The Gray Havens

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It’s my pleasure to share a (rather lengthy) conversation over email I had with Dave and Licia Radford, both of whom make up the folk-pop narrative band The Gray Havens. Their debut release, the wonderful EP Where Eyes Don’t Gowas an unexpected highlight of 2013. Now, two years later, the’re putting out their debut full length: Fire And Stone. I hope you enjoy reading along and getting to know Dave and Licia a little more.

IVM: I remember just browsing Noisetrade one day a few years back, as I am wont to do, and I happily stumbled across your debut EP, Where Eyes Don’t Go. Talk about felix culpa. My eyes lit up as soon I as I heard the first song, and I was hooked through the whole album; it’s really something special. And now you’re releasing your first full length album after a very successful Kickstarter project. Did you feel a difference in the writing and recording process the second time around?

Dave: Absolutely. Where Eyes Don’t Go was a compilation of songs that came about through years of songwriting as a hobby. I did not intentionally go about writing specific songs for a specific album. It all just sort of happened. With Fire and Stone, the process was much more deliberate. Six months before recording I began capturing any song idea that came to mind on my iPhone. Three months out I sorted them all, chose the strongest ideas, and started trying to figure out what each should be written about. Recording was very different as well. We produced everything at Sputnik Sound in Nashville with Mitch Dane (an incredibly talented producer!). Mitch, Licia, and I worked at a fairly fast pace. It was an intense process, with lots of decisions being made constantly based on our gut reaction in the moment, but we walked away with something we absolutely love and are excited to share.

IVM: Okay, so with Where Eyes Don’t Go, you’ve mentioned before that it was a conceptually rooted in retelling Creation, Fall, and Redemption from the perspective of History. What direction, thematically, did you pursue on Fire and Stone?

Dave: Much of Fire and Stone is about the fight for joy, based on a promise that says all things in my life, past, present, and future, are working together for my greatest good. The second part to this is that suffering is often the greatest servant of our joy. This is certainly true of our song “The Stone,” which is about the resurrection of Christ. If the greatest injustice in history, namely the death of Christ, was simultaneously history’s greatest triumph, then I can have great hope in believing God will make good on his promise to work all things out for good, for those who love him.

IVM: That’s a great theological point to centre the album on. Earlier I made a passing joke about felix culpa, but the same idea revolves here: God bears good out of evil; our sin can lead to great good. What I love about your lyrics are how you weave these theological themes with narrative. How do you approach storytelling in your writing, and why is it important to your music?

Dave: C.S. Lewis was right when he said that story has a way of “stealing past the watchful dragons” of the human heart. This has certainly been true of my own experience with story, whether told through film, novel, or song. I simply can’t get enough of good stories. I also think it’s noteworthy that Jesus chose to communicate some of the most important doctrinal truths to his disciples through story. This is what I try to do in songwriting. Create narratives that tell good stories. It’s not because I’m making some sort of point as to how ideas should be communicated. Illustration is just how I’ve been wired to communicate.

When my mind attempts to construct any complex idea, it naturally becomes flooded with images. Same thing happens when I hear a chord progression or some melodic hook. Whether it’s a ship, statue, or a stone (clearly it has to start with “s”), there’s usually some image that captures my attention. I imagine what world or story that image might be a part of. The image itself doesn’t have to be the focal point of the story or anything. Just a part of where the story takes place.  Then I ask, given the music and imagery in my mind, what is this song wanting to say? What should it be about?

IVM: I wholeheartedly agree. There are certainly other ways to communicate ideas, but storytelling has always resonated with me as well. That’s a great bit from Lewis, and I can’t help but wonder if it trickled down from G.K. Chesterton’s line: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” There’s something about a well told story that allows you to lose yourself to reality, but end up even more grounded in the truth. I definitely see your songs as modern fairy tales, and I mean that in the best possible way.

That helps to convey why I love your stories. Songs from your first album, like “Silver” or “Gray Flowers,” have a universal appeal to them that transcends the lyrics themselves as the story bears an idea or theme that resonates with my identity. 

So you’ve already quoted Lewis, and Where Eyes Don’t Go was sprinkled with references to him, as well as Tolkien; but what else do you read that seeps into your own writing? Who are your favourite authors, and why are they dear to you? 

