So what does it mean to be really sorry for something? And how do we go about in reconciling the wrong that was made? Some of us would tend to try to sweep our past mistakes under a rug and have them forgotten. But truth-be-told, they have to be dealt with. This is not just that that humans can reconcile with each other, but it’s so that it shows a much greater story of forgiveness. Namely forgiveness found in God showing grace and mercy to wretched humans. Showing forgiveness.
But the question remains. How do we apologize to each other? How do we seek forgiveness in the relationships that we have? Derek Webb is attempting to answer these questions and many more. His new album, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You shows a vulnerable side to this man. For many would call him a cynic, or a stone-thrower, or a I’m-going-to-make-my-art-and-I-don’t-care-who-I-hurt-or-step-on-or-push-in-the-process type of artist.
I sat down with Mr. Webb over a cup of coffee after we enjoyed a great meal. I mention this because it’s important to point out that a meal was shared. This meeting was intentional. Not just for an interview with a large retailer, but truly to make a statement on Derek’s part. A statement that says “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong” or “I really do love you guys.”
[Spaced throughout this blog post, there are live, acoustic version of the songs from I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You]
John: I think the biggest question that we need to start with, Derek, is: What are you sorry for?
Derek: What am I sorry for? I need to start by saying that growing up, I always heard that the three things you had to learn to say to anybody to keep a relationship going were, “I was wrong, I’m sorry, and I love you.” Those were the three things you had to learn how to say in a marriage, in a church, in a family, in a business relationship. Coming out of the last five years for me, creatively, from Stockholm Syndrome to Feedback to SOLA-MI to Ctrl, It’s been a really experimental, very abstract, three, four, or five years that I think have been pretty challenging to my people.
It just felt like here at the 10-year mark for my solo career, it felt like the right moment, not to restate anything, but to clarify. I’ve never felt the burden of having to restate anything I’ve said previously to justify saying new things. I think that’s been challenging for some people, because they’ll hear me say things that seem in contradiction with things I’ve said previously. So they assume I don’t believe those things anymore.
The rule should be that I’m always building upon whatever I’ve said previously. I started with She Must and Shall Go Free and I’ve moved out from there. Unless you hear me clearly recant something I have said previously, assume I still believe it, even if it seems complicated in light of what I’m saying currently.
I realize you can’t only agitate people. You have to also make sure that you’re resonating with people, too. I feel like I have been really erring on the side of doing the part of my job that involves trying to find creative ways to disrupt peoples’ ideas. I have to balance that with saying things that resonate with them, not just poking at people and not just questioning. I need to allow myself a moment for some encouragement and for some hope. There’s been a lack of that for the last five years or so.
I don’t like to go back. I like to go forward. But this did feel like a moment to clarify and say, “Whatever it is you’ve heard me say over the last 10 years, 20 years even, let me clarify and give you the context of why I was saying it or what I would hope to have communicated.” The posture from which I’ve tried to say it is being open to being wrong, asking for forgiveness, and communicating love and care.
That is the motivation behind anything I’ve ever done. It’s less of a specific apology and more the modeling of a posture of this is how we do this, this is how we, as diverse members of one body, survive in a room together and build a kingdom together. We have to learn how to tell each other that we’re sorry and that we’re wrong and that we love each other. That’s hard work, but that’s what it is.
John: When you left Caedmon’s Call, do you think you set out to start poking fingers?
Derek: I don’t feel like I knew enough about myself as an artist to have been terribly intentional about that. When I left Caedmon’s, the band was putting out a record maybe every 18 months or 2 years. I was writing half of every one of those records, five or six songs every eighteen months. That’s just not enough to really find your voice yet. It was enough to educate myself in the craft a little bit in terms of songwriting, but I didn’t know who I was as an artist.
That’s why I’ve been so grateful for my first record. We’ve just crossed the 10-year anniversary of that album, and I toured as a celebration of it. I realized what a kind of prophetic statement that record was for the rest of my career. It had songs like “Wedding Dress” on it, which made it a really complicated fit into the market. But for me, it was really honest and felt really important and it was hyper-confessional.
