Mike Rimmer spoke to the Georgia-born songsmith BEBO NORMAN.
His real name is Stephen but even his mother calls him Bebo! When he was four, his little sister couldn't say "big brother" and the name just stuck! He jokes, "Even now, when I get in trouble, she pulls out my full name. You do know you're in trouble when you get the full name. Bebo is a catchy name but I'm not sure if it sounds more like a musician or more like a clown."
Bebo is a bit of a phenomenon, building an American audience from relentless live performances and word of mouth, his first record label album has been selling and selling. Even here in the UK with no live performances, it seems Bebo's songs have made a unique connection. Meeting him in his hotel room, Bebo Norman is one of those likeable, warm people who strike you as being totally down to earth and thankfully lacking any of the Big Star affectations. Out on tour, Bebo even drives the tour bus for the rest of the band! "Ha! We had this big, ole tour bus that I drove and it was frightening for everybody, including myself." He laughs.
But did the gifted singer/songwriter ever really think that he would be leaving his mark on the music scene? "I was really shy when I was really young. I never really thought of myself as much of a performer at all and was scared to death when I felt like, this is what I was supposed to do. I had every intention in the world of going to medical school until the music thing started happening without too much planning on my part. It was a fun thing to see happen but also probably one of the scariest."
Unusually, Bebo hasn't gone down the usual route of playing loads of dates and exploring his potential whilst at high school or college. He remembers, "I really never played for people outside of just my friends. I wrote songs more that anything because they were therapeutic for me to try and write out what I was feeling. I had some friends who really encouraged me to do something with music and I agreed half-heartedly to take a year off before I tried to start medical school. I made my independent CD during that time and music just starting happening. I made the decision to go all the way, even though it scared me to death, and felt certain it was what I was suppose to do. I kept medical school on the back burner as maybe a safety net."
Perhaps plenty of patients have been saved from the ordeal of being treated by a doctor with less than confidence - inducing name of Dr Bebo! "I could be a paediatrician," he laughs. "Kids would get a kick out of it." Instead, it's the songs that he writes that are touching the lives of the mainly college age audience that he attracts. Bebo Norman's material always strikes me as a little like listening to Bebo thinking out loud. "Sometimes when I speak out loud I don't make any sense! That's why I write songs, so I can sit down and think about what I'm trying to say! I have a tendency to ramble about things. It works out pretty well to be able to just try to write songs and sit down with things. Again, ifs like a free therapy session to work things out in my brain and condense weeks and months of thoughts down into three or four minutes in a song. It makes you weed out the stuff that's not so important and leave in the stuff that is."
So, in 1995, Bebo Norman professional musician took his first tentative steps. Bebo began travelling and singing, with only a guitar and a voice, for students at Young Life camps and small colleges around the southern states. In 1996, he packed up his life and moved to the mountains of North Carolina to record an independent album, 'The Fabric Of Verse', which has to date sold over 35,000 copies. Just as these songs mesmerised audiences with their haunting honesty and intimate beauty, they also caught the attention of Cliff Young of Caedmon's Call, at that time another highly successful independent act with huge appeal with American college students. When their paths crossed late in 1996, Young invited Bebo to tour with Caedmon's Call in the spring of '97 and the spring of '98.
By their second tour together, Caedmon's Call had signed a recording contract with Nashville-based Essential Records. Together Essential and Young were building the foundation for a daughter label geared toward marketing and distributing the music of songwriters just like Bebo. With several label offers and thousands of miles behind him - from Harvard University to the Los Angeles House Of Blues - Bebo Norman found himself one of the first signees to the newly-formed Watershed Records.
Musically, citing folk influences such as James Taylor, Marc Cohn and David Wilcox, Bebo Norman could be assessed as "contemporary folk with a pop edge." He's quick to add, however, that he's not really concerned about labelling it "How it's received is really what ends up defining the music. If it ends up getting played on the radio a lot, it's gonna be called pop music, even if it's rootsy folk. So I'm not a purist. I just play it the way I play it and let the people who hear it define it." Bebo is the type of gifted person who enjoys the gift for its own sake - there is no sense of show, ambition or presumption. Summing up his new "music career" with endearing humility, he says, "While I'm excited about what could happen, I don't by any means live under the illusion that I deserve this or that ifs guaranteed. I just love playing this music and I love getting to do it because ifs something that I feel I've been given a gift to do - not in an ego kind of way - it's just something that I feel like I'm good at."
