Tag Archives: derek webb

Take 5 with singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken

17 Jun

Singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken has always loved hymns, which is apparent to anyone who spends time listening to her body of work.  Combining ancient words with modern sound, McCracken is careful to keep the integrity of hymns intact.  McCracken’s ethereal vocals are solid and beautiful.

McCracken’s latest release, In Feast or Fallow, offers all of the above.  Produced by husband, singer/songwriter Derek Webb, the album is a masterpiece that has a ancient modern feel, and of course, a good measure of justice rolling down.  Sandra McCracken was kind enough to take time out of her busy practice schedule, to “Take Five with Backseat Writer.”  I love her incredibly articulate answers.

I learned that you are a bird lover, as in, you can identify various birds by sight and song How did you become so interested in birds?

I do love birds…my parents are into birds.  When my Dad was in college, they had a record of bird sounds (he is a retired biology student/teacher).  They still have hundreds of birds that they feed year round at their house, on the edge of a wooded are—woodpeckers, towhees, cardinals, robins, blue jays, sparrows, finches, you name it.  They have given me their love of birds.

On Twitter, your husband, Derek Webb, talked about producing your new album, In Feast or Fallow.  What was it like working with your husband on this album?

I think we make a good team.   Especially after two kids, we’ve gotta work with efficiency and focus.  I don’t think we could have pulled this kind of collaboration together in our first years of marriage.  But as we’re in our tenth year together, we have figured out a few tricks of how to make it work and find balance.  And we are constantly making adjustments.  He is a very talented and intuitive musician.  And he makes me a better artist.  I’m grateful to have him, and to be able to play at so many life roles with him.

My favorite song on the album is, “Can’t Help Myself” or “This is the Christ.” I can’t decide.  What do you think my favorite song should be?

Haha!  I’m afraid can’t decide that for you. “This is the Christ” is a traditional lyric, written by Martin Luther.  The other is a new lyric, inspired in part by Psalm 121.  I’d like to think they live in the same space, but that each has a different sphere of resonance.

My favorite is “This Is The Christ.” Just today while rehearsing that tune I marveled at Luther’s poetry, “Were earth a thousand times as fair…she yet, were far too poor to be a narrow cradle, Lord for thee.”  It makes me want to pull out a telescope to see the night sky, or climb a mountain, or throw out a blanket in the park because the beauty of creation always points us to something still bigger and more beautiful—this one, Jesus.

What song (or two or three) on the album are particularly special to you and why?

“Hidden Place” was written days before my daughter was born, and is important to me because it is a snapshot of that particular moment in my life.  “Justice Will Roll Down” is important to me because it is the first song of its kind that I have written, direct and pleading.  It is inspired by the work of International Justice Mission, and the being made right of all things.  We have little need for “justice” songs unless we sit next to the majority of people in the world who daily experience social, political and physical oppression and see the world as it is, in a posture of longing for redemption.

Right now, a lot of artist want to bring attention to Nashville’s Flood Disaster.  What has been your experience?  How can people help?

We had it easy by comparison.  We had a few feet of water in our basement, and have had some minor clean up.  City wide, there is still a lot of rebuilding work to be done, although it has been amazing to see neighbors helping neighbors.  There is no place I would rather be during all this.

You can give and find out more about specific needs through The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.  Their website is a great, central place to donate city-wide:  http://www.cfmt.org/floodrelief/mndrf.

For more information on Sandra McCracken, visit her online at SandraMcCracken.com, friend her on Facebook, check her out on MySpace, and follow her on Twitter.

Rockin’ at RevGen 2009

14 Sep

Revelation Generation (RevGen) held its fifth annual two-day Labor Day Weekend extravaganza Sept. 4-5 in Frenchtown, NJ.  This year’s line-up was ambitious and impressive with big hitters such as Switchfoot, Jars of Clay, Relient K, Needtobreathe, Flyleaf, and MercyMe taking center stage along with other favorites such as Derek Webb, Jon Foreman (s0lo acoustic performance), BarlowGirl, Seabird, The Devil Wears Prada, and GRITS.  Thirty-thousand people, five stages, good eats, and great weather–the combination made for a great day!

Beach balls of all sizes started flying during Relient K’s set.  I got hit on the head a few times!

Attending only the second day of festivities, here’s what I discovered–The Fold (great band!), Dawn from Fireflight is super nice, Seabird is amazing live (and in conversation), BReith is a funny guy, Relient K keeps getting better and better, Jon Foreman on acoustic packed out the Nashville Tent, BarlowGirl is wild in concert (must see again!), I like Derek Webb’s new album much more on acoustic!

The ever-entertaining Matt Theissen of Relient K.

Like any festival, there are degenerates who ruin the fun for everyone.  I wanted to keep this positive, but Sarah got spit on by a teenager girl (“What? I wasn’t spitting on you!” she protested), got kicked by rowdy college boys (who came dangerously close to kicking my precious camera), was hit on the head by a half-empty water bottle that came flying out of nowhere (no one claimed it or apologized), and dodged numerous frisbees and footballs.  In fact, I was almost clubbed a few times as well.  I can honestly say that some people were completely out of control–and, no, they weren’t all teenagers and I don’t think any of them were drunk.  It was so exasperating that we didn’t dare venture past the acoustic stage after dark.  With a crowd that size, people don’t need to throw concussion-causing objects–that’s what yards and parks are for!

This is B.Reith.  I met him in the merch tent.  He was pretty amusing.  Check him out!

Overall, the event was wonderful.  The staff and volunteers were courteous, helpful, and so kind!  The festival really stepped up service to the media this year, which made things much easier.  And–this is almost unheard of–the shows ran almost perfectly on schedule!  Good management, RevGen!  I will definitely make RevGen a permanent part of my Labor Day weekend.

