I will never forget my introduction to The Daredevil Christopher Wright’s music. First off, I knew if I was going to be a well-rounded local music appreciator, I would need to know their stuff. So, I got a hold of The Nature of Things a few years ago. As I first listened, while sitting in my van in the Festival Foods parking lot, I knew I was diving into deep waters. And those waters were not only deep; they were unpredictable. Beautiful vocals and craftsmanship sealed the deal for me (and I still smile when I listen to the extended, super-long dramatic pause in Blood Brother, one of the great, unpredictable moments on the album).
I was, of course, bummed to learn that the band was going on a hiatus, but also excited to hear what one of their members, Jonathan Sunde was going to produce as he ventured out as a solo artist. I had a chance to hear him play during Adelyn Rose’s album release show for Ordinary Fantasy at Eau Claire’s House of Rock a couple of years ago, and I was mesmerized by the guy’s immense talent, story-telling, and, honestly, his between-song banter. I especially remember him describing the process of writing a particular song and he ended by saying, “Follow the muse. Follow the muse.” As I’ve engaged with his music more over the last couple of years, it is evident that he is still following the muse, because his writing and music are certainly inspired.
In 2014, he released his first solo record, Shapes that Kiss the Lips of God (I wrote about it here). It’s one of those records I can always go back to. I never get tired of it. And I never get tired of hearing him play songs from it. In fact, I had the privilege of seeing him perform recently at The Cabin at UW-Eau Claire and he played a bunch of those songs that night. The most memorable song of the night for me was his haunting, acoustic rendition of Blinding Flash of Light, an already soul-rending, sober meandering of faith, doubt, and what exists in between them. His quiet, somber approach to the song that night drew me in and broke my heart.
Again, Sunde swims in deep rivers lyrically and musically. I’ve long been curious about his inspiration and motivation for diving in so deep. I recently asked him about this and the theological and philosophical themes in his music, especially his mentions of Jesus and Christian ideas. Sunde replied,
Well, I am motivated and shaped by my attempt to follow Jesus. The big questions have always been present for me and a source of curiosity, frustration, excitement and peace. How people have explored those questions and the philosophical and spiritual conclusions that they have come to, fascinate me. In and overarching way and sometimes in a more pointed and specific way, my songs are an expression of my wrestling with these spiritual and philosophical questions. Over time and for a host of reasons, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can trust in the explanation of the nature of things that Jesus presented. As such, when I’m speaking most intimately about trust and fear and doubt and love it comes from that perspective.
Sunde’s response was refreshing to me. The reason for this is simple, and it’s not motivated solely by my own efforts to follow Jesus. It’s because Sunde doesn’t write about God, theology, or deep philosophical issues from the standpoint of an unengaged bystander. For many of us, it is easy to investigate these issues and themes without letting them impact us personally. I don’t get that vibe from Sunde. It seems to me his wrestling with God, as it were, not only impacts his life, but informs it. For me, it is deeply meaningful when I listen to someone sing or talk about lofty subjects that are practically influencing how they live, act, think, and speak… and that’s the vibe I get from Sunde.
This honest, personal wrestling and his willingness to share openly about them is one of the reasons I’ve become such a fan over the years. It’s why I want to share his music with whoever will listen. It’s rare that you get such honesty, talent, craftsmanship, and humanity in one package, and that’s what I see in Sunde and his art.
Hence, I’m glad to hear he’ll get to play at the inaugural Daytrotter Downs in Davenport, Iowa on Saturday, February 20. This new festival is featuring some great artists, such as John Paul White, Lizzo, Shane Leonard/Kalispell, Liza Anne, and Sun Club. Sunde is pumped to be a part of this:
It feels great to take part in the inaugural Daytrotter Downs. I’ve had the privilege to get to know that community of folks really well over the last 10 years. My label, Cartouche Records, is from that community. I really believe in the honesty and example of people in out of the way places working really hard and making beautiful things that have an impact on the wider world. I believe that Daytrotter has done just that and so I’m stoked to participate in their continuing evolution.
And speaking of Shane Leonard, I’ve been personally pulling for more collaboration between Leonard and Sunde. They’ve toured together and Leonard contributed his talents to the recording of Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God. So, of course, I was excited when the “J.E. Sunde Trio” debuted and toured in early 2016. The trio includes Sunde, Leonard, and Har-di-Har’s Andrew Thoreen. Sunde’s pretty excited about this new entity as well:
It’s been something that Shane Leonard and I have talked about since our collaboration on my first record. The thought was to explore that material and new songs in a more lean ensemble. It took some time to get schedules in order, and there is still more of that to sort out, but with the addition of Andrew Thoreen to the equation and an enormously encouraging first tour under our belts, we’re all excited to make this into something. So, yes, it definitely has a future. On top of performing, the ensemble will play a large role in the new record that I’m working on.
And, oh yeah, there’s a new record on the horizon. More good stuff coming from Mr. Sunde in the future.
I’m glad I had a chance to catch up with Sunde at the Cabin show and via email in recent days. Aside from being an incredible artist, he also happens to be a genuinely nice guy. He’s one of those folks you just want to root for. As for me, I think the art he’s created has already made him a winner, but I would certainly love for more people to connect with his music. His songs and his talent deserve to be heard.