It doesn’t seem like nearly a decade ago when pop punk band Hawk Nelson exploded onto the scene with the instant classic Letters To The President back in 2004. But it’s true. Hawk Nelson is officially one of Christian rock’s elder statesmen.
The band has undergone some changes during that time, yet its penchant for driving rhythms and catchy hooks has remained the same. And now that longtime front man Jason Dunn has left to pursue a solo career, Hawk Nelson is charging forward with its latest release Made.
In this Whole Notes interview, lead singer Jonathan Steingard talks about the band’s longevity, his transition into a new role, and the art of reinvention:
Chad Bonham: Is it hard to believe that you guys have been at it for almost 10 years now?
Jonathan Steingard: It catches up with you kind of fast.
Bonham: So it’s a weird concept to be considered music veterans?
Steingard: It is a bit of a weird concept. In some ways we feel like veterans in the sense that we know who we are now and where we fit in and what our calling is more than we did before. But in some ways, we still feel a little new, especially now with the changes in the band. This is the first record with me as the singer. There’s this weird dichotomy. We feel like we’ve been around for a while and we’ve been lucky enough to have people follow us for a while. At the same time, we’re experiencing a lot of firsts again with this record. It’s our first record on Fair Trade. It’s our first record as me as the singer.
Bonham: Take me through the process the band has gone through this past couple of years as you’ve tried to figure out your place in the music industry.
Steingard: That is really the source of a lot of the changes that happened in the last year. Internally, there was a lack of consensus of what we wanted to be as a band and who we wanted to reach and what our goals were. We’re all good friends and we still are. But we were all in this place where we were increasingly finding ourselves on different pages. That’s really what led to Jason (Dunn) moving on. He was the one that had a substantially different idea of what he wanted than the rest of us. He wanted the freedom to do what he wanted to do. So we released him to do those things. We wanted him to be fulfilled, and we wanted to be fulfilled. So instead of getting in each others’ way, we decided to support each other in those different goals. He went on to do his own thing and he released a solo record. The rest of us have focused on making music for believers and being encouragers. We wanted to make music that lifts up Jesus and that’s something we felt really strongly about and wanted to be unequivocal about. On our new record, that shows pretty clearly.
Bonham: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from your experiences over the past 10 years?
Steingard: As a believer, if you’re doing anything where you’re in front of people, it’s incumbent upon you to serve the people you’re in front of well. That might mean something different for different people. If you’re a businessman, serving your customers well is being Jesus in those situations. That’s where it starts. For us in a band, I’ve realized that if we’re in front of people on a regular basis, I want to be effective at serving them and meeting whatever needs we might be uniquely tooled to meet, whether that’s encouragement or providing them a night where they can connect with other believers and have a great time. We just want to be effective using the time we have and the stage we have to really be an encouragement and to serve people well. On a personal level, as a Christian musician and as the front man of a Christian band, if we’re going to be effective, there’s a pastoral element to what we do. It might different for different artists, but if you can play that role, I think that’s where you’re going to be the most effective.
Bonham: Has it been a natural progression going from backup vocals to lead vocals?
Steingard: From a singing point of view, it’s been natural. I’ve been singing alongside Jay for about 10 years. Live, we have so many harmonies and vocal arrangements going on and I was at the mic almost the entire time. But the front man aspect is definitely new to me. That was one of the things I was apprehensive about at first. I was worried that I would get compared to Jay. I was dreading the moment when someone would say, “Hey, you remember when Jay used to do this? Can you do that more?” But I’m not Jay. I approach it differently than Jay does. I have different strengths and different weaknesses. Justin and Dan released me to be myself and we gave ourselves permission to be a bit of a different band as a result. The DNA of the band is the same. It’s just being interpreted in a new way. That’s exactly what the record feels like. It’s an up-tempo record with lots of really fun songs, but we go deeper in to some topics that we haven’t really touched on before.
Bonham: How much did you guys enjoy the unique collaborations (Bart Millard, Blanca Callahan, etc.) you put together for the new album?
Steingard: We got a chance to redefine ourselves a little bit. Once we got the scary part of that, it got real exciting. How many bands get a chance to reinterpret itself in this kind of a way? It was really fun to get together with some people that have been key in our lives. We got to tap into a lot of our friendships. It’s three dimensional because of that. You have these people adding a little speck of their flair to the project.
