Squaring away artistic ambition with the tenets espoused by contemporary Christian music can’t always be an easy balance to strike. Tauren Wells, who has already enjoyed massive success in the genre, found that to make his third album Joy in the Morning all that he wanted it to be, he had to speak up when the time came.
For example, in writing the album’s stunning closing track, “Has To Be God,” part evocation of divine wonder and part touching love song to his wife, Wells was paired with collaborators he had just met while staying on the West Coast. The writers were brainstorming topics when one just happened to use the title phrase. All discussions about other topics ceased once Wells started singing that phrase to himself.
“Here I am, the new kid in the room,” Wells tells American Songwriter. And I’m like, ‘Guys, I think we have to write “Has To Be God”‘ As soon as I said it, I had goosebumps, which has never happened from just saying a title. And everyone was like, ‘Yo, I’m down.’ I think it’s the song I’m most proud of. One, because of the courage that it took to change directions and chase it. And then two, how everybody, regardless of where they were at, got together around that idea. Once we landed the hook and everything, it just felt huge.”
Huge is a word that can describe the album as a whole, as it represents Wells burning through a myriad of styles, from roof-raising R&B through spikey funk all the way to soaring balladry. If there were any boundaries about what faith-based music was supposed to be, Wells shatters them on Joy in the Morning.
A conversation with Stephen Furtick, a pastor, co-writer, and confidant, helped to open the floodgates for Wells to bring this album to life. “I love leading worship, but I love dancing,” Wells explains. “I love Michael Jackson and I love Hillsong”. There is a full spectrum of what I love and even beyond that. And he encouraged me that there’s room for your whole self in what you do. That was a foundational moment for beginning this new season of my career and for writing this project.
“I just want to bring my whole self into it. I want to talk about the places where I’ve struggled. I want to talk about the places where I’ve doubted. I want to talk about the places where I’m celebrating. From songs that I can sing in church with my church family to the songs that my kids want to hear over and over from the backseat. I wanted songs on this album that unapologetically talked about my relationship with my wife, and others that were for Christian radio. I just wanted to bring it all into this album.”
Wells admits that he didn’t enter into this new creative phase without pausing first to reflect on what it meant. “There was definitely hesitation,” he admits. “There was hesitation initially to go all out on the ‘Fake It’ video, to make that the first thing that people see. Especially for faith-oriented artists, you don’t see a lot of choreography and dancing. There is a connection to something unholy in some people’s minds with dancing.
“For me, I just feel like God owns it all. The thing that got me the courage to put this music out and go 100 is I don’t want to go to the grave leaving anything that I’m even remotely capable of doing for the glory of God unused or untouched. I’m using it all, even if it’s not necessarily my strongest suit. That pushed me over the edge to put these songs out. I think people want to hear great music. I feel like there’s a void right now for songs that mean something on a broad scale, and I hope that my music can work its way into that category.”
Even though Joy in the Morning might have seemed like a risk at the time to make, Wells was at a natural pivot point in his career. “I signed to a new label (Capitol Records/CCMG), which brings on a lot of new relationships,” he says. “It puts different people in the A&R role after I had been working with the same A&R people for the past ten years. That’s a close working relationship. I expected it to go well, but I was cautious about it. There was some trepidation with it. The best part of stepping outside of my comfort zone in all of those relationships was that I got to be exposed to new talent, new perspectives, new producers and songwriters.”
On the topic of songwriting, Wells explains that the new collaborations helped him to steer clear of any familiar ruts. “Songwriting is a pretty low-pressure situation,” he says. “When you think about the odds of you and a total stranger coming into a room together for four hours and coming out with something you both feel amazing about, it’s pretty low odds. There wasn’t this high bar of expectations. It was just exploratory. I think it was really good for me because it’s easy to get into the rhythm of the Nashville way of writing: Go into the room for four hours, write a hit. This is the formula, this is what the radio’s looking for, this is what it sounds like. It’s already pre-made, so to speak.
“With these new writers and new collaborations, it was very much, ‘Hey, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Let’s just have fun. What’s on your heart today, what’s on your mind? Have you heard something inspiring?’ It allowed us to write from a very free place. The results of that were amazing because there was so much fun in the journey.”
