[ september 2004 | interview by kim flanders ]
cMW: So last year at this time, we all were awaiting the release of a CD titled Phenomenon. Now, after nearly a year delay, we know the October 5, 2004 release to be called Welcome to Diverse City. Has the main thread of the CD changed since then, or just the title?
Toby: Phenomenon was going to be the title, without a doubt. And I was working diligently to finish it. What happened was I just kept touring and not taking the time to make a record. On Momentum, I did a dc Talk solo tour, a Momentum tour with John Reuben and Out of Eden, I made it to Festival Con Dios, I was with Kirk Franklin and then Third Day. And I did three years of summer festivals.
So basically I did not really have that much time to write a record. "Phenomenon" is still a song on Welcome to Diverse City, but I changed the title primarily because that is what my friends Thousand Foot Krutch called their album. And I think they did a really good job making the record Phenomenon. So I did not want to reinvent the wheel.
cMW: Would you consider this a sophomore release with all the stigma that entails?
Toby: Yes, I would consider it a sophomore release. Obviously, there is probably less pressure on my sophomore release because of the years of dc Talk. But I still feel like Momentum connected pretty well, and I am definitely proud of the work I did on it and happy with the work I did on it. There was some pressure to follow that up and to make sure that the record connected and make sure that stylistically it was something we could pull off live in the way that my show is shaped live. I knew that technically the record — the songs are alot more personal and not that issue-oriented. I am sweating that a bit, but I looked up about halfway through and sort of had a recommitment to the record. I got personally revived again. That is where the song "Burn for You" really came from.
In that, suddenly these issues came out. I was prepared for it not to be a really issue-oriented record compared to all my writing in the past. Songs started coming to life that were more issue-oriented in an unforced way. I was not just writing because I was following something up; it naturally started coming out that way. It was a long journey. This record was made over literally almost three years, but I would definitely say two-and-a-half. The song "Atmosphere" was in the state that it is in on the record (the one without Michael and Kevin) two-and-a-half years ago, other than the mix. And I think that when you are working on a record that long, a lot of your life ends up being in it. Meaning, the things you are going through. It is not just this snapshot of a three month window of what you are going through, but literally two-and-a-half years of struggle or victory or pain or joy. All of it. It is sort of like a big part of your life.
cMW: So a lot of the issues in the lyrics from personal experiences?
Toby: Yes. "Atmosphere" is definitely a song about God sweeping into the picture when we choose to turn around. That was more written from a friend's perspective [who was] going through a low time. "Stories [Down to the Bottom]" that I did with Superchic[k] is about my parents' divorce; the emotions I felt and what I went through. The song "Getaway Car" is about walking into a scene that you know is a little too hot for you and choosing to get out of there. And having this desire to get out of there as fast as you can because you know it is a little too much for you. And "Burn for You" is about re-igniting that passion for God. Sometimes when you are on the stage all the time, you are out there, you look up and maybe you are just sort of faking it a little bit.
cMW: What do you desire as a result of sharing these personal experiences to the masses?
Toby: "Burn for You" came in the middle of the record, and I had to ask myself the question, "Do I still believe God can use this song? Do I still believe God can choose to breathe life into a song?" To whisper in a way where believers hear. To make Himself known to someone for the very first time. [I wondered if] this is the music that I actually should write and tour over and indulge myself in and pour my passion into. I was ready to hang up the record and just dig into Gotee [Records]. And I just really came to grips — and I don't want to make anything overly dramatic because I can't. But I just woke up one morning and I said, "I still believe God can use this music. I still believe God is choosing to write songs through me."
So I guess that is my reasoning. Because I believe. That is the reason why I share my personal struggles, experiences and victories. Because I still believe that these songs can connect with people. Not only in a personal listening enjoyment level, but [to] impact lives and remind people of God's love, or introduce people to God's love for the first time. Or spark up a conversation that leads people further into the hope that I have found in Christ.
cMW: What new songs can we expect to hear on the Fall leg of the Live Wire tour with Third Day?
Toby: I am working on that. We are rehearsing Thursday, Friday, and for the next week after that. So in other words I have eight days of rehearsal starting Thursday, which is tomorrow I guess! I think that is yet to be determined. Without a doubt, "Catchafire" will be in the mix. "Diverse City" will probably be in the mix. Some version of "Gone" will probably be in the mix. And that little snippet "Fresher than a Night at the W" will probably be in the mix.
cMW: Some people have said they did not like your music until they saw a live set. What would you say to encourage the skeptical listener to give this new CD a try?