My conscience was very clear in terms of putting the song on that album. I had the support of my pastor, who knows me, my wife, my friends. I asked questions like, “Is this cavalier, or could this be helpful? This is a hard word, but do you think it’s worth it?” Everybody resoundingly said, “Yes. We support you. We think you should. We know it’s going to be hard, but you should do this.”
I could not have known the trajectory of my career was that I was going to become known for that. I didn’t know I was going to find myself as one that was really wired to do that: looking for the bits that need discussion I didn’t know I would be in this fortunate position, coming out of 10 years in a really successful band, bringing support with me. It gave me a really unlikely strength as a debut artist.
She Must and Shall Go Free is an unlikely debut record. Any debut artist’s first record out of the gate would have gotten dropped after that. But because I had this incredible support coming out of Caedmon’s, I was able to push it through. Then I was able to move on from there.
Caedmon’s started that way. We wanted to be disruptive. We wanted to say hard things to people and challenge the status quo. We were young, but that’s what we were in it for. After a few years, as we started to get successful at it, we became our own worst enemies.
The two worst things for an artist are success and failure, and especially in that order. For us, we did really well really early. Then the things we never wanted in the first place, we weren’t getting anymore in terms of industry accolades. It made it really hard to not want to put our hands on the controls and start to tinker with it, manipulate it a little bit.
What happens is, as you get further into it and you have that success at it, the platform just gets higher. You’re out in front of more people and the platform gets higher. After a while, your full-time job is working on the platform, strengthening it, being careful with it, and making sure it is steady. You’re either working on your platform or you’re standing on it, and you just can’t do both. For us, we wound up getting off the platform, securing it, working on it, building on it and trying to make it steady.
The higher it gets, the higher the stakes get, and the less likely it gets that you’re ever going to get up on top of it. For me, the trajectory for my career has been like a cycle of self-sabotage. I have tried to protect my career against big moments of success. I don’t want them. When the label says, “Go do this thing, because it’s going to open it up, and you’re going to get discovered, and it’s going to be this thing, you’re going to sell a million records,” I will not do it. I will do everything I can to sabotage it.
Any time the label has thought I had a big song for radio, I will produce it in a way that sabotages it to make sure they cannot put it on the radio, because I don’t want that. I’ve had that and I know what happens. My goal is to stay low to the ground. I don’t want to get very high, not in front of very many people. I want to stay low to the ground so that if I get knocked off, I can get back on fast.
The platform exists so I can build it back really fast. I want to be tenacious and I want to be able to be faithful. Success and faithfulness are two different things, and it’s good to learn the distinction. For me, I don’t want to have the high platform. I want the low platform. If I sold a half-million records next year, my career would be over. I’d be miserable. I want to find who resonates with my particular point of view, and how can I really faithfully provide language for them to confess things they wish to believe?
John: What if you found a half-million people that resonated with that?
Derek: There could be a half-million people out there who resonate with what I do, but I don’t want them if they come in any less than 10 years. I want it to take me 10 years to find them. If they all come in overnight, then that’s not good news. That’s bad. I’ve seen it too many times.
John: On She Must and Shall Go Free, the song “Wedding Dress” uses the word “whore.” You would not necessarily attach that word to the church, although in honesty, that is who we are.
Derek: That’s who we are told we are in Ezekiel and Isaiah.
Derek: With much harsher language than what’s in “Wedding Dress.”
John: So you were being very kind to us?
Derek: I can make people blush with “Wedding Dress,” but I can clear a room with Ezekiel 16.
John: Were you not setting yourself up to be within the four walls of the church, saying, “Hey, there are issues here.”
John: You’re essentially saying, “You’re looking at some sort of lofty expression of who you think you will become one day, or you’re turning into this bubblegum Christian.” How did you decide to start moving within that realm, but yet at the same time, attempt to reach out to those outside of the four walls of the church?
