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A conversation with Andrew Peterson - S11.E10


WORLD Radio - A conversation with Andrew Peterson - S11.E10

Creativity and the image of God

Photo credit: andrew-peterson.com

WS: Andrew, it is always great to see you and I've got so many things I want to talk about with you that we are definitely going to need to prioritize. So let's let's start with, I guess you could say the most important, most recent thing, and that is The Wingfeather animated series - after years, it's coming to fruition. How does that feel?

AP: It feels profoundly satisfying. It has been a long, hard journey. And, and you know, here we are, we're about to, you know, it's like, we've had this present wrapped up in a package, and we're about to give it to the people and let them unwrap it on December 2. And so I, I am so I'm like bouncing up and down with excitement. Yeah, yeah.

WS: Well, I've seen the first episode, and congratulations, it's really remarkable. And, you know, I know, you've just got to be super happy with it. And we've talked before, even on this podcast, of course, you and I've spoken to him offline, but we've also talked on this podcast about the process. But Winston Churchill has this saying about writing a book that, you know, it starts off as a passionate love affair. And it you know, ends up you know, being a hate that you want to murder. And when you're when you're when you're writing a poem or writing a book, I'm wondering how that was with the animated series, because you had lived with the story for 10 years. Now you're having to live with people who you were having to kind of give your baby to, and just, you know, hope and pray that it was going to come out the way you wanted it to come out. I know, you worked with people you trusted - in fact, I've had Chris Wall, Neil Harmon and others on the podcast before, but was that hard? Or was that easy? What did you find that a new skill that you had to learn?

AP: There's been a lot that I've had to learn in this process. But the, you know, like you said, working with people who you trust makes that way easier. And, and I think it was something that I learned just from being a singer/songwriter, like being here in town, and I remember my first record, which was what, 1999 was when we recorded it, I had all these songs I'd written in college, and just after college that I was very, very precious about. And when the producer came in, he started, you know, kind of tightening things up and dismantling some things and pushing me to make the songs better, and I was very resistant to it. And the older I've gotten, the more I've realized how foolish that position is, that it's the in that case, it was more about me and my opinions than the song itself. So kind of allowing the song to move out and be objective, apart from you, allows you to make decisions that you wouldn't if you were being really precious with it. And you know, if the goal is not to make you feel better about yourself, the goal is to make something beautiful, then it's always just going to be better that way. So with The Wingfeather Saga, I mean, the writing of the books is the same. It's like there's so many rounds of edits and proofreaders and people that kind of like, speak into it on a continuity level and all these kinds of things. So you begin to realize that this yes, you wrote the book in a room alone for the most part, but the book is immeasurably better for every moment of collaboration along the way. And so I you know, I had good practice coming into it. I think the filmmakers were pretty wary of like, oh, wait, the author is going to be in the room. And I can imagine how that would be kind of disastrous, depending on the situation. But my hunch is that, that being a singer/songwriter first had had taught me some of those lessons. So I came into it a little ahead of the game. And really, every now and then I have spoken into it. And you know, I've got opinions - I get, I get like, I get to approve everything, you know, that comes across my quote unquote desk on the Slack channel and the character designs and certain points in the story, I get to tighten up the dialogue. I have, you know, I'm very involved in the, in the editing of the scripts and all that kind of stuff. But the the great joy of it has been to see The Wingfeather Saga as a story enter into like, an almost, like I understand the story better now having worked through it as a visual, in visual media than I did when I was writing it as a book. It's almost like the story moved a little closer to its platonic form. Does that make sense? So it's like the book is one expression of the story, and now we're approaching it visually. And we're getting at, closer to the heart of what the story actually is, like coming at it from a different angle.

WS: That that raises so many questions that we won't have time to unpack, Andrew, but I do wonder, would you, do you think you'd have written the book differently knowing what you know, now if you could go back and read this? Because you said you do tell the story better. And I think of some authors like you know, of course this was in the nonfiction realm, but you know, John Calvin wrote his Institute's, he published about five versions of them at different points in his life. And there are a lot of, you know, there are some writers that will publish early versions of novels and or maybe novellas and short stories and then blow them up when they feel like they know the story better. Any thoughts of a revised Wingfeather?

AP: No, I wouldn't. You know, to me that would be closer to like George Lucas going back and changing the original Star Wars series and how I just don't think that was a good idea. You know, like, supposedly, you can't even find the version we saw when we were young, because he's gone back and changed it. And so he's got every right to do that. It's his story. But I'm, I'm a little more willing to just kind of like, let it stand as it is that, you know, there, I can see myself mature as a writer over the course of the series. And that's not a big surprise. But the, Yeah, I just think that it's, it's...

WS: It is what it is what it is, and it's an artifact of your development. And...

