Andrew Peterson Talks New Album
‘The Burning Edge of Dawn’
I will borrow Andrew Peterson’s explanation of the definition of songwriting (and poetry/storytelling) to say this about his new album: “The Burning Edge of Dawn,” which released Oct. 9, is one of the best piles of things and collection of broken fragments gathered and kept that I’ve ever heard. And that really is meant as praise for the album. You will have to read my entire interview below with Andrew to understand what that phrase means and why Andrew used it to talk about songwriting, poetry, and storytelling.
It really was a fascinating, fun interview, and it really is a praise-worthy album. My current favorite tracks are “Every Star Is A Burning Flame” and “The Sower’s Song.”
And although I know it’s a little lazy to always use references/comparisons to other artists when describing new music, this new album feels like an astonishing hybrid between my favorite Finn Brothers and Jakob Dylan albums. (And that’s definitely meant as praise, from my perspective). The album articulates the human experience with a deft mix of realism and imagination and runs that experience — like train tracks — parallel to an exquisite unfolding of Biblical truth, and it stays with you; the music, the lyrics, and the ghost of each song lingers in the mind throughout the day long after you’ve listened to the music.
I think that albums live in our minds like spirits — at least until we have another chance to listen to the music, and then the spirits rise into the physical world again with bodies. But until those resurrections happen the thematic colors of each song imprint themselves on our minds like the marks of fingers pressing against glass, and for the rest of the day we see the world through their fingerprints that have smudged the lens. And it’s a beautiful thing, especially when it’s a beautiful album like “The Burning Edge of Dawn.”
You can learn more about Andrew Peterson and check out his new album at his official website. In the weeks before the release of the album, I had the chance to speak with him over the phone. Here’s what we discussed:
Is this a crazy time leading up to the album release?
Yes, it is really crazy. If I were younger I would be really excited about it, but I’m 41 and having done this for years, I’m kinda like, “Well, kids and Jamie, I guess I’ll see you guys in January.” It’s like the nights where everyone is home at the same time and you can watch an episode of “Doctor Who” or something are non-existent for the next three months. It’s a little crazy. I’m thankful, but yes it is a lot of work, a lot going on.
Especially the family aspect, that’s tough.
Yeah, that’s the main thing. Honestly. Music, I’ve been saying for years, I don’t get paid for playing music I get paid for being gone from my family and community. That’s the only part of my job I don’t like. Well, that’s not true. I don’t like lame shows.
[laughs] Yeah, that’s a close second. But that’s a tough one [the family aspect]. It is a big price to pay, I don’t think people realize that. I really like the title, “The Burning Edge of Dawn.” It’s a very interesting phrase. What moved you to choose that imagery?
Thanks for that; I have not yet answered this question. So forgive me if I meander a bit. I had to struggle to find the album title more than I ever have before with this record. Usually it’s a really fun part of the process — reading through all the lyrics trying to find the phrase that conveys the breadth of the songs.
This time I had emailed probably 20 title ideas to my confidants and got, “Oh, well it’s kinda okay…” So because I was trying really hard to use a lyric from the record I had the “Golden Edge of Dawn,” which is a lyric from one of the songs, and it just sounded a little too cutesy or something, so whenever I put the word “burning” in it, it conveyed the painfulness of it a little bit. It’s a more painful sounding word than “golden.” Because I think that it isn’t just an album about “everything is just going to be okay.” It’s an album about the fact that everything is going to be okay but that comes at a cost. The coming of dawn at the end of a long night is not necessarily all butterflies and birdsong — it’s like FINALLY. Which to me conveyed the essence of the record, that the season of my life, which started in my last record, was kind of a mid-life crisis record, which was all these songs I didn’t understand why I was writing all these songs about my childhood and loss of innocence and my children growing up and how painful that was, and that album came out and I almost immediately went in to counseling. I did a lot of weird things, I was crying without knowing why, and I was just all “what is happening?” It was like I hit puberty all over again. This record is kinda written at the tail end of that season. Not that everything is okay now but now I have enough perspective on it to see that the Lord is still with me. I think that’s what it is about. The sun coming up doesn’t mean everything is fine, it just means that it was there all along. It may go away again but that doesn’t mean that it’s not still there.
