Sparking Creativity: Musician Jonathan RundmanPosted: May 10, 2012
For today’s entry in the ongoing Sparking Creativity series, we catch up with acclaimed musician Jonathan Rundman. He has an impressive discography, ranging from pop-rock to sacred arrangements inspired by the liturgical calendar to traditional Finnish folk music.
Jonathan is releasing a 20 song retrospective album in June (available for purchase now), which will be featured in an upcoming review here on Sparks and Ashes. You can find more about Jonathan and his musical pursuits at his website.
Today, Jonathan reflects on the relationship between his faith and art, shares about his personal creative process, and how Finnish folk tunes make him a better musician.
Paul: Talk about the intersection of faith and art for you. What’s the relationship between creativity and Christianity?
Jonathan: Hmm…well, I don’t think Christians have any particular advantage or authority regarding creativity, compared to other faith groups or non-faith groups. I think things can get theological, though, when the creative/artistic work is approached and lived-out with a sense of Christian vocation. So the artist might say “I believe that God has given me certain gifts and talents and perspectives as a dancer/painter/songwriter/whatever, so therefore I’m excited to celebrate that gift and find a way to share it with the world, and be a good steward of all the gifts I’ve been given.” So the artist’s faith perspective might influence the way the creativity is delivered, or the attitude of the deliverer.
Something I’ve observed is that for some artists who are not people-of-faith, their art can carry a huge level of personal gravity. Their artistic self-expression and passion can become the central force of their life. Speaking for myself as a person of faith, I find myself thinking of art and creativity as “icing on the cake,” or as a wonderful gift, but ultimately not that big of a deal in the long run.
So when I read things that other artists say about their work, and compare it to how I feel about my own material, I think to myself “Man, I have a much more chilled-out and much less serious view of art!” Like, Wilco has this song with lyrics that go “Music is my savior…I got my name from rock and roll,” and when I hear that song I always think “Wow, if he’s serious, that’s a pretty incredible statement….I can’t imagine myself feeling that way about any kind of art.” So I guess that’s my faith-perspective impacting my art-perspective.
Related to that, I recently had a conversation with a friend in which they made the distinction between “art for the church and art from the church” in relationship to worship/sacred art and more general art by Christians. Do you think those are valid categories? Where do you fall on that spectrum?
Regarding art created by Christian people, I don’t ever separate it into sacred or secular columns. I don’t think “Christian” is a genre. You could make a cowboy movie, or a sci-fi movie, or a romance movie, or a war movie, but not a Christian movie. If I have to categorize music in this regard, I prefer the term “church” instead. For example, I think it’s accurate for me to say that in my career I play rock music, folk music, and church music. And I don’t play classical music, or jazz music, or electronica music, or reggae music, or heavy metal music. Those are accurate genre descriptions. And the way I define church music would be: music written and performed specifically for use within the church, and probably specifically in a worship service context, and probably interactive music for the assembly to sing/perform all together.
For example, a Prayer Song, or a Welcome Song, or a Sending Song, or a Hymn of Thanks, or a reflection on the Biblical text of the day. This is music with a job to do. A task to accomplish. It’s more like a work song, or a field holler, or a protest song for striking laborers, or a military “hup, two, three” chant, or a wedding march, or an educational song like “the ABCs” or something…it’s an ultra-practical genre. Of course, with great opportunity for beauty and transcendence and joy, too, while being practical.
It seems like many Christian artists struggle to jump that perceived gap between their faith and excellent creativity. What can the church catholic do to change this?
Yes, it’s weird that in the days of Michelangelo or Bach, the church-affiliated art was excellent and respected, but now a lot of art made by Christian people is rather lame and uninspiring. Once in a while you get artists like U2 who come along and are totally open and clear about their faith, but the music and the performance is so awesome that they get away with it and they become the biggest in the world and everybody respects them. But that’s a very rare occasion.
I think what you say is a “perceived” gap is mostly an actual gap. I don’t know why this has happened to artists and the arts. It’s very mysterious. Maybe one thing Christian people can do to change this is to just relax and stop trying to make “Christian Rock” and “Christian Movies” and “Christian Paintings” and just make rock music and movies and paintings. But I guess that’s easier typed than done. American Christians are in a theological/artistic rut.
Besides your solo career, you’re part of an acclaimed Finnish folk music group. How does your expertise in traditional music influence your writing or performance?