Toby: If you are into music that is reflective and is about living a life pursuing God in the midst of all of these human relationships, if you love music that is influenced by hip-hop music that is guitar oriented with a splash of reggae, music that you can bump load in your car, music that you can dance to, music you can throw your hands up to, then you need to check it out. If you are a fan of the diverse in general.
cMW: You have said of the Gotee artist "Paul Wright is the artist I would have been if I'd done it my way." What do you mean by that?
Toby: I think what I mean by that is that if I had the patience and afforded the opportunity to stop my world and learn to play guitar and [then to] play guitar for the first couple years after the dc Talk Supernatural tour, I think the kind of music I would make would probably be a little more hip-hop beat acoustic music. I think that would probably be something a little more laid back, something I could kind of grow old into if I felt like it, something that is more singer-songwriter based, but yet still respecting my roots as hip-hop.
I think that to be able to really express myself as an individual versus really creating this family of people that provides this urban sub-culture to our industry is definitely a niche, and it is definitely something that I believe our industry needs. We need to diversify this industry. We need people of color; we need black music. I think because of that, I am where I am supposed to be; meaning I think I did it God's way and I did not do it my way. I think I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing. But probably if it was the top of my wish list would be that I could sit around with an acoustic guitar and sing melodies and do raps over verses with an acoustic. I think that I really respect and enjoy and indulge in that kind of music personally. And Paul does that so well. He is amazing. Another friend of mine that is going to be coming out soon called Mat Kearney is amazing at that.
I mean I look at these cats and I am like, "Aw, man, I would love to be doing that right there." And I just applaud them. And I know I am right where God wants me, and I know that being that bigger show, having eight people on stage, multi-cultural, doing some old school funk meets hip-hop, raising the level of energy at the festivals and shows. That is where I am supposed to be. God is definitely creating family on the road. Ceating teams of people and using a little bit of everybody's talent to make one big melting pot of talent is the way I came up with Michael, Kevin and I and all the great musicians we worked with. That is the road God has me on, and I am appreciative, and I love it, and there is nothing I like more than to build that team and highlight not only my talent, but all of the talent of the people behind me.
cMW: Can you tell us a little bit about your heart in co-writing Under God with Michael Tait?
Toby: Michael and I had the privilege to grow up in the DC area. I am glad I grew up there. I mean I am glad I live in Nashville now, because it is a little more laid back. Michael grew up like four blocks from the Capitol. I grew up about twenty minutes from there in the Arlington area. I have seen the Capital many times before, but we had the opportunity a couple of years ago to walk through the Capitol on a tour with an organization called the Wall Builders. Basically what they do is speak out about and defend America's spiritual heritage. And as we were walking through the Capitol with Wall Builders and a guy named David, he is pointing out portraits of men and [telling us] what they did and where they came from; men that played a significant role in the foundation of the country. He is pointing out specific rooms where prayers were prayed and specific positions from where speeches were made and offices where literally men were on their knees before God.
So you look back, and you are just amazed at these men that were really the founders of what we know as America and how much their life is based on a faith in God; how much their life depended on prayer; how so many of them were literally ordained ministers. And yes, they made their mistakes, and we highlight America's historical spiritual mistakes as well as the victories. But when we walked there in the Capitol building feeling inspired about America's spiritual heritage. About the fact that we are a country that is under God. We are a country that its base is based in God.
When you are inundated with the media you just forget that. It is just so far from what they are saying we are. We thought it would inspire people. We thought when we were walking through the Capitol building on this tour that we had to share this with the people that listen to our music. We had to share it with the youth culture and just all of America. And to use this platform to enlighten people and inspire people about America.
cMW: Is there anything else you would like to add about your record?
Toby: I worked for a long time on it, I am actually really happy with it. When I handed it in about three weeks ago, I did not listen to it. I actually pulled it out and listened again yesterday. I did not want to listen to it. I will try to go on and fix things still — like change mixes. And I am not allowed any more so it is free gain to listen to it now. I look at my music, and I am not trying to sound pious or anything, but I look at it as God's, not mine. If people rock to it or kick it to the curb — I was obedient, I am ready to rock. I like it personally, and hopefully people will like the trip to Diverse City.
- Kim Flanders
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