I (Joel) am a storyteller by nature. My first loves musically as a kid were storyteller-artists like Wayne Watson, Mark Schultz, and Steven Curtis Chapman, my favorite books stories of adventures and heroes in lands far away, fantasies like Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and allegories like The Pilgrim's Progress and Dekker's Circle Trilogy. I've always enjoyed writing stories into my songs, albeit often in a different way than my early mentors. I like telling stories through song in such a way that they keep some mystery in them, a sort of transcendence a bit like Christ's parables that keeps the listener guessing, burying hidden treasures for those that want to listen deeply... and for those that don't- well then, I've given them some damn good poetry and melodies to be stuck in their heads, and that's fine too.
Such was the case with the first song I wrote for this album, Pilgrim. Dani and I were leading a summer mission trip outside of Tijuana, Mexico, in July of 2010. I had absolutely no thoughts of this project at the time. We had just wrapped up tracking a worship album with some friends of ours (you can still find it on iTunes under Christ In Me: The Annual) where we wrote and recorded some of our own original worship tunes. I don't know what we thought we would do next musically, but Pilgrim changed everything. I'll admit... I was inspired by a song playing on the speakers, something by The Almost, I think, though I have no idea what song it was. All I know is I had one of those rare moments as a songwriter when a lyric and melody just falls into your lap/brain, vaguely inspired by something floating by on the wind, and suddenly a song is born... in this case, an entire concept and my life's work for the next 6 years. I wrote the first verse in probably 5 minutes, but I had no idea what it was about.
By the time I got about halfway through the second verse, the scene was set- I knew what it was about- it was a scene from smack dab in the middle of Pilgrim's Progress (a book I hadn't read in years), when Christian and Faithful show up in the pit of vile debauchery known to Bunyan as Vanity Fair, looking and feeling totally out of place, offending everyone by their foreign ways, guileless speech, and refusal to participate in the raunch and revelry. The song is written from the perspective of Hopeful, one of the residents of Vanity Fair, who is moved by the witness of Faithful, and ends up joining Christian on the journey after Faithful is put to death at the Fair. Hopeful is my favorite character in the book, and I love the perspective this song brings. It's one of those like I described earlier- a great melody and poetry for someone who just wants to jam to a good folky-Americana tune, but rich with deeper meaning if you're looking for it. The whole song was finished in about 20 minutes, and I don't think I've changed one thing about it since that original version written in the mountains of Mexico in 2010.
It wasn't long after I wrote Pilgrim that it occurred to me to write an entire album around a Pilgrim's Progress concept. Some of the songs were very intentionally written specifically for the album (like City of Destruction), others were just songs I had written that seemed to fit the theme well (like Finally Home and The Medicine). The final additions were written just last year, after we had already finished (so we thought) the entire concept- Apollyon and Despair. If you were at the very first show when we did the whole album top to bottom in Spring of 2015 at Dosey Doe in Conroe (we had a friend from Ireland narrate the whole thing), that was the debut of those two songs. I had just written them that week. You might recall that Dani didn't sing them with me... because she didn't know them- they were fresh off the press!
So after Pilgrim happened, the rest of the songs slowly began to fall into place. Finally Home has a special place in my heart- it's the only song on the album written before Pilgrim. Though I didn't write it for the record particularly, it seemed to be the perfect ending to the concept, capturing so beautifully the moment when Christian and Hopeful finally enter the gates of the City. When we perform the album live, we always tag Finally Home with an a capella rendition of the Doxology ("Praise God from whom all blessings flow"). I wrote Finally Home after being floored by Phil Wickham's album Heaven and Earth, freshly awakened to the reality of the hope of heaven. I've personally experienced a lot of loss in my young 28 years, the most gutting of which was my dad when I was 18, at the time of the writing of that song only 4 years past. Finally Home was really my first song trying to wrestle with and process that reality, and the final chorus in particular is probably my favorite moment on the whole album- it's everything I hope and long for and desire in the depths of my soul- the day when I get to see Jesus, when everything is made right at long last, when I get to see my dad again, both of us healed and whole and perfectly redeemed from all our earthly troubles and dysfunctions... the day when even death will die.
You might notice a few little inside jokes in that song, if you're really observant and a bit of a gospel music buff. There's a lyrical nod to Glen Campbell and another to Elvis Presley in the chorus. See if you can find them!
Like I said, the rest of the songs kind of fell into place as we went along. The Gate and City of Destruction happened when Derek and Tessa Harvey decided to join forces with us to create The World In Lights and really get this thing off the ground. It was all just a dream until they got behind us, really. After a bit of shopping, we settled on using our friend Daryl Youngblood of Houston's DuoTone Studios to do the engineering, mixing, and mastering, and we have been super blessed by his help and friendship through this process. He did all the work on the first leg of the album, the Pilgrim EP, which we released as our "Hail Mary" pass, just in case we never were able to record the much bigger (and more expensive!) 14-song concept record. We actually originally had 17 or 18 songs and whittled it down from there!
We took about 2 years to get the EP done with Daryl, because, you know... life. Living 10 minutes from your studio and not having a lot of money has the tendency to make one very lazy. Plus, Derek and I were both full time staff at our church, so we had a lot going on in life, and we honestly didn't have a huge initiative to finish the album in a timely manner. Funny how scarcity drives creativity, though... it wasn't until Derek and Tessa moved away to Colorado and Dani and I found ourselves unemployed and in the poorest year of our lives that we decided to pull the trigger on this massive project that became known as Letter From A Bedford Jail. But that's another story for another time.
Thanks for caring enough about this project to read this far! More to come...