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you know I’ve been talking about The Glorious Unseen [read Take 5] all week. Well, here’s a happy TGU member running the merch table. Sadly, I didn’t get to attend their live show.

When I got to RevGen, The Fold was on the New York Stage, and they were really good.  I caught up with the band later and also discovered, they are really nice guys.  Unfortunately, I didn’t take their picture.  But I will definitely interview The Fold for Backseat Writer.

Aaron of Seabird on keys

Aaron Morgan of Seabird on keys [top and bottom].

The first band I had a chance to watch and photography was none other than Seabird.  I’ve been dying to see these guys live since I first heard Til We See the Shore.  And Seabird delivered as promised.  The only downside–they didn’t play my fave song, “Maggie Mahoney,” but they did play two songs from their upcoming (insert girly scream) album! [Read Seabird interview.]

Jon Foreman performing for a packed out tent of fans [top and bottom].

Next, I checked out Jon Foreman’s acoustic set in the Nashville tent, which was packed out with rabid Jon Foreman fans.  He sang “The Cure For Pain” when I was taking my closer pics.  I know I’m supposed to be objective as a journalist, but tears were just pouring down my face as I snapped these shots.  “The Cure For Pain” seems to be an anthem for so many judging not only by my reaction, but the crowd reaction as well.

I also caught BarlowGirl, Relient K, and Derek Webb on film, but missed out on Switchfoot’s photo pit.  It was getting pretty crazy up there, so I kept my distance.  Here are the rest of my photos::


Relient K

Derek Webb did a fabulous acoustic show, including some songs from his new album, Stockholm Syndrome, which just released Sept. 1.  [Read BSW interview with Derek Webb].

I’ve been super busy lately, but I promise to let you know when I’ve edited/uploaded all my RevGen photos.

Derek Webb:: The Cure for Stockholm Syndrome

1 Sep

If you thought Derek Webb was controversial before, you should have seen Stockholm Syndrome’s pre-release showdown.  Would INO Records release his song “What Matters Most” even though it contained profanity?  Would Derek Webb allow the album to be released without the song (or the song without the swear words)?  As it so happened, a compromise was reached—INO kept the song off Stockholm Syndrome and gave Webb exclusive rights to distribute the song as he saw fit.

Of course, Webb doesn’t fault INO for their decision—it was just business, not personal.  “INO Records—it’s a great record label.  You might be tempted to consider them a core Christian record label because all the music they distribute is explicitly Christian”, says Webb.  But, he adds, it’s a company owned by Sony.  If his song didn’t fit the mold, then it was a smart business practice not to release it.

A savvy businessman himself, Webb has been giving away his new album, Stockholm Syndrome, for weeks through a USB drive delivery taking place in over 15 major U.S. cities, plus fans could listen to the recording on his website.  Not only that, he is co-founder of NoiseTrade, a website devoted to the distribution of music to fans.  For a monetary donation or spreading the word to five friends through e-mail, listeners can download tracks and even full albums from their favorite artists, some popular and others up-and-coming.  And it works—in less than a year the site garnered 1.28 million album downloads.  Webb’s innovative methods are discussed in the upcoming book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price by WIRED Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson.

A former member of the award-winning band, Caedmon’s Call, Derek Webb released his first solo album, She Must and Shall Go Free, in 1999.  The Americana project was followed by I See Things Upside Down, an experimental rock record.  Next up was Mockingbird defined by Webb as “advanced orchestrated acoustic” and finally, The Ringing Bell, which was purely rock and roll.  Webb’s latest project, The Stockholm Syndrome, seems to fall into a category all its own—inorganic.

“I think anyone who’s been listening for a long time might have been initially surprised by the sound of the record,” unblushingly admits Webb.  However, by carefully following the discography, Webb believes that long-time fans will “get” it.  While the previous albums have been laden with acoustic and electric guitars (the only similarity Webb says run through all his albums), Stockholm Syndrome relies on electronic sounds and funky beats, a definite departure from his traditionally folk roots.

Of course, Webb doesn’t see it like that, “I initially got into folk music because of the protest songs of the 60’s and 70’s, like Joan Baez, Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seger, Bob Dylan.  I was really attracted to the language they were using and the way they were using songs [to communicate a message].” Webb was impressed by how folk artists served as agents of change that upset the status quo.  However, today’s acoustic music is a far cry from its roots.

“I traced the thread of folk music, you know, the music of the people and I don’t really find it in acoustic music anymore; I find it in urban music,” shares Webb.  “I think today’s folk music is hip hop.  I think that’s where you find the real stories of the people and real issues being addressed in an unfiltered way.”  Webb started to listen to a lot of hip hop music and it “blew his mind”.  He was attracted to the way these artists used sounds, samples, and their computers to “repurpose old music.”  The possibilities were endless when an artist used a laptop to make sounds. Webb says, “You can make any sound you hear in your head.”

Therefore, when it came time to produce a new album, Webb couldn’t help but incorporate these inorganic elements onto Stockholm Syndrome, which is full of heavy beats and synthesized sounds.  The album’s topics—social injustices, government corruption, and prejudice—are classic Webb.  Songs such as “Jena & Jimmy,” “Cobra Con,” and “Black Eye” are lyrically spot-on with what long-time fans are familiar, even with Webb’s new, or rather evolving sound.

“I’ve never made two records the same, never made two a like.  Each one is a little different from the others,” states Webb, who still considers himself a folk artist.  He explains, “Folk music isn’t really a style; it’s more of an approach.”  Therefore, Webb believes he must tell the stories of his culture, whether people like it or not.

“I’m only doing my job, which as an artist is to look at the world and tell you what I see,” says Webb, who adds, “I don’t want anyone to make the mistake of taking anything I say as truth because I don’t claim that.  If there’s anybody making secular music, it’s me.”

