Jars of Clay Interview

Image: Jars of Clay Interview

Stephen Mason talks to Fervr about a new album and new charity for Jars of Clay.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus returns to land and is told to take his oar and walk inland until he finds someone who doesn’t know what an oar is. Jars of Clay took this story to mean moving from the familiar to the unknown and, as a band, finding new ways to express themselves. And taking us on this journey is multi-instrumentalist and self-proclaimed “jack of all trades, master of none” Stephen Mason. He fills us in on the latest album Inland, how the band are fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa, and why he still considers himself a student.

Stephen, can you tell us about the latest album from Jars of Clay?

Inland is a remarkable story for us because we spent a year writing songs and ended up with about 40 tunes that we were excited about. It led us on a journey. We use the story of Odysseus when he leaves his ship and a wise sage says to him, ‘Take your oar and walk inland until you find someone who doesn’t know what that is’. For us that sparked a curiosity about finding new ways to talk about things like poetry, life, how we engage with our community and our culture, and other people who don’t share our same experiences.

And how do we journey into the Mystery? Because life is Mystery. There are surely things we do know, but I would argue that living the best life means submitting to some Mystery sometimes, and doing the best we can with what we know, which isn’t going to be everything, all the time. That’s a good deal about what Inland is about. Specifically, we wrestle with relationships between God and humanity, the relationships between humans, between husbands and wives, fathers and sons. So I think Inland is really about the nitty gritty, the work of how do we love well, and how do we venture well in the life we’ve been given and the time that we do have on earth. So you know, little topics like that (laughs).

Your band is 20 years old this year, is that right?

Yes! In the States that means it can vote and in a year it will be able to drink! (laughs). Yes, 20 years this year and it’s provided us with some really sweet opportunities to reflect and to wonder. Certainly, when we started the band in college, we didn’t have any idea that it would be our gainful employment in 20 years. Quite an honour and it’s humbling, honestly. Ultimately, I would say [we’ve come this far] because of people who have walked with us, listened to the music, and inspired us with stories of where the songs have connected with them in their story. So we feel a deep sense of honour to be a part of somebody’s story that way, and then also how their stories have shaped us and inspired us to continue. So 20 years in we find ourselves just full of gratitude, absolutely.

How has Jars of Clay grown over these years?

Goodness, well, we joke about the first record we wrote in 1994/5. We kind of ‘knew it all’ then - we were in college, and we were full of idealism, and we had it ‘figured out’. We joke that every record since then has been a conscious and unconscious ‘forgetting’, which has led us to ask more complex questions of ourselves and our communities and our faith. So I think that’s one way we’ve grown, we’ve grown forgetful in the most helpful way; we’ve realised that the things we thought we knew, we didn’t know to their complexities. So we’ve circled back around with most of our life and found new questions to ask, new means of adventure with old friends. 

What things have been challenging for your band as Christians?

You know, being faithful to ask questions and maintaining the posture of a student. Because I truly believe—and I believe this goes for faith, this goes for lots of aspects of life—when we think we have it sorted out, when we’ve got it figured, when we stop learning, when we dismiss that posture of student, you know, perpetual learner, I think we’ve really stopped living. And I think for us, meeting in university, it’s a part of the arrested development that has worked in our favour—we were college kids when we met and it’s always been a part of our story, it’s where we’ve continued to reside, we still ask questions. So I think that’s the danger in the work before us: to always remain curious. It’s a big world out there and there’s great need and we’ve all been given great, wonderful, mysterious gifts, each of us, individually, that we can either offer back to our communities or choose to sit on. So I think that’s the work we must do: continue to give ourselves away. 

You guys are Christians. Does that mean you only make music for Christians?

No, I think we would offer that our music is meant to hit all aspects of humanity. We like to say, ‘We submit our songs and our questions to people of all walks of life’, whether that’s a Christian faith, another faith or no faith at all. We think that if we’re faithful to staying curious, God meets us in those spaces. So I think in terms of our art and our music, we really feel like our job is to tell true stories, to tell honest stories of the human condition and ask honest questions of our faith, because that really is the wrestling. That’s where the gold exists, in those rich questions of reconciling our lives and our hopes and our love with the gospel message: that we are loved more than we could ever know. 

Can you tell us about the charity your band founded and how Fervr readers can be involved?

Oh goodness, yes. The forming of our charity Blood: Water is part of what was born of—as university students and then, young people in the world—just realising there’s a lot of need out there and we want to help but we don’t know how. We wanted an easy access point for people to hear about the conversation going on in regards to HIV/AIDS in Africa and also the clean water issues that they have there. So we really have leaned on this global health organisation statistic that one US dollar would equal clean water for an African person for an entire year. It takes so little to do so much.

And the other part of Blood: Water that I just dearly love, is that they want you to bring your gift, your excitement, your passion, the things that you enjoy, bring those things to the table because they can make a difference. We don’t have to have a certain set of skills to impact Africa. Honestly, whatever we’re passionate about can be of assistance to people in Africa. That’s what was so compelling to me, especially [thinking back to being] a teenager, when I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know how to help. There really are amazing ways to connect with what’s going on in Africa and help African people become heroes in their own communities. That’s the other important thing: this isn’t about us swooping in and being heroes. 

Discover more at www.bloodwater.org 

Get tickets to the Jars of Clay US tour at www.jarsofclay.com

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