Multi platinum-selling, Grammy Award-winning artist Jars of Clay visited Manila over the weekend for their free concert, part of Church Simplified’s Walkway at BGC, and to film their newest music video, which is being produced completely in the Philippines. In between the two events, they were kind enough to sit down with us to chat about the Jars of Clay story so far.
“Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry is one of my favorite books,” says lead singer Dan Haseltine. “It’s just a fantastic novel.” The story, titled after its protagonist, follows a man’s journey to discover—over the course of his life—the value of community, and the perils of isolation, all from Jayber’s unique vantage point as the town barber of Port William, Kentucky.
Haseltine’s band mates are quick to reveal their titles. “A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin,” says keyboard and piano player Charlie Lowell. “The River Why by David James Duncan,” says guitarist Stephen Mason. And clearly struggling to pick just one, guitarist Matt Odmark settles: “I’m just gonna go with Peace Like A River by Leif Enger. It’s a beautifully written story, a family history.”
It’s a curious selection, Jars of Clay’s favorite books—all 20th century fiction, set largely in the modern era, exploring themes of connectedness, truth, spirituality, self-discovery and the search for meaning. One can’t help but make a connection between these themes and the twists in the unique story of this acclaimed band—which has earned respect the world over for more than their music.
The Element of Story
The Jars of Clay story began in Greenville College, Illinois where the band members were students. The plot device that brought them together: a Toad The Wet Sprocket t-shirt that spawned a conversation. Eleven studio recordings later, the band’s musical turns display a wide spectrum of artistic influences ranging from gritty rock, to rustic folk, to neo soul, to classic hymns. And from the start, this array of musical colors has been informed by a hunger for exploration.
“I think we knew [after that first record] that there would be no standing still in terms of what we wanted to do,” recounts Steve. “If we wanted to stay ahead of the curve artistically and push the envelope creatively and challenge ourselves, we would have to find some new sounds, some new approaches to recording, work with different people.”
Hence, their sound has evolved. “We feel that over time we’ve fostered a conversation with our audience,” says Charlie. “In a twenty year career, you’re not just looking for the little fireworks, you’re looking for the sustained conversation.”
“The songs are fueled by those amazing stories that we’ve heard,” says Dan. “A song tends to be a snapshot of an emotion… like coming out of a movie with a friend and going ‘Oh hey, that one part when the guy said that one line…’ That’s really how we function writing with Jars—take those stories that impact us a lot and find those moments that are worth teasing and ruminating.”
A Twist in the Plot
Arguably the most interesting turn in the Jars of Clay story is their work to remedy the HIV/AIDS and water crises in sub-Saharan Africa. Before that venture into philanthropy Dan had a friend who, over the span of two and-a-half years, coerced him to join one his regular trips to Africa. Haseltine repeatedly declined. “[But] eventually, he wore me down and I went,” he shares. This profoundly impacted Jars of Clay.
“It was the experience of sitting across the table with people and hearing what was happening around HIV and AIDS to them and their home, to their community and their family… and that made it human. And it allowed me to see that this is a story that I could tell, and I think we could tell it well.”
And so was born Blood:Water Mission, a grassroots organization that, since its inception in 2005, has partnered with over 1,300 African communities, providing clean water and health care to over 800,000 people across 11 countries.
“The stories are all around us and most of the time we don’t want to engage them because we think the stories are really hard,” says Dan, with a tone of understanding. “Because most of the time, when we are presented with a story about poverty… it’s never really told from the hopeful side because people are trying to get you to engage with it. And so… they shock you with the depth of the depravity and the pain and the struggle. And ultimately that’s not really inspiring… people see it as a burden to get involved rather than a privilege to connect with a great story.”
Mentioning the good work of Filipino endeavors such as WE International, which does community development programs in Smokey Mountain, Haseltine suggests that we see beyond a depressing situation of “kids growing up on a trash heap”, and instead choose to participate in what he calls “an amazing story of hope and redemption.” That positive invitation—not a burdensome guilt trip—is what inspires people to participate in good enterprises.
Resident funny man, handlebar-mustached Stephen waxes serious for a moment, shedding light on his own experience: “We all relate on these core experiences that we all struggle… I have a context for suffering that’s unique to my story and I think it’s helped put it into context that we all have some element of work in our own lives that we have to submit ourselves to. And the more faithful I can be to that work, the more life I can bring to other things, like Africa. I think it’s impressed upon me the importance of the daily grind… treating the people I love with love.”
“Our friends [in Africa] teach us so much about what it means to be human,” says Matt. “That’s easy to forget in our cultural context. They remind us what it means to be truly hospitable to one another, to be truly generous… what it means to thrive in community even when resources are scarce… Those are the pieces that we bring back with us… the reasons that I need to keep returning.”
“Artists can be very flighty, and we can move from thing to thing to thing all the time,” admits Dan. “‘What is this gonna look like in ten years?’ was the question [people] would ask us. And we’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re gonna have to do this more than a year?'” But thanks to the influence of people challenging them to stay in it, Jars of Clay have remained committed to Africa.
The Ongoing Tale
Conversation. Connectedness. Community. Struggle. Truth. Meaning. These are the elements of the Jars of Clay story. And perhaps this is why they continue to achieve relevance two decades into their career—because these elements are what make the human story engaging. As we wrapped up our interview with the four band members, we asked them one of our favorite Fully Booked questions:
If Jars of Clay was a book, what type of book would you be and where are you in the story?
“Bromance?” jokes Steve. “A time share brochure… Historic fiction.”
“War and Peace… Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground.” adds Matt before he soberly concludes, “Where we are in that book? We’re past the halfway point for sure.”
Hearing this, Dan has a look of surprise on his face.
“…I was gonna say page two.”
Written by Kiddo Cosio & Kayo Cosio
Photographs by Mare Collantes & Indy Villalon
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