by Sam Robinson
David Dunn dropped his first EP on BEC Recordings last week, titled Crystal Clear. It’s a bright record (read our review here) and I recently had the privilege of not only speaking with David about the EP, but also joining him on a road trip through the great state of Texas. Well, sort of. I was on the other side of the world and connected via a Skype video call, but I felt like a tourist along for the ride nonetheless.
SAM: David, you’re driving me around Texas today – what are you up to?
DAVID: I actually played a camp near Austin a couple of days ago… I have a brand new baby nephew who was born about a week ago.
Thank you! So I’m going to visit them and see the fam. That’s the plan for the next couple of days.
Now you’ve recently signed to BEC Recordings. How do you feel about being on such a great label?
Yeah. You know what? It’s still a little early to give you an honest evaluation but thus far it’s been amazing. The record making process was a pretty easy little transition from what I normally do. They gave me a lot of creative control. Basically all the normal creative control that I would have on my indie projects. We put out this first single [Today is Beautiful] and there’s been some great people helping to get it onto radio and – it’s been nothing but positives up to this point. So getting into it all is a little scary, you hear lots of horror stories about signing with labels. You give them a lot of power – giving my musical future into somebody else’s hands. That’s a scary thing to do. It took me a couple of years to pull the trigger on it and thus far it’s been great.
Well you had an interesting road to this point so far, from what I read, you were on The Voice briefly?
Yeah! I was. Three years ago, I think. I made a brief appearance on there. I didn’t get very far.
Is that a weird experience? I’ve never been on a reality show – and I know you didn’t get past the blind auditions – but what was that whole thing like?
Man. It was one of the funnest things I think I’ve ever done. Up to the blinds there’s like eight different rounds that you go through. There’s a lot of rounds to figure out two different things. One of them is if you’re any good at music: they make you sing, and you sing again and you sing again. Over and over. They also do lots of interviews to find out who you are, your personality, to make sure that you’re interesting for TV. So they get all these contestants together and they squeeze us into a hotel together for a month up to the blinds. A month worth of filming. We have an hour of stuff to do in a day and then we just hang out for the rest of the time. So there’s all these really talented, fun-to-be-around people who do the exact same thing that I do for a living and literally have nothing to do except play music and hang out by the pool, tell jokes all day long for a month. It literally was like a kids camp for starving musicians. It was an absolute blast, I loved it.
If you had progressed and you had a choice of any of those judges about which team to join, which would you have picked?
I definitely would have gone with Adam [Levine]. His style is more similar to mine. And I’m a fan. A big Adam Levine fan. He’s an absolute shredder on the guitar, which I appreciate.
Well I bet even singing in front of him would have been a great experience.
Totally. It was awesome. He had some great things to say afterwards which was nice. One of the big things that happened with the blinds – I mean they didn’t turn around – but most of the comments were positive, they just didn’t know my song! Which didn’t help.
Now let’s talk about your new EP, Crystal Clear. My first question is, why release an EP rather than an album, as your first release on BEC Recordings?
There’s actually a couple of different reasons but the main one is because we live in 2014 which is a digital age and the age of the full record is sort of in the past. I’m not saying I’m not going to do a full-length ever again, but the reason we’ve done the EP this time is to basically give people less music more often. You do an EP now and then I think we’re going to go back into the studio in about six or eight months and record and release another record in a short period of time. You’re not putting out a full-length and waiting… My last one was two-and-a-half years ago I think, something like that. We’ve gone that long where I’ve just been playing that last record with nothing else coming on. People stop paying attention at some point. So I’m hoping to bless people with less material more often.
You spent a year in Africa, and you have mentioned it was a time of real growth… Can you tell me more about that time?
Yeah. Totally. I could literally talk about that for hours. Let’s see if I can give you a synopsis. I went over there to do Bible training and mostly micro-financing. It was to be honest, probably the worst year of my life. And I say that because from my perspective what I did over there was ineffective. I went over there to try and end the poverty cycle and use a ministry that was building bridges and do the Bible training that I was involved with, and then there was a funder back in the States pumping money into this ministry. And their idea was to create this perpetuating engine that pumped money into the ministry. I was 22 and I think that was part of it. But I didn’t know what I was doing really, so it was a massive failure. I couldn’t necessarily start up things that could help this ministry. And I think that was the first time that I really failed at something. I think that was one of the main reasons why it was such a growing process. I really had to figure out how to not succeed. There was definitely some questioning in there too: ‘God, what are you doing here? Why am I even over here if you’re not going to let this stuff work out?’ […] It was super growing because it was so hard, is the short answer. I really learned a lot about myself and I think it’s been a nice catapult. I like to tell people that Africa was really good for me, but I don’t know if I was real good for Africa.
Are there reflections of that experience on this EP?
Absolutely. The way I write songs, there’s often snippets of things that I’m learning in my life. They’re extensions of what I’m going through, what I’m learning, who I am. So I don’t think there’s specifically instances in any of the tunes on Crystal Clear that are of ‘Hey! This happened in Africa.’ But I think that period of time, that year, moulded me into the artist that I am now.
Not Toto’s Africa, though…
Totally, totally. [Laughs]
Tell me about the first track, It Is Well. Obviously it shares the name with the hymn… It’s different but there are parallels in there. What can you tell me about that song?
