Story Behind Song
by John Hillman
On rare occasions, Christian musicians burst on the scene and thrust the genre into new dimensions and directions.
Jars of Clay, a group of young men still in their '20s, both dazzled and puzzled the industry in 1995 with their megahit, "Flood."
The meteoric rise of the four former college students defies imagination. In six short years, the group has generated album sales totaling over four million, garnered 11 number-one Christian singles, received 18 Dove nominations, and won recognition including Dove awards in 1996 for New Artist of the Year and Group of the Year in 1997 and 1998 plus a 1997 Grammy for Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album.
"It's been a surprise to us," keyboardist Charlie Lowell told the Birmingham Post-Herald in June 1996. "We didn't really chase down those opportunities or anticipate that it would ever happen. We were shocked at first, but at the same time, we're really thrilled."
The success of Lowell, vocalist Dan Haseltine, bassist Steve Mason, and guitarist Matt Odmark originated in the halls of ivy. As students at Greenville College in 1992, the keyboardist and the vocalist along with Matt Bronleewe worked on various projects in the school's contemporary Christian music department. One year later, Mason arrived and hooked up with the group through his affinity for the alternative band, Toad the Wet Sprocket.
"Dan and I worked together musically a little that first year in a campus ministry group as well as some studio recording projects," Lowell revealed to Brian Q. Newcomb in a 1995 interview. "That following year we met Steve Mason. We hooked up with him because he had a sampler and was kind of into that hip hop thing."
As the group coalesced, Lowell suggested a name drawn from 2 Corinthians 4:7 in which the Apostle Paul states, "But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all- surpassing power is from God and not from us." Recognizing the frailty and fragility of their lives and music, the college boys committed to a music ministry and became Jars of Clay.
In time, the quartet composed several songs including "Love Song for a Savior" and "He" and played various small venues. On a whim, the group sent a demo to CCM Magazine as part of a nationwide talent search, and the fledgling band landed in the final top ten.
On April 27, 1994, the combo won the Gospel Music Association Spotlight Competition, and the young men signed a recording contract with Essential Records six months later. During the interim, however, Bronleewe left the group due to his upcoming marriage and desire to finish school. To fill the gap, Lowell's best friend from high school, Matt Odmark, joined the other three in Nashville.
While the former college students recorded and produced their debut album, the power of God orchestrated an encounter that forever changed the face of Christian music. An Essential intern and good friend of the group brought their demo to the attention of her cousin and improvisational guitarist and songwriter, Adrian Belew.
After a bit of coaxing, Belew, a collaborator with cutting edge rock bands such as Talking Heads, Nine Inch Nails, and King Crimson, agreed to produce two cuts on the self-titled album, "Legend" and "Flood." His expertise elevated the production from very good to superb.
"He (Belew) did some string arranging and played mandolin, bass, and cello on the song," Odmark told Syndicate magazine. "We had a real shared vision for these songs, as well as the rest of the record. He helped us, early on, to achieve the goal we were shooting for on the whole record."
Vocalist Haseltine penned the lyrics not only for "Flood" but also the entire debut recording. Drawing primary inspiration from Psalm 51, the song embodies themes of guilt, sin, and pleas for help with references to Romans 6:23, Galatians 5:1-24, Hebrews 12:1-13, James 1:2-8, and 1 Peter 1:3-9.
Although many Christian music fans superficially believed the song focused on Noah because of the line, "But if I can't swim after forty days, and my mind is crushed by the thrashing waves," the lyrics and message go much deeper. The Psalmist writes in verses one and two of the 51st Psalm, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin." In conjunction with these thoughts, Haseltine sought to capture a Christian's total dependence upon God, repeating the catch phrase, "Lift me up," in the chorus.
"Look at this part of life," he said referring to "Flood's" angst-driven theme in a 1996 interview with Frank Trexler. "This is how we struggle with it and this is what we see. Wrestle with it for yourself and see what you come up with."
Despite the song's unconventional stops and cryptic phrases, reviewers praised the single. Billboard called it, "while... not exactly religious, it is definitely inspirational. The lyrics are a celebration of life, as an acoustic chorus and compassionate vocals unearth a handsome harmony."
The debut album also brought lavish accolades from the Christian sector. David Davore wrote in Christian Retailing, "Jars of Clay upsets the status quo and actually stands on its own musical identity. The group's folk-based rock integrates diverse instrumentation with unusual sound effects, from the chanting of monks to the chirping of crickets. Jars of Clay is tantalizing at first sip, yet listeners who savor and allow the flavor to resonate are likely to discover vessels of treasure."
"Flood" quickly swept from the Christian to secular airwaves buoyed by Essential's Silvertone division's promotion. The song's video appeared on both MTV and VH-1, and the combo performed on Late Night with David Letterman and CBS This Morning.
Within weeks after the album's May 1995 release, "Flood" crested at number one on the Christian charts and remained in the top 50 until 1998. On the secular side, the cut peaked at number two on the hit top five R&R listing and number seven on the hit top 10 alternative R&R chart.
Fueled by this massive popular swell, Jars of Clay achieved double platinum status from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in February 1999, one of the few Christian albums to garner this recognition. Their two subsequent CDs, Much Afraid (1997) and If I Left the Zoo (1999) Garnered platinum and gold certification respectively, bringing the group unprecedented success in Christian music.
Yet, the ensemble's musical style has expanded and resisted pigeonholing. Influences as diverse as the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle, James Taylor, Sarah McLachlan, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Counting Crows surface in their arrangements. Lowell described their sound as, "mainly a folk-acoustic combined with a more modern - call it alternative or New Wave - kind of stuff we grew up on in the late '80s."
Throughout this roller coaster ride of concerts, recording, and songwriting, Jars of Clay's focus has remained constant. Despite criticisms from some circles questioning the band's Christian classification, the four former college boys now all married men view their music as a mission.
"We see much of our role as building bridges between the church and the culture," Lowell explained on the official website, www.jarsofclay.com. "We do this by developing relationships with mainstream promoters, radio stations, bands, audiences, even Hollywood. We hope to be visible in the culture, serving and loving the people that we come in contact with."