pre-sale. It’s really tight, mostly. So this was a whole different situation. So then the temptation crept in, since we were so far out ahead of this one, we should really take that time to think through how we want to market.

Since it’s going to be a really important story considering the general silence that Ctrl was met with, just because of how complex it was. We really wanted to tell the story of this record, of why it was made, how it was made, what the content of it was, what I hoped it would accomplish. The fact that it was basically a follow-up to my first record, which is arguably the one that people resonated with the most. It’s a really good example of me playing to my strengths, as far as I can perceive them. So we thought, this is going to be a story to tell, about this record.

There’s something interesting about it. It’s a real disruption in my discography. The next thing I was going to do, if we’re looking at the records I’ve made in the past, this is not a very likely follow-up to Stockholm Syndrome, Feedback, Sola-Mi, Ctrl. This is not the likely follow-up to those albums. It’s much more likely a follow-up to my first album, which is kind of what it is. We wanted to take that time to tell that to market, and to my tribe, and build some of that trust. So we started working really hard on auxiliary content, some of which are the videos we’ve been releasing every week, the acoustic performances for a lot of the songs with brief explanations; give people some context for the songs on this album.

So we started to work on the storytelling component of the album, and that actually took up a lot of time. By the time we finished and had everything in place, it felt like it was as much work as making the record. It’s not work I usually get to do. Normally I’m playing so close to the release that no one’s really in a position to think that much about how we’re going to tell the story to the market. I’ve got my tribe, I put it out there, they buy it. That’s typically how that story goes. So this time around it was different.

In our last interview, you talked about trying to make your best work, every time. Each record has proven to be meaningful and special to you. With a title like I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You, it’s obviously quite special to you, so how does this record fit into that mold?
The main thing I feel like — If I’m trying to look at my career, look at my solo work, and all those records and what those trajectories have been and what pattern I’m trying to detect in that — to me, this moment feels like a really important moment. If I was looking at this from the outside, I would say this moment would be a very important one. A moment like this only happens a few times in an artist’s career. Especially for someone like me who is not interested in going back.

I’m never interested in going back. I’m not even interested in standing still. I’m interested in moving forward, all the time. I want to always be moving into the future, with the content, with the production, I am constantly evolving. I don’t like to do the same thing twice. My records are a testament to that. They’re all really different and there’s a trajectory you can detect as you go. That’s kind of always been my epic. On the content side, I’ve never accepted the burden of having to re-state things that I’ve already said in order to justify the things I’m now saying. Which I think has been a real source of confusion sometimes, between me and my people. When they hear me saying something that’s a little challenging, they want to hear me affirm things that I have said previously in order for them to know that I haven’t just jumped the shark. I just don’t do that. I’m not interested in that. You can’t make nuanced statements, constantly re-stating things you’ve said before, in order to say the new things. You’re not going to have any time to say any new things because you’re always re-stating things. I’m not interested in that.

I’ve got my tribe, I put it out there, they buy it. That’s typically how that story goes. So this time around it was different.

I would hope that my people would assume that, unless I explicitly recant something I’ve previously said, that I still agree with it and I still believe it. That’s the way I operate. I’ve never done that, or else I’ve been very clear about that. So for me, this was an odd moment. It wasn’t necessarily a going back, and it wasn’t necessarily a restating of things I’ve said previously, but it was a moment that I intuited to be important for me to regain some of the trust of my tribe — to stop monologuing for a second and get a little dialogue going again. I mentioned before that I’m specially gifted and wired to be an agitator, and to ask questions, and stir things up. I’m just good at it. I like doing it. But what I realized is that you can’t only agitate people. You have to also resonate with people, so that they stick around and are willing to be subject to the agitation. You have to resonate with them as well, and they have to trust you. I don’t feel like my people trusted me; I don’t think they were with me. But it was a result of me doing my job well.

So it was an odd moment. For me, I wanted to make a record. This time, in disruption to the production side was me figuring out a way to take everything I’ve learned in the last 10 years — I’ve produced my own records, I produced this one, I played every instrument on it. For me, I wasn’t interested in repeating myself. What if I could take all the different elements and all the things I love about production and the music I’m making, and juxtapose them all together? Bring them all together and to bare, in these songs. That would be interesting. That’s almost like a new thing now.