It’s not that Webb has given up on his Christian faith; it’s just that his job is to write songs, not minister to the masses, though sometimes the two joyfully collide.  “This isn’t ministry for me; it’s what I do for money.  I love it.  It’s a great job.  Do I look for ministry opportunities in my job?  Yes, I do, just like anybody else.  But I don’t do it for ministry.  Ministry is something I do in my neighborhood, in my church, and with different organizations that I work with.  I’m just looking at the world and telling you what I see.”

And sometimes what Webb sees is heart-breaking.  Citing a study from Dan Kinnaman’s book, UnChristian, Webb shares a disturbing statistic—90% of non-Christians think of Christians as “gay haters.”  “We should not be known for what we hate and what we’re against.  We should be known for what we’re for and what we love,” shares an impassioned Webb.  When asked about the hot button topic of homosexuality, Webb says that with every generation there are a handful of issues that get inflated, and for this generation, our battle is homosexuality.  In the past, he says, we’ve struggled with race issues, sexuality, and women’s equality.

“You can still see the implications of history today,” he shares.  “Even though on paper we’re all equal, there’s nothing self evident about it.  Even to this day, there’s still a lot of racism, a lot of sexism, which has nothing to do with sexual orientation.  It just has to do with white men feeling superior.  White men have always felt superior.”  He pauses and then adds, “Straight white men.  There are a lot of us who feel like combating the idea.  I don’t feel like straight white men are superior.”

The key to overturning the status quo, Webb says, is to go directly back to the words of Jesus, observe how He loved others, and ask God to show us how to love people.  “We have to remember that Jesus was ultimately hated and murdered, not because He took a radical stand on moralism against sinners, but because He loved sinners so radically that it completely disrupted the world of the arrogant [religious] leadership, who could not make sense of it.”  Webb says that we as Christians should have similar reputations—to show love to the most sinful, the most despicable, and the most complicated of people.

But don’t make Derek Webb a poster boy for any school of thought or movement, because he simply won’t accept it.  “I don’t want to be known for a particular brand of theology.  I don’t want to get tagged with that.  It doesn’t help me in any way to do my job and ultimately connect with whoever I can.”  The elusive artist adds, “My whole career is a cycle of self-sabotage. I’m always trying to be careful to not let anyone like me too much.”  Almost a contradiction for an artist who wants to share his art with the world.  But then again, that artist is Derek Webb and he tends to see things upside down.

For more information on Derek Webb, check out his website and MySpace, friend him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.  And don’t forget to pick up your copy of Stockholm Syndrome!

Take 5 with Stacie Vining of Vining Media Relations

22 Apr

Stacie w/ hubby Ray & daughter Olivia

When I first interviewed Stacie Vining in 2002, she was only on the job for two years and working with a big publicity group.  I was a senior in college writing an article on women working in the Christian music industry for my graduation project.  So when I established a professional relationship with Stacie a year ago, I asked her via e-mail, “Do you remember when…?”  And, of course, she did!

Enthusiastic about her artists, Stacie is the owner of Vining Media Relations, which is based in Nashville (or as Stacie puts it, “Nashvegas, TN, baby!”).  Currently, Stacie’s current PR roster includes Francesca Battistelli (read BSW’s Take 5), Jonny Diaz, Yellow Cavalier, Anthony Evans (read BSW’s Take 5), and the Show Hope Adoption Agency.  In the past she’s worked with Steven Curtis Chapman, Derek Webb, Jeremy Camp, and Nicole Nordeman—to name a few. Most days, Stacie shows up for work in her pj’s, but it’s OK because she works from home.  Because Stacie did such a fantastic job the first time around on that senior project of mine, I asked her to Take 5 with Backseat Writer.

I know that you’ve been working with Francesca Battistelli for a while now.  What’s it like for you to see her have such a successful debut album?

It’s super exciting! I’m not one to have that “A&R” ear–that talent that an A&R rep has, to know who’s really “got it” to be a successful artist. But at first listen to Francesca’s record, it’s a no-brainer. This girl’s got some great songs and a major set of lungs. She’s just good. She’s very talented for her young age and can write some amazing melodies and lyrics.  I knew when I first heard “Free to be Me” that I had to be part of the project and help to promote it to the media world! Plus, I’m a sucker for really talented female singer-songwriters. I think she has a very nice and long career ahead of her.

Why did you decide on a career in publicity?

It was offered to me and I couldn’t refuse. When I worked at a record label, I was working in the artist development and marketing department. I didn’t know where to go beyond that department after I’d been there a while, and someone on the staff thought of me when a publicity position became available. They gave me the chance and it was a perfect fit. I fell in love with it.

How do you go about promoting an artist that you don’t like personally or musically?

Now that I have my own PR firm I can be more selective in whom I represent. When I started Vining Media Relations at the beginning of  ‘08, I pretty much took anything I could, just to get the work and more experience. I had a great first year and now have been able to be a bit choosier. I don’t think it’s fair to work a project, be it PR, radio, marketing, etc., where you just don’t “get it.” It’s not fair to you or to the artist.

I want to always be ethical and honest in everything I do and with everyone I publicize. If I don’t “believe” or like the artist I’m doing press for, it’s just not right, in my opinion. I’d rather bow out of it and let someone else take it if they like it. I used to work at a record label and had a roster of artists that was given to me. I admit I didn’t like a couple of them–personally or musically. But at that time, it was my job and I just had to do it.

I would much rather work with one to two artists that I love and can talk about all day and make less money than to work with five or six that I just don’t get, even if the money is great. It’s all about believing in the artist and his or her music and ministry. If you don’t, then don’t work with them!

What’s on your desk at this moment? (Don’t clean it to answer this question!)

