The Other Side of The Fire
An Interview with Jeremy Casella About His New Album, Spirit
by Grady Smith
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that God is present in our deepest despairs. From the bottom of a pit, even the most fervent believer might ask, “Is the Spirit here with me?” Jeremy Casella had to face that question head-on six years ago when he was left reeling from an unexpected and painful divorce. With two children and no clear path forward—but a fervent desire to cling to God—Jeremy experienced peace and healing, but toil as well, like he never had before. This struggle is captured on his seventh full-length album, Spirit.
Gentle and spare in its sound, Spirit makes room for the beauty of God’s compassion as it traces Jeremy’s journey to peace and nuanced perspective. “It should come as no surprise, we’re blessed with failure by design,” he sings on the album, which explores the many dualities of Christian life: doubt and hope, isolation and rich relationships. I spoke to Jeremy about his new album, his refreshed sound, his remarriage to new wife, Brooke, and how he has processed God’s love for him through the trials of his past decade.
What were you feeling in the time leading up to making this album?
Jeremy Casella: I was processing a lot of loss and a lot of pain. I had walked through a divorce, and while processing all that pain and everything that happened, I was really doing a lot of healing work through the songwriting process, and the record reflects the healing work of God in my life. It’s me reflecting on the pain of deep loss stacked up against the faithfulness and presence of God in my life, and I don’t mean that in an esoteric sort of way. I mean it in a literal way of reflecting on my own personal experiences of God being near and being present, which I’ve been bowled over by in a great way. It’s really changed me.
People that have heard your previous releases might be struck that this album is a good deal more acoustic than those. What inspired that?
Jeremy Casella: I have always played live with an acoustic guitar or piano and a vocal. And I would make these layered albums that I’m really proud of—the older albums—but then I’d go on the road and try to reinterpret those songs in front of an audience, and I’ve always wanted to just make an album that was really connected to what I do live. So this record is just very singular, very direct, and I really let the heart of things have a ton of room. On this album, it’s just pretty naked, and I think there’s a lot of space that you can feel what I’m saying more. We went into the studio with a totally different approach than in the past, and it reflects what I do live in concert.
The other thing I’d say that influenced this musically is that we did a concert at The Ryman Auditorium in 2017 with Andrew Peterson and Ben Shive and a bunch of my friends for a celebration of Rich Mullins’ legacy. And that night and all that it meant to me—just to be at The Ryman for a sold out show playing those songs with my friends—it really brought me back to home base of being a songwriter who plays an instrument and who can, with one voice and one guitar, hopefully move a listener.
You really don’t shy away from your pain on the songs here. You mention your “mortal wound” and call yourself “crippled” and “drowning.” Was naming that stuff an essential part of the healing process for you?
Jeremy Casella: Yeah, totally. There are even other words I use in there, “betrayed” and “accused,” even “abused.” I wasn’t throwing stones as much as calling pitches—naming things. And that’s not easy to do. I think sometimes when you say things out loud, they’re for real. And you carry a lot of the noise inside of you, and letting it out and processing it out loud is essential. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt this way, but sometimes I’m surprised at what I say. There’s a lot of that going on in this record.
Throughout the record, you place hope and desolation right next to each other. On “Last Chance,” you seem tortured by the battle between them. So many of these songs are lamenting and rejoicing simultaneously. Why is that?
Jeremy Casella: I think that joy and sorrow go hand-in-hand. My friend Billy Cerveny likes to say that your cup of joy is only as deep as your cup of sorrow, and I was trying to process God’s faithfulness in the midst of deep suffering and pain in my life. God kind of took me by the hand and walked with me and showed me what He can do with hard things. So I think the lament and the joy live in tension with one another because God is with us. We’re not alone. And that’s the main theme of this album- God with us. Like I say in one song, we are “abandoned but not alone.” And so that’s really where the equation ends for me, or brings balance to those two ideas of hope and desolation. God with us and He is where I find my home, my rest and my peace.
It stood out to me is that the Spirit is mentioned so much on this record, even more than God or Jesus. Was that intentional to focus on on the Spirit’s presence in your life? And did you try to capture that musically?
Jeremy Casella: Yes it was intentional that the whole record is centered on the Holy Spirit. But I didn’t call it Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost. It’s called Spirit. I like the universality of that because I think God has a way of declaring Himself to us. I think that for me, I’ve been reconciling God’s kindness to me in my life. And one of the ways that He has been super kind to me is by giving me a really strong, firsthand and personal experience of the Holy Spirit ministering to me in my grief and in my pain. And there are some pretty beautiful, miraculous things that happened to me that showed me how close he was, how much he cared for me and still cares for me. And so that changed me, you know? I mean, it completely changed me and settled so many things in my soul. Instrumentally, what represented it would be the strings and, I would say, the space in the songs. There are these moments where things just kind of sit for a while, and there is space for the presence of God, and allowing that space was definitely an intentional thing.
