It’s often intriguing hearing about the trajectory of certain artists, and depending on the longevity of their career, how they’ve evolved over time and how that affects their art.
Derek Webb is one of those artists.
He rose to prominence in the mid-nineties having been one of the founding members of Texas folk-rock band Caedmon’s Call, who found themselves inserted in the Christian music genre, thanks to a deal with Warner Brothers. He and the band started when they were in college, and they had the advantage of a bandmate’s dad being involved with a church that had a recording studio, where they had the green light to record. This played a role in their lassoing into the Christian circuit.
Their deal with Warner Brothers worked in spades, and the band achieved mass success, and would for about a decade before Webb decided his creative needs would be best met establishing himself as a solo artist.
Fifteen years later, Webb has released multiple albums of his own, one being Stockholm Syndrome, which he’s currently on a ten year anniversary tour for. He’ll be performing at The Basement this Friday. (tomorrow!)
Webb also has his newest album, Targets, set for release in winter of 2020. I had the pleasure of chatting with him, and getting a deeper look into who he is as an artist and as a person.
Music Mecca: So what was your introduction to playing music, and who or what got you into it?
Derek Webb: Honestly, it’s just the only thing I’ve ever been able to do. When you’re a kid, you go through those early years of watching all the other kids figure out their thing- like one kid can kick a soccer ball, one kid knows all the answers in school and that kind of thing. I couldn’t do any of that stuff. But when I was really young, I figured out music came easy to me, and I was good at it. It took me awhile to realize I was good at it because no one else around me was doing it, and you don’t really know you’re good at something until you have something to compare yourself to. So over the years, I realized that that was the one thing I could do. So you try to spend all your time focused on the things you feel you can do. So since I was really young I was always super focused on music. Music is the only job I’ve had in my adult life.
MM: How did Caedmon’s Call get together, and what was your experience like with them?
DW: So Caedmon’s Call was the first real band I played in. We were down in Texas, in Houston, and basically is what I did instead of going to college. This was in the early ‘90s, maybe ’92. I was finally coming out of music I grew up on like hair metal bands or whoever the hell I was into, and started to discover songwriters like Simon and Garfunkel and stuff. So Caedmon’s was inspired by a lot of 60s folk rock type bands. Living in Texas, you basically had your entire touring circuit outside your front door. We were college-aged, and all of our friends were going to Texas colleges, and as we were writing songs and figuring ourselves out, we would drive around to our friends’ schools and play shows. We had a few advantages as a young band. One was that our band mate’s dad was the pastor of a giant church in Houston that had a recording studio in it. In the early ‘90s recording equipment was so expensive. But we had access to a studio, which was a huge advantage for us. And through our college circuit, we backed into a real career. Within a couple years, we got signed to Warner Brothers here in Nashville, and sold like 70,000 records as an indie band. It was our full-time thing, and once we got going, they put us on their Christian music label. That was the thing about us, that they thought they could market us better that way. And that actually really worked. We were grateful for the help, and went from touring colleges to selling millions of records in that genre, and that wound up being a ten-year career for me. But then, in the beginning of 2000, I decided it was a structure in which I was having a hard time saying what I really wanted to say, and it was time for a change. So I started my solo career in 2000, and I’m 15 years into it now.
MM: You’ll be releasing your latest album, Targets, early next year. Can you talk about the inspiration and influences behind it?
DW: So when I make records, I want to use every part of the buffalo, in terms of communicating. What I mean is if I’ve done my job right, you should know in the first thirty seconds of the album what kind of gear I’m in. My previous record that came out in 2017 called Fingers Crossed, was a really dense, heavy record. It was kind of a tale of two divorces. It was my document of going through a divorce, and a deconstruction of Christian faith, which is all behind me now, but that was a really heavy project. But with Targets, this is a record of a great couple of years where I found everything I lost on the last record. I fell in love, got remarried, and I found my new way in the world in terms of spirituality, and for that reason, the album is a defiantly joyous rock record. Right from the jump it’s a different energy, because that’s where I am. It was a shift in energy for me. I’ve never made two records that sound the same style-wise in my solo career- they all sound super different. So Targets is like a modern day punk record. The sound of defiant joy is rock n’ roll, you know? (laughs)
MM: I see you’re in the thick of doing your 10-year anniversary tour for your 5th studio album, Stockholm Syndrome. Looking back on it now, what do you remember most fondly about the writing/recording process, and do you wish you might’ve done anything a little differently?
DW: (Laughs) Sure, that’s a great question. And you always do, of course. For me it was a pivotal record. Every other record for me I feel like people really like, and it sells well, then you’ll have a sleeper, and so on. Stockholm Syndrome was definitely a high point for me. Any time you look back after 10 years- I’m just not the same man who wrote and recorded that album 10 years ago. I’m a different person. And I’d be a lunatic if I wasn’t. That would mean I’ve come into no new information and grown in no way. As a result, yeah. There’s some things I would do different, but I’m still proud of that record. The thing that’s interesting about the record and tour, is that the record itself is more of a programmy, urban, almost electronic album, yet this tour I’m doing has been in small clubs and listening rooms, and I’m reinterpreting these songs into a solo acoustic performance. So for folks who know the record at all, you’ll probably not recognize the songs until the chorus. The arrangements are so radically different, which was fun for me to figure out how to pull it off. Just to see if I can walk in with an acoustic guitar, and to see if the songs have held up, which so far they have.
