True Folk

Derek Webb doesn't want any more fans. He's just going to make you mad.

Photo by Antonio Delgado

Derek Webb is one of the rebel voices of truth in the Christian market. Recently, I went to see him play his debut album, She Shall and Must Go Free, from beginning to end, along with his friend and producer Kenny Meeks. I had the great opportunity to sit down and talk to Webb, who many would consider a veteran – and wise – folk artist. I learned a lot from him about where we are as a church, as a music business and as followers of Christ from this one interview. Webb has a particular ability to reach people, and he certainly reached me. Hopefully, he’ll reach you, too.

You’re on a 10-year anniversary tour for your first solo record, She Must and Shall Go Free.
Yeah. It is a long, cumbersome title from an old hymn.

My friend who would pick me up to go to church and I, we would listen to She Must and Shall Go Free pretty much every Sunday for a long time. We were hardcore/punk kids, but we loved Derek Webb.
Well, there is a certain punk ethic to it.

The record has some interesting lyrics, like in “Wedding Dress” — “I am a whore I do confess / But I put you on just like a wedding dress and run down the aisle.” I was like, “Did he just really say that?” Was there any backlash to that?
It didn’t get carried by a lot of Christian retail down here in Texas for language and content.

What made you write “Wedding Dress”?
The spark of it was being at this conference in Atlanta (Ga.). Caedmon’s (Call, Webb’s former band) was playing at the end of the night in this big ballroom in this hotel in front of thousands of folks – all of whom made the choices about what gets carried in all the big Christian chains, all the way down to old mom and pop ones. All those stores could be called “Christian retail stores,” which is really just a marketing term. Christian stores don’t exist; stores cannot be Christian. But, for all these Christian book stores, retail stores – all these folks were the ones who made a choice about what gets stocked. So it was a really big thing that we got to play in front of them because, basically, you go to these conventions to sell your wares; you know, go in there and try to convince people to stock a bunch of your new thing or whatever it is.

So at the end of the night, right before (Caedmon’s was supposed to play), was this guy Bruce Wilkinson. Bruce had written at book that, at that point, had sold several million copies, called “The Prayer of Jabez.” I hadn’t read it, but I heard a lot about it. I was ready to go in and hear what it was about and be at defense of it if necessary. I knew a lot of people were talking about it and coming down on him pretty hard. I have had a lot of friends that get popular in music, and apparently that’s immediately grounds to hate somebody – just because they have success. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to hear what he had to say.

At the end of his hour or two of talking, I was just so disheartened by the lack of any kind of biblical truth in anything that he was saying. He took a very obscure Old Testament passage about a guy, Jabez, who prayed this one prayer – to our knowledge, only one time – and we don’t exactly know how God answered it. We don’t know what he got or much else about him, and (Wilkinson) extrapolated it into a formula that was promising God’s blessing for people. Regardless of your stance on Jesus or faith or spirituality of any kind, if you pray this prayer every day for thirty days … Anytime someone tells you, “Do this thing for this many days and this is going to happen,” you know you are dealing with a snake oil salesman. Those kinds of “formulas” have been around for forever.

You can convince yourself of things, maybe, by saying something every day for a lot of days, but you are not convincing God of anything. For him, on the back flap, to say this is what God always answers, he is putting words in God’s mouth that are not there. “If you pray for 30 days, God must answer you, will bless you and flood you with blessings in your life,” making this promise to people in this room. “If you pray this prayer, God will double the size of your retail store! If you pray this prayer, God will double your revenue!”

There was even an altar (call) for (Wilkinson) to pray for them that they would remember to pray the prayer every day for 30 days. He basically said, “Next year, when I see you at this convention, you are going to come up to me, and I can’t wait to hear the stories about how God doubled the size of your store or doubled your revenue. He is going to do it. He has to if you pray this prayer.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was so disheartening and discouraging, mostly because the folks that made all the choices about what got stocked in these bookstores were the ones buying into it. They were buying it personally. For the next couple years, you couldn’t go into a Christian retail store and not find the four editions: “The Prayer of Jabez,” “The Prayer of Jabez” album that came out that stars sang on, “Prayer of Jabez” trinkets of all kind. People took such advantage of it; it sold tens of millions of books, to my knowledge, tons of books based on something that wasn’t really in the Bible.