Derek: In Caedmon’s, I was always the least comfortable one out of the seven of us when we would play at a church. I was always the one that was like, “Man, isn’t there a neutral venue in this town? Do we have to play in place where the building itself alienates people? Why can’t we be in a normal place where people come and hear music that has no worldview prerequisite to walk in the door, that has no physical structure to it that draws in memories for people of ways they’ve been wounded?”
I never imagined being a solo artist. All through my life, I’ve been playing music. And I have always loved collaborating. I’ve always loved being in bands. I’ve always loved being somebody’s guitar player or somebody’s background singer. If I ever did think about what I’d do, I definitely thought I would escape, I’d move out of the ghetto, like I don’t want to stay in Christian music or whatever.
I don’t believe in Christian music. The word Christian, when it applied to anything other than a human being, is a marketing term. But when I was writing the songs that led to my first record, I realized I had a lot of questions about if church was necessary. Do I have to go to church? Is church a necessary part of this experience? If it is, what’s my role in the church, and what’s the church’s role in this culture? How does all this work?
I have a lot of questions after 10 years in Caedmon’s. I think we had been really careful not to bite down too hard on the hand that was feeding us for a lot of those years. I think what finally turned the corner was when I got married and felt a little stronger, a little braver. I started to write songs that really were going after what I was seeing, thinking, “Why is nobody talking about this? Everybody knows about this and nobody’s talking about this. Why?”
The band’s reputation couldn’t bear that at that point, and they were rightfully protective, I think, of what they were building. But they also thought my new songs were important. They wanted me to play and record them. They knew that there’s no way I could do it and still be in Caedmon’s. That was too demanding.
It felt more like them sending me out. It wasn’t like a nasty division. They’re still some of my dearest friends in my life. They always have been. I was surprised as anybody when that batch of songs I had at that moment were all very much about the church.
I had always imagined that if I got a record deal on my own, I would go and do it with a normal mainstream company. Then here I am, sitting on a record full of songs about the church. I thought, “This is exactly what some people call Christian record labels do best.” It didn’t make sense to go outside of the Christian world and then market it back in.
I wanted to be a voice from the inside. I had spent 10 years in Caedmon’s, so that seemed subversive to me in a way that I thought was good. That’s when I started my relationship with (then INO Records and now) Fair Trade.
I’ve seen my friends, who have really good, healthy, disruptive things to say—I’ve seen them push too hard, too fast, for too long and get relegated to having to do that from the outside. I’m not interested in that. I would like to stay, because I am in this community. I am a member of the church.
Even though I feel like over the years I’ve had things to say that didn’t squarely speak to that community only, the fingerprints of my worldview are all over the art that I make regardless of my intention. It’s the grid through which I’m looking at the world. My faith in Jesus is on everything, regardless of whether it’s an intentionally Christian record or not.
John: Going back to what you were talking about earlier: You would then say there’s never been a point in time where you regretted what you said previously.
Derek: No. Not at all. I’m really proud of all the work that I’ve done, and I’m really proud of all the risks that I’ve taken.
John: Do you think, within the context of what you’ve done in the last 10 years as a solo artist, that you have stayed within the four walls of the church because there have been alliances with individuals or organizations that are loosely related to mainstream Christendom?
John: Do you feel that even during those times, you were still within the very core of what being a follower of Jesus is?
Derek: I personally do, but I have a unique perspective on this.
John: I’m sure you do. (Laughs)
Derek: I feel very much like a double agent in that regard. I think what people wouldn’t guess about me is that I am probably more theologically conservative than the most conservative of my crowd. I’ve also wanted to err on the side of recklessly over-loving than fearfully under-loving people. For that reason, I think I have appeared very much on the exterior like some one of these Christian liberals, one of these Christian hipsters. I don’t know what you call these people now.
John: I don’t know, either.
Derek: Whatever it is, I’ve been called it all. I don’t identify at all with that. I understand how they get there. I just know it’s not true. But I’m also more than willing to be misunderstood if it means doing my job well. My job is not to be perceived correctly by some anonymous group of people on the Internet who demand answers from me and want me to clarify my beliefs on things to justify statements that I made. I am not beholden to them. It’s not that I don’t care in a way that’s unfeeling; it just does not influence the decisions I make when I know what the important decisions are.
