Singer/songwriter creates Christian, secular music
By Kat Worrall
Josh Garrels, Common Grounds’ upcoming sold-out act for Friday, balances his music with his Christian beliefs to appeal to a wide audience.
For Garrels, music has always come naturally, he said, and he comes from a long line of musicians, teachers and preachers.
His father was a music teacher at his school in South Bend, Ind. Throughout middle school and high school, Garrels was involved in band and orchestra, and often had a punk, hip-hop or folk band on the side.
“It’s always been there,” Garrels said. “It’s always been a natural part of life.”
As Garrels entered his 20s, he began to take his music more seriously and realized he could use it for something.
“If this is something in me to do, it is to be of service to others,” Garrels said. “It should somehow benefit others.”
While many of Garrels’ songs have spiritual themes, his music appeals to a wide audience.
iTunes labels Garrels as “singer/songwriter,” rather than “Christian,” but that is how Garrels likes to be viewed, he said.
Garrels did not grow up in the church. He was influenced by skateboarding, art and music. He learned what did and did not work in that culture and has applied it to his music since coming to the faith.
“For people growing up in youth groups, it can get separated in the wrong way from the rest of society and the rest of culture that’s happening out there,” Garrels said.
Believing there is an appropriate place for worship music and a place for art and music for nonbelievers, Garrels said he approaches the fine line delicately.
“Innately, because I didn’t grow up in the church, I’m sensitive to the 98 percent of my generation who don’t believe in the Lord,” Garrels said. “So you have to sing about it sensitively to sing about Him.”
While he doesn’t want to compromise his faith or shy away from Christian undertones, Garrels said he strives for that sensitivity and uses it as a way to evangelize through his music.
“I’m trying to speak the language of the people who don’t believe in the Lord,” Garrels said.
As an independent artist without a label, Garrels said he was able to avoid choosing between the secular music industry and the Christian music industry.
While he does sing about Christianity, he has many listeners who are non-believers.
“Somehow not being part of either of those industries has been the only way I’ve known to continue my path that deals with the faith, but not be forced in any of the extremes,” Garrels said.
His pioneering spirit also enjoys the freedom of being an independent artist. The entire musical process — writing, recording, producing, editing, distributing — is all done by Garrels with his wife and co-producer Michelle in their Portland, Ore., home.
“Michelle sort of has an uncanny ability to know what works and what doesn’t,” Garrels said. “She has a territorial spirit about her in that she can listen to something or look at something or read something and find the weakness and find the strengths.”
Garrels is building a recording studio in his backyard. Garrels and Michelle have three boys: Heron, 5, Shepherd, 3, and Peregrine, 15 months old.
Recently, Garrels has collaborated with other independent musicians and produced a full-length feature documentary with Brooklyn-based production company Mason Jar Music.
The company first reached out to Garrels to film a video in an old cathedral for one of Garrels’ songs, “Words Remain,” and arranged an orchestra to perform along the simple song.
After a fan, Vancouver-based Blayne Johnson, saw the video, he invited Mason Jar Music, Garrels and his family to an island outside of Vancouver to produce the documentary “The Sea in Between.”
For 11 days, Garrels recorded songs and interviews across the island, and Mason Jar Music produced the documentary.
“I just played my songs, and they built this lush instrumentation around it,” Garrels said. “It focuses on the songs and my family and the process of being a vocational musician in this upside-down industry we live in.”
Since “The Sea in Between” was released, Garrels has been working on a new album, which he hopes to release summer 2014.
The album focuses on Garrels’ current life transitions, his father-and-son relationships, leaving and returning home and choosing the joy of the Lord.
“Right now the life I’m living is one of fatherhood and learning what it is to go through these stages, so that’s built into this album,” Garrels said.
On top of his upcoming album, which will be Garrels’ sixth, he is working on two other potential collaborations and enjoying the success created by his last album, “Love & War & The Sea in Between,” which he calls his breakout album.
National Public Radio covered his music on the day after Christmas last year, which he said is rare because of Garrels’ Christian themes.
This February mini tour is Garrels’ first time to play in Texas. The Robbie Seay Band from Houston will be opening for Garrels.
Common Grounds’ live event coordinator, Wes Butler, first heard of Garrels over a year ago after another performer suggested him. Garrels had a free CD for download on NoiseTrade, and Butler quickly became a fan.
“It sounded very original and high quality,” Butler said. “We kind of sat on the idea of bringing him to Common Grounds for a while because we didn’t know who else knew about him.”
Butler eventually contacted Garrels, booked the show and then found out Garrels had added Seay, a Baylor alumnus and friend of Butler’s, to the lineup.
Butler said he was surprised by how quickly the tickets went.
“I knew he was a quality act, but we weren’t aware of the full reach he had in the area,” Butler said.
Garrels’ and Seay’s sold-out show begins at 8 p.m. Friday at Common Grounds.
Garrels said he hopes to continue making albums for the rest of his life.
“Why would I mess this up if this is so much fun and seems to be working so well?” Garrels said.