Just before the release of their latest full-length project, Cathedrals, Soul-Audio had a chance to sit down and talk with Tenth Avenue North’s lead singer, Mike Donehey. In this interview, Donehey shares about the band’s transition in producers, their renewed vision of songwriting, and the album’s powerful themes of community, accountability, and seeing the sacred in all of life.
Soul-Audio: Let’s begin by talking about this new project, Cathedrals, and the addition of John Fields as producer this time out. Why the shift from your longtime producer, Jason Ingram, and what was that thing that John brought to the table for you guys?
Mike Donehey: Well, there were a couple of reasons. One is that our band has just grown, we’ve been a band longer, and we’ve written a lot more together as a band and so when it came to choosing a producer we kind of wanted a “band’s band” guy, if that makes sense? And Jason Ingram is just like an amazing songwriter and he produces that way. But the more we played together as a band, we realized we were looking for a producer who is excellent at every instrument. And John Fields can play everything. And he also works usually in the mainstream.
And this record Cathedrals is about how we have the spirit of God in us and that we are going out into the world. There’s no such thing as a secular place anymore. If we have the spirit of God then everywhere we go is sacred. So we’re like, if that’s what the record is about, then maybe we should use someone who doesn’t usually work in Christian music, if that makes sense?
SA: You mentioned the growth you have seen as a band and on this time out, the songwriting is fully all on you, without any additional co-writers. How was that transition for you as a band?
Mike: To be honest, it was harder. It was a lot harder. (Laughs) Because band guys are going to be a lot more opinionated than a songwriter stepping in to help you write a song. So it was slower going. But I’ve seen a lot of bands where just one guy writes all the songs with some co-writers and then they go out and play on the road and there’s sort of like a disengagement from the band members? Not even like they mean to but it just sort of happens when you didn’t help create something.
We’ve always been working toward that and just said that “Man, it’d be awesome if this next record, we just wrote it all together.’ So it was a different process where we started with music first, a lot of times, which hasn’t always been the case. It’s produced the record that we’re all the most proud of.
SA: Now in terms of that process, did you have a theme set in your mind going in or was it sort of an organic process that found you guys saying, ‘Wow, look how all these songs are saying this?’
Mike: I’m always in search of a theme but I don’t start with a theme. I write songs the way David says in Psalm 39. He says, “I listen to wisdom and with the music of the lyre I will solve my riddle.” So as we sat down I was just trying to unriddle myself and encouraged the guys in the band with ‘What are you wrestling with?’ and ‘What are you trying to figure out?’
I remember Jeff (Owen) came in one day and was like, “I really love that phrase ‘no man is an island.'” Because we as a band had really been talking about being a community and being a safe place for each other, calling each other out on our crap, and also really trying to pull each other up and be there for each other. And then I found this passage in Philippians 1:30 that says that “we’re in this struggle together.” So our last record was called The Struggle and I thought, well, that’s kind of a cool stepping stone to say I’m not an island.
Well then, how do you get off an island? Well, we thought and there’s a song called “Stars in the Night,” and well, you sail. You’ve gotta get in a boat to get off an island. So then we were thinking about the stars and God’s promises; to what? Then we’re like, we need a shore. To be what?
So then we started looking at all these passages that said that we are called to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. We’re being built together into a living temple, we’re told. And I’m like, we reach the shore of community. And then we’re writing a song that needed a word to rhyme with people and we’re like “cathedrals!” That’s kind of an old word that evokes a lot of imagery. So that’s kind of the process.
SA: You touched upon something I wanted to ask about in light of that theme of community and accountability. How difficult is it for you as a band to put those principles into practice being out on the road, in a different city each night, and going through the motions. How do you foster those things?
