Editor’s Note: In our effort to explore the intersection between practical and theoretical expressions of theology and the arts, Transpositions features contemporary artists who infuse their work with theological reflection. In our latest installment, Senior Editor Brett H Speakman interviews singer-songwriter Dave Barnes about his career in music and the ways that theology influences his life and work, both personally and professionally.
Dave Barnes is an American singer-songwriter based in Nashville, Tennessee (USA), who has been nominated for both a Grammy Award and a CMA (Country Music Association) Award. Since 2002, he has released three EPs and ten full-length albums, including his latest project, Who Knew It Would Be So Hard To Be Myself (2018). His music is interlaced with infectious melodies and genuine lyrics on the topics of love, the importance of family, and the centrality of faith. Over the past seventeen years, Dave has traveled extensively to headline his own tours, as well as performing with and/or opening for Taylor Swift, John Mayer, Bonnie Raitt, One Republic, Hanson, needtobreathe, and Lady Antebellum. In addition to his own success as a musician, Dave has written songs for, and co-written songs with, other artists, such as Blake Shelton (#1 with ‘God Gave Me You’), Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris (#1 with ‘Craving You’), Parachute, Tim McGraw, Ben Rector, Matt Wertz, Tyler Hilton, and many others. In March of this year, he set out on his current tour, The Tour Where I Sing Songs and Do Stand Up Tour, which features a distinct combination of performing his popular music with a formal stand-up comedy routine.
Could you begin by telling us a little bit about how you got started in music initially?
I started playing drums in marching band when I was in middle school, and then started playing drum set in a rock band later in high school. Drums were sort of my gateway drug, if you will – ha! I started playing guitar in college and immediately started writing songs. Eventually, after my best friend’s encouragement, I started singing as well.
Where did you have your first public performance and how did it come about?
I think it was a coffeehouse church gig in Knoxville (TN), but I’m not EXACTLY sure about that. Pretty sure I’ve tried to wipe that memory from my brain, as have the audience.
What does the creative process look like for you? For example, do you need to be alone in a quiet space or do you prefer to sit in a crowded place with background noise,etc?
You probably hear this a lot, but it’s different each time. Some songs start while I am on a run, or in a crowded room at lunch with friends, and sometimes they happen when I am in my studio trying to write something. The beginning doesn’t require me being alone, but me working on it further than that definitely does! I am way too insecure to write in front of anyone. I would be terrified they would hear a melody I am messing with and say something like, ‘Is that going to be the verse melody? Really? No! It’s…cool?’
Your musical style has evolved a bit throughout your career. For those readers who are not familiar with your music, how would you describe it in terms of style?
Eclectic. For sure. I like that it’s not one thing. All my idols are like that – Billy Joel, Elton John, James Taylor, Paul Simon, even Stevie Wonder to a great degree – they didn’t just stick to one lane. They followed where their inspiration took them.
Who are the artists who have influenced your music, both in terms of writing and music style?
Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, John Mayer, Stevie Wonder, so much of the Motown catalog. Everybody sort of contributes different things. Stevie melodically and musically, Indigo Girls lyrically and sentiment, Bonnie Raitt in terms of what she is doing vocally and how you feel listening to her sing. Everyone has something they bring to the table that is inspiring.
In a similar manner, what are the musical genres that you enjoy the most and that find their way into your music?
I really do enjoy most all of the genres. There’s something to learn from them all!
Do any other forms of the arts (literature, film, poetry, etc) inform your music?
Absolutely. I read a ton of poetry when writing Who Knew It Would Be So Hard To Be Myself. One of the main ones was Courtney Kampa’s, Our Lady of Not Asking Why (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2017)– a GORGEOUS set of poems. Reading poems, reading books, etc helps get me out of the lyrical rut I can get in; it helps me not just see words in one light. It’s hugely helpful.
A lot of the songs throughout your career are about your wife and your children. How have they influenced your music?
