Copyright © 1996 Mars Hill Review 5 · Summer 1996: pgs 119-128.
Terry Taylor is nothing if not a survivor. He has fronted the band Daniel Amos for twenty years now. In the early days of the group, they were the darlings of the west coast Calvary Chapel scene in contemporary Christian music. Since then, some daring creative choices have taken Terry and his band down some winding, curvy roads that, in some instances, alienated their early following. In many ways Daniel Amos (a.k.a. DA and da) are the founders and progenitors of the Christian alternative music scene.
A prolific songwriter, Terry Taylor has recorded many projects and produced bunches more. His main musical vehicle over the years has been Daniel Amos. Yet he has recorded some intensely personal songs on two highly acclaimed solo projects (under the name Terry Scott Taylor), created some of his more adventurous and challenging music with the Swirling Eddies, and even found time to collaborate with three other guitarist/songwriters (Derry Daughtery of the Choir, Gene Eugene of Adam Again, and Mike Roe of the 77s) in a group called the Lost Dogs.
Today, Taylor is named by critics as one of the truly gifted songwriters in Christian music, although his songs generally are not recorded by other artists. In my interview with him, Taylor responded with some wonderful insights into his faith, art, and creative processes.
Mars Hill Review: You went from singing straight-ahead Christian songs in the early years of Daniel Amos to creating much more oblique, challenging songs. That change blew many fans, who wanted their dogma reinforced, right out of the water.
Terry Taylor: I have to agree with Flannery O'Connor. She said, "Piety kills the creative mind." I think a lot of our early records contained a lot of piety and a sort of "God is our lock, stock, and barrel" mentality. It was a reflection of what I knew at the time and what I could write about then. But as my experience has increased-I mean, I'm forty-five years old now-I've come to the place of recognizing there is mystery involved, not only in human existence but in God himself. God gives us enough of himself so that he is knowable to some degree, yet there is much about him that is unknowable. I think my current music is an exploration of that theme.
MHR: That builds on a quote I recently read in a Madeleine L'Engle book: "A comprehended God is no God."
TT: Exactly. What makes a song powerful is the exploration of that mystery. The audience that Daniel Amos has now is one that senses a certain degree of transparency in my writing-a transparency that says, "I don't have it all down. I don't have all knowledge."
The Bible isn't simply an instruction book, but an exploration of God's character and how it relates to us and the way we live our lives. So I think the music's themes now are much more infused with the searching spirit. This doesn't negate the fact that Christ has redeemed. But the riches of God know no limits. I believe as a writer that it is essential for me to explore those mysteries and treasures.
MHR: Unlike many other Christian musicians, you often make references to classical artists and classical art ideas. Perhaps the most obvious is the song, "William Blake." Do you think this has inhibited some people from entering into your art?
TT: Yes, there are certain expectations. When people hear a song, they expect it to tap certain buttons in their hearts. Consequently, if you have a song that's full of Christian dogma and reinforces what you already believe, then you're going to entertain that song more than you would a song that's a little bit strange, or that has some mystery to it, or that has some ideas you haven't encountered in the past. I try and write in a fresh way about my faith, or about what it is to be human, or about the mystery of God, which can throw some people off.
MHR: Obviously you aren't inhibited from writing in that way.
TT: I've been doing this for twenty years now. Over time I realized that if I was going to mature as a writer-if I was going to exercise the gift beyond the fundamental things I was doing in the early days-then I ran the risk that not everyone would stay with me.
I went through a period of feeling burdened by that idea-that maybe we weren't going to sell as many records or be the number-one Christian band in America, or something like that. Daniel Amos went through a period of immense popularity and then began declining in popularity. There were a lot of factors involved in that. But one of them might have been that I was going forward as a writer, and that some of the ideas I was putting forth weren't necessarily attractive to a wider spectrum of people. I've come to a place now in the writing and recording process where it's a matter of pleasing myself. And in pleasing myself, hopefully what I do will be a pleasure to God. If that attracts a wide audience, so be it. Or, if it attracts a small group of people who appreciate it, that's good too. If I can look at a record and say, "I'm proud of this, I'm proud of what the band did here, I'm proud of what I did as an artist," then I'm content with that.
MHR: Do you feel, then, that what you are doing today is much less of preaching to a congregation and much more of leading an expedition?
TT: Absolutely. I believe the best writing is the kind that, as you listen to the song, read the lyrics, and absorb it, you continue to see more and more in it. That's the kind of writing that is intriguing. Sometimes it escapes you. It's a place where the artist and the listener can meet and share in a common experience. And yet the listener is able to bring some of his or her own experience to the particular song, and perhaps get something out of it that the writer didn't even intend.
I don't always understand everything I write. I understand aspects of it. But I like to leave it open-ended enough that the listener is able to share something in it and derive something from it that is fresh and new.
