Rock Star to Worship Pastor: Anberlin’s Stephen Christian on His Next Chapter

StephenChristian

Ben Gibbard once sang, “Every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time.” After Anberlin ended their 13-year career at the end of 2014, a whirlwind year of touring the globe and releasing a final album, frontman Stephen Christian was emptied to the bone. And when it came time to begin his next chapter, the three jobs he thought were lined up all fell through by the end of January. While his songwriting deal with Word Publishing kept him creatively engaged, it was not enough to make a living, and a new plan was needed. Then later that spring, out of the blue, he was offered the worship pastor position at Calvary Albuquerque in New Mexico.

Never before had Christian dreamed of such a thing. In fact, he had only led worship once in his entire life and was not even particularly interested in worship music, but the opportunity felt too providential to pass up. He accepted and now two years later, after some speedy on-the-job training, has settled into his new role and new life. No longer in the music industry grind and nonstop touring on the road, his wife and two little girls, with a third on the way, are now the primary focus.

Thankfully for fans, Christian spends plenty of time in the studio these days, which is how Wildfires, his first worship album, was conceived. Originally started as writing sessions for other artists, Christian couldn’t bear to hear his story being sung by other people. After some prodding from his wife and publishing company, he decided to keep the songs and release them under his own name instead. While it’s a different vein than listeners are used to hearing from Christian in Anberlin and Anchor & Braille, it’s great to hear that unmistakable voice of his back in action and passionate about a subject near and dear to his heart.

Below, Christian talks to Behind the Setlist about recalibrating his life after the breakup, the process of making Wildfires, the beginning days of Anberlin, why life is too short to overlook quality of life for quantity of life, and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How’s your day going?

Wonderful. It’s a great day in New Mexico. I have the day off, so I’m hanging out with the family. My two daughters, I have a four and three-year-old, both want to learn guitar. I’m like, “Uh, yeah. Let’s do that.” So I’m literally on my way to a local guitar place to buy them some little guitars.

Do they love music?

They do. It’s funny, I think a lot of times musicianship is genetic, and they’re surrounded by it so much. It’s all they know. At every social event, dad’s got a guitar, somebody’s got a guitar, and we’re all hanging out playing this.

There’s these two little girls on that show Nashville. My wife watches it. They’re super talented and are like eight and 12, or something like that. Their mom was showing them YouTube videos yesterday and they were like, “I want to do that. I can do that.” And of course, being the musician, I’m like, “Yes! Yes, you do! Here’s a guitar. Let’s go buy one.” It’s going to be awesome.

You’re post-Anberlin career has been very interesting. When you were in Anberlin, I never heard you talk about being a worship pastor or making worship music. Did you ever envision this happening when you were growing up or in Anberlin? And now that it’s here, how do you like things?

No, never. I led worship once before in my entire life before moving out here. So I didn’t envision myself like this. I was out on the road this one time, we were up north in Minnesota, and this guy I met was like, “You should go work at a church. You’d be a great worship director.” In the back of my head, I was like, That sounds so cheesy. That sounds like the worst life. I do not want to do that at all. But here I am, years later. It’s funny how life works out the way it does.

I’m so content. I’m so happy. I really enjoy my job. I see myself doing this in some capacity for years to come. I don’t know if that means I’m going to be in New Mexico, but I definitely want to do it in the future as well.

Has this experience been a learn-as-you-go process?

Absolutely, man. I was thrown into the deep end. I had no clue what I was doing. To come off the road, where you are catered to, and then walk into a massive church of 17,000 people with 170 volunteers and three full-time staff. You’re in charge of it all and you’re like, “OK, what the heck am I doing?”

I definitely felt overwhelmed the first year, but now I’m into a rhythm where I get it and everything makes sense. That’s why I feel like now is a great time to release the record, because I did. I felt established. I felt grounded. I felt like I had my job under control. Now I can start to explore outside of these four walls.

How do you approach this project? Are there aspects from the band you try to avoid or new things you want to embrace?

As far as this record, I try to avoid touring at all costs. I did it for 12 years. I loved it and it was so much fun, but my time has come to an end. I feel like for me, at this stage of life, I have to be with my family. I just missed too much with Anberlin. I gave up too much and sacrificed too much. I definitely put them second the majority of their little lives. It was Anberlin first. Everybody knew it. So I’m done with that, at least for this season of my life.

If there was a chance to go back out on tour in any capacity, it would definitely have to be [with] my family or nothing. They have to come out on the road, and if you don’t like it, then let’s just not tour. But I definitely feel like I gave it my all, as far as the touring world is concerned.

Worship music has a reputation for having a lot of clichés and lot of similar-sounding music. What did you want to do differently? How did you approach that aspect?

