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Song by Song: Jon Foreman Walks us through Switchfoot's latest

Contributor Two Contributor Two
Song by Song: Jon Foreman Walks us through Switchfoot's latest
Contributor Two Contributor Two

“In order to write well, a poet need to go to that place where energy and intensity concentrate, that place just beyond which chaos and randomness reign.” - Gregory Orr

 

Where do songs come from? For me, they come from the uncomfortable places. Awkward, painful places where I feel tested- face to face with the questions that don't have easy answers. In this process, some songs arrive intact. It's as if they write themselves- jumping off of your tongue, breathing their own life from the first note. Other songs are chased down, tackled, coaxed back to life and glued together. These songs require extra effort and are usually built around a big concept- big enough to make you want to work for it. 

 

Over the years I've experienced both sides of songwriting styles. Neither is better or worse, but sometimes the bigger fish put up a bigger fight. These are the creatures that won't be tamed. Claws, fangs... dangerous and beautiful stuff. Using this metaphor, Fading West is the biggest fish we've ever tried to reel in. 

 

Musically speaking this album was the most challenging we've ever faced. (And all of that without mentioning the challenge of creating our own indie film at the same time!) Suffice it to say we're very proud of the final outcome. We're thankful to be on the other side and we can't wait for you to hear the songs that the journey produced. 

 

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Love Alone is Worth the Fight

 

“Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?

... Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

-Mary Oliver

 

Charlie Peacock, (the producer who signed us to our first record deal when we were still in our teens), sat us down one time and began to tell us what he had learned over the years. He told us, "You can sell millions of albums, you can be number one on radio charts, you can win Grammys and more- but at the end of all of this, none of that matters as much as the people around you."

 

“Love Alone is Worth The Fight.” For me this title sums up the past 15 years of our time as a band- nothing else is worth the fight, worth the struggle, worth the scars. Nothing else even comes close. Not sex, not drugs, not even rock and roll. From time to time we all come to those difficult moments of struggle- when life becomes a fight. Maybe we are depressed and can't seem to find a way out. Or maybe we're dealing with the loss of someone we love. And maybe in that existential moment we begin to wonder what we're living for, what we're aiming for, what we're struggling for.

 

I've been there many times. Times when I question my God, myself, and everyone around me. Dark thoughts swim around my head, threatening to take control. I begin to fear that my existence has no purpose, that I'm alone without hope. It's times like these that force me to consider the bigger questions in life. Those are the times when my identity is forged in a deeper awareness of my Creator/ re- Creator's love for me. When I am aware of this love- my purpose is clear, my dignity cannot be threatened. My fears seem so small from this unassailable perspective. 

 

Yes, there are dark times when I fear the unknown. I fear pain, I fear humiliation, I'm afraid of the unknown within myself. But reacting blindly, driven by our fears leads us to horrible places. Maybe fear is love's true opposite. Racism, genocide, religious wars- these are fueled by fear. Most of my worst decisions, including hatred, are fueled by fear. But perfect love casts out fears. Perfect love brings us to a place of strength where we can accept the people and situation around us rather than fear it or deny it.

 

Love alone is worth the fight. It's a purifying reminder. We all need to ask ourselves the big questions- why are you alive? What's your motivation? The applause? The money? The crowd goes away and the money runs out pretty fast. But love is worth the struggle, greater than our fears, embracing those around us. For me, this song encapsulates the story of the film and our story as a band.

 

Who We Are

 

“Who has fully realized that history is not contained in thick books but lives in our very blood?”

-Carl Jung 

 

As a band, our identity is forged by what we've endured together the highs and the lows of the past eight albums together. This is a song that we wrote looking back at our story: a band of brothers- sleeping in vans, armed only with words, melodies, and ambition, trying to conquer the world together. "1, 2, 3, 4, 5..." The odd count in was to introduce the brotherhood of the five of us. The inspiration for this song began in the bridge- "They said it's complicated, they said we'd never make it this far." These words and this melody came to me out of the blue and became the skeleton for the rest of the tune.

 

Over the course of 2013, we were completing an album and a movie, both titled Fading West. Musically, our goals for the record were to match the exotic landscapes captured in the film with our instrumentation. To do this, we tried to rethink our use of traditional rock instruments or abandon them altogether. The verses of “Who We Are” are a great example of that line of thought. Instead of finding our guitar inspiration in the traditional western sources of Led Zep. or The Beatles, we looked to Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician. 

 

The vocal layering in the chorus is another example of pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. The song was pretty much completed, but we still felt like there was something missing. We toyed with changing the melody of the chorus, but it didn't feel quite right. Somehow the lyric wasn't connecting with it- it lacked the youth and spark in the identity that the chorus was singing about. The vocals didn't feel like they belonged with the rest of the track, as if they were not adventurous enough.

 

So we decided to bring the song home, literally.  For me, my role in my daughter's life as a father is one of the highest privileges I could ever think of. Who better to sing about our identity than our children? So we brought our kids in to sing in the chorus, and all at once the song felt completed. Like the movie, the song took a trip around the world to finally find its place at home.

 

When We Come Alive

 

“You have to carry the fire.”

