Being True

Editor’s note: this interview first ran in 2007. The band has written and played music for over two decades.

Influential Christian band Jars of Clay has been making music for over a decade. They have won many awards including three Grammys and have produced 12 albums with 17 #1 radio hits. Their most recent album, Good Monsters, is said by many to be their best yet. An interview with lead singer Dan Haseltine gave Jupiter Index a little more insight into the music making process and inspirations for the latest album as well as the newest philanthropic endeavors the band supports.

Recent trends in the music industry show artists taking opportunities to give something back to less fortunate communities. Examples of this are U2’s ONE campaign, or the Live 8 concert for AIDS awareness. The music industry as a whole is said to have raised $1.2 million for clean water in Africa. Inspired by a personal trip to Africa, Jars of Clay decided to start the Blood: Water campaign. Blood: Water focuses on getting clean water and AIDS treatment to people suffering in Africa - Clean blood, clean water.

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Part of this campaign is the 1000 Wells project where the band raises money to build clean water wells in Africa. As of November 2006, seven African countries now have water wells. Haseltine talks honestly about Blood: Water, 1000 Wells and the inspiration of the album Good Monsters.

Meredith Barnhill: Who is your inspiration?
Dan Haseltine: Gary Haugen (international justice mission), Howard Zinn, Steve Garber, Bono, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King Jr…. Musically speaking, lots of 80's bands and artists.... I love the combination of pop music with intelligence and conscience a.k.a., U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Sting, the Police...newer bands like Arcade Fire, The Killers have also given us some permission to venture further into musical landscapes than we had before.

What is it like being at the forefront of the contemporary Christian music movement?
I have not paid much attention to the current Christian music movement.  When we write songs, we simply write about what inspires us, or what touches a nerve.  We see a lot of injustice in the world, a lot of pain, we have to process this through a Christian worldview, and so we write about those things.  But, it is God's work alone, to take the songs we write and bring them into a person's story.  It seems like the CCM industry has spent a lot of time trying to industrialize those kinds of emotional and spiritual connections between a person’s life and a song.  We can and will not manufacture those kinds of connections.  This approach helps us write without the typical, evangelical agendas attached to our songs and our concerts.  The "Christian" label has become an excuse for everyone else in the world to be dismissive.  I don't know any serious artists who do not despise the label simply because the label becomes a huge barrier that keeps most of us, either on the fringes or completely out of the bigger global musical conversation, and that is the conversation that is inspiring and challenging.  It is the one that makes us better artists and communicators.

What made you decide to become active in the fight against HIV/AIDS?
I think it was hard at first.  I did not want to have my life disrupted.  I did not want to be more conscious about my spending habits, my eating habits, my entertainment vacuum etc….  It does not take long to feel implicated in the suffering of the world.  It wasn't all the statistics, the big numbers describing HIV/AIDS, or the pictures of children with flies on their faces... For me, it was something in my gut.  It was a sense that AIDS was not simply a health issue.  It was an issue of justice. This disease was killing off the poorest of the poor; it was targeting communities that had become incubators for this kind of deadly invasion. But it was not the fault of the people in the communities.  It was all of the people who had resources and power that have stood by and not done a thing to bring the imbalance of wealth in our world into a better balance.

I needed to get my hands dirty, I needed to know the stories of people, and families that were wrestling with poverty, and AIDS... I wanted to see it and touch it, and then I wanted to make a difference. Jesus calls us to HATE injustice, and to respond mercifully. And that is what I wanted to be about.

Why did you choose Africa as your country of choice for your platform on HIV/AIDS awareness?
Africa is the continent with the poorest of the poor.  The amount of people living in extreme poverty is shocking. I fell in love with the people I met there.  I heard their stories, I walked in their villages, and shared their sorrow for lost loved ones. It was a reaction to friends in need. It was the real response to knowing. When we know, we will love. The people of Africa had taken my desire to help with a cause, and turned it into a desire to love my friends.

