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smalltown poets: an interview with michael johnston
[ gospel music week 2005 | nashville, tn ]

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cMusicWeb.com: Why the gap in time and what made you decide to come back to recording?
Michael Johnston: It was the strangest thing. I walked into this wardrobe and all of a sudden I was in a different world. Wait wait wait. No. That was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That is totally not reality at all.

Well, there are a lot of factors that [come into play]. What probably seems like a bigger gap in time to some people — maybe due to a few factors like changes in a record company and life changes and things like that. And also some trends in music. It's probably not telling you anything you don't know but Christian music over the last five years has really leaned a lot more toward corporate worship — the worship leader as an artist. Even bands that were not necessarily focused on that have sort of adopted that as well. And I actually have no problem with that so I do not mention that as something I am bitter at all. I think Christian music ought to be music for the church. That is what the church is embracing and that is what the industry feels that it needs to focus on, that is really cool.

Smalltown Poets, by nature, have the kind of music that the way we write and the way we perform, might have flown under the radar for a bit. So a perceived disappearance may in reality just have been people were not hearing about what we were doing. We have been doing things, but there has been a gap between releases. In 2000 and 2001 we released and toured with our third record called Third Verse. Toward the end of that it was OK with me that things slowed down a bit because I wanted to get married and I did that. I bought a house and I have a two-year-old son now.

I just had a real strong desire for a different type of community. Because being in a Christian band and touring with other Christian guys and touring with other Christian bands, you are sort of a little body of Christ. And you have a tremendous valuable thing in that you have these great relationships with other Christians in that they allow you to speak into their lives and you allow them to speak into your life. Real life change can happen and you can really have an accountability that is not the kind of obligatory accountability like, "Yeah, I talk to a guy every once in a while," or a mentor or whatever. These are people that I trust. These are people that my life is interwoven with and so there is that accountability where some knowledge that we get and the good teaching that we get can really be fleshed out. So you have that on the road as a Christian.

Smalltown Poets PhotoBut I had a desire for a broader type of community in the sense of [the fact that] I had not really lived in one place for a significant amount of time since I left the town where I grew up. So I felt a desire for plugging into a community where I could be at a church, where I could be growing as a family, where I could be just growing up in some ways thar I was not able to grow up on the road. So that is my take on the last four years. It gave me an opportunity as a writer and as an artist to just go, "What can I do to serve this part of the world where I live? How can I plug into the church?"

I led worship at a church where my wife and I had been attending and through that pursuing other things like developing other local artists. And being intentional about even the place that we live. My wife and I moved to a place that is kind of an urban setting. We really like old homes. And there are some pockets of the city of Atlanta where there are some great houses that were built in the twenties and thirties and they have been pretty well maintained even though to a large degree, some of them would be considered a poorer part of the town. But there is charm there. We were intentional about where moved because we felt like on the one hand we could live pretty much anywhere around the city and God would probably bless that.

We intentionally wanted to say, "God, where can we live where we can be challenged to grow and just by being who we are and being Christians where we can have an impact maybe that we would not have even thought about?" We ended up in this neighborhood called Capital View in Atlanta. Even a couple of the other guys in the band live in the area as well. It is really neat to see [that], even though these are some of the poorer parts of town where there have been high crime rates and a culture that is different from where we might have been before in suburbs or in small towns, God is there. He is not absent. There are really cool ways that we can plug into that community and be a part of what God is doing there.

It has been cool to see crime rates going down and to feel like just by nature being in this part of the world that God can use our relationship with Him. And not only that our perspective of how big God is can grow because we have been in a place that we have never been before. And I guess you could say that maybe that is sort of a missional approach even though we did not necessarily feel called as missionaries. My family and the guys in the band felt like we are just taking a more missional approach to different aspects of our lives and I think that created a cool space for this music.

