Charles Carman interviewed Oregon-based Josh Garrels—American singer-songwriter, orchestral folk composer, hip-hop producer, and musician—and the two spoke briefly on Garrels’ history, the narrative nature to his music, growing up and the prominence of myth to his life, and the need for love of a city.
Charles Carman: Think back to Stone Tree, your first album. What first thought, question, or urge moved you to write a song, even if it wasn’t recorded for Stone Tree?
Josh Garrels: Earliest memories are like of [me] making little melodies. I think my personality is such that—some people like to be given (and this sounds negative) but like manuals or programs, or when it comes to music, like studying theory and composition and being in bands and orchestras and having conductors—my personality is such that sometimes that’s confining. It actually ceases to make the thing interesting to me. Music to me, still to this day, is this wide open landscape of potential sounds (and I have more words for it now as a grown person), but as a little kid I used to think, “oh, you can just make up melodies and sometimes when you make certain melodies it makes you feel a certain way.” So that was like just singing little songs.
My dad was a music teacher so there was always a pile of instruments around the house, everything from a Wurlitzer and drum sets to clarinets and old Casio keyboards. A big marker in my life was realizing you could record sound: I liked to make little recordings and then go back and listen to them. It becomes something outside of you then and you can listen to it objectively. There is a certain pride to it, like “I did that!”. This adds this new possible objectivity to what you’re doing, and you can let yourself be influenced by what you hear. Really early I had double tape decks where you could push record/play at the same time, then slowly made that more sophisticated by adding singalodeons with single loop tapes, then eight tracks, digital eight tracks and laptops, all the way to the studio I’m in now where I’m actually learning the stuff I never wanted to learn, like real engineering.
CC: Here are some lyrics from Stone Tree, the song “Ending”
Children running around
looking for the sound
buried in the ground
some are lost and found
waiting for the crown of the King.
There is this theme of looking for the king or waiting for Him returning. How did that theme begin?
JG: Stone Tree was before The Lord of the Rings trilogy on hit the big screen, so I didn’t grab it from that! [Laughter] There is a part of me that likes things that are epic, that’s why I think a lot of my songs go to these soundscapes that are cinematic, because I really like the epic storytelling.
You read the Old Testament prophets and the Revelation of John and you get that sense of the most epic story of all time coming to fruition. In that story, there is the returning king with eyes of fire. I have always been deeply affected by all of that, the poetry and visions of those things. I wholeheartedly believe that its not just poetry for an obtuse era of time. I’m more literal: “No man, he is coming on the clouds.”
I feed that into my lyrics because I had a radical conversion as an 19-almost-20 year-old with nothing much previous to that—there was always this sense that this is real. I always had a sense of ” I will follow that King.” I can’t help but sing about those things knowing, at times, they have narrow appeal. When you start talking about those things, it’s distasteful for some.
CC: For most people, Kings and Kingdoms, they’re cool like fantasy is cool or myth is cool, but just a metaphor. How do you try them substantial?
JG: I think that’s what I’m trying to do: take a thing that is considered fantasy or entertainment, or it is scoffed at because of the crazy dude on the corner shouting out like “End Time’s” things—it’s the caricature of a hateful, wild-eyed dude who thinks he is a prophet but really he’s leaving a wake of hurt people around him. I can’t tell myself this isn’t real, but I’m an inclusive guy (and I actually think the story-line [of king and kingdom] is inclusive), so the challenge is: how can I put them forth in a way that is not watering down or compromising or making something less than to build it up to even greater?
CC: You tie the kingdom concepts to lyrics about earth, heaven, and resurrection. In Stone Tree’s “Going Home,” a very slow paced, slowly ascending song, we are going home to be with Christ. Then in Jacaranda you have the wonderful “Zion & Babylon” where you bring it down to a mountain, Mount Zion, and in Love & War & The Sea In Between, you have “Revelator,” where he is coming down to make war and peace with man and reign on earth. So there has been a slow bringing-down-to-the-ground of this reign. Is that something you had in mind to begin with?
JG: I never thought about that to be honest, that progression. In thinking about it now, though, I had Stone Tree, which was 11-12 years ago
JG: I was in my early twenties in the middle of a radical conversion, pretty zealous with the change. It was special and innocent in a good way because I came up with all sorts of steeped counter culture: skateboarder, drug, art, hip-hop and indie rock, which felt pretentious and hierarchical—who’s in and who’s out. To be a Christian was a totally non-cool, but life-changing event. So with Stone Tree, I really felt the freedom of it. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone, or get on a label, or be a worship pastor. When I became a believer,I think my head was still twenty-something unattached, very “everything is spiritual.” When you’re that age, you can afford to live a detached, ephemeral lifestyle. Now I’m a husband and father of three, a homeowner, and I’ve calmed down and think more of “the hope of the future”, wondering how that’s present and alive in our present wounded, hard-knocked situation? How do I find peace and contentment in an unideal situation, because I’m not going to run from this. “How do you find Him in the mist of darkness?” That seems to be the progression.
CC: “SISU” from Over Oceans  goes:
By the word and command
mortal man can stand
Son of Man is manifest in the flesh
and the bone and the rocks
and the valley of the dead
the dry bones are gonna walk and talk
to the rhythm of the saints y’all
to the rhythm of the saints.
What is required of the saints today?
JG: From what I’ve seen from my generation, I think [pause] there is the real simple answer: just to believe. To quote one of my lyrics: “holding fast to the anchor.” I think that is the simple answer. That can be pretty obtuse, though.
Because we live in time influenced by pocket-accessibility to mass media streaming in real time, I think it makes it easy to follow every word and wave of what’s happening (and really I’m talking about myself, too). We’re really distracted.
How do we hold fast and stick to the anchor, not only Christ, but also things central to our being? I’m tired of arguing about the non-essentials. I think our generation is in danger of letting go of some core doctrinal beliefs like the identity of Christ, what the Gospel actually is, which requires something of you.
CC: This is shifting gears really quickly, entirely actually. Thank you, though, for talking about saints. In “Resistance” and “Zion and Babylon” and several other songs, there is a call to overcome through peace and love. You played “Zion and Babylon” at your New York show, which was very affecting because of all the ways NYC compares to Babylon. What does living as a saint in New York (and big cities in general) look like?
JG: One of the preachers I have been listening to quite a lot over the last few years is Tim Keller. He has a great sermon on The City. Living in Portland, my work over the past decade was very nature oriented … people really connect to that, and it will always be present in my work. Portland is the first place I’ve actually felt called to be somewhere, and as it happens, I’m in an urban core of the city, which is much less of an urban core then New York, with Keller’s teaching is helping me think about what that means. In my heart of hearts, I would love to live on a house on a hill in the in the country with wide open expanses—that’s what I want, because I’m ministered to by it. But people are in cities. That’s where cultures are these cities like New York and LA, and to a lesser extent Portland. You get the sense there are a lot of hurt and broken things in cities, the reasons I don’t want to live one. But those are the very reasons we should be there. During the plagues of the Medieval period, it was the Christians who stayed in their cities, getting sick themselves. They stayed and took care those dying.
My heart and my love is in the country because something feels pure and noble and good there, but at the same time, obedience draws me to cities, which are full of cultures that are interesting and fun. I always swore I hated New York. Since having this revelation that cities are where people are, where the need is, I’m growing to love New York.