Crowder on His Solo Success & the 'Trajectory of Tastes' on His Latest Album
Singer-songwriter Crowder, aka David Crowder, former frontman of David Crowder Band, has achieved impressive success, even if he's hesitant to agree.
"Yeah, but only two No. 1s," he chuckles, attempting to downplay his many hits on Billboard's Christian Airplay chart.
"There simply isn't another artist with the ability to take you on so many different journeys with each new project he releases," says Kenny Rodgers, vp of promotion at Capitol Christian Music Group, Crowder's label. "From radio hits to being one of the most electrifying live performers in the contemporary Christian music space, Crowder can really do it all."
Since launching his solo career, Crowder has rolled up six top 10s on Christian Airplay, including, yes, two No. 1s: "Come as You Are" led for two weeks in 2015 and "All My Hope" reigned for two frames in 2018. On the Hot Christian Songs chart, which combines streaming, airplay and sales data, Crowder has netted five top 10s. "Red Letters," the launch single from his latest album, I Know a Ghost, reached the top 10 on both tallies.
The 16-song set debuted at its No. 2 peak on Top Christian Albums on Nov. 24, 2018, with 15,000 equivalent album units earned in its first week, according to Nielsen Music. He boasts two No. 1s on the chart: 2016's American Prodigal and 2014's Neon Steeple. Previously, David Crowder Band scored 11 top 10s, including four No. 1s, on Top Christian Albums between 2002 and 2013. His latest chart action is owed to Ghost sophomore single "Let It Rain (Is There Anybody)," featuring Mandisa. The track jumps to No. 24 on the Christian Airplay list dated June 1, up 26% to 1.1 million in audience reach.
Crowder took time to chat with Billboard about his upbringing, his transition to recording solo and how carefully he follows his songs up the charts.
When did you first gravitate to music?
Oh, man, I think since I was born, actually, as soon as I could reach the keys. We had a piano in the house, and you know how it goes when your parents say, "Son, don't touch it." Of course that's where I went. I was banging on that thing as long as I can remember.
What about actual training?
One day my mom actually recognized a song that I was playing, so she went and got me some lessons. Honestly, I was so young that I can't remember how old I was, but I was little. I could play by ear but never liked formal training. I wasn't crazy about formal exercises.
At what point did you start playing music in front of people?
I attended Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and that was about 1995 or '96; I was playing with guys at church. We were trying to emulate the sound of the times. Here's exactly how it started: I'd take classic church hymns and reimagine them so sonically they would sound like the music we were listening to, groups like Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic, Big Head Todd, Phish, that jam-band scene. The music was contemporary but the lyrics from the old hymns were well-vetted within the church, so I knew it was safe.
You grew up in a sort of strict Christian household, correct? Were you free to listen to any kind of music?
Yes, early on it was wide open. My mom was a huge Elvis Presley fan; dad was into Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. So, I was pretty free to listen to whatever I wanted to. However, by the time that I got into my early teens, my parents wound up in a very conservative church, and there went all of my musical freedom. They got much firmer about what I could listen to.
How did that turn happen?
Well, they had sort of a cathartic, revelatory experience. But for me it was confusing. There was all this great music and all of a sudden, it's gone. Their opinion was that what we consumed affects who we are and how we're shaped. For me, though, it was just super-bewildering, like, 'Hey, can I watch Star Wars or not watch Star Wars?' "
Let's jump ahead. You started on piano. When did you segue to guitar?
Not until I was a junior at Baylor, where I was studying music.
So, it was the guys from church that ended up becoming the nucleus of David Crowder Band?
Yeah, UBC, Universal Baptist Church. It was really contemporary and had the feel of a non- denominational church. I mean, the aesthetics fit. It was kind of like walking into a House of Blues. It was cool. So, David Crowder Band launched and we were doing like 200 to 250 dates a year, but we'd try to make it back to lead worship at church on Sundays.
When did the band sign a recording contract?
Around 2000 we signed with a subsidiary of Capitol Christian Music Group. We signed a three-record deal, then re-signed. Overall the whole experience with the band was a blast.
Why did you decide to go solo? It sounds like your band had quite the fanbase.
Well, I had been on staff at the church for 16 years and touring with the band that long, as well, so I just needed to hit the pause button and see what was next.
What did you do after the band broke up?
Really, nothing. I needed a space to figure it all out. I didn't pick up an instrument for a good amount of time, and then just started writing country songs after a year or so into that phase.
