Tony Cummings spoke at length to Jason Jamison from CCM big hitters TENTH AVENUE NORTH
With more than one million albums sold, the pop rockers from West Palm Beach, Florida, Tenth Avenue North, are today unquestionably one of Christian music's top acts. Their fourth album with Reunion Records, 'Cathedrals', debuted at number one on both iTunes (number 14 overall) and Billboard's Top Christian Albums Charts and landed at number 32 on the Billboard's mainstream Top 200. Drummer Jason Jamison is delighted with the quality of the project. He told Cross Rhythms, "We love it. It took a long time; we worked hard on this record: spent a long time writing, then got into the studio for about three weeks and came out with the project we're happiest with."
Despite the band being named by the Gospel Music Association (GMA) New Artist Of The Year in 2009, their origins actually go considerably further back than that. Tenth Avenue North were formed in 2000 when Mike Donehey (vocals, acoustic guitar), Jeff Owen (electric guitar), Ruben Juarez III (bass), Brendon Shirley (keyboards) and Jason Jamison (drums) began to play around Palm Beach County. Like most groups starting out, their first recording left something to be desired. Recovering from his shock at me naming the band's first rudimentary release Jason responded, "Not many people know about 'Broken Down'. "I would definitely not categorise that as good. That record was something we did in college - three or four songs, a friend helped us record it. I have it still on our computer so I can go back and laugh, see where we came from. We were all learning our craft - hopefully we still are, but we were trying to figure out how a band works. Today we try to hide 'Broken Down' from people!"
A couple of years of gigging around the band were ready for a much improved release. Jason chuckled as he said, "With 'Don't Look Back' it slowly got better. We recorded it with a friend of ours who lives in Florida. He had recording gear, a little bit of knowledge in the business. We had more songs, so we were able to pick a little bit better, but still they're not great. I had never played to what they call a click-track, keeping time, so the whole record swims all over the place - pretty funny to listen to. But it definitely made it out there. We have lots of people who would still walk up with that record and want us to sign it, but I don't know where they got them from."
More independent releases, 'Speaking Of Silence' in 2005 and 'God With Us' in 2006, followed before the group finally came to the attention of producers Jason Ingram and Phillip LaRue. The subsequent album released by Reunion, 'Over And Underneath', came after their first single "Love Is Here" went on to reach number three in America's Christian music chart. Vocalist songwriter Mike Donehey told Billboard magazine at the time, "We were all running the van screaming" when they first heard the song on the radio. "Love Is Here" ended up being the twelfth most played song on Christian radio for 2008 while the followup, "By Your Side", spent 48 weeks on Billboard's Christian Songs chart, winning the GMA Dove Award for Song Of The Year. More radio play and hits followed with 2010's 'The Light Meets The Dark' and 2012's 'The Struggle'.
By the time they began writing songs for 'Cathedrals' things had moved up a gear. Explained Jason, "There were a couple co-writes with outside writers on 'The Struggle', but this most recent work we wrote it solely as a band. We were on a tour, and we would carve out time - load-in our recording gear, sit down and hash through these songs. Sometimes it would be a drum part that inspired a keyboard part; we would record those, then we would all sit around and think about lyrics and melody. Mike, our singer, is always going to be the main lyricist: he's the driving force, and he's the best at it. On pretty much every song, we'll come in and say, 'Not this line' or 'this melody. How about we change it to this?' One of the things we've learned as a band over the years is how to take criticism well. When it comes to songwriting, you have to be willing to be told no, and to work for something much better. We've all got a lot better at that; I would say on this new record it was a testament to that, where we could easily point out a melody or lyric we didn't agree with, and change it all together. Or we could come up with the concept of a verse or a chorus, and we could all pin it together; or the drumbeat doesn't work - 'We don't like this' - so we try four or five different options till we've got the right one. So everybody's part was criticised carefully - even the bass part was looked at by the drummer. We all wanted to walk away with a product where we could say, 'I love these songs, and I wouldn't do it any different'."
The public and critics alike responded well to 'Cathedrals'. Wrote reviewer Alex Caldwell, "Over the course of four albums Tenth Avenue has wrapped prophetic statements in great melodies. Though they might seem too safe and inoffensive to some listeners, a closer look at themes and lyrics reveal a tougher message than might be expected for a band that has a nice home on Christian radio. Musically, 'Cathedrals' feels cohesive and at times daring."
One of the more daring elements to the project was Audrey Assad singing on "Iesu, Dulcis Memoria". Commented Jason, "We have been friends with Audrey for about 14 years. We've had her on several tours, had a lot of theological conversations with her; we were friends when she converted to Catholicism. Just because she's Catholic and singing in Latin doesn't change the fact that she believes Jesus Christ is her Saviour. I would actually say quite the opposite: we've heard from people commenting on how beautiful that song is, and we're yet to hear from anyone offended by it."
Tenth Avenue North have a reputation for being a thinking man's band rather than purveyors of simplistic evangelical slogans. Said Jason, "A lot of times we write songs not because we want to get super-theological or deep on someone, but mainly because we're going through something in our lives that has our attention; we try to reconcile those situations in our lives with what the Word of God says to be true. So a lot of times, what you hear in our songs is the wrestling between two paradigms. I'm going through a situation, and God says this is true, but my heart says this; what you hear in our songs a lot of times is that wrestling back and forth. We're definitely going to be experimenting and talking a lot about theological issues, but that comes out of an honest place in our heart where we want to know. I guess we'll never go into a song saying, 'This is going to be a really deep, theological song': we just write what's on our hearts, and if it comes out deep and heavy then so be it. Some songs aren't as deep and heavy; we never set out to write one super-theological."
