In Conversation: Derek Webb (Part 1)

As a radio host, I’ve interviewed more people in Christian music than I can remember. During GMA week (the annual Christian music industry gathering), I’ll have as many as 14 different artists on a four hour show. And to be blunt…the vast majority of musicians are far better at penning lyrics than speaking off the cuff. Although I love interviewing, I normally walk away from a conversation with an artist the same way an businessman walks away from his desk at 5:30. Task accomplished.

That’s why my conversation with Derek Webb was so unusual. His words stuck with me, and we touched on topics much deeper than the usual artist fodder like “we’re excited about the new record…the fans are going to love it, or “we look forward to touring. (Side note to any musicians that may appear on my show in the future. The audience DOES NOT CARE that you are excited about recording. Don’t waste your valuable broadcast window on clichés…and now I’m done ranting).

I’d like to share my conversation with Derek, which covered everything from social justice to his friendship with Donald Miller, with you in two parts. Expect the next one of Friday (12/7).

tower: You gave away 80,000 digital copies of your album Mockingbird. Why?

Webb: The thing is I don’t really consider myself in the record business; I am in the music business. I am in the business of connecting people to music. Knowing that, and knowing that I am kind of a niche with niche; I am going to be a hard artist to market and to find fans for, you know. I think there are fans out there for every kind of music, including what I do. [My label and I] thought “let’s take away every barrier, lets make it as easy as possible for people to both find and listen to and consume this record.” We had information from all the people dialing in. We had e-mails and zip codes so we could let people know when we were coming to their town on a tour, or we were connecting with them online, so we have been doing that.

Ultimately if you can think long term, connecting deeply with fans is never a bad move even from a business stand point. Ultimately we are still going to connect with them even financially we are going to connect with them. So I am just glad so many more people are on the radar.

tower: On your latest album, The Ringing Bell, you’ve got a line that says “I’m trading comfort for human life/And that’s not just murder, it’s suicide.” What do you mean by that?

Webb: That comes from a song called “This to Shall be Made Right, and its basically me looking at the world and telling you what I see. I mean that’s my job as an artist…that’s the job of any artist, to look at the world and tell you what they see. As a follower of Jesus I look at the world through a grid of Christianity, so when I look at the world I do see people in our own country being discriminated against for everything from race to sexuality. I do see my neighbors in Africa dyeing 8000 a day from lack of clean drinking water and mosquito bites; it’s like the twin towers falling twice a day everyday in Africa. I do see hunger, and I do see genocide.

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There is tremendous brokenness in our world and I think anybody, no matter what they believe, can look at the world and they see that things are not like they are suppose to be and yet, I believe that this a day coming when all things will be made right, when all of these things will be restored…so I sing songs about that day. So I would hope that we could put our hands together and pray for that day coming today. That we could pray today the way to proclaim the kingdom coming where there will be no hunger, is to give people food. You know the day when you proclaim the kingdom coming where there will be no more disease is you give people life saving drugs, you care for their health. I mean, this is what it means to follow Jesus. Its exactly what he said at the end of Matthew chapter 25 . When he said “for in and as far as you have done it, all these things you have done it for me” .

The work of following Jesus is to love and care for the most difficult people to love and care for. To put clothes on the naked to give food to the hungry, to visit those in prison, and to care for the widow and orphans. I think he punctuates its even better when Jesus Is asked “Of all the things we are commanded to do, of all the commandments what are the most important…Jesus said “love God and Love your neighbor,” that all the rest are really summed up in these things. But these are the two commands that are the context for everything else we do. So if everything were doing at the church isn’t done in the context of ultimately loving God and loving our neighbor then we need to refocus we need a framework adjustment.

Part two of this conversation will reveal specifics on Derek’s friendship (and work plans) with Don Miller, as well as the spiritual advice he’s got (which is both profound and hard of Christian book stores). If you’re looking to get started on Derek, get these two albums:

The Ringing Bell: Fun on the first listen, and thought-provoking for months after that.

The House Show: Like what he said here? Wait ‘till you hear Webb’s monologues between songs on this live album. If you don’t get the whole thing, at least download his stellar cover of Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand.”

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