A lottery ticket that I was supposed to scan three days ago for my husband (that I haven’t scanned yet!), my calendar (I’m old-fashioned. I like to use a paper calendar rather than my Blackberry), my Blackberry, lotion (my hands always get dry), my landline phone, and my notebook with all of my notes and to-do list. Oh yeah…and there’s some old stickie-notes I just need to purge. And of course, my computer

What is one misconception that people have about your job that drives you crazy?

That they know publicity when they are not publicists!! Many people in the industry think that it’s sooo easy to get an artist coverage on TV or in a magazine or on a website. I admit it’s certainly not brain surgery, but it takes time and a lot of effort and continuous follow-ups to get your clients coverage. It’s really all about a handful of things that a lot of people don’t understand.

It’s about:
*Relationships–Relationships that you build with the media are so, so important. When you gain the trust of a media contact, they know they can count on you to deliver and vice versa. That goes a long way. You don’t want to burn any bridges; that’s for sure.

*Fitting the demographic of the media–When I pitch an artist that truly fits a media outlet, they tend to take notice and take me seriously. They know I’ve done my research and that the pitch “makes sense.” For example, it doesn’t make sense to pitch an artist that is Southern Gospel to a hard rock late night show. Make sure that when you pitch to an outlet, especially one that you haven’t worked with before, that the pitch makes sense.

*Talented artists! When you’ve got a great artist with some great songs and a great ministry (think of Francesca, and when I worked with Jeremy Camp, Steven Curtis and the like) then it’s just awesome. I love being able to pitch just really good artists who are the REAL DEAL, who are genuine.

Christa Banister :: Blessedly Meddling in Chick Lit

12 Sep

By Amy Sondova There’s one thing they never teach you in those college journalism classes—how to deal with the angst of interviewing and writing about another writer, especially when that individual is music journalist and author, Christa Banister.  Not only has she just released her second novel, Blessed Are the Meddlers, she also has an illustrious career in journalism which includes contributions to CCM Magazine, Crosswalk.com, Christian Single, ChristianityToday.com, and even a Christian music blog for MTV’s Urge.com.

Yet Christa could put anyone at ease with her dynamic people skills and cutting edge wit, which is also prevalent in her writing.  Falling in the genre of chick lit, Christa’s novels follow the adventures of Sydney Alexander, a travel writer who’s looking for love in Around the World in 80 Dates.  In the second book, Blessed Are the Meddlers, Sydney has found wedded bliss and is helping her friends and family do the same.

Finding inspiration for the books was easy—Christa wrote from her own experiences and those of her friends with a few tweaks here and there.  Christa’s main character, Sydney Alexander, is similar to her creator, “I can’t help but have things in common with Sydney.  Because I write for a living, it was a logical profession for her.  But then I wanted her to do something a little different.  She’s not an entertainment writer; she does that a little bit on the side.  She’s a travel writer, which I thought would be a really fun job.”  With a chuckle she adds, “We both enjoy the same beverages and we both travel quite a bit.”  Plus, like Christa, Sydney and many of her friends also share a faith in God.

Samantha Alexander, Sydney’s younger sister, is a caricature of Christa’s own sister.  However, fans find it hard to believe that some of the books more unusual characters are based on real life individuals, “People say there’s no way that Rain [Sydney’s hippie friend] could have been inspired by someone real, but she definitely was,” shares Christa, saying that  Sydney’s good friend, Rain, was crafted after her college roommate.

However, when it comes to Sydney’s wardrobe, Christa has to laugh, “She dresses way better than I do.”  Because a lot of chick lit books take place in fashion-savvy cities like New York or L.A., top-of-the line brands and extravagant spending is a marked feature of the literature.  Seeking to be stylish and fashionable, Sydney spends a lot of money on looking good. “All characters have flaws,” explains Christa.  “Rather than give her a drinking problem, I gave her a shopping problem.”

Being surrounded by products like MAC cosmetics and Prada bags is a life most women only dream about, which is exactly why they flock to chick lit.  The genre began to take off in the late 90’s with the success of books like Bridget Jones’ Diary.  “Generally, they are those books with a pink cover that feature a girl with an umbrella and a purse,” says Christa, who not only enjoys reading chick lit, but is a Jane Austen enthusiast as well.

Christa finds heavy influence from Austen’s strong heroines, particularly Emma, the heroine of the book by the same name.  “From a literary perspective, those books are considered some of the original ‘chick lit’ books; at least that’s what they say about them now.  I know I’ve merged that with my love of romantic comedies,” says Christa.  “I didn’t want the typical boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl scenario.  I wanted to mix it up like Jane Austen does.”

And mix it up, she does.  Heartbreak after heartbreak, weird date after weird date, and surprising hook-up after surprising hook-up, readers are constantly wondering what’s next for Sydney and friends.  As a heroine, Sydney is slightly neurotic, fully endearing, and distinctly charming.  “I feel like a lot times the heroines we’re given are these dippy girls who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances that aren’t that plausible.  I wanted a strong heroine who definitely had a point of view and opinion about things.  She has her typical girl struggles, but I wanted her to learn something in the process,” explains Christa.

Sydney’s sister, Samantha, is often compared to another feisty female close to Christa’s heart is “Allie” from Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook.  “Nicholas Sparks—it’s a completely guilty pleasure!  I love all of his books!” exclaims Christa enthusiastically.  “They all end very, very tragically, but I love it!  That’s melodrama at its best.  If you’re going to do it, you have to go all the way with it.”

Winks to Austen and Sparks aside, before marrying the love of her life, Christa also wondered if there were any good Christian guys left.  “That’s part of the reason I wrote the books; I had the same questions.  It’s funny because in dating there are enough complexities as it is, but then when you add the whole Christian element to it; it gets more confusing,” commiserates Christa.  “We often talk about girls making a list of qualities they want in their future spouses, but I think guys do the same thing.  They want this supermodel that can cook like Rachel Ray and is this spiritual Mother Theresa and all these unattainable things.”

