The Mystery of NEEDTOBREATHE

In 2020, not long after NEEDTOBREATHE dropped Out of Body, the band started tinkering around with some new songs. Lead singer Bear Rinehart, stuck in COVID lockdown just like everyone else, started writing songs at home and sending them to the rest of the band, and the band liked what they heard. Out of Body was hot off the presses, but NEEDTOBREATHE’s collective creative gears were still turning. 

Rinehart says that, at the time, they weren’t thinking of releasing another project. “Maybe we’ll make an Out of Body extended continuation,” he remembers thinking. “Even up until the first two or three days we were in the studio, that’s what we thought we were doing.”

But they had too many good songs. Rinehart went to his label with a crazy request: would they be opposed to another album, hot on the heels of Out of Body? “I talked them into it,” Rinehart says sheepishly. The result is Into the Mystery, the band’s second album in less than a year’s time. 

The story of how Rinehart talked them into it, and the full scope of the band’s latest album, is an interesting one that doubles as a window into the lives of one of modern rock’s most consistently strong acts. NEEDTOBREATHE is entering its twentieth year as a band, and they’ve come a long way from the days when Rinehart would play in coffee shops around Furman University in between football games. These days, the band is playing arenas (or will be, on the other side of COVID) and opening for the likes of Taylor Swift and Faith Hill. Now, NEEDTOBREATHE is gearing up for the most ambitious project of their two-decade career, and fans are getting the opportunity to see the other side of the mystery. 

Into the Music

First up, the question of how NEEDTOBREATHE created a pandemic album feels pertinent. How did the band accomplish this in an era when so many people struggled with productivity and creativity?

“Honestly it was the opposite of that, somehow,” Rinehart admits. “I don’t know how to attribute all of it.” 

In conversation, Rinehart is effusively humble — freely admitting his struggles and dismissive of praise. His South Carolina preacher’s kid roots shine through most of his conversation, as he betrays a lack of interest in talking about himself too much, but he’s not afraid of vulnerability. He describes the creative process behind Into the Mystery as a “continuation of focus” from the burst of energy that produced the previous album.

“I felt like that window just stayed open, so I started chasing it,” he says. He wrote a song a day. Sometimes, the song would be a natural fit for NEEDTOBREATHE’s trademark dusty southern rock energy. Sometimes, it’d lean a little more into rock and roll. Others, it’d be more a Nashville country song. And sometimes it’d even be a song “that our band would have never cut, just to actually learn how to do it,” Rinehart says. 

“I was coming in here like an 8-year-old kid,” Rineheart laughs. “I’m like, ‘Well, I’m at home. Let’s learn some new skills and explore the universe a little bit.’” 

Writing new music is one thing, but lyrics are another. Rinehart has spoken openly about his struggles with anxiety in the past but, like many of us, the pandemic forced him to reckon with his own internal struggles and emotional health in a whole new way. 

“It was like a house of mirrors a little bit,” he says. “That was an intense time of growing as a person, you know what I mean? Something I probably should have done 15 years ago.” 

But if dealing with his emotional health has taken time, then figuring out his legacy has been an even stranger journey. 

Into the Beauty

“I grew up conservative Christian, preacher dad, the whole thing,” Rinehart says. “And the way I interpreted it at the time — not the way they meant it to be — was that [my parents] loved me as long as I stayed within this window or this road or whatever it is.” 

Rinehart’s been unpacking all this now that he, himself, is a parent. He knows his parents meant well when they raised him — he knows they would have loved him no matter what they did — but that wasn’t always the message that was communicated to him. He’s trying to understand how that happened, and he’s looking into some of how that era’s social factors may have played into Christian parenting at the time.

“I think, for my parents, the ’80s was just like a crazy time for a conservative Christians,” Rinehart says, shaking his head in disbelief. “It was like such a reactionary turn to what was happening in the world. It just became super rigid and rule-following. You know, like, ‘We’re Team USA’ and all of this stuff.” 

[Ed Note: You can read a little more about this era in our fall issue cover story with Jessica Chastain]

“I look back at that time and I have a lot of grace for parents,” Rinehart concludes. “They just were in a time where they were holding on for dear life and that’s how they did it. It wasn’t effective. I feel like most of them are not like that now.”

