Written in April 2007
By Amy Sondova Three months ago recording artist Brandon Heath was at a Kenyan clinic sharing information on breast-feeding with HIV-infected mothers. But on the day of this interview, Heath is in Dallas chatting on his cell phone from a Target parking lot only an hour before catching a plane to Grand Rapids. Towards the end of the interview, Heath asks apologetically if he could check his e-mail, “I’m gonna carry my phone into Starbucks, okay?” What a difference a day makes.
A self-described “recovering introvert”, Heath was launched into the public eye last year with the release of his debut album, Don’t Get Comfortable (Reunion). Having written songs for artists such as Bebo Norman and Joy Williams, this songwriter never expected to record an album himself. Ironically, it is Heath’s 2007 Dove Award-nominated song, “Our God Reigns,” that started his journey into the music spotlight.
“The song itself was written on a plane ride home from Seattle, WA in 2003,” explains Heath. “I just saw President Bush on television talking about the war and I thought about the hopelessness in the Middle East. I thought, ‘God are you there, too? Because it sure doesn’t seem like it.’ And the answer was, ‘Absolutely!’” Realizing he had been putting too much faith in President Bush and not enough in God, Heath was struck by the majesty of God, “It was a moment of ‘God, You reign over all the earth, not just Nashville or in the U.S., but over all the earth. You are omnipotent and omniscient and I’m gonna praise You right here on this plane!” Writing the chorus of his now famous song on the plane and finishing it when he got home, Heath then sang his new worship song in church that Sunday, where it caught the attention of fellow worship leader and producer, Dan Muckala (Backstreet Boys, The Afters).
When Muckala approached Heath about recording an album that would include the song “Our God Reigns”, Heath was a bit ambivalent. “Being a recording artist, you have to put yourself out there and be somewhat of a public person. I’m kind of private,” he explains. It was then that Heath decided the life he was living was a bit too comfortable so he made some changes that included visiting India with close friend, Bob Goff, founder of Restore International.
After being adopted by the Goff family, Heath says that Bob opened his eyes to the atrocities being committed against others worldwide, “I’d heard about the slave trade and sex tourism with little girls and it disgusted me, but I didn’t think I could make an impact until I saw what Bob was doing.” Using his skills as a lawyer, Goff who hails from San Diego travels to countries such as India, Uganda, and soon Nepal, where the human trafficking is rampant and lobbies on the behalf of the enslaved.
A native of Nashville, Heath and fellow musician Matt Wertz did something even more risky, they moved to a low-income part of Nashville, where gunshots sliced through the silence of the night and drug deals are commonplace. “There weren’t many people like me—not the same race, not the same demographic, not the same age and it was very uncomfortable for me for the first couple of months that I lived there, but it’s changed me. I’ve learned to live with people who don’t have much. I’ve learned a lot from listening to their stories and finding out who I am in contrast to who they are,” he shares.
As if that wasn’t enough, Heath then decided to join friend, Charlie Lowell of Jars of Clay, and seven others on a trip to Africa. Led by 25 year-old Jena Lee, the main force behind Jars of Clay’s Blood: Water Mission, the group toured poor villages who had received wells from the mission. That’s how Heath found himself at an AIDS clinic also supported by Blood: Water Mission talking to new mothers about breast milk.
His voice full of emotion, Heath explains that these AIDS-infected mothers learned for the first time that their breast milk could infect their babies with the HIV virus. Never in his life did Heath imagine he would sit down and educate people on another continent about AIDS, “Honestly, they were thankful to know what they had because they knew they were sick; they just didn’t know what it was. That was huge for me, to be part of the solution.”
Eager to return to Africa, Heath’s heart for the oppressed is evident, “These people have been through so much—through genocide, through famine, through a lot of sickness, through being a forgotten people in the world.” Ironically, originally Heath wasn’t sure he wanted to go to Africa because he was afraid of how he would be changed.
Then he heard how AIDS was changing the face of the continent and knew that being uncomfortable was exactly what he needed.
In fact, Heath has now characterized his life by just that—being uncomfortable. “I’ve never seen Christ so real in my life because I have to trust that He’s with me in what I’m doing—living in a high crime area, going to Africa where I could very well get malaria. I’m definitely not comfortable, but I like life better this way.” Life is more real for Heath who’d prefer to live the life of a disciple, rather than that of a cultural Christian.
Of course, life on the edge also has its moments of inspiration. Take one Christmas Eve when Heath spied a woman looking for food around the front of his house. Heath says, “I opened the door and said, ‘Are you hungry?’ and she said, ‘If you got any food, yeah, I’d love that.’ My family was there so I invited her to come and join my family for Christmas Eve dinner.” As Heath and his roommates befriended this ragged woman, they began to share the love of Christ with her.
It was this woman who inspired “Red Sky”, one of the most poignant songs on “Don’t Get Comfortable”. The song combines the old sailor’s saying, “Red sky tonight, sailor’s delight;, red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning” with the reality of living in a fallen world. According to sailor’s myth, a red sky at night signifies that the next day would be smooth sailing for a ship, but a red sky in the morning signaled a day of stormy seas. Heath says he thought it could be a metaphor for the Christian faith, “What a cool way to say, ‘God, show me that tomorrow’s going to be a better day because this one is scary. If you’ll give me a red sky, at least I’ll know that tomorrow’s going to be a better day.’” It is with a red sky that Heath prays his friend will be covered.
Living an authentic life is important to Heath. “I’m not as cool as you think I am,” he assures and then emphatically adds, “I don’t think people just want rock stars anymore. They want to know that people who are doing music are just like them. That’s what I want! I look up to people who I feel are somewhat attainable and their lives aren’t squeaky clean.”
Heath’s ability to be real about his experiences not only shines through his music, but his lifestyle as well, “It’s a challenge for me to live what I preach. If I say I’m gonna do it, I gotta do it or I’m a fraud.” And if anyone will spot Heath as a fraud, it’s the teens he works with at Young Life summer camps.
After becoming a Christ-follower at Young Life camps as a teenager, Heath has devoted part of his summers playing music for and with teenagers at camps. “A lot of times kids bring their guitar to camp and they may or may not be a good songwriter. So I’ll sit down with them and we’ll write a song together, then I have the kid come up on stage and we’ll sing,” Heath says. Empowering teens is an important part of youth ministry according to Heath, who didn’t write himself until a camp counselor gave him a journal. Heath felt that it was the first time in his life that someone gave him “permission” to write. Doing the same thing for inspiring songwriters in your youth group can be the push students need for success, but be honest when you give your student feedback, Heath advises.
“Do things that inspire you,” Heath says, still talking about teenagers. “Don’t be afraid to write down your thoughts and share them.” But, then again, it’s a message everyone needs to hear. Sometimes following God can cost a great deal, even our comfort. But if you ask Brandon Heath, life is far better when it’s uncomfortable.
Update: Brandon Heath recently joined together with fellow musicians to raise nearly $20,000 for the Macon County, Tennessee hurricane victims. He has also received three 2008 Dove Award nominations in both the Song of the Year and Pop/Contemporary Recorded Song categories for “I’m Not Who I Was” and also a nomination for New Artist of the Year. Click here to see the music video for “I’m Not Who I Was”.