Jars of Clay
Not Afraid Anymore
On their last album, JARS OF CLAY let outside expectations bottle up their creativity. But a new album, with a new producer, got them loosened up and ready to rock.

by Mark Moring

With more than 3 million albums sold, it?s pretty clear that the guys in Jars of Clay know how to make great music.

So when they played a song demo for Dennis Herring, the producer of their brand-new album, If I left the Zoo (due November 9), they figured he?d like it.

And he did. Well, sorta.

"It?s a song called ?Can?t Erase It,?" says keyboard player Charlie Lowell, "and we really liked our demo tape. We thought it was a good rock song. When Dennis heard it, he liked it, but said it sounded like a lot of stuff on the radio. He suggested some changes."

And more changes. And still more changes.

"We came up with four or five different arrangements that were very far from what we originally had in mind," says Charlie. "Dennis wanted to remove us as far as he could from the initial sound on our demo.

"It was a pretty uncomfortable process. We were kind of asking. ?What?s he trying to do with us? I liked this song a week ago, and now I hate it.?"

As it turned out, the producer was right all along. The end result was a song everybody loved.

"Yeah," admits Charlie, "it?s a much better song now than what we started with."

That process?of change, discomfort, and, finally, a better result?illustrates what the band has been through since its second album, Much Afraid, was released two years ago.

All four band members?Charlie, lead vocalist Dan Haseltine, and guitarists Steve Mason and Matt Odmark?have grown in their faith since the days of Much Afraid, a title that represented their feelings at the time.

Back then, Jars?riding the huge mainstream success of their self-titled debut album?had been playing in bars and clubs, touring with secular bands and visiting places worlds apart from the Christian faith.

All Jars wanted to do was take their songs of hope to a hurting world. But they caught flak for it?especially from other believers.

The guys were confused. And hurt. And, yes, much afraid.

That?s how they felt when they headed into the studio to make their second album. They felt intense pressure to make a great record, but they were afraid to take too many risks, musically or lyrically.

"We were motivated by fear," says Steve, "a fear of making someone unhappy. We?re people pleasers, and we didn?t want to offend anyone."

Adds Dan, "We still wonder what other Christians think of what we?re doing. But we?re at a point in our career and our faith where we?re a lot more confident in our decisions.

"We?ve had to take a long, hard look at what we do, and we feel very strongly that God is calling us to build relationships outside of the church, and to be salt and light in places where Christian music doesn?t normally go. And what that means is moving ahead and not looking back?and just praying and hoping the church will understand."

When Jars went into the studio last spring to start recording their third album, the fearfulness of those Much Afraid days was a thing of the past. This time around, the guys were much more confident?and ready to take a few risks.

That?s one reason they hired Herring, a veteran producer who worked with many secular bands, including The Innocence Mission and Cracker. They knew he?d push them to try new things, to reach for higher and higher levels of creativity.

"Dennis is a great producer," says Dan. "He just has a very organic and earthy feel to his production that we all really love."

"Earthy" is what Jars is all about. Their very name, taken from 2 Corinthians 4:7, includes the word "clay." The smash hit song "Flood," from their debut album, talks about being "one with the mud." And their musical roots have a raw, down-to-earth edge that characterized their first album?which recently passed the 2 million mark in sales.

The guys felt like they drifted from those roots on Much Afraid, and they wanted to return to them for If I Left the Zoo. They knew Herring could help.

"We wanted to make a record that wasn?t so polished as Much Afraid was," says Dan. "That?s why we wanted Dennis to produce it. He was real excited about the whole creative process and experimenting with sounds and different ideas, doing things we hadn?t done before."

For example, on one song, all the drum tracks were recorded with a half-dozen cheap tape recorders (instead of the expensive studio recording devices).

"Stuff like that," says Dan, "gives the album a different flavor."

Says Steve, "We wanted to get in touch with the spontaneity and abandon we had on the first record, when we were making music just because we were having fun. We wanted to recapture some of that."

"Dennis pulled us in directions, musically, that we might never have tried on our own," adds Matt. "Though it was uncomfortable at times, I think we?ve made a record that?s much more creative as a result."

So what are the guys? favorite songs on this new album?

Both Charlie and Matt say "I?m All Right" is a favorite.

"It?s really different than anything we?ve ever done before," says Charlie.

Adds Matt, "It sounds almost like a throwback to the old Rolling Stones. And lyrically, it?s about how we are all right before God, because of his mercy."

Dan mentions "Famous Last Words" as a fave.

"It?s from a non-Christian?s perspective, somebody who says they don?t need God right now, but that they?ll turn to him later," says Dan. "It?s just a call for urgency, for Christians to love people well enough to draw them to Christ."

And Steve points out "The River Constantine."

"That song came out of a week-long retreat we took in January, just catching up on our relationships," he says. "It?s about the Holy Spirit and how he relates to us. It?s a worshipful tune, and I think it kind of captures the Jars of Clay sound that people have come to expect?an acoustically based ballad."

And while the guys have sung the praises of their producer, they save their biggest praise for their Creator.

"We?ve had so many interesting things and tough moments that we know without a shadow of a doubt that this is where God wants us," says Steve. "He?s done amazing things through these opportunities to draw us closer to him, and to each other.

"He still has his hand on us. And he?s still doing a work in us and through us."

As for the rest of us, it?s time to just kick back and listen.

From Campus Life magazine, Christianity Today, Inc. Used by permission.