I’ve only been playing Finnish folk music with Kaivama for two years, so I’m still at the kindergarten level of this deep and complex musical tradition. However, even though I’m just in the shallow end of the pool, I find that it’s certainly changed all aspects of my musical life already. My long-time rock music colleagues have commented to me that they can tell I’m playing better than ever before as an instrumentalist. Also, this Nordic folk music is totally schooling me on arrangements, chord changes, and melodies, so I’m sure it’ll bleed through into my rock music and church music compositions. George Harrison went to India and started playing the sitar, and it certainly impacted his contributions to the Beatles!
What do you enjoy most about the process of songwriting?
The most basic answer is: I love to begin with nothing, and end with something! What a thrill! More specifically, I’ve learned that my main artistic motivation is to fill a void. I think “I wish there was a song that addressed THIS topic, or that sounded THIS way” so then I go and write it, in order to fill that void. That gives me great satisfaction.
Walk us through your process for creating a song. Do you have any predictable patterns you routinely follow?
In my earliest days as a songwriter, I operated almost exclusively by inspiration. I would have to sit around for weeks or months and hope that some song idea would fall into my lap. That system can be effective, and still happens to me occasionally, but I’ve totally given up on depending upon inspiration. The older I get, the more I’m evolving into a musical craftsman. I think of myself more like a carpenter: I want to build a chair or a shelf, so I get out my tools and my materials and I build it. Of course I still want to do good work, and pour my passion and heart and soul into the process! However, I’ve been around long enough now that I know what to do, and can usually get a good result based upon craft.
Here are some of my favorite tools and tricks for songwriting:
+ I have a hardcover blank book for titles and lyric ideas…no spiral binding, so paper can’t be ripped out!
+ When I first started writing songs I would record my musical ideas, but now I’ve been writing them out on music notation paper…like sheet music. I find that it’s a very inspiring and enlightening way to preserve my thoughts, and it often results in more fresh melodic and chordal ideas.
+ I’m trying to use larger interval leaps in melody lines…and those are always more fun to harmonize with while tracking vocals in the studio! And more fun to sing along with in the car, or in concert. And easier to remember.
+ If I’m stuck on a musical idea, it’s helpful for me to switch instruments. Move from guitar to bass, or from piano to banjo, or from singing aloud to writing on notation paper.
How do you know when a piece or a project is finished?
I can’t say exactly, but I always have a very clear sense that a song is complete. Same thing with assembling a series of recordings into an album. However, it’s trickier when tracking an individual song in the studio….I often will rely on a mixing engineer to tell me “No need for another guitar track” or “how about one more harmony vocal?” Another set of ears is very helpful for me in the tracking/mixing process.
When are you most happy or satisfied as a musician?
I don’t think I have a “most” moment. The whole lifestyle and process is very satisfying for me! I love those quiet private moments when a new song is completed. I love pre-production for a new album. I love working in the studio, and mixing. I love going to the duplicator and picking up 1000 new CDs hot off the press. I love driving for hours to play concerts. I love performing, and then visiting with the audience members after the concert. I love booking tours and scheming about the future. I love when people email me to tell me they took my CDs along with them on a road trip, and listened to my songs as they drove. When I was a little kid my dream was to be a musician, and I’m so thankful that I’m able to do so.
What would you say to someone struggling to refine their musical skills?
This is a huge lesson I’ve learned just in recent years: collaborate with other people! For the first decade of my career I worked almost exclusively alone. I wrote all my songs myself, recorded and mixed them myself, played most of the instruments myself, and performed mostly solo. In those years I think my technical ability didn’t really improve at all. But as time goes by, I’m collaborating more and more with others….producers, mixing engineers, co-writers, and band members…and I’m learning a TON and becoming a much better musician. Plus, it’s more fun. I wish I would’ve gotten out of my own private hole a lot earlier in my career, and given away some control and some trust to other people sooner.
Anything else you’d add, especially for someone working to follow Jesus in exercise of their own craft?
Whenever I get asked about discipleship or “following Jesus” in the arts, I always think about a plumber. Like, could a plumber be asked the same thing? How would a plumber try to follow Jesus has he exercises his craft? Well, I think the answer is: fix the toilet, do good work, be cool, don’t be a jerk. Jesus doesn’t care if the toilet is a Christian toilet. Jesus wants the toilet to function properly, to not leak, to flush dependably, to serve the user well. Same thing with music.