In so many ways. They, and the Lord, are the biggest influencers in my life, so I have a lot to say about them.
You have written some highly successful songs for other artists. Is that process different than when you write songs for your own albums?
It is. Writing for other people requires the same skills, but just dialed in a little differently. I can be more myself with the songs I write for myself, but if I am writing with or for someone else, I don’t know if they feel exactly how I do, so I tend to try to make those songs a bit more general so they apply to more people than just myself.
You are friends with other similar artists, such as Matt Wertz, Ben Rector, Andrew Ripp, and others who live in Nashville. Is being in a community of similar musicians important in your own musical creation and development?
It’s not just important, it’s vital. I’ve always been inspired by other music, so it’s such a gift to be around people who are so consistently putting out such great music that I am inspired by. It also helps so much because of the communal nature of shared experience. Everybody knows how whatever you are going through feels, and in such a bizarre and specific occupation, that’s invaluable.
Up to this point in your career, is there one of your own songs that is a favorite or that you are most proud of writing?
You know not to ask that. HA! ‘So, which child is your favorite, Dave?’ That said, I’m really proud of ‘Grace’s Amazing Hands’. Always love playing that one.
You are in the midst of your current tour entitled, ‘The Tour Where I Sing Songs and Do Stand Up Tour’. How did you decide to combine a musical concert with a comedy routine?
Humor has been a part of my “brand”, if you will, since I started my career. I’ve been making ridiculous weird videos since I started my career, but hadn’t really done the stand up thing. A few years ago, I made my manager book a couple of nights of stand up here in Nashville at a small coffee house. The only condition was that he not tell me when because I knew I would try to back out. I did two shows over two nights for friends only, and it wasn’t bad. After those couple of shows, I did a few shows here and there over the next couple of years. I then didn’t do any stand up stuff for probably 4 or 5 years. Then last year my manager said, ‘You know, I think it’s time to do some more stand up stuff. Its been enough time to have another go, I think.’ So we booked 6 shows last year – just stand up comedy – no guitar – me and a mic for an hour and fifteen minutes – and played 5 different cities, playing Nashville twice.
Thankfully, they went really well. So, with them going well, we decided to do this mashup thing – a night of both music and stand up – and see how it goes!
Now that you have had some shows already on the tour, has the audience responded to the combination of music and comedy in a formal sense?
I think so! I’m scared to ask, honestly, but I think everyone has really enjoyed it. I keep waiting for some significant response but I’m not sure I’m gonna get it. I have this suspicion that it’s not that much of a surprise to most people. I mean, I’ve always been chatty and told stories and stuff at my shows, so I don’t think it’s as different of an experience to most people as I think it is!
Do you believe that comedy has any theological value?
Absolulely. Something that has maybe been the most significant takeaway from doing these stand up shows is seeing how much joy it can bring people. That laughter is such a wonderful thing. I think I forget that sometimes – the joy it brings us when people are really funny. I love that. I like that I can make people feel that way, even for a little while. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it as such a gift.
How does theology influence your music?
In every way. It’s how I think about everything, so it influences how I see the world.
Who are some of your favorite theologians?
I’ll answer that by telling you whose sermons I have been listening to a lot lately. I’m not smart enough to be binge reading Spurgeon or Calvin, sadly – ha! Tim Keller is such a stud. I’ve really enjoyed Rankin Wilbourne’s sermons lately – he’s in California – great teacher. Kevin DeYoung is a stud too.
In my opinion, one of your most theological songs is the 2013 single, ‘Good’, for the ways that you reflect upon life, forgiveness and blessings. Can you tell us a little bit about that song? How did it come about and what is the message you are trying to convey?
We were just about to have Ben, our first child. I found myself thinking so much about life, God’s goodness and faithfulness to us. We had been through miscarriages, and as much as they hurt, they did so much for helping me appreciate what we had. The song is about that perspective.
Likewise, are there certain themes that flow throughout your overall work?