It’s not terribly unlike what I feel like the moment U2 was in when they went from making their three most progressive and experimental albums in the ’90s to making All That You Can’t Leave Behind. It was the moment they gave themselves permission to be U2 again. That was something they’d been running from, to some extent. But they did it in a way — even going back to some of the same sound, the acoustic guitars, the more organic sound — I feel the same way. Doing it now, because I’m so different than when I did it last, it doesn’t feel like doing the same thing. Even if I went back and tried to remake my first album note for note, it would sound completely different because I don’t even use those same tools the same way anymore. It felt fresh. It felt like a new thing, giving myself permission to do it again and to find that it really wasn’t the same. I really could do it again and to have it not be something I was repeating. The same is very true of the content.

I really wanted to, intentionally, not restate, but give myself permission to play to my strengths again. It’s been interesting and I’ve been able to learn from it a little. There are things that just come easy to me. Maybe they come easy because they’re the things I’m meant to do. I like a challenge, and that’s not a challenge. But this time around, considering how creative some of the work I’ve been doing over the last few years, with an instrumental electronic album about the Lord’s Prayer, and Sola-Mi, and Ctrl being complex just as they are, it was just so fun and liberating to write these songs and know exactly what I needed to say and exactly how I needed to say it. Giving myself permission to go back to that place as a writer. To use my own confession as a writer, that provides some disruption in a constructive way to spirituality. When I first started into it, I felt like it was going to be a compromise, and it wasn’t. It really felt good. This was a surprise.

One thing I noticed with the new album is “Lover Part 3.” Did you have the idea when you first wrote “Lover” that you were going to do three parts to that song?
This whole thing is so interesting to me, even to me, being the one who wrote the songs. It’s really mysterious to me. So I wrote “Lover” for my first record, which is a song about Jesus. It’s really simple. It’s five verses that kind of outline Jesus’ life. I’d never had a song about Jesus before, in 10 years, so I thought it was high time to write one. And that’s always been a song that’s stuck with me. I play it at most every show I play; I still play that song almost every night. Every so often you write a song and you feel like its a little out in front of where you are at that moment and it gives you something to strive for. It’s a gift that you get sometimes. That song always felt like that to me. That was clearly about the Son.

Then when I went to make my second record, I was working on this song and was working in some of the same lines from “Lover,” because it was a song that was still very familiar to me and I was playing a lot. I thought that would be a cool connection, to connect the song to that, just because it was such an important song to me. I’ll tell you the truth, my second record, I really gave myself a really long leash in terms of experimenting and explore more abstraction, with abstract language and poetic language. Not even feeling like I needed to know what the songs were about. Kind of giving way to that more mysterious side to spirituality. Where else, but in the arts, can you do that? And that song has always been a real mystery to me. The way we recorded it, the way it was written, it had these really mysterious things about it: lines that were constantly shifting in their meaning, for me even. And I really didn’t think much about it, but I called it “Lover Part 2.”

Then on this record, I found myself writing this song, and through the course of it — I guess after I wrote “Lover Part 2,” I thought, ‘I bet there’ll be a third someday.’ I didn’t know when that moment was going to happen, but I wonder if there will be a third. And it’s a good round number; it’s a Biblical number. I like threes. So when I started working on this record, I remembered when I first wrote the lines for that song that became “Lover Part 3,” I said to myself, This is it. This is “Lover Part 3.” I didn’t think much of it, but I was conscious of it. I was aware of it and I knew that’s what was happening. And “Lover Part 3” is pretty much the language of the Father, which I wasn’t even really thinking about. It’s just a song I wrote.
It wasn’t until a few months ago that the record was long finished, and I was talking to a friend of mine and it dawned on me. I had unknowingly written three songs, all called “Lover” and each one was about a different member of the Trinity. I had no idea I had done it. “Lover” is about the Son, “Lover Part 2” is very much about the Spirit and “Lover Part 3” is very much about the Father. Here I had written three songs all with the same title, about all three members of the Trinity, unknowingly over 10 years. Even to me, it’s pretty mysterious.

I, personally, as a fan, really enjoy the music you’ve done with your wife, Sandra McCracken, between the Ampersand EP and the TN EP. Is that process different than your solo work?
Yeah, for sure. Sandra and I have only done a couple of EPs like that. We had never had a plan to do stuff like that. When we met, we were both independent artists and had separate careers, and we wanted to stay that way. We never considered being in some sort of band together, although that’s pretty en vogue right now. We never wanted to do that, we always wanted to protect each other’s space, not mingle into each other’s careers too much. But help each other behind the scenes.