You write with songwriters in the country genre and it definitely comes out in your overall sound, which seems to embody a lot of different styles.
I describe it this way and it may it explain why I can sound so eclectic at times: When I have something stuck inside me, that I have fallen in love with, like great country, rock or pop songs, it moves me, and immediately causes me to create something.
Was your faith ever challenged during that time when the band was going its separate ways?
It was kind of an in-and-out thing, if that makes sense. I was solid in my beliefs, then fell out of it and then essentially saved by a bunch of hoodlums. [Laughs.] They were guys that were similar to me, in the same place that I was; questioning and wondering where we were headed. I realized that there was something a lot bigger than us to lend myself towards. And it caught me at the perfect time.
I actually thought that I'd just go work for my wife [Toni] for a while. She [works in] design and I thought, well, I'd just go be her gopher, go pick up her paints and supplies and stuff. Seriously. I love that kind of work, too. You paint a wall and it's like, bang, it's done.
How did you go about structuring a solo career?
I had always been with Capitol, and we stayed friends, so I think they knew I'd be back eventually. Also, while I loved writing country songs, I wasn't feeling like I needed to get out and play those songs for people. I was being pulled back toward what inspired me when I led worship at church, serving a community, being useful. The solo journey became introspective for me. Before I had this gang, a band; now, it was up to me. The great thing was that when doing solo projects, I could ask players who fit the songs to come in and record. It's fun to do that.
I Know a Ghost is your third solo album, and the new single is "Let It Rain (Is There Anybody)." What was it like working with Mandisa?
Firstly, I love collaborations and having someone to work with creatively. Mandisa is a pro and she shined when we were producing the video. She has that training from competing on American Idol. She knows how to work it. She taught me a lot, like camera etiquette, or whatever that's called.
I'm a former radio programmer -- and I think, once a radio guy, always a radio guy. You tend to listen for 30 seconds the first time, hoping something interesting will bring you in. Then, you go back a second time and a third time. With "Rain," I felt like this is a cool, keyboard-driven, R&B-flavored pop track in the spirit of, say, Sara Bareilles. But when you keep listening, you discover there's a lot more.
Yeah, you nailed it on the sonic nature of it. "Rain" definitely has a happy feel. It's a paradoxical kind of deal in that it sounds cheery and upbeat, but what the song is saying is that often when you're in a spot that feels bleak, you might actually have been led there by your maker. It's like Exodus, in that there's that promised land on the other side, but there's something that you have to deal with first. Remember: same God that brings the sunshine brings the rain. It's a very complicated thing to think about when it comes to theology. You need something propositional, like there is an end to the bleakness, and you're going to be a better human on the other side of this darkness. Hopefully the music helps people get there.
You have a calming sense about you. Do your fans come up to you and open up about their own troubles?
No one's told me that I'm calming, actually. I'll take it, though. Yeah, fans do that. A guy just approached me in an airport, told me he was going through a divorce and that ["Rain"] helped him keep going, and how much it helped. That's a great feeling when someone tells you that.
Ghost has a lot of different styles: hip-hop, country, rock, pop. How do you pick the singles?
I leave that up to the label, the professionals. I honestly appreciate their expertise.
In addition to radio, fans can stream your music instantaneously.
Yeah, things have changed immensely. Songs can get to people and sometimes radio will pick up on it after it has a story.
Do you pay attention to the charts?
I can't because I'm too close to it. I had to let go of it because it can drive you crazy.
What are you listening to?
I go through Shazam and Spotify to see what is getting people's attention. I love doing that. When my wife is controlling the buttons, I'm checking out [top 40] Z100 in New York. But I also listen to bluegrass and country and everything in between.
It also feels like a cohesive album, even as you bounce between styles.
It's the favorite of all the records that I have made so far. If someone listens to it from beginning to end, hopefully they'll see the trajectory of tastes.
Will you have the opportunity to perform "Rain" live with Mandisa?
If it's a hit, yes. I would love to -- like, at an awards show.
"Rain" is climbing the Christian Airplay chart. Do you have a good feeling about it?
My wife is a master critic. She loves classic rock, listens to music differently than I do -- and I guess I put it this way: She definitely has the gift of criticism. [Laughs.] Anyways, when I played the album for her and "Rain" came on, she was actually crying. That's a good sign.
Last question, and probably most important: How does your wife like your beard?
She loves the beard. I call her the keeper of the beard. Last time that I shaved was back in 2000, so I've had it a while. She didn't like it when I shaved, so, yeah, it's staying.