Tony Cummings looks at the career of Florida-based rock band FIREFLIGHT
Florida-based Fireflight have been going from strength to strength since they first emerged. Their 'Unbreakable' album with its biting guitar work, strident modern rock rhythms and cutting vocals from Dawn Michelle was a major CCM hit in the US and now their 'For Those Who Wait' set is enjoying healthy sales. Fireflight - Dawn Michele Richardson (vocals), Justin Cox (guitar), Wendy Drennen (bass), Glenn Drennen (guitar) and Phee Shorb (drums) - began in Eustis, Florida, in 1999.
Dawn Michele spoke to journalist Tracy Darlington about the band's origins. "We started off in a small town when Glenn decided to form a Christian band. He began with Wendy, his wife, on bass and started looking for a female lead singer. Meanwhile, he ran into Justin, whom he knew from high school, and Justin was also interested in joining. Then Glenn and Wendy saw me perform at a graduation service (I graduated with his brother), and they approached me shortly thereafter. Phee came a couple years later after our first drummer left to pursue a student ministry calling."
Dawn spoke about her early musical influences. "I grew up in the country so my first influences were country musicians such as Reba McEntire and Garth Brookes. But I still remember the day when my cousin let me listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica on his Walkman, and I've been hooked on rock ever since."
There was always a strong Christian undercurrent in Fireflight. Said Dawn, "Everyone but me grew up in a Christian home and accepted Christ at a young age. I met Christ my second year of high school. I don't think there are words that adequately describe how lucky we feel that God would choose to let us share his love through music. Because we can't even really understand how lucky we are."
Dawn admitted that the name Fireflight has no particular meaning. She explained, "It was our first show. We were in the back room of our church and our youth pastor walks in and asks how he should introduce us. We all realize that we haven't picked a name yet! We were all supposed to have been thinking of ideas, and I said well, I thought Fireflight sounded kinda cool. Everyone's like yeah, ok, let's go with that. Years later here we are."
The band's first recording was the independently released album 'Glam Rok' which was produced by guitarist Justin Cox in 2002. That was followed by the five-track 'On The Subject Of Moving Forward' in 2004. The EP, produced by James Paul Wisner, sold thousands of copies and the Fireflight were named Band Of The Year by Songwriters Showcases Of America. Fireflight signed to Flicker Records, the Franklin, Tennessee Christian label and home to such acts as Pillar and Kids In The Way. After years of touring (it is estimated they played 140 shows every year) Fireflight were ready for a national label release. Flicker put them with celebrated producer Skidd Mills (Saliva, Skillet). Their 2006 record label debut album 'The Healing Of Harms' produced two number one Christian rock radio singles with "You Decide" and "Waiting". The song "You Decide" featuring Josh Brown of Day Of Fire was the second most played song on US Christian rock radio for that year.
'The Healing Of Harms' also made a considerable spiritual impact. Remembered Dawn, "A young woman shared with us about how she had been struggling since losing a baby to miscarriage. She had been burdened so by sadness and depression that deep down she was angry with God. She shared with us that it had been a long time since she had wanted to pray or read her Bible. While listening to our song 'You Decide', she felt an awakening in her spirit about how she had shut God out of her life. We were blown away that God could use one of our songs to bring healing to the heart of such a precious person.'
The band's constant touring secured Fireflight a big US support base but it left the group struggling to find spiritual equilibrium. The band's next album, 2008's 'Unbreakable', was recorded at considerable emotional cost. Said Dawn on the band's MySpace page, "It almost felt like things were out of control. We'd gone through a difficult year as a band with a lot of emotional ups and downs. We basically lived together in a van while writing the new album, and that put us in a pressure cooker. All the stresses were magnified because you're completely out of your comfort zone, and it really does crank up the intensity of the writing. We poured all of our hope, sorrow, anger, dreams and fears into the music."
'Unbreakable' became a major Christian rock radio hit helped considerably by the use of the "Unbreakable" song in US TV promos for Bionic Woman. In fact, the "Unbreakable" music video logged more than a million plays on YouTube and the song itself was confirmed as a download for the wildly popular Rock Band video game. After the major success of 'Unbreakable' the band slipped out an independent EP in 2009, 'Unbroken And Unplugged'. The band's Glenn Drennen admitted to JesusFreakHideout that not all Fireflight fans understood the concept of a stripped down acoustic release. "We had a lot of people who were disappointed because when we released it, they thought it was the new record. So when they got it, they were like, 'Well, this is a big disappointment!'"
