Last fall Matthew Clark and I connected around someone we both hold in admiration and gratitude – Malcolm Guite. In commenting on an interview I had done earlier with Malcolm, Matthew told me he was working on a new album. Without any reservation I offered to review it. Little did I realize then how much I would be blessed by getting to know Matthew more or how much I would appreciate the labour of love represented in the effort to create the album – Bright Came the Word from His Mouth. I appreciate the musical skill in every form on this beautiful, tale-telling album but I am captivated most by the the lyrics themselves. All of them remind me in some way of the Psalms – pregnant with meaning, life-filled, carefully and purposefully crafted. From stem to stern, this album demonstrates all the fine skills of production, musicianship, artistry, and it bears the stamp of good collaboration breathing life and boldness into the work. This is fine story-telling in music and it is important. Matthew set out to “create a cohesive telling of the epic journey of God and his children from the Eden of Genesis, through the long and broken journey of humanity to Christ, all the way to the final restoration of God’s original intent – God’s people, in God’s place, flourishing in unbroken access to God’s Presence.” His work here honours that original intention and gives glory to the creative process as well as the God who created it.
When I offered to review the album I didn’t necessarily expect to find music I would play over and over (which I have and will continue to do) or expect to find someone who speaks of all the things I so fiercely love. Yet indeed that is just what I found. Matthew Clark is certainly one of our tribe – lover of words and music and the worlds made by them in service of the Maker who made us. So go get a big cup of tea, pull up a chair, put your feet up and be wooed by this tale. You are a part of it.
LES: Matthew, I understand that this is a storytelling album start to finish and is based on Sandra Richter’s book – The Epic of Eden. Tell us a little about how this album came into being? What prompted you to tackle a story of such epic proportions as reflected in Bright Came the Words from His Mouth? How did you know Sandra and then link your projects?
MC: It began with an entirely different album idea. I had written a series of devotion songs based on liturgies. I decided I wanted some advice and accountability from a few people I considered ‘mentors unawares’. I sent the songs out last Spring and Sandra replied with an invitation to tea at her home. So I spent the afternoon with her, she even made bread! She was incredibly hospitable and so human. After playing a couple of songs for her from the devotion album, she asked if I might be interested in a project she was working on with Asbury Seminary’s Resource Division called Seedbed. They’re producing a DVD curriculum based on Dr. Richter’s The Epic of Eden. After a few follow-up emails, and a phone call with JD Walt at Asbury Seedbed they asked for twelve new songs to accompany the twelve teaching sessions. I had loved her book for several years and was amazed to have the opportunity to ‘translate’ it into a series of songs. Honestly though, I was pretty intimidated by the project!
LES: The title is has a distinct echo in it to the poetic phrasing of the Old Testament, especially the Psalms and Prophets. But this title is not a “title track” so how did you choose this title?
MC: The title was the last piece in the process. Much of the idea of the album has to do with the ‘inner consistency’ of the Scriptures – that though they consist of a great diversity of characters, cultures, time periods, and literary genres, it all coheres and bears witness to one redemptive narrative. One place this is beautifully illustrated is in the relationship between the opening chapters of Genesis and the opening chapter of John’s Gospel. I’m a Tolkien and Lewis fan (and learning more about Owen Barfield) and I read Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World a few years ago. In that book (and Malcolm Guite points this out as well in his Inklings Podcast) she tells of Tolkien’s philological connection between the ancient words for to shine and to speak as having the same root. Essentially, God’s genesis activity, light-making, speaking, and creation is mirrored in John 1 as the Word becomes flesh to dwell among us. Jesus is the Word shining in the darkness. So Bright Came the Word from His Mouth for me is a phrase embodying, in the midst of a fallen creation, God’s re-creative promise of a coming Redeemer. That work of creation and re-creating through Christ spans the whole arc of Scripture. It also occurs to me (like Chesterton says on the last page of Orthodoxy) that that brightness is the hidden joy of God, the light and levity of God’s own laughter as he makes all things new.
