Your generous support of the Art House America Blog is welcome and tax-exempt.

Please use the PayPal link below:

Contact specific locations with questions via e-mail:
Dallas
North (Twin Cities)
AHA is a 501(c)3

Friday
Oct222010

Her Voice, Her Guitar

In the early 90s, I attended Metro, an evening worship service at my church targeted toward singles, at least some of whom (I mean myself here) were awkward college students continually asking, Now, why am I on this planet again? The first time I filed into the massive sanctuary with my friends, I saw a band walk on stage: six guys and one girl. As I took a seat, one of the guitarists belted out a cover of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” with his powerful voice and killer electric guitar riff. I didn’t know who this guy was, but Bono and the Edge had a run for their money. Another night, the girl shyly stepped up to the mic to start things off with an amazing cover of a Tracy Chapman song, and when she sang, her timidity disappeared. Her voice was like honey. Then she retreated to sit on a tall stool until her next vocal contribution.

The band introduced themselves as Caedmon’s Call, which at that time consisted of Cliff Young, Danielle Glenn, Derek Webb (the competitor to Bono and the Edge), Todd Bragg, Garett Buell, Aric Nitzberg, and Randy Holsapple. Before and after the sermon, they led us to sing along to their folk-rock songs with perfectly layered harmonies and lyrics I could relate to, mixed in with hilarious banter between the frontmen, Cliff and Derek. I was mesmerized by Garett’s magical percussion setup — every kind of shaky thing you can imagine plus a hanging row of chimes — and well, the band in general. Having just graduated from a sheltered Christian high school, I heard the band’s music and religious honesty as a rushing wind of fresh air. I purchased every CD.

The band’s lineup has changed several times since then. With each new record, I’d unfold the liner notes thinking, Who’s in the band this time? Different songwriters would lend their tunes but not perform. Others joined the band and toured, then moved on to other projects. Some band members left; new members joined. Danielle Young (now married to Cliff) calls it “a fluid membership.” She says she just showed up to record, happily surprised by whomever she worked with on each album.

But with Caedmon’s Call’s latest record, Raising Up the Dead, some old things have been resurrected — a poetic circumstance reflected in the title. For one thing, Derek is back in the lineup, and he produced this record. In bassist Jeff Miller’s opinion, “It is the best sounding Caedmon’s record ever.” He continues, “I don’t think there was ever a time where we were all in the studio together, and that’s hard. Kudos to Derek for having a vision for the sound of this project and pulling it together.” Drummer Todd Bragg adds, “We didn’t say, ‘Derek’s going to produce this.’ We needed somebody to take the reins and sort out the initial process of writing and throwing everything out on the table. Derek started shaping things; it just made sense, and it happened very naturally and organically. It’s very similar to how we did our first album, My Calm // Your Storm, so many years ago. I like how it’s cycled around to that, and to a lot of the original members — even the original mindset of making music together.”

The current lineup — Cliff and Danielle Young, Derek Webb, Todd Bragg, Garett Buell, and Jeff Miller — has created something modern and brand new with Raising Up the Dead. There’s a newfound maturity to individual vocals and lyrics, which I believe comes from adulthood, getting married, and most band members having children — living lives full of new inspiration. Derek calls it “a creative renaissance eighteen years into our career.”

As producer, Derek is the mastermind behind the old/new Caedmon’s sound. “I was in a pretty unique position, having spent ten years in the band (almost ten years ago), knowing these folks as well as I do — the sonic ground they’ve covered, what’s unique to Caedmon’s, their strengths in terms of rhythmic and percussive elements, acoustic guitars, and everything they’re known for,” he reflected, “but I didn’t want to go backwards even though that’s what a lot of folks want the band to do, and even what Caedmon’s once did to comfort people. I didn’t want to go back and remake 40 Acres, or find the band’s quintessential moment and try to live there again. I wanted to bring the necessary elements and instruments into the future a little bit and make a new sound. But my main ethic was just to listen to the songs — where they wanted to go and how they wanted to sound.”

Derek wanted to honor a new but authentic sound, and he pulled it off brilliantly. He’s fast becoming one of my favorite producers.

Equally influential is that part of this creative renaissance includes new songwriting voices from within the band. Jeff Miller wrote two songs and Todd Bragg wrote one. Both musicians feel as if the songwriting bug has officially bitten them. Cliff and Derek also wrote songs — as usual — but the most surprising voice to step forward is Danielle’s. She’s normally perceived as quiet and observant on stage when not singing, playing an important but supportive vocal role. But the band members — some of the people who know her best — were not surprised by her desire to write.