If 'Unbroken And Unplugged' bemused some fans, the release of the full band album 'For Those Who Wait' bemused some of the critics. For instance, Christianity Today observed, "The production on 'Wait', however, is so crispy clean and overdone that it loses its authenticity. Lead singer Dawn Michelle's killer voice is covered with effects and vocal overlay. Guitarist Justin Cox noted that the band explored new recording techniques this time around. But the best parts of this record are when Michelle's voice is raw and in the open, like the soft piano intro of 'Name'." As it turned out, fans didn't agree with such a jaundiced view and 'For Those Who Wait' has been their most successful album so far. It is also one which contains some extremely powerful songs.
Dawn spoke at length to JesusFreakHideout about the song "Name". "There are two stories. The first one is about a little baby boy. Actually, a friend of ours - a friend of Wendy's family and who was one of my best friends in high school - she was friends with this couple. I think her husband knew her through work. And they tried and tried for a long time to have a baby but they were unsuccessful for years, but finally they got pregnant and the baby was born three months premature. And it was given like a less than one percent chance of being born alive. This couple was not a Christian couple. So this baby was born and our friends, they're a Christian couple, were trying throughout this time to witness to them and everything just to show them God's love. And when this happened, they just knew that they really needed hope. What Lisa did is she took our song 'Wrapped In Your Arms' and she got all the pictures from the day the baby was born, and she made a slide show. And she had words in there like, 'I'm baby Jack, the doctors aren't giving me much hope right now, but mommy and daddy love me very much', and just tried to make the slide show for them to help inspire them to hope and believe that God could save the baby. So then that got circulated on the Internet, she showed it to us and it started being used in our community to help raise money for baby Jack's many surgeries and all that stuff. And now, a year and a half later, he's a healthy bouncing baby boy and doesn't have breathing tubes or anything anymore. Now there's a new video with pictures of him from all the way to where he is now. I got to hold him at church and the couple is now coming to our church. So it's just really neat to meet the couple and the song really meant a lot to them.
"And then about midway through this [past] year, I believe, a woman came to our show. This is where the second story comes from. She spent a ton of money at our merch table and gave a huge, big amount to our bus fund, so Jess, Justin's wife, who works the merch table, started talking to her (and we got to meet with her) and found out that her husband was a firefighter. He had been on a ladder truck responding to a call and had fallen from the truck and he'd been in a coma since around February. And the whole community had rallied around, praying for him. He was a public speaker, so she would travel and try to do the speaking arrangements, trying to pay the bills. And one night, she was on iTunes and it suggests Fireflight to her, so she starts listening [to] 'Unbreakable' and 'You Gave Me A Promise' and all these songs really started speaking to her, so she said the album had kind of become her anthem to face this challenge. And so, the second story is about him. And we actually found out about a month ago that he did make it into a light coma and was able to come home from the hospital, but unfortunately passed away about a month ago.
"So the whole point of the song, though, is that in these different circumstances where things seem so desperate and terrible, God is still there. He knows who we are, he sees us, and he wants to help us along through those times. And sometimes things turn out the way you want them to and then sometimes they don't. But in both places, God is there."
Continued Wendy: "I really like the bridge too, because it ties in a lot of messages we get on MySpace about people that feel like they're completely alone and that no one understands that they're really hurting and the bridge talks about maybe you're alone in a crowd and no one knows you're there. Maybe you're home in the corner of a house. There's just so many people out there that put on this big front that they're happy and they have their life all together, but really they feel completely empty. And that was another thing that was inspired by so many messages that we get and things we hear from people all the time. So we basically almost cry every time we hear that song. Just because we can all relate to people that we talk to about those specific things and felt their hurt and pain and wanted to take it away for them, but unfortunately you can't always do that."
An equally impacting track on the album is "All I Need To Be". Said Dawn, "I think we have a big problem especially in our society, because it's like a 'pull yourself by your bootstraps' kind of [mindset], and everyone's so individualistic in their identity. Your job is your identity, basically. Y'know, if you fail at that, people are jumping off of buildings if they lose their job, because that's their identity. That's who they see themselves as. If they can't be that anymore, they don't know who they are anymore and they're a failure. So 'All I Need To Be' just comes to the realization that you find your identity in God and who God made you. And that's it. And everything else that you fight for to try to prove 'Well, I fit in with this crowd' or whatever it is, those things will all fail you eventually and then you'll have a major crisis. And I think that's when we realize where we're really getting our identity."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.