Jars of Clay has become one of the most well known and successful bands to come out of the Christian music scene. Their music has topped charts and gained fans in both the Christian and mainstream markets – earning them several Grammys, GMA Dove Awards, BMI Awards, as well as music spots featured in several hit movies and television shows.
For over twenty years their music has appealed to a wide variety of listeners in the Christian community and far beyond. This in itself speaks to not only their talents as musicians but their ability to build and maintain a steady fanbase throughout years of growth and change.
Jars of Clay is one of the few bands that when I play their music it feels like I’m home. Their melodies and lyrics have a way of taking you right to a quiet place in your heart that is both familiar and open to possibility. While other bands that I loved in the nineties have gone their separate ways, Jars of Clay has created a unique opportunity for me to be able to grow along with their music. Growing up in a Christian household there were times that I felt maybe Christianity was something that had been decided for me rather than a choice that I had made for myself. I don’t regret how I grew up and it’s not even that it was too strict. I’ve just always valued my freedom to think for myself and make my own choices above being told what to believe.
When I first heard Jars of Clay in 1995 it was completely eye opening for me that a band could sound like they sounded while also speaking words that mirrored much of what I had thought myself at times and wondered if it was okay. Their music wasn’t the “matter of fact” hell fire and brimstone that I had grown accustomed to. It was like a gentle, love filled, raw, and honest conversation with a friend – full of both vulnerability and strength. For the first time I felt like in a way I was being spoken with about faith while being given room to formulate my own thoughts as opposed to being just told how things were and what to think. Jars of Clay’s lead singer, Dan Haseltine, really explained it best in an interview that he did in 2002 with NPR’s Scott Simon when asked about the bands conscious decision to stay away from traditional religious language in their music:
“I think that’s fairly intentional…I think in our approach, our songs, kind of like Matt was saying, are not really there to explain our faith. They are songs that are written about our life that was are affected by our faith. And there are many people that are very put off by the name of Jesus…that are very put off by the church and religion. There are many aspects of religion that we just as much despise as the next person because we feel like they don’t represent who Christ is. And so we shy away from tradition religious language and choose to write songs in the language of the culture, in a language that we understand as people.”
Jars of Clay’s music was everything that I needed in 1995 as a thirteen year old girl who found herself a bit put off by the beliefs that were being thrown at her with no regard to giving her space to figure them out on her own. Their music continued to be that for me throughout high school and college with the release of each new album. Now, as a woman in her thirties, they continue to inspire and challenge me with their music and their words. I feel the same sense of freedom and acceptance now as I did when I first played their music as a teenager. And I know that I am not the only one.
I was recently able to speak with Jars of Clay’s keyboardist, Charlie Lowell, to find out more about their music, writing style, and also what it is that he feels has kept them going all of these years.
Charlie Lowell Interview
TAMMY: Who were some of your musical inspirations growing up?
CHARLIE: Beginning with Tears For Fears, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Crowded House… then when the band met in college, it was a combination of acoustic artists, like Indigo Girls and Sarah McLachlan, mixed with techno/rave music. That is what spawned the first Jars record.
TAMMY: When did you first learn to play the piano and at what point did you realize that music was something that you wanted to pursue professionally?
CHARLIE: I started early- in 1st grade – and it still amazes me that I kept at it, practicing enough each week to at least get me to the next lesson. In middle school, I started picking out songs “by ear”, and playing in a garage band. Throughout my childhood, it was just a pivotal part of life… learning to play and obsessing over my always growing record/cassette/cd collection. When it came time to go to college, music was the only thing that made sense.
TAMMY: Is it true that while you were attending Greenville College that you saw someone wearing a Toad the Wet Sprocket shirt and you decided to talk to that person and he ended up being Dan Haseltine?
CHARLIE: Yes, we have had some interaction w/ Toad over the years and they know of our fandom! I met Dan in a class, because he had a Toad tour shirt on, and I was a big fan of the FEAR record. The following year, Stephen came in and met me because I was wearing an Innocence Mission t-shirt.
TAMMY: What inspires you when you are sitting down to write a new song? And is it typical for you all to sit together as a group to write lyrics or is it more of just you will individually write and share with each other?
CHARLIE: Yes, we write most always as a group… generally coming in with a blank canvas, and finding a muse – lyrical or musical, and carving away until we have something that feels concise. For the most part, our singer Dan is most responsible (and awesome at) the lyrics, and we all share musical ideas.
TAMMY: How do you feel your writing style has matured throughout your time with Jars of Clay?
CHARLIE: I think we’ve grown to trust each other more… that’s the beauty of 20 years together. You get more willing to “risk” w/ each other and not play the Lifeboat game so much.
TAMMY: Jars of Clay has been together now for around twenty three years. What do you think it is that makes the group “work”? What has held you all together through everything?
CHARLIE: We’re not touring these days like we did… but we do a show every couple months if it makes sense, and it’s very enjoyable. We really pushed the touring machine farther than we probably should have, with exhausted families at home. No one expected things to go on that long! I think laughter and humor has a huge part of sticking things out… as well as the community around the band.
TAMMY: In your time with Jars of Clay what is an experience or a memory that you have that really stands out as being one of your favorites?
CHARLIE: Traveling internationally was really fun, because you’re all out of your comfort zone, but you are also there with 3 of your best friends… so it lends to great stories & memories. From playing at a castle in England to a bush village in northern Kenya, there are some incredible photos & memories!
TAMMY: What do you enjoy doing when you aren’t touring or working on music?
CHARLIE: I have an awesome family in TN which I get to share my days with more now that we are not on the road as much. Music is still the biggest part of my life, vocationally… working w/ younger artists in town, songwriting and collaborating. Aside from that, I’m a easy YES for a book, boat day on the lake, or glass of wine.
TAMMY: What advice do you have for musicians who are really just getting started?
CHARLIE: I think it’s important to say YES as much as possible, and lean on the things that make you unique. It takes a lot of courage to step out & be vulnerable, but there are so many creative avenues these days. It’s changed a lot since we started, but in some ways, there are more opportunities these days, even though it’s harder to economically sustain things like touring.
TAMMY: Jars of Clay has compiled an incredible collection of tracks through the years – all of which contain not only beautiful music but amazing lyrics as well. It is so hard to go through all of your music and pick a favorite. But what songs really stick out as being some of the most meaningful to you personally?
CHARLIE: Thanks. Recent favorites are “Pennsylvania”, “Love In The Hard Times” and “Heart”. Catalog favorites are “Lesser Things”, “Safe To Land”, and “Weapons”.
TAMMY: What are you currently working on and excited about?
CHARLIE: I’m doing some instrumental compositions (under the name Hollow Hum) that I hope to release later in 2016, which should include some collaborations with some incredible new singer/writers that it’s been a blast to get to work with.
To find out more about Jars of Clay, hear and purchase music, and keep up on their latest news you can visit their website at jarsofclay.com