by Caroline Lusk
“Music speaks a thousand words in a three-minute window,” says newcomer Austin French.
It’s a good thing, because French has a lot to say. Recently signed to Fair Trade Services, the 24-year-old artist unpacks the story of a life lived at full throttle on his debut project, Wide Open.
On track after track, Wide Open feels more like a conversation than a collection of songs. With lyrics about hope, fear, loss, joy, doubt and faith, French manages to pen music that is not merely accessible but important.
French grew up in the church. His dad was a worship pastor and, from the outside, the family was the quintessential all-American perfect family. “But at home, it was World War III,” Austin reflects. Following his parents’ divorce, their church asked them to leave. It was a blow with significant, damaging and long-term repercussions.
“I decided then, when I was eight years old, I didn’t want to be a Christian,” he says. “That church hurt me and I didn’t want to go through that ever again.”
For years, he maintained his resolve, all the while attending the church where his mother worked. He showed up physically, week after week, but his mind and heart had become disconnected from the body of Christ. Church was a place filled with pain and judgment, a place that pushed people away. He wanted nothing to do with it.
That began to change in the eighth grade when French went to a music camp. As he honed his guitar skills, French says he also learned a lot about himself and the church. For the first time, he awakened to hypocrisy, including his own—playing nice on the surface, but internally suppressing his true emotions, his pain and his need for help.
“I didn’t want my life to look like that anymore,” Austin says. “I didn’t buy into hiding your struggles from church and then being who you really are at home. I realized that you can’t judge Jesus or the church by people who aren’t actually following Him. Broken people hurt broken people.”
French says the realization changed his life. The moment he recognized his authentic need for Jesus, the more he was able to forgive, to show compassion and begin living a life wide open. His transparency altered his relationship with God, with others and even with music.
“I decided that day in eighth grade that I wanted to be a Christian artist,” French recalls, “and write music for my friends who didn’t go to church, and music for the broken people in my church.”
He started a band with friends in his youth group and toured everywhere a church’s doors were open. He also competed on ABC’s Rising Star and NBC’s The Voice. No matter the setting, he never wavered in the message he conveyed with his music.
“Everybody on [Rising Star] was like, ‘Oh, you should do mainstream … But the day I auditioned for the show, I walked in and told them that I was a Christian artist, and this is what I believe,” he says. “Life is meant to be lived wide open—not closed off, not safe, but living close to the Lord where he leads us … our job is to live our lives with our hands wide open.”
For the past several years, Austin has done just that. He’s even led worship in a congregation comprised of 80% recovering addicts. “They were the most broken people I had ever met, but they were also the freest people I had ever met,” he says.
His experience in that church, as well as his own past, inspired the songs on his recent debut. Tracks like “Freedom Hymn” and “Why God” are refreshingly candid and offer a new paradigm through which to comprehend life. They are the lessons he has learned and continues learning and leaning on everyday.