Todd told me that Danielle wrote inventive short stories while in school, so the band was glad to see her trying her hand at lyrics. Derek noted, “When she brought her first few songs and ideas to Nashville, there was such an obvious, immediate sound I could hear that could go with everyone’s songs. I didn’t have to sit and dream up a lot of production or sonic ideas because so much of it felt like it was infused into her songs.”

 


 

Photo: Cody Bess | www.codybess.comIn a sense, Danielle is the catalyst of Raising Up the Dead. She wrote six songs — literally half of the album. Her songs are extremely well-written, and they resonate as deeply personal. “Some of them are hard to even talk about,” said Danielle. “I don’t mind sharing them in the guise of poetry and lyrics, but it’s hard to come right out and talk about them.”

If you didn’t know this was her first go at it, you’d think she’s been writing songs for the band all this time. I’ve always thought she has one of the most beautiful voices, but her new writing voice is exciting and inspiring. Truth be told, I’ve hoped and dreamed she would write songs. I thought surely there was more to her voice than effortless pitch, melody, and harmony; there must be wisdom, too. And guess what? I was exactly right.

As one who gulped and finally dived into writing in my 30s, I asked Danielle about the process of beginning to write songs in her 30s, not to mention the fact that she is married, has four kids, and maintains a verifiable zoo of animals that make her children happy. She said, “Honestly, the best answer I can come up with is when we quit touring, I was sad; I missed having something constantly musical and creative.” At the same time, she said she wanted to quit touring because “it took a lot away from me, my time, and my family.” But she still needed a creative outlet: “So I started journaling again; I hadn’t journaled since before the kids were born. Having a baby every two or three years for ten years is a continual state of exhaustion. But with these songs, I got to the point where I was writing again, and I started to find themes in my journals.”

She also picked up a guitar again, a happy reunion. “I first learned how to play a long time ago when the band first started,” said Danielle. “I learned some chords from the guys, then learned a few songs. Last summer I picked up Cliff’s guitar and then he bought one just for me, which was very sweet. Once he did that, I was playing all the time. Even better, we have a room on the third floor of our patio home that we turned into our studio. It’s the only place in the house that doesn’t have anything ‘kid’ in it.”

Photographs and posters in that room inspire the Youngs — Paul Simon, U2, Jimi Hendrix, the Indigo Girls, Rich Mullins, the Beatles, Sarah McLachlan, James Taylor, and prints from India. Even funky pillows and a mirror ball that Todd installed hanging overhead. Though Danielle collaborated with Derek and his wife, Sandra McCracken, on her songs, this creative space in her home was the genesis of her first official songs. Before she ever flew to Nashville to bounce ideas off her friends, she played them for her strongest inspiration: her husband. They wrote “Come with Me” together though the liner notes do not reveal the collaboration. Danielle said, “I played everything for Cliff before I played a single note for Derek. Always.”

And playing guitar is essential to her matriarchal sanity. She plays while her kids run around outside or bathe at night — she pulls up a chair or stool and plucks and strums, the notes smoothing out the chaos of a blessed yet boisterous life, and at the same time adding to her kids’ already musical, creative upbringing. But Danielle shared a secret: “I just feel good when I’m playing guitar. That’s what I do when I’m stressed out or upset. I go grab my guitar for a few minutes and then I feel better.” This refuels what she empties for her family, and it’s a source of fun for her personally, along with being outside in nature, having alone time (because it’s rare), or just sitting and pondering her relationships with God, Cliff, her kids, friends, and family. Quiet time to just think strengthens her writing. “Carving out time gets hard but if I wasn’t forced to find it, I woudn’t go looking for it. Having so much responsibility and demand on myself is what created such a great need for me to play and write,” she said.

Some songwriters might be open to sharing every layer of their songs, but this isn’t so for Danielle. For instance, she will explain only one piece of inspiration for the song “She.” Danielle shared, “I was thinking about how, as women, we compare ourselves to each other and how it’s so hard not to fall into that trap, and there’s always that one woman who seems to have it all together, so that’s where the phrase ‘she’s got it all together’ came from. And I always sing slow songs, so I wanted it to be more ‘rock & roll’; I had Sheryl Crow in mind whenever I thought about the music.” But that’s the only layer she cares to explain. “Somebody will ask me, ‘Is this what it means?’ and they won’t be right. I think that’s great, though, because they took something they needed from it and that’s what’s so great about art — you bring your own story into it. I hope this happens with my songs. Anything that is true will speak to people, and it doesn’t necessarily mean a cosmic truth; it can even just be the true story of your life. More than likely, somebody else has been through something similar, so it will touch them as well.”

