New Song: “She’s Life”

a3969957569_2So in a rather unexpected flurry of creativity a few weeks ago, I wrote and recorded a new tune. It’s called “She’s Life”, and you can find it here (along with some of my earlier stuff).

I know that paying for music is really so, like, 1994, but I’d appreciate whatever you feel you could spare. (It’s only one song, I know).

There’s a lot of worse things you could do with $1, after all.

So I hope you enjoy it, and share it with friends and family.

Here’s the really crazy part: there will probably be another new tune in 3 weeks or so.

Peace, and enjoy.

https://ericcase.bandcamp.com/track/shes-life

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What You Give is Who You Are

I spent this weekend with some friends in Texas; they’ve been inviting me to come play music at their church for about 10 years now, so every 18 months or so I make the quick trip (Sat-Sun) to the Lone Star state and worship together.

One of the reasons I enjoy visiting them (aside from the relationship) is the fact that their lead pastor is a fairly unabashed fan of electric guitar, and the blues in particular. In fact, there have been times that he has flat told me to “play more.” He likes it when I let go, and I think from his perspective it blesses the church, so he encourages it.

On Saturday night a group of us went out to dinner, and I spent some time chatting with some gifted worship leaders who were also serving. Over the course of the conversation we got into a conversation that I (unfortunately) have had over and over again with “church musicians”: it’s the conversation about “freedom” and “expression” in the church.

When is too much?

When are we being distracting?

Should we close open our eyes?

Should we close our eyes?

I have been playing music in churches now for 18 years. When I was being interviewed for my first job, one of my interviewers asked me pointedly, “Do you own an acoustic guitar?” (I did not; I am primarily an electric guitar player.)

His point was that church culture pointed to the idea of a worship leader who plays acoustic guitar and sings.

So I bought an acoustic guitar, and though I led primarily from electric in the first few years, I told myself that when I “grew up” I would play acoustic for worship, since that’s what all the “real worship leaders” did. Eventually I tried it, and kept it up off and on for a few years, butI put the acoustic down (on Sundays, anyway) about 5 years ago, when I came to the conclusion that i am an electric guitar player.

I feel most natural, and most “at home” this way. For the most part, this “at home-ness” translates to people. As far as I can tell, when I’m playing electric–even if I’m playing “authoritatively” or even an intense solo–what people experience is me being quite natural.

This was not the case with acoustic guitar. I felt uncomfortable. Limited. Odd.

In my experience, the issue with worship leaders is not so much what instrument (if any) they play or HOW they play it (as long as it’s somewhat proficiently): rather, the issue is

“Where are you the most at home?”

I don’t frame this as a selfish question. In a way, a worship gathering is like a 3-way dialogue between the worship leader(s), the congregation and God.

If the worship leader isn’t at home in his/her own skin, how can they have a natural, engaged dialogue with the congregation? Or even God?

This isn’t an advocacy for the “worship guitar solo”. It’s not a call to put all worship leaders behind acoustic guitars or pianos.

It’s a call–or more preferably an invitation–for worship leaders to go on a journey of musical (and spiritual self-discovery and to know very deeply who they are, and where they are at home. It’s actually more important than you think, because ultimately you can only bring who you are–acoustic, electric, vocalist, etc–to the community. You cannot bring someone else to this event, this conversation.

People don’t need to hear from who you think they need to hear from. They need to hear from you; the deepest, truest part of you. You owe to them, and to yourself to learn and know who that is, so you can bring that gift.

Relatedly, it’s also a call for lead pastors and churches to be a part of this journey as well, and recognize both when a musician is “not at home and when they are. Rather than just assume, “Worship leaders in our church lead from acoustic (or whatever)”, watch for when things just seem to “click”, and the dialogue between the leader, the congregation, and God comes alive.

(And then listen for the guitar solo…)

BTW, I’m not sure this counts as someone who feels “at home” (2:10):

 

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Twitter: @ericcase

2013 in Review: Music

Since I laid out my books, I thought I’d briefly go through some musical purchases that I enjoyed this year.

*NOTE 1: These aren’t necessarily 2013 releases; they are 2013 discoveries

*NOTE 2: I don’t listen to quite as much music as I used to, so don’t expect to be wowed. I just thought I’d share.

