With an iconic career spanning more than 30 years, NewSong’s accolades include 20 albums, 20 #1 Christian radio singles, a #1 mainstream AC hit, a GRAMMY Award nomination and induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, among numerous other achievements. One of the most beloved bands in Christian music, NewSong’s discography includes such defining songs as "Arise, My Love," “Rescue“ and “The Same God.” Their latest single, "Down," continues to climb Billboard charts. You can currently see Newsong on Winter Jam’s 46-city Eastern U.S. tour. We caught up with Eddie Carswell, Matt Butler and Russ Lee at the Pittsburgh stop where we had the pleasure of talking with them about heart of Winter Jam, plans to release new music and the current state of Contemporary Christian Music as an industry.
Since we last talked with you here in Pittsburgh two years ago, a lot has happened. The ‘This Is Winter Jam’ movie was released, you put out another Christmas album and now are releasing new music yet again. First, looking back at the Winter Jam movie release, how significant was that project to the Winter Jam mission and overall development?
Eddie: It was big, and it was good for us. We had started this 23 years ago, so it was at about the 20 year anniversary of artists and cities. This started with one city and now it’s 57 cities, so a lot of crazy things have happened. And a lot of the artists on that particular tour are some of our very best friends that we’ve done more with than others, so it was fun.
A few weeks ago, audio was released of an emotional phone call from a mother describing Winter Jam as a “life-changing” event for her 13-year-old son saying he is now “fired up for the Lord.” What is your reaction when hearing about the tremendous impact of nights like this?
Russ: That’s everything to us. It makes it all worthwhile. When NewSong first started, their desire was ministry. They just knew God was calling them to do something that would bear fruit that remains, so anytime we get those stories, it’s meaningful. This year is different than past years because we’ve been getting those types of stories early on. There was one girl who was so depressed that she wanted to do one last good thing before she ended it all. At WinterJam she heard about a lady with two little kids that had written a suicide note, but then had gotten a call from a radio station for winning tickets to WinterJam. So she came, and our tour pastor, who is a counselor, just loved on her that night. He gave her a bunch of free stuff and put her down front. He prayed for her and talked with her and her two adorable little boys. She just felt she didn’t have any hope, but she hugged Pastor Bobby’s neck and said that this had saved her life. So we just mentioned that story somewhere, and a young lady sent us a note saying that she also was that person. So we’ve been getting those stories and sometimes looking back we think of this as an exhausting experience, but this year has been amazing because we’ve already been hearing about how it impacts people’s lives. And that’s what makes WinterJam different. The star of WinterJam is the Lord, Jesus Christ. So to see Him glorified, and to see that relate in people’s lives and transform is what matters about what we do.
I imagine that the dynamic backstage among the artists differs a little every year. How has the backstage vibe been so far with this group?
Matt: Every year, it doesn’t take long for it to feel like family. On Sundays, we do Jam Church, and it’s really no competition – everyone just worships together. We have a ping-pong table out, and it really becomes community and family pretty quick. It’s different bands every year, but Skillet was out with us 5 or 6 years ago, so they also come back.
Here we are in Pittsburgh, about to wrap up the second month of the Winter Jam 2018 Tour. Do you have a moment of the night that is most special for you this year?
Russ: Part of it is seeing people react. Like we’ve heard John Christ a lot because he’s funny and we like to go out there and encourage him and laugh. But every night, it’s exciting and fun to see the audience respond. I may have heard Skillet sing “Monster” a thousand times, but I’ve only seen this audience respond to it once, so that really encourages us.
Matt: When John [Cooper of Skillet] comes out of the ceiling, it’s always great to see everyone try to figure out where he is. And why he’s doing that.
Eddie: He’s afraid of heights, so the first few nights that he came down he looked a little like a hostage.
Russ: It’s funny because a lot of people want to know how that relates to the Bible, and it’s a lot because the Bible says ‘fear not, for I am with thee’. But anyway, it’s fun and a good time, and it’s different every night for us because the audience is different. And they are such a huge part of what we do, and we want to connect with them and see them respond to what we are doing.
One change this year was the ticket price, going up from $10 to $15/person. Can you talk about balancing affordability for families with practical costs of producing a tour of this magnitude?
Eddie: Well the whole thought started with what would happen if we had a Christian concert where everyone could afford to come. Twenty-three years ago, we would hear from families of 5 or 6 or whatever it was, that they couldn’t afford to see us and other bands live in concert. So we rented the Greenville, SC Memorial Auditorium which seats 6,500 – huge back then for this type of concert. So we decided to charge $3 that first year. The promoter thought it would be fun, but wasn’t expecting too much. And we packed in the 6,500 and turned away approximately 2,000, which was crazy. We got brave the next year and did two shows, and the same thing happened. After about 2 years, we changed it to $5 because it was hard to make change for $3 for 6,500 people. So we did $5 for a few years, and then we went to $10 about 15 years ago. The last few years we’ve been noticing the expenses going up and up and up on everything – the gear we use, busses and trucks, and 150 people, and the buildings. So we finally decided we had to make the change this year and haven’t heard any negative feedback so far. As we’ve explained to the youth pastors every night, it’s always been a suggested donation at the door. It’s not ‘tickets are...’, it’s ‘donation is...’. So if you can’t pay $15, pay $10 or $5 or whatever you can when you’re being honest in your heart. We don’t want anyone excluded because of the price – so that’s the heart of it.