MM: Is there an album or two that you’ve done whether it was with Caedmon’s Call or solo that means the most to you, and why?
DW: My typical thought on something like that is you’re always the most proud of the thing you made most recently, because that seems like the most honest expression of where you are and who you are now. I hate to do it you, but I’m going to say the two that mean the most to me are my two most recent records, Fingers Crossed, and this newest one. Fingers Crossed is an extremely deeply meaningful record to me, because it was really hard to figure out how to make it. I’ve always thought that an artist’s job description is to look at the world and describe it; look at the world and tell us what you see, and that’s your job. And after going through a big divorce and a spiritual deconstruction, I didn’t know how to do my job, and I didn’t know how to describe the world I was seeing. I also didn’t know if anybody would have any interest in hearing me describe it. That record is the evidence of the fact that I survived. And it gave way to my being able to come out on the other side and make an album like Targets. Which like I said, is about finding the things I lost previously.
MM: Do you have a particular atmosphere or pastime that aides in your songwriting, or does it come more sporadically?
DW: I honestly am unlike most of my songwriter friends in Nashville, in that they seem like they are writing all the time. Just professional autobiographers just constantly writing. Typically I will spend most of my time all year not writing at all, and once it gets bottlenecked and ready, 10 or 12 songs would just come out in a few months. And that’s a record. I’m old school in that I write in the album format. I don’t write songs that belong on their own. The reason is because all the stuff congeals and bottlenecks together, and when it comes out, it comes out as a package. They all work together. They all tell parts of each other, and if you listen to one song it may not tell the whole story, but put them together and you’ll get the whole story. So for me, it’s weird. I spend most of the year waiting, and once it starts, it’s real concentrated and intense, and a bunch of songs get written, and I typically record every one of them. And when I write the last one, I usually know it, and that’s my record. I won’t write for another 18 months. And that’s kind of been my rhythm for twenty years.
MM: Can you tell me about your role and involvement in the non-profit organization Child Fund?
DW: So I’ve always looked for people who do great work in the world, and then vet the shit out of them. I try to really make sure they’re good people, and the money goes where it’s supposed to go, and that is has a dramatic effect on the people it’s meant to help. Once I find people I like, I’ve always considered it part of my job to then share that information and give people an opportunity to get involved. And I know not everybody is in a place where they want to get involved or can, and that’s fine, but I’ve always wanted to make that part of the work that I do, and connect it to something bigger than just me and my songs. So Child Fund is an organization I’ve been working with for the past five years. I love them and the work they do, and how they do it. The children of the world’s poor are ground zero for need, and Child Fund works for them. A primary thing I love about them is that they are not a religious nonprofit, which is important to me. They are in the care business. They are not in the business of changing these family’s religions. Child Fund does not go in to evangelize these kids and change their beliefs and religions like some other nonprofits will do, and that’s important to me. It’s not anchored towards particular world views, but just basic human survival needs. And I won’t get into it, but I really like their economic model as well.
MM: What would you say are the pros and cons of being in a band versus playing solo?
DW: Mostly the load in time. As a solo artist I can get to a club or house show an hour or two before and I’m fine. Where as our band would have to get places at like 10 AM to load all of our gear in. It was a lot more mouths to feed. I loved my years being collaborative in the band, and it’s great to travel with your friends who are like your family, and I had that for a long time and I really enjoyed it. But there’s something that I like artistically about the flexibility of not having every idea go through a democratic colander and come out as no one’s preference but everyone’s compromise. I’ve really enjoyed, at least creatively, being a dictator. You get to release your own full expression.
MM: What would your advice be for young songwriters wondering where to start and how to get their careers going?
DW: I would say the most important thing you can do, is spend the time doing internal work figuring out who you are. What is your perspective? What do you have to say? Not “what is something I can say that people will like?” Or “what music is popular that I can emulate?” But who are you? What’s unique and quirky about you? Instead of hiding those things and trying to appeal to everybody, you need to just be you. The thing is, there are fans for everybody in the music business. We are a market of a thousand niches. Find your niche and go as deep as you possibly can. Be focused on finding the people who will most deeply resonate with the quirkiest parts of your story. I’ve had people who started coming to Caedmon shows 25 years ago and are still coming to my shows today, because we identified a long time ago there was something similar about our wiring, and we found each other. And as a parting shot that will underscore this, to any young artist, there’s a blog by Kevin Kelly, one of the editors of Wired, and it’s called 1,000 True Fans. What it basically says, is if you want to be rich and famous, don’t go into music. Most everybody in it are middle class. But if you want to make an honest living doing what you love, which in this case is music, then you only need 1,000 true fans to enjoy your music, and you’ll be able to make a living for the rest of your life. I recommend any young artists to read it all the way through.