by Matt Conner
If you’ve not yet traveled in the swampy stomp of Crowder’s newest album, just know it’s inhabited—just like the title might suggest. I Know A Ghost is haunted by a dynamic fusion of gospel, hip-hop and tradition roots music—all genres rooted in the deep South. It’s an amalgam that Crowder said made for the most fun he’s ever had as a songwriter.
Fortunately the lyrical power matches the musical punch as Crowder testifies to the power of the Holy Spirit to a culture obsessed with the supernatural. We recently asked Crowder about the inspiration behind his incredible new set of songs and where the inspiration came from in the first place.
CCM: I love the inspired mix of your own acoustic foundation with new styles, some of which are quite surprising. You’re certainly no stranger to pushing form and function, so is this a matter of experimenting for you? Is there ever experimenting for the sake of experimentation?
Crowder: Nothing so intelligent. I just follow my whims, the stuff I like, and try to shove it all into the same place at the same time.
When I began this new chapter of music that was going to be all my fault—no band mates nearby for blame displacement—I thought the best thing I could shoot for was the truth, not just lyrically but musically. If it resonated with me and was moving and forming me, I wanted to include it in what I was making.
I started this endeavor in Atlanta and the southern hip-hop scene is thick here. It’s impossible for it not to find its way in. My approach to writing this project was changed completely as a direct result of it. I started the writing process with tracks like the hip-hop scene does.
I hit up a bunch of beat makers and they would send DropBox file folders full of possibilities. I’d open a folder and click down a list of verse/chorus vibes, and if something hit me I would start writing. If something really started clicking, I would hit them back up for stems of the track so I could manipulate and arrange whatever sounds they had working. It was the absolute most fun I’ve ever had writing. I couldn’t stop.
CCM: How much of the other sounds on I Know A Ghost are reflective of what you’ve been listening to personally over the last couple years of songwriting?
Crowder: I’m not sure. The closest I would say would be like Post Malone, maybe? I definitely think the main ingredients of the album—the Appalachian instruments, the type of hip-hop tracks I gravitated to, and the black gospel elements—are all derivatives of what I’ve been up to on a consumptive level.
But for me, it’s reading and books that typically have the most influence on the music. They help create the sounds and contexts I gravitate toward. Slave Songs of the United States, African American Heritage Hymnal, Songs of Zion, a book by John W. Work called American Negro Songs: 230 Folk Songs and Spirituals, Religious and Secular. These books probably have more to do with it than anything.
CCM: What would be the album or artist you listened to most in that time?
Crowder: This will be a disappointment and of no surprise or help: Willie Nelson. I checked the numbers because I wasn’t sure who it was before I misspoke. This is followed closely by a playlist I made and titled You Will Become. It has Sturgill Simpson, The Lowest Pair, Whitley, Foy Vance, Vance Joy, Glen Hansard, Phosphorescent, The Acid, M83, Crystal Castles, Sufjan Stevens, Labyrinth, Shovels and Rope, Kwabs, and the like.
CCM: In the past, you’ve mentioned having a couple words in your head when heading in to write a project. Is it safe to say “ghost” was that word here? And what do you think informed that?
Crowder: That is exactly correct. I was surprised that was the word because it is super literal compared to the other albums. They are sort of trinitarian in that Neon Steeple was like a meta-narrative, zoomed out version of the story of displacement and longing for return to communion with our Maker. American Prodigal was more of a zoomed in, individual unpacking of that story, i.e. story of the prodigal son for one. So you can see we kinda have a Father, Son, and now, Holy Ghost little trilogy of ideas.
There is a resonance in every culture throughout all of history that we as humans have always told one another ghost stories. And here, the whole time, we’ve been sitting on a ghost story. I’m part of a ghost story. I believe I’m in the constant presence and activity of the Ghost of God. If that doesn’t make someone curious and want to know more, well, I have other things I can discuss as well: hope, redemption, grace, love, forgiveness, compassion, justice.
I just think anytime you see us as humans continually scratching at something so intently there is usually a foundational truth there in it somewhere. I can’t list all of the haunted or ghost-oriented television shows that play on the History or Discovery Channel. The list of movies is endless. There is something innate in us that is searching for the beyond.
CCM: How are the new songs playing out live? Any favorites for you personally to take to the stage?
Crowder: I’m seriously flipping out. We’ve already been playing about half the album out and about because they are so fun. We were just at the Grand Ole Opry and I’m certain if I were wiser and more professional in my approach to music I would have chosen a crowd favorite and then slipped in one new one. Nope, we did two brand new ones on the stage and another new in the back stairwell for their webcast because they are just too much a hoot to play.
My favorite that night was “Happy Day” in the stairwell, but my favorite when we’ve had a room full of people and a killer sound system has been the title track, “I Know A Ghost,” this is also the first track on the album. When that chorus hits it’s just insane.
A little known fact is that there is a sample playing the whole time in the chorus of Kim Walker singing, “Holy Spirit You are welcome here.” I love that so much as a prayer over the start of a night and I love it even more as a prayer over an album. Amen.