You’ve got to think that, lyrically, worship music hasn’t changed in 2,000 years, and it won’t for the next 2,000 years. My biggest critique pre-getting into it was it felt very much like a pop song. You just slap the word “Jesus” over it and suddenly sold it to Christians. It felt very trite. I’m not judging all worship music, especially now. There’s definitely some people that are pushing the limitations to where I’m actually intrigued by worship music.

For me, I wanted to make sure it was personal. That’s how I feel. That’s what I think people connected to with Anberlin, the fact that if you strung all the songs I’ve ever written together, that’s my autobiography. I told you about the biggest failure of my life, the biggest regrets of my life, the biggest success of my life. The time I fell in love and the time it fell apart. That’s what people connect to. I wanted to carry that into the worship aspect, to be vulnerable with songs like “Trust,” to where it was like, “Hey man, my life is completely falling apart. This is all I’ve got. So here you go.”

The day I begin to write to create a record, as opposed to writing what I really feel or what’s happening in my life, that’s the day I sell out. And I never want that to happen. That was one of the reasons that Anberlin ended. I felt like this was slowly becoming a job and I lost all passion for it. I don’t want this to be like that.

We could have stayed together. We were making great money. We were touring the world. We were seeing places we had never seen before. It was awesome. The problem is if you’re faking it, everybody is going to find out. Things are going to crumble, relationships and friendships, because you’re so distraught at yourself and discontent with your lot in life. So if you’re not passionate about what you do, find another occupation, even if you’re successful.

Life is way too short to overlook quality of life for quantity of life. Yeah, congratulations, you’ve got a massive paycheck, but you can’t spend it on things you love. You get to see the world, but it’s not anywhere you want to be. You have to recalibrate your life and say, “What is most important?” Living a full life has nothing to do with a bank account. Living a full life is being surrounded by friends and family that you care about and who care about you. That’s where I was at. I was feeling a void and needed to move on.

I understand these songs came out of some sessions you were doing songwriting for other people. Can you talk about how that took shape to this finished product?

I write currently for Word Publishing. They have me do everything from hip-hop hooks to jingles to country music to pop music. The reason I want to do it is because I want to keep working that side of my life out. I don’t mean in the game, but I want to keep my mind in that realm of creativity, of pushing myself to new heights and new limits. Writing songs was therapy for me in a way, but it also really pushed me creatively. So I began to write worship songs for other people.

Within eight months, Word approached me and said, “Hey, would you do a record with us? We think you should put these out.” I was like, “No way. I’m not putting out a worship record. I don’t want to tour. I don’t want to start over. I don’t want to be in a van. That all sounds horrible to me.” And then my wife was like, “Hey, you should probably do this.” I was like, “No! Leave me alone. Everybody leave me alone.”

What really did it for me, the reason that Wildfires exists now, is because after writing songs for other people, I was like, “Wait. How can you get up on a stage and sing my story? That seems false or fake to me. How are you connecting to the words? This is literally something that happened to me last week.” Slowly, I was like, “OK. I think I’m going to put this out. Other people can cover these songs, and that’s awesome, but this is a continuation of my story and songs I care about.” Thus, Wildfires was birthed.

With the Word songwriting, is that stuff you get approached with? Do you get a list of things to write to? Do you pursue some of it? How does that function?

That’s kind of their job. The publishing company pitches you stuff to write. Let’s say there’s a new metal band and they’re like, “Hey, we heard Stephen from Anberlin writes for you guys. We wrote this music. Would you sing to it or write melody and lyrics?” I’d be like, “Absolutely. Let’s do it.”

I will get just their music, like a demo, and then I’ll write on top of it. Or with the hip-hop beats, they’ll give me the pre-chorus and the chorus to write lyrics to. I’ll sing over it, and then I’ll pitch it back over to the publishing company and they’ll give it to the artist. It just depends. Every week is different. It’s not like I’m out writing one band’s entire record. It’s a lot of different little stuff.

I think the next thing I’m working on is somebody has a radio show and they want me to write a hook for it. So I’ll sit down in front of the laptop and give them some ideas. Like, “Hey, what do you think about this? What do you think about this?” They’ll say yes or no, and then I’ll narrow it down. I’ll go into an actual studio with a real musician. I mean, I can hack out pianos and guitars, but I’m not prolific at it. Here, these guys will lay down beats and all that kind of stuff, I’ll sing over it, and I’ll push the final product back to them.

And this is all done remotely?

