Andrew Peterson: The songsmith reminding us dragons can be beaten

Sunday 29th April 2012

Tony Cummings brings us up to date on best selling singer, songwriter and author ANDREW PETERSON

Andrew Peterson
Andrew Peterson

When in 2008 Cross Rhythms last reported on singer, songwriter and author Andrew Peterson he had recently signed with Centricity Records and was about to have published the first of a four-book series of fantasy novels for young adults The Wingfeather Saga titled On The Edge Of The Dark Sea Of Darkness. Since then Andrew's career has had a remarkable upturn. His 2010 album 'Counting Stars' has been acknowledged by critics far and wide as one of the best albums of the decade while The Wingfeather Saga has been a major success with the second and third novels North! Or Be Eaten and The Monster In The Hollows bringing Peterson an ever-increasing throng of readers. When Cross Rhythms caught up with the renaissance man from Monticello, Illinois we began by asking him how he developed parallel careers as musician and author.

"Basically what happened is I'm a guitar player who's a nerd. I grew up loving books, loving stories. I realised, probably when I was about 14 or 15 years old, that the girls were more into guitar players than fantasy novelists. My dream when I was a kid was either to write fantasy novels or be a Batman comic book illustrator. I sent a letter to DC Comics informing them of my intentions, and could not figure out why they didn't write me back. I fell in love with music, then I guess it wasn't until about eight years ago when my kids were young that I read them the Narnia books and it reawakened that love for storytelling."

So how did the bookwriting commence? "It's definitely not something you do by accident. I had to have a pretty serious conversation with my wife about it. She's always been a big cheerleader of mine, and blindly loves whatever I do. But I also knew that writing a book is a very demanding process: it was going to take a lot of time away. She agreed, she knew how much I loved to do this kind of thing, and believed that I could do it if I tried. For the first book I just did it in my spare time, whenever I was not soundchecking. I decided to stop watching American Idol at night and work a few hours a time on the story. I just believed deeply in the importance and the power of good stories, and I wanted to try my hand at it."

So what career goals does a nerdy musician/author set for himself? "Honestly, I get the most satisfaction when I'm doing a concert, and after the concert is over, when I'm signing autographs, there'll be a 10 or 12 year old boy or girl, and they're holding a really beat-up, dog-eared copy of my book. I can tell they've read it twice. It feels to me that I've been granted access into the Holy of Holies. My imagination has been allowed access into this really precious chamber in the heart of the child. I'm moved by that every time: I get a big lump in my throat. That's what I'm after. That's fertile soil, and it's a precious place. I feel like I'm able to believe that the Gospel is true when I feel the most like a kid - so if I can enter that world, keep that part of me alive and healthy, then I feel like I'm closer to the heart of God. I know that sounds maybe ridiculous, too theological, but I've thought about it, what is it that pulls me, and I think that's a lot of it."

Andrew Peterson: The songsmith reminding us dragons can be beaten

Cross Rhythms suggested it's easier to write three minutes of song than 350 pages of book. "It's hard in a very different way. I think songwriting is about patience: when you write a song, you've got to do the work of going to the pond and casting your line into the water and hoping to catch a fish. It's about the flashes of inspiration you chase downwards. With book-writing, it's not patience, it's endurance: sitting down every day and writing whatever comes out, and not giving up for three, four months. Songwriting is about sitting around at night till four in the morning with my guitar, hoping that something comes."

As if Andrew didn't have enough to do, he is also the founder of the Rabbit Room, a conference, retreat and website that brings together in Nashville a wide range of people involved in the creative arts. Past guests have included novelist Walt Wangerin, singer/songwriter Jason Gray and Sally Lloyd-Jones, the lady behind The Jesus Storybook Bible. So how did the Rabbit Room come about? "Well, you have to admit it's a pretty weird word. When I visited Oxford the first time, I went on my CS Lewis pilgrimage and ended up at the Eagle And Child pub, where Tolkein and Lewis and their buddies would write. The room they hung out in was called the Rabbit Room. Nobody had mentioned that: I'd never read the name, it was just on the door. So I came back to the US, bought the domain name, and created an online version of the backroom of the pub. I invited a couple of authors and songwriters and visual artists to take part in a conversation."

So is he trying to reinvent CS Lewis' renowned pub gatherings, The Inklings? "I'm trying to. I'm fascinated by that community. There's something to be said for the fact that out of this friendship grew these enduring works of literature that are actually written by Christians. Nashville is a lot like that: a community of people that are drawn to the town with a love for art and music, and a lot of them happen to be Christians. If I can foster a good, rich community of people who appreciate good art and love Jesus, then something good will happen. The Rabbit Room is an attempt at emulating those ideas."

On the radarradio website Andrew spoke about his album, now considered a classic, 'Counting Stars'. "[The title is] a reference to Abraham, the famous story about God taking Abraham outside and saying, 'Look up at the stars, count them if indeed you can, so shall your offspring be.' It's this outlandish promise that God gives a guy who had a hard time having kids at all. Abraham is a character that has shown up many times in my music, I keep coming back to him for some reason. Basically it came from a line in one of Ben Shive's songs called 'God Of My Fathers'; the line is, 'Now we're counting stars, and counting sand, little feet and little hands/We're counting joys.' He's talking about his growing family in the song. I noticed that phrase 'counting stars' and I thought it was so beautiful because it so perfectly tied together the two halves of the record.

