Frontman Jon Foreman discusses the process of crafting the band’s seventh album Hello Hurricane, including coming up with 80 rough song ideas, what hope means in the modern age, and why we can’t outsource justice anymore.
I understand you started off with about 80 or so rough song ideas for this record. How did you come up with all those and then whittle them down?
I think the easiest thing is coming up with the ideas. For me, I tend to view songwriting as kind of like a diary of sorts, so to write a song a day is not that big of a deal for our style. The trickiest part is determining which of those diary entries are worth spending a few days of your life on and sinking your time and energy into. The whole process of making this record really allowed us to come to terms with who we are as a band, who we are as people and what type of music we want to make.
It was a really roundabout journey that we took. But at the same time I feel like to be able to at this point in our career step away from the music, and really ask ourselves some big questions about why we’re playing, was crucial to make this record and a big part in which songs were chosen. We came up with the idea that the song had to have a piece of you within it. I think it was Dolly Parton who said, “If you ain’t crying, why you singin’ it?” That was kind of the benchmark for which songs we decided would make the record.
Did you try some out of left field stuff since you did come up with so many?
Yeah, we went everywhere from really acoustic music to really electronic, beat-driven music. I mean, everything in between. I think this one we were able to step outside the box of what we had and find some new places to go. We really jumped at that opportunity.
On this upcoming tour you’ll be playing the whole Hello Hurricane album from start to finish. How did that come about and is this the first time you’ve played an album live like that?
Yes, it’s the first time we’ve ever done that before, so it’s pretty exciting. It’s one of those things where it’s a little bit of a blessing and a curse because we have to figure out how to play all these songs [laughs]. Playing them in the studio is one thing, and then learning how to make sure they translate is always a separate experience.
We spent so much time on this record, even down to the sequence of what order the songs are in, that we felt like it was a real incredible opportunity to hand deliver the album to people who would come to see us night after night. That we would be able to see their reaction in person seemed like an incredible chance to do something that we’ve never done. At this point in our career, we’re looking toward things that are going to challenge us. We felt like that was a good challenge.
You’ve been describing Hello Hurricane as being about finding hope in the midst of life’s storms and struggles. How does that concept show itself on the record?
Hope is something that is almost a volitional choice. It’s not about the circumstance. You can be in a horrible situation but still have hope. I think so many times, even with this past election, you saw hope plastered everywhere. Whether or not you find Obama to be a thought of hope, it’s easy to have that billboard mentality and not really know what hope means.
For me, hope is an anchor of sorts. It is not something that you can put in your pocket and say, “I possess this,” because the moment you already have it you can’t call it hope anymore. It’s almost as though hope is a yearning and a belief in a world that does not exist yet. Against all odds, this is what you’re pulling towards.
That, for me, is something I feel like I’ve found the past few years while we were making the record. We were pushing for something beyond ourselves, and really pushing ourselves forward towards something that we didn’t actually possess yet. We didn’t actually know what the record was going to look like, but we knew that we had to push ourselves further to get there.
Each one of your records deals with hope, and love and those core elements, so it’s been interesting to see how you’ve matured in dealing with those themes.
Yeah. I think for a few years there I was a little afraid to sing about hope or faith simply because I was going through some times personally that created a little bit of a darker sentiment. For me to be able to sing these songs again feels really great.
You mention John Perkins on “The Sound,” who was a civil rights activist. How did he influence the song and what is that about?
I was reading his autobiography while I was writing the song. Many of our songs have been inspired by books and people. I really wanted to put his name in the song because a lot of people are not familiar with John Perkins, so to have it just in the title didn’t feel like it was enough. It had to be in the song itself. The song brings a lot of insight and propulsion from what John Perkins’ autobiography said to me and the way that it spoke to me. I think so much of the song comes from that.
He said so many poignant things over the years, one of which that’s really stuck out to me is the idea that many congregations do nothing but outsource justice. I feel like we do that in many different areas, where we throw money at a problem and we don’t actually offer our own help. We throw the problem to the government. We throw the problems at everyone but ourselves, and in fact the time has come to get our hands dirty. You can’t outsource justice. That’s what the song means to me.
Also there’s a line on “Free,” which is probably my favorite line from the record, where you say, “Inside this shell there’s a prison cell.” How did you come up with that one?
That whole song came to me in an elevator, actually. Some songs take a lot of work. “Mess of Me” took a lot of work to get to the final product, and then other songs just kind of write themselves. “Free” is a song that pretty much wrote itself on the way down a Las Vegas elevator. I was riding with my brother, and by the time we hit the bottom floor it was there.
