Jimmy Needham knew a change was needed. The popular singer-songwriter has built a solid platform and fan base with an infectious bluesy delivery, but as his seventh album approached, Needham threw away the familiar. After all, same input equals same output.
“I knew after a decade of making records I couldn’t use the same creative methods and expect different and fresh results,” says Needham. “My ethic became, ‘Try everything except what I’ve done before.’
“So instead of writing songs with my acoustic, I lost the guitar and wrote without an instrument,” he continues. “Instead of coming up with the music of a song on my own, I had my producer send me instrumental tracks to write lyrics and melodies over. Instead of creating by myself, I got my favorite players from around the country in a room for a week and wrote as a quartet. It lit a fire under me creatively that I wasn’t sure was still there, to be honest.”
The beautiful result is Vice & Virtue, an important, challenging album for listeners who might feel like they’ve been following a formula of their own for too long. The complexity and mystery of scripture and the journey of faith are subjects to celebrate and dive into rather than ignore, according to Needham.
“I realize that when people hear that title they will bring their pre-conceived notions of what those words mean to the table,” he says. “Vices are bad. Virtues are good. It’s that simple. The Bible just doesn’t see it as clear-cut as that. For Jesus, the most dastardly people were almost always the religious elite, not the prostitutes and adulterers.”
Needham’s killer vocal and melodic sensibilities are perfect vehicles for some of the bigger questions that aren’t so easily asked. Vice & Virtue is a substantive album that asks without always answering.
“It is precisely the most moral, nice and virtuous folks that have the hardest time seeing their desperate need for a Savior. What if we’re wrong about morality? What if there’s a way to do good from a bad, self-centered, Cross-avoiding, faithless motive? Can that action really be counted as a ‘virtue?’ These are the questions I’m hoping to raise in people’s minds as they listen, in hopes that the best of us might begin to feel a more desperate need for our Redeemer.”
The subject matter for Vice & Virtue came at a perfect time for Needham, who said he had felt uninspired in recent writing seasons.
“I was asking questions about what I had left to say and create as an artist,” he says. “I was 10 years in and feeling a writing slump. I was also between labels at the time. It seemed appropriate to be asking if this was a good time to bow out.”
Needham has dealt with writer’s block before, as have most artists, but this time felt different than before. After six previous albums, he’d already said plenty as an artist, and his ability to keep things “fresh” had faded.
“Every record cycle there is a tinge of that for me, but around the time I was writing Clear The Stage, I felt that it was harder than ever to write fresh stuff,” he says. “I remember trying for eighteen months to write a spoken word for that record, only to come up empty-handed. “Something happened as I was gearing up for Vice & Virtue, however. I was asked to write a spoken word for a friend’s wedding. I was nervous because I’d tried so long to come up with one for my last album without luck, but as I sat down to write this one for my friend, it was different. I don’t know what changed but a day and a half later, I had a six-minute piece that ended up being the final track on the new album. It was an incredible shot in the arm.”
Even after finding inspiration, it wasn’t as easy as writing and recording a new batch of songs. With a title track like “Vice & Virtue,” Needham faced a new hurdle as he worried about how the lyrics would be taken.
“I suspected I wouldn’t be winning any friends by writing a song like this,” he admits. “I was deliberately provocative, but only so folks would take seriously the importance of what I am talking about. I’ve never felt hesitant to say hard things on my records, mainly because I know I’m saying it to myself first. I remember sending the demo of “Vice & Virtue” to my label president, Dale Bray, nervous that he was going to make me change some lyrics, if not scrap the entire song! I was so encouraged when he wrote back saying it was his favorite thing I’d turned in so far and that he loved what I had to say on it.”
Yet the lyrical side was only a slight concern compared to the physical challenges Needham faced when he entered into the studio. Needham says he began to lose his voice while recording, and by over-singing, he actually “ravaged” his vocal cords, requiring numerous postponements in the studio. The entire ordeal lasted six full months.
“What ended up producing the most anxiety for me during this process was losing my voice during recording sessions,” he says. “I started to experience acute pain every time I spoke. We kept delaying the production, even cancelled live shows. The doctors couldn’t tell what the problem was, which was frustrating.
“It was an incredibly trying time for me, doubting whether I would ever sing again because I was showing no signs of recovery. But I can seldom remember a sweeter time I have had with the Lord. I felt the presence of my Father so near during that season. By his grace he healed me just in time to sing the rest of the songs.”
Perhaps that is a fitting way for this album to have finally been born—completely on God’s terms. Through Needham’s desire to shake up the norm, and things coming together in His perfect timing, the Lord is truly doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19), and we are blessed and lucky to be beneficiaries.