Absolutely, yeah. I can live in Barbados and do all this stuff. I’m sure there’s people out there who write for like Taylor Swift, and they can survive on it. It’s not enough money to pay the rent, but I’m not doing it for money. I sincerely love the fact that, Holy crap! Two weeks ago I wrote on a hip-hop song. That’s so crazy to me. It’s just so much fun and something I never dreamed of doing, even five years ago. I never thought this was in the realm of possibilities.

You’ve talked before about how that last year of Anberlin ended up taking a toll on you. The last time I talked with you was during Warped Tour, which was right in the middle, and I don’t think it had really started to drain you yet. And then your initial plans, before the worship thing presented itself, didn’t end up working out. What was that time like? How were you able to make that transition and start this whole new chapter?

After Warped Tour, we left from Denver, Colorado to go to Brazil, and then from Brazil went to Australia. Then we were home for 48 hours and on our way to Europe. That was brutal. I really wanted to give 110 percent onstage, and we did. But I was using up everything in the gas tank every night.

There was a period where we figured out we were in 12 different time zones in two weeks. We just kept going and going and going. That was tough, but it was so worth it. I may not be happy with how it ended, but I’m happy we got the chance. If you lived somewhere not in a remote area, you had the opportunity to hang out with us one last time. That’s so cool, because that’s what it was all about.

That being said, afterwards things didn’t work out. Everything I thought I had planned post-Anberlin didn’t. That’s what’s so cool about life and God is that all things work out for good for those who serve Him. It feels like this is what I was supposed to be doing all along. But if you had told me that in the final year of Anberlin, I would have been questioning if I should quit. I wasn’t prepared for what was on the other side, but it turned out incredible.

Like I said in the beginning, I absolutely enjoy where I’m at. I love that I get to make records, and still reach people and talk to people, and have this unique platform. Right now, I’m standing in front of a Rebel Donut in New Mexico because my kids love it. When I hang up with you, I get to go hang out with them. To me, that’s the best of all worlds. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything.

Are you still in contact with the Anberlin guys?

Yeah, a few of them all the time. Joey Milligan was just here in New Mexico about three weeks ago. We were hanging out and goofing off. I talk to Christian all the time. I definitely keep up.

Joey’s in Texas now, right?

Yeah, he’s producing records with one of the members of Blue October there in Austin, Texas. He’s just crushing it. Every time I call, he’s like, “Hey, can I call you tonight? I’m working.” I’m like, “Geez, that’s awesome.” He’s constantly busy and I’m stoked. That’s such a good thing. I’m exited that he’s working out so well, and then obviously Christian is with Acceptance and has his own band. He’s down in St. Petersburg, Florida crushing life, too. It’s really cool to see how life takes shape for everybody.

Speaking of Florida, I’ve actually been able to talk with a few of the old-time Florida musicians this summer. The last one was Aaron Marsh. It’s got me thinking about that Florida scene you grew up in and what a time for music that was. What do you remember about growing up in Winter Haven? What was the music scene like and how did you get involved?

That music scene was unbelievable. We were in a band called SaGoh, which turned into Anberlin. Copeland was in a band called Ev Angel before a majority of those members went on to start Copeland. Underoath, when they started out, was like pure black metal, with Dallas Taylor leading it. I think the only original member, as people would remember Underoath now is Aaron Gillespie, but it was complete black metal. Raging guitars. Big spikes on their wrists. Definitely different times.

But I tell you what, that was such a springboard. Being surrounded by great musicians, and great music and so many good things happening to other bands, you don’t doubt yourself. You don’t think in the back of your head, What if this all doesn’t work out? It’s like, “Hey man, it’s working out for everybody. We’re all in this together.” Not once did I feel a sense of competition or anything like that. We were in three different genres of music. We just happened to live within the vicinity of 45 minutes from each other.

Playing shows with them early on, it was such an innocent time. That’s the way I’ll put it best. It was an innocent time. Nobody was doing it for the money. Nobody was doing it for fame or notoriety. It wasn’t anybody’s day job. It was like, “Man, where are you guys playing Saturday night.” “Oh, we’re playing over here in Lakeland at the Loft. Do you want to jump on?” “Yeah, OK. We’ll open.” Stuff like that. It was so effortless. There were a lot of great bands coming out. Delivery Boy, Upper Room, Punch Buggy Red, all these local bands were in it together. It was so much fun.

How much did you pay attention to what was going on in Florida to the north and the south? Both of those had their own scenes that were exploding. How much did that impact you in Central Florida?

We knew that it existed, but we felt like it was on such a different level. We thought they were massive. For instance, there was a local band there in Lakeland that really inspired Copeland called Denison Marrs. One time they got to play a show in New York City and we thought they were literally the size of a Linkin Park. We thought they were so huge, because they played one show in New York.

