Listening In: Josh Bales

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’re listening in on my conversation with singer, songwriter Josh

Over the years I’ve interviewed a lot of singer-songwriters on “Listening In,” but I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone on the program quite like Josh Bales. In addition to being a musician and worship leader, he’s also a pastor and a mental health professional. And he combines these vocations in his music.

His best known album is probably his 2012 album “Count The Stars,” which was produced by Dove- and Grammy-Award winning producer Ed Cash. His latest album is “Come Away From Rush and Hurry.”

Josh Bales if from Chattanooga, but now lives in Orlando, Florida. I had this conversation with Josh Bales in Colorado Springs.

JOSH BALES, GUEST: Yes. So, Come Away From Rush and Hurry is a project of hymns. What’s unique about these hymns is that they were songs—I grew up in the church, but I had never heard most of these hymns until I became an Anglican priest, an Episcopal priest, and we sang them in my parish, which is a cathedral. So I heard—for the first few years—I heard these hymns—first few years of being a priest—I heard these hymns done with organ and choir, men’s choir, women’s choir, boys choir group. I mean, beautiful. And the more I heard them, the more I started to think, oh my gosh, these would sound amazing with some kind of little sparsely produced acoustic kind of thing. And I ended up recording most of the songs in the cathedral. Like after the church staff would leave, I would go to the cathedral and set up my piano and my mics and and whatnot. It was a blast.

SMITH: Why did you want to do a song of old hymns—ancient hymns—because I know, I mean I know you do a lot of other people’s songs, especially as a worship leader, but you’re also a singer songwriter. You got a ton of your own music. Why this, why now?

BALES: Well, so these—I have another project of hymns called The Birds Their Carols Raise. It has just sort of a more widely known—hymns that would be widely known in the evangelical world. Sort of like, you know, This is My Father’s World, Be Thou My Vision. These hymns on the new project were hymns that growing up as an evangelical Christian, I had literally never heard. So I’m thinking of Blessed Are the Pure in Heart. I’m thinking of—we did that one. I’m thinking of a some hymns by John Henry Newman, some texts and then one song that we sing that I had never sung until the lenten season and we were doing praying the stations of the cross around Holy Week and in between each station of the cross, traditionally for now, I don’t know, a few hundred years has been sung. The Stabat Mater where it’s called at the cross, her vigil keeping. And it is a hauntingly beautiful reflection on Jesus sort of through the eyes of his mother as she’s watching this, his passion. I mean it’s just wild. So, so actually I hired this lady from the Netherlands who did a string arrangement for it. And I mean it was the most fun I’ve had recording probably in all five or six CDs.

SMITH: Well, we should probably pause and back up and talk a little about your background because you’ve already sort of clashed two worlds together here just in the few minutes that we’ve been talking. And that is this idea that you grew up in the church, but it was more of an evangelical church and you’ve had this spiritual pilgrimage, a spiritual journey towards Anglicanism and more liturgical forms of worship as well. And that has become a passion of yours to sort of interpret the ancient traditions of the church, the beautiful but largely forgotten traditions of the church to the evangelical world. At least that’s the way it seems to me. 

BALES: That’s precisely, that is my passion. It is to bring what is so common, The Book of Common Prayer in some circles to bring some of that into the other part of my growing up years, the people that I grew up with, the church that I grew up with. I think growing up in a Baptist church and then sort of a John MacArthur Bible kind of church setting. And then I worked in the Presbyterian Church of America for awhile and in all of those traditions, those settings, I learned to love Jesus. I learned to think about the faith, but it was some of the church history part that I lacked. And when I entered an Episcopal church just haphazardly at age 18 and heard the Nicene Creed for the first time growing up as a Christian, never heard the Creed. I mean, my mom worked at a church. I was there every, you know, every day, every time the doors were open and I wept. Nicene Creed. And everybody around me was saying it with eyes closed and it was memorized. 

SMITH: Yeah. Well, the part of the problem with the Episcopal church though is they’ll say it and not believe it. And part of the problem with modern evangelical churches that they believe it and yet never say it,. Never say it out loud. Never really articulate this beautiful, clear, direct statement of the essentials of the Christian faith. 

BALES: Yes. Right. I mean, I feel—you mentioned my pilgrimage. I feel so blessed that I got to grow up with the piety of evangelicalism and I get to use the forms of historic Christianity. And in my parish, and in fact my diocese, we’re one of the last conservative diocese, you might say, in the Episcopal church, we’re one of seven or eight Orthodox Christian diocese. So everyone’s that way. Everyone loves Jesus the way we love Jesus in my Baptist church when I was seven years old, but we use these forms that have been used for thousands of years and it is just a special blessing. 