And are there any particular influences you’ve noticed cropping up on Fire and Stone?

Dave: I’ve been in somewhat of a reading slump lately. Truth be told, as far as non-fiction goes, I usually get more out of listening to a good talk by John Piper, Tim Keller, or Jerram Barrs than I do reading. Those guys were major influences on this album and I feel very indebted to them. That said, some non-fiction reading highlights from the year would include: Echoes of Eden by Jerram Barrs, To Change the World by James Hunter, and A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry. I’m also currently reading a book called What’s Best Next by Matt Perman that’s drastically changing the way I view work.

As far as fiction writing goes, I’m a sucker for anything Tolkein-esque. I read the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini as well as The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson over the last six months or so. My wife, Licia, is trying to get me to read different kinds of fiction, such as Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockinbird which I’m 30 or so pages into at the moment. Those kinds of books are just harder for me to get into (though I admit I haven’t given Pride and Prejudice much of a shot yet).

IVM: Fair enough, I’ve been in a slump myself as far as fiction goes. I’ve read and appreciated Piper and Keller, but I haven’t gotten around to Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden yet, this is a good reminder to get on that. And it took me a while to get into those kinds of books too, but I know I’m happier for it now; there are some great novels out there. I don’t know how you feel about monstrously long books (900 pages or so), but Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is one of the best fantasy novels of the decade, and it blends fantasy in with the literary qualities of Jane Austen. It makes a good transition between genres. 

But I’m interested in hearing more about Matt Perman’s What’s Best Next. How is it changing your perspective on work, and in a larger sense, how does your theology (I’m guessing Reformed, by your references to Piper and Keller) shape your life and your work. Do you find yourself writing songs to purposefully convey a theological principle, or do you write them first, and then revise the lyrics to get a specific point?

Dave: Theology is a hard thing to escape I believe everyone has a theology that dramatically affects their life and work, Christian or not. The key is to have a good theology, and that’s what I’m seeking to gain when I listen to speakers or read authors who can faithfully and winsomely unpack Scripture, Reformed or not (though, yes, I would probably fall into that camp).

As far as Perman’s book, What’s Best Next, I’m learning tons. His definition of productivity is fantastic. He writes, “being productive is about doing good for others – creatively, competently, and abundantly.” Instead of seeking personal peace, affluence, wealth, or success as a way of accomplishing true happiness, he argues that “we are to use all that we have, in all areas of life, for the good of others, to the glory of God – and that is the most exciting life.” The bit about the most exciting life has helped the most in fighting selfishness (and therefore, lack of productivity). Now, when I am faced with the decision to be selfish or serve my wife (or co-worker, or whoever), I can remind myself there is far greater joy and excitement (even adventure!) in serving the other person than in indulging my selfish desires, because that’s what we are made for.

As far as how I write, that’s still very much a work in progress, but yes, I typically seek to create a narrative world for certain ideas, emotions, or doctrines to inhabit in order that I might get a better glimpse of them for myself, if that makes any sense.

IVM: That’s such an important concept, of living for others with joy an excitement. Like Donald Miller says in Blue Like Jazz: “Dying for something is easy because it is associated with glory. Living for something is the hard thing. Living for something extends beyond fashion, glory, or recognition. We live for what we believe.” 

So of the songs from your new record, what would be your favourite song from the following perspectives (without using the same song twice): from a musical perspective, from a narrative perspective, and from a theological perspective.

Dave: Love that question. Hmmm…Ok. From a musical perspective, “The Stone” is my favorite. Definitely. From the narrative side, I would say “Jack and Jill, pt.2.” Theologically, it’s a toss up between “Sirens” and “Far Kingdom.” Probably “Sirens” though.

IVM: What about “Sirens” makes it your favourite?

Dave: Theologically, “Sirens” is my favorite because I was able to reference some of my favorite authors (Augustine, Keller, Piper). The premise is based upon Augustine’s idea of “disordered loves.” Our “loves” become disordered whenever its object surpasses God in its perceived worth and desirability. The competing objects are almost always good things inherently, but have been elevated to a status they were never meant to hold (thus, robbing God of his great worth and denying ourselves the joy of treasuring what is supremely valuable!) The only way to fight this is to remind ourselves of the gospel and the far surpassing joys that we posses and are promised in Christ.

