Californian songsmith ELI is soon to visit the UK, Tony Cummings spoke at length to a musicianary with an attitude to music and ministry a long, long way from the Nashville norm.
It will be the Ignite series of events organised by Big Ideas which will bring the earthy and eloquent music of one of the decade's best Christian singer/songwriters, Eli, to British audiences. It won't be his UK debut (he played Greenbelt a year or so back). But it will be the first opportunity for many to experience the art and vision of one of America's finest and most thought provoking songsmiths, a man who in many ways echoes the passion and prophetic power of the inventor of contemporary Christian music, Larry Norman. Eli, born Paul Falzone, grew up dirt poor in the seaside town of Santa Monica, California. At age 17 he came to personal faith in Jesus and three years later a lady at church handed him a guitar. Gradually doors opened for the raw young singer/songwriter.
An album, as Paul Falzone, was cut for Rugged Records in 1995 before the singer became Eli. After a whole wedge of music ministry he, much to the surprise of some observers of the Nashville scene, got signed to EMI's Forefront Records. Even more surprising his Forefront good-in-parts albums Things I Prayed For' (1998) and 'Second Hand Clothing' (1999) attracted some Christian radio play. But it's Eli's latest, 'Now The News', which is a towering tour-de-force. Cross Rhythms' reviewer Phil Holbert described it as "witty, broken, spiritual, touching, inventive, original, creative and real."
I spoke to Eli at the God Digital TV studios in Gateshead and began by asking this most passionate of singer/songwriters what he thought of 'Now The News'? "This album is the very best work I've ever done. I had a couple of great songs on the previous one but the rest of them didn't say much. I was still trying to learn how to say what I wanted to say and I was also wanting to qualify myself because I was aware of sounding like some guy who you don't know who comes out and just starts spouting off a bunch of stuff. Even myself, as a listener, I think, 'Who does he think he is?' Hopefully, I have served people. We have been involved with grassroots ministry for years. We've continued to do clothing and food drives, we've continued to do free concerts for people and give our CDs away for people who can't afford them. That means I pay for them out of my pocket. We've basically spent the last five years putting our money where our mouths are."
Why the title 'Now The News', I asked. "It's a musical newspaper. It's a commentary upon the news and life and Christianity and everything else that I see going on. It starts with me but I'm a little sick of myself. It was fun to take a break from me and jump out and say, 'Hey, I've seen the world and this is what I've seen.' A lot of it's based on telling the American public we're being lazy. We've been taking for granted what we have. It's a very positive album but it's also very intense. The whole album itself I stand behind 100%. The little snippets and interludes I've put in is exactly who and what I am. If you wanna experience a concert in a sense, listen to this album because our concerts are very funny, very down to earth and even if we're in a room with 2,000 people, we connect with everyone of those people because I'm talking to them, not at them."
So was there, I wondered, a potential radio hit on 'Now The News'? "As far as radio is concerned, I don't know and to be quite honest I don't care," Eli responded. "I don't write for radio. I think what I write, if it's relevant, it should be on the radio. That's why I put it on the album. But I realise there are other criteria. Right now in the States a lot of stations won't play 'Now The News'. They are afraid to tell the truth. They've said, 'We don't wanna upset anybody. We don't want anybody to be uncomfortable.' Doesn't that shock you?"
I had to admit it shocked, but didn't surprise me. Clearly much of American Christian radio is content to be merely a spiritual comfort blanket or a means of building up Christian artist personality cults. Eli wants none of that. "If it becomes the Gospel of Eli and it becomes about Eli and nothing more, then that's just garbage and I won't have a part of that. I know what Eli's all about. Eli, if left to his own self, is selfish, totally self absorbed, a liar, a cheat. There's nothing good in me. That's why I've given my heart to Jesus. So to lift me up and look up to me is absolute foolishness. Paul says, 'Follow me as I follow Christ, don't just follow me,' and that is what this album is saying. What concerns me in the States right now is that radio stations love me when I've got a song that is a feel good thing but if it's about conviction, they're saying they don't wanna lose listeners. The Bible says that the Gospel is a stumbling block to some people. We keep going to extremes as a society of believers. We're either thumping people over the heads with the Bible saying, Turn or burn/ or we're like, 'Hey! Whatever feels good, Jesus loves you.' God is a God of balance. I don't need to threaten people. I don't need to be mean to people or criticise people. But I can and I should and I will challenge my brothers and sisters in ministry with me to remember that we are called to serve God not money, not fame, not popularity. But we're not supposed to just offend our brothers and sisters for the sake of offending them either."