I think so. I’m probably not the best person to ask, as I’m smack dab in the middle of all of it – ha! I HOPE people know a few things about me – how much I love the Lord, my wife, and my family. That’s very important to me. It’s the legacy I hope I can leave behind. Hopefully there’s some thankfulness spread in there too!
What is the most difficult aspect for you in combining your theology with your music? In other words, how do you navigate the balance between sacred and secular music?
Our creations can’t help but be made up, in some part, of our theology, I think. I mean, our theology, or lack thereof, is going to inform what we write about and how we think about those things, if that makes sense. It’s hard knowing that not everyone relates to my theology – that I believe what I do about God. So that can feel limiting creativity wise. I don’t like writing songs that immediately limit themselves, but I also want to be true to who I am and what I believe. So that can be tricky.
As a Christian, I believe what Romans 1:18-20 says, and that gives me hope that when I write about God, that will resonate in some way with people who aren’t Christians.
The navigation of the sacred and secular can be tricky, for sure. I just hope that my heartfelt-ness – if that’s a word – communicates even if people don’t believe what I do. That they at least know I believe it. Sometimes I think that’s the best I can do.
You are a Christian and a musician/singer-songwriter, yet you are not part of the Christian music industry. Was that a conscious decision? Why or Why not?
One – I have dear dear friends that are in the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) industry – ‘God Gave Me You’ was a top 5 hit there for me. I have huge love for that world, and I was so blessed to have spent some time in it. That said, I just never felt like it was where God wanted me to be. Don’t know why. I will say this, my friends who do Christian music feel as called to it as I do to the mainstream, which I love.
It was tricky for a while in the beginning, because there weren’t a ton of us that were Christians doing music in the mainstream, and a lot of people in both the CCM and mainstream spheres just sort of thought – if you’re a Christian, you should do Christian music, right? I met with so many mainstream labels and managers, etc, that didn’t understand why I wasn’t doing Christian music. I also met with people in the CCM world who didn’t understand why I wasn’t doing it, either.
I get to navigate this really cool world of both churches and clubs, and I love that.
In a talk to Anglican ministers, C. S. Lewis stated, ‘What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects — with their Christianity latent’. This seems to be a nice description of your own music. Would you say that your Christian faith is latent throughout your music? Is that a conscious decision or something that comes out naturally?
That means a lot! That’s definitely my hope – naturally, I think. It’s rare that I’m trying to force any idea or agenda. I want it to feel natural and heartfelt.
Do you believe that music is able to convey theology in better or different ways than other forms of the arts? If so, how?
Music is the only medium that can do what it does, in my opinion. SO quickly change our mood, take us from laughing to dancing, dancing to mourning. Tears to joy, vice versa. It’s crazy. It houses so many memories – it’s able to take us to a place in seconds. It’s SUCH a powerful medium. And universally loved, too.
I think, and I may regret saying this – it’s the most powerful conveyor of any message, honestly. That said, I do think it is able to convey theology in different and maybe better ways than most forms of art. When it connects, it connects fully. So when a theological message is communicated clearly and powerfully through song, it can change lives.
In a related question, do you believe that secular music can be theological in any way, such as through the experience of the listener or the music being infused with theological themes?
So much of mainstream music is continually asking this existential question, whether they or we know it or not. In some ways, any song about loneliness is a song about God and are we really alone? Like, alone alone? I mean, look at [John] Mayer’s song, “Something’s Missing.” You can’t really spell out the human dilemma better than that.
What are your plans for the future, both professionally and personally?
Right now, really seeing how these comedy/music shows go, and if there is a future in that platform. I do think I’ll keep doing the stand up shows either way.
Personally, I’ve really enjoyed getting more involved in our local church here. It was really hard for a long time when I was on the road as much as I was, but now that I’m home more, I have the time to do it!
Any plans for doing a UK tour?
I hope so! Anything that gives me an excuse to go see Arsenal play!