*NOTE 3: I still listen have a steady list of “older” favorites that were in heavy rotation in 2013 (though not purchased):

  • Live at Leeds. The Who.
  • El Camino. The Black Keys (one of Levi’s favorites)
  • Sevastapol. Jay Farrar (one of my top 5 driving CDs)
  • Most of Emmylou Harris’ catalog
  • Most of Sigur Rós’ cataglog
  • High Violet. The National

But anyway… here’s 2013 music:

  • Ode to Sunshine. The Delta Spirit. Maida Vale shared a stage with these guys in 2008 or 2009, and they blew us away with their raw intensity and musicianship. Reminded me of a much more angsty version of  The Band.
  • Sea of Cowards. The Dead Weather. When I first heard this band, they were just too creepy for me. Either they have gotten less creepy, or I’ve gotten moreso. Either way, Jack White and Alison Morehart are a potent duo, and they write killer riffs and haunting songs. Scary, but good.
  • Wise Up Ghost. Elvis Costello and the Roots. Oh my: this is virtually required. There’s not a super-catchy pop song on this collection, IMO, but just by virtue of the fact that it’s Costello (one of the most well-respected songwriters in this era) and The Roots (they should be declared a national treasure, the way Brazil declared Pele a national treasure back in the 70s), you should be listening to this. 
  • More Than Just a Dream. Fitz and the Tantrums. This was part of the summer soundtrack of the Case household. We collectively love these guys. Best if listened to loudly, while dancing.
  • Love in the Future. John Legend. I pretty much love everything John Legend does. So there.
  • Born and Raised. John Mayer. If there was a soundtrack to my sabbatical, this was it. This record just broke me down, and helped me heal. The title track also served as the inspiration for “My Redeemer Lives”, from my little release this summer. I haven’t been pierced by lyrics like this in a long while, and it felt good.
  • The Invisible Way. Low. This is “Where have I been?” Part 1. These guys are simply amazing. Gentle, rainy music. I found these guys through “Silver Rider” from Robert Plant’s Band of Joy disc, but boy I’m sure glad I found the rest.
  • Trouble Will Find Me. The National. Oh yes. Just as subtle, melancholy, and “New York” as the previous ones. Thank you.
  • Hesitation Marks. Nine Inch Nails. After Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky came out, a friend of mine remarked, “You know, I think that lyrically I like addicted Jeff Tweedy a little more than sober Jeff Tweedy.” Insensitive, I know, but I think I can relate: I like angry Trent Reznor a little bit better than married and content Trent Reznor. However, everything is relative: “content” Trent Reznor is still pretty dark and twisted. Hesitation Marks isn’t my favorite NIN record by far, but it still has its darkly groovy moments.
  • Woman. Rhye. This is another summer soundtrack in our house. This record is gently and sensuous. Definitely a cool, mellow, evening music. (P.S. the singer’s a dude!)
  • Kveikur. Sigur Rós. Creepy. Just creepy.

Well, there you have it. No links or anything, so if you want it … go snag it.

Connecting the Core

For those of you who may be leading musical worship in some context…

A while back, I wrote about “Knowing Your Core”: knowing how you would essentially describe the Gospel. (If you haven’t taken the time to write down your core, I’d encourage you to take a few minutes and do this).

It’s not enough to know your core; the real challenge is to make sure that our ministry reflects these beliefs.

For some of us, that means making sure that the songs we sing on Sunday match what we believe is the core. In other words, though we may claim that our Gospel “core” looks like this (this is my core, by the way)

  1. mission/vocation
  2. community
  3. restoration
  4. the Holy Spirit
  5. God-With-Us

However, if we’re not mindful, the lyrics of the songs we choose to sing on Sunday may look like this:

  1. God is really great
  2. We are sinners
  3. Jesus died on the cross
  4. We are still sinners
  5. Good thing Jesus died on the cross

This disconnect isn’t healthy, either for you or for your congregation.

For those of us who are leading music, take a look at the lyrics that you’re singing week-to-week. Are those lyrics consistent with your core? With your church’s core? (Again, first you need to know what your core is.)

For those of us in another form of ministry, we can still examine how our values, actions, and words are connecting with that core.

There is no reason that ministry cannot be an expression of our deepest and “truest” selves, but we do have to do the challenging, reflective work of knowing what that deep and true self looks like.

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A Somewhat Random Music Mantra

Over the past few days, I started thinking about the essentials of the way I approach music. It’s probably not complete, and it’s probably not the last time I’ll do something like that, but here ya go…

  • There is no such thing as “simple” music
  • If you think that a genre of music is “easy” you’ve already lost
  • The point is not to get great gear; the point is to make great art
  • There’s a fine line between “ambient” guitar playing and simply not knowing the music
  • Training your ear makes you dangerous
  • Learning music theory makes you lethal
  • A great amp makes an average guitar sound amazing
  • Rhythm guitar is a lost art; go rediscover it

Anything you’d add or take away? 

Four Ways Gigging Made Me a Better Worship Leader / Church Musician

One of my favorite quotes is in the movie Rocknrolla: 

There ain’t no school like the old school and I’m the #@$%@#$% headmaster.