We began to talk about our tendency to seek the approval of man rather than God. "Songs like 'Beggers' remind us, 'Hey! Don't worry about anybody seeing your good deeds like the hypocrites,' because Jesus says that those people have already received their reward. If fame and fortune is what I'm looking for here, if recognition... Jesus says if that is where my heart is, I've already received my reward, that's it. When I get to Heaven he's gonna say, 'Hey, you got what you wanted out of it, you got to be on the radio.' But if my heart is, 'Lord not my will but yours,' then I will be able to see the fruit of my labour. So don't throw your pearls before swine. Don't try and impress people in the music industry. We're all supposed to be fellow workers. But if you go to Nashville everybody starts trying to qualify their ministry. I understand the temptation. Listen, we all wanna feel appreciated. But wherever your treasure is there your heart is also. If we will continue to put our treasure in godly things, then you and I listening to each other and fellowshipping is more precious than a statue or an award."
Eli was pleased to learn Cross Rhythms is currently playing tracks from 'Now The News'. He commented, "I'm watching Christian radio right now to see who is going to be bold enough to play this. I'm just gonna see if the music industry is able to step up and say, This is an edgy album. It's everything people always say they want. We're tired of milk toast Christianity.' That's what they say they love about me. I know that some stations and the people there love me but some are afraid of losing their jobs or losing money by speaking the truth. Right now super pop is in. Teenagers and young boys who don't even have armpit hair are telling us about spirituality and about life. By the time I was that age I'd experienced what most of these kids have never seen. I hope we don't start doing what we normally do in the music industry as Christians and that is saying. This is what's hot now, so everybody else - let's can them, discard them and go for the big money.'"
Passionate to see the Gospel in action, Eli hopes his music will motivate believers. "I hope it encourages the Church to get off their blessed assurance and do something. The Bible says, 'Faith without works is dead.' You believe in God? So do the demons. Get off your hiney and do something for the Gospel. That doesn't mean doing something that everybody's gonna see and say, 'You're so cool!' It means, you know that guy who lives two houses down from you who is a total jerk to you and his lawn is totally unkempt and he's scummy and ugly? Why don't you go down there and mow his lawn for him? Why don't you love that man and wash his feet and love him until either he becomes a Christian or until the day he dies? Let that man know, in no uncertain terms, you are an ambassador for Christ for him."
In the same way that the Christian music industry acted with suspicion to radicals like Larry Norman or Rich Mullins isn't there a danger that the worst excesses of Nashville will push Eli to one side, I asked. "Of course there is and it's not a danger, it's a guarantee," he affirmed. "I'm a dead man already. There is gonna be no show, no parade, no awards for me. There will be no appreciation. It's a death sentence. I've been called to die for Christ. Can I tell you it is easy? Can I tell you I don't fight it like a man going to the electric chair? I do. It's hard to watch the potential for something wonderful but knowing that it's going to be difficult. I hope that nobody thinks I'm so heroic, that I'm going there willingly, because I'm a human being, there are parts of me that grieve, that struggle. You don't know until you're looking at it that that noose has your name on it. But at the same time somebody already went there in my place and I owe it to him to say, 'Lord, you've already bought and paid for my life.' Galatians 2:20 only two weeks ago really had a full impact on me. That was, 'Eli, there is no job too small for you.' It's humiliating going from place to place realising no radio stations are playing your stuff, nobody cares who you are. It's humiliating and discouraging.
"Last night I was asking Gary Smith (of Big Ideas) if I should quit. Maybe this is God saying, 'Don't beat a dead horse, maybe you should quit' I'm not gonna be famous and I live in an industry that says if you're not famous you're not jack. I'm just trying to do what my manager told me to do years ago and that's just shut up and do it. Quit moaning and complaining and talking about how bad things are. Just go do it. I'm gonna go do it. I'm gonna go serve where I can and I'm gonna try and wrestle my flesh along the way. Larry Norman is as acknowledged as great 20 years later, Rich Mullins is declared great, when he's dead, Keith Green's great after he's dead. I am in no way putting myself alongside those guys. But I've got to keep remembering what Jesus said and that is, 'Do what you do in secret so that your Father sees in secret and he will reward you openly.' But you may not be there to see the party."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.