Our drummer actually has a studio in an area of Atlanta called Little Five Points. It is a very artistic community. So he swept in to the whole music scene there. That is actually some of the impetus for some the early song writing for this [current] record. It was really cool. With the transition of record companies, they gave us a lot of space to take our time on making the record and gave us complete creative license. So we produced the record and wrote all the songs and all that stuff we did ourselves. The record is called It Is Later Than It Has Ever Been. It is a record that we are proud of for many reasons. We are excited about it because we feel like it very much reflects what we wanted to do at this point in our lives.

cMW: So why do you not call yourselves the Urban Poets now?
Michael: My two-year-old calls us Town Poets. But you know, I just got chickens last week so I cannot get rid of the small town. I mean, honestly, we found out that within the city limits of Atlanta, you can have up to sixty chickens. We built a little coop in our back yard. We don't have sixty. We don't have plans to get sixty. Although we have a neighbor that probably has close to forty. We started out with four. We may grow our flock to eight or so. So, yeah, I cannot get rid of the small town.

cMW: You were talking a little about switching record labels. I read that you feel BEC has the same goals and objectives as Smalltown Poets. What does that mean?
Michael: What I think is really cool about Brandon Ebel and what he and the staff did with Tooth and Nail. If you look back to the beginnings of Tooth and Nail, he was giving a vehicle for the some music that was not being heard. There were genres of music that were still taboo for the Christian music industry. And Brandon Ebel was like, "This is good. This is something that I can get behind and bring to Christian kids and bring it into the church and this industry." And I think that is just really cool. So I have respect for him for being willing to do that. And I think it has served him well. It has given them a good perspective.

How that directly affects us is [that] he was totally confident in giving us creative license. Granted, there was some history. I mean he knew the kind of songwriters [we were]. He did not communicate to us any fear or reserve in letting us make the record that we wanted to make. He and the staff at BEC/Tooth and Nail understand that there are Christians who like music for music's sake and like a variety of things.

Smalltown Poets PhotocMW: So all of these experiences that you have had over the years, did any of that come out in the music?
Michael: Yes, I think so. With songs like "We Will Continue." That was lyrically the first song that I started working on that made its way onto the record. Not to say that it necessarily served as a center-piece or impetus for the whole record. But it is a song where what I was trying to communicate lyrically definitely comes from the vantage point of being a songwriter and being a musician and being in a band and out touring and seeing all sides — the ins and outs of the industry, the ins and outs of churches, different denominations, different parts of the United States and different parts of the world. And you see the differences, but you see a lot of continuity as well.

One of the places that has brought me to is that I think it is important for the church to do all that we can to remind ourselves that worship is what we do with our lives. Worship doesn't begin and end with a service or a CD or a concert or whatever. Worship is what we do with our lives. Worship is doing everything we do as unto the Lord. That is not something that is just hinted at in the Bible. The story of God revealing Himself that is woven throughout the narrative of the Bible.

What is really important is that we see our lives — the whole of our lives — not compartmentalizing this part of our lives or these years of our lives or this five minutes or this career choice or whatever — but seeing our whole lives as a spiritual act of worship. We can do that. It can be done. And it is not just for the old. It is not just for the wise. It is for all of us who are pursuing a relationship with God. Not to say that I am not for the services and the books and the CD's. But those are things that literally serve as icons that help remind us and point us toward God.

A good friend of the bands teaches a kind of Christian humanities class. He says that really well. Not that you can basically boil the world down to this but this is a helpful way to look at this. You can sort of divide some things into two different areas — things can be looked at as idols or icons. An idol is something that really bounces back to ourselves that we invest in because it is self-gratifying. And an icon simply points us to God. A true understanding of those two concepts can basically communicate that. An idol is something that is self-serving. An icon is something that points us to God. An idol points us to ourselves. An icon hopefully reminds us where we ought to be oriented. So hopefully all worship music, all Christian music — even art that is outside of what maybe would be labeled as Christian music — can be broadened out from there.

If we will allow our concepts of God and our concepts of worship to broaden out that big, then we see that the way we live out our lives day to day and the way that we live the whole of our lives, our goal is being with God. So as the song says, "We will continue when it ends," it is specifically at that point talking about when the worship service and the songs end, we continue to worship. But also it can be said that if we live our lives oriented to God, we continue with our worship to God.

cMW: Do you have anything else to add? Where are you going from here?
Michael: We are about to release a new single. It is called "Show Me Who You Are." The second song on the record. We are going to be doing some shows in July and August with Everyday Sunday in support of the record.
- Kim Flanders
October 2005
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