A Good Story Put to Music: A Conversation with Andrew Peterson
I’ve been a fan of Andrew Peterson ever since his first album, Carried Along, came out in 2000. “The Chasing Song” and “Nothing to Say” were immediately appealing, but I quickly discovered the rest of his songs were just as thought-provoking and musically compelling.
Twelve years later, Andrew’s music just keeps getting better. His new album Light for the Lost Boy maintains the trademark Peterson folksiness while pushing him into musical territory that heightens the sense of longing and gratitude evident in the lyrics. Andrew graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the new album, the legacy of Rich Mullins, and his popular Christmas tour.
Trevin Wax: Andrew, there’s a theme running through the songs on this album: a loss of innocence combined with a deep yearning for the world to be made right. It’s evident in the first track (“Come Back Soon”) with the line “We wake in the night in the womb of the world,” and the song ends with deliverance. This sense of longing infuses many of the other songs. What in your life has prompted these personal expressions of faith in the Christian’s future hope?
Andrew Peterson: Everybody’s got the same ache; everybody’s carrying around the same sense of dissatisfaction with the state of the world. If they claim otherwise, I just don’t believe them. No matter how happy we are, there’s something nagging at us, something troubling at the periphery of our days, like we’re on a date and having a great time, but we can’t shake the feeling that we left the oven on. Something keeps us from perfect peace.
If we slipped out of the suburbs and affluence into a world where things like iPhones and viral videos don’t really amount to a hill of beans, a world where an actual hill of beans can be the difference between life and death, there would be no question that the world is broken. I’ve always sensed it, but the older I get the starker is the evidence. I see it in my own tired, sinful heart. I see it in my sweet children’s embarkation into adolescence and the grief it will bring. I see it in marriages and churches struggling to preserve their sacred unity.
And yet, even with all this darkness, there’s so much beauty. Why would that be? Why would we hunger for light and truth if we weren’t made for it? And if we were made for it, why must we contend with shadows and lies for the length of our days?
Tolkien said that sadness was part of what made the Lord’s symphony so beautiful, and I happen to agree. Joy untouched by sorrow is mere happiness.
There must be some deeper purpose behind this painfully slow redemption of the world, a purpose that turns the devil’s own tools against him – including our sorrow, which, when we don’t despair, only piques our longing. I believe there will be a reckoning, when Jesus will judge the quick and the dead, but as long as He tarries we ache for that day even as we proclaim it, even as we build the kingdom that is somehow coming and yet is already here.
Trevin Wax: There are a couple of songs directed to those who doubt the truth of Christianity. In these songs (“The Voice of Jesus” and “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone?”) you stress the benevolence of God as He gives us good gifts in the world that point us to Him. What role should the joy and gift of existence play in the spiritual conversations we have with those who doubt?
Andrew Peterson: Chesterton said, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.” The world is spilling over with goodness.
Jamie and I suffered a few miscarriages early in our marriage, and one of the doctors told us something I’ll never forget. He said that so many millions of things have to go right in every pregnancy in order for a healthy baby to be born, he’s honestly amazed every time it happens.
On a smaller scale, I think about that every time I’m stuck in traffic. There are so many thousands of cars, speeding in opposite directions, mere inches from each other that I’m amazed anybody makes it home.
So many things go right everyday – things like gravity and germination and sunshine – that it’s easy to take them for granted. It’s like we win the lottery every time our heart beats. There’s so much more goodness and beauty than we realize, which is why it’s so easy to see the evil and ugliness. The very existence of beauty, our ability to recognize it and the way it affects us, points to the existence of God.
Trevin Wax: In reviewing this album, Christianity Today said this album “places the mantle of Rich Mullins squarely on Peterson’s shoulders.” How have you been influenced by the legacy of Mullins in his songwriting and singing?
Andrew Peterson: Well, that’s a mantle I’m not sure I’m able to carry, but I take it as the highest sort of compliment.
I have a friend who jokingly says that Rich is “on his board of directors,” and I feel kind of the same way. In the Rabbit Room offices (the creative community I’m a part of here in Nashville), we have pictures of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, George MacDonald, and Chesterton hanging on the walls – our own “board of directors”, if you will – and Rich’s picture is hanging there with them. I truly believe he was one of those fiercely intelligent, gifted, and oddball characters God raises up every generation or so to remind us how beautiful the gospel really is. When I was a nineteen-year-old kid without a clue, Rich’s songs (the good ones) stirred my longing for Jesus like nothing else. They still do.
Trevin Wax: Your annual Christmas tour based on Behold the Lamb is coming up soon. I’ve heard that in the Nashville area that this concert has become something of a Christmas tradition for many. What do you enjoy most about this event?
Andrew Peterson: I enjoy the feeling of God’s pleasure. After thirteen years of putting on this concert, I’m still moved to tears almost every night. That’s partly because I’m a crybaby. But it’s also because the gospel never, ever gets old.
To stand on the stage with dear friends, friends who have been saved by the main character in the tale we’re telling, and sing about this Jesus in who is in all things and in whom all things hold together, is a great gift. It is an answer to the prayer that my nineteen-year-old self prayed when I first heard Rich Mullins’s songs: “God, let me sing about you.”
Every year I wonder when that tour will get old to the audience, or to the band or to me, and every year people keep showing up. That’s not because of us. It’s because human beings were made to delight in the Lord and in the glory of his salvation.
It’s as simple as this: the gospel is a good story. It’s the best story. All I did was put it to music.