Mike: On one side, it’s easier because it’s a lot harder to fake it around the people you see every single day than it would be, say, going into church once a week. Once a week for two hours I could put on a fake smile pretty well. But at 8 AM, I’ve just woke up, and someone’s like “Hey Mike! What’s up?” That’s a lot harder to get your game face on. (Laughs)
But its true that sometimes when you’re around each other so much that you kind of take it for granted and you never are purposeful in your time. So we were trying to think of something really simple to just keep us all on task so once a week on this tour we’re reading through “Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and are just discussing it. Because it’s about community, Christian community and yeah, it’s been great.
SA: While this is a really strong project, for me there were two tracks that really grabbed me, for varying reasons. The first was “I Need You, I Love You, I Want You” and largely because, surrounded by this project of more expressive songwriting, this track is really stripped down lyrically and musically and is really simple, but in a good way. Could you speak to how that track came to be?
Mike: Yeah, so we were in this horrible, horrible dressing room while we were on the Winter Jam Tour and it was just the nastiest venue. It was this old, run down building, it was gray and cold outside, just like a depressing time. And we had been plugging along at the record, trying to write songs and I was just feeling spent, tired. We had actually just written “No Man Is An Island” together and I was just feeling real worn out and I sat down at the keyboard as all the guys were leaving the dressing room.
And Jeff just started playing this string pad and literally I opened my mouth and started singing, “I need you, I want you, I love you,” just praying out to God and really just almost wrote the song in one pass. He was just playing along and I was “no, no, do this chord” as I sang the next part. And I was just crying. I was just sitting there at the keyboard and I was just crying.
And then I went back and I rearranged it to “I Need You, I Love You, I Want You” because I found that in my growing up, I grew up in a Christian family. And I tell people, I knew I was a bad kid when I was little. I didn’t actually think God’s commands were a good idea until I was about eighteen. And it wasn’t until I got to college that I actually started to enjoy God and find any pleasure in Him at all.
So to me that’s been the progression. I found that I needed Him, then I found I loved Him, and then I found that I wanted Him. And I think I might have drawn inspiration from that Brave New World song with Christina Aguilera? I just love the space and just wanted to write something with that much space.
SA: It just comes as a perfect moment in the record. You’ve got the Audrey Assad track, which is very cool, and then the title track, and then it segues into this time of deep worship and it’s just cool.
Mike: Thanks, man. And that’s my sister singing with me on that song too.
SA: Oh yeah?
Mike: Yeah, she sings in an Americana band called The Lone Bellow and it worked out that she was coming through town and was in Nashville the day we recorded that song. So we had her come in and sing.
SA: The other track I wanted to highlight is “All The Earth is Sacred Ground.” That’s a theme that you touched on earlier and is one that Christians often espouse but them find themselves warring over, if that makes sense. And this lyric, which I totally resonate with, “I don’t believe in secular things, just a world waiting to be redeemed,” is powerful stuff. But that’s a thought that sets lots of folks on edge too, especially in the Christian music industry, with everyone wanting to place labels on things. How do you synchronize those two worlds?
Mike: We’ve done a really poor job in the Church of validating people whose dreams and passions and jobs, their vocations, doesn’t have the word “ministry” attached to it. It’s like, “Oh, you’re a lawyer? Well, I’m a minister,” or “I’m a missionary.” You know, there’s even this feeling when you’re growing up that if I know Jesus then I have to be a missionary, I have to go live in a mud hut in Kenya. And the thing is, that would be terrible! If every single person who knew Jesus became a missionary, it would be horrible.
So I’m just saying, look man, it’s not what you do that is secular or sacred, it’s why you do it. So I wrote this song in the hopes that people who are going into the fashion industry or people who are going into plumbing, whatever, that they would feel this holy calling behind them and saying, “Yes, this too!” There’s no secular place. Everywhere you go, you make it sacred by walking in the door when you are a cathedral of God’s spirit. There’s nowhere that you can go that isn’t holy, that isn’t sacred.
Because that’s really the vision that I see in the Bible, this holistic shalom, that we would see everything as worship, that we would see everything as a chance to interact with God. It’s like Martin Luther said, “The milkmaid has just as holy of a calling as the clergy.”
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