Spoken word maven Chris Bernstorf is set to release his latest project, It’s All Joy, next Friday (4/17). You can check out his latest single here. We had the pleasure talking through the new album, the importance of community, and much more.
IVM: Thanks for taking some time to talk. We’re about a month out from your new album, It’s All Joy. Would you mind going into some of the reason behind the title – and what joy means to you?
Chris: Yeah! I’ve had a lot of heavy stuff happen over the last two or three years. My friend group went through a pretty complete implosion two years ago. We all considered each other family, but, when we got faced with a really hard and difficult situation, a whole bunch of people ended up essentially just eating each other. A different church/community of musicians and DIY types later underwent a dissolution under equally heavy circumstances. My wife and I had some fiercely intense and unrelated troubles with some friends. A whole bunch of our friends went through (and are still working through) pretty intense crises of faith and life. It’s all been some of the hardest and worst things I’ve ever experienced. All of the hurt and pressure has led me into a variety of struggles with myself and faith. In the midst of that, I also experienced some of the best things of my life, including getting married. God has been SO FAITHFUL through it all. I’ve literally felt Him carry me through so much of it. I felt like the record should embody everything that’s gone on and also everything I’ve felt–just this whirlwind of mess but, somehow, in all of it, God there at the bottom, unwavering, carrying us through it, somehow making all of it work for the good. There’s a Bible verse that says we should count all the suffering and persecution as joy, so this album was that for me. The celebration and the pointing to God in the midst of all the pain and suffering. All of it is joy, even when I can’t see it or where it’s going or how God’s promises will come true in the midst of it. It’s all joy.
Oh and hahaha I forgot to say: I’m not exactly sure of a theological meaning for joy in this moment, but, for me, it’s the confidence that all of it, everything, is in God’s hands, being worked for good, that everything matters and is seen by God, and I am seen by God and known and loved, and it’s all going towards Him. He holds it all, has it all, and is going to make it work out and work out for good. So I think joy for me is that confidence, that thankfulness, the assurance of love and good and that I can be thankful no matter my circumstances.
IVM: Thanks so much for sharing, I know that’s all pretty challenging and can be tough to talk about – and it’s always refreshing to see artists be so transparent.
Chris: Thanks man. Yeah, it’s been a wild time, but we’ve found so much freedom in being open, no matter how hard. Honesty has been a way for us to posture ourselves towards God and affirm that God is God, the Blood heals all, and we can talk about anything, no matter how hard, because His love covers us and will make us well. And He sees it all anyway, so there’s no good in hiding. Confessing puts it in the light and gets us towards healing.
IVM: I definitely agree. Have you found it easier to be more transparent as life goes on? Is that part of what drew you to spoken word in the first place?
Chris: Yeah, growing older has definitely led me more and more towards transparency. I’m 28 now, almost 29, and I think the older you get, the more you just see the facades and stuff fall down. When I was younger, I cared so much more about what people thought of me, but, as I’ve gotten older, you just see that 1) it doesn’t matter because my validation and security and love come from God 2) everyone’s just a person and therefore likely struggling through something of their own 3) most of the hyper cool stuff falls apart–like, it either turns out to be fake or you get closer to it and realize that they are just people. Knowing God more has been the real source for all of that revelation for me and for learning that healing is a lot tougher to come by if you aren’t honest. Matt Chandler preached a sermon on fear and anxiety, and he said, if you don’t think God is good, that’s ok, but you have to tell Him so the Holy Spirit can heal you, and I remember sitting on my bed at 25, years into doing all of this and talking about Jesus, and I had to sit there and tell God that I didn’t think He had my best interests in mind. I used to, but I didn’t then. The moment I told Him, I felt something in me break and the Spirit like well up or something and heal me of it in that moment and then I KNEW God was good. I still struggle with doubt and temptation to disbelieve and whatever, but that moment changed me, and I think really showed me how much healing can happen when we are honest with God. He keeps having me think about the fact that the guy on the mat didn’t say “What mat?” when Jesus told him to pick it up and walk. He was 100% acknowledging of his situation and then 100% ready to receive healing. I had a really spiritual experience that led me to being a poet, and I think the power and beauty of the words really drew me into spoken word, but yeah I think the honesty of it all was really freeing and liberating, like, when I saw Bradley Hathaway and Levi the Poet for the first time, never really having seen this art at all, and they were SO raw and passionate, it’s definitely transformative.
IVM: It definitely feels like those two were some of the forerunners of the scene for sure, and of course there are bands like La Dispute or even just the whole dawn of “emo” music in the early 2000s which I don’t think many of us have really outgrown – that desire for music that is real, even lamenting at times, because it reflects our everyday existence. And the Psalms reminds us that even lament is a big part of worship.
