Singer/songwriter Justin McRoberts has long been a favorite artist of mine, so I was extremely interested in hearing his latest album, Through Songs I Was First Undone. The recent release contains some of McRoberts favorite songs from artists such as Aimee Mann, Nine Inch Nails, George Michael, and Tom Petty. Interestingly enough, McRobert’s spin on the songs is a surprisingly spiritual experience. While waiting for the imminent birth of his second child, Justin still graciously participated in a “Take 5” with Backseat Writer. Congrats to the McRoberts family on the addition of their newest family member, Asa Jonathan McRoberts born on June 5 (click for baby pic).
Some people might be surprised by some of the song choices on Through Songs I Was First Undone. Why did you choose such a wide variety of songs?
This process was actually rather stressful. I started with a much longer list than 10 [songs] and could have gone a few different directions with song choices but eventually stuck with the 10 I thought I could perform most honorably.
The thing that ties each of the songs together is “Story”. Not that every song is written in story form, but that every song is reflective of a story; whether it be the artist’s story, as in the case with Tom Waits’ “Georgia Lee” or the culture’s story as in the case of NIN’s “Head Like A Hole.” If I had an agenda going into this project, it was to make reveal the common nature of the human story as it is communicated in and through art. So, whether it’s a pop song or a folk ballad or an industrial track, the same basic themes show up.
One of my favorite covers on the album is “No One is to Blame.” Every though I’ve sung along to this song on the radio my whole life, I still have no idea what it’s about (except that no one is to blame). What is the song about and what did you choose it?
It’s hard to say for sure what the song is about, since Howard Jones never said much about its specifics. Some believe the line “you want her and she wants you” hints at some kind of extra-relational affair. I’m not so convinced. It seems far more general than that. The following line “we want everyone” seems to imply this to me; that it’s not so much about a particular desire for a particular person but the constant dissatisfaction we find in the pursuit of pleasure.
Until your album, I never heard the song “Georgia Lee.” It’s such a sad and beautiful song, and it asks so many of the questions that we as Christians ask ourselves all the time. How has this song impacted you personally?
The question of God’s goodness is central to the human story. It is, in many ways, the ultimate question. I touch on this only slightly in a blog post about the song (read post). Waits’ song takes us to the most vulnerable part of our collective self (our kids) and forces us to sincerely question if we can trust God. I don’t think the answer to this question is ever a one time “yes” or “no.” It is a constant question; a continual tension between our expectations and reality. I dealt with it most prominently in light of my father’s suicide and have since found great solace in songs or stories that touch on the unresolved nature of this tension.
What I love about your music, and even with your album of cover songs, is that you put so much thought into the songs you choose to release. You also explain your reasons behind your choices on your blog. How has blogging allowed you to connect with fans?
Well, after years of ‘knowing’ that storytelling was an integral element to my work as an artist, I finally made space for that activity outside of being physically present. Of course, the best case scenario for storytelling is physical presence but the blog has been a solid option. Also, the balance between “talk” and “rock” can be a bit testy; knowing that I can tell a whole story online keeps me from feeling like I have to wrap everything up during a 90 minute show.
It has also been a great discipline for me as a communicator. I really enjoy writing and would like to do more with it.
I remember the old days when you were on 5 Minute Walk with Five Iron Frenzy, The W’s, and the rest of the game. If you could go back and talk to that Justin McRoberts, what would you tell him? (And what do you miss most about Five Iron Frenzy? Reese paid me $10 to ask that question…not really.)
Oh, wow.. um.. I’d probably tell him to eat less white flour. That’s for starters.
More important than that, I’d tell him that he could be more confident about his convictions because he’d end up being right: Make friends instead of fans; Make partnerships instead of contacts; Continue to value “Home” as his anchor and be the same person in all situations. I’d tell him to go ahead and write the songs he wants to write because he’d end up being right about that, too; people really want to deal with aationalism, sexual identity, poverty, etc. That “sales” can never dictate his decision making.
What I miss about FIF is that they really “did business” they way I do: relationally. I loved that they intentionally blessed people and valued their friendships and partnerships above their profits.