It was awesome at the time, but we didn’t even look at bands like Less Than Jake or Against Me! as someone who would even know or care that we existed or were a band. We knew they existed, but we never hung out with them or anything like that.

Aaron was saying they always had to go up to Atlanta to record because there weren’t many studios around where you lived since they were mostly outfitted for boy bands. I know you initially recorded with Matt Goldman. Was that there in Atlanta as well?

Yep, we recorded in the same studio. Underoath went, we went, Copeland went. It was like this is what we have to do. So when we were in this punk rock band before Anberlin, we played one final show and took all the money we made in T-shirts and CD sales, put it all in one pouch, drove up to Atlanta and used that money to pay Matt Goldman for the four-song demo we recorded. That’s what Tooth & Nail heard and said, “OK, we love ‘Readyfuels.’ We want to sign you.” Based on that demo right there.

Yeah, we all drove north. It was in 5 Points, right there next to the Vortex Burgers. It was a great time of life. We didn’t even think we could get signed. We were naïve and trying to make it happen the best we knew how.

“If I could song write and live in a studio every day, that’s all I would want to do. That’s where I thrive.”

One last thing about Florida I find fascinating is all these different musical progressions were happening one right after the other. It started with the boy bands in the early to mid ‘90s coming out of Orlando, then went to mainstream rock with Creed and Limp Bizkit, and then the whole punk scene with New Found Glory, Yellowcard, Further Seems Forever and all them. What was it like being around all those different types of music?

It definitely drove us and pushed us to reach the next level. We played a show with Dashboard Confessional. Here’s this singer. I had only seen them once in concert. And then Chris walks up to me and goes, “Dude, I just got done recording this record called Swiss Army Romance. Do you want to listen to it?” I was like, “Yeah, of course.” It literally didn’t leave my CD player for a good two to three months. It was gold. I was like, “I wonder if he has a clue how many people this is going to impact.”

We played a festival with him a couple months later, we met back up, and I knew he was about to go massive. We went into this tent, and it was a little tent. It was the size of like a 10×10. There were probably 30 or 40 people packed into this little tent. We’re sitting there, he’s playing Dashboard songs, and everyone is singing along at the top of their lungs. I was like, This is going to be so massive. We all knew it. We all felt it. This is nuts.

It was cool. We were definitely interconnected, as far as all these bands and that scene. Again, I felt like everybody was going in different directions. It wasn’t like Copeland versus Dashboard and New Found Glory versus Underoath. It never felt like that. It felt like, Holy crap. What is happening?

To watch Yellowcard explode, it was more breathtaking than a business-minded “We can do that too. Let’s go hustle. We’re going to outsell them.” It was never, ever like that. It was always, “What can we do for you?” And they would say, “What can we do for you? Let’s all do this together.” I’m speaking for myself here, but never once did I feel some sense of competition or jealousy.

Chad Gilbert from New Found Glory was telling me it was really natural for a ska band, a punk band and a singer-songwriter to all be on the same bill. You were hanging out with your friends, making music. The friends were in bands and the bands were friends. It was just this cool collective going on.

It never felt odd, either. I remember the first time Tooth & Nail came to see us in Atlanta, Georgia. Underoath was opening, Anberlin was second and then third was Luti-Kriss, who is now Norma Jean. So you have to imagine people are going nuts for Underoath, just going crazy. And then obviously Norma Jean is from Atlanta, so that’s all their fans.

But then here comes this band that’s singing, “Boys speak in rhythm and girls in code.” We didn’t think anything about it. It wasn’t weird, like, “Oh, no. These hardcore kids suck. They’re going to hate us.” It was like, “Nah, let’s do what we do. They do what they do.” And that was it.

Going on your early tours with Anberlin, what was it like breaking out of Florida? Were there people going like, “Hey, you aren’t supposed to be on this bill?”

No, it never happened like that. Even Copeland before they were Copeland, they were very slow, melodic pop. We would play with them all the time as a pop-punk band. No one would say anything. It was just Florida. That was what happened. We never were like, “We’ve got to cling to our own. We need to come up with an image.”

So what’s next on the horizon for you? Are there other musical pursuits you hope to do in the future?

I would love to come out with one more Anchor & Braille record. Maybe start recording it in fall of 2018. Joey and I have thrown around some ideas of writing together. I don’t know where it’s going to take us. We just want to start and goof off. It’s all about the process. It’s not about the production, what happens or how professional we can make this. If I could song write and live in a studio every day, that’s all I would want to do. That’s where I thrive.

But, we’ll see. This record has gotten people ecstatic about it. I know this is not my last worship record, for sure. I cannot believe the response. It’s been so overwhelming and I’m excited.

Originally appeared on Behind the Setlist

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