About to play at the Cross Rhythms Festival, RICK ELIAS spoke to Tony Cummings.
Rick Elias isn't some plastic puppet of America's bloated CCM scene but a passionate rock music artist whose brooding mix of rock 'n' roll guts, Dylanesque acoustics and songwriting craft is served up in a searing musical cocktail. With his band the Confessions he has toured American clubland and has recently completed a coast-to-coast tour with Margaret Becker. His two albums 'Rick Elias And The Confessions' and Ten Songs' have received rapturous critical acclaim both for their musical resonance and lyrical skill. Rick thinks long and hard about every word he sings and it shows.
A product of a broken home, by the late 70s Rick was vying for rock stardom in the crazy North Hollywood club scene that produced The Go Go's and Guns 'n' Roses. After examining "every twisted track" as he sings on his autobiographical "Miles And Miles" Rick found salvation and peace in Christ. His empassioned, eloquent songwriting took on a new dimension of hope. The singer told an interviewer in 1991, "When I was struggling with a life threatening drug addiction I can truly say there was a miracle in my life." After recording his debut album for Frontline Records, Rick toured clubland with The Choir and produced an album for Mike Stand before going on his own 22-city tour with wife Linda (one of the Confessions with an attractive pop-gospel solo debut The Meaning Of Love' on Wonderland). Recently, Rick has been involved in extensive touring with Margaret Becker. His appearance at Cross Rhythms will be his first time on British soil.
Rick, I reckon you're pleased to be playing in the UK at last.
"Yeah, I have a strong desire to make it over there, having been into all the Beatles and Stones stuff for years and I was pretty involved in punk music when it first came out. It's kind of neat to be able to go to a place that's influenced me a lot."
You've played Holland so you've had some experience of European culture. Are you expecting a very different kind of scene over here?
"I think so. In America there's a tendency for evangelical Christianity to be almost affiliated with the pop culture, it's trendy, it tends to be at times shallow. I hate to paint with a broad stroke 'cos you can easily over-generalise about something that's as complex and as vital as faith and belief or art for that matter. But over in Europe I saw there was a much longer tradition of the faith. In many places there's a revival mentality. There seems to prevail amongst believers less of a hang up in external 'proofs' of the faith. In Holland to go to the Flevo festival and see somebody with a mohican drinking a Heineken and standing in a prayer circle... you'd never see that in the USA. It just isn't acceptable, because the American church is too hung up on the externals and the superficial. Yet the Christian faith is clearly much deeper than the way a person' looks. I'm sure there's lots of superficial prejudice in Europe too. But it didn't seem to be quite as prevalent to me."
As in America?
"It's from the sublime to the ridiculous here in the States. Take it from faith which is a very deep and complex thing to pop art which though it can be a wonderful thing is hardly life changing in any external sense."
I saw you perform at the GMA Gospel Awards in Nashville in 1990. That was a weird, weird experience for me. How was it for you?
"I was very new to that whole Christian music thing. We were having our first GMA experience that year. I didn't even know what the Christian music world was three years ago! Through a series of circumstances over a period of time the Lord sort of opened the doors to go in that direction. So I went. Looking back that could have been as much for a personal reason as it was for any sort of artistic reason. So there I was, with my first record just out, in a gigantic Christian circus - deejays and executives and record labels. It was pretty wild. It was interesting to me. I just didn't know such a thing existed. I looked at it with a bit of a wide-eyed fascination at the time. I've since gone through a brief period of cynicism only to get, I hope, a little wiser. I believe that there's a lot wrong with the way the Christian community is doing things. But I think the wrong things in the Christian music industry are only symptomatic of the problems we have in the church here in this country. Maybe it's worldwide but that's just another issue. To become bitter and cynical about some of the things that happen in the Christian music world is not an acceptable response. I've found that too many of my peers, whose work I respect, have become deeply cynical. I just don't think that that's an acceptable response because what you've done when you become cynical like that is, essentially, you've wiped your hands of any involvement or responsibility. And there may be a time and place for that. But I don't think that's just yet. I look upon Christian music in the way I look upon radical music or punk music or any indie music. From a marketing standpoint, it's just one more sub-genre. From an artistic standpoint the question facing every musician is to create work that's vital and intelligent and passionate without sacrificing a very unique perspective on what art is and what people should value in life. We should be able to put on Christian records, or at least the best Christian records, and they should be as intellectually and emotionally stimulating as anyone else's record you might put on. When I put on a zydeco record I don't care if the guy's an alcoholic who's written the song, I've GOT to get up and dance. When I listen to any good music it moves me, whether I agree with the lyricist's mindset or not. I don't have a contempt for the Christian marketplace or for my audience. I love my audience. I love playing for people. I don't feel that it's my job to decide who I play for and who I don't play for. The only real responsibility I have is to write the best songs I can about life as I see it."