MHR: As you've grown in your writing, one theme that seems to pop up regularly is the mystery of God-which you've mentioned-and the inability of humans to articulate that. A couple of examples would be "Shape of Air" and "Darn Floor...Big Bite." Yet you work in a medium where you are constantly trying to articulate God. How would you comment on the paradox of not ever being able to do what it is you are trying to do?
TT: [Laughs.] I think it makes sense. We have to try to describe who God is. And I believe we can in many ways. It would be foolish for me to sit here and say, "God is indescribable, so let's just be silent." We need to express something of what we see in our own lives and find in our own hearts, and convey that to the listener. That may mean saying nothing more than, "God is unknowable, God is holy."
I was inspired with "Shape Of Air." The phrase actually came from Annie Dillard. It was something she used somewhere, and I was intrigued by it. I thought, that's a great expression of a certain degree of the intangible-which, again, is the mystery of God. I don't believe that was her intent with the phrase, but for me it expressed what the whole record was about.
A lot of my early writing came out of the Jesus movement. It was "Truckin' for Jesus"-ad agency kind of music. I think Christian music has become even more so now. But I just couldn't rest in that place with the life experiences I'd had.
A big turning point for me in my life experience was the death of my grandfather. I did a whole record on that theme [Knowledge and Innocence]. I did another record on the death of my grandmother [A Briefing for the Ascent], because it was such a turning point in my life.
Here I had understood this Christian dogma in the Bible-the idea that our loved ones go to be with Christ and that someday we will be reunited with them. But I found that to be of little comfort in the actuality of the loss. It was a point in life where the rubber met the road. I had lost someone. Death had touched my life as it never had done before.
C.S. Lewis, in writing as an apologist for Christianity, had talked about death and the attitudes a Christian ought to possess in that kind of situation. But later, in A Grief Observed, he wrote that all of that flew out the window the moment he lost his wife. God had to come into his life and meet him where he was in all his confusion, anger, pain, and sadness. He had to build faith in God again, from the ground up.
We all get the hand grenade thrown into our Christian dogma at some point in our life. And there is hardly any way you can prepare for it. You can read the Bible a hundred times in your lifetime, but when this happens, you see what kind of stuff you're really made of. In that moment I was able to express anger toward God-and, lo and behold, he didn't forsake me. He was faithful to me and revealed himself in a way I couldn't anticipate.
Actually, before I recorded the songs for A Briefing for the Ascent, I sang several of them to my grandmother on her deathbed. One of the songs I sang to her was about entering into glory. And the last words she said to me on her deathbed were, "I'll be there." I know those songs had power in her life, and I think they've touched other lives too.
The big difference between the early incarnation of Daniel Amos-which was basically a group of musical evangelists touring the country-and the current ministry or mission, if I can put it that way, is in the correspondence we receive now. We see the difference in what God is using the music for-to reach down into the lives of people who are in despair, who are really hurting. We don't have altar calls. It's not flashy, where people can immediately tell there is validity to what we do. Instead, I can tell from these letters that there is validity to what we do. People in the darkest recesses of despair are being touched by what they are hearing.
One guy wrote to me that his entire family was dying of cancer. And he said he was at peace as a result of listening to one of our records. One woman wrote to tell me she had never cried since her mother had died. She didn't feel there was real closure to her grief-that she wasn't able to sense it, express it, and let it out. Then, in listening to Knowledge and Innocence, the dam broke for her.
These things are incredibly valuable to me as a writer. God is taking a song and infusing it with his Spirit in a way that I don't understand but that reaches out and touches lives. I'm happy about that.
MHR: You mentioned the "musical ad agency for Jesus." Is that something you think is simply invalid, or just not what you personally are called to do?
TT: I wouldn't count anything as invalid that people are writing from the heart. Of course, God can use the worst of things to say something to someone somewhere.
I do think, though, that because Christian radio is so full of formulaic songs, you have to question where the writers of such songs are coming from. There is a certain formula, and some writers are very good at it. They know exactly what to do in order to create a "Christian hit." I'm not certain I know how to do that. In a way, I salute them, that they have learned the formula so well they can turn out songs like sausages.
I remember a story told about the first man who went into the Rijks museum in Amsterdam to see Rembrandt's painting, The Night Watch. He walked in, saw the painting, fell on his knees, and worshiped God. Of course, the painting has no religious theme at all. It's a portrait of some city administrators, or something like that. But that man recognized the hand of God in the painting, and it caused him to worship God.
I believe that's my theme in all of this. We don't have to feel obligated to a message or a dogma in order to validate ourselves or our art. People can recognize the hand of God in the craft we bring to our work. It expresses something that comes from our lives, from what we see and sense. And God is in that.