Danielle’s songs are autobiographical, even if it’s the way she thinks about someone else and their situation. She confesses, “It’s all pretty egocentric, I guess! But I mean that in the purest sense of the word. I’m still learning to project; it’s all my experience at this point.” For example, “Time Inside Out” is a beautiful, if somewhat obvious, song about her children, creatively structured with a verse about each child. Another song that Danielle readily explains is the achingly beautiful “Miss You,” full of courageous vulnerability. Within her amazing vocal range, the deepest alto notes sing like a fine, aged red wine.

He was her first love
She was his first heartbreak
She didn’t trust him
That was her second big mistake
She took a lover
She took the medicine
She took another
But all she thought about was him
And the smile that was on his face
As she walked away

I miss you
And I need to
‘Cause when I’m back in your arms it’s twice as sweet . . .

The song reads like a love song, which it is. “I feel particularly connected to that song,” said Danielle. “I do to all of them, but that song is about me and God, and I thought about Hosea, how God called him to marry an unfaithful wife — to live out that analogy. I felt convicted about some idols in my life and overwhelmed by the fact that God’s love and grace welcomes me back home, and how He knew all along I’d return. He loved me the moment I turned away just as much as the moment I turned back. Sometimes as Christians we don’t like to look at that too much, but as you get older you realize you’re going to make bad choices.”

Danielle has the vision of a songwriter even as she discusses her songs: a sense of mature purpose for the lyrics, and an increasingly refined ear for the right melodies and harmonies. Yet, songwriting isn’t Danielle's only new artful endeavor. She’s also co-writing screenplays for short films; she even acted in a friend’s short film. “Screenwriting is a lot harder than I thought. With novels, you get to tell everybody what you’re seeing, but with visual art it’s already in front of you, so you have to figure out the economy of words. I’ve been fascinated by how to communicate minimally.”

 


 

I’ve followed Caedmon’s Call as the years have flipped by. It’s been fun to watch them change and grow in their musicality and as people. But Derek makes a bold claim: “Raising Up the Dead is the first true Caedmon’s record — this is the first time you’re actually hearing stories from almost all of the individual members. You’re getting a real sense of who these six people are.”

I agree — if someone has never heard of Caedmon’s before, they can pick up this record as an introduction, which boggles my mind since they have a deep musical history. It’s also inspiring to know that a whole new generation will love the songs of Caedmon’s Call starting with this album, knowing Danielle’s heart and creativity through her songs as well.

I don’t know about you, but I will be avidly listening to Danielle. I just might pick up my guitar again, too (I’m only 35, after all). She encourages any of us who feel stuck or want to try something new: “The great thing about writing is that it’s not too late to start even if you’re 70. As long as you have the ability to think and communicate in some capacity — whether with a pen, computer, guitar, etc. — I believe you can write, especially if it’s something you’re passionate about. The way you become a good writer is by writing. Even if you’re not that good at first, if you’re writing the truth, you’re writing your own story. You can perfect your writing style, your voice, and so on, but if the content is good and true, then you’ve got something to work with.”

I hope Danielle keeps surprising us with memoirs crafted by her guitar, her writing, and that rich-honey voice as she’s done on Raising Up the Dead. “She’s always had a lot to say,” says Derek, “but now she’s saying it very artistically, and it’s been amazing to watch.”

Danielle has been pulled from comfortable, quiet waters to not only sing but also speak through her writing. One of her fellow band members called her the frontman of this record. She would never claim that title, but it’s true. An album is a piece of art, and a group effort, but half of Raising Up the Dead is a revelation of Danielle Young — an unassuming, powerful, beautiful force within Caedmon’s Call.


Jenni Simmons is the editor of the Art House America Blog, assistant editor and staff writer for The Curator, a drummer's wife, caretaker of two cats (Harley and Milo), freelance writer, coffee/tea/whiskey-drinker, bookworm, music fanatic, and a bird-watcher.



Raising Up the Dead is available at www.caedmonscall.com.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

Reader Comments (1)

Hey Jenni,
Thanks for a great, thoughtful piece and and excellent "behind the music" of one of my favorite bands. Will pick up CD and hope they come to my area (CT).

Blessings,
Mike

October 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMike O'Brien

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>