Newsboys: Ex-lead Singer John James speaks about his fall and restoration

Friday 26th January 2007

In one of the most painfully truthful interviews ever given by a Christian music artist, one-time member of the NEWSBOYS John James spoke in depth to Mike Rimmer.

Newsboys c1990, John James 2nd from left
Newsboys c1990, John James 2nd from left

It's 1995 and in High Wycombe the Alliance "summer showcase" is in full flow bringing together a mixture of British and American acts. For a journalist like myself, it's an ideal opportunity to meet and interview a pile of bands and I'm wandering around the backstage area in the afternoon before the gig while the bands are soundchecking. PFR, Iona, 65dBA, The Worldwide Message Tribe, re:fresh and Hydro are all there waiting for their moment to set up and over in a corner are The Newsboys. Their singer John James is sat on a chair joking with his band mates when I dare to interrupt them. "Excuse me, are you John James," I ask politely. "Who wants to know?" comes the growled response.

Frankly the interview is a disaster. The press room is above the hall and every beat and synth driven groove of the Tribe's soundcheck fills the room where we're chatting ruining my recording. John won't get serious and seems content to answer my questions with flip and jokey comments. Frustrated, I close the interview and hang around for the gig. The Newsboys really go for it. As it turned out though, things weren't right with the Newsboys. Within a year an announcement was made that John James was leaving the group to return to Australia to be involved in local church ministry. It was James and Pete Furler who had formed The News, the band from which the Newsboys originated, in the mid '80s. After some local success, James, Furler and manager Wes Campbell had emigrated to the USA and, after an uncertain start (the 'Read All About It' album for Refuge) the Newsboys had gone on to CCM stardom. For their frontman to quit seemed a major blow though as it turned out Furler switching from drums for the vocal mic brought the Newsboys even more success. But what of John James? The silence down the years from the one-time CCM star James has been deafening. And so it came to pass that in October 2006 I found myself at a barbecue in a Brisbane park. It was just a few families and singles having fellowship and it was the embryonic beginnings of a new church in the city. The pastor of His Church was going to be singer David Evans, known in the UK for his ministry at the Cross Rhythms festival. David was sitting laughing while teasing another of the church's leaders, John James.

As is the fashion when musicians get together, they were swapping war stories from days on the road. Even recently when they've been ministering together things haven't always gone smoothly in the churches where they have presented a mixture of music, preaching and honesty for the churched and unchurched to experience. Always the journalist, I asked John for a few general comments about his time with the band. He said, "I feel really blessed. We started here in Australia. Just a bunch of guys - dreams, hopes, aspirations. Uneducated but passionate. We started this band here and looking back, I remember the thrill and the excitement. I think a lot of people wish that they could taste and experience life in a successful band and it's pretty amazing to be on stage in front of tens of thousands of people. An arena filled with people. The excitement! The electricity! Hearing people bellow out in one crescendo an anthem. Singing every lyric of every one of your songs. It's like you're this conductor standing on the edge of the stage just conducting this huge crowd and taking them on a journey throughout the night. It was the most incredible experience."

He continued, "With the Newsboys, we were fortunate enough to be a part of doing some huge concerts. My last tour with the band was the Take Me To Your Leader Tour. That was one of the most successful tours that year in America, Christian or secular. It was a massive tour. At that time we were signed with Virgin Records and distributing secular in the US and so often the Virgin guys would have their reps and different guys come out to our concerts and they were blown away. I don't know what they expected. They knew it was a religious/Christian band. We were obviously the only Christian band, so to speak, on their label."

John got animated just thinking about it and chuckled as he said, "Mate, I don't know what they expected; to come out and see a bunch of guys in long flowing gowns wearing sandals and beads and chanting on a stage, dancing and singing 'Cum By Yah'? But they'd come out and see this massive production. The most incredible show. The spectacular. The multi-media. The antics. And arenas filled with people. I mean it was powerful for them! It was really exciting for me to be a part of something so big. To experience it."