When I started playing guitar, playing in church was not an option. Our church was a piano/organ place, and we only did acoustic guitar on a very, very rare occasion.

In fact, as crazy as this may seem, I never heard real electric guitar—not the heavily compressed, chorused, thin sound—in church until I was probably 30 years old.

So, musically, all my formative years weren’t spent in a youth band; they were spent in clubs.

This is what I think I learned:

  1. Be excellent, quickly.My first gigs were in a cover band. Two hundred dollars for a night (for the whole band). Two 60-90 minute sets. You were paid to be the entertainment. If you couldn’t grab the crowd’s attention, than you (a) were going to have a boring night and (b) weren’t going to be invited back. You had to get their attention, and then hold it. Probably the most extreme situations were when we’d play for a group of bikers; the pressure to entertain and “be cool” was definitely heightened. You had to be on your game.By contrast, church is mostly a captive audience. They’ll tolerate mistakes and give you second chances. However, just because the congregation lets you get away with a bad note doesn’t mean you should let yourself get away with it.
  2. Have your gear together. Even in the era of Guitar Center, you still couldn’t find a place to buy a cable at ten o’clock at night (maybe you still can’t). I remember driving 3 hours to a gig where the drummer forgot his hi hat stand. Outcome: gig with no hi hat. You had to double-check your stuff, and be prepared. Churches today come stocked with complete drum kits, miles of cabling, and usually a tuner (or 4) lying around. It’s nice to have a backup plan, but it’s also unprofessional to show up without a guitar strap. It assumes that someone will take care of you.
  3. Expect the worst. I remember playing a gig in this big wooden room that was essentially tuned to Ab. Every time we hit that note (which we did a lot, because we tuned 1/2 step down), the whole place would erupt with Ab feedback. It made for an interesting set. I also never knew that multiple monitor mixes were even possible until I was probably 25; my first 10 years of playing were spent learning to hear my voice—and the other instrumentalists—in one mix (that was usually too quiet).These days—if I can sound a bit crusty—a church is considered a bit lacking if the Aviom mix isn’t in stereo. Listening—and thus true interactive musicianship—isn’t based on the quality of your monitor mix; it’s based on the discipline of working to hear everyone on the stage, and to be aware of what they’re playing and how it impacts what you’re playing.
  4. God is everywhere. Though I wasn’t always firmly rooted spiritually, I learned that beautiful music can be made in the dirtiest places. On my final (probably) jaunt around the country, I was playing a gig in Lawrence, Kansas. The band I was in “gave in” to the crowd and played a (somewhat ironic) version of “Freebird.” As I played that ridiculous slide part, I practically heard God speak to me, “Do not think for one minute that I’m not hear in this bar. Do not think that you cannot send these notes to Me as worship—as thanks—right here in this moment and in this place. I am here.” 

    Though the church as a body is sacred and essential, God is also everywhere. When you only play music on Sunday morning, or only for your youth group, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that God is only in the church, or that He is only “listening” to corporate worship music (that is often too safe). Playing music in so many environments helped me understand that God is out there, always moving, sometimes even moreso than what we see on Sunday.

Anyway, that’s it. I’m old school, but I think we do well to make sure our church musicians are seasoned and prepared, and have as wide a view as possible of God’s activity in the world.

43:23 (or Thereabouts)

I recently purchased and downloaded Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Wow.

Considered to be one of the most amazing works of Western music, its power and beauty can be breathtaking. But, as I listened, something struck me about the piece. In case you didn’t know, the 9th is long. Over an hour (that’s pretty rare in our modern world, yes?).

For most of that hour, we—the audience—is waiting; waiting for “that” melody that we recognize. By my (admittedly dodgy) calculations, the musical theme that we identify with comes in at around 3:35 of the 4th Movement. That’s over forty minutes into the piece. 

But you know who waits even longer?

The choir.

A choir—a rarity in symphonic music at the time— sings the theme again even later in the 4th Movement. They have waited for almost 50 minutes to sing; to do their part in the symphony; to contribute to one of the most beautiful moments in symphonic music.

Sometimes it’s easy to feel like a member of the choir. We sit with nothing to do, watching others play and develop the masterpiece. We may feel like we’re on the sidelines, or that our gifts aren’t needed. But eventually it will be our time to sing. It will be our time to open up our mouths and to do our part in the music that’s been written. We need to be ready.

Are you in a time of waiting? Are you being called to contribute, but the “way” hasn’t seemed open yet? Is it just that the symphony hasn’t arrived at your part yet? When the time comes, are you prepared to sing?

When it does, rest assured that you are helping to create a work of beauty and redemption.

This vision is for a future time.
It describes the end, and it will be fulfilled.
If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently,
for it will surely take place.
It will not be delayed. (Habakkuk 2:3)