AP: Yeah, and there's something about going into. So like, for example, when I was writing the books, I had a very vague sense of where the story was headed. I had a hunch of about what the ending was going to be, I knew some backstories of people. And as I wrote, the all those things come into sharper and sharper focus. And, and you know what it's like - you've written a novel, like, you get to the end, and in one sense, it's, it isn't a surprise, because you found your way to it. And in another sense, you can look back at it and see that the story was had a mind of its own - all that stuff. So the cool thing about coming into the series is we know the end of the story now, right? Like, like we're getting to retell a version of On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, book one, with a very clear picture in mind of exactly where the story's going. So in some senses, like when I see the, you know, we just revealed the movie poster, or we finally finished it. And I see Jen or (character names?) AB and Kalmar Igabee or Tink, and Li Li and I know now exactly where their story is going and the pain they're going to endure. And the losses they're gonna experience it is almost heartbreaking. And I didn't know that stuff when I was writing the story. I was like, yeah, things are gonna be hard. But now that I know the characters as intimately as I do. So that what that means is it allows us in the visual format with a television series to, it informs the way we're handling certain scenes, you know, Poto's reaction to something like the sea dragon. Now that I know very well, why he has this problem with the sea dragons, it allows us to like flesh that out on screen in a way that we couldn't have if we were just making it up as we go.

WS: Right. I want to pivot a little in our conversation, Andrew, as I said, I have a lot of things I want to talk to you about. And one of the things I want to talk about is, you know how, how this has changed your career. You know, we already talked about, you know, how you have changed and grown and had to develop new skills, you know, over the course of putting out the Wingfeather animated series. But it seems to me that, and I want you to react to this, that it has sort of changed the trajectory of your career. I mean, as you said, you started out as a singer/songwriter. And you're still doing that, I guess, what you haven't known, whatever I say this out loud. I don't know whether you want to jump through the screen and hit me or whether you or not, but you haven't had a new album in a few years - other than you add, you contributed to the Randy Stonehill tribute album, you contributed to the Rich Mullins tribute album. But on the other hand, you've written this amazing book, Adorning the Dark, which by the way, my copy is really raggedy here. I've read it several times. I just think it's a really remarkable book; you've, you know, done the Wingfeather thing, the Rabbit Room has exploded in growth over the last few years. I mean, are you going to go back to being a singer songwriter at some point? Or has this changed the trajectory of your life and career?

AP: Good question. I, this has happened pretty consistently over the years with my music career, I often fall in and out of love with music. You know, the road took its toll on me, you know, like just traveling constantly wore me out in many ways. And I think, you know, 2020 kind of lock down year for COVID, was a year of like, where a lot of people kind of like took some stock and woke them up to some crazy things. And so for me, it was just looking back and going, Man, I have traveled so much. And there's a part of me that's like, Did you travel too much? You know, did you miss too much time with your kids or your family or community? And you know, I'm not dwelling on that too much because I you know, it is what it is. But at the same time I, I'm almost 50. So you look at you, it forces you to look forward and go like, what are the next 15 years of my life? What should they look like? And what do I want them to look like? Which is only one of the questions. The other question is what does the Lord want it to look like? And that's the, that's the real question. But music is one of those things where like, I can go weeks on end without playing my guitar or playing the piano. And then one day, I'll hear a song on the radio and everything in me wants to like, sit down and write 10 songs, you know? I just kind of forget. And then the magic stirs, and I go, Oh, my goodness, songwriting is amazing. Why would I not do this every day?

So all that to say, I, I'm really enjoying the process of working on The Wingfeather Saga, the book writing. I'm under contract for a couple more books, and I'm excited about writing those. I'm enjoying being home more. And at the same time, just the other day, my son, Asher, who's a record producer, amazing producer, he texted me just out of the blue and said, "Hey, you want to make some music this year?" Which is like the greatest thing your your son can ask you. It's like I almost cried when I saw it. Because it was like, That sounds amazing. And you know, my daughter is a singer songwriter, she's touring. My other son is a visual artist. So there's a lot of fun opportunities to work with my kids, but who knows what will happen. But, what I all I know is that when Asher texted me that I could picture myself in the studio with him doing some fun experimental stuff, and I got very excited about it. So I've just got a lot of stuff on my plate I got to take care of first.

WS: Well, if and when that moment happens when you go back into the studio, do you have songs written? I mean, I know a couple of years ago, Andrew, we spoke after, I can't even now remember which album it was came out, and you said you went into, you said you often went into the studio with a lot of songs and kind of with pre-production stuff, you know, kind of knowing where you're going. But then this one album, and maybe it was like from Lost Boy, I don't remember what it was that one. And you said, "Man, I just had nothing." You said you went to the studio just said I had nothing. But when I think, that's one of your best albums. I mean, do you, when you go back in are you going to have songs or is it, are you just gonna go, "Yeah, let let the creative process take its course?"