I had a flashback of their Take Me To Your Leader tour performances and what struck me was the way that John and the band created pop music events that were certainly entertaining, but did they lose sight of the ministry amongst all the hi-tech production elements? "I think we were always passionate about the ministry," he replied, "but I think as we evolved and things changed maybe the focus began to shift to some degree in regards to our blatancy of how we articulated that on stage. We were very passionate about the entertainment side. We always were, whether we were in front of 10 people or 10,000 people or 100,000 people, we never ever took the stage and didn't give a 110 per cent. We wanted people to go away feeling, if they paid 20 dollars for a ticket they got a hundred-dollar ticket show. We always did our best to captivate people. Take them on a journey. Maybe the way we delivered the simplicity of the Gospel changed like you said as we became more 'successful'. Maybe in some areas we gained a lot? Maybe in some areas we lost something too?"

From his time with the band, it is certainly true that he sang lead on some of the band's most classic recordings. John agreed, "Yeah, there was 'Shine' and I think 'Take Me To Your Leader' and 'Not Ashamed'. It's like they've become classic songs. And sometimes to be honest, if it wasn't for the sake of the people like yourselves that are interested in doing an interview with me or sometimes people coming up and still asking for an autograph or I'm asked to speak somewhere and tell my story, it's almost seems like such a world ago now. I almost have to pinch myself and say, alright, yeah that's right. I WAS in a band! Oh yeah that's right, we DID do that! But some of these songs, yeah you're right, they've been sort of placed in Christian music history now as being 'classic Newsboys songs'. I feel pretty fortunate that I was a part of it." So could he still sing "Shine" now if I played the karaoke version of it - would he know the words? "Nah!" he laughed, "I had trouble remembering the words when I was IN the band let alone seven and a half years later!"

Our chat was going well so I asked John about whether he'd be willing to record an in-depth interview about his time in the Newsboys and also to talk honestly about why he had left. He was reluctant to go public with the details and I didn't think the interview would happen. So my wife Pippa and I drove north towards what they call the Sunshine Coast. It's certainly well named because even in Australian springtime it was warmer than a British summer. We stopped off at Australia Zoo, established by the late Steve Irwin, where I learnt how to avoid being eaten by a crocodile! (Don't go near the water!). As a tropical rainstorm thundered and rain struck the roof of the car with a sound akin to a drum kit being thrown down a flight of stairs, we headed up the wonderfully named Bruce Highway towards the resort of Mooloolaba as a beautiful double rainbow lit the sky.

The Newsboys got their start on the Sunshine Coast where they made a name for themselves on the local music scene. John James still lives there and another phone call led to us meeting for a coffee. The hotel where I stayed was across the road from a packed beach and I settled into a coffee shop to read, drink and wait for John to arrive on a sunny Friday morning. We talked for about an hour where, off the record, I asked a lot of searching questions and John shared what he was willing to talk about in a recorded interview and what he'd prefer to keep private. There are some things which he prefers to keep quiet about, believing that it would be unhelpful to speak about them in public. I promised to respect his wishes so that what you are reading are simply the confessions of a man who made plenty of mistakes, has been to the brink and been rescued by a faithful God. John James has chosen to tell his own story and to let others tell theirs, if they choose to.

Newsboys c1991, James 3rd from left
Newsboys c1991, James 3rd from left

Being in a hugely successful band clearly had its own pressures for John. As he admitted to me, by the end of his time in the Newsboys John's Christian life was shattered. "It didn't happen overnight," he explained. "You've gotta understand. You've got a bunch of young guys that one moment we're tanning on the beach in Mooloolaba and some years later we're in one of the biggest Christian bands around. The success, the fame, the money, the screaming girls, the autographs. It's like, how do you deal with that? How do you process that? You're in this schizophrenic lifestyle where you're surrounded by thousands of fans that are wanting to touch the very sweat that falls from your brow. They're wanting your autograph. They're wanting to reach out and grab you. And then I'm meant to come home and make the transition from this surreal, schizophrenic, adrenaline-packed lifestyle to come home to be a dad and a father and a husband. And I found that after a period of time I wasn't able to make that transition back to normality of lifestyle. There wasn't anyone mentoring or helping me to deal with this, mentally or emotionally. It's like you've got people that surround you and help you to become successful but no-one really mentored us in regards of how to keep our heads in check. I don't care who you are, you put ANYBODY in that sort of environment for long enough and unless you have countermeasures to help you process and deal with that, man it's gonna mess you up big time! And over a period of time it began to take it's toll. Only in little things. It doesn't happen overnight. Maybe a value dropped here. A standard lowered here. But it began to eventually take its toll on my marriage - the pressure of it."