It allowed Wells to stray into what some might consider secular territory on songs like “Use A Friend” and “Afraid With You,” where God plays a less overt role and human relationships take center stage. But Wells sees little difference in the message. “Our relationship with God matters, but if it doesn’t impact the way we interact with people, then it’s not working,” he explains. “Something’s missing in our understanding of who God is if it doesn’t affect how we feel about our strangers and our spouses. It’s got to impact every relationship. So there is no separation. There certainly is no separation from where I get my beliefs, which is from the Scripture. The love of God and the love of people is so closely interconnected and intertwined, that if you were to take Jesus’ words literally, they cannot be separated. These songs are just an outflow of that reality.”
Wells also strove to tell stories that didn’t always peddle easy answers, citing the powerful track “Empty,” where he sings “It’s the absence that tells you there’s something more.” “We have to put a bow on every difficulty,” he says of what’s expected in the Christian music genre. “It’s like if you hear a song that’s 3 minutes and 30 seconds, by about 3:27 we’re getting you to the solution if we haven’t already. But a lot of what I have read in Scripture is about facing pain, not running from it. Being allowed to feel, when a lot of times people don’t feel like they have the permission to feel.
“That’s the case with ‘Empty.’ There’s no resolution like, ‘Well, if you’re empty, this is how you’re filled.’ It’s just identifying with other people that I feel empty too. I have an amazing life, an amazing wife, and kids, I’m surrounded by the evidence and proof of God’s blessings in my life. But there are still times when I feel unfulfilled. I just hope songs like ‘Empty,’ songs like ‘Afraid With You’ that’s pointing a lot towards empathy, are songs that are received and meet where people are in their feelings right now.”
Humility And Vulnerability
Wells credits the results achieved on Joy in the Morning to an overall ethos of everyone working on the project, including himself, checking their egos at the door. “I typically lean toward being fairly non-confrontational,” he says. “I value the relationship over the work. I had to turn the page mentally and say that although my ultimate value is people, I don’t want to compromise how I feel something should be because I’m worried about how something is going to be received by my collaborators.
“If I felt like there was a better-suited producer for a song, or if I felt like bringing in another writer could take this 10 percent further, that’s me laying down my ego, first of all, as a songwriter, to improve what I already love if there’s a possibility of it becoming better. And then the expectation is the people around me are laying down their egos as well for the suggestion that something can be elevated. A whole lot of humility all the way around. And I think it’s that thread of humility that has allowed us to create something that I really feel is very special. It’s certainly very special to me.”
Joy in the Morning stands out as music that even non-believers can appreciate because Wells never hectors or berates with his message. Instead, the songs flow naturally out of his warmth and openness, the latter being a quality that he admittedly struggled to display in the past, both in his work and his life. His summation of the creative process for the record makes clear that his music is an outcrop of what he lives and breathes every day, which is why it sounds so natural and authentic.
“The creative process is grappling, it’s wrestling,” he explains. “It’s like first, you have to take yourself down to the mat, your ego, sometimes your best ideas. You got to wrestle them down to the ground to get what’s beautiful about it out of it. You have to be willing to sit in the tension. I am not that type of person by nature. I live pretty up, I’m pretty positive, I’m not looking for conflict, I’m not looking in the mirror every day trying to psychoanalyze myself and dig deep and figure out why I do what I do. That doesn’t come naturally to me, much to my wife’s disdain. She wants to talk and feel and process verbally. I’m much more internal.
“But I’m learning through this redemptive thing called marriage that the more vulnerable you’re willing to be, the more you allow yourself to be truly loved. That’s what I feel like the artist’s journey is, if you can ever get beyond the surface. Hopefully, what makes you the most popular and the most beloved is what is most true about you. That’s my hope for every artist. There are a lot of artists who get famous not really for themselves, but a façade. But I think what’s beautiful is when your artist can meet who you really are and that be received and loved by people. That’s what my hope is with this album.”
Photo by Steven Taylor / Steven Taylor Photography.