That’s a great description. When I saw the word “burning” it made me think about how the transition of night into day is actually really violent, but we don’t really think about that. We don’t think about the heat of dawn as a violent, painful force. There was an element of pain there for sure. How do you think you’ve grown as a songwriter for this new album?
I think — I’ve heard this before and I agree with it — limitations and restrictions are actually helpful for an artist. Most of us who have written a song, draw a picture, written a story know of the terror of a blank piece of paper. Like how do you start? That’s how I always feel when I sit down to write a song, like you’ve got the whole world to write about, where in the world do you begin? Chords, I’ve used them all before, where do I start? But as soon as you put a limitation on it, as soon as somebody says, “Well, you need to write a 1,500 word essay on this,” then you feel this change. Your creative muscle kinda kicks into gear in a way that it doesn’t before. I don’t like that to be true because I’m kind of a “I’m an American nobody can tell me what to do” kicks in and I feel like, “no, I want the freedom” that’s what everyone talks about “artistic freedom” all the time, but I’m not sure freedom is better submissio
So with this record there was a hard deadline that I had already pushed back. Last year when I put out the greatest hits album after all these years — I say greatest hits, I don’t really have any of those. [laughs] But the album collection retrospective, I put that out because the label wanted me to make a new album but I had just finished the fourth “Wingfeather,” and I had zero creative energy. Then someone had the idea to put out this collection, which ended up me re-recording eight songs and writing four new ones, so it ended up not being any kind of respite from it. So I bought myself a few months, and then I still had nothing. So I went into the studio with Gabe, who is one of my oldest and best friends, but I haven’t co-written with him in about 15 years, so I had no idea. Are you a parent?
Yeah, I have a three year old daughter.
It’s kind of like that feeling when you find out your wife is pregnant and you’re like I know that in six months there is going to be this new person in my life but you just cannot imagine. It’s like how is that going to work? How is it possible that I’m going to be a dad one day? I remember that feeling like I know there’s a change coming but I cannot fathom the change and what it’s going to be like. That’s what this record felt like. It was like in two months I have to turn in an album of ten songs at least. I was just like, “I can’t even imagine what the songs are going to be, I don’t know what they’re going to sound like.” I have this guy I’m writing with who I haven’t written with in 15 years. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around how that was going to happen. The great thing is that was exactly what I needed — this hard deadline and a lot of pressure and having to go shake things up and write songs in a completely different way than I’ve ever written in before, and that’s the only way the thing would have happened.
Wow. And when you were talking about the blank page I was just thinking about the paralysis of having an infinite possibility of choices, and it’s interesting that God kinda put this box around you and it produced this.
And you didn’t have any panic attacks or anything? [laughs]
I didn’t. I slept a lot. [laughs] I remember Gabe and I would go to the studio and he had his workroom and there was another room with a piano in it and i would get to the studio and he would say well, I’ll be in here working on guitars and you go in the other room and just try to write, come up with something, because we only have one song, or that kind of thing. I was going to this other room that has no windows and a couch instead of a piano and five minutes later I’d be on the couch asleep. This spring I was way over-committed. I taught a college course, just had all this stuff going on, and the studio was almost like a respite where I was coming and collapsing on the couch.
But I think there was something real happening there. Just being in that environment and being surrounded, hearing Gabe in the other room working on music, just helped me get things going a bit. He would give me these little thirty second snippets of songs. I’m a word guy, not a music guy so much, so I kind of like most of the musical stuff in my songs that’s interesting I’ve stolen from somebody else. It doesn’t take much. If someone has a really evocative guitar part then I go ooh, I can almost immediately picture not the song but the possibility of a song. So Gabe would record these things on voice memo and I’d put them on my phone and go into the other room and just cycle through and listen until one ignited some melody or lyric. Then I’d come in at the end of the day and say, “Hey, I wrote this what do you think?” Which normally, the difference between this record and the previous album is that that normally happens over the course of about two years — that slow [approach of], “Oh I can make that into a song a year from now,” so buy the time, you go into the studio, you’ve got most of the songs ready to go. So it was pretty scary and humbling to realize how much I needed to rely on Gabe and the other writer and musicians to make it happen.