I’m about to ask you about one of those miraculous experiences, and it’s what you describe in the second verse of “Autumn in Kingston Springs,” with a breeze in a tunnel of trees underneath the moon at the golden hour. Could you unpack that moment for me?
Jeremy Casella: Well, that whole verse metaphorical to an experience I had in my office at about 3:00 in the morning. I live in a 120-year-old farmhouse on the west side of Nashville, and it was the summer of 2013. It was actually August 7th, 2013. I was in the midst of a total hell, personally speaking. I’d lost about twenty seven pounds. I had found out that my marriage was basically over, and I was worried sick about my two young kids. I mean, my life had basically blown up in my face. I couldn’t sleep, and I was wide awake and decided to come downstairs and pray and journal some and spend some time in the Psalms.
I found myself praying. To be honest, I don’t even remember exactly what I prayed, but the theme was basically “Help. You gotta do something to help me. Please help me.” And it wasn’t maybe a minute later that I started noticing—in my office at 3:00am—this warmth of a presence. It was like a blanket, and it just settled down over me, filled up my whole office and calmed me down, and I could feel the Lord comforting me physically. And then I started to hear the Lord’s voice speaking to me about Psalm 91, which I opened my Bible to, and I spent time reading very slowly. And then he took me to Psalm 37 and told me to take it really slow verse by verse and just meditate on those words, and I did. I don’t know how that comes across, but for me, that was the beginning of walking closely with God, more so than I ever had in my life.
For a period of many months after that time, I got even worse. But that night was the moment that the Lord made himself personally known to me in a way I’d never encountered Him. Even sitting here talking to you about it now, it completely blew me away and still does, and I’ve never been the same since that night. It’s been six years now and it is still so fresh and present with me, that night. To feel him come so close to me and to have that kind of mercy, left a huge mark. So that second verse of “Autumn in Kingston Springs” is all about that night. The tunnel of trees is a literal place. The wind obviously is reference to the Holy Spirit, and the golden hour… I’m just trying to get at places with language that can try to give you a tiny little taste of what I experienced that night. Most of the album is me trying to find the words to give testimony and voice to God’s kindness to me. That’s the truth about it.
“Many Waters” is a beautiful, romantic, even sexy song. It’s dedicated to your wife Brooke. Tell me about her.
Jeremy Casella: Brooke and I have been married three years, which has been a pretty beautiful journey. I actually met her at a camp called Summer’s Best Two Weeks when I was 12 years old. She was 15. She has been widowed for 12 years, and she was married to another guy from our summer camp that I really loved named Matt Smith. They were married and had three kids, and Matt tragically died of colon cancer when he was 33 years old and left Brooke with three young kids. So there was a lot of pain in their world, a lot of grief.
The Lord brought Brooke and I together, and we got married in the cemetery about 40 or 50 yards away from where Matt is buried. We just had our family, our children, and then Matt’s family and some of my family were present. It was a really special ceremony. A Cemetery is an odd place to get married, but it just felt right. So I pulled from the imagery for that song. And then the rest of it is pulled out of Song of Solomon, which is a really romantic and overtly sexual book. But there are also interesting directions to go with that lyric if you read it through the lens of Christ speaking to his people, speaking to the church. It’s pretty powerful, but I wrote it to my wife.
Do you have something you want people to take away from this record?
Jeremy Casella: The thesis of the record is really from John 14, when Jesus is telling the disciples that He has to go but that the Father will send the Holy Spirit and He will comfort them and they will never be alone, that He will never leave them or abandon them. And the disciples basically respond confused, saying “Don’t go. You can’t. You just got here. The miracles were cool, but you haven’t defeated all of our enemies yet and set up your kingdom. You can’t leave.” They don’t get it, of course, but Jesus is explaining the coming of the Holy Spirit, the comforter. He’s got a better plan and He sees the whole picture, the whole arc of the narrative story of our lives.
So, I hope that people are moved by that beauty, and that it stirs them to consider how they see themselves. Do you see yourself as weak and lost and confused, or do you see yourself surrounded by love and support? Are you hiding? In light of God’s presence and goodness, who are you now? He is with us! We are not alone…and that changes everything.
For me, I think the answer to that is, first and foremost, I’m free. I’m really free. I can live and walk and rest in peace because that’s been given to me, and that’s unshakable. Not even the greatest loss can take that away.
Grady Smith is an independent music journalist that has written for Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, and Rolling Stone. He currently reviews country music on YouTube (http://YouTube.com/goGradygo), and he can be found on Twitter (http://twitter.com/gradywsmith) as well.