Just because God gave Christa an amazing love story doesn’t mean that she doesn’t remember how difficult the singles scene can be.  “Everyone would tell me, ‘When you stop looking for it, when you least expect it, it will happen.’ I hated hearing that more than anything.  How can you not expect it when you really want that in your life?”

Finding herself somewhat contented in her singleness, Christa didn’t expect to meet her future husband in Nashville while covering a Derek Webb concert.  Since the show was kind of boring, Christa struck up a conversation with a handsome writer in the crowd and sparks flew, even if Derek Webb’s performance didn’t.  “I tease him to this day, ‘Because you were so boring, I met the love of my life,’” laughs Christa.  “Six months after we were dating, he proposed before the U2 show in Chicago.  He had to upstage Bono and he did a very good job of that.”

Just like her character Sydney, Christa isn’t afraid to dole out some dating advice for single ladies, “First of all, I would encourage all single women who want to meet a quality single guy to pray first.  It seems elementary but I think it’s the best thing you can do.  God wants to know  the desires of our hearts.  Of course, he already does, but he wants us to verbalize them.  Secondly, you need to be proactive.  Girls want to be pursued and want to be asked out, but spend a lot of time at home waiting for him to show up at the door.  That’s not going to happen.  It could, but it’s not very likely.”

She continues, “It’s mostly getting out there and being available.  When you see someone you do want to get to know, strike up a conversation.  You’ll find the more you do it, the easier it becomes.  It may not lead to Mr. Right, but you might make a good friend in the process.  Who can have too many good friends?”

Besides, if you’re like Sydney (or Emma), the more good friends, the more matchmaking combinations available!  So, what’s next for Sydney?  Christa is in the infant stages of writing her third book to round out the series, “She’s going to get quasi-famous and she’s going to deal with all the things that you start to deal with when you start to believe your own hype.”  Unfortunately, fans will just have to wait with baited breath to see how Sydney’s move to the Music City changes her life.

Sharing a mutual love of Diet Coke, Death Cab For Cutie, and self-depreciating humor, I’m proud to be known as a colleague of Christa Banister’s in the wild word of journalism.  I also hope to meet my future husband at a Derek Webb concert, which would be my fairytale ending.  Until then, I’ll curl up with my Christa Banister books and get lost in the hilarious adventures of Sydney Alexander and her friends.

Print copy of article.

When she’s not writing, Christa enjoys a multitude of activities, which include watching the Food Network and trying out fun new recipes.  Because of her love for cooking, we decided it would be fun to include one of Christa’s favorite recipes for you to try.  Let us know how it turned out!

Christa’s Marvelous Chicken Marsala For Four (or two if you’re really hungry!)

This can be served over a variety of tasty sides—your favorite pasta w/butter and parmesan cheese, couscous or brown rice flavored with chicken stock (instead of water) and fresh basil. Crisp green beans or asparagus work as another great accompaniment.


4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

3/4 cup of Marsala wine (Florio or Holland House are my favorites)

3 T butter

3 T olive oil

a splash of chicken stock

1 cup sliced mushrooms (I prefer mini portobellos but any mushrooms will do)

salt and pepper

red pepper flakes

3/4 cup flour

fresh basil

shredded parmesan cheese

In a heavy non-stick skillet, heat olive oil in a pan over low-to-medium heat.

Then using two sheets of plastic wrap, pound the chicken until it’s about a quarter of an inch thick. (This allows the sauce to really take center stage.) Season the chicken (both sides) with salt, freshly ground black pepper and a few red pepper flakes for extra flavor. Then dredge the chicken in the flour, and be sure to shake off the excess.

Now that your pan has been heating up, carefully place the chicken in the pan. Cook it on the first side until lightly browned (about two to three minutes). Then turn the chicken and add the mushrooms into the pan. Cook about two minutes longer, until lightly browned and continue to stir and incorporate the mushrooms.

Add the Marsala wine and the splash of chicken stock to the pan, along with the butter and reduce the heat to medium low. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. To finish it off, tear up some fresh basil and sprinkle on top of the chicken, along with a liberal amount of parmesan cheese.

Bon Appetit!

Print copy of Christa’s marvelous recipe!

Concert Review :: Derek Webb

25 Aug

By Amy Sondova While my list of favorite bands and artists grows ever longer, there is one man who has remained at the top since his solo album debut in 2003—that man is Derek Webb. She Must and Shall Go Free rocked my sensibilities about what should and should not be said in songs by a Christian singer, especially one who had been in Caedmon’s Call. However, the more I listened to songs like “Wedding Dress” (which uses the word “whore”) and “Beloved” and the title track, the more I thought, “I love this!” The music started a change in me.

Since 2003, Derek’s other albums—I See Things Upside Down, Mockingbird, and his latest, The Ringing Bell—have been in permanent music rotation. To me, this guy is a musical genius right up there with Bob Dylan and Reese Roper (Five Iron Frenzy, Brave Saint Saturn, Roper). So naturally, I wanted to see him perform live to drink in the whole picture. But every time I planned to see Derek Webb, there was a problem—the last which caused me to fly to Atlanta just to see a sold-out show that Derek played with his wife, Sandra McCracken. OK, so I was actually there for a youth conference, but I did twist my ankle walking back to the car after learning I wouldn’t see Derek yet again.

Perusing Derek Webb’s website, I made a startling discovery! Derek would be playing only 40 minutes away at Calvary Church. It was a sign! My time had finally come! But I didn’t believe I would really get to see him until I entered the doors of the church and heard Derek’s vocals resonating from behind closed doors. Apparently, he was giving the “postmodern” church service a taste of what was to come an hour later.