What I like to think is (that I first felt) righteous anger to see this, to see (Wilkinson) misleading these people who have so much influence over these stores, and then being applauded for it. I turned it back to me: “How do I pay for things I get for free? How am I the description of that women in Ezekiel 3:16, the most offensive language in the Bible? How am I that person?” So that is my first-person confession. That’s all got nothing to do with Bruce; that was just the kernel of idea that I then turned around on me.

How has that song stayed with you through all these years?
It still offends me to sing it, which is good – it should. If people hear that song and get offended by it, good, they should be. That’s the point. It is very gently and carefully extracted out of a part of the Bible whose language is very helpful to those of us that lived in the South a long time, for whom Christianity is a sin-management program. It might as well be an app or a game on my phone the way most people practice Christianity where I grew up. “Do these things, don’t do these, as long as I am doing more of these things I’m winning the Christian life …” The language you find in Ezekiel and Isaiah, it just leaves you nowhere to go. (Christianity) is not your behavior; it’s your condition. It’s the blood running through your veins. There is nothing you can do about it but run to the One who has kept on your behalf.

The point of the Christian life is not to sin less, but to repent more. As you do that, you will find yourself sinning less, that’s true, but that is not the point. … I hope the day before I am dead I don’t think myself to be less of a sinner, or that I have managed my sin, and I am not as sinful now as I was then. I hope to know more deeply of sin to fully repent it. The good news is that sin cannot be managed or that I can be a good person. The good news is that it is much worse than I could ever imagine. The depths of my sins are so complete and desperate that I have absolutely nowhere to go – but there is One on my behalf, and I can rest in Him.

If our churches don’t look like an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, then we’re not doing it right. If church looks more like an Amway convention than an AA meeting, we’re not doing it right. (We need to be like) the guy up front that gets up first and confesses his sickness. This guy gets up and says, “I confess it. Come with me and let’s all go somewhere where we can get help.” That is what AA meetings are about. If our churches don’t look like that, we are not doing it right.

So you’re in Nashville and you’re doing a Caedmon’s record on one side of town, and then doing your record on the other side of town.
Same time, yup. I mean, it was crazy.

When it was all said and done and it came out, did you expect the response you got from it?
I don’t know what I was expecting. I probably wasn’t gauging it too well because it was my first solo record and I didn’t have a lot to compare it to. I didn’t have a lot of feelings about what was going to happen. I had an instinct that I’d have some battles over the content. My main concern was the label understood and supported me and it did.

I went to great lengths beforehand to make sure that I was with the right people, (that they wouldn’t) apologize, but fight for (the record), and they proved they would. So for me, once I knew I had the label’s support, my wife’s support and the pastor at church I was going to at the time’s support, I was ready for anything. I wasn’t waiting to see what people had to say; I felt very supported. … I knew some people wouldn’t understand and wouldn’t like it. Writing songs that year prior … (they) were blowing my mind, blowing the roof off my spiritual life. I wanted to tell people this stuff. All the stuff I was hearing and being taught the year prior, I wanted to tell people. I was writing more songs. I was hoping, on the positive side, that it would be revolutionary, and I hope that it was.

How do you come back from a record like She Must and Shall Go Free?
I mean, honestly, I feel pretty constrained in terms of my abilities. I don’t feel I have made a lot of choices over the years; I feel like I get what I need when I need it. I just put my hands to the work. I might have been nervous about my sophomore record if I felt like I was in the position to make a lot of choices on what would be on it and what type of record it was going to be. I didn’t have those choices. I write 10 to 12 songs a year and record all of them. Then I won’t write for another year or two.