I’m sure it’s a relief to be through that. My next question, when you say you’re a word guy, your lyrics have always been a big pull for me. I love your Inklings background, Oxford and everything. Did you have any favorite kind of lines or lyrical themes that you were really excited about for this new album?
The one that I geek out the most about is probably the last song on the record, it’s called the “Sower’s Song,” and it kind of delighted me. I have breakfast every Tuesday with some friends and they had heard the album and one guy was all “Oh, man, I really like the “Sower’s Song.” He was just like, “The music in this song was so cool, there’s like this piano part and halfway through the song it changes time signatures and there’s just this whole different movement that happens and how did you come up with that?” I laughed. And I said actually my buddy Ben wrote that music and we just used his track. Like literally. He made the track and we just stole it. They were like, “Oh,” and felt kinda bad because I hadn’t written the music. “But that whole lyrical thing that happened at the second half of the song is so cool,” [his friend continues]. Actually that was just Isaiah 55. All I did was make it rhyme. Then he was all, “yeah, but the first part of the song…” Well, actually that’s from John 15. [laughs] It made me so happy because that’s my favorite song on the record, to know that I had very, very little to do with it.
That’s how I feel with most of them. Sure my name may be the one on there but it’s so easy for me to look through the lyrics and remember the book that I read or the conversation I had with a friend or a Scripture I read or the album I was listening to that led me down the path to the guitar part I got. It’s just like Walter Wangerin, Jr., who is one of my favorite authors, he’s an amazing author. He’s written many many books and is one of the best authors out there. I heard him speak and he talked about “story” and the root of it or maybe it’s “poet,” I can’t remember, it’s some word like that. If you dig back into the etymology of the word and get to where the word came from the original word is a keeper or a piler. So what a poet or storyteller is, he is a keeper who keeps and a piler who piles. You just take stuff and you pile it out. And that’s where we get our word poet…or storyteller, whatever it was. So you think of it as this exalted “Oh, I am an poet.” But really what you’re doing is just pushing dirt into piles and trying to make something out of a bunch of broken stuff around you. That’s how I felt about my favorite song on the album — the one I had the least to do with. It was just a matter of connecting a few dots that somebody else had already drawn. The music and how it sums up the theme of the record just totally delighted me.
In reading your bio, it was fun to read about Oxford, I spent a week in Oxford and it was life-changing. Do you have any plans to go back? Is that on the horizon at all?
Such an amazing place. Just Europe and the UK. My family spent a couple months there two years ago and it was life-changing for us. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as much like a missionary as I did when I was playing shows in the UK in this kind of post-Christian culture, in a culture where a church is everywhere but nobody takes it seriously, being someone who can go and try to tell the Gospel story with this kind of music because there’s not a lot of singer-songwriters who are Christian there that do the kind of thing that I do. I loved it though. We are planning to go back there next summer on the tour. So, yeah, Oxford is a happy place for me. I feel dumber when I’m there, but it’s great.
Are there any tour plans or anything else you want to let our readers and fans know about in the coming months?
The album comes out on October 9 and that’s the takeoff of a month-long tour all over the country with a band that I’m so excited about — such a great band, and it includes my 15-year-old son Asher on drums. So he’s the drummer for the tour. He’s really great. He’s really excited because he thinks that he’s going to get out of homework but it’s not true. Eric Peters who is one of my best friends and an amazing songwriter is the opening act. Then once that tour is over comes the “Behold the Lamb of God” Christmas tour in December. So it’s going to be a busy fall.