Most musicians who have released their sophomore projects attest to the pressures of recording a follow-up album. A pressure that’s particularly high, especially when debuts turn successful—it’s the best kind of paradox to be in. Citizen Way knows it well.
Following their breakout self-titled project in 2013, they’ve seen radio success rarely enjoyed by a debut artist. “Should Have Been Me” and “How Sweet the Sound” are firmly woven into the fabric of today’s Christian music listener’s soundscape, the upbeat pop sound and solid lyrics encouraging and challenging people around the world.
Needless to say, they set the bar high.
God set it higher.
What Ben Calhoun, lead vocals, and fellow band mates never anticipated, were the tests-of-faith, the extraction of new and intensified emotions as husbands, fathers and men of God—all of which inevitably found their way into lyrics, hooks and melodies.
“These songs tell the emotions we’ve been through,” says Calhoun. “They are songs that came out of real life and I think at times we’re all kind-of stupefied how the Lord will use us and our messes to turn them into something powerful and joyful.”
That is the heart behind their latest offering—joy through trial, power through weakness. It’s been their message from the start and comes together nicely, and appropriately, with new project title—Citizen Way 2.0. “This is a new season of life,” adds Calhoun. “We’ve been raised to life again. We’ve been renewed.”
While the record resonates with positive, bright intonation and feel-good poppy hooks that stay with you all day, the songs were not all birthed from happy places. In fact, it was the loss of life that set the tone for the entire project and the band itself.
In 2015, Calhoun and his wife faced the greatest trial of their lives and a parent’s worst nightmare—the loss of a child. “We were pregnant and were told that the baby wouldn’t survive,” Ben recalls with a broken voice. “We decided to wait for the baby to come. I remember holding him and feeling so blessed for that opportunity. We were blessed that we had the opportunity to fight.”
The miscarriage of baby Jeremiah challenged the Calhoun family in ways they had never experienced before. At times, the anger and confusion threatened to overtake them, but it was in the moments of greatest despair that they began to feel the love of God and the hope of Jesus more tangibly than ever. Through their friends, their church, and those who surrounded them—they listened, allowed them to cry, and fervently prayed for the family.
“We had to go through it,” says the lead singer. “You have to deal with it or you’ll lose your joy forever. Psalm 34:18 says ‘The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.’ Those verses came alive for us in a new way. There were people around me who may have said nothing, but held us or walked with us. There was a community of believers who carried us and helped us remember words and truths we needed to hear. I was able to trust and lean on that and through it, trust and lean on God.
“The song ‘When I’m With You’ came out of that trial, specifically the miscarriage,” Calhoun continues. “I am living proof of the truth of that verse. Jesus met us where we were—He hurt and healed with us.”
Perhaps most striking about that song in particular, given the source material, is how positive and truly happy it sounds.
“I don’t want to sing songs that remind me of things that are sad. I want to sing songs that remind me of the joy we have in Jesus,” says Calhoun. “That fact is that my son is with Jesus. Every day that I sing this, it brings me a little closer to my Savior, and that is joyful to me.”
It’s not a formula, but a philosophy that has undergirded the band’s music from day one—sing about joy, plant it in scripture, and wrap it up with a great hook.
“That was the goal from the beginning and probably will be in many ways throughout our career,” says Calhoun. “Songs like ‘Revival’ came out of that same idea. He’s come to give us life and that’s truth that I still need to remind myself of daily.”
Those truths aren’t only resonating within the band; fans across the country are taking to Citizen Way 2.0 much the way they took to Citizen Way the first time around—in droves! As part of the all-star Rock and Worship Road Show, they joined friends like Jeremy Camp, Mandisa, MercyMe and Newsboys filling up arenas up and down the highway.
“We’re a bit of a family on wheels,” admits Calhoun. “We have had so much fun together. A lot of the artists played basketball together. [Jeremy] Camp’s been so good to us. One night, I was just overcome with emotion, and Mandisa stopped to cry with me. It was so much fun serving the Lord and lifting up the name of Jesus together.”
Together is the name of the game for Citizen Way. You might even say 2.0 begins with together…especially given the change-up in the band roster.
“One of our band members needed more time for family and had to step out,” shares Calhoun. “But this is a new family…a new creation. We’ve been really strengthened by this process. There was a purpose and point to the pain and to this record. What we wrote…what I wrote, were things that I needed to say and pray because I couldn’t find peace any other way.”
As he and the band came together and found peace with each other, their thoughts gave way to ideas and lyrics and, soon enough, songs—songs like, “Bulletproof.”
“I had the title in my notes from church and saved it for a long time,” reveals Calhoun. “I thought it’d be such a cool title, thinking about the armor of God. We came into the studio and wrote it in one day. One of the writers had been having a tough time and was so excited by the end of the day. We felt like it was a special song from day one.”
Other songs emanated from similar sources—a note here, a voice memo there. But at the end of the day, they all come down to a central point: the freedom and joy we have in Jesus. For Ben and the rest of the band, it’s a message that they’re not only building a career upon, it’s one for which they are making sacrifices. Yes, their songs are feel-good, but the lifestyle of an artist places demands on families that require a lot of prayer, patience and diligent balancing.
“I have to make sure my wife and I are on the same page,” says Calhoun. “I’ll ask her if she’s thriving. If not, my goal is for us to find a way to help her thrive. This lifestyle is hard and you have to be called to it. You’re not called because you’re talented. You’re talented because you’re called. I was miserable at a desk job. My wife will tell you…she didn’t like being married to me when I had a typical 9-5 job. It’s not because I’m a musician, but because I wasn’t operating within the strengths God gave me.”
Intentionally, Calhoun and the rest of Citizen Way put their wives and their families first, with Calhoun’s students not too far behind. For eighteen years, he has taught music and music business at Judson University in Chicago. With the goal of building and fostering a community of artists, he has helped the school open three recording studios, a record label, and a publishing program.
“My parents were teachers. I’ve spent years recruiting kids from all over the country to walk with Jesus and to write songs about Him. Ultimately, I’d like to have a songwriting master class,” says Calhoun.
For the moment, however, with a recent move to Nashville—Calhoun, his family and the band are focused on music, ministry and making the most out of every opportunity they have to celebrate each other and the life they’ve been given.
“As a band, we support each other,” says Ben. “We’re family. It’s what you do whether you like it or not. We do it together because we love each other and enjoy being together. We want to champion the name of Jesus and have fun doing it. The ultimate goal is that listeners will walk away knowing beyond a doubt that Jesus loves them.”
Be it album one, two or number forty-seven, that’s a sentiment that will stand for all time.
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