“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Ps. 16:11

IVM: So we’ve heard from you about how and why you write, but how involved is your wife, Licia, throughout the whole process? I love her vocals on the album, but does she co-write songs as well?

Dave: Licia is the “chief editor” of everything I write. She has a knack for this sort of thing. I’ll spend an hour coming up with something new and she’ll usually be able to tell me within 30 seconds of listening whether or not it’s worth continuing. That, or I’ll be in the final stages of the writing process, and she’ll hold out her blessing of the song until the words feel exactly right. It actually works out really well.

IVM: Licia, I have the same question for you that I had for Dave before: on the new album, what would be your favourite song from the following perspectives: from a musical perspective, from a narrative perspective, and from a theological perspective?

Licia: I have the same favorites as Dave (though my favorites tend to change often): musical- “The Stone”, narrative- “Jack and Jill, Pt. 2”, theological- “Sirens.”

Josh: How did you feel when you first became a part of The Gray Havens? You didn’t have the same experience performing for people like Dave, do you prefer to work behind the scenes, editing Dave’s writing and recording, instead of performing, are are you comfortable with both?

Licia: How did I feel when I first became a part of The Gray Havens? I came in long after Dave began writing, but before The Gray Havens actually got started. Shortly after we got engaged, Dave asked me to be part of the band, as opposed to being more involved “behind the scenes.” I was a bit surprised but very happy he asked (though I had no idea what I was actually getting into). Had I foreseen how quickly we would begin recording and touring, I would have been very frightened. It’s good things happened the way they did! God was preparing me.

Though I’m much more comfortable behind the scenes, I prefer performing. I believe that God called me to be a musician precisely because it isn’t natural or comfortable for me. If things go well, I can’t take any credit. I have moments of severe nervousness before most shows. I feel like Moses as he fearfully asked, “Who am I that I should go…?” However, it is usually when I’m performing that I feel God most at work in my life (“But I will be with you…”). I usually end up really enjoying our shows. Chatting with people after each concert is probably my favorite part of this job.

IVM: So I’ve asked you a bit about your influences, both from books and theologians and whatnot, but what about films? You’ve mentioned how your approach is both narrative and visual; an image that captures your mind. So what are your favourite movies and do they have any impact upon your songwriting?

Dave: Good question. I’m more of an epic movie lover (LOTR, The Patriot, Gladiator), and Licia’s more enamored by anything to do with Jane Austen. I like high stakes plot lines, she likes relational complexity. There’s some overlap here, but that’s generally where we are on the spectrum. I also like anything that’s visually stunning. After I watched Avatar for the first time (in IMAX 3D!), I immediately went home and wrote much of what became “Music, They Call Me” because my mind was so over-stimulated.

Movies help me write songs in that they give me a “visual vocabulary” to aid me in imagining different scenes taking place within the storyline. Other than Avatar though, I don’t know that I can trace any direct inspiration from a movie to a song I’ve written. Books are better 🙂

IVM: Even as an avid movie enthusiast myself, I wholeheartedly agree: books are better. Turning back to music, who are some of your favourite musicians or bands (who are still making music), and if you could go on tour with any bands or musicians – living or dead – who would you choose?

Hmmm… that’s a good question.

Some of our current favorite musicians are: Son of LaughterKatie HerzigVampire Weekend, and The Head and the Heart.

If we had to choose one musician to tour with, it would be Andrew Peterson. Definitely.

IVM: That would be a great tour, love Andrew Peterson – I only recently discovered him through Light For The Lost Boy, and it’s fantastic. So this interview is getting a little bit long, so I’m just going to go down one final rabbit hole with you guys: I heard a while back (through facebook or Twitter), that you’ve begun watching Dr. Who. Any comments about the show?

Dr. Who is something we’ve gradually gotten into. We actually started watching because so many people were recommending it to us on tour. I have to admit, we gave up on the show after finishing two seasons. However, we happened to be staying with some die-hard Dr. Who fans one night who convinced us to watch an episode with them called “Blink.” It was awesome! We were sold, at least enough to watch through the end of the 4th season. Currently having trouble adjusting to the new Dr. (after David Tennant), but we probably won’t walk away so easily this time.