Bart (Millard) was the actually the one that suggested I be the lead singer. We were going through the process of trying to figure out what we were going to do and while we were out on tour with Mercy Me, he pulled me into his dressing room one day and said “I think you need to be the guy.” We were in the middle of doing our last tour with Jason and Bart took some to encourage me and this ended up being the result of his intervention. We were considering bringing someone into the band from the outside. We ended going this route and I’m glad we did because it feels like it was the right decision. That was really the reason we asked Bart to sing on “Words.” He was the one who really embodied that whole idea for us—being intentional about speaking into the lives of those around us.
Bonham: As you were reinventing the band musically, how did that translate into the song writing?
Steingard: There are a few songs on the record like “Every Beat of My Broken Heart,” and “Faithful” and “Outside the Lines” and “Through the Fire,” that in various ways kind of deal with what happens when you don’t feel like God is close. You know in your head that God is real and that He loves us and cares about us and wants to be involved in our lives, but you don’t see that in your circumstances right in that moment. What do you do with that and those feelings? My family was going through a bit of that last year when my sister was going through chemo. She was 24 at the time and she was pregnant with her first child at the time. It was like, “God, where are you in this situation? I don’t see the purpose here.” In retrospect, I know that we’ll understand someday, whether that’s here on earth or in Heaven. I know that we’ll see that God was working the whole time in the background. When you don’t see Him directly in your circumstances, He’s behind the scenes already preparing a future for you.
We’ve seen that in the life of this band. God knew this was going to happen. He was preparing the way for this to happen even when we were praying that Jason wouldn’t leave or that we would be able to work things out in that previous version of the band. God just had a different plan. That’s helped us trust Him even more for our future.
Stay up on the latest news from Hawk Nelson by visiting the band’s official website HERE:
It’s hard to imagine, but Reach Records artist Trip Lee is closing in on a decade as a Christian hip-hop artist despite just recently hitting the quarter-century mark. Despite his young age, the 116 Clique member has already accomplished more than most 20-somethings and has bigger goals set for the future.
In this Whole Notes interview, Trip Lee talks about his first introduction to music, the turning point that led him to Christ, his relationship with Lecrae and the 116 Clique and why awards and radio play aren’t all that important in the grand scheme of things:
Chad Bonham: Tell me a little bit about how you got into music.
Trip Lee: My dad loved music and he passed that on to me. I fell in love with hip-hop the first time I heard it. I started writing raps at a young age. I wasn’t a Christian at that point. I thought I was but I don’t think I was looking back on it. I didn’t understand at all what Jesus had done for me and that my sins had been paid for. So the stuff that really filled my heart and excited me the most was myself. I was self-centered. So I’d rap about how hot I thought I was, how many girls I thought I could get, or whatever.
Bonham: When do you have that first authentic experience with Christ?
Trip Lee: I was about 14 when I became a Christian. I had been going to youth group and I’d heard the Gospel preached and then suddenly it all started to click. God opened my eyes to see Jesus for who He really was. After I trusted Christ, the Lord changed my entire perspective on everything. I started thinking about how I should relate to my parents and how I should approach school and even what it meant for the music I was writing. How could I write my music in a way that would glorify the God that had changed me?
Bonham Who were some of your early musical influences?
Trip Lee: My favorite artist was probably Jay-Z. He’s the one who inspired me to start writing music. He’s a wordsmith. He’s very clever. He uses a lot of similes and metaphors. He’s a beast of a rapper. Other than that, I was influenced by a lot of diverse within hip-hop whether that was some of the Southern artists like Outkast or guys from the East Coast. I was just a lover of hip-hop. I just took so much of it in.
Bonham: Who were some of the Christian hip-hop artists that impacted you when you first hit the scene?
Trip Lee: The Cross Movement was a group that was a huge encouragement to me. The music was good. The content was good. It really spoke to my soul. It was good to have them around as someone I could learn from and really pattern myself after.
Bonham: Is it odd that you’re in your mid-20s but technically you can be considered a veteran within the industry?
Trip Lee: It is kind of weird. I’ve been doing it for a long time, even though I’m so young. There are some other guys my age that are just putting out their first album. It just makes me think that the Lord was gracious to me in a special way by allowing me to get started so young.
Bonham: How did you meet Lecrae and how did that become a watershed moment in your life?