AP: I have only, I've only written one song since lock down. Honestly, 'Is He Worthy?' is one of the very last songs that I wrote. Because it was it was the, I can't remember for sure, but it was one of the last songs that I wrote. And, and, you know, we've been doing The Resurrection Letters tour and, and getting to sing those songs...

[Is He Worthy?]

And I was just talking to Andrew Osenga, who's a great singer, songwriter. And we were doing, he was doing a thing in the round at Northwind Manor. And I was like, he played an old song. And I was like, "Hey, have you gotten to the point where you realize how wonderful it is to have old songs?" And he kind of laughed. And, you know, I was thinking about when I see James Taylor in concert. Like, I'm not I mean, I'm glad that he's still writing songs, but I just really want to hear him sing Sweet Baby James, you know. And so there's, when you're a young artist, it's all about like, oh, man, I want to, I want to do the new thing, I've got to have a new album out. And once you've got a catalogue, and you reach a certain age, you realize, man, there's such a joy in going out and just singing old songs, some of which people, you know, most, a lot of the people that know my music, found it in the last few years. And so the old songs are new songs to them. And so I don't I don't mind that so much. I hope that I will write songs. The last song I wrote was called, you know, White Man's Lament for the Death of God's Beloved.

[White Man's Lament for the Death of God's Beloved]

And ever since then I've just been working on books and the TV show.

WS: Yeah. Well, I appreciate that very much. And I certainly love your old songs. I mean, before we turned this on, we were talking about a song I think off your first album, Nothing To Say.

[Nothing To Say playing underneath]

And was that was, that your that was your first and yeah, you know, kind of big. And I you know, it's one of my favorite songs. And of course, going back to Dancing in the Minefields. But I also love, you know, Is He Worthy as well. But, you know, one of the things that I, to me, what's interesting about what I just said, is that those are songs that span a 20 year period. I mean, you know, Nothing To Say is what? '99, 2000, somewhere in that range, and Dancing in the Minefields around 2010.

[Dancing in the Minefields]

And, you know, Is He Worthy was a hit, just, you know, a year or two ago. And there's one of the things that I really respect and appreciate about a band, you know, like You2, for example, is that compared to say, The Rolling Stones, and you know, you look at the Rolling Stones, to the extent that they're doing concerts, the Rolling Stones of today is essentially a cover band of the Rolling Stones of the 1970s. Whereas, you know, a You2 concert is, you know, you're getting the old, you know, they're playing the hits, but they're also it's fresh, it's new, there's vital about the band today. I mean, did you have any aspirations along those lines? I mean, who do you want to be? You want to be the Rolling Stones or You2??

AP: I would rather be You2. I you know, Paul Simon, to me, is a good example of that.

WS: Yeah, exactly. That's, that's probably a  better example. Yeah.

AP: His last few records were amazing. Right? 'Surprise' was just an astonishing album. He wrote it when he was like, 70 or something, and there's a part of me like, you know, Graceland even was this like really outside of the box kind of experimental way of making an album. And it ended up ends up becoming one of the great albums of all time. And so I love the fact that there's this spirit of curiosity in him, you know, and they all still sound like Paul Simon songs, but at the same time they, you can, you can hear him experimenting and trying to find something. And I think that if I was only a singer, songwriter, I would probably be doing that. But my version of experimenting is trying new, new ways of getting at the same thing. So like, when I'm writing songs, my goal, you know, was always to like, try to use the gifts that I have to build God's kingdom, in whatever way that looks like. I want to make  known the deeds of the Lord among the nations. And so my way of doing that is with songwriting for many years, and then the books happen. And like, that's another way of trying to be obedient to that calling another television thing. The Rabbit Room is another one of those. So for me, the experimentation is less about, you know, pushing my music in new directions. It's more about, I'm just curious about coming out all this stuff from different angles.

WS: That's a that's a beautiful way to say it. And of course, I pick up a lot of that in your in Adorning the Dark as well, that it's about, it's about giving glory to God and serving other people, rather than, you know, being about yourself. I pick that up in virtually everything that you've done. And that causes me to want to pivot just a bit since you mentioned Rabbit Room and, and Northwind Manor is fairly new, I guess you could say. I remember you and I walked, when it was still under construction, we kind of walked through it and careful to make sure we put our feet on the floor joists so we didn't fall through and, and I visited, you know, a few months ago, and it's completed and gorgeous and beautiful, and you're holding events there. Is that becoming more and more central to your life? Because I know you live near there as well. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? A new thing?