He continued, "I remember when it started. I'd come home off the road sometimes and find my wife crying. I tolerated it for a while. I remember one day I came home and I was just so fed up. She was weeping and I'm like, 'Woman, be quiet! What's your problem? We've gained the whole world! Your only stress in life is: "How many pairs of shoes should I buy today?" We've gained everything!' But my wife could see something much bigger than the success, the fame, the money, the position, the career. She saw our marriage starting to erode and fall apart. My wife is the sort of person who when she stood at that altar and said, 'I do', 'Till death do us part', she believed that. And now she's seeing us starting to drift apart. I was starting to become very isolated. You're surrounded by thousands of people but you're really lonely and you become very insular and very isolated and it really started to take its toll. Our marriage began to spiral downhill, dramatically. Slowly at first but then as time went by it began to go faster and faster and faster."

It was at this point that John began to take solace in alcohol. "I think for myself, I worked HARD. We concerted HARD. We toured HARD. But I also played hard. And for me alcohol was an escape. Obviously it wasn't something that was public knowledge. I justified it as it helped me to process and deal with the pressure. Now whether that was a crutch or not, I think after a while it became the dependency, where I needed that constantly. And eventually it really started to take a grip in my heart and my life to the point where the alcohol was a serious problem. It's amazing how you can be in front of so many people but we do such a great job of hiding what's really going on. We become masters of hiding the truth. Why? Because we have an image to uphold. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars creating this allure, this perception of perfection. And the last thing we want people to know is that we're actually just real people who deal with real problems."

He continued, "But we found ourselves thrust into this position because we're 'pop stars'. You never see people who are plumbers or gardeners or accountants. 'Wow can we have your autograph?!' But we happen to be in an environment, as artists, as musicians, where we're put on pedestals because of who we are. It's a crazy, crazy lifestyle. But I did a fantastic job of hiding that and masking that. It's almost like you become very sneaky. You don't mean it to happen, it's a gradual process, but eventually you have to come to the realisation that you have an addiction. A real addiction. And yeah it really took its toll on my life and my marriage. I got to a place that at one stage where I was drinking a carton or two of alcohol a day. That's a lot! I got to a stage where in the mornings for breakfast I'd have two six-packs! So by lunchtime I was just totally intoxicated. And this went on every day."

This obviously began to take its toll on life in the band. Did he ever go on stage whilst drunk? "You know what? As terrible as it sounds and actually I'm ashamed of that, I did, yes. Nobody would have guessed. You can be surrounded by so many people but you're still very protected. I think it got to the point where it was becoming such a problem and my marriage was really starting to fall apart so I confided in the band about how severe it was. They were totally blown away. Especially Peter. I remember the night we were in the studio recording some vocals. We'd cut all the music for the 'Step Up To The Microphone' album and I was about to record the vocals for 'Entertaining Angels'. I confided in Pete and started to open up, telling some of the stuff that was going on in my marriage. And he was just blown away. I don't think he really understood how he could deal with that. It was pretty devastating for the band because they didn't know how to deal with it either."

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Reader Comments

Posted by Jennifer Andrews in Texas @ 04:04 on Nov 21 2019

Wow. I had no idea about his struggles! I last saw The Newsboys in about 1997 and to know he was battling these things tears at my heart. I'm so glad that John allowed God to turn his life around. His music has had a profound effect on my life. I believe he will sing again and that the experience will be sweet and beautiful because he's truly praising the Lord.