A song from 'Cathedrals' currently getting played on Cross Rhythms radio is the opener, "No Man Is An Island". Said Jason, "The phrase itself comes from a John Donne poem. What we're trying to communicate through this song is that we're not meant to do life alone. We will come across people - whether they're close to us, or fans, or people that tells us stories - and they've isolated themselves from community. At the very centre of what we believe as Christians and as followers of life is we believe that God is a Trinity, he's three in one - Father, Son and Holy Spirit; when we look at that, we can see from the very beginning that God is a perfect community. If we're made in the image of God, we also then can deduce that we're made for community: God has made us to be part of something bigger than just ourselves. So the song 'No Man Is An Island' is about us encouraging people and hopefully pushing them towards community, saying, 'You're not meant to do this by yourself'. One of the very important lines in the song is, 'I am for you'. A lot of times people think that other people are just against them, that they don't really want to help. It's such a strong phrase for us to tell someone, 'No, I'm for you: I want to see you conquer this battle or come out of this dark time. I'm here; I'm going to walk with you.' It's a very simple message, but it's a much-needed message - especially today."
Another powerful track on 'Cathedrals' is "We Won't Numb The Pain". Did Jason think that the theme of the song - social media - plays too prominent a role in people's lives today? He responded, "I would definitely say so. If you look at the message of the record, a lot of it is about community. The social media is almost a false community: it's a gathering of friends as if they're some kind of check-mark you can put on your board - 'How many friends do I have?' You're really not friends with them: you really don't know anything about them at all unless they post it on their wall. The community there is quite shallow: you're not going to find a whole lot of refuge to help you through a dark time. We make the point because I think the way our culture's going now, there are more people looking down at their phones instead of looking into the eyes of the person next to them. We're so caught up in wanting to gain status on a social media site that we forget about the immediate community we have right around us. I would say it's a very dangerous place to be; I guess we'll see where it leads over the next several years. We're just encouraging people, trying to shed light on the subject. This is a false community, a false hope; God has given us a real community, given us people all around us - so let's dive into that. Not saying Facebook, Twitter, all those things, are bad, but it becomes a person's life, and their identity becomes based off their status."
Tenth Avenue North's popularity on US Christian radio has predictably brought them criticism from some of the more hipster elements in the Church who suggest the band are playing in an insular bubble, ie, music by Christians for Christians. Jason opened up on the topic: "There's several different boxes we can put ourselves in musically. We have lots of friends who are believers in the mainstream market when it comes to music. We have some friends who are in folk-country bands; we have friends who are in hard rock bands; and it's interesting talking to them, when I think about this subject, because even they are put in a box. There's certain things they can say and certain things they cannot say. As a believer who's in the hard rock industry, if they mention something about God or Jesus, then automatically they lose fans, they're criticised; so they're in a box just like we're in a box. Any type of music you do, you're going to have this sort of box: if you say you believe something, people are going to categorise you. I'd say some people are great at writing music that's parable-like: they're telling a story and trying to communicate a point. Other people are great at writing songs about things of faith, but never being very specific.
"For some reason, when we write music, what naturally comes to us is music just about Jesus. When we write songs based out of things that we're going through in our life - circumstances of our current condition - a lot of times the answer we have for those is going to result in Scripture, some type of idea about God. We're not trying to necessarily cater to a specific bubble, it's just the way we write; and the category we fall into, therefore, is Christian contemporary music. What we've learned to do is not fight it: a lot of artists fight it, say they don't want to be part of that category. We've learned to embrace it and say, 'Maybe God has us as a mouthpiece, to speak to his Church'. Hopefully along the way there's non-believers who come to know the Lord, but I would say by far our main audience is believers who are going through difficult times, and maybe they can find refuge or answers or hope in the songs that we write as we go through those difficult times. I'm not offended by those comments. We have a friend just leaving a hardcore band now; he says, 'I can't wait to get out so I can write worship music'. So, like I said, it's all over the board. We have no problem with singing about Jesus and using his name; if that puts me in that box, I'm fine with that."
Looking back over their 14 years of existence Jason is amazed at where their music has taken them. He said reflectively, "When we started this band, Mike and I were in college. He thought he was going to go on Broadway and do theatre; I thought I was going to work in a church. We came across a group of kids who loved to worship the Lord. We started doing music together, and we did a lot of worship music. That's really the foundation of the band: playing a lot of other people's worship music, maybe writing a couple songs here and there, going to camps and conferences and other churches, working with youth and leading them in worship. We had no intentions of writing songs, recording music, making it big. God just continued to open doors, and we kept walking. People come up to us and go, 'How do I become a recording artist?' We say, 'Write music and record it'. That's what we did: as we wrote songs, we recorded them. We didn't think a whole lot about it. You go to a camp, you could get a few extra dollars to pay for your gas and get to the next camp. It just was one of those very, very slow progressions. I think we learned a lot over those years, so I'm really glad it was slow."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.