SMITH: Well, I pray that that lasts, though the evidence is not in your favor. As you know, I’ve come out of the Episcopal church and into the Anglican church, which is more and more, I guess you could say, intentional about—the Anglican church in America right now is kind of a bunch of lifeboats of folks that have fled the Episcopal church, but they’re now coming together under this umbrella of AGNA—the Anglican church of North America. So it would be a wonderful thing if your diocese can maintain fidelity, but at least where I am, that’s no longer the case. And so we had to leave and go elsewhere.

BALES: Right. Yeah, maybe it’s not even a possibility. And who knows what the future holds for Anglicans in America who hold to traditional Orthodox Christian truths, you know. 

SMITH: But I do think that either way, the larger idea remains intact. And that is that there is something about the historicity and about the liturgy of the church that is largely lost to evangelicalism today. And it’s a shame that it has been lost because it is didactic. It does teach. It allows us to approach Christ in ways that mere reason or mere logic does not quite allow. It puts us in touch with mystery, in other words. 

BALES: And it puts us in touch with our bodies. I think if there’s anything that’s the most difficult piece of coming into a completely liturgical setting for evangelical Christians. And this is my opinion and this was the case for me, it is the idea of that my body matters in worship and even if my brain is slow to catch up, something about making this physical gesture like the sign of the cross or kneeling for confession or the holding the host, the Eucharist, in my hand and then tasting it and smelling it and all that. I mean, it is a bodily experience. And if you’re coming from a heavy enlightenment driven kind of setting, sometimes that can be lost. 

SMITH: Well, you know, and that’s what the evangelical church has become, largely is an enlightenment driven experience where we are spectators in a service rather than active participants in a service, which is what liturgical churches do. And it is interesting to note that the word liturgy means the work of the people, right. So, I mean it really does compel us, encourage us, invite us into active participation in worship. 

BALES: Absolutely. Absolutely. And you also mentioned mystery, I think in addition to bodily kind of experience, embodied experience in worship, the liturgical history of worship in Christianity, it also gets evangelicals where they dislike it the most, which is in mystery. And I remember a friend came and visited our church one Sunday and at the end of the service said, oh, I loved it. It was awesome. It was beautiful. You know, I didn’t really know what was going on some of the time, but Josh, I’ll tell you this much, I need to I need to go learn and understand everything that we just did so that I can kind of have it to the fullest. There’s a lot of merit to that kind of statement, but in fact, it’s actually the opposite in church history. It’s more of a—you do the mysteries then you come to understand them over a lifetime. But to live in the tension of not understanding fully what’s happening at God’s table, for example, or in baptism or whatever, that’s part of the deal. It’s just very uncomfortable. 

SMITH: Well, yeah, it is. And I know, I mean, Josh, I’ve shared this with you much. Part of my journey spiritually was that I was, you know, raised in a fantastic evangelical church—a Baptist church, large mega church. And I would go there in college and just out of college. I would continue to go to that church on a Sunday morning, but on Sunday night I would sneak into the back pew of the local Episcopal cathedral for their evensong services. And that was my entry point into the Anglican tradition. And if you know, evensong, you know that there’s not a lot of preaching happening in an evensong service. It’s mostly music and prayers.

BALES: And scripture reading.

SMITH: Yeah. And scripture reading. And yet it was, for me, it was a healing experience. And not that I had been abused in any way, shape, or form by my upbringing spiritually, but it was just a place of peace for me in sort of the hustle and bustle of the world and even the hustle and bustle of the normal evangelical service.

BALES: Yes. So what I hear, and I could be reading into what you’re saying, but now we’re venturing into the other part of my life, which is my work as a mental health therapist. And so, I would say that liturgical worship has been, I mean, I love that word healing. It’s been healing for me. You have to be present in the moment with your day, with your emotions, with the people who are there with your body. Now we’re talking, this is a what is a current trend in the counseling world, but it’s mindfulness. Christians have been doing mindfulness for thousands of years in worship, right? So, yeah, I have exactly the same experience.