MHR: Knowledge and Innocence wasn't just about your Grandfather dying. It was also inclusive of you and your wife's losing a child as well, wasn't it?
TT: Debbie had a miscarriage of our first child. I think the cumulative effect of my grandfather's death and this incident combined to make me feel I was in the belly of the whale.
Once again, it got me in touch artistically with who I was at the moment. I wasn't writing about some experience I had never had. It was something that was happening to me in the moment. And though it was painful and despairing, some of my best writing came out of it. So, I can say that keeping in touch with your surroundings, and expressing that and not always saying everything is victory, is the way to go in writing a song.
MHR: Do you subscribe to the "suffering artist" theory, that you have to have deep pain in your life in order to create good art?
TT: You can have a lot of pain or you can have a lot of joy. If you can write truly out of those experiences, then you are writing something that is real. It doesn't all have to be pain.
MHR: What is the creative act like for you? Do you write when you're inspired, or all the time as a discipline? How much is craft, and how much is following the muse?
TT: Absolutely, it is a craft. I want to paint The Night Watch. I am not content. I don't believe in the idea that because a song contains Scripture it is a good song or a valid song. I couldn't go into the Rijks museum in Amsterdam and hang up a paint-by-numbers picture that says "For God So Loved the World" and have the audacity to think it has more worth and value than The Night Watch, which is not a religiously themed painting. It's all about craft.
I believe God has given me a gift, a talent. He has given me the ability to be prolific in my writing, and that is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, I can write a lot. But if I don't scrutinize it-if I'm not hard on myself-then things can get past me that are second rate. This is my "work," like anybody's work. It has to evolve, yet there too many songs that are just shabby in their craftsmanship. What I am referring to is a lot of Christian music-a lot of it, not all of it.
MHR: Do people ever tell you what a song has meant to them, yet you felt they completely missed it?
TT: Usually, when people ask me what a song means, I turn around and ask them what they think it means. More often than not, when they say what they feel it means, a light will click on in my head. I'll think, "Yes, that is viable. That makes sense to me." And I'll tell them, "I intended one thing in writing this, but your explanation provides another aspect of what the song may mean." They're telling me an aspect that I didn't really think about-but that is as valid as what drove me to write the song.
MHR: What's it like to have people come up to you and tell you what one of your songs has meant to them?
TT: It is truly, truly humbling. I don't ever know what to say when someone tells me that. I'll answer with something like, "Oh, that's great. Thank you." But no words can express how much it means to me that something I've written has meant so much in their lives. I can't verbally articulate it to them beyond saying, "Thank you for sharing that. You don't what it means to me."
It can almost sound mechanical, like, "How are you?" "I'm fine," when you may not actually be doing fine. But it's those very kinds of remarks and reactions to what I'm doing that comfort me. I don't sell a lot of records. I've been through a lot in my twenty years of doing this. And to hear one person at a concert in Podunk say, "This song touched me and affected me in a positive way," renews my faith in God." What can you say to something like that, except to melt?
MHR: No doubt over the years you've heard a lot of things from people like, "If you would just change your music in this way, you could reach so many more people"-as if popularity were the validation of art. And others say that if your songs are still around in a hundred years, then it will be proven to be art. Do you buy either one of those positions as the qualifier of art?
TT: Who can say if in a hundred years something will hold up?
MHR: The Night Watch did.
TT: Yes, The Night Watch did. But after all, this is only rock and roll. I think what holds up best is whatever change or comfort a piece can bring to a life, to a listener. When I look back, there are maybe a handful of songs about which I can say, "This is probably the best I have ever done and may ever do." Then I feel there is validation, and I can be somewhat objective.
It's interesting that in the process of writing and recording a record, you just can't see the forest through the trees for a long time. It's only when I step out of my role as the leader and chief songwriter of Daniel Amos, or whatever, and listen to it that I can be more objective. At that point I become almost like a fan. I can look back on my records now and say, "Now, that was really a good record. I will personally be proud of that one." Or, "That isn't such a good record." [Chuckles.] "That isn't one of my favorites."
Terry Taylor Discography and Album Statements
Terry Scott Taylor (solo)
Knowledge and Innocence (Shadow Records), 1986. Available.
A Briefing for the Ascent (Frontline), 1987. Available.
Rev. Edward Daniel Taylor
The Swirling Eddies
Let's Spin (Alarma Records), 1988. Out of print.
Outdoor Elvis (Alarma Records), 1989. Out of print.
Zoom Daddy (Alarma Records), 1994. Available.
The Berry Vest Of the Swirling Eddies (Alarma Records), 1995. Available.
The Lost Dogs
Scenic Routes (BAI), 1992. Out of print.
Little Red Riding Hood (BAI), 1993. Available.