"Good at it" is quite a modest understatement for Bebo's national release for Watershed Records, 'Ten Thousand Days'. The project is replete with artistry at once holy and bawdy, frail and passionate, intimate and universal, momentary and eternal. It also became a phenomenal best seller, topping all kinds of sales charts and even outselling the Backstreet Boys on the internet. Whether it is grace revealed in the life of his brother, the tragedy of divorce, fond recollections of friends or the brokenness of love having slipped away, Bebo's eloquently simple stories of life come to the surface to find life of their own. "It's almost therapeutic in a way," he explains with a laugh. "When I sit down and try to put on paper words to these emotions I'm feeling, it all works itself out in my brain somehow. I just sort of spill for a little bit, and then try to organise the spill.
"Most of my songs are very personal," says Bebo, "and that's probably the main reason that they connect with college age folks - they're really searching. College is that time in your life where you're sort of released from all that you've been raised with up to that point, but you're not yet where you're going to be for the rest of your life - you're in this strange transition phase where you're basically searching everything. And that's why people tend to get really crazy in college or really serious about certain issues - because they're searching things out. I think that underneath all that, college students are mostly just looking for things that are truthful and genuine. So, when I'm singing one of my songs, my biggest hope is to be genuine in its presentation, to be genuine in sharing what I consider to be truth - and hope that the genuineness is what draws somebody in, so that the truth might actually affect them in some way."
Bebo is a bit of a wandering minstrel playing shows, which must make it quite difficult to settle into relationships or to find a girlfriend. "Absolutely! You know, I've never quite figured out the whole relationship thing. My longest relationship ever was in middle school in 8th grade. It only lasted as long as it did because I made up this little rule that you're not allowed to break up with someone who still has a cast on their arm that you put there. I did actually accidentally break my 8th grade girlfriend's arm! I sat on her arm and it broke. We ended up dating for three or four months because her arm was broken. To be honest, relationships haven't got much better for me! There have been no broken bone incidents since then but they just haven't got much better. In all honesty dating is a hard thing to make happen when I'm gone as much as I am. I meet some incredible people on the road and some really sweet girls that I talk to for a bit. It is a difficult thing to be in any kind of constant communication when you're never in a place more than a day or two."
So does he get lonely? "Sometimes I do. It's not a pity kind of loneliness. Sometimes I feel a little more lonely when I'm home because I run into all my friends that I've grown up with and everybody's married and having children. Ultimately, I feel extremely happy and comfortable to be where I am. I made a decision a long time ago that I didn't want to settle and get into a relationship that wasn't exactly the right relationship just for the sake of being in a relationship."
One of the things that is inspiring about Bebo's songwriting is how much he draws on personal experiences. Listening to his music feels like reading his journal because he's being intimate. I wonder whether it was scary for him to let others into those deeper parts of his life? He agrees, "On one hand it really is. If you're putting yourself into a song and people don't respond to it, you have a fear and insecurity that people are rejecting you by rejecting your music, especially if it's personal to you. There's definitely that fear. The music that's always moved me and has meant something to me has been by songwriters that have put themselves into it. But then it is so encouraging to talk to people after shows and see the people are getting it and do understand and that they relate to it."
But surely it's also dangerous to write songs that are personal in case people hear and think, "Poor Bebo." He responds, "There's a fine line between trying to be vulnerable with people and trying to gain people's sympathy. I do hope to be vulnerable and I hope that people would see that."
Honesty and vulnerability are not popular in Christian music but Bebo is aware of that! "I decided a long time ago that I could only write out of things that I really felt and things that moved me. Hopefully people will respond to that but even if nobody were listening I would still be writing just because it's a way for me to express what I'm feeling. I think people have responded, the hard part is the bureaucracy of the industry."
But then with the success of Bebo's music, perhaps he will be part of an army of songwriters to record songs that reflect the truth of Christian life. My prayer is that somehow the industry itself will be honest enough to encourage more music that will be this real. Ultimately, Bebo Norman is a pioneer!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.