Low-key and dimly lit, the concert started a little after 8 PM with an opening performance by Derek’s friend, Joe Bassett. Finally, Derek took the stage in his typical white shirt/blue jeans ensemble. Singing at least one song from every album, he’s just as powerful in person as he is on his recordings. His set included “Nobody Loves Me,” “Love Is Not Against the Law,” “I Hate Everything (But You),” “I Wanna Marry You All Over Again,” “Savior on Capitol Hill” and one of my personal favorites, “Wedding Dress.”

Before performing “Name,” Derek mentioned that the song was the closet thing he’s ever had to a hit since starting his solo career. Featured on “Grey’s Anatomy,” the song was over a “two and a half minute montage of fornicating adulterers,” explained Derek with a slight hint of sarcastic wit. The crowd laughed nervously and Derek dived into his song. Talking about everything from the upcoming election to his wife, Derek wasn’t particularly loquacious, but he was charming as he picked songs on a whim.

For an hour, an audience was invited to depart from the worries of the world and get lost in songs about rethinking and reshaping the world. Derek made it sound not only believable, but encouraged that it was possible for us to help others experience God’s peace (shalom) on earth.

In fact, Derek’s so committed to social justice, easing the burden of the poor, and other causes, that he’s joining forces with Sara Groves, Brandon Heath, Sandra McCracken, and Charlie Peacock for the Art*Music*Justice Tour this fall. For more information, visit the tour’s site and make sure you get the chance to catch a show. Because as Brandon Heath said in a recent interview (read here), “Besides the fact that Derek Webb’s on it, Sandra McCracken, his wife, is on it, too. That’s the other reason you should go.” I agree wholeheartedly.

You should also check out Derek Webb’s other cause, NoiseTrade, a site that allows independent artists to freely disperse their music to listeners. By referring three friends to the site or donating an amount for an album, you can download an album from various artists including Derek Webb, Sandra McCracken, Sixpence None the Richer, and Alli Rogers.  You can also visit Derek’s fansite at DerekWebb.net (and, no, it’s not one of my secret sites on the side!)

So much to say, so much to say!

19 Aug

This week I’m “unofficially” on vacation, which means I’m backing off from writing a bit to step back and consider the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Or it could be that Sarah has off all week and we’ve got great plans like an overnight beach trip with two of our pals! Well, whatever, I’m not really here, am I?

However, in prepping to be away I’ve been making sure that Backseat Writer can move along swimmingly and have been negligent of my poor little corner of cyberspace here and I’ve got SO MUCH TO SAY!

Heres is one of my concert photos.  The dimly lit room and my lack of a $500 camera made for mediocre photos.  But theyre my mediocre photos so theyre special.

Here's is one of my concert photos. The dimly lit room and my lack of a $500 camera made for mediocre photos. But they're my mediocre photos so they're special.

First order of business–Derek Webb!!! As I’ve announced via Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, text message, and in random conversations with strangers, I saw Derek Webb for the first time in concert on Sunday night. I was thinking you always remember your first time–the first time you rode a bike, the first time you went on a date, the first time you saw Derek Webb live in concert and so on. I wrote up a review which will be posted on Backseat Writer later this week, but–WOW!–what an exciting experience for me (and Sarah)! It was such a low-key laid back event. The fact that Derek could command an audience in his white t-shirt/blue jeans ensemble, his voice, and an acoustic guitar was impressive. So, yes, it was everything I thought it would be and I can hardly wait to see him and the rest of his gang on Oct. 4 on the Art*Music*Justice Tour. Christa Banister told me last week that she met her husband at a Derek Webb concert, so I was very hopeful the same would be true for me. It so wasn’t.

Second order of business–baby rabbits everywhere! On Saturday, I stumbled upon a nest of baby rabbits in the

Heres the first escapee on the run!

Here's the first escapee on the run!

large grassy area behind our apartment, which is frequented by small children and hairy dogs. Since I had my camera with me, I snapped a couple pictures of the little dears. As I walked away, one of the babies decided to hightail it out of the nest. I ran into the house to get a towel, caught the escapee, and put it back in its nest, which caused bunny #2 to jump out. I caught bunny #2 and put it back in the nest, when bunny #1 apparently wanted another taste of freedom. At this point I decided they were in a phase of rebellion and used a stick to cover the nest as best as I could. I checked on the baby-on-the-run a couple of times, who had decided to set up camp under the water spout. A little before midnight, the babies were safely nestled back in their little nest because their mother had come to feed them and care for them. How sweet!

Last night when Sarah and I took the dogs for their nightly bathroom break, the nest had once again been torn asunder. And one of the babies was hanging out near the nest which Maddy the shih tzu found especially interesting. She seems to think they’re “her babies”. As we headed back in, the little trickster had moved back into its nest! How they don’t get run over by the lawn mower is beyond me! Yet I know the best thing is for them to be where they are so they can be taken care of by their mother. Although smuggling them into the apartment and raising the little ones has crossed my mind.

Cover of This Beautiful Republic's latest, Perceptions.

Third order of business–crazy album releases! It’s like everyone who wanted to release a new album sat down and said, “August 19! That is the day we shall all release a new album in a show of solidarity!” There are sophomore albums from the likes of Brandon Heath, Family Force 5, This Beautiful Republic (A shout out to my friend Ben Olin!), and Jimmy Needham as well as new albums from Mercy Me’s Bart Millard, Charlie Hall, Ten Shekel Shirt, and my old buddies, The Wrecking (formerly Kingpin Wrecking Crew). Lots of new music to check out–no wonder I need an unofficial vacation!