Trip Lee: I met him when I was about 15 or 16 at a concert. It was the first time I’d heard his music. I loved it. They were like a Southern version of the Cross Movement. He was with Tedashii and B.J. I found a way to stay in contact with them and build a relationship with him. He mentored me and discipled me. It was very helpful. After a while, we started to collaborate on some music. I was still in high school at the time when I had the chance to record a song for a compilation and then I started working on my first album for Reach Records when I was a senior in high school.
Bonham: Were you excited when he was nominated for the GMA Artist of the Year award and later the Grammy Award?
Trip Lee: I’m really grateful for all the success the Lord has given him. Neither one of us are going to define success by awards and nominations although we do think that stuff is cool because it gets the word out and it helps us to get the message out. So we do think that’s a good thing. I can say very sincerely that I can rejoice with my brother in every little thing that happens as the Lord continues to expand his platform. We’re in this to do the same thing. I keep praying that the Lord will keep doing it.
Bonham: Tell me a little bit about the shared purpose within the 116 Clique and how you keep each other accountable to the vision that God has for your individual and collective ministries.
Trip Lee: We do hip-hop and we want to do it in a way that honors God. We love Jesus and we want to bring people along for the journey. We’re running towards Christ and we want to bring people along with us and share with them the things that we’ve learned. But we’re also good friends. We have a genuine love for each other. I would hate to be on the road with folks that I didn’t enjoy and I didn’t like. That just hasn’t been an issue for me. These guys all love the Lord and we’re trying to help each other follow Jesus. I’m grateful to have them with me on the road.
Bonham: What were you hearing from God when you recorded your most recent album The Good Life?
Trip Lee: There are so many lies out there about what the good life is whether that’s making as much money as you can or just being the best you can be. I just wanted to challenge those lies and look at what God says the good life is in His Word. He says that the good life is about believing in God and embracing everything that He has for us. That’s the new picture of the good life that I wanted to paint—living the way that God created us to live. That’s what the good life is. I wanted to paint little pictures and take some snapshots of the good life.
Bonham: How have you matured as an artist and as a believer in recent months and years?
Trip Lee: As an artist, I always just want to grow as a songwriter. I listen to a lot of music. Some guys don’t listen to music a lot, which is fine, but I’m the kind of dude that listens to music all the time, whether it’s hip-hop or soul or rock or whatever. I’m always listening to music and trying to learn from other songwriters and how they tap into certain emotions and communicate more clearly. I want to connect with people in a deeper way so that the content can impact folks. As a believer, the Lord is growing me every single day. I’m married and I’m really grateful for my wife. The Lord has been using her to make me more like Jesus. I have a new son and I’m really grateful for that. I’m grateful to be in DC. We stayed here because we love the church here and this is a good community for us to be a part of. I’m grateful for what the Lord is doing in my life.
Bonham: What is the significance of the orange stripe on the album cover?
Trip Lee: It’s the same stripe across the robot that says I’m not a robot. We were all born robots. We were all born slaves to our sin. We did what the flesh and what the devil told us to do. For those of us that have been freed by Jesus, we don’t have to be robots. We’ve been freed up to follow Christ instead of the world. And then across the cover it means that the good life begins with Christ and ends with me. I need to stop following me and stop trying to make life all about me. That slash through my face represents that.
Bonham: How did you get together with Jimmy Needham and how has that musical relationship worked?
Trip Lee: Jimmy Needham and I have been friends for several years. My wife liked his music and I listened to it and I liked it too. I was encouraged by the content and the boldness. I hit him up on Myspace. Remember that? (Laughs) I hit him up on Myspace and we connected and started to build a friendship. We’re fans of each other’s music and we ended up having shows at the same places and we linked up. We started writing some songs together back in 2010 and we wrote one from his and one for mine. The same thing happened again last year.
Bonham: What are the biggest challenges that the young people you meet are facing these days?
Trip Lee: We just did an album called Man Up because we saw a crisis of manhood in our culture. Young men just don’t know what it means to be a man. There are so many lies about what it means to be a man whether that be get a bunch of girls or get a bunch of money or don’t cry and don’t have emotions. Nobody is teaching them how to be men. We wanted to take the initiative to try to confront that issue. It’s not that we have the answers to everything, but we do feel like God’s Word has the answers. That’s one of the biggest issues we’ve had on our hearts. We’re praying that God will raise up godly men across the country and the world.