Then a few years into our marriage, we found that we had some songs that we had worked on together; which we don’t do that a lot. We don’t co-write a lot, not very much. They’re either songs we had, just a handful that we had written, or ones we had written with friends that just never found a home anywhere, that we just thought were good songs. … We own our own studio, so let’s record some of these songs; let’s record five or six songs. So that was a good experience, and we released it just as an EP for fun. That way, when we did tour together, which wasn’t often, we’d have some songs that were unique to that situation. (We were) getting a catalog going of songs that were our songs.

Then we didn’t have another free summer for another three or four years. So when we finally did, we more intentionally got together and wrote some songs for it. Then we pulled in a cover or two, another song that one of us wrote with a friend, but it felt more like something we did together, that we meant to do, as opposed to just something to do.

I think the great thing about making those types of records is they don’t have to bear the weight of all the seriousness of the main records you’re putting out as an artist. When I put out a record, it’s a pretty big deal. I work real hard on them; I craft all the statements I’m trying to make; I take it seriously. Sometimes there’s fun that comes of it, fun moments on the record, but not often for me. It’s pretty serious business, when I’m gearing up to write something or record something. When we’re making these EPs, there’s just no pressure on it. There’s no expectation; the stakes are very low. You can just have fun and write songs in a different way than you normally would. It just gives you the license to do something a little off the radar. You can do the stuff you might not even be able to do on your own record but just don’t because the stakes feel too high.

Is there anything inanimate that gives you a motivation to write?
Not really. I’m a pretty weird writer. I’m not a super prolific writer, as I’ve said. So I will write 11 or 12 songs a year, or every 18 months, and they’ll all come at the same time. They’ll all be related to one another. I’ll record them, and then I will not write another song, not a verse, for 18 months or two years — until the next batch shows up. When they show up, I write them, I record them, I release them and then no more songs until the next. That’s how it’s been for 20 years.
Even all the way back to Caedmon’s Call, that’s always how it’s been. Unless I’m writing just ahead of an album, and even then I cannot dictate. I don’t even know how long it’s going to be between albums, because I don’t know when the songs are going to show up. When they do, I record them and I put a record out. For a while, that was about every year, and it’s been wider gaps here recently. So I’m not a professional biographer, in that way. I don’t write constantly, like my friends do. I’m not disciplined about it. I don’t sit down and write every day. I don’t really feel like much of a writer in that regard. I’ve written a lot of songs but it’s a pretty mysterious process. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, and nothing really triggers it. It just has to be that moment. I wish it was! That would be terrible, if I discovered that a particular brand of pizza really inspired me to write songs. I could see myself becoming a pizza junkie and eating that every meal just so I could write more songs and put out records. That would be terrible. But I don’t feel like I have my hands on the controls.

You obviously don’t put yourself in a box. How do you continually push yourself to try new things with your music?
I don’t think I have to push myself to do it. I enjoy it. I do it naturally. It doesn’t take a push for me to want to do something really unusual. It doesn’t take a push for me to have a song and really take a wild approach as far as how I produce it or structure it. As Jeff Tweedy of Wilco famously once said, “I made it. So I can destroy it.” I can do whatever I want with it. I made it. That’s how I feel. It doesn’t take any work. It’s not something I sit around and think up, what I’m going to do next and how it’s going to be this wild thing. I just sit down and do it. I have natural instincts to not do something I have done previously.
I always want to move forward. If there are things worth bringing with me, I’ll bring them with me. In that way, I approach every record I make like it’s my first record and my last record. They all live totally independent of one another. Just because I’ve done this at this time, doesn’t mean I’m ever going to do it again. It doesn’t make any presumption that I’m going to do it again on the next record, I don’t even think about it like that. When I make a record, I get it all out, I find it, I document it, I release it; it’s done. So those topics, those songs, those particular ideas, that’s behind me now. So when I move forward, I’m looking for the new sound, the next sound, the next content. There’s no telling. I’m as surprised as anybody when I wind up putting out a new record and how different it is from the one before. It’s just how I’m wired.

Derek Webb was posted on September 3, 2013 for HM Magazine and authored by .