I’m really at the mercy of the lightning-striking spirit coming and giving me what I need. I’m not much of a craftsman when it comes songwriting. I try to sit and write songs and I can’t do it, and then all of a sudden 12 songs show up. I’ve never written an extra song in my whole life. There is no unreleased material. I’ve recorded every song I have ever written.

When it came time for the sophomore record, I figured well, whatever songs that show up will, I will record them and put them out. There is not much I can do about it, and that’s how it has always been for me.

In 2005, Mockingbird came out and focused more on your belief that politics and Christianity doesn’t mix. And “I Hate Everything (But You)” – that is such a great song.

I said it before, but I have somewhat of a punk-rock ethic, even though I never made that particular style of music. I’ve basically made every other type of style. Here is the thing: On every record, I am trying to make the best record of my life. Everybody should be making the best record of their lives. Every time I go to make a record, it is making a record of life or death. And if my life doesn’t depend on getting this out and saying and making these statements, then I will do something else.

Until I hit that moment when I am like, “This is it. This is the idea. This is the thing that needs a soundtrack. This is the thing in our culture, in our subculture, that no one is talking about that needs a soundtrack right now.” Until I find that, I do other things – until I hit that moment. I aim to do that every time.

I have managed to do it a couple of times. A couple of times, I have managed to make records that have proven to be special. Special – not big or popular – but meaningful to me, my tribe and my people, ones that have resonated with my tribe and people. I am grateful it has ever happened. It happened on my first record. It happened on Mockingbird and on every other record. I aim for that every time.

I am trying to make my best work every time. If I don’t believe I am doing that, if I am not making my best work every time, then I stop doing it. Sometimes people have gotten on me for saying things like that, for saying I am trying to make my best album. If I don’t believe that, why am I wasting my time making it? And why are you wasting your time listening to it? I just finished my new record; I hope it is my best work.

Better than (2012’s) Ctrl?
I think there was something really special about Ctrl.

Why did you do electric and acoustic versions?
Something to do with Ctrl, it was just so easy to mix up the acoustic version of the album for folks that wanted to hear the album. There wasn’t anything cryptic about it, just a different sound.

Why did you decide to put that out (for free) on NoiseTrade?
Just so people would have access to it. I felt weird if people already bought the record. If they bought the record, I don’t want them to buy it again. I mean, it was the same songs. So I thought I’d just give it away for free. It didn’t require any more work from me.

You’re doing this tour as 10-year anniversary tour, and I saw in an interview that this is the first time you actually gave it a proper tour. “Proper,” because when the record came out, you did a house show tour.
In the last seven, eight years, fork artists have been doing the house shows a lot. I saw David Bazan of Pedro The Lion when he wasn’t on a label. So he just did these house shows. Like you said, that’s kind of a big part of the folk-indie-rock community are these house shows.

Do you think you will do that again for another record?
I do house shows all the time. I will slice them in with other shows. There are some weekends we will book up a bunch of shows, but the cities are far apart. You don’t want to make an eight-hour drive, make a four-hour drive and another four-hour drive. What is that in-between city? I bet I have somebody who would put me up. I still do it all the time: I sit with 60-70 people in someone’s living room and play with no PA. House shows are still a pretty big part of my touring.

You said that you learned a lot on that tour, like about the community and church.
Generally, at house shows, anybody in the room can make as much noise as I can because I don’t have a PA. In between songs, you can interrupt and ask me questions. You can press me and press me on a point if you want to. You can do it at a normal venue, but normally they are more comfortable in a living room with no lights, no speakers.

After my first record, I was playing a lot of living rooms and people were asking me a lot of questions. People asked, “What about this one song that you used this language? Why do that? Why was it important?” There were great discussions going. Someone would ask a question, then someone would answer, then someone would have a thought about that question. I am just one person in that room; I am talking a little, but there is a whole discussion going now. I learned a ton about the record listening to people talking about it. I learned more about the record after I made it than when I went in to making it.

What is something your fans don’t know about you? A secret phobia, something funny about you that they don’t know?
If they don’t know by now … I have been doing this for 20 years. There is probably some reason it is an unanswerable question. If there is something I’ve kept a secret this long, there is probably a good reason, right?