Fourth order of business–what’s up with the release of the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’s release being moved back to June? Didn’t they just release the trailer? Are the powers-that-be toying with us? (Article)

And lastly, did you hear about these yahoos who claimed they found a Bigfoot corpse in the woods and it turned out to be a hoax? Surprise, surprise! The funniest part of the whole thing is that the “body” was, in fact, a sasquatch Halloween costume. I mean, did they really think they’d be fooling anyone with that? Believe me, the full story is worth reading.

So, that’s about it, sorry to lump it all together like this, but I’ve got some R&R to do. Have a nice day!

Brandon Heath :: Social Activist

18 Aug

By Amy Sondova Fresh from Ireland and getting ready to play at a convention in Orlando, Brandon Heath caught up with me on his way to a sound check. “I actually called you 10 minutes late on my schedule,” he sheepishly admits. Such is the busy life of a musician on the precipice of releasing his latest project, What If We (Reunion). Despite his hectic life, Brandon was eager to chat about his sophomore album and social justice.

Since our last interview (read Brandon Heath :: Missional Musician), Brandon moved from Nashville to Houston, accepting the position of worship leader at The Loft. “They just invited me to come. I felt like God was calling me to do it.” He then adds, “It seems very atypical. It just doesn’t seem like the traditional route to go when you’re trying to launch a career, but for some reason, it made sense.” Then again, Brandon’s never been a traditional musician.

He began his career writing songs for artists such as Bebo Norman and Matt Wertz. Recording an album of his own wasn’t on Brandon’s radar. When producer and friend Dan Muckala heard Brandon perform the Dove Award nominated song “Our God Reigns” the first time, he urged Brandon to record his first album, Don’t Get Comfortable. This project launched Brandon into the spotlight with several Dove Award nominations and the prestigious honor of winning “New Artist of the Year.”

Building on the successes of “Don’t Get Comfortable,” Brandon continues to do things that challenge him musically, as evidenced by the album’s first single, “Give Me Your Eyes.” Written after people-watching in an airport, the song is fused with a slight hip-hop sound, a definite departure from Brandon’s easy folk vocals. When asked if fans were jolted by the new sound, Brandon laughs replying, “I knew people would be a little surprised. If you listen to it two or three times, it’s like, OK, I can see Brandon doing this. I had to think about myself doing it actually. I thought, can I do this? Then the more I thought about it, I was like, yeah, I can do this.” Musing a moment, like he often does during the interview, Brandon adds, “It’s good to take risks.”

Risk seems to be a way of life for Brandon, who has traveled to India with his friend and mentor, Bob Goff of Restore International, and to Uganda with Blood:Water Mission. He is also joining Sara Groves, Derek Webb, Sandra McCracken, and Charlie Peacock this fall for the Art*Music*Justice Tour. Talking about our mutual love of Derek Webb’s music, I ask Brandon why people should check out the tour. He quips, “Besides the fact that Derek Webb’s on it, Sandra McCracken, his wife, is on it, too. That’s the other reason you should go.”

After a moment of banter, Brandon explains why he chose to tour with some of his songwriting heroes this fall. “This tour fits me so perfectly. It’s about issues that really are a burden for me to pray for and to ask other people to think about—human trafficking and figuring out how to handle the problem of human slavery in the world. It should not still exist.”

He passionately continues, “It exists because of corrupt governments, poverty, and greed. How do we figure out how to make it go away? I’m ready to see justice happen and to see people healed. This is my way of contributing to the education and hopefully, the actions of others.”

Before hitting the road in September, Brandon will once again travel with Bob Goff to Uganda. Having already visited, Brandon is eager to return. He will be spending time learning about those who reside in huge Internally Displaced Person (IDP, formerly refugee) camps. “They’re supposed to be temporary, but they’re not,” shares Brandon. “The people are literally living on top of one another.” The trip involves investigating ways the government of Uganda and others can help IDP’s move into villages and sustain a living outside of the camps.

Not only does Brandon want to inspire others with social justice through his travels, but he wants to offer hope through songwriting. While traveling, touring, and leading worship, Brandon keeps writing songs. Besides the new hip-hip groove on “What If We,” the album uses rougher guitar sounds and gruffer vocals, inspired by Brandon’s recent Western movie viewing, which is evidenced by his biographical song, “Wait and See”. To achieve this acoustic, Brandon shares, “Little known fact: all of my vocals were recorded in a bathroom—in the bathroom at my producer’s studio.” It’s this sort of innovation that make Muckala one of Nashville’s most sought-after producers. Really.

Besides dishing on bathroom vocals, Brandon also discusses the benefits of international marriage. “If you marry someone from another country, you get dual citizenship… but that’s probably not a good reason to get married.”

The single 30 year-old musician admits that being unmarried can make his travels lonely at times. “There are days when I’m really content doing what I’m doing because I know I’m in a season where God’s got me on the road. Honestly, if I was married, I would want to be home; I wouldn’t want to be gone.”

Using his more signature sound, Brandon conveys his thoughts about solitude in “When I’m Alone.” Yet there are days when he feels the sting of being a bachelor. “On the other hand, you want to share your life with somebody. The other day I had a guy who’s 25 pat me on the back and say, ‘You’ll understand someday.’ It made my skin crawl.”

Just because he’s not married, doesn’t mean that Brandon isn’t a romantic, at least when it comes to writing songs. What If We features a few love songs, including the heart-wrenching, “London.” Brandon explains, “I wrote it with Chad Cates, but it’s really about his experience in London, missing his fiancée.” Then there’s “Listen Up,” a song in which a man comes to the realization that he didn’t hear his beloved’s heart when she was talking about her troubles. “To me, it’s like we [men] end up talking too much. The truth is, we don’t know what to say so we say dumb things that get us in trouble,” says Brandon, explaining the mystery of why men make insensitive remarks to distraught women.