(l-r back row) Cason Cooley, Ben Shive, Andy Gullahorn; Andrew Peterson (front)
(l-r back row) Cason Cooley, Ben Shive, Andy Gullahorn; Andrew Peterson (front)

"We didn't really set out make the record have two halves or anything - or two sides if you will. But a lot of the songs ended up being about family, and community, and place. And this idea that, we as the Church are the flesh and blood of the promise God gave to Abraham thousands of years ago. It's a pretty profound thought if you really think about it. And so, 'counting stars' was perfect in that way. But then the back half of the record is where it gets really kind of dark in places and there's a lot of despair. And I don't really know where that came from, except that it's just what I've been feeling like last year and leading up to this record. So there's more than one song about suffering and the hard battle to maintain hope in a world that is dark. I was watching - this is where I really nerd out - the extended edition of The Lord Of The Rings, with my kids no less; and, not just the extended edition, but the extra features on the extended edition. There's some Tolkien scholar on there and he's talking about despair. He says, 'Despair isn't just a sin theologically speaking, despair is just a mistake. To despair is just a mistake. Because to despair is to assume you know the end of your story, and that's impossible for any human to know. We don't know how our story is going to end.' So, there's always, always cause to hope, even if it's just the tiniest flicker of it. Which then made me, in my mind, go to one of the passages in The Lord Of The Rings, this beautiful passage, where it says that Sam looks up at the sky and the clouds part just enough to let a star twinkle through for little awhile, and it says that hope returned to him. 'The thought came to him, clear and cold, that there was light and high beauty forever beyond the reach of the darkness.' That idea that there is this light and high beauty that surpasses, that's eternal, that our hope is in that. And the stars are this perfect representation of that kind of meaning. And so 'counting stars' was a good way to sum up both halves of that idea."

'Counting Stars' contained, of course, a major Christian radio hit with "Dancing In The Minefields". Andrew spoke of his unexpected return to the US Christian radio playlists. "I think it's hilarious. Yeah, it's been kind of a struggle for me because I've put up defences over the years. You know, I had a couple songs 10 years ago or so that did really well on the radio. That was a lot fun and I made a little bit of money off it, and it was really great for my career, it exposed my music to a ton of people. And THEN comes the second record where there's pressure - like, oh, you have to try and write another single. And so I don't succumb to the pressure and sell out to write a single, but I did write songs that were similar to the spirit of the songs that were on the radio the first time, and it just never worked really. That kind of stung a little bit and it was frustrating; so I just made a very conscious decision after my second record to no longer care. I made a decision, I told my wife, and told my manager, from now on I don't want to know how many records I've sold. I don't want to know how many stations are playing the song, because if I have that information, then I'm going to think about it. What I want to be thinking about is building the Kingdom. What I want to be thinking about is my wife and my children and the people around me, keeping my nose to the grindstone and really trying to work to write good songs. Whether or not they're going to be played on the radio should be on the bottom of my list of concerns. It was hard for me, because I'm weak in that way - you want approval, you want this kind of. . . success. So I just stopped thinking about it all together. We would put out an album and I'd think, I wonder if this one will be played on the radio, hope it does. But when it wouldn't, I wouldn't be surprised or hurt by it. So, it's been really fun.

"The nice thing about having done music for this long is you know this stuff is so fleeting, that you can enjoy it for what it is. It's like candy. This is the cherry on top of the cake that you're eating - it isn't the cake. So I'm just so thankful when it does happen. The irony to me is this is the one song on this record that I wrote in the shortest amount of time and I wrote it for my wife because we got in a fight. It would have never crossed my mind that this song would ever have gotten played on the radio. So, every time I hear that another station has added it, I'm always so delighted and surprised. I'm kind of thinking, Well, what do I know? I don't know anything. The trick is to keep writing the songs and maybe people resonate with them."

Today this human dynamo is as busy as ever. he has now made a start on writing the final book in The Wingfeather Saga and The Warden And The Wolf King should be published by Waterbrook Press, a subsidiary of Random House, later this year or early next. Andrew has also recorded a new album. It was produced by Andrew's long-time collaborator Ben Shive (Sara Groves, Matt Wertz) and Cason Cooley (Mat Kearney, Sixpence None The Richer) with Andy Gullahorn co-producing. It will be released by Centricity this autumn. Said Andrew, "The whole process of writing the songs, then choosing them, then trying to find the best way to record them, feels like fumbling around in the dark looking for a light switch. That's why it's so nice to have guys like Ben Shive, Andy Gullahorn and Cason Cooley to help me find my way. They're amazing at what they do, and I totally trust them. If I were to stick with the light switch analogy, it's like they have night vision goggles or something."

Andrew Peterson: The songsmith reminding us dragons can be beaten

Following the recording sessions, Peterson joined CCM star Steven Curtis Chapman on the spring leg of Steven's Songs & Stories Tour of the US.

The final word by this most gifted of songwriters and authors was inspired by another of Peterson's literary heroes. "There's a G K Chesterton quote that sums up my theory on storytelling, and this applies to music too. He said, 'Fairy tales don't teach children that dragons exists; children already know that. Fairy tales teach children that dragons can be beaten.' What I want kids and adults to feel as they close the last page of this book is this glow in their chests, this assurance that the author of all things' intentions for us are good intentions: he knows what he's doing." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


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