Rinehart is hoping to communicate a different message to his own kids. No matter how upside down the world seems to be or how much negativity is broadcast over the news or online, he hopes his family’s focus can remain on love and beauty. To that end, he and his family worked together on a “mission statement” that would define them. At the top of the list: “”I love you no matter what you do.” He makes sure to say it out loud to his kids every day. It’s helped him keep a little perspective, even as much of the world seemed to be falling apart.

“It’s funny to me, looking back,” he says. “A lot of the songs I wrote [during lockdown] were about the beauty in the world. I was like, ‘Man, there’s so many things that I’m missing about normal life, but there’s also so many things I’m seeing for the first time.’ There’s a little bit of slowing down.” 

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Into the Work

If you want to get your label to say yes to a new album in a hurry, it helps to swing for the fences, and Rinehart did that. His first idea was to create a TV series around the new project, with a new episode for each song and a series of special guests from the band’s considerable Rolodex. The execs were intrigued and greenlit the idea. NEEDTOBREATHE recorded it all in a 21-day marathon while all living together, in an effort to cut down on coronavirus spread. The music started to take on a life of its own and eventually, the TV series became a documentary feature instead. Into the Mystery is a candid look at the band’s creative process and relationships with each other. 

“It’s such a nutty idea to go with,” Rinehart marvels. “I can’t take much credit for where it headed, but I appreciate the faith of the people around us.” 

Rolling cameras heightens the natural tension, and Rinehart is frank about the added level of pressure of creating and interacting with others when you know receipts are being recorded. Past efforts at capturing NEEDTOBREATHE’s process on camera hadn’t gone great. This time, however, things went very smoothly. 

“I think honestly our reaction was, ‘We’re so glad someone’s capturing this,’” Rinehart says. “I don’t know how else to say it. We were just incredibly thankful.”

As Rinehart keeps talking, you can hear the genuine marvel in his voice at how unlikely the chain of events that brought the band to this point have been.

“Obviously, if this pandemic doesn’t happen, we don’t make this record, I don’t write those songs, we don’t pick a house to quarantine in and all that,” he says. “So we were just like, ‘Man, we have no control of any of this, but this is just a sweet moment. We’re really along for the ride.’ We verbalized that almost daily while we were there. We kept being like, ‘Something bad has got to happen.’ But it never did.” 

Into the Future

“I always feel like we haven’t made it when I’m at home,” Rinehart says. “It’s only really in front of the crowd.” 

He still feels that way, 20 years in. He remembers the first time the band played on late night (it was The Tonight Show With Jay Leno), feeling like the band had hit its highest possible ceiling. Of course, that was then. Since then, NEEDTOBREATHE has only topped itself. He thought it again when they played Madison Square Gardens, and then again when they sold out Red Rocks. He’s realized he’ll probably just always feel that way — wondering if the band’s finally hit the peak of its crescendo. It hasn’t happened yet. 

What also hasn’t happened yet is any sense of laziness. Rinehart is a humble guy, but he’s confident that the band is only getting better. “People get older and get rich and the music doesn’t matter to them anymore; I don’t know,” he says. “But that certainly hasn’t happened to us.”

He recounts the early days of NEEDTOBREATHE, back before the band was just traveling from gig to gig in a cheap van, and while much has changed, he thinks even more has stayed the same.

“I look back at early stuff of us on the stage, the raw emotion and energy, that always connects still to me,” he says. “I remember feeling ‘This show is the end-all of all shows.’ There weren’t more than 200 people in the place. But there’s just something about that that we try to do now too. I think every time I look back at our band, I always admire that part us. I look at back at those guys and think, “man, these dudes have no idea what they’re doing, but they’re brash. They’re just dumb enough to believe that this works.’” 

It’s still working today. Rinehart and the band are putting together the details of their upcoming tour, which they’re hoping to launch on the other side of the pandemic. He’s enjoying it, but he’s a little dazzled by the resources the band’s success has placed at his fingertips now. “You can do almost anything,” he says. “You can make it as big as you want to make it.”

But he smiles. “Is that what people want to see?” he asked. “Or do they want to see you being vulnerable?” 

That’s just one more mystery the band will have to figure out. But they’ve got all the clues they need.

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