SMITH: Josh, I want to pivot just a little bit in our conversation and talk to you about your own songwriting process. For example, you and I are here in Colorado Springs and at the Colson Fellows residency and we just sang a song, you call it a modern hymn, I guess you can say, that you wrote called A Hymn for All the World that was based at least in part on that famous quote by Abraham Kuyper, which I’ll paraphrase. He wrote it in Dutch. So I feel the liberty to offer the Warren Smith translation, there is not one square inch of all of creation over which Christ who is sovereign overall does not declare mine. You wrote to hymn about that.

BALES: Yes, yes. And it not just a hymn about, you know, the authority of Christ or the lordship of Christ or the sovereignty of Christ, but how that trickles down into people’s lives, all people’s lives. So you’ve got verse one sort of sets the stage of this hymn—A Hymn For All the World. Jesus is King. He’s the Lord. Verse two is crying out to the Lord to watch over his creation. People who may not even have enough food to eat. And of course we’re saying all the time, we’re trusting all the time that God is bringing his kingdom to the earth. And yet there are people even now all over the world who are barely alive. Then verse three, we pray we sing for our brothers and sisters, missionaries. He’s Lord of the missionaries. He’s Lord of all the little corners of the earth where mission is happening, where kingdom is coming.

That quote, I mean, how many songs could you write from that quote? 

SMITH: Well, yeah, that’s exactly right. But talk to me about the process. So you know the quote, you know, Kuyper. You say to yourself, I want to make this idea, this quote from Kuyper, but really more than that, the idea that God is sovereign, that he is Lord of all, you want to make that come alive musically. What does that sound like for you? 

BALES: I usually need some kind of instigating a factor. Like I need a bit of a mission almost for every song. Like, if it’s a client I’m sitting with at the end of the session, I may be thinking, oh my goodness, that was such a powerful emotional experience. I want to capture that in a song. But for A Hymn For All the World, I wrote that for Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s day of prayer. I think it was in 2005 or 2004. This was our theme, the Lordship of Christ, and we were going to be praying for our brothers and sisters all around the world. And it just, a bunch of things came together all at once. The night before the day of prayer is when I wrote it and played it for the folks the next day. And they said, yes, let’s do this in the service. So it was awesome.

SMITH: Well, Josh, let me ask you about another song that’s not a new song. Well, of course I was on a new song either. You wrote that one back when you were in seminary. Another song, though, that has been around for a while that I love. It’s called Count the Stars, is also the, I think, the name of one of your albums, right? 

BALES: Yes. The title track of the album. Yep. 

SMITH: So talk about that song. Where did that song come from? 

BALES: So one of the fun things about being a pastor and a mental health therapist and a songwriter is that I have lots of material to work with, right. All the time. So, but honestly, I love—I remember a great songwriter and mentor of mine told me that songs are never written in a vacuum, you know. Like, you got to get out there and live to get material for songs. So, so I have plenty of it. 

Count The Stars, my pastor at the time—I was associate—he was teaching through the story of Abraham and Sarah. And of course the line count the stars is what the Lord told Abraham in the midst of infertility, right? Struggling. Of course, we know now at the end of the Bible story that like the whole story of the Bible hinges on this—will Abraham have children or not? And then than he does in the line of Jesus. And then we are Abraham’s children now. So it’s a beautiful concept all through the scripture. At the same time, my wife and I were meeting with a couple who were struggling with infertility and it was so—the grief was so overwhelming it was paralyzing to them. Somehow all of these things collided. And I just thought I wanted to write a song of hope. I wanted to write a song of hope. And sort of the catch line of the song, if you could call it that, is that God’s promises are bigger than our dreams, basically. And certainly that was true for Abraham. I think it’s the ultimate expression of that is Jesus, that all of God’s promises of scripture are embodied in Jesus. But even I think in small ways, if we’re being a little hermeneutically loose here, even in small ways, right, God’s promises to me are way bigger than even what I can picture for myself. So yeah, that’s the song Count The Stars. And it turned out to be—so I sent that to Ed Cash and in Nashville, just just sent him an email. 

SMITH: Yeah, let me pause. Some folks might not know who Ed Cash is, but that’s only because they don’t follow Christian music. Because Ed Cash is like a rock star, literally, in Christian music. He has produced some of, you know, Grammy winning, award winning stuff. He’s just like the go-to guy in Nashville.

BALES: Right. Right. I didn’t know Ed. I just knew of him, but I sent the song to him on a whim, you know, through his website like send me songs, you know, so I send to you and they wrote me back. It was wild. We started a relationship around the song and then I did a crowdfunding thing and this song was sort of like the mascot song of my GoFundMe or Kickstarter and it was great. Raised money. It was just a major—for my music career, that song Count The Stars was a big boost.

