Soon after being a contestant in the fifth season of American Idol, Dave Radford went to college to study vocal performance and music education. He struggled walking consistently with the Lord, but he quickly came in contact with a serious community of Christians through Cru and got plugged into a gospel-preaching church.
“It was during this time that I truly began to understand what it meant to know the Lord,” he says. “I began to understand the gospel more and more so that it affected every aspect of my life. I grew more spiritually in two years than I could have hoped for. The gospel began to permeate all of my thoughts and, without thinking, the gospel started to become a major theme in my songwriting.”
Fast forward almost 10 years later and Dave is married to Licia, and together they formed a band named The Gray Havens, a self-described “folk-pop duo whose unique artistry draws from such influences as C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Jonathan Edwards.”
Last year they released their full-length album, “Fire and Stone” [iTunes]. I spoke with Dave about their newest album, how Tolkien influences his songwriting, why heaven is such a dominant theme in his music, and more.
You and your wife go by The Gray Havens, which I’m guessing is a play on J. R. R. Tolkien’s final chapter of the Lord of the Rings trilogy “The Grey Havens.” How did you two decide on the name? What influence has Tolkien had on your music and writing?
We were on a deadline to print our first CD and didn’t have a band name. We reached out to our Kickstarter backers and “The Gray Havens” came back as a suggestion that we really liked (definitely a Tolkien reference). It’s hard to overstate Tolkien’s influence and value. The imagination, attention to detail, and authenticity portrayed in The Lord of the Rings is unparalleled. I try to emulate the same kinds of qualities in my songwriting. He also placed an incredibly high value on music and song (even over poetry and prose!), which I very much appreciate.
It's evident you do a fair bit of fiction reading. Your music is laced with narrative and stories. What kinds of books inform and shape your creative life? Are there non-fiction books that have also been key in your life and thinking as an artist?
It’s funny because I’m always asking everyone else that same question. To my detriment, I’m not a very patient reader and don’t finish a lot of the books I start (my wife, Licia, is the opposite). The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia aside (which have significantly shaped my writing), I like anything with a good plot, preferably fast paced, that has creatively descriptive writing and themes like:
1. Escape from time
2. Escape from death
3. Relationship with non-human beings
4. Love that never ends
5. Good triumphing over evil
I wrote down these themes while listening to Tim Keller talking about Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” Stories aside, I would say my main inspiration for writing has come from listening to great contemporary preaching and teaching from men like John Piper, Tim Keller, Jerram Barrs, Joe Rigney, and others.
Your first EP album “Where Eyes Don’t Go” (2012) is permeated with C. S. Lewis references. One of my favorite songs is “Music from a Garden,” a reference to Aslan's creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. What were you aiming for here? Did you write most of the songs with Lewis on your mind?
That song was a sort of melding between Genesis 1 and a chapter from The Magician’s Nephew where Aslan sings Narnia into existence. I listened to a recording of a Jerram Barrs talk given years ago titled “Echoes of Eden” [later expanded as a book]. The idea is one of living in exile from paradise yet still having trace “memories” of what we’ve been exiled from, though we’ve never been there. Lewis likened it to “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” We hear the echoes with a longing that’s both sorrowful for what was lost and yet hope-filled for what is to come.
In “Jack and Jill, pt. 2” you creatively reimagine Jack (of the nursery) dead and in heaven. It's a fun song as Jack sees a Lamb white as snow. What’s going on?
I was looking for a plausible way to lyrically transfer the main character of the song into a different world than his own (totally plausible, I know). It seemed that having the character hit his head and wake up as though in a dream might work, which reminded me of Jack and Jill. Once that happened, the proverbial nursery rhyme floodgates were opened, beginning with “Mary had a little lamb and he was white as snow.” I wrote this when I was around 20 years old and tested it on my siblings, thinking they would veto the idea immediately. Surprisingly, they showed enthusiasm and so I kept going that direction.
What’s your favorite song on the album? Which was most challenging to write?
My favorite song on the album is “Far Kingdom,” proabably for reasons I’ll hint at in the next question (I peeked). However, when it comes to a particularly challenging song to write, “Stole My Fame” definitely qualifies. It’s a bit angsty and ethereal (which I was not used to), probably influenced from listening to “Florence + the Machine.” Lyrically it goes after the turmoil that stems from not being able to take credit for anything you accomplish, cycling through emotions of complaint, humility, and ultimately joy. This is probably our favorite song to perform live since it’s so different from anything else we’ve done (and because we always invite a couple people from the audience to join us on stage to play percussion).
The album’s final song, “Far Kingdom,” returns to a familiar theme in your music: heaven, the joys that await us there, and our longing for God’s presence. It’s a gentle, meditative song. What keeps you returning to this theme?
I think about heaven all the time. It probably resurfaces more in my writing than any other topic. Lewis, Charles Spurgeon, and Jonathan Edwards (representing the old dead guys team) and Randy Alcorn and Sam Storms (the other team) are my influences here. I owe each of these men a great debt for deepening my understanding of how Scripture portrays the joys of eternity. The promises are staggering.
For instance, upon entering into heaven, joy in God will be eternally full and, at the same time, increasing. Imagine the most joy you’ve ever experienced in single moment. Multiply that by a thousand. That might be what you feel upon seeing Christ face to face for the first time. Take that joy and multiply it by a million (you can do this because you have an ever-increasing capacity to keep up with it). Multiply that joy by a billion, and then the whole process by another billion. At this point, you haven’t come close to enjoying (or knowing) all that Christ is because he is infinite and unsearchable. That’s where I want to be.