It takes a very special gift to meld internal revelation with eternal truth and create songs that strike a universal chord with both enlightened scholars and struggling broken souls, but Jason Gray has that gift. Never afraid to look inward for inspiration and just as ready to analyze the world around him, Gray is called to create music that makes a difference and he continues to share that gift with passion and conviction on his new album.
On his latest Centricity Music album, A Way To See In The Dark, Gray once again exercises his gift for channeling complex emotions and bold truths into songs that resonate strongly with his audience. His songs are personal yet universal. Who among us hasn’t struggled with fear and wrestled with identity? Who hasn’t exhaled in exasperation and breathed the name of God?
Gray captures these vulnerable moments in such songs as No Thief Like Fear, Remind Me Who I Am and The Sound Of Our Breathing. “Author Frederick Buechner tells us that before we presume to proclaim the hope and the good news of the gospel we should look at the headlines of the day and acknowledge the worst of the world, otherwise nobody is going to believe the best of the hope we speak of,” Gray says. “With all my songs, I want to be conscientious of the person who feels like an outsider, excluded because of their pain. I hope by acknowledging difficulty, heartbreak, and pain that I can cast a line for them to hold onto and be drawn in.”
It’s Gray’s honesty and his willingness to explore both the valleys and mountaintops with equal candor that define his artistry and have made him one of the most compelling songwriters of his generation. While Gray draws from a deep well lyrically, what sets him apart musically is the diverse array of influences that make up his colorful palette. A Minneapolis native who has struggled with stuttering, Gray’s early years were filled with the pop sounds of Billy Joel and Duran Duran as well as the lyrical poetry of Simon & Garfunkel and the soul searching anthems of U2.
“I appreciate pop music, but I also want to marry it to a reflective, hopefully interesting and compelling lyric,” says Gray, who was also influenced musically by his mother. “I grew up on the road with my mom’s band, so I was always hanging out in the bars while they were doing a concert every weekend. In the 4th grade, in the midst of an ugly divorce, is when my mom became a Christian. She went from singing in the bars to singing at revival meetings and so at that point I was introduced to Christian music. Meanwhile, I was also navigating the challenges of being a kid with a speech handicap and this growing feeling of being an outsider. All of these experiences have shaped my music.”
Gray released four independent albums before reaching a national audience with his 2007 Centricity Music debut, All the Lovely Losers. The impressive collection prompted ChristianityToday.com to call him one of “Christian music’s best kept secrets.” Gray’s Acoustic Storytime album captured the stories and songs that have made him such a popular live act and 2009’s Everything Sad is Coming Untrue helped Gray gain momentum at Christian radio.
“My last record connected with radio, so in some sense there was the pressure to build upon that with this new record and not squander it,” Gray confesses. “You can get consumed by the anxiety of that kind of pressure, but every step of the way I felt like the Lord gave me the grace not to let this record be my identity and who I was in the world. I was better at that this time around than I have been in the past.”
In recording his new album, Gray once again worked with producers Jason Ingram and Rusty Varenkamp, well known for their work with Brandon Heath, Tenth Avenue North and Sanctus Real among others. “I feel like I occupy two worlds in that I’m a singer/songwriter who loves contemporary folk music and music that makes you think, but I have this other side of me that desires to be accessible and enjoys making pop records. Jason and Rusty are great because they love both of those worlds too. They want to make a great pop record with hits for the radio, but they also want to have something of depth, something meaty, so they help me work that balance in a way that I’m really grateful for. They help me to bridge the two worlds---the artistic side of me as well as the side of me that wants to be accessible and serve a wider audience who might not typically be drawn to lyric driven singer/songwriter music.”
In writing songs for his fourth Centricity Music album, Gray took a less structured approach than previous projects. “I used to begin with a theme and write songs around it,” Gray relates. “This time around I just wrote whatever came and the themes emerged after the fact. A lot of the songs have to do with fear - that we aren’t enough, or that maybe God isn’t in control. I think one of things I’m trying to say with this record is that all of our fear, regret, and shame is answered in God’s love for us, His heart towards us. Fear loses its hold of me when I’m confident of God’s love for me and that He is in control. He’s always at work and especially in the most difficult things I experience. None of it is beyond His reach to redeem.”
Gray begins to make the case for this with the album opener, Remind Me Who I Am. The song is the lead single from the new album, and Jason cites it as one of the most important songs on the record. “It picks up where I Am New from my last record left off. It’s about identity,” Gray explains. “I began to wonder why exactly do I sin? I was raised to believe that we sin because of willful rebellion, but the thing is most of the time when I sin, I don’t want to sin, so it’s almost like I’m doing it against my will. I wonder if I sin less because of willful rebellion and more because I forget who I am. We run to all these other things – like relationships, materialism, career, etc. in hopes they will give us a sense of worth, but they can never fully name us. If we would only run to Christ, he would remind us who we really are. He says, ‘you are enough because I said so. You are my beloved bride. You are the adopted child that I chose. You are my treasure.’”
In addition to impassioned anthems like No Thief Like Fear, the album also contains such buoyant numbers as Good to be Alive, a summertime tune which finds Gray proclaiming, I want to live like there’s no tomorrow/Love like I’m on borrowed time/It’s good to be alive. The album closes with the worshipful Jesus We Are Grateful. “It’s significant that the last verse kind of takes us back to where the album began,” Gray says. “It goes back to resting in our identity as the one who God loves. There is security in that, deep, deep assurance of God’s love and knowing that His heart towards us is kindness and compassion.”
Gray finds as many opportunities to live these songs as he sings them. “In the early years of my music career, I was always so anxious about being rejected because my identity was so wrapped up in it,” Grays says of making music. “One of the blessings of getting older is that you learn to not care as much about what other people think. This time around in making a record, my identity wasn’t as entangled in the process. I didn’t feel like this album had to prove my worth in the world so I was less anxious over it and able to enjoy the process a lot more. I felt more free with this project and less afraid. This allowed me to have a lot more gratitude and I hope that gratitude comes through the record when people hear it.”