Tony Cummings reports on the changes and new success for Ontario's HAWK NELSON
Much has changed for Hawk Nelson since the release of their fifth studio album 'Crazy Love' in 2011. On 1st February 2012 lead vocalist Jason Dunn announced he would be leaving the band to pursue a solo career. Intriguingly, rather than bringing in another singer, the pop punk band from Ontario opted to slim down to a trio with guitarist Jon Steingard taking over the vocal duties. The change certainly seems to have worked with the first single, "Words", off the new lineup band's album 'Made' hitting number one on the US Christian charts and the album being heralded as their best ever by several critics.
JesusFreakHideout asked Jon Steingard whether Jason Dunn leaving the band was a major surprise. He responded, "I guess somewhere around the recording and release of 'Crazy Love' we sensed that some big changes might be coming for us. Increasingly, Jason began to express his desire to explore music outside the confines of HN. We were uncertain what that was going to mean for us, but as time went on, it really felt right. I think God was working in all of our hearts more than we knew. Jason made his decision final in late 2011, and it was announced in early 2012."
Jon was asked by Louder Than The Music how it was decided that he would take over the vocal mic. "We thought about it and prayed about it for awhile and then we really felt like this is still something that we would love to do and if there is anyway that there is a second chapter of this band, we want to explore that before we give up on it. So we started talking to a couple different singers from outside the band but we never actually got around to full-on auditioning anybody. We were talking to a couple guys that we knew, but none of the decisions felt 100 per cent right. We were still on the road with Jason, it was his last tour with us, we were out with MercyMe. Bart (lead singer of Mercy Me) pulled me into his dressing room one day and kind of gave me the sales pitch of my life. He was like, 'I think you need to be the singer'. I had been the guitar player for almost the last 10 years and I'd obviously been a part of the band for a long time but this was a whole new thing and I wasn't sure I agreed with him to be honest. He kinda spent time with me that day and through the course of the rest of the tour. I felt really encouraged and we starting talking about it, between Justin (drums) and Dan (bass) and myself and all of a sudden it started to feel like kind of an exciting option. It kind of felt like starting a band with guys you were already in a band with. You already have that history there and you don't have to bring someone new in. So pretty quickly we started writing new material and rehearsing a bunch and we recorded the 12 we felt most strongly about. So it was a journey, it really was and I think for me personally it's been a process of growing into this role. A few months ago, it kinda clicked when we were playing some shows. It started to feel real."
Jason Dunn was a hugely popular figure fronting Hawk Nelson. Wasn't Jon nervous about stepping into his shoes? "I think my biggest apprehension was just the comparisons that were inevitable. My biggest fear was somebody telling me 'You're not Jason' because how do you respond to that? I mean, I'm not Jason. Anytime I get that sense I always want to respond, 'Well yeah, I'm not Jason'. My greatest fear was that I was gonna feel pressure to have to be like him. When I was talking to the guys about it they were like, 'What if we allow ourselves to grow into something a little bit different. How would you feel about being the singer if we commit to the fact that you don't have to do it like Jason at all?' When I felt that freedom, that was the turning point for me. I was like, 'OK, I can do this'. It's interesting, I've seen a few early reviews of the record come in and one guy said something like, 'It doesn't sound like anything Hawk Nelson has done before but it still feels like Hawk Nelson'. That's exactly what we were hoping for. We still have the same DNA, we're still a live band with lots of energy live and having tons of fun. We love making music and kind of being a party band at shows but we also wanted to dig in a little more and go a little beyond that."
Critics and band alike are agreed that 'Made' is a major stylistic change of direction for Hawk Nelson. Said Jon, "'Made' is a step in a new direction for HN. Honestly, it goes back to something we first talked about when I became the singer. . . We had to give ourselves the freedom to create something NEW. I think a lot of people assumed that when we decided to continue without Jason, that we were kicking the can down the road and squeezing another year or two of employment out of the name. That was not something we were interested in. We had no desire to rehash the past or revisit things that had worked before. I had no desire to try to BE Jason, because I would most certainly fail, and everyone who had loved HN for so long would be completely let down. Instead, we opened the door to a new season. We worked harder, wrote more songs (50 in total for this record) and dug deeper than ever before. We knew that whatever we created had to be genuinely inspired. . . and not contrived. I am thrilled to say that we feel exactly so about this record."
A surprising guest on the 'Made' album is the veteran vocalist with MercyMe, Bart Millard. Said Jon, "God used him in a super instrumental way during our transition last year. . . Because of all that, we really wanted to have him sing on 'Words' since the subject matter was something that Bart really lived out for us."
Jon spoke about hawk Nelson's move away from Tooth & Nail Records. "Our contract was up, so there was no nasty split or anything like that. We had a great period of time with Tooth & Nail and we're super grateful for our time there. With all the changes going on in the band we felt we needed a fresh start in a few areas and we have always thought really highly of the guys at Fair Trade. They're excellent partners in this crazy music biz. They're clever and flexible and because they're a small company they're able to accommodate some of the wacky ideas we sometimes have. Ha ha. More than anything though, they provided an anchor for us in a lot of ways during the time of our transition. From the writing process, to marketing and simply casting a vision, they were really instrumental during that time for us. . . and continue to be still!"
Finally, Jon spoke about how he would define success in the band's ongoing career. "As a band, there are things we want to accomplish at every opportunity. We feel strongly about being a fun and encouraging band at shows. We feel strongly about the change that Jesus has made in our lives and want to open the door for Jesus to do the same thing in the lives of those who listen to our music. Of course commercially, we would love for our music to reach as far as it possibly can. I feel like it's our job to succeed in each individual moment. . . make the most of the opportunities God sends our way. I'll leave the rest up to him."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.