Georgia-born singer/songwriter Austin French won the hearts of millions of in 2014 finishing as the runner-up on the ABC TV show Rising Star. After his success on the show, French served as a worship pastor in the drug recovery capital of the world, Delray Beach, FL and later went on to sign with FairTrade Services in 2017. His debut album, Wide Open, was released in 2018 to critical acclaim and featured hit songs like "Freedom Hymn," "Why God," "Good Feeling," and "Born Again." French was honored with a nomination for New Artist of the Year at the 50th Annual GMA Dove Awards, and Austin currently is featured on the massive Winter Jam 2020 Tour. We recently caught up with Austin backstage at the Winter Jam stop in Pittsburgh, where he opened up about life on the road, inspirations for new music and the future of the Church.
First off, we want to say congratulations on the birth of your new baby girl, Baker, who was born on Christmas Eve. How are she and mom doing?
They're doing great! She was actually due the 29th, so my prayer was to spend two weeks home with the baby. And it wasn't going to happen if she came on her due date. My wife had preeclampsia with her first pregnancy, so her blood pressure was out of the world and dangerous. The day before Christmas Eve, she woke up with a headache that day and her blood pressure was going up, so we went and got it checked. When we were there, her blood pressure went back down, but our midwife asked if we just wanted to have her that day, so we did! My heart has just exploded - it's been really sweet.
What has it been like for you juggling Winter Jam and added home responsibilities?
I actually told the tour no at first because the first offer was a January 3rd start date. It seemed like the right choice for me and my family. And then I got a phone call a few days later saying they had moved the tour out a week and were wondering if I could do it now. And so my wife and I prayed about it because I never say yes to a tour or show without talking with her first. Early on in my career, I thought I would get to a point where I was sacrificing my family on the altar of my ministry, and I didn't want to do that. And then I had a conversation that changed my perspective on that where I don't feel bad about coming out on the road anymore, but I know why I'm doing it. I'm not just doing it for Jesus, but my family is making a sacrifice and we are doing it together. She is just a big part of this as I am. So I never say yes to a show unless she says yes to a show with me. And, so coming out on this tour was just that. We knew it was going to be hard with the new baby and also our two little boys. We're officially outnumbered, but she's really outnumbered when I'm away. But I think that was it for us, saying that we are okay with this sacrifice and we had peace about it.
This past year, we have seen you perform at the K-Love Fan Awards weekend as well as the Dove Awards, which had to be big moments for you. What do you think was the biggest milestone of your professional life in 2019?
Those were huge. I started out the year last year on tour with Casting Crowns. It was just incredible - I'm such a huge fan of them. I grew up in Georgia, and they are from Georgia, so I just went to every show I could as a kid. That tour was just surreal - it was my first tour with arenas. So I started off the year pretty strong with that. Then I'm writing for my next record, which is a highlight. And the Dove Awards, I never expected to be nominated for anything, so that was a really cool moment. And then getting pregnant - it's just been a great year! Last year was the busiest year, but probably one of the coolest of my career.
So you mentioned new music. Can you share anything about the inspiration behind the new songs you're working on?
I always write about what I'm living through. So my first record was all about where I was in ministry and who I was ministering to. All of the songs are either stories from me or where I was positioned. So you hear my life when you listen to that record. And this second one will be the same. I'm writing a song right now about sleep because we aren't getting any. This new record is a new season in our life and a lot has happened. In that first record, we were just in the process of adopting our first [child] and having our first baby. And now we have three kids and touring a lot more and hearing more stories on the road.
This is your first time performing on the Winter Jam Tour, but have you attended the tour in prior years?
I was in 8th grade and Winter Jam was in Greenville, SC. That day was the day I turned to my Mom and told her I wanted to be a Christian artist someday. That was the first Winter Jam I went to, and I haven't missed one since. I've stood in lines outside in the cold and rushed in to get the floor seats. It's been a wild journey to be on the tour this year. I just honestly can't believe I'm here to be on stage with such a lineup of people that I've looked up to for a long time. I've been on the receiving end of my life being changed by Winter Jam, and so to know that I get to be some small part of some kid's life being changed is just cool. So I think about that every time I'm side stage and about to come on.
Here we are in Pittsburgh for the second week of this year’s Winter Jam Tour. What was the kickoff weekend experience like?
