David—a Top 20 “American Idol” finalist from Season 5—and Licia Radford are The Gray Havens. Since the release of their 2013 debut EP, Where Eyes Don’t Go, and last year’s full-length Fire and Stone, the duo has established a loyal following, known for their unique blend of narrative folk/pop encompassing fantasy story, lyric poetry and theology. The critically acclaimed Artist Garden Entertainment husband/wife duo released their highly anticipated full-length sophomore set, Ghost of a King, earlier this year. Exploring the overarching theme of longing, Ghost of a King was produced by Ben Shive (Colony House, Rend Collective), with "At Last, The King" produced by singer/songwriter Ryan Corn. Featuring 10 of the couple’s most personal and prolific songs to date, the project is currently available on iTunes. David recently talked with us about the process of writing and recording a new album and his biggest musical influences.
What is the meaning behind your name, The Gray Havens?
Good question! Before we released our first album, Licia and I would often discuss what we might call ourselves as a band. These conversations ranged from brainstorming sessions over a casual dinner to the more drastic we-need-to-sit-down-and-decide-tonight sessions. Try as we might, nothing stuck. That is, until I stumbled across the phrase "Subjects and Heralds" in a book one day. I tested it out on Licia to get a reaction. After thinking on it for a few days, we both decided the name was a "go." This was, however, short lived. The trouble was, sadly, that we kept forgetting our own band name! When people asked us what we were called, we both had trouble recalling the name without significant effort. Not a good sign for your band name. Obviously, we ditched the name and kept thinking. Desperate, we ended up reaching out to our group of Kickstarter backers with a cry for suggestions and one, among many, that came back was "The Gray Havens." It is inspired by the last chapter of The Lord of the Rings Triology. "The Grey Havens" is a harbor in Tolkien's Middle Earth where certain characters set sail for the "undying lands." A lot of our songs had themes of eternity at the time, and we had a song called "Gray Flowers," so we went with it!
Congratulations on your recent release of Ghost of a King! Tell us more about the idea behind the title, the song, and the project as a whole.
Thanks! The title track came from a randomly recorded voice memo of me playing guitar and singing some gibberish that began with, "Met a ghost, met a king." That was two or three years ago. It wasn't until I was trying to write for this new album that I found the recording and began working out the lyrics, which became sort of a personal, but universal, testimony of someone's journey, lead by the Holy Ghost, to faith in Christ. In retrospect, I think a fitting verse for this song and some others on the record would be John 7:37-38, where Jesus cried out "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.' "
How is Ghost of a King different from your previous releases?
First, I would say the "hand in glove" relationship we developed with our producer, Ben Shive, was huge. Ben's enthusiastic-and-efficient-but-not-rushed approach to making records created a lot of space for collaboration and spontaneity. We walked into the studio with six songs, but ended up co-writing and recording an additional three. I would also say that the songwriting took place on a much more condensed timeline before heading into the studio. This was different from past records, where we've recorded songs that had been written over a period of years. This time around, everything was written more or less over the span of a few months instead, which made for a more cohesive and current representation of our writing.
If there is one take away message you hope people grasp after listening to the album, what would it be?
I don't think there is any one thing I can pin down. Our main hope in writing and performing music is to awaken wonder and joy for the Lord and His glory through song. We're looking for this to happen first in ourselves and then, hopefully, in our listeners. Another big hope for the record is that those believers who do listen would become genuinely excited enough about the music to share it with their friends, whether they be believers or not.
How has writing for Ghost of a King challenged you spiritually?
I heard someone say you don't really know what you think about something until you've written about it. I think there is some truth to this. For each song, I'm spending a good 10 to 40 hours living inside the words, ideas, and phrases that eventually take their shape inside the song. All that to say, my own thoughts and convictions are constantly being reshaped and refined as I write them out. An easy example would be the song "Take This Slowly." The lyrics talk about trusting in the provision of grace that God promises we will have for whatever the task or trial may be. I remember writing this inside my car on tour during a time where sleep and energy were scarce commodities. We were trying to be good parents to our then 4-month-old with a crazy tour schedule, finish the songs for the new record in the cracks of time that were allowed, promote a Kickstarter campaign, and arrange to move to Nashville. I just kept thinking "I don't know how all of this is going to happen, but it's got to." And it did, and it continually does by grace, and it helps to sing about it every night that we play.
Which song off of Ghost of a King is each of your favorites?
Hmmm... My favorite recording on the album is "Shadows of the Dawn" (Licia's is "Ghost of a King"), my favorite moment on the album is the final chorus of "This My Soul," and my favorite song to play live is "Take This Slowly" (Licia's too).
You describe your music as being "narrative-pop-folk." Tell us more about your style and how you crafted it.
By "narrative-pop-folk," we are attempting to convey the use of imagery and metaphor in story form set to a "pop-folk" vibe. I was never really taught how to write a song. I didn't really know what I was doing, and still don't in many ways. Over time, my lyrics became an attempt to convey ideas in a way that seemed easiest to me, in story and metaphor. That said, I'm not sure I would use "narrative-pop-folk" as much to describe this new record. It certainly has narrative elements, especially during the title track and in "This My Soul." But much more than our past records, the lyrics feel more like a journal entry instead of a narrative, and the soundscape is more broad than simply pop-folk, especially on songs like "Diamonds and Gold" and "Go." I'm not trying to give you the espresso-drinking, abstract philosophy reading stickler who denies all categories and definitions! He's lame. I certainly think descriptor words can be helpful. I'm just not sure what the most helpful ones are at this point.
Who are some of your biggest musical inspirations?
Love this question! I just stood in a wedding where some of my closest friends were trying to describe me to a fellow groomsman who didn't know me. One "definition" they used for me (You see, no espresso in my hand!) was "all or nothing." I think that's the way I am with music. If I list an artist, it's because I have worn out their records from listening to them so much that part of their musical DNA has become part of mine. That said, I've gone through major phases of Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Michael Buble, Jamie Cullum, Muse, Sufjan Stevens, The Head and the Heart, musical theatre soundtracks (“Wicked" for sure), Goat Rodeo, Florence and the Machine, choral music of all stripes (Eric Whitacre was most fun to sing), Queen, Coldplay, Fleet Foxes, Mumford and Sons, Phil Wickham, Josh Garrels, and Andrew Peterson.