Josh Garrels: A Different Ethic and Sustenance for my Soul

“There’s a place, a garden for the young
To laugh and dance in safety among
The shimmering light in the garden of peace
But steal a bite and paradise is lost
With darkened hearts we didn’t count the cost
Forgot all we left behind
Life picks up speed before you know
We’re holding on for dear life, Oh Lord
We’re too proud to turn back now
One day it all falls down
It breaks our heart and it breaks our crown
Brings us down where we see
It’s gonna be alright
Turn around and let back in the light
And joy will come
Like a bird in the morning sun
And all will be made well once again”
-Josh Garrels, “Morning Light”

There’s something really cool about finding an artist long before he’s famous and watching him grow, improve, and ultimately “make it.” About ten years ago, when I was a college student at Anderson University, some friends and I used to trek over to Muncie and the surrounding areas to see a Ball State dropout play shows in coffee shops, churches, and bars. His name was Josh Garrels. Belted out of his tall, lanky frame, his music blended several styles: blues, folk, hip hop, and bluegrass. Watching him play seemed like a mystical experience. His songs poetically play with the beauties of creation alongside the corruption of our culture and politics, while calling us to Kingdom ethics and intimate love. The lyrics are passionate and intelligent, overtly spiritual without being preachy or didactic.

For a time, he started and pastored a church in Indianapolis, and I drove down just to see what he was like behind a pulpit. Not surprisingly, his lyrical gifting shined there, too. Ultimately, he committed to music full-time, and many of us are grateful that he made that decision. At the very least, seeing him play is one of those encounters in which you know someone is doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing, and there’s something really beautiful and hopeful about that.

Although he’s based in Portland now, I love that Garrels has hoosier roots, having grown up in South Bend. Including last night’s show at Old National Centre in Indianapolis, I’ve probably seen the man play at least ten times in three different states. Okay, so I may be a bit of a groupie, but by now, a lot of other people know who he is, too. He’s put out six albums, one of which (“Love & War & the Sea In Between”) Christianity Today called the 2011 album-of-the-year. His song, “Slip Away,” appeared on ESPN’s Outside the Lines.

I’ll offer one anecdote to illustrate how interesting and compelling this man is to me. I was listening to one of his early CDs one night when I realized the recorded beats had been borrowed. There was no indication of that on the CD, so I e-mailed him and asked him what was up. Within hours, I had received a response. He apologized, and acknowledged that yes, he had borrowed the beats without ever really expecting his music to spread wide enough to matter. He quit selling the CD and no longer plays the song at shows. It spoke to me of an integrity and of accessibility. He replied to my e-mail! Even as his music has become more popular and established, he has kept at his career independently, choosing not to work with a record label. His wife contributes some of the album-cover art, and the music gets created in a studio Garrels funded and built.

Admittedly, I’m a bit evangelistic about Garrels’ music every time a new album comes out. His latest is “Home,” so here I am promoting it. I won’t review it because I don’t know enough about music technique to do it justice. Barrels seems like the kind of artist who will show some innovation with every project, and this album is no exception. A lot of thought and creativity goes into the project with “A Long Way” and “At the Table” being my two favorite song from it. 

Here’s another fun kicker: Garrels gives away his new albums for a time. Who does that? Apparently it works for him, and I suspect it works business-wise because he wins new fans who kick the money back to him by coming to his shows and buying his older albums. While I’m thinking about it, maybe it was from Garrels that U2 got the idea to recently do the same thing. 🙂

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