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Aside from playing concerts, what ways are you considering advocating HIV/AIDS awareness?
Concerts really are the tip of the iceberg. We have a great platform to speak on stage. But a lot of our work is to foster a transformation both in Africa and in America. Gary Haugen spoke about the work of Blood: Water Mission in America, he said that America is in need of a rescue, as much as Africa.  Africa's rescue is from poverty... our rescue is from trivia. We have been told so many times in our lives that we cannot make a difference, that our lives are mostly mundane, and that the best we can do is to live vicariously through movie stars and athletes. And so we emulate what we watch.

This is crap. We can do so much.  When I heard that $1 can provide clean water for one African for an entire year, it blew my mind.  I realized that this is something small that everyone can do. It is the first step in fostering a different way of reacting to our world. We make decisions every day that either take into account the rest of the world or not. We buy clothes from companies that use sweatshops in China.  We set our budgets so that every dollar is accounted for, and there is never any room to give when a crisis occurs. We spend as if we are not responsible for caring about the children sleeping 3 to a bed in African hospitals... We exist as if we don't care that people still have to walk 20 miles a day to get clean water... we want to help people make better choices.

What kind of support have you had for the 1000 Wells Project?
It has been an amazing campaign. We hear so many stories about how people used their specific talents and skill sets to raise money and awareness. The stories equate to a little over $1.2 million raised for clean water projects in Africa.  And again, the equation, $1=clean H2O for an African for an entire year is amazing.  We do not need to be overwhelmed by the huge statistics poverty has created.  We can think about one African, whose story is not that different from our own.  We can offer resources for one community to have access to safe clean water.  That is something huge.  If I am ever capable of putting myself in the position of an African, I truly would hope that my one life, my one family would be significant enough for someone to hear about me and respond to my need.  It does not take long to realize that we Americans feel very highly of ourselves... it would be a huge cry of injustice if we were not taken care of, why do we not see the rest of the world as being this significant, and worth our time and energy?

Did you draw on any personal struggles for inspiration in your latest album, Good Monsters?
Good Monsters is filled with personal connections. I don't think we could have written this record if it had not come from our own experiences and gut level reactions to them.
The record is trying to unveil the monster under my skin. I am a monster in my family, with my friends, with my fans, in my own head....  I want to exist most of the time as if there isn't some strange family member confined to a secret closet in the attic.  But every time a guest comes to visit... I panic and get scared that they will find out about my secret. It was a concern of the band for many years, that we not dig too far into politics, or too far into personal dysfunctions and addictions... but now after 13 years of making music, it was time to either write songs that were completely disconnected and ironic, or songs that were brutally honest. Honesty was much more inspiring.

Did you expect to have so much positive feedback for Good Monsters - like CCM Magazine’s Jay Swartzendruber calling it your “career defining album?”
Any time we finish a record, we hope that people will be impacted by it. We care deeply about our song craft, and so we want the art to be recognized. We did not expect Jay to love the record like he did, and we definitely did not expect CCM to give us such a glowing review.

How has being able to record and edit your own music with ProTools affected your style?
This was the first record that we did not do much editing.  We recorded as a band, and so we tried to capture full performances.  We have been seduced by the power of auto-tune, and waveform editing to fix any musical blemishes, but what we found is that it is in the happy mistakes and nuances of live music that makes a song feel and sound great.

When we stripped all the character out of the songs, the record became sterile and flat. There are lots of tricks, and lots of ways we can screw up a song.  In this season, we wanted to do it differently.  We did it like they used to make music in the 70's. And I think we will do it this way from now on.

Looking back on your self-titled album ten years ago, how would you compare your music and your message then to what they are today?
Our records sound a lot better now, both due to our knowledge base, and technology advancements. We still care deeply about the art of songwriting.  It is a craft that has to be fostered and nurtured. We never really preached from stage or cared to be an evangelical voice, and although our actions as a band over the years have been mostly consistent, I think we have learned how to explain ourselves better. We used to be scared out of our minds when people would attack us over the fact that our songs didn't say Jesus enough, or our show did not include an alter call. We knew we were absolutely uncomfortable being co-opted by the church back then, we just did not know how to explain it. Now we can enter those kinds of conversations with greater confidence.

by Meredith Barnhill