There are only a handful of “Christian bands” who have crossed over into the mainstream without losing their roots. Jon Foreman and Switchfoot have been playing rock music full time, and surfing on downtime, for about 13 solid years. And even though the band has gone from Christian labels to majors and elsewhere, they’ve not yet fallen into musical (and spiritual) obscurity.
Before playing a solo show for To Write Love On Her Arms in Orlando, Foreman reminisced about the various projects he’s taken on over the past few years. “You do all these songs with a band, and you have an identity with them,” he says. “But I think in music you’ve got all sorts of different styles and ideas that you’re always coming up with. Every artist that makes music listens to a variety of different sounds, and sometimes it’s amazing to venture off into new territory and explore some new places. That’s what the EPs are for me.”
Foreman’s EPs were released throughout the course of 2007 and 2008, and eventually came to be known as Limbs and Branches. Each EP was released under the name of a season—four total made for a complete year of acoustic music. “Switchfoot pays the rent, but I love doing the EPs,” Foreman says. “After Switchfoot shows for years, I’d go out and play another set at coffee shops or a bar down the street. I think the EPs were kind of the fruition of that. All of these ‘I wish I were Bob Dylan’ songs that I could just let slide out.”
Limbs and Branches was one of RELEVANT’s Top 20 Albums of 2008, and has garnered him respect as a singer-songwriter capable of subtle introspection. Most of the songs Foreman played at the To Write Love On Her Arms show were from his solo album.
But that side project is so 2008.
On Jan. 20, 2009, Foreman will release an album called Fiction Family. “Fiction Family is myself and Sean Watkins from Nickel Creek,” he says. “We did it several years back, and we were hoping to get signed by a certain … coffee company that puts out music. But then their music department fell apart. So it has actually been done for almost three years now and we’ve just kind of been sitting on it.” Starting tomorrow, Fiction Family will be touring the country. Foreman is excited to finally release the album: “It feels really great to be partnering up with ATO Records. To have My Morning Jacket and Paul McCartney as label-mates is not a bad thing! We’re amped.”
The album is another that sees Foreman in singer-songwriter mode. Sounding a little more Nickel Creek with acoustic guitars and strings, Fiction Family requires Switchfoot fans to put away their rock fists for the sake of a more mature folk rock. But one thing that is as present here as with all of Foreman’s projects is a clear lyrical search for deeper meaning. “The real project is just figuring out how to live,” he says. “That’s the ongoing project.”
Influenced by the time-tested soul music of Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, Foreman’s music is an existential journey for the spirit. “One of the best verses ever written is the dialogue between God and Abraham on [Bob Dylan’s] ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’” he says.
The song reminds Foreman of how Soren Kierkegaard brought Abraham and Isaac to the philosophical world in Fear and Trembling. “Kierkegaard is pretty hard to nail down, and I think he would want it that way,” he says. “He wrote from so many surnames and pseudonyms and different perspectives, sometimes satirizing the very things he had said in the past. But he was against Christendom, which is kind of everything about the Church sans Christ. I think that’s something I can relate to in our times, when the church has become a business. You’ve got CDs and magazines and all these ‘Christian’ things. The question is, not only as a consumer but as a human being, how do you find your soul and dig underneath the veneer? I feel like there was quite a commonality between Kierkegaard’s time and ours.”
Like Kierkegaard’s restless dread of the Christian life, Foreman continues to ask life questions through song. “Kierkegaard stressed the ever-present now, the pressing needs of the moment that we have right now that will never transpire again,” he says. “He was very specific about what a great honor it is to be in this moment. The fear and trembling that you face standing up on the cliff that is now.”
And for this reason, we will not see Foreman tire of music-making anytime soon. “I think the bottom line is that I’ll be doing music whether I get paid for it or not. I’m still digging…”
All of these projects have not gotten in the way of Foreman’s day job, though. “We are making a Switchfoot record,” he says. “We wanted to start with a clean slate because the last couple of records felt kind of compromised.” Switchfoot recently left their major label deal to become a truly independent band again. Foreman explains, “With Sony, they fired people so quickly that it was hard for us to develop any sort of traction, so we fired ourselves. We got off the label because music is very sensitive to the place that it’s coming from. We wanted to create an environment where we were going to be with the same people for a long time and trust is established. We built our own studio and we’ve just been honing in on people we love to work with.”
The next Switchfoot album should prove to be something new altogether. “We’ve tracked about 75 songs in our studio and now we’re weeding down, working with engineer Daryl Thorpe who is Nigel Godrich’s right hand man for Radiohead, Air and Beck,” Foreman says. “He’s incredible, he’s really helped us find some new territory. Another place we’ve gone for inspiration is our producer Mike Elizondo—he’s worked with Mary J. Blige and Eminem. He’s, like, Dr. Dre’s right hand man. We’re trying to find a new playing field for the next 10 years to throw the ball around in.”
With the soulful influences and the new producer, will the next Switchfoot album top the R&B charts? “I’m as white as it gets, but I love hip-hop! … But, no, I’m not going to be spitting any phat beats.”