A huge Jars of Clay fan, Brandon was excited to co-write “Sore Eyes” with the band. “They play all the instruments and background vocals; I’m just doing lead vocals.” The song was written about a sassy girl who seemed to be down all the time. “I don’t think she was really sad, but she thought that kind of demeanor worked for her.”

Slightly darker is “Sunrise,” a song inspired by the movie, No Country For Old Men. Brandon even wanted the lyrics and sound to mimic the movie. “The song is about people who stay awake all night and wonder, ‘How long until I die?’ It’s really about fear and being afraid. Sometimes the dark is the scariest time, but light give us a little hope because we can see the situation for what it is.”

It’s this light that Brandon hopes to shine on social justice, fueled by ministry and music as conduits for change. Not just social change, but personal change—both topics on which he is particularly loquacious. Like all good things, our dialogue came to an end, with Brandon rushing off to do a sound check with his band—at least 10 minutes behind schedule.

Print copy of interview.

Amy’s F.A.Q’s

10 Aug

Due to the overwhelming popularity of my blog (readership going from 5 readers to 25 readers…just kidding), I have decided to take the time to answer your “frequently asked questions”…or rather to make up questions I’m sure you frequent ask yourselves. Whatever. There’s going to be questions and you’re going to get answers, OK?

*Are you some kind of a Christian, or what?

Yes, I am some kind of a Christian. While it has been debated among readers whether I am “cool”, “not like any other Christian I’ve ever met/encountered/read”, or “evil,” I am a Christian. However, I prefer to use the term “Christ-follower” because “Christian” means so many things to so many people. I think Christ-follower shows that I believe that Jesus is my Savior and that I follow God. I affirm the truth of the gospel, the authority of Scripture, the Trinity, and all that other good stuff in the Apostles’ Creed.

*Why can’t you just admit that Fred is dead?

I will never do that. You might as well as cover me in a vat of treacle tart and let the narguls lick it off because I will never admit that Fred Weasley is dead because he’s not. In fact, page 637 in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows doesn’t even exist to me.

*How can yourself a writer and you have typos, spelling mistakes, poor grammar, and so on and so forth?

Have you ever hear of what Emily Dickinson’s work looked like? Admittedly, I really stink at copy editing. Maybe one day we’ll get one of those really good typos and someone can add it to a funny list of “blog typos” (you know, instead of those church bulletin typos…nevermind).

*What’s up with this Derek Webb obsession?

Ever since I heard She Must and Shall Go Free, Derek Webb’s first album, I’ve been a major fan. I couldn’t believe that someone could write such beautiful and creative songs while calling out and respecting the church so well. Derek Webb is the ultimate songwriter and he will forever be my obsession. Unless he turns into a Satanist and starts sacrificing little kids, then I might have to find a new singer/songwriter on which to obsess.

*Who are Sarah, Shari, Julie, Cassie, Mary, Maddy, and Kylie?

I see I need to make a character guide to my life.

Sarah: best friend and roommate and often the other part of “we”.

Shari: friend, owns a samoyed named Savannah. We also hang out with her sister, Sandy.

Julie: friend, lives in the apartment complex and owns a greyhound named Bart.

Cassie: my dog; 9 year-old peekapoo who likes to growl at people.

Madalyne (Maddy): my other dog; 2 year-old shih tzu who loves people

Mary: 22 year-old who graces us with her presence from time to time. We love her. (“We” being Sarah and me…see how Sarah just becomes part of “we:”?)

*Why aren’t there any guys in your cast of characters?

I have no idea. Occasionally guys I interview are added in as extras! I’m sure adding a guy or two to the regular cast would make this blog much more interesting. Any guys who would like to apply for the part of guy friend, boyfriend, or “other male,” shoot an e-mail to amyismyfriend@aim.com.

Well, those are all the questions I have time for today. Join in next time when I answer more questions that you send in or ones I make up to make it look like y’all send me questions.

Review: The Ringing Bell–Derek Webb

20 Feb

Written in May 2007

By Amy Sondova If you think Christian music all sounds the same, you haven’t heard Derek Webb. Combining lyrical genius and masterful music blends, Webb’s fourth solo project, The Ringing Bell, is true art. Stylistically, this album is reminiscent of rock music from the 60’s era. Then again, Webb said he spent a lot of time listening to the Beatles and Bob Dylan (the electric years) when writing this album.

Those deeply embedded in the sordid history of rock music will hear the old school inferences immediately. For example, the opening guitar blend of “Name” seems to take a page from the beginning chords of Credence Clearwater Revival’s peace ballad, “Fortunate Son.” Also, astute listeners will hear the familiar jangle of a tambourine in the background percussion.

Then there’s “I Don’t Want to Fight”, which has lyrics that sound like an early 70’s peace song. Webb doesn’t mince words singing, “I don’t want to fight/ brother I’m not joking about peace/ we can have it here tonight/ it all comes down to you and me.” Plus the descending chorus on this song is amazing. This album isn’t all about well-written lyrics, experimenting with sounds, and superb vocals.

Other songs like “I For An Eye” and “A Love That’s Stronger That Our Fear” follow Webb’s overall theme of peace. However, “I Wanna Marry You All Over Again” is a love song that’s full of fond memories, yet its cool rhythm and underlying humor keep it from becoming mushy. The album’s final song, “This Too Shall Be Made Right”, is the most consistent with the sound Webb developed on his other albums, also offering encouragement to believers living in a fallen world.

The album’s title The Ringing Bell cuts through the silence of the day to tell people it’s time to do something, to announce impending doom, and to invite people to come closer. Absolutely riveting from start to finish, Webb once again provides his listeners with a quality collection of sounds that inspire, contemplate, and call Christians to action. Perhaps the best thing about Webb’s pointed truth is that he often points his finger right back at himself. And in doing so points people back to Jesus.

Print copy of review.

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