It was crazy! This is the most intensive tour. It's funny because my set is only 12 minutes, but my days have been insane. We flew in for the first show in Jacksonville, and landed around midnight. There was so much adrenaline, so we went ahead and set up everything that night. I think I went to sleep around 2:30AM. Then, I woke up at 9AM and hit the ground running and never stopped. So first weekend, every day looked like that. And I will die if I do that every day. So today has been a good day of rest and finding spots to just breathe. So I'm fighting for those moments more. Every tour is work, and this one is such a massive scale that it has more responsibility on our end. I'm loving it and learning a lot.
What is your favorite song to perform live right now?
So I started playing guitar because of John Mayer. And so I have a moment in my set, a song called "Born Again," where I have a guitar solo. It's my John Mayer moment, which I just love. I feel like he would be proud. So that's probably my favorite to do right now.
Outside of your set, what has been your standout or favorite moment of the night from Winter Jam 2020 so far?
It's always a standout moment when NewSong sings "Arise, My Love". Well, one of the singers has strep throat; he's still singing, but that song is really high. So last night he asked me to sing on "Arise, My Love" and I about lost my marbles. And spoiler, I get to do it tonight as well, so I'm quite excited.
Of the other artists on this year’s tour, who would you most like to collaborate with?
Well I've already collaborated with Zauntee. He's great. He's on a version of "Born Again" with me. And I love Crowder. He is so talented. Andy Mineo is awesome as well; it's hard to pick because they all mean a lot to me in different ways. I think a cool collaboration would be with Louie Giglio. I've always wanted to do a song with a snippet of a sermon into it. So I think that would probably be the most unconventional collaboration. I have a song, that I can't tell you what it is, but it will probably be a single that comes off my next record. And it was actually inspired by one of Louie's messages from Passion Conference that I heard in 2012. And it's stayed with me forever, and I finally wrote a song about it. And then the first night of Winter Jam , he preaches that same sermon, which he hasn't preached since 2012.
As you were planning for your set, what message or feeling were you hoping that people leave with tonight after Winter Jam?
The Winter Jam sets that have stayed with me are the ones that balance entertainment and ministry. There are some that value entertainment more and others that value ministry more. So my goal is to marry the two, but have the ministry be just a little bit more than the music. For me those are the moments that stay with me, so the moments in between the songs are just as important as the songs. So when I was putting together a set, I wanted people to walk away with honesty. I think a lot of times it's easy to be distracted by the cool videos and everything. There are a couple moments in my set where I just get really vulnerable and real. I have a song called "Why God" where I tell a little bit of the story of that and how your life should live if you are in a posture of God being your Father instead of this unrealistic Father. It's not performing perfection but actually needing the perfection that comes from Christ. So understanding that it has a place in every Christian's walk is important. So I want people to see it's okay to not be okay, and when you are admitting that you need God, that's not being a failure. That's finding freedom, and that's the story that I'm trying to paint in my set.
In a world where many in society are saying that Millennials and Gen Z are turning away from faith, what is your impression about the future of the Church?
I was one of the youth that got jaded by church. I grew up in church, my family was in ministry, my Dad was a worship pastor. And I was taught Sunday mornings to be on your A-game, and then you get to the car and the masks would come off. My Dad was super abusive, so I just hated Christians. I didn't want to be one for a long time. And then in 8th grade, my parents split up and the church that we were going to kicked us out because my Dad was on staff and it was embarrassing for us to stick around after the family broke apart. So I've been on the receiving end of just saying that church is overrated. And it wasn't until a guy got onto stage at a music camp I went to that changed me. He said "don't judge Jesus by the broken people He came to save. Because broken people hurt broken people, but Jesus wants broken people." I realized my Dad was broken, the church that kicked us out was broken, that I was broken. We all needed Jesus. So I think the reason so many people are walking away from faith is because it's not real. We want to highlight the perfection of finding faith but we don't want to highlight the struggle of following our faith. And the struggle is just as important as the victories. Following Jesus isn't easy, but it's worth it. And I think it's important to show people it isn't easy because that's the thing that people can relate to. Life's not easy. And everybody gets that. But if we paint the picture that it is easy, then we aren't going to reach anybody. It just feels so unattainable. So we need to show people that we are real people following a real God. His mercies are new for us, His grace is sufficient for us, and His love is what keeps us going. And when we paint a real picture of Jesus, it's not about being attractable, but being real. Jesus hung out with a lot of sinners and was relatable, and that's what it means to be the face and hands and feet of Jesus to the youth of today.