GRAMMY-nominated, Dove Award-winning Newsboys United bassist and Zealand frontman Phil Joel recently added author to his diverse credits with the April 16 release of Redwoods and Whales: Becoming Who You Actually Are. Published by Thomas Nelson’s Emanate Books, a division of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Redwoods and Whales is a collection of Joel’s own epiphanies of God's greatness and transforming power told through personal stories and truths learned from his life and musical journey. Addressing such timely topics as depression, addiction and suicide, Joel encourages readers that breakthrough is possible when we align our hearts and minds with God’s Truth. Recently, Phil talked with us about the journey of writing Redwoods and Whales with an emphasis on his inspirations, writing process and message for readers.
Congratulations on the recent release of your debut book, Redwoods and Whales! Is writing a book something that was always on your mind as something you were interested in?
I really enjoy reading but never thought writing a book would be something I’d do. It’s not something I had on my bucket list or anything, it just kinda happened. That might sound rather casual but it’s true.
At what point did you feel the first nudge that you were to author these words for publication?
I began writing after I experienced a profound series of events a few years back. I was walking late one night on a remote beach in Northern California when I came across a beached whale. It had died. It was a tragic scene that, to me, went beyond the obvious. This was a young grey whale that had lost its way somehow and became distracted and disoriented and ended up stranded on the beach, breathing shallowly and dying slowly. I felt like I was being shown a powerful metaphor of how so many people are experiencing life and it saddened me to my core. The very next day I found myself driving along a road surrounded by massive redwoods that were healthy and tall with their roots running deep, drinking from the river that ran beside the road. This scene was beautiful and correct. It was the perfect Biblical image of how we are meant to live. It was just like Psalm 1 or Jeremiah 17 where we read about God’s vision for our lives being like trees planted by a river, living healthily and bearing fruit.
Redwoods and Whales covers a variety of topics, such as depression, addiction, and suicide. Was there a selection of the book harder to write than others?
I think the chapter titled “A Letter To Alex” was probably the toughest. It was definitely the most emotional. In that chapter I talk about Alex, a kid from my youth group growing up who took his own life. Our youth pastor gave us an assignment to write letters of encouragement to each other like Paul did for Timothy in the Bible. I drew Alex’s name and address out of the box that was handed around. I didn’t write that letter and later that same week he died. In the book, I finally wrote the letter and I cried the whole time. It was tough.
What is the one message that you hope readers take from Redwoods and Whales?
I want people to see and understand the true character of God as lived out and displayed by Jesus. When people were around Jesus they felt seen, understood and valued. People were healed and validated as valuable and loved. That was Jesus revealing the true character of God 2000 years ago and He’s the same God who is just as real and accessible today as He was back then. If your idea of God looks different from Jesus, then you’re not getting to enjoy Him as He truly is. It’ll keep you from living life as you truly are—seen, understood and loved by God.
How did you work through the writing and revision process? In what ways was it different from writing music?
I think we all prefer to receive good information via a good conversation, right? For me that’s what a great song will do, it’ll make you feel like you’re the one being sung to and it’ll make it feel personal. Likewise, with the book, I wanted the reader to really own the information, so it needed to feel conversational and personal. Writing songs for so long helped me with that because songwriting has taught me to be concise and entertaining, but at the same time clear and honest. That’s the same approach I took in writing the book.
While writing, was there another author or inspiration that you kept coming back to?
I really enjoy Erwin McManus’s style of writing, and if you’ve ever read any of his work, you know that he’s a master at balancing personal story with the point he’s making without it feeling self-indulgent or all about his personal experience. After all, the whole point of valid writing is that it’s all about the reader and their experience with the content—how it stirs them and spurs them on. The author and their own stories are simply supposed to be used carefully like a good tour guide will use parts of his own story to bring about a greater understanding and connection to the land. All that to say there were a number of times when I’d put on my “WWED” (What Would Erwin Do?) bracelet to help finesse and balance stories and content. Thanks, Erwin.
Now that Redwoods and Whales is released, are you beginning to think of additional messages you feel compelled to share?
Hang on a minute, don’t rush me, this one only just came out! Although it’s funny you should ask because I actually do have another book brewing and I’ve already started on it. I think the messages will probably coincide with the next Zealand album, which we plan to record soon. At the moment I’m just really excited to get 'Redwoods & Whales' into people’s hands. Thanks for chatting with me about it.