“I don't know how to.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Is the fire real? The fire?”

“Yes it is.”

“Where is it? I don't know where it is.”

“Yes you do. It's inside you. It always was there. I can see it.” 

-Cormac McCarthy

 

 

For me, the verses enunciate the darkness where the fire shines the brightest. And the chorus reminds me that we have this spark, this ability, this beauty- when and only when we come alive. Truly alive. Not just breathing, but burning brightly, setting the world on fire with a light that is not our own. 

 

Tim and I wrote the chorus with our friend Drew up at his place. We listened back a few days later and knew that we had a good concept, but the verse wasn't quite right. We wrote several more verse ideas, but none of them were quite right. Then Tim had the idea of stealing a verse that we had written a few months ago from a song that wasn't on our list for the record. It was a perfect fit. 

 

The few times that we've had the privilege of playing this song live have been amazing. Appropriately, this song comes alive when we're singing it with a crowd of folks singing it back. It begins to feel like some sort of modern day hymn- I'm excited to play this one for years to come. 

 

Say It Like You Mean It

 

“Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.”

-Andrew Fletcher

 

While we were tracking songs for the album, we were also trying to develop musical beds that could be useful for the movie. So after tracking the drums and bass for every potential song on the record, Tim and Chad would spend a few minutes jamming, utilizing the tones that we had developed for the previous song. A few of these drum and bass grooves were useful for the movie- but one of them quickly became more important than just background music. “Say It Like You Mean It” was directly inspired by one of these jam sessions. It felt like a perfect accompaniment to Rob Machado's surfing in Bali - aggressive and distinctly stylish with a bit of an exotic flair. 

 

The lyrical element of “Say It Like You Mean It” comes from my own inner dialogue. I want to be the same person on and off-stage. I am drawn towards the people I meet who do what they say and say what they do. This type of living shows a purity of thought and action that is increasingly hard to find. I look at the talking heads and the politicians and I wonder whether their words in the spotlight and their lives behind closed doors match up. Talk is cheap- Life is hard. This is an indictment for me and everyone else in the spotlight: "You say it like you mean it, but we still don't believe it."

 

The World You Want

 

“Men reveal themselves in deeds and acts.”

-Aristotle

 

As we were dreaming up the concept of Fading West, we were hoping that the movie and the record would have the same emotional arc. This ended up happening in a really natural way as the scenery and the events that happened onscreen directly influenced the songs that we wrote and recorded. Maybe the best example of that congruence would be in the song, “The World You Want.” I'm really proud of how “The World You Want” captured the sentiment of hope and despair all in the context of responsibility in the film and on the record. 

 

During our stay in South Africa, I was struck by the sharp contrasts that comprise our experience on the planet. Areas of poverty and wealth, faces of hope and despair, stories of racial tension and reconciliation- this is the story of humanity. Beautiful at times, horrifying at times, our hands are capable of such good and evil. I wanted a song that captured the darkness and the light of a life filled with so many conflicting emotions. To have a song that starts and ends with the joy and laugher of children felt fitting. For me, it helps to bring light into the dark room of human behavior. 

 

Is this the world you want?

Is this the world you want?

You're making it

Everyday you're alive

 

It's a dark, self-indicting song to sing, because I'm guilty as well. I'm culpable in the state of the world. Who can claim innocence? Who can honestly say, "I have, in no way, lived my life at the expense of those around me." Religion is an odd word to our ears. Words like religion, faith, and spirituality are often relegated to the irrelevant, obscurity of our childhood fantasies. Like the monster under the bed, we outgrow them and move on. And agnostic naturalism becomes the cold, sterile replacement. How could religion have anything to do with our post-modern, post-Christian world? 

 

When Greg Graffin, Bad Religion's frontman, calls naturalism his religion, I think he's right. Your religion might not include transcendent elements, it might not include a long history of tradition. Show me your pocketbook and I will show you your religion. Show me your Google search history and I will show you your religion. You can talk all you want about your beliefs, but without action your fancy words about faith mean very little. Religion is best shown in the way we spend our time here on the planet. What you say you believe is not your religion, your religion is the way you treat the orphans and the widows here on the planet.

 

Slipping Away

 

“Where you come from is gone.” 

-Flannery O'Connor

 

Of all the mysteries of life, perhaps death is the strangest reality of the human experience. The cessation of a human being on the planet is almost impossible to come to terms with. Eyes no longer filled with light. Heart no longer beating. Hands cold. Breath gone. But beneath all of this, the question remains: where did my friend go? The room is vacant, the body abandoned. 

 

The memories are all that are left, the ghosts of a time passed. And in many ways, these memories represent the graveside tombstones of times that will never be ours again. We lay our flowers on the gravesides, we honor what has been with our present time. We can remember what has been, but we can never have these moments again. 

 

Indeed, where you come from is gone. "Slipping Away" is a song about loss, and the memories that remain.

 

BA55

 

“Any sorrow can be borne if it can be made into a story, or if a story can be told about it.”