It was T-Bone Burnett who said you can write about the Light or what you see in the Light. Which do you do?
"I think I do both. I think the first two records were definitely about what the Light reveals. Some of the songs I'm writing now are about the Light. I felt like I'd put out two pretty decent records. They seemed to speak to people, but they were, especially the second one, thoroughly dark records. Which is fine, I have absolutely no problem with that and make no apologies for it, because they were honest and they were real. Christians need to write about pain as well as joy. I wasn't affecting a pose and I wasn't trying to manipulate people intellectually or emotionally into thinking I'm something I'm not. But when I did this big Margaret Becker tour last year, that was a big eye opener for me. I was exposed to audiences that I hadn't previously played for when I play clubs. It was a lot more of the mainstream Christian audience. Now within my peers in the rock and alternative scenes they generally tend to despise this audience. In turn they're ignored by that audience. Working with Margaret I saw that really those people in the audience weren't a whole lot different from the hip 'alternative' people I play for. They have a deep hunger, a desire to have their pain and ideals and their hopes expressed for them through the songs that they hear. It's just that they're different culturally from some of the more fringe audiences I play for. The one thing that occurred to me after playing a few songs night after night was that I hadn't really written songs like someone like Woody Guthrie. Woody could stand on the back of a flatbed truck, Bob Dylan could do the same, and sing in front of a bunch of migrant farmers and his songs spoke clearly and directly to those people. Such songs spoke of something that was a deep concern to those people. They almost had a utilitarian nature. Now, I'm not going to say that I'm going to start writing marches! But I saw the need for songs that were very explicit but had an emotional integrity. So I wrote some songs that purposely tried to steer clear of vague or dark themes. The hope in Christ was always an undercurrent in my music. If you dug deep, you could see there was hope there. But I wanted to do songs that speak intelligently of the hope I have. I should never shy away from the source of my hope. The songs I'm writing now will hopefully be cut on the next record."
Won't this new direct approach alienate some of your existing audience?
"It might confuse some people - the angry people who responded to my stuff. It spoke for them. I hope they follow me."
I understand you recently recorded a track on the new Margaret Becker album.
"Yes, Margaret's got a record just out in the States called 'Soul'. There's a song on there called "This Flame" which Margaret and I wrote together. It's a very simple retelling of the parable Jesus told about the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. The chorus goes, "This flame will never die". It's not clouded and shrouded in poetry, I believe it speaks powerfully."
What about other songs that you'll be singing at Cross Rhythms?
"I have another song I sang called "Man Of No Reputaton". It's taken from a verse in Phillipians, chapter two, verse seven. The Bible speaks of Jesus as a man of no reputation and this song is the closest I'll ever come to writing something that for me expresses who the man Jesus was. The chorus goes: "A man of no reputation/By the wise considered a fool/When he spoke about faith and forgiveness/And a time when the strongest arm rule." This man of no reputation loved the weak with relentless affection; he loved all of those pained spirits just as they were. When I play these songs live, the directness of them is very effective. It's strange, there are Christians out there in music who've got themselves so turned around that they think that any sort of overt reference to Christ immediately aligns you with the most horrific comers of evangelicalism!"
I understand you don't currently have a recording contract.
"No, Frontline Records, my old label, went through some major changes recently. All the executive staff were released and they've down sized their release level considerably. It's a good thing. The owner Jimmy Kempner had a real desire to get the label back on track -its original vision - a small label that turned out good music by artists who would usually be shunned by the Christian music industry. In this period between when the executive staff left, my contract came up and I left. So now I'm talking to a couple of bigger labels in town. I think what I'm doing has had a great deal of acceptance but I'd be lying if I said that I didn't want more people to hear what I'm doing. I don't ever think I'm going to give Michael W Smith a run for his money, I don't think he'll ever say, 'Oh my gosh, we'd better not play in November 'cos Rick is playing.' But I definitely think I could have a broader exposure than I've had. So I'm hoping doors will open. There's even been a few secular labels showing interest. If that should open up I'll go that way. It doesn't mean I'll all of a sudden don a headband or start rapping or something."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.