A Q&A with Jason Upton
Trying to classify the music of Jason Upton isn’t easy. His worshipful, piano-driven ballads are all carefully worded, but even on studio tracks, the music often runs unpolished and free. His latest album, Beautiful People, contains narratives and testimonies, praise proclamations and prayers set to music. RELEVANT recently spoke with Upton, who told us that when writing music, he likes to do things his own way, and that usually means being profoundly honest.
It seems it’s the everyday stuff of life that makes the artist, or the person. It’s the personal relationships, the daily interactions with the people who are closest to us—is this the dirt that the art of songwriting grows in?
That’s a great way to look at worship. My perspective on worship is maybe a little bit different than the average perspective on worship. I kind of see a lot of the singing and a lot of the songwriting in the Church as a hopeful expression about what we maybe believe or would like to believe. But worship, to me, is more an expression of the truth. To me, honesty is an incredible tool to lead us to the truth in worship. So one of the things I’ve been growing in during the last several years is just being honest in my songwriting. For instance, the phrase "I give my life to you"—I would just never sing that. I tend to be more like, "To you I give my life, not just the parts I want to." It’s a little more wordy, but to me it’s more truthful.
During the recording of many of your albums, there are often unique spiritual things that happen. What was God doing during this project?
Every song I get from an experience—or something happens, and I write it. On Beautiful People, the musical flow is the experience. I write these songs, and then in the studio, they’re being re-enacted—it’s being played out again. So what you do is you pray, and you talk. Being in the studio requires honesty. [It] requires me getting in that place where I was when I first wrote the song.
On Beautiful People you have more singer/songwriter, story-driven songs. Do you see those as worship as well?
Yeah, I’m not very formulated. I just pray. One of the biggest things that had an impact on me is when I was in seminary studying Psalms. That was one of my first encounters with prayer in worship and expression of actual life in worship, and how different each psalm is. There’s nothing more different than Psalm 50 and Psalm 51. They’re almost exact opposites. One is the declaration of God’s vengeance over an evil people, and the next one is the psalmist repenting for being an evil person.
So I don’t really look at my songwriting as, This is a song that everybody’s going to sing along with, and we’re all going to get happy and have fun. I think of it more in terms of, What does this mean to me? Sometimes that expression is a prayer, and sometimes that expression is just an observation of something that is analogous to or can teach us something about the Kingdom.
The whole spectrum of human experience is in the Psalms. There’s anger, joy, pride, love and humility. Do you think that we need a more broad expression of interaction with God in church?
Oh yeah, we need folkloric poetry and storytelling. Most of the Old Testament was passed down through storytelling. Then eventually it was copied down in an appropriate way. We wouldn’t even have the Old Testament if it hadn’t been for a community of people who continued to tell the story over and over again to each other and to their children. With that in mind, it’s real problematic to me to say that someone like Don Moen is a better worshipper than Derek Webb—there’s just no way to say that. How could we ever say that Sara Groves is less of a worshipper than Paul Baloche because she doesn’t write corporate worship songs that we all sing along to? I think it’s all worship and it’s all beautiful, and I think that every one of them has something vital to say.
But the real question really is, How can I learn to follow Jesus more? And that hits in our most daily experiences. And in the past, sometimes those expressions unfortunately have had to come through secular artists (and that whole line of sacred-versus-secular is a whole other conversation, by the way). But unfortunately, until guys like Webb have come along, we haven’t had a lot of that; we haven’t had a lot of music that necessarily makes us think and ponder and reflect. The great form of music is often great for pondering, reflecting, thinking—it’s for expressing ideas in places where saying it would just be an irritant. And those ideas are being expressed all the time in secular music, and that’s why we love Bono and U2. We love that, because they’re expressing these really great, deep ideas.
This story was adapted from a recent article that appeared in the 850 WORDS OF RELEVANT newsletter. To subscribe for free, go here.