Bonham: How did the Trayvon Martin situation in Florida impact you and the guys from the 116 Clique?
Trip Lee: When stuff like this happens, it breaks your heart and reminds you how much you can’t wait until Jesus comes back. Folks need the Gospel. We need to have our hearts changed. We see people from a skewed point of view. We need to see people the way God sees them. Instead of attacking people, we need to love people. It lights a fire under me because it’s a reminder of why we need the Gospel. Our hearts are so corrupt. But one day Jesus is going to come back and reign with perfect justice. There will be no questions about what’s happened. There will be perfect justice and I look forward to that day.
Bonham: How do you deal with multi-sided attack on Christian hip-hop?
Trip Lee: My goal has been to faithful to what God has called me to do. My job is not to make sure that everybody loves what I do. It does feel like sometimes that we’re the outcasts. Hip-hop doesn’t want to mess with us because we’re Christians and Christian music doesn’t want to mess with us because we’re hip-hop. I knew that when I got started. I didn’t expect to have my music played on the radio. I also didn’t expect for anything to be as successful as it has been. I know for sure that God can do whatever He wants to do. He’s called me to be faithful to do good art, to lift up Jesus and that’s what I’m going to do and I’ll let the Lord take care of the rest.
Bonham: So it’s all about staying focused on the big picture?
Trip Lee: Absolutely. None of us started doing this so we could hear our music played on the radio. None of us started doing this because we wanted to be recognized with awards. All of that stuff is good and we’re grateful for it. I’m thankful when those things happen and I hope they happen again, but that’s not why we started doing this. I might not win a Grammy or get another Stellar Award but I’ll get my rewards from the Lord. There’s nothing better than that.
Stay up with the latest from Trip Lee and the entire Reach Records family and 116 Clique by visiting the official website HERE.
Independent bands are typically a dime a dozen. Anyone can spend their own money to make their own record. And most of those bands, no matter how talented they might be, usually get lost in the highly competitive music industry
That’s what makes Hearts of Saints so unique. The four-piece band has found a way to capture the attention of Christian music fans thanks to its penchant for self-marketing (via digital and social platforms) and an undying commitment to authentic ministry.
Whole Notes recently caught up with Hearts of Saints lead singer Craig Felker via email to talk about the balance between worship and rock music, the advantages and disadvantages of being independent, and how one tragic story greatly impacted the band:
Chad Bonham: Which came first, Hearts of Saints the worship band or Hearts of Saints the rock band?
Craig Felker: We’ve always led worship. In fact, early on we really developed as a band by leading worship at a local church in my hometown of Paducah, KY. All four of us grew up playing worship in church long before Hearts of Saints ever existed.
Bonham: On a practical level, what are the challenges of balancing both sides of what the band does creatively?
Felker: I’m not sure it’s a challenge as much as it’s understanding the agenda. When we were writing the songs for the worship record we wanted to make sure we used language that encouraged and united brothers and sisters to sing together in adoration. That’s why you see the emphasis on using words like “we,” “us” and “our.” In addition, we really focused on using scripture as the backbone for the worship disc. I can’t write better lyrics than the truth that exists in scripture, and we just wanted to write fresh expressions from that base. As for the rock disc, we thought of the live audience when creating these songs. That’s why you’ll hear a lot of gang vocals and big anthemic choruses. The agenda was all about the energy and impact these songs could have in our live show.
Bonham: What are the benefits to being able to nimbly move back and forth between both streams?
Felker: I think it allows us to connect with a larger audience, which creates more opportunities to speak about the Good News of Christ. You can’t be all things to all people, although Paul definitely talks about that in 1 Corinthians, but I think this record gives a full picture of who we are today as a band. We’re not a rock band covering worship. We absolutely feel called to do both.
Bonham: What are the advantages of being an independent artist in today’s cultural climate that emphasizes empowering technology and social media?
Felker: Great question. I think creative/artistic freedom is the big advantage of being an indie. In this specific instance, we had the liberty to be both a rock and a worship band, which we most likely would not have been able to do otherwise. Another advantage of being an indie in today’s culture is the freedom to control social media content to stay connected with our fans. Recently, we started a Facebook/Twitter “share our new album” marketing campaign to promote For All of Us. We planned and implemented this plan in less than 24 hours.
