“Do you think there can be such a thing as ‘Christian’ emo?” A rather intense music fan cornered me with this question at a music festival recently, as if my approval or condemnation could somehow elevate or destroy the genre (if it is one.)
In my seven years in Christian hit radio, I’ve had intense questions from every side. The 22-year-old hipster who feels the need to convince me the bands my stations plays are lame, and that I’m somehow wasting my life. The super-conservative homeschool mom who used Google to discover that Mat Kearney opened for John Mayer, who’s pretty open about his womanizing habits, and now worries Kearney isn’t “genuine” in his faith. The old-school Christian metalhead that wants my station to play Stryper and Petra.
Over time, I’ve learned to laugh most of this off. I play pop records for a living, but often the questioners treat the topic like it’s a nuclear arms policy. One thing I’ve learned is that, just as there are Christians who melt away in fear from anything not sold at Family Christian Stores, there are also Christians who have an open prejudice against any music with a “faith” tag on it. And it’s not my desire, or my job, to change the collective minds of either camp.
Eighty percent of Christians obviously fall somewhere in the middle ground. This is the group that probably owns more mainstream music than bands coming out of the CCM scene, but enjoys quality faith-based music (and acknowledges that some of it is mediocre at best.) While I believe in what I do, I in no way claim that the Christian market has a monopoly on music about faith. Some of the artists making the best music about faith are stuck in a group I call “The Outsiders,” who aren’t getting much exposure in the Christian market, and are flying under the radar of the mainstream music press. It’s often these artists who are the most passionate. They have to be, because their only option is to spread their music by making one fan at a time, with lots of elbow grease and tours full of club dates.
Until June (http://www.myspace.com/untiljune) is one such band. They had a minor Christian radio hit back in 2006 with “What I’ve Done” before splitting with their Christian label. Since then, the band has blown up in Asia, made an appearance on the MTV Music Awards and their single was picked up as the theme song for the ABC drama Private Practice.
I spoke to vocalist Josh Ballard about the band’s mission, his frustrations with the Christian market and how faith affects the music. Here are his thoughts:
On being signed to a Christian label:
We signed to a Christian label, but one that understood that we we’re an LA rock band that doesn’t sing real explicitly about our faith. After a corporate buyout, we found ourselves on a different label with big name worship acts, and it didn’t work out well. Even when we got a song on Grey’s Anatomy, they didn’t know what to do with us. What I learned from the experience is that anytime there’s both faith and money involved, there’s going to be some compromise. We learned on a very intimate level that a Christian label doesn’t operate much differently than a secular label. Whether or not they should is something people are going to have to decide for themselves.
On a sense of calling to do music:
I wish it were a more romantic answer about God speaking to me in a grand way, but the truth is that music is the only job I’ve ever wanted to have. God can’t steer a car that’s not moving, so my brother and I dropped out of college, moved to LA and put everything we had into it for five years. When nothing happened, we gave ourselves another six months to break in or quit. We said we’d keep trying music “Until June,” and if nothing changed, we’d go back to school and figure something out. We got signed after five months.
On the band’s impressive international success:
I’m glad this didn’t happen in my early twenties, because it may have gone to my head a little bit. Now that I’m a bit older, I realize that God has put me in this position for a reason, and I have an opportunity here. Music creates a soapbox where people view you differently than they view the rest of the world. When you’re talking with people, the sound guys, your tour managers, that’s where most of the ministry takes place. Most people don’t just hear a certain song or a guy in a band say “it’s all about God” and just fall on their knees. People want to see something tangible in your faith.
On honesty and censorship:
There were certain lyrics that the Christian market simply wouldn’t let us put into our songs. On our single “What I’ve Done” I originally sang “Tighter on the tree I hang/the air I breath gets shorter every time I speak/the words you’ve heard a thousand times.” It was a metaphorical way of saying “every time I open my mouth, I’m tightening the noose around my neck.” I wrote it about my struggle to confess the same sin over and over. I was told that Christian radio wouldn’t play a song with those lyrics, and Christian bookstores wouldn’t carry the album. Which is entirely possible. But I do feel like my honesty was being censored. I always felt like we were being pushed to put a quota of “Jesus” or “God” references in the songs.
My band understands that faith is the most important thing in our lives. Now that we’re free to write whatever we want, we’re writing more about our faith than we ever have. The single off of our new EP is “The Man Who Lost His Soul.” When I was free to do whatever I wanted, when I just sat down to write, a song about my faith is what naturally came out.
On support from people of faith
It may sound like I have a heavy bitterness against the Christian music industry, but I don’t. Growing up, I listened to lots of Christian music, and then, after seeing the industry intimately, there was a bit of a disappointment. However, the greatest fans that Until June has are Christians who are in church every week. That group is extremely supportive of what we do. That’s something that we will never, ever take for granted. We could never thank the Christian radio stations and bookstores who support us enough. For the next record, we want to hit the mainstream market and get our album in Best Buy and online, but we also want to make sure it’s in Christian bookstores, where I went to buy music when I was a teenager.
Seth “tower” Hurd is a radio host, writer, triathlete and summer beach rat. He can be heard on 89.7 Shine.FM (www.shine.fm) in
Chicago and Indiana, and on 101.7 FUSE FM (www.myfusefm.com) in