Chris: Yeah man, they both really were, and, as far as I can research, Bradley really cleared the trail for straight up spoken word in the scene because nobody did anything like him before that I can find. There was mewithoutYou and La Dispute and that Merchant Ships song, but Bradley was all his own. It’s crazy to think about. And yeah man, I’ve really been praying and working through I guess like a theology of suffering and of lament because it’s so integral to Scripture and even the life of Jesus–I keep thinking about the fact that Jesus asked God not to die and God said no so He died. I’ve been praying a ton through how to hold it all in my heart before God, how to be honest about where I’m at and how I feel or what I see in the world but then also be completely believing for God’s restoration and healing in situations. It’s so tough and complicated and easy to fall too far on either “side” of the equation, so to speak. There’s a great Kevin Schlereth song called “Most Quiet Places” that points out that, if we feel broken about how the world is, that’s actually a good thing because we are resonating with the heart of God in that feeling because He, too, sees that things aren’t the way they are supposed to be and is actively working for the restoration of all of it. I take all my comfort in that, knowing that Jesus sees it and paid for it all before I was even here and is working it all for good. The feeling of the process is what’s uncomfortable. The end is good. And, because the end is good, I’m learning I can see the process as that, too.
IVM: I’m sure Kevin will appreciate the shout here, I’m actually going to be working on some stuff here with him pretty soon. I think that another thing that is cool about what a lot of DIY artists are doing these days – just how connected everyone is and knowing people all over the country. The internet has its downsides but it has really opened up community in a very powerful way.
Chris: Yeah man! Hahaha my wife and I are massive Kevin Schlereth fans, as all people should be. No idolatry at all, he’s just a guy, but God has used him in just massive and incredible ways in my life and my wife’s. We are so thankful for him and his friendship. He actually married us last year. In his swim trunks (at our request haha). Yeah, I despise a lot of the internet and its effects, but, in equal measure, I’m so, so thankful for it. It’s allows our communities to stay in touch, to organize, to include new people. It’s such a wild thing, and it makes such a difference in my life as a DIY artist. I met Kevin in Bryan Hampton from Desiring Dead Flesh’s living room like 6.5 years ago, and I only was in Bryan’s living room because I found his pin website on the internet (iwantpins.com) and then got talking to him, and he booked me a show with Kevin. So, thanks to the internet and a random house show, we got one of our best friends and favorite artists. Also, Catechism is album of the year last year, hands down. And I will end my Kevin plugs haha.
IVM: That’s wild, especially the swim trunks part. So on the topic of community – do you have any plans to tour with the new album? Who would be some of your dream artists to tour with that you haven’t worked with yet?
Chris: We are planning on touring pretty hard prayerfully! Right now, it looks like we’ll be doing an east coast/midwest sorta thing for all of June and a bit of July. We are doing that one solo because, with one or two small exceptions, we really felt like, if we did any touring in our first year of marriage, it was just supposed to be my wife and I spending time together. We are headed to Germany in July to visit some friends and play some shows with our friend Micha Kunze (a German language poet) leading up to Freakstock, which is just like German Audiofeed/Cornerstone. We are praying about the rest of the year, but we anticipate being on tour for most, if not all, of it. Man, dream tours are tough haha. We really deeply love our friends, so touring with them is usually the goal. I think we are trying to work something out with our friends in Common Folk. They are one of our favorite bands. I did a short little run of shows with them in 2016, but it didn’t feel like we got to like tour-tour together so much as we just worked together for a few shows. They are definitely a dream tour. They’re two of the realest, kindest dudes, and they love Jesus and people so much. Every time I hear their music, I just want to go love Jesus and people so much more. I think, if there’s just like spit balling dreams, I’d say Julien Baker, Bad Luck, Levi the Poet, The Story So Far, and the Chariot. I really dig Julien’s music and think our art lines up well. I just adore Bad Luck and The Story So Far’s music. The Chariot (RIP) changed my life, so touring with them would be so sick. Levi has had me out for stuff once before, but I just think of him as the dream all of the time because I think what he’s doing (and been doing) is just so on point for the Church and humanity at large and it’s just so, so, so good. I saw Correspondence front to back like 5 or 6 times in 7 or 8 days, and it never got old. He’s just a phenomenal performer and thinker and speaker. I love his stuff. Cataracts is an album for our time, hands down. I know our community, and the Body at large, needed it.
IVM: Awesome stuff – hopefully tour goes well and maybe some of these dreams will come true! I know we’re starting to get short on time for you but I do appreciate all your time. Before we wrap things up, is there anything you’d like readers to know?
Chris: They matter to Jesus, in the least cliche way possible. It’s hard to remember the basics sometimes, so I say that a lot. Otherwise, I think the big thing is that all of my art is for free on Bandcamp and Noisetrade and my books are available for free on my website (chrisbernstorf.com). I think art belongs to the people and not the makers, so I try to give all of my stuff away for free. I also think the Gospel is free, so I want to be an example of that. And it’s all for free-free. Like, you don’t need to give me your email or tell anyone about it or anything. Just go, click the button, put $0, and it belongs to you as a gift, pure and simple. Thanks so much for your time, Casey! I really appreciate this!
IVM: Of course, thanks so much to you as well and hopefully this isn’t the last time we talk!