new lyrics, giggin' in SoDak, breaking even, and tonight's show too

Okey doke, folks, here's the promised musical update from the past couple weeks of my life:

FIRST: I haven't written any new songs for a couple years. It's okay, I'm not stressed or worried about it...that's just how it goes for me. I turn off that part of my brain deliberately when I've got other things to do, and in recent years I've been focusing on promoting the Heartland Liturgy, re-mixing and releasing the Best Of the 20th Century project, playing tons of gigs, savoring the first year of daughter Svea's life, installing my new gas dryer, etc. But I feel that creative region of my brain beginning to (to quote our President) "surge." SO, two weeks ago my family was en route to Custer, SD and we'd stopped for the night in Mitchell, SD. At 6AM I awoke, remembering the dream I had been having...and I had dreamed the lyrics for a song. Not just a word or two, but entire rhyming phrases. So I jumped out of bed, went into the bathroom and turned on the lights (so as not to wake my sleeping family), and spent two hours sitting on the edge of the tub writing and tweaking this new song, scribbling out the lyrics on a complementary Days Inn notepad. It was exciting, because the only other song I've ever dreamed was "Out Behind the Old Hotel," and it's one of my favorites. The new song I wrote was definitely something I couldn't have conceived during the waking hours, and I'm very happy about it. I won't tell you the details of the lyric 'cause I want to try to write some music for it, BUT I'll clue you in on the song title: "That Man Upstairs." (No, it has nothing to do with my vertical neighbor in the hotel that night...everybody was quiet, thankfully.)

SECOND: Upon arrival in Custer, SD I got to play at one of the best acoustic music venues in America (if not the world). Seriously, as somebody who's played lots of cool rooms, this one is right up there. The Songbird Cafe in downtown Custer is a performers dream, and here was the situation: I shared the bill with my pals Tangled Blue, another folky-pop Lutheran-indie-rock act. The show was a sell-out, with 75 people paying $8 at the door to attend (there's a rare statistic for a JR audience!). Everybody was totally silent during the show, paying attention to every word and note, applauding wildly, and buying CDs afterwards. A truly incredible night for me as a can you NOT rock the house in such an ideal environment? Here's my set list (not in order):

Smart Girls
The Sound of the Cicadas
Meeting Nixon
Every Town's The Same
Gospel Verses
Out Behind the Old Hotel
The Serious Kind
PLUS, a great closing set with Tangled Blue when we played together:
Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones cover)
Time After Time (Cyndi Lauper cover)

THIRD: I spent a week as artist-in-residence at Outlaw Ranch, a Lutheran camp in the Black Hills. In the middle of the week I played a concert for the folks at the camp, and it was a blast. Played the classics, as well as some rarely attempted tunes such as "Calm the Storm" and my own setting of the Sanctus, both with a keyboard set to a super-effected '80s sound. Korg and Yamaha should just install a sample in all keyboards called "Michael W. Smith" and that would say it all. Oh yeah, and I played a cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" and a snippet of "Babe" by Styx. The biggest smash hit of the week was a song I composed with the 3-year-old campers, with a chorus that goes like this: "What are these things made of? PAPER, PAPER!" Thanks Outlaw folks, let's do it again next Summer.

FOURTH: Upon returning home from the week in South Dakota, I did what I do after every gig: I go downstairs to my inventory room and figure out how many copies of each CD I sold. This past week I had reached a major milestone in the indie-rock record business. TWO of my albums broke even while I was in South Dakota. The strange and mildly disconcerting thing was this: the albums were Public Library and Protestant Rock Ethic. My Public Library album came out THREE years ago, and most folks (including me) would agree that it's my best work as a songwriter, and it's certainly my best played and recorded album, BUT it was expensive to make, and it took me these past few years just to sell enough of it to break even!