I’m not interested in drawing lines and speaking in categories, but if people are going to do it, I want to find myself standing where I believe Jesus would have stood. That is on the side of the disenfranchised, the alienated, the oppressed, the under-loved, the complicated.
Jesus recklessly over-loved people with no regard for His reputation. That is a model I’m trying to follow. As a result, I think I’ve gotten broadly painted a handful of different ways, and none of it really bothers me. It actually kind of makes me feel like I’m doing my job. When I go to particular festivals or conferences, the people who are bringing me don’t know that they have secretly invited a staunch theological conservative. I’m happy to be the sheep in wolves’ clothing, but I think there’s been a real disconnect, mostly because these are no conversations. I’m not willing to try and give a simple answer to a question for which there’s no simple answer. That is very much against the grain at this point in culture. Everybody wants simple answers. They want something you can sum up in 140 characters. They want you to give an answer publicly for things that don’t have good public answers because of the way information is taken out of context and spread around.
If anybody wants to stay after a show, talk to me for an hour and question me on things they heard me say that they don’t think squares with things I’ve said previously or things that they think that I believe, I will stay for that hour. But I will not make those statements on the Internet, for instance.
I have no responsibility to those people who demand answers, these nameless, faceless people on the Internet, who demand an answer because what I’m saying makes them uncomfortable. I don’t have to give them one, and I’m not going to, not if it takes me out of the role of being able to do my job well.
John: Someone once told me that a good artist is a stubborn artist. Are you stubborn?
Derek: Oh, yeah. Do you have that sense yet? I’m tenacious and I’m stubborn.
I barely got out of high school, so I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about my education. I’ve put myself through seminary over the years with a lot of mentors and a lot of books. I used to love to debate after shows. I loved it too much. My most dense years of theological study were also my most dramatically unloving years. I loved really poorly during those years when I was so closely studying the Bible. I don’t do that anymore. There are much more important things to me.
If what you believe about God and about people does not eventually inform how you love and treat people in God, then it’s doing you a real disservice. You’re probably a ringing cymbal or a clanging gong if your theology does not ever become ethics. For a long time, my belief was not informing my behavior. I was being really unloving and loving the fight, because I’m a fighter. But I don’t love the fight anymore. People have to be more important than ideas at the end of the day.
Yes, I’m stubborn, but I’m much more interested in the points of unity now than I am over the points of division. I used to really have an eye for those points of division. I wanted to get all into that, get all into the history of it, and get into why I know more about what you’re saying than you do. Now I have a lot of grief and regret about who I was for a lot of years and how I treated people and what an unbelievably confusing witness it was to the things that I was trying to convince them of at the time.
John: Does that then correlate with the apology side of it?
Derek: Yeah, but only to some extent, because I feel like I’ve been trying to say that for a long time. I could take you through every record and show you.
John: Is that what these last four records have been?
Derek: For example, a song like, “I Don’t Want to Fight” on The Ringing Bell was basically the result of this experience. I played a show one time, and a group of guys came up to me and said something about, “Yeah, man, we’ve seen concerts at this church before, and these people are crazy and their theology is this, that, and the other, and we came here just to see you get up there and give it to them.” They were really disappointed that I didn’t “give it to them,” that I actually just did my thing. They were almost acting like when somebody’s upset when you had an opportunity to share Jesus with someone and you didn’t do it.
John: You didn’t have an altar call?
Derek: I didn’t have a theological altar call. I hadn’t done whatever they were expecting, and as a result, they were mad. They were like, “Dude, what was that?” They actually wound up wanting to fight me about it. And I remember being in the car on the way to the hotel that night writing the song “I Don’t Want To Fight.”
Following the Prince of Peace, living in peace with people around you is not something you do suddenly. You do it preemptively, you plan for it. If I’m serious about living in peace with people, it has to start right here. I just didn’t want to fight anymore. It seemed like a bad mechanism by which to talk about the love of God while being violent to people, which is essentially what I was doing intellectually for a long time.