Posted by Katrina Laude in Homer City, PA @ 21:56 on Feb 17 2019

Hey, Kay VanAntwerpen, don't get the religious mixed up with the faithful. During Jesus' time, it was the most religious (the Pharisees) who had totally missed the point. They got all the religion but missed the relationship. Just because something is done "in God's name" doesn't make it from God. Don't give up on the Creator just because the creation gets it wrong. Blessings to you on your journey. Oh, and I encourage you to read runners magazine. It will give you a different perspective on Christians

Posted by Kay VanAntwerpen in Grand Rapids, Michigan @ 12:06 on Dec 22 2018

I'm not a Christian, I gave up on it after it broke my heart to realize the selfless generosity and empathy I thought my parents and the other adults in my life believed in was just lip-service, the sort of thing you're supposed to say when you believe in god. As a musician and lyricist with an OK amount of small-time success, I genuinely despise most Christian music for the same reason I gave up on the church -- it's all so vapid and meaningless, all of the songs have the same canned lines that don't really mean anything.

That said, I've been researching Christian rock recently for an album I'm working on (it's the style and language I want to write it in while commenting on the church's role in politics today), and I'm a little surprised by how well John James' lyrics and a lot of the early Newsboys stuff holds up, and even aligns with my convictions.

I don't think I'll ever buy into a God again, especially after watching a majority of the people who claim to be a "light" to the world shamelessly hand the keys to the world's most powerful army and nuclear arsenal to a man who admitted on tape to sexually assaulting women, and has numerous more rape allegations against him.

But it's good to know there are people out there who have the integrity to be honest about their flaws, to address them, and to share that struggle in order to be self-actualized and let others learn from their mistakes. It gives me hope. If there are really genuinely righteous religious figures out there, they look like this man.

Reply by DDMCC in U.S. @ 17:23 on Feb 1 2019

If you are looking to people, you will always be disappointed. Don't keep your eye on God's dysfunctional children. Keep your eyes on God Himself. He will not disappoint you.

[report abuse]

Posted by Debra Lee Szentgyorg in NY @ 04:27 on Sep 28 2018

Thank you for sharing your testimony. Your transparency in the struggles you have faced will help other people. Praise God, that He rescues us and is always there for us.

Posted by Kurt Kelley in Indianapolis @ 15:35 on Aug 15 2018

Glad to hear of his turnaround. But its no surprise as to his downfall. Wealth and fame bring temptations that no normal man or woman could resist. One could find many skeletons in the closets of every Christian celebrity, musical, or non. But I dont place all the blame on the celebrity. I place much of the blame on us, the Christians who so idolize our 'own' celebrities. WE have turned them into gods. If you observe the typical crowd at a big Christian concert, what you are seeing is worship. Not of God, but of the performers on stage. I see no difference between the adoration the crowd displays at a major rock concert, and how the crowd behaves at a major Christian concert. And that includes the supposed 'praise and worship' bands and concerts.

Go to a Jesus Culture show, and you will see the same celebrity worship as you would at any secular concert.

Posted by Roy Bowles @ 14:41 on Jul 22 2018

The (John James) Newsboys is the first Christian group I turned to as a new Christian. I'm so sorry to hear about his struggles, but so glad we have a Lord and Savior like Jesus, that loves us enough to save us from ourselves. I am so glad that John embraced the forgivness our Lord gives. I wish I could hug his neck untill his face turned red! But for now, I'll wait untill I see him in heaven.

Posted by Patti Smith in FL @ 18:50 on Apr 19 2018

Amazing testimony! Best I have ever read. Compelling. Thank you!

Posted by Saved by God's Gace in USA @ 15:55 on Mar 26 2018

Powerful testimony that our GOD IS NOT DEAD!!!
May the very breath of the Holy Spirit blow through you a brand new, fresh anointing upon your life and upon your marriage.


Proverbs 24:16 for though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again,
but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes.

Posted by Lisa Lloyd in Louisville @ 17:00 on Nov 3 2017

Thank you for this transparent story! God is so good! This is exactly what everyone needs to hear because none of us are perfect, we all have issues. I feel that the Church as a whole pushes people away because we "act" like we have it all together when in reality we don't. Thank you for sharing your testimony and being honest!

Reply by Jackie in USA @ 15:47 on Mar 29 2018

Definitely what I think about fake church folk repelling people. I pray that I am not one of them and will not become one. Lord, for the good of your church, remove the fear that keeps people from being real and transparent Christians.

[report abuse]

Posted by Sherri Lewis in Santa Fe, TX @ 21:05 on Jul 12 2017

Thanks for sharing your story. I was inspired! I hope God uses your talent once again.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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