Jars Of Clay Looks To Musical Origins

After a decade that includes a career-defining, self-titled debut in 1995, three Grammy Awards and more than 5 million albums sold, Jars of Clay has earned the right to explore new territory and to ve

After a decade that includes a career-defining, self-titled debut in 1995, three Grammy Awards and more than 5 million albums sold, Jars of Clay has earned the right to explore new territory and to venture a little off the beaten path.

But the band's sixth full-length album, "Who We Are Instead" (released Nov. 4 on Essential Records), feels more like a homecoming than a send-off into uncharted territory. Harking back to the group's musical origins, "Who We Are Instead" incorporates more of Jars of Clay's Nashville hometown flavor with elements of folk, blues, country and Americana rock -- all in an acoustic setting quite different from the band's more recent pop/rock efforts.

"We've been reacquainting ourselves with the subtleties of acoustic music and the passion of a good song," lead singer Dan Haseltine says, as the band gathers around a kitchen table in a Nashville studio. Jars of Clay is here to record its own version of U2's "All I Want Is You" for a multi-artist project that will help benefit the African AIDS crisis.

After touring acoustically for the past year, Haseltine and bandmates Stephen Mason, Matt Odmark and Charlie Lowell admit they found a comfortable fit that had been missing. "We weren't relying on the lights, the sound and the circus around us," Haseltine explains. "We were just getting out there and hoping the songs would have legs and be able to stand on their own. It just seemed like this was a big part of our identity, and one that we've not really felt comfortable living in for a long time.

"We've tried to wear a bunch of skins," he adds. "We tried to be a rock'n'roll band, which I felt like we did well. But when it came to this record, I think we had reached a point in our career where we walked into the studio and for the first time had actually matured in the 10 years that we've been a band. There was a confidence and a sense that we've lived -- we've been musicians, and we know how to make records. Now it's just a matter of focusing on the songs and doing what we love and what we feel we're good at."

Self-produced by Jars of Clay, "Who We Are Instead" features additional production help from Ron Aniello (Guster) on four tracks, along with the musical talents of vocalists Ashley Cleveland and Kenny Meeks and drummers Ben Mize (Counting Crows) and Ken Coomer (ex-Wilco).

The album's themes examine the complex struggles of human nature, especially on bluesy, gritty tracks like "Trouble Is" and "Amazing Grace" (a newly written song). "It's about acknowledging and embracing our need of something more than what we offer ourselves," Mason says. "It's a hopeful look at being able to live life as fools and know that grace still meets us in that place."

"Who We Are Instead" debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard Top Contemporary Christian albums chart, selling nearly 16,000 copies in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Indeed, the timing is right for Jars of Clay's 30-city fall tour with labelmates Caedmon's Call and special guest Steven Delopoulos. The bill drew capacity crowds recently in Dallas; Phoenix; San Francisco; Bellingham, Wash.; Spokane, Wash.; and Lancaster, California. A second sold-out show was added in Sacramento, Calif.

The album comes at the end of a year in which Jars of Clay left their longtime manager of eight years, Nashville-based Rendy Lovelady, and signed with the larger Nettwerk Management (Coldplay, Sarah McLachlan, Avril Lavigne), which has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, London and Vancouver.

"There's a cycle in which you sort of stop and re-evaluate the efficiency and vision of the team that works around you and make certain decisions based on where you feel like you're going," Haseltine says. "We went outside Nashville because there was no other person here who would have done as good a job as Rendy. We felt like we weren't just stepping sideways, but we were taking a step in a more productive direction for our career."

Odmark adds, "We've been in this for 10 years now. I think the honeymoon is over, and we're pretty familiar to most of the people who buy our music. So we've been given a tremendous gift to have the ability to come and make peace with who we are and to experiment with different things.

"You have to be willing to jump in a direction that may be totally uncomfortable to you in order to put all those pieces together in the end," he says. "If you want to be a great band, you have to walk that road."

Excerpted from the Nov. 29, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Premium Services section.

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