LES: Your lyrics are tightly polished mini-canvases of this larger tale. Tell us about your process for writing the lyrics to this enormous story, a story made up of smaller tales. How do you take such vast material and create stepping stones in the midst of that telling for your listeners to find their own footing in it?
MC: Sandra presents the framework of the Story so beautifully in her book so I must thank her for her work. Chesterton said the essence of any piece of art is its frame, so I knew I couldn’t say everything. Sandra’s book helped me narrow themes. She repeats the phrase God’s people in God’s place with full access to God’s presence. That phrase was central and then of course how everything finds its fulfillment in Jesus. The second to last song Kingdom Come summarizes how Jesus is the real lifeblood of all those stories – he is the second Adam, the greater Noah and so on. Also, I tried to use musical cues to audibly embody and shepherd a listener through the narrative – repeating musical themes, certain lyrics showing up again in different places, and a general agreement between the music of a song and its meaning (form and content). For instance Oh Eden carries a great ache in the music, Everlasting Shepherd should sound old and tired but reverently regal. There are also little intercessory and participatory points: you can sing bring them home with Abraham and with God the Father. Other than that I just wrote like crazy and hoped somehow the scales would tip more toward meaningful cosmos than chaos!
LES: Matthew, my favourite piece on this album is Let go the Floodgates. That particular song has a very different sound than the rest of this set. Why did you choose this musical approach to this piece? Do you have a favourite on this album that you especially loved writing and recording?
MC: I grew up in Mississippi and my mom sang lots of old folk tunes when I was a kid. I wanted there to be a sort of murder ballad feel somewhere on the album and the Flood seemed to fit. It’s really an absolutely terrifying story. Drowning is terrifying, but so is the cross and we get a look into how the Lord will bring new life ‘up through death’. The chaos of the deeps is unleashed and the world is unmade. After mankind’s rebellion, this is the first time God reengages with this world and begins his plan to save it. In the recording, you can hear a sort of muffled underwater groaning in the background. It’s also great fun to play this one. There’s anger, horror, regret, and a pulsing drive to march through it all to bring a re-creation to the broken world. I hope that comes through musically as well as lyrically.
I do love the song Redemption especially. That’s one I re-wrote several times both music and lyrics. It’s really an etymology song. The whole point is to define the word redemption through actual personal stories. So Lot’s rescue, Ruth, Hosea and Gomer’s marriage – these people and their lives help us understand what Jesus is doing for us.
To listen to a sample set from Bright Came the Word from His Mouth, click here.
LES: The artwork on this album is absolutely gorgeous! How did you come to get Eugene Frost involved in this project?
MC: My brother is a sculptor and potter and many of my friends are creating great art under the radar so I wanted find someone to personally craft the visual aspect of the album. I spent a couple of days scouring Etsy.com for illustrators, collage artists, and so on. I bookmarked my favorites and among those my top pick was Eugene Frost. I absolutely loved every single image on his page. I knew nothing about him, but I emailed and asked him to create seven illustrations. His profile said he was from St. Petersburg and I assumed he was in Florida, but I soon found out he is a young Russian fellow! He was wonderful to work with – very humble, generous and immensely gifted. He has an ability to capture the true mythic quality with wildly imaginative imagery. I also admire his talent for visually communicating complex realities neither too vaguely nor to obviously. I can tell what the images are while still there is so much room to explore and discover as they interact with the Story, characters and the songs. I think too, the fact that he comes from that part of the world, his ‘sphere of imagination’ is very different from mine. That diversity and beauty tied everything together wonderfully for me.
LES: I love your Mission “statement” which reminds me much more of good storytelling than the traditional “statement”. This part of it so deeply describes our own plight today as creative ones belonging to God – “They set their faces like flint toward Jerusalem, and remembering their voices they sang of the Great King. They sang of his mighty acts of salvation in the past. On and on they sang of his mercy, his right hand of rescue, and the triumph of his purpose that would certainly take place. The fire of that song took and dry tongues were kindled enough to spread the warmth of hope and the call to faith-keeping. Even in a land of exile. Even in a land so unlike the home they longed for.” How does storytelling figure into your work as a musician and your identity as a Jesus follower?
