The ability for God to do the unexpected is a consistent theme woven through the stories and songs of Christians over the centuries. Sometimes it’s even the story of an actual song. One of this year’s biggest hits, Jonny Diaz’s “Breathe,” came as a complete surprise to everyone involved—from the label to the artist himself. It’s just the way God works at times.
“Breathe” is one of five songs on Diaz’s (pronounced DIE-az) most recent release, Everything Is Changing (Centricity Music–buy). The EP came out nearly a year ago, and in the time since its release, Diaz has turned his attention to other things. Not only is music not his primary focus, but also Diaz explains that, in recent months, he’d had doubts about his future as a professional musician.
“There’s a lot keeping me busy these days, but only a portion of that is music,” says Diaz. “My wife and I have a 13-month-old daughter, so that keeps us busier than you can imagine even though it’s only child. We also own and operate Fit Factory Nashville, a group training gym. We run about seven fitness classes a day out of that gym, and we have a staff of six coaches and 300 members. We’ve been really blessed by how the community has really grown and flourished there, but it’s also a lot of work as well.
“I was at a point with everything where I was like, ‘All right, God, is this my exit strategy from music? Is this what will wean me away from traveling?’ I now have an income source at home. I have a baby at home. So absolutely unintentionally, I released a song called “Breathe” and it’s sitting close to the top of the charts right now. It’s a very cool surprise that’s opened all these doors for music for a career that I wouldn’t say was dead, but I would have said was on the way out.”
What makes the story of the song’s success even more interesting is that the song itself defies convention. Not only was Diaz not expecting “Breathe” to be a radio success, he’d agreed with his record label that it wasn’t even worth sending to radio.
“The song doesn’t sound like it belongs on Christian radio,” says Diaz. “When they tell you they need a song that works on Christian radio, typically what they mean is something that has this really catchy, soaring chorus that everyone wants to sing along with. It’s then, in the song, that the vocals will go up and the guitars will come in. “Breathe” is the exact opposite of that. The chorus is when everything falls away.”
Diaz says he loves the song and was thrilled with the way it turned out, but he never thought it would be anything more than a track from his most recent EP.
“When I first wrote the song, I was really proud of it because it fulfilled the vision I had for it—the busy-ness during all of the verses and then having literally this breath during the chorus that creates some space,” he says. “I was proud of how it turned out and the label, not surprising to me, replied, ‘We really like this, but it could never be a radio single.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you’re probably right.’
“So when we actually got some good advice to try it as a radio song, to put it through some testing to see if people enjoyed it in that way, we were surprised at the way it tested. It doesn’t sound like Christian radio. It’s literally the exact opposite structurally.”
The story of “Breathe” was birthed out of Diaz’s own busy schedule and his soul’s cry for some room to reflect, consider and pray. Not only were Diaz and his wife tending to new challenges and joys at home, but also the burgeoning gym was taking more time and attention than ever.
“I was so busy trying to write songs for a new record while having this gym and my one-year-old and also traveling and playing music. I just felt swamped by life,” he says. “Writing a song is not a quick or easy process for me. I’d blocked off this entire day to write a song thinking, as I was going into this writing session, that I didn’t have anything.
“Then the story of Mary and Martha came to mind, and I realized how much mine looked like Martha. She was running around doing good things, trying her best to serve God, and that’s how I felt. But she was missing what was most important. She was letting the good fill her life and missing out on the great. Mary is the hero of that story and she did nothing. She just rested at God’s feet and breathed him in. For me, it was a song written to challenge myself, to express my desire to do that myself.”
Diaz believes the reason “Breathe” resonates is due to so many others feeling the way he felt—stuck inside a culture that values efficiency and noise and devalues solitude and space. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised that I’m not the only one who needs to hear that message,” he says.
“I think it’s an epidemic, at least in our country and I’m guessing in many others,” says Diaz. “We’re a busy culture. It’s not necessarily that we need to cut things out of our lives, but I think a lot of times we need to change our perspective. These things in my life—the baby, the gym, the music—can be life giving with the right perspective. They can be things that allow me to experience God and spend time with Him. They can also be a drain and keep me missing out. I think our culture is so full of people who are so busy and need to shift perspective on the things that we’re doing.”