Year after year, Winter Jam brings up and coming artists into the spotlight. Talk to us a little about why that mission of making a path for new talent is so important?
Matt: I think the track record proves itself. For KING & COUNTRY was the very first lights-up band six years ago, and then the next time they came they headlined the tour. Others are Francesca Battistelli, We Are Messengers, and Sidewalk Prophets. So I think it’s important on many levels because we get to see new artists and mentor them, give them some advice, and beat them at ping pong. [Laughs.]
Russ: Plus it gives them a great platform to play for an audience. For them it’s a huge deal, and for us it’s encouraging to see artists like Dan Bremnes and other folks who are so talented. And you know that you can give them that moment and they will carry it well, so it’s exciting to see the new bands come along. It also gives us an opportunity to hear things that are different musically. They do things different than NewSong or Skillet or Building 429.
Eddie: If they made it this far and are on this stage, then someone believes in them and there is a reason they are here. They wouldn’t be here just because. There is a reason for all of them. And they might turn out to be your favorite artist of the night.
Russ: I remember the first time Matthew West came out, and I think he crammed in 8 songs in 8 minutes. I think he played the whole album in 8 minutes. It was real good, but how he did it, I don’t know. We are still talking about it, so there you go.
Newsong also kicked off the new year with new music. Your latest single “Down” is now available. Can you walk us through the inspiration behind and development of this song?
Russ: Well we are all a testament to this. We were talking in the studio one day, and Eddie was talking about how God and His faithfulness is amazing in spite of us. We’ve heard before how NewSong came up with an amazing idea for WinterJam, and Eddie will immediately say that this was God’s idea because we aren’t smart enough to pull this off. Even when we mess up, are human, and struggle, God is faithful and consistent. So we wanted to remind people that the world may go crazy, but God is not confused or overwhelmed or worried about anything.
Anytime a new single is released, many wonder if a new album is in the works? If so, where are you in terms of development?
Eddie: Well we have a seven song EP that we’ve been leaking a track at a time via social media. “I Am A Christian” is the first one I think on the EP. A version of “Arise” and then five new songs I think it is. One of the ones we are still recording.
Russ: “Arise My Love” is one of those ones that continues to morph. Lately, we are thinking that we have a great band, so why not start with a great band intro to spruce it up and freshen it up a bit. And we realized we hadn’t recorded it like that with the live element, so even though it’s “Arise My Love”, which has almost become the theme song for WinterJam, it’s different with us pushing it a little bit more. And with these new songs, you bring in different writers that you love, and guys that are so talented, they bring a different element in. You end up with something fun and exciting that still sounds like us, but it’s new. So I’m having a hard time not liking what we are doing!
This past December, Newsong accomplished another first, making a Grand Ole Opry debut. What was that experience like?
Eddie: It was fun! It was leading into Christmas. They asked us to come do it, and that’s when it worked out for us, so we were excited. Immediately, I thought we had to sing “Christmas Shoes” to kick off Christmas. When we shared what we were doing, Francesca offered to have her son come out and sing “Christmas Shoes”, and she would come and sing our other song with us, which happened to be a duet. So we had about 20 people down there, so it was like a party.
Russ: But here’s the funny thing, we thought they were having us because of “Christmas Shoes” and Christmas. So we were real excited and practiced, and then we were the only Christmas act to happen that night. Everyone loved it, but it turned out that they had liked us better than we thought because they had wanted us to come to have us, not because of Christmas. It was a super special night. And there were a lot of legends in music and just to play that place is extraordinary – just like Brooklyn Tabernacle or Moody Church in Chicago. There’s just so much great Christian music history there, which is where the roots started. We’ve played the building before but not for the Grand Ole Opry, so they treated us very nice.
Finally, what is your impression of the current status of Christian music as an industry?
Russ: If it’s changing, then it’s alive is what I think. There are so many great young artists that before wouldn’t have had their chance. When we first started there were basically three gatekeepers in Christian music. And if you were going to have any opportunity for people to hear you, one of them had to take an interest in what you were doing. And now, Jamie Grace, Hollyn, and so many others are proof that if you have a song and a computer or a channel to present it, you will have an audience. It’s a great time for creativity in general. And back when we started years ago, there was a song from The Imperials with the lyric, “as long as there’s time, and one breath left in me, there will always be one more song for you”. Worship has to happen – God’s character demands it. So Christian music isn’t going anywhere. The first songs were Christian and God glorifying, and the last ones will be as well. In between, we are just trying to do our part and live our calling.
Check back later this week for sit downs with John Cooper of Skillet, Kari Jobe, Cody Carnes, Jordan Feliz and Dan Bremnes. Also, be sure to read our feature 'God Continues To Work Miracles Through Winter Jam' featuring Pastor Bobby Joyner.