MC: I taught a bible walk-through to a youth group once and I asked them to write their names on a piece of paper as I began. Later on, when I got close to Revelation I asked them to insert the piece of paper with their name on it into the Bible. I wanted them to see that we inhabit those pages. We are alive within the ongoing tale. We must read into our heritage and listen for the promises of our inheritance and participate in the living Presence of the Kingdom of Jesus. Rich Mullins once replied to a young songwriter who wanted to know how to succeed as a Christian musician. Rich just told him to memorize Psalm 137. That has stuck with me. My life doesn’t make much sense to me most of the time. I feel dislocated, confused, aimless and hurt. The Gospel makes sense of all that, gives me a context, a past and a future, a home, And not just an abstract home, or even a temporary physical home – I find a home in a living face. The Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, that’s all that matters. My whole life is to faithfully inhabit a sort of constant collapse into the gaze and embrace of Jesus. I’ve got to pry my tongue from the top of my mouth sometimes to sing that story. It’s tune is the joy set before us, hard as it is to carry.
LES: Every project we work on becomes a part of our on-going education both professionally and spiritually. What did you feel you learned from this project?
MC: I learned more about collaboration. In the past, I’ve tried to do too much on my own. I felt God challenging me to let go of more of the process. So I got more friends involved in giving honest feedback, took it to Nashville to a producer, hired folks to play instruments. I loved being closely involved in the process, but I also tried backing off a little and trusting other people more. In the end, that has made it so much more fun to listen to for me! If my ideas are the only ideas in there, then I get really bored because nothing surprises or delights me. Real delight comes from forgetting about yourself and celebrating someone else. I don’t get depressed when I watch Phil Keaggy play guitar far better than I ever will. No, I can’t get the smile off my face (or the drool).
LES: What do you hope to see accomplished with this work and the album release? How would you like to see others become involved?
MC: I hope that the songs can be a sung remembrance – a kind of participation in abiding in the context that God has provided for us as his Beloved. That it can help in the work of orientation toward our true citizenry. God has worked patiently for a long time to pull off the biggest and most beautifully costly rescue plan. I hope the telling of the story in song can bear good fruit. I’d love for others to learn the songs, sing them. Opportunities to share these songs in person are very important to me. I love to meet face to face, tell these stories, and make contact with the songs. I’d invite anyone to contact me about making a trip to sing for them – email@example.com.
LES: Matthew, one more question! What is the story behind your use of the poetry by George Herbert? He is a rare – but splendid – poet to be referencing but it surprises me to see you using this piece. You use this stanza “Come away, Help our decay. Man is out of order hurled, Parcelled out to all the world. Lord, thy broken consort raise, and the music shall be praise.”
MC: I have to blame Malcolm Guite. In 2009, I attended the Duke Summer Institute and took Malcolm’s track on Imagination and Reconciliation. He introduced us to Herbert’s work. I got home and bought a collection. Those lines come from a poem called Doomsday which is crying out for God to set this broken, disordered world aright. That is the sweet-ache we carry. I am amazed when a poet can speak so potently. Those few lines are a summary of the whole album and a prayer for God to come answer our songs of faith and waiting. I’m much more long-winded you can see and only just beginning to look into poetry. I’ll publicly invite Malcolm to comment more on this poem!
For a another good interview with Matthew Clark about this project, click here.
The images here of Matthew Clark are courtesy of Matthew Clark and copyright of Laura Zumwalt – www.lovelyunion.com.
Many thanks to Matthew for his good work for the Kingdom and this beautiful labour of love!
And many blessings to you, friend!
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 30 years. She & her husband Peter have parented 7 children, & have a flock of beloved grandchildren. Lancia loves garden and website design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, & cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.