-Isak Dinesen

 

My wife says that surfing is like a form of baptism for me, that my time in the saltwater washes me clean. Often I come back from surfing ready for life in ways that I wasn't before: quicker to laugh, slower to get angry, more eager to help. The ocean puts me in my place- a finite creature humbled by the seemingly infinite expanse of ocean before me. 

 

The refining experiences of life are not only found in the water. At times it feels like a trial by fire- almost as though the impurities are melted away so that the soul can shine from beneath. The lyrical inspiration for BA55 was that refining fire. The experience will leave you humbled, maybe even broken. But there everything is different on the other side- there's a new found purpose, a deeper understanding of life. 

 

Let It Out

 

“Many people die with their music still in them. Why is this so?”

-Oliver Wendell Holmes

 

On our tour this fall we have been showing the movie as our opening act. After the movie, during our set we take the time to answer a few questions from the audience. Last night, in Colorado, we had the following question: "Any advice for a musician who knows he's supposed to play, but is not sure how it'll pan out." 

 

The question is not an uncommon one. Love, (even the love of music!) is a risk for all of us. What does the future hold? The fact is, none of us know "how it'll pan out." The fear of failure exists because it's a very real possibility. I was reminded of Robert Frost's thoughts on poetry. 

 

"In each line, in each phrase the possibility of failure is concealed. The possibility that the whole poem, not just the isolated verse, will fail. That's how life is: at every moment we can lose it. Every moment there is a mortal risk." 

 

So why continue? Why sing at all? Your fears are real. You will fail. Not always, but sometimes. The critics will continue to earn their employment. Not only this, but sometimes the critique will come from the inside. Your friends and family will not always understand you. 

 

I sing because of joy. For me the joy far outweighs the risk of failure. Joy is the motivation for my songs. Even in a song of anger, or mourning the loss of a friend- I find joy in expressing the isolated seas within me- bringing them to the surface with a melody or a word. Often the communal experience that exists when we play our songs live, finds its beginnings in lonely, isolation.  

 

All or Nothing

 

Place me like a seal over your heart,

like a seal on your arm; 

for love is as strong as death,

its jealousy unyielding as the grave. 

It burns like blazing fire,

like a mighty flame.

Many waters cannot quench love; 

rivers cannot sweep it away.

If one were to give

all the wealth of one’s house for love, 

it would be utterly scorned.

-Song of Songs 8:6

 

The fault lines in our world run deep. They run through our nation, our communities, and our marriages. Even deep within me, I carry my own contradictions. And I'm not the only one. We are flawed, hurting, creatures capable of incredible love and shocking cruelty. From time to time this dividing chaos threatens to shake the very things that we hold dear. 

 

But to love is to risk. Love is vulnerability. For me, the song "All or Nothing" is a song about acceptance. Accepting the broken hearts, accepting the fatal flaws. Accepting that we haven't gotten it right just yet- but moving forward anyways. The ultimatum "all or nothing" is a song about loving all in spite of whatever pain or potential risks may lie ahead. 

 

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken."

-C.S. Lewis

 

Saltwater

 

“Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore,

Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,

To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.”

- Walt Whitman

 

Saltwater is a song about longing. On tour, I often feel brittle and thirsty for substance.   Far from shore, far from home- the ink dries up, and the blood begins to clot. I begin to feel like a sojourner longing for home, wanting to be washed clean of the dust of travel. And yet there is a deeper longing. A spiritual longing that no physical location can give me- not even my hometown. Saltwater is a song that is trying to speak to both of these longings at once: longings of my physical being and the longings of my soul. 

 

Back to the Beginning

 

“I want to know God's thoughts...the rest are details.”

-Albert Einstein 

 

There's a point during every tour where you begin to question the purpose of the journey. As you play the songs over and again and you start to wonder whether any song you've ever written is any good. You look back and all you can see are the mistakes. You look forward and all you can see is futility. You wonder whether your life has all been just one big mistake. 

 

At least I do. 

 

Maybe it's just me. But it happens to me every time. Like clockwork, two thirds of the way through the tour, I start to get depressed. Yes, I love what I do. Yes, It's the best job on the planet. And yes, I'm aware of how many folks would literally chop off a finger to have the day that I have: playing music for a living. 

 

In fact, right now there are millions of souls under the oppression of injustice, human trafficking, HIV-AIDs, hunger, disease, and the tyranny of man. And I live in the luxury of knowing that my family will eat and drink and have a bed to sleep in tonight. And now I'm not only depressed, but now I'm feeling guilty. And then I feel even guilty about my depression! 

 

These are moments that drive me back to the ultimate source of life and love and joy- yes, the creator/re-creator himself. "Bring me back, bring me back to the beginning again." There is no joy to be found in my dead wells, my dried up fountains. I am stuck in the traffic of my dead end thoughts. I long to run free, with the colors that live outside the lines. But these dreams of freedom are mixed with hesitation; my fears and doubts began the day I was born. And yet, my hope is anchored on the other side of life and death with the colors that live outside of the lines. 

 

My heart is yours

and what a broken state it's in 

but you're what I'm running for

and I want to feel the wind on my back again

 

# # #

 

For more information on Switchfoot, Fading West, the latest tour updates and more, go to www.switchfoot.com.

 

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