“Good, beautiful, stories plunge the reader into a fictional world in such a way that when they come out again, they perceive the real world more clearly and with more joy than before. In much the same way, song lyrics—when married to the right melody—can penetrate the heart. Story plays such a huge part in our songs because powerful narratives have been so transforming for us personally.”
—Dave Radford, The Gray HavensMore
There have always been those artists who blur the lines between mediums, drawing inspiration from one creative form and translating it into another. What sets narrative-pop-folk husband & wife duo The Gray Havens apart from other artists is that they seem to draw little distinction between fantasy stories, lyric poetry, theology and song. That, and the level of obvious delight Dave & Licia Radford take in creating, recording, and performing their richly textured compositions paired with unexpected, imaginative lyrics.
The Gray Havens’ first full-length project, Fire & Stone, doesn’t so much ignore musical boundaries as it simply views them as a vast playground, mixing the complex musical changes one might expect of a band like Queen, with the winsome, folksy sensibilities and beautiful, sparse harmonies of current roots artists such as The Oh Hellos. There’s even a strong dramatic undercurrent to the project that wouldn’t be altogether out of place on a Broadway stage.
“It’s fictional world-building we’re trying to do in our songs,” Dave says, “not just recounting events. The music reflects that. A lot of these songs don’t fit neatly into a formulaic writing approach. There are lots of meter changes, key changes, compound measures—basically more paints on the palette to work with in conveying the story, idea, or emotion. I get bored easily, so I find myself intentionally writing songs that will keep me on my toes.”
Recorded and produced in Nashville by industry veteran Mitch Dane (Jars Of Clay, Brandon Heath), Fire & Stone is an exuberant and joyful declaration. The theme of joy and its counterfeits weaves through the 10-song project, readily visible in selections like the Celtic stomp-flavored track, The Stone.
“The Stone is one of the most exciting songs on the album for me,” Dave explains, “because it has a dual nature. It starts as almost a madrigal tune and transforms into something completely different—a beating, driving, folk-inspired anthem. The idea started with the concept of a stone. I chased that idea to see where it would take me, and it grew into a lyric connecting the stone that was rolled away from Christ’s tomb, to the idea that God removes our hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh.”
An obvious theological undercurrent is present in many of The Gray Havens’ songs, though often expressed in the form of stories that occupy the same sort of space as authors such as C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien, two of Dave and Licia’s greatest influences.
“Lewis noted that stories have the power,” Dave says, “to steal past the watchful dragons of the human heart. All I can say is, some of the most worshipful, joy-filled times in my life have been experienced when I was reading The Chronicles of Narnia. In my own small way with these songs, I want to build those kinds of worlds for our listeners to inhabit.”
“Something I loved about Dave’s writing even before I really knew him,” Licia adds, “is the way the songs invite you in. They unfold as you go. They require interaction. Before we were married, before we were even friends, I would sometimes listen to one of his songs for a couple of months before the real depth of it would suddenly click. And I saw other people being intrigued by the worlds created in the songs and having those same kind of rewarding moments as the meaning emerged. It’s cool because I got to experience some of these songs as a listener and a fan, long before I was part of performing them.”
Fire & Stone moves easily from the angsty, layered complexity and showcase vocals of Stole My Fame (a song about the ongoing tension between ego and grace), to the darkly triumphant anthem, Sirens, to the hopeful, wistfully organic homesickness of tracks such as Far Kingdom.
“Far Kingdom was inspired by Jonathan Edwards,” Dave explains. “He develops this idea about how heaven will always be transforming before us because our capacities to enjoy and participate in it will always be increasing. I wove that together with C.S. Lewis’ description of earthly joy being a longing for heaven. He called it ‘an unsatisfied desire, more desirable than any satisfaction.’ Musically, Far Kingdom is my favorite on the album. I love the epic lullaby nature of it, the strings, the distant percussion, and the way everything builds from beginning to end.”
As a performing entity, The Gray Havens have what might be called a “short, cute history,” but the stories that led them to this point go back much farther. In fact, it was while he was still in high school that Dave auditioned for American Idol in his hometown of Chicago. He performed a crooning cover of Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Winds” that got his foot in the door, but it was a vocal-chord-scorching imitation of Louis Armstrong that sealed the deal and earned him a ticket to LA where he made it into the show’s Top 20.
“In hindsight I’m glad I didn’t make it further as a high schooler,” Dave laughs, “because I would have been set up to make Big Band crooner records. That was all a couple years before I discovered my passion for songwriting and crafting the kind of music we do now.”
Dave began writing, performing and recording as a solo artist while in college. When he and Licia met, they connected over a common love of literature and began dating, but Dave had no idea Licia could sing. It was only after they stopped dating that Dave’s mother, an accomplished musician and music educator, offered Licia free vocal lessons—in part to keep her around their house on a regular basis.
“The first time I heard her singing voice, I was floored,” Dave remembers. “Not long after that we started singing and performing together.”
The Gray Havens credit a local Chicago coffee shop, Conscious Cup, with helping them build their first following. The owners gave the duo a regular Thursday night slot to perform. In fact, Conscious Cup even went so far as to create and package a special coffee blend called “The Gray Havens Blend.” As they worked creatively together, Dave and Licia soon found their romance re-blossoming.
“People like stories because they like watching relationships unfold and develop,” Dave says. “I think that is a dynamic that our audiences have come to appreciate in our live performances—our relationship as husband and wife, as well as artistic collaborators, is very much front and center. To me, there’s always been something about watching a married couple perform together that’s fun to take in.”
Which brings us back to the undercurrent of joy. While the release of Fire & Stone marks the culmination of a several year journey, both personally and artistically for The Gray Havens, it also arrives as an artistic and theological statement of conviction and depth.
“The title Fire & Stone is really a metaphor,” Dave explains, “about distinguishing between what really fuels joy, and what merely pretends to. It’s about true joy versus counterfeit joy. A log thrown on a fire will fuel the flame and generate lasting heat. A stone placed in that same fire will absorb heat and will seem hot to the touch, but it’s not actually sustaining anything. It’s like a short-lived feeling of happiness, but it’s a counterfeit, not a source of true joy, and the stone will eventually contribute to the dying of the fire. Fire & Stone is about that fight for real joy.”
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