Reading, Writing and Music: A Conversation with Andrew Peterson

Trevin Wax
Trevin Wax
2013 30 Aug


Last week, I had the opportunity to catch up with singer-songwriter and author Andrew Peterson before a concert. I’ve been a fan since his first album in 2000, Carried Alongand have continued to follow his music, which has only gotten better, through his latest album Light for the Lost Boy.

Besides his music, Andrew has also written a young adult fantasy series The Wingfeather Saga, the last novel of which Andrew is working on now.

In the first of a two-part interview with the modern-day renaissance man, Andrew shared how he started making music, who is currently inspiring his writing, and what books are on the horizon.

Trevin Wax: What came first for you: your passion for music or your passion for songwriting?

Andrew Peterson: Early on, I loved music and art in general – music, books, comics, paintings, movies. Before DVDs, if my brother and I heard the making ofRaiders of the Lost Ark was going to be on television, we would record it on a VHS tape. It wasn’t enough for us to just experience something. We wanted to know how it happened. It awoke a desire in us to look under the hood, so to speak.

That was the case with songs, as well. When I heard songs, I would pore over the lyrics and examine who played what instrument. It was this mystery — how did they make this music? Books were the same way. How did this story work? How did it make me feel the way I felt when I read it?

From the beginning, it was a fascination with the mystery of creating a work of art. I was drawn to that because of the way it made me feel. Part of me that felt dead the rest of the day became alive. C.S. Lewis said that beauty is something we want to enter. We want it to envelope us.

I tried to write a few songs in high school, but they were just “girlfriend songs.” I realized after awhile that there was an emptiness about it. I didn’t know what to write because I was a nominal Christian at the time. Just before college, when Jesus finally made Himself an object in my path — one that I couldn’t avoid — I discovered that I had something to write about.

It was around the time I heard Rich Mullins’ music that songwriting began to occur to me as a type of art. His music was a vehicle for a deepening of my faith. I remember praying one night that I wanted to do music, not for my own glory, but for God’s. And if I could write music to help someone feel the way Rich’s music made me feel, that’s what I wanted to do.

Every time I write, I’m aiming for the peak of a Rich Mullins song. I only ever get to the foothills and I’m reminded of that when I play his songs live. I’ve probably sung “Calling Out Your Name” 150 times and heard it a thousand, but it just occured to me last year what some of the lyrics meant. The lyrics seem to be opening themselves up more with every listen. That’s what makes for a great song, I think.

“The Color Green” uses a beautiful picture of wrens making a home in a dead tree to speak of being born again. The imagery is so rich that you don’t even have time to think about it as it goes by, which is why you listen to it 200 times. There are these unfolding pleasures that I find as I listen to his music that never cease to delight me.

Trevin Wax: Who are you reading right now that is influencing the way you write?

Andrew Peterson: I’ve been reading a lot of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. I just finished Lewis’s Surprised By Joy and Letters to Malcolm. I also read The Battle of the White Horse, which is G.K. Chesterton’s epic poem. I keep reading Chesterton because of his joy. He writes with such exuberance. Orthodoxy is the only book I ever finished reading and started over in the same day.

I recently read Defiant Joy, Kevin Belmonte’s biography of Chesterton, and I was so struck by Chesterton’s friendship with George Bernard Shaw, who was an outspoken atheist. I realized that I don’t know how to do that. I don’t have many friends who I disagree with on a deep level.

I was in Northern Ireland a few weeks ago and was warned about the Irish tendency to not take each other seriously — to “slag each other off,” as they put it. I wonder sometimes if that’s an art that’s missing in Christian culture. We don’t know how to disagree and still be friends. I don’t, anyway.

That’s part of what I love about Chesterton. He could move in a very secular English intellectual culture as a Christian, but they had to respect him because of his great mind and — maybe more than anything  — his joy. Lewis, too, was surrounded by those who disagreed with him. I have to think it made him a better man, a more humble man. I’m drawn to these two because of all the culture shifts in America right now. It’s caused me to ask myself, “Where is the Chesterton of today?” Where’s the guy who can go on CNN as a believer and display both intelligence and winsomeness, one that can make me proud to believe what he believes?

I just started N. D. Wilson’s Death by Living. I believe it was Eric Metaxas who said Wilson reminded him of Chesterton. I agree. Wilson has that same sense of exuberance and he uses language in a surprising, sparkling way. Plus, he gave me a first edition of Till We Have Faces, which means we’re friends forever.

Trevin Wax: What does the process of composing music look like for you?

Andrew Peterson: I don’t write until there is a deadline, until the record company says they need something. Every once in awhile, there will be a song that I feel like I need to write. But I actually dread the process. When I’m in it, it’s different, but once I finish I think, Whoa, that was hard. I don’t want to do that anymore for awhile.

I’m also trying to finish my book right now, so that makes writing music more difficult.

Trevin Wax: Are you going to write more after The Warden and the Wolf Kingconcludes The Wingfeather Saga?

Andrew Peterson: I have a couple ideas for some fiction books. I also want to write a non-ficition one, but I’m still thinking through what I want to do with it.

In the second part of our conversation, Andrew discusses theological growth in his music, what his next album might be, and his complicated relationship with CCM and Christian radio. Check it out tomorrow…