AP: Yeah, no, it's it feels like we're we're fumbling along, trying to figure out exactly what the Lord wants us to do with the place. So here's an example. I have a friend named Mark, who got into beekeeping. And I'm a beekeeper, too. So we often we'll fall in, after church will stand there talking about bees and whatever. And, and at some point, I asked him how he got into it. And he said, Oh, it was when we moved to this house. And my wife and I had their first little square foot garden. And he said that that was the impetus for, they had room for the garden, I think. And he said, that made us start to compost. And he said, we started composting. And then we put the, you know, the compost pile, we started seeing pumpkins growing out of the compost pile, which was fascinating. And he started growing other things. And then that made him interested in pollinating. And then he was a beekeeper, next thing you know. And so he was like tracing the line. He was like, the place that we moved was the thing that told us what the next thing was going to be. Does that make sense? So the place he found himself suggested to him what the next move was. And I kind of love that idea that, that, you know, you look around, and you ask yourself, Okay, what is, like this place is sacred. This is a place that the Lord has made to be sacred, and it has its own story, and how do I engage with the telling of the story of this place? And so I think that's where we are with Northwind Manor. Like, we built it as an extension of the ministry of the Rabbit Room, with the help of a huge community and in the hope that that place is just going to be there for the next 200 years, and that it will be a part of the story of Nashville, a part of the story of the kingdom of God. And so, that said, you know, we built it holding very loosely to what are, what was going to really happen there. And so, so we're still figuring it out. We just had a meeting last week about 2024 and what the uses of the manor are going to be and you want it to be a generous place of hospitality for people.

We have open hours on Wednesdays. So anybody who wants can drop in on Wednesday afternoons, and the head of hospitality over there, Rachel, she makes the most amazing scones and, and people come and they just sit by the fire or on the back deck and people will work and and connect, you know, it's a gathering place for those people. We have the local show, which is an 'in the round' show that happens once a month. There is 'film night' that we're talking about doing, like film and discussion, that kind of thing. There is I'm trying to think what else? There's a 'Walter Wangerin Lecture Series' that we want to get off the ground. Walt Wangerin Jr. is one of our, was one of our close friends. And he wrote to some of us. And he was very close to the Rabbit Room, we had the honor of publishing some of his books, and he died last year. So we've been, were going to try to create a lecture series so that people can come and and learn and grow together in that way. So there's all kinds of things that can do. And the truth of it is though, that it's still a nonprofit, you know, we don't have beau-coups of money like, it's a small staff and they work really hard and to love, love the people well. So yeah, I'm learning what it is the Lord wants me to do here.

WS: Yeah, Andrew, I know we don't have a lot of time left, but I hope you'll forgive me for pivoting one more time. We've talked about your kids a little bit. And I wanted you to say a little bit more about that, if you're willing and able. Obviously, you know what family stuff is a little sensitive, and, but your kids are older. They're, they're forging out in the world and I want to, Skye in particular, she recently did a song with the Gettys that was so well received. I mean, it's just a beautiful, that she wrote, or co-wrote, I think. Did she write it or co-write it?

AP: She co wrote it.

[Take Shelter]

WS: It was just such a beautiful song. And you mentioned your son, who's a producer. And I mean, now that you're at a certain stage in your life, and your kids are following their own calling. But that particular giftedness, and that particular calling, at least in the case of your kids, is somewhat aligned with who you are. Has that changed the relationship with your kids? How does it feel now giving advice to your kids in some of the same things that you had to go through 20 years ago? Do you say, here's what I learned? Or do you say, kids, you gotta go work this out for yourself?

AP: Honestly, it's neither of those. It's mostly just commiseration, like, they're at the age where they're experiencing some of the, you know, the great joys, but also the complicatedness of trying to figure out how to make a career work with a family and as a as an artist, you know, as a self employed musician, or whatever, or visual artist. And, and a lot of it is just like, it feels like they're moving closer to just being friends of mine. And so when they, and and, you know, part of it is that the industry, both Aiden's industry, which is in animation and book illustration, like that's something that I'm not, I didn't grow up knowing. So I'm learning from him how that stuff works, but with the other two who are more in the music world, yeah, the the landscape is so different. When young songwriters are like, What can I do to start getting my career off the ground? I have no idea what the answer to that question is in 2022. And it's completely different than it would have been when I was growing up. So most of it is just like, you know, empathy. And we get to sit around and talk about how difficult it is to try to figure this thing out. It was hard for me back in the late '90s, and it's hard for them now. And so, what a fun thing, though, to be able to be intimately familiar with the emotional toll that this stuff takes, you know, and I'm so thankful that they, that we get to talk about this stuff together. I'm learning a lot from them, to be honest.

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