What is your favorite thing to eat on tour?
I am a total Dr. Pepper fanatic. I drink an unhealthy amount of Dr. Pepper.

How is the reconciliation going with The Roots’  drummer, Questlove?
We are working on it. As of yet, there has been no response from him. I am shocked because he tweeted about our beef. He has talked about it, and he has been public about it, which is funny. It’s not like I know him. It’s this funny thing that happened, but I’m shocked, considering I recorded a Roots tribute song. It is like a love song to The Roots and Quest, who is one of my favorite drummers. It couldn’t be more of a tribute to him. It was made to sound like a Roots song. I was hoping it would be funny and well-done enough that he couldn’t resist it, that he would think it was funny enough to tell people to watch me and maybe even, yes, unblock me.

Would you ever consider doing a whole record like that?
I’ve had those moments on records. (That song) had that vibe to it, big time. I did it as a Roots tribute. I can do a lot of things: I can make an industrial, hardcore record. I can produce my records. I am a programmer. I know how to make records that sound like different things. Could I? Yes, absolutely I could. Will I? Who knows, man. I have made some kind of – I don’t know what you would call it – it’s like soul music, almost, but very modern. Like hip-hop soul music.

Our new CEO said it was very Justin Timberlake-ish.
Sure. I am a big fan. I love JT.

That kind of record would be well-received in the Christian market, although you don’t really care about the Christian market. I mean you do, but you don’t.
The Christian market doesn’t exist, but at the end of the day, I’m not a dancer. Can I sing that style? Yes. I’m not super-versatile, but I can do that. I don’t love doing that. The advice I usually give my friends is, “Be careful to never get popular doing something you hate.” That is an overstatement of the point, but if I put out a record like that, then I would be like, “This sucks. I am a folk singer.” Can I do it? Yes. Did I do it? Yes. Now I regret it because everybody loves it.

Part of my motivation for what I do is not for people to love me. That’s not even a concern of mine. If I was aiming to make a record that everybody loved, I could do that. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I know exactly the series of compromises I could make to make a record everyone would love. I promise you: I know how to do it. I really just choose not to. I get better sleep selling a few records to my tribe than selling 100,000 or a half-million records to everybody. I don’t want everyone bothering me.

You want people to forget about you for a couple of years.
I literally tell people at my shows: “Don’t tell your friends about my music. I have enough fans. I don’t want more.” I want to sell the exact number of records I have for the last 20 years. (If I sold more,) I would be on the radar and all these people would know me. I was in two airports today; no one knew who I was. I make a great living. I say what I want to say. I’ve never had any real success. I sell a small amount of records to my small tribe and I make a great living doing it. Why would I want that to change? I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want to be rich. I love my blue-collar living. I love selling the number of records I sell. I have the perfect amount of fans right now. I don’t want any more. Could I make the perfect R&B CD? Maybe. But it would ruin my career.

I was just thinking about making a full-on joke record.
Like I said before, I won’t spend four months of my life doing a joke. I will only spend the time if it is life or death. If it is not life or death, then I am hanging out with my kids.

That’s why fans respect you so much.
If I cannot do it, then I won’t. I can manage not to make this hugely successful R&B record. I will do it, rest assured. I promise a lot of other things will come before it. The fact I made one song and everybody loves it is further proof that I should never, ever make a record like that. I am not doing what I am doing for mass appeal. What I do is particular. It’s for a limited, small number of people. Those are the people I care about; those are the people I do it for.

I don’t want more people knowing about it. Don’t go telling more people about me. Tell them to forget this. I don’t want more fans. If more fans come, I will eventually alienate every last one of them. Not intentionally, but it’s the nature of what I do. Folk music speaking truth to power, or telling unfiltered stories of the people. In doing so, I will eventually agitate or offend every person in my tribe. Some stay, some go, other people take their place and I turn them over. For me and for them, that is healthy. Nobody loves me for too long.

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