Here's the contrast: Protestant Rock Ethic is a double-CD, with 42 freakin' songs, and it costs the consumer a whopping $20, and although it's got a lot of stuff I'm very proud of (Heartland Liturgy, etc.), it also contains my least-impressive songwriting of all time (what? No passionate audience requests for "Picture This" or "Seven-Color Promise"?). And the amazing thing is this: it's only ONE year old! Logic would suggest it would take many years for PRE to pay itself off, but PL should fly off the shelves and break even quickly. BUT, the reality shows us that the opposite is true. Here's what we learn from these events:

People in the world want a Jonathan Rundman album filled with church-related songs. They don't care if it's poorly recorded, salvaged 4-track demos with tape long as it's liturgical folk-rock, hymn interpretations, and Sunday School soundtrack tunes, people LOVE it. And indeed, that Protestant Rock Ethic album continues to fly off the sales table, and the internet orders pour in.
ALSO, the people in the world are less interested in a smartly rocking, super-professional folk-pop album like Public Library, even if it's generating glowing national press, produced by an indie-rock legend, and containing my finest songs. Hmmm...
SO....where does that leave me? What kind of album should I try to create next? Well, whatever happens in the future, I should rejoice that my albums actually (eventually) pay for themselves, and are profitable. So many bands get signed to some big label, put out a record, and even with a minor hit or two, end up a million dollars in the hole when it's all said and done. I must count my blessings, along with my sales figures.

FIFTH: I'm back home in Minnesota now, and this evening I played a fun show up in my previous neighborhood of North Minneapolis. The gig was at Papa's Pizza (my favorite local pizza place), and was sponsored by the Camden Music School. My payment was a free dinner (thanks Papa's!) and I performed for about 40 folks who were very fun and attentive. Musical highlights for me were renditions of "List of Things To Do" (I love this one, and I could play it every night, but audiences seem indifferent....oh well), and a nice sing-a-long version of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer." Thanks to my friends who came out to the gig, and much love and support to y'all on the North Side working to turn the tide of crime and violence that's been going on in the neighborhood! I'm proud to lend my voice and fingers to your cause!

That's the update, dear readers. Thanks for your interest. Finally, check out a nice mention I got on a brand new blog called Guitar on, Dr. Gil!


Re your fourth point. My homiletics professor tells a story of preaching what he considered a terrible sermon while serving as an intern. A member of the congregation came up and told him how much his sermon meant to him. He replied that he didn't see how since it was badly written and preached. His supervisor took him into a room and said, "How dare you doubt God's ability to reach people through you?"

We are touched by your music and the lyrics.(well, I am for sure.) God speaks to us through you, and with you, and in you, and under you, and behind you and all the while that you are thinking that musically you've done better. Frankly, if the music was no good, no one would listen to the lyrics...Listening to your music about faith teaches us about the faith life of a rock musician.

And I am grateful for all your music; but some of it...the church stuff as you put it, really does feed me; and I bet it feeds all those folks who buy Sound Theology and Protestant Rock Ethic, too.
Anne said…
Oh my goodness, Jonathan! I keep forgetting to tell you when I see you but...I dreamed rock lyrics last Saturday night! It was so odd. Once when I was about 12 I passed out and heard music while unconscious but I can't think of any time since then that this has happened. Unlike your experience in the hotel recently, I'm pretty sure my lyrics are crappy (so I could probably shop them around the hot contemporary pop artists - ha ha!)

The other thing is that if you decide to put the whole album thing to a vote amongst your friends/fans...I would vote for more Public Library style albums and I'd be happy to buy an extra copy to give away as a gift to someone to help you break even sooner!

One more thought re #4. I read an interview with the Fray recently. They pointed out that while Christian, they think God is calling them to secular music; to use their talent there. If they play well enough (and I am sure I am paraphrasing this) and someone says, what's your source of (inspiration, strength, etc), they say: God. But they reach people through secular music.

I wrote in my last comment that you reach people through your faith based writing; and I failed to point out that you reach them through all your music: overtly Christian or not. I apologize.

So, to follow Anne's line, I guess I'd vote for Sound Theology, but that's because it's the first work of yours that I heard; and the first time I ever heard a Lutheran rock singer; and because your music touched my heart. Thanks.

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