SMITH: Well, and well-deserved. I mean, it’s just a really great song and I’m really grateful for it. So thank you for that.

Josh, anytime I get to sit down with a guy like you, a creative person, somebody who’s either a singer-songwriter or a filmmaker or an artist of some kind or another, I like to ask them at least a little bit about their creative process, how it is for you. I mean, in some ways I know it’s the—we were talking about mystery earlier and I know to a certain extent it is kind of mysterious and you know, who knows why you’re gifted in one way and somebody else is gifted in another way. And I mean, all of that stuff is kind of beyond description in one level, but you can be stewards of those gifts and you probably have some disciplines that you engage in in order to bring those gifts to fruition. So can you talk about some of those for you? I mean, where the ideas come from, once you get an idea how you nurture that idea into a complete song and so on? 

BALES: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, where are the ideas come from. I mean, it’s certainly like everybody else. You’re doing life. I’m doing life in my parish with my wife or in the counseling office and something—it’s always an emotional moment. It is an emotional moment. That’s where it starts. And I think for me that stays true throughout the entire creative process because if I can hang with the emotion in me then I know it will be emotional for someone else—if only for one other person. If at any point in my songwriting process it becomes a mind game or a word game or something or a music game or like, oh, that’s really cool, but I lose the emotional—And I know that sounds mysterious, but this is the best I can say it. So I hang with the emotion. For me that is key. I mean, oftentimes if I can—in the writing process—if I can literally with a notebook and my guitar and my piano sitting there quietly—I need complete, I need to be completely alone. I can’t do it with Mindy, my wife, in the next room. I literally need to be on lockdown. It’s probably my ADD. But in that moment, if I can write words or communicate something musically that brings tears to my eyes, that is for me, that’s when I know I’m on the right track. After that I feel like I’m just trying to chase something down, you know, to stay with it. I know this all seems sounds so ethereal but describing my process is pretty hard. I think the discipline part of it for me is trusting that if I do sit down, if I do make the time to be alone, something good will come of it.

SMITH: Do you have a plan for doing that? Like once a week do you sit down and say this is a songwriting day or this is a songwriting hour or is it, you know, an hour every day? Or is it, you know, once a quarter you go in and retreat or it’s none of the above?

BALES: None of the above. One once a quarter going on retreat probably sounds more sustainable for me. Like what I could do. Like a one once every quarter of the year to spend time thinking about OK what do I want to do next musically, that’s how it works for me. The main reason is because I am a full time priest and I also see clients. So this is sort of like, I feel like I write songs on the run. I mean, I write a lot of stuff in the car driving around town with no music on. Just thinking through.

SMITH: So how do you capture it whenever you’re doing that? Do you use your iPhone or do you—?

BALES: iPhone. Yeah, absolutely. The voice memo.

SMITH: So, are you voicing melodies or are you voicing lyrics or both?

BALES: Usually they come to me almost at the same time with some kind of little melody. Like Count The Stars. I remember it was just the [vocalizing] When I lay me down to sleep at night—that’s just sort of like that. And so then I go find it on the guitar. It just developed from there. 

SMITH: You know, I once heard a songwriter tell me that he thinks it’s best not to do the initial songwriting with instruments sometimes because you’re limited by what you know how to do on that instrument or you’re limited by sort of your default cords. I don’t know about you—you’re a much better guitar player than I am—but when I pick up the guitar first chord I strum is a G or the first chord I strum is an E, or the first chord I strum is a D. And so if I’m going to write a song, it’s probably going to be in one of those chords just because that’s where I’m starting with the guitar and that’s where I am. Whereas if I sit on the piano might be C or it might be, you know, F or something like that. And I’m just wondering if that, you know, if that resonates with you in any way where you kind of just like, you know, if I’m really want to let the song be what the song wants to be, I need to kinda think about it apart from the instrument. 

BALES: Yeah. I think I like to write, I do like probably differently than that perspective. I like to write with an instrument if I’m really going to try to commit to something. But I also don’t get really intricate with the music. I just want the basic chords and so that I can hear the melody in my head. And so, yeah, I mean, you know, you can break—no matter how intricate a song sounds—you can break it down into a D and an E and a G. So I would play, I’d play the simple chord progression of whatever I’m working on over and over and over again without any flowery stuff. I feel like the flower stuff comes closer to when I’m going to record it.

SMITH: In the production. 

BALES: Yeah. 

SMITH: Yeah. Very good.

(Photo/Josh Bales)

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