Tony Cummings reports on the award winning singer/songwriter BEBO NORMAN
Since he first emerged onto the US scene, singer/songwriter Bebo Norman has experienced many changes. Once referred to as "the most eligible man in CCM," the Georgia-born singer is now happily married. Musically things have changed too with Bebo moving from acoustic-orientated songs suitable for a coffee house audience to today's full band pop rock which would connect with a stadium full of fans. Bebo's record label has changed too.
After his 1996 debut as an independent, the songsmith enjoyed a highly successful relationship with Provident where his albums on Essential, such as 'Big Blue Sky' (2001), 'Myself When I Am Real' (2002), 'Try' (2004) and 'Between The Dreaming And The Coming True' (2006) brought him big sales and a bevy of Dove Awards. But towards the end of last year Bebo signed with Seattle's BEC Recordings/Tooth & Nail and his debut BEC album 'Bebo Norman' was released in the UK through EMI CMG in October. He spoke to Christianity Today about his new record label home. "One of the things I love about BEC and Tooth & Nail is there's a certain freedom there to be expressive and creative. It's an environment that sometimes in the music business gets lost and thrown to the side. Once I finished my last record contract I was talking to a bunch of record labels and BEC just stood out to me. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of where I started - a more intimate, more creative kind of environment. It allowed me the freedom to go that route a little more."
Bebo commented on the change in corporate atmosphere at BEC. "I had a phenomenal experience with my first record contract at Provident. I signed with Essential Records back when it was practically just me, Jars Of Clay and Caedmon's Call. It was just a whole different world there at that time. Since then, it's grown into a much larger label now. [Editor's note: Bebo, Jars and Caedmon's Call have all since parted with Essential Records.] So the new thing with BEC reminded me of those early days. What it really comes down to for me is having more creative energy and freedom - and not just freedom, but they also really encourage and push you in a certain direction to really stretch yourself. That's something that I've been thankful to be a part of."
Having moved from coffee houses to huge arena tours, Bebo admitted that his musical style has altered somewhat. "My sound has definitely evolved over the years into something bigger than it was when I first started. But I don't think it had to do as much with trying to create a sound for a particular audience. Like 'Great Light Of The World', that song was big. We didn't really know that that song was going to reach a larger audience like it did - it kind of became my launching-off point. But I think what really has caused my music to change and grow is that I've changed and grown."
Now a happy husband and father, Bebo admitted that there's has been a definite change in his music before and after marriage. He told the Jesus Freak Hideout website, "A lot of the pre-marriage Bebo was being written out of loneliness. That was sort of that season in my life. It wasn't like I walked around with my head down the whole time, but I definitely struggled with that in the sense that I was just constantly in this world of strangers playing shows. I really had begun to lose a sense of community and home and that part of my identity began to be lost. Even though I had these really rich relationships from the past, I wasn't engaging in them. The truth is, when I sat down to write for 'Between The Dreaming And The Coming True', I was for the first time ever in a season where I felt really peaceful. I felt comfortable in my skin and I felt like I was being given life, starting with my marriage. But really just with these handfuls of relationships that had become the centre of my world, meaning in a healthy way that they had become my community for the first time. That became a huge deal to me in terms of how I began to look at where my identity is and where I draw life from. I sort of lived and died by music for a long time by how people responded to me. The dilemma and great irony of being creative is that it feels like a full forced balance against insecurity. The creative and the insecure come together a lot of the times."
Not having loneliness and insecurity to drive him, did he have a problem in finding sufficient creative impetus to write new songs? He responded, "I talked to a lot of friends about it and kind of sought counsel on this idea of writing out of peace. I've never really done that before, you know. So the whole last record and this record is kind of an extension of that as well. It talks about the peace that we're promised as believers with the reality that life is still a dark and difficult place. This planet is a hard thing to kind of surf your way through, you know what I mean? So now these songs that I seem to be writing are about balancing that feeling of peace with the fact that I'm watching friends lose their marriages, and I'm watching friends of mine struggling with addiction, and I'm watching people very dear to me on the verge of being sick and having cancer. I don't want to focus on the things that are just dark and difficult, but how do you balance those two things? That's really the dilemma of the last record and probably what ties the last record to this new stuff is that it still seems to be the theme, this idea that faith is a desperate clinging to Christ.
"The thing that's hard about my friends is that they love Jesus, and yet they're right in the middle of divorces. I'm asking those questions like, 'How does that make sense with what we're promised?' That's what I mean when I say these songs are coming from a really personal place. It's interesting because it's almost like I'm writing from the perspective of the people I'm watching around me. I don't want to write happy, happy joy songs all my life. Thematically, that's where this record is coming from. I keep coming back to this idea of faith being this desperate clinging and that it's not about anything that we really do as much as it is how we hold on. And maybe even more than that, how we're held onto. That kind of seems to be where these songs are coming from. I guess this new record is just a little more dramatic. Musically, it's a little more dramatic."
Bebo is pleased with the mixture of acoustic sounds and rock dynamics on 'Bebo Norman'. "I think part of what makes it more dramatic is that if I was playing a little acoustic part on an old record we would've made it a really acoustic song. And what we've done on this record is we'll take that and double the vocals and double the acoustic part so it gives it this kind of mysterious thing. We're not powering on a bunch of electrics. We take it to a bigger place instead of having it just stay as a straight folk song. Most of the songs were written on an acoustic guitar, so we're trying to mess with it a little bit instead of just letting it be a folk record. That's kind of been the fun of it for me."
On the new album the song which has created a huge amount of interest is "Britney". Commented Bebo, "That song caught me off guard. It's not one that I was anticipating writing or expecting to write. I was up late one night and couldn't sleep and I was flipping through the news channels and landed on this story about Britney Spears. To be completely honest, my first inclination was to keep changing the channels. But for whatever reason, I stuck on this story for a minute or two and realised pretty quickly that it was a heart-wrenching story that was unfolding: She was being taken away in a stretcher to an ambulance to a mental hospital; the whole story involved her kids and a lot of stuff that's hard to watch."
What was it about Britney's tabloid-fuelled misadventures which struck him? "There was just this look in her face that the camera captured. I've never really fancied myself as a longtime Britney Spears fan or anything. I hear her music on the radio just like everybody else. But I just think that this look on her face, there was complete brokenness. It really stopped me in my tracks and put me in my place. I realised in that moment for the first time that I was looking at her life less as a tabloid story and more as a real-life story in need of redemption, just like my real-life story is. It was striking because I suddenly saw her and her story through the eyes of Jesus rather than through the eyes of condemnation - something that we as the church are sometimes so quick to do. We're so quick to point the finger and point out people's faults, where they have fallen short, rather than embracing them with the compassion of Christ. We're all responsible for our own choices, but in light of that, [we're] to embrace culture with compassion."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.