Bonham: What are the disadvantages of being an independent artist and how have you overcome those challenges?
Felker: Radio…Radio…Radio. Did I say radio? While independent artists are receiving more credibility that ever, it’s still very hard for an indie band/artist to receive significant radio airplay in the Christian market. There are multiple factors behind that, but it’s a very competitive market and radio stations only have a few spots each week to add new songs. Ultimately, you have to write great songs and find the Lord’s favor. In all seriousness, our Christmas single “The Shepherd’s Song (God With Us)” broke into the Billboard Top 20 in December, and we were humbled and honored by the news. We really hope that continues with this new record so more people can hear our music and message.
Bonham: What creative influences (outside of other artists) have had the greatest impact on the band’s sound and songwriting?
Felker: I’m really not trying to be cheesy here, but it’s the scriptures and the gospel. More than ever, we’ve really leaned on God’s Word for vision and direction on this record. That’s where we find truth about God’s nature and great love for us, which shapes our identity and story. In a lot of ways, I’d say that’s what this record is all about—our story wrapped together in His.
Bonham: When it comes to your worship music, what is the general theme that tends to emerge from your writing sessions?
Felker: With the worship music on For All of Us it’s all about Identity. A song like “Out Of The Dark” (based on 1 Thessalonians 5:4-5) really speaks about this theme. As the chorus says: Hallelujah/ Christ has overcome/The Son has risen, the song is about understanding our identity as sons and daughters of light. It’s about realizing that God has already conquered death so that we might have freedom to live in Him. Despite what we may face or what we’ve done, God loves us, redeemed us and wants to give us eternity. This hope we have in Christ is not something we’re waiting on; we walk in it now!
Bonham: What about your narrative songs? Is there a particular message that tends to find its way into the rock material?
Felker: I think on the rock material you see a few main themes. Songs like “Flash” and “Attraction, Distraction” focus on being distracted by things in life that really don’t matter like fame, self-pursuit, etc. While songs like “Birth of a Legacy” and “Battle Cry” are modern rock anthems that present a direct call to fight with love for justice by giving ourselves away. Ultimately, that should be the theme of everything we do. When we give ourselves away, that’s where we find life.
Bonham: Long set up for this question, but after reading your story about the fan who took her own life, I was reminded of a church service I was in recently where the speaker had been suicidal for most of his teen years and through his early 20s. He gave an altar call for those in the crowd who have been tormented with suicidal thoughts and 18 came down out of several hundreds of people. I was shocked that so many answered the call.
So here’s the question: Was your experience hearing about this girl an eye-opener when it comes to suicide within the walls of the church and how has that impacted your ministry focus?
Felker: I’m not sure it was an eye-opener as much as it was humbling. We just kept thinking, “What could we have said? What could we have done to prevent this?” That’s a tough road to go down, but we definitely were asking ourselves those questions. Before this particular story, we were aware of fans having issues with self-mutilation, suicidal thoughts, divorce, etc., But this definitely impacted our focus. I think now we attempt to verbalize the gospel to every audience and communicate how much God really loves them. We just want people to know that they’re not alone, that we were never intended to be alone and that Jesus promised He’d be with us until the end of the age.
Bonham: Can you give me a specific example of how her story (and other stories like it) have inspired the band to help people struggling with emotional pain whether that might have been through a one-on-one opportunity, from the concert stage, etc.?
Felker: The stage has always been a platform for us to be relational. We just love people. So we always attempt to connect with others after shows and stayed involved as much as possible. I think now, more than ever, we just speak more boldly than before. Ultimately, this is about discipling and sharing the love of Christ. Recently, we had a fan reach out to us about her drug issues via social media. This led to a series of conversations, and I’m happy to report that she is now two months sober from serious drug abuse. It’s not anything we’re doing, but what the Spirit of the Lord is doing. We just want to speak truth and be encouragers.
Keep track of the latest tour dates and other band news by visiting the official Hearts of Saints website.
In March of 2013, the History Channel will release a five-week, 10-hour miniseries called “The Bible” produced by the husband-wife team of Mark Burnett (The Voice, Survivor, Celebrity Apprentice) and Roma Downey (Touched By An Angel). To promote the event, Burnett has been releasing music videos highlighting scenes from the series.
Here’s the latest video that was released featuring Pastor Charles Jenkins and Fellowship Chicago’s song “Awesome.”