I think the last four or five years, I’ve been experimenting with and leaning into the creative side of my job, loving that side of it, but I have been making statements that were starting to get so nuanced and shrouded in poetry and extraction that it got to where people couldn’t really find me on the records anymore.
John: You mentioned earlier that both in Caedmon’s and as a solo artist, you felt like your art has always been a disruption. That has been the goal, right? You want people to stop and grapple with what’s being presented in front of them and then have them process through that.
John: When you look at the definition of a prophet in the Old Testament, they had that same type of mindset, whether they would use that or their ideology behind that. Would you say for the last 10 years, 15 years, Derek Webb has been a prophet to the church?
Derek: When I think about the word “prophet,” what that means to me is a radical truth teller. I think artists, in general, have a real prophetic office. They can have a real responsibility for being radical truth tellers. There’s almost no other role where you can do it the way you can in the arts. You can do it, but you can soften the blow with a melody. I’ve always taken that really seriously.
I’ve had no master plan. I have been, if anything, following coordinates along the way. I don’t have them in advance. I’m always as surprised as anybody at what I do next, what the records are, what their content is, what the sound of it is. My records have proved to be more prophetic to me than they have proved to be anything else. Songs that I did not know how much I needed to hear I have to sing.
That is nowhere truer than on my new record. My new record is so particularly prophetic for me where I am in my life right now. That makes those songs really hard to sing. I’m really grateful to have them, because ultimately, that’s the role that art can play. That’s what I love about old hymns. That’s what I love, in a broader sense, about the liturgy and about responsive reading and creeds and confessions.
Every week at my church we recite the Nicene Creed. It’s good to do it because I forget it in the week that elapses between then and the last time I said it. What I love about hymns and liturgy is that they provide for me a language with which to confess things that I wish to believe. I don’t walk in the door believing the various bits of the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds. I don’t walk in believing the contents of our readings from the Bible. I don’t walk in believing any of that stuff, and a lot of times, I don’t believe the contents of my own music.
I don’t believe the things that I’m saying, but I wish to. It’s no wonder they’re the songs that I have to sing. You might have to listen to them a couple times. You might have friends that make you listen to them, or you might spend a few weeks with my record and listen to it and then not listen to it. I have to sing these songs every night, so apparently I need it more than anybody else does. That’s where I’ve been grateful. They provide language to confess things that I wish to believe.
I would not try to tell you that you could listen to any of my records and find my system of beliefs holding steady, even at this moment, as much as you will find the things that I long to believe.
John: Last question. What’s the epitaph at the end of your life?
Derek: This is not an answer to your question. Charlie Peacock, who is a legend in this business and a mentor to me, we have discovered we’re wired very much the same way in terms of how we see the world. He said to me one time that he imagines his gravestone saying, “Here lies Charlie Peacock, the man who saw too much.” I feel very much the same way. I feel like I have just a hyper-intense eye for justice and for detail. I’m not wired like an artist in that way. I’m not a big, broad thinker. I just see things all over the place, a lot of which I wish I didn’t.
I wish I couldn’t tell you the contents of the three conversations that were going on at all the tables around where I was sitting at lunch today. My brain can’t not hear and see everything. It’s part of how I’m wired. I think it’s informed much of what I’ve done in my job. Maybe that’s the reason I see the things people don’t see or refuse to see. I see it and I can’t pretend like I don’t—just like I can’t pretend that I can’t imagine every dangerous scenario when my kid is about to climb up on a bookcase or stand on the back of a couch. I can immediately see all 10 scenarios of everything that can happen.
I can’t pretend like I don’t see the church, when we are saying things in the culture and we are treating groups of people a particular way, when we are fumbling with the words of Jesus and being a very bad advertisement for Him.
Maybe some people just don’t have that perspective. They don’t see it, but I do and I go make art about it.
So is Derek sorry? Listen to the album. Watch the video (above) and see for yourself. I think so.
For more on Derek and his albums, click here.