I think that song epitomizes the idea that we’re all trapped by a lot of different things. Sometimes the chains are invisible, but more often they’re inside of us. We try to put a nice face on it, but many times the things that hold us down are not the people around us, or even the rules, but actually our own confines are the things that bind us on the inside. That’s what that line means to me.
At the end of ’07, and then in ’08, you released those four solo EPs right in the midst of working on this record. Did those have any impact on what direction the record took?
Yeah. I think ultimately those four EPs were really a breath of fresh air, for me to be able to release all these songs that had never seen the light of day. I think release is a good word because it allows you to let go of them.
I’ve heard it said that recording is the art of forgetting. Sometimes for me as a songwriter, until the song is released in some way where it’s accessible to everyone, I’m holding onto it, and tinkering with it and thinking about it. But the moment it’s released, it allows you again to write new songs. I definitely feel like those, I think it ended up being 26 songs, to allow me to let go of them all allowed me to be able to focus on some other songs that I might not have been focusing on.
You recorded this one in your home studio without a label and all that. How freeing was that, and did it help to be able to work at your own speed?
There’s no way we could have made this record in a conventional way. Having your own studio allows you to be off the clock. We’re all really disciplined people, so it’s never the question of whether we’ll show up for work. It’s just a matter of the fact that you’re not having to pay for a daily rate on a studio. That was crucial.
You couldn’t have tracked 80 songs and made a record that way. You’d literally keep looking at the clock. Whereas this felt like pretty much our record – our decisions, our voice – giving us the time to rediscover who we are as a band after six records. Reapproaching what we do with all the time in the world is a definite advantage to the way that this record turned out.
I have been hearing that you already have some of the next record planned out, which will be titled Vice Verses. What is the story on that?
There’s a lot of songs that I really love that didn’t fit with this collection of music that we will find a space for at some point. “Vice Verses” is one of those songs. I like the idea of having another record ready to go, but I don’t know how many of those songs are actually going to make it because songs are continually coming. We might replace them all by the time the record comes out [laughs]. But yeah, if we holed ourselves up in the studio next month, we could have it out in no time.
I think for us, there’s two sides of our lives. One side sits at home and makes records, and then there’s the other side that actually gets those records into people’s hands. The touring process is crucial for hand delivering these songs. Also, the songs we play come alive outside of the studio. That’s where you push them out of the nest and see if they fly [laughs].
So that’s been a crucial part of this whole experience, just trying to think of the live show and make sure that we’re writing songs that will translate to that space. So I guess what I’m saying is Vice Verses will come out eventually, once we feel like we’ve given these songs to people around the world. Then we can start working on the next batch.
I don’t know if you’ve launched it yet but you have a new website coming out called TheWorldYouWant.com, which you’ll also be incorporating into this upcoming tour. Can you talk about that a little bit and what that’s going to be?
Basically, what we do in music with the way the world works, we integrate our music and these notes with the real world. It’s all too easy to sing a song about justice and not be involved with justice when the wheels hit the road. I feel like with this record, and with the last few records, just singing songs about hope and truth, and light and beauty, and to not actually be involved around the world would be inauthentic.
With the last few tours, we’ve tried to partner up with different people, whether it’s Habitat for Humanity, we did two tours with them, or To Write Love on Her Arms, our friend Jamie’s organization. These are the things that we care deeply about. It feels like we’re already singing about them, and we need to integrate them as far as the actual involvement of everyone.
This tour we’re collecting canned goods for the local food banks. From my perspective, these are towns that have given us so many incredible memories over the years, so to be able to give back in even a small way is a really incredible opportunity for us. So, that’s what we’re doing this go around. The World You Want is going to be a user-generated site that will have all sorts of content about how to dream bigger dreams, how to get involved in your local community or abroad, ideas and actions.
That plays into the article you just wrote for The Huffington Post about what it means to be a modern day hero, which is cool.
Yeah. I think we’re all looking for meaning and truth. This is a chance to shine the light on people around us who are impacting their communities in ways that are beautiful and true.
Lately, you’ve been posting a bunch of interesting quotes on Facebook and online. I’m just curious but where do you find all those?
They’re usually in what I’m reading, there’s usually something quotable. I collect them to some degree. I am of the opinion that we are continually bombarded by bumper stickers of one sort or another. Even in advertisements that don’t have a word on it, it’s telling you something. It’s telling you a worldview, a meaning to a set of values that it’s saying is important.
I feel like many times for me to have a quote that is invigorating reminds me of what’s worth living for and what’s happening all around us. Those types of quotes are crucial to kind of wake me up, so I have a little bit of a propensity to remember these things.
Do you have anything that comes to mind off the top of your head that you’d like to throw out to close with?
Well, I think the band motto might be appropriate. We’ve always said: “Life is short. Live it well.”
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press