I’ll give you a synopsis of most of the tracks on the record and then I’ll wrap up with It Is Well, I think it’s probably one of the shining examples of it. Most of the record is dealing with this idea of somebody going through a hard time. Something bad is happening to them, there’s some kind of trial that they’re in the middle of. They look up to the sky, shake their fist at God, and say, ‘God, where are you in this? What are you doing? Why are you allowing this to happen?’ Kinda the Job mentality, right? All these crappy things happen to Job and he looks up to the sky and questions God. There’s been a lot of things in and around my life that have sort of come to that. I have a roommate who’s an atheist and I think this is where this all started. That’s basically why he’s an atheist. He went through some really terrible stuff, shook his fist at God and then decided He’s not really there. There’s no way a God that would love me would let these things happen to me. And I get it. I totally get it. I think that’s a completely valid thing to think as a human being, and I don’t know what the answer is! I learned that as I was struggling through these tunes: I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know why God does what he does. But he’s God. And what I do know is that he loves. He does. He does love. That’s what the first track is about. There’s a line in It Is Well that says ‘I don’t know, but I do know that he loves, and it is well.’ That’s what that song is about. It’s going: these things happen. Depression, oppression, all of these different things that people struggle with that just are terrible. We’re humans, and that’s a part of life, and it kinda sucks. There’s big portions of life that are just a continual battle. Just running up a hill. The only thing that you can cling to, that I see as a participant and a fellow sufferer, is that you have to believe and know that he loves. And he’s watching! He knows what’s going on, and is in control.
The lead single, Today is Beautiful is about this. These things are happening to you. You see them from how you see them. And because you see them how you see them you’re not getting the entire picture. You’re seeing that this is a bad thing because it feels like a bad thing, because this bad thing happened in this moment that I’m in, when in reality, it could be the best thing that ever happened to you. Africa was a terrible thing when it was happening to me. I didn’t like it when I was there, I was suffering, I felt like what I was doing was failing, I got malaria and the whole nine yards. I wasn’t exactly shaking my fist at God, but I did think it was terrible, because all I could see was me being in Africa. But now, seven years removed, I can see it’s one of the best things that probably ever happened to me. It is Well is just a declaration. It’s saying that He does love, and because He does, I’m going to say that it is well. It’s sort of the same idea behind the original hymn. It’s the same song with big synths and pianos and beats.
I read Today is Beautiful is inspired by a trip to Disneyland?
Totally. I told you about my family earlier, I have eleven nieces and nephews. We were at Disneyland with all the little munchikins running around. The slogan at Disneyland is ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’ and my three-year-old nephew Brady was running between two rides and had a complete and utter meltdown because his older sister wouldn’t let him push the stroller. To him, that was the biggest thing ever. He was miserable because he wasn’t getting what he wanted, even though he was in the happiest place on earth. So his Dad and my brothers, a little later, we were laughing about it and I started thinking about that as a great picture for humanity. We totally do that exact same thing. We focus on these itty bitty problems that make us miserable, and that’s all we can see. Really all we have to do is lift our eyes from that problem and see it from God’s perspective. Even though we won’t understand God’s perspective, we realise that he has a perspective at the very least. You’re in Disneyland, right? And that problem that is making you miserable is either a tiny thing, or it could even be a big thing. Like you got fired for a job and you see it as a terrible thing but from God’s perspective it could be chance for you to become more like Him. God’s perspective is different to ours.
I should ask while we’re talking Disneyland – do you have a favourite ride?
Oh man – favourite ride at Disneyland… The thing that popped into my head immediately is the Tower of Terror. Is that the name of it? Have you been before?
I’ve been to Disneyland at Anaheim and I’m not really a scary rides person. But I know what you’re talking about. You can hear the screams!
[David and his driver suddenly come to a quick stop]
Sorry! That was crazy… Yeah! It’s just a big old building. That one’s amazing.
Now the track Nothing Left, it’s probably the most dark sounding song on the EP. It even borders on dubstep. What’s the heart behind it?
It’s actually a tune written from a C.S. Lewis quote which says ‘To love at all is to be vulnerable.’ […] It’s sort of a tune that is trying to capture love as a choice rather than a feeling. It’s something that even though it’s hard to go through, and sometimes you get squashed when you love another person… If another person doesn’t love you back or treat you correctly they can really smoosh you. They can tear you apart. That being said, it is the thing that is most worthwhile. It’s a completely worthwhile thing to do anyway. It’s why we exist. We exist to relate, and we relate by loving. It actually is my favourite song on the record melodically and also because I love talking about love as what I think it is rather than what our culture says it is. I reject the normal definitions people use for love. So that’s a part of what that song is about. It’s redefining love as a worthwhile thing that you choose to do, even when it’s hard and when it’s terrible.
The last song on the record, Six (Waiting for Love), it’s a beautiful song. I love how you turn personal stories into a reflection on the cross. Why close the EP with that song?
I think we closed it because it was so mellow, and it fits with the same idea of shaking your fist at God. It’s sort of the same thing as It is Well, just on a personal basis. There’s a few stories of people who get dealt tough hands, they really had some bad stuff happen to them, and they ask, ‘God, where are you in this?’ It fit really well.
And it really brings out the hope of the gospel. What does the hope of the gospel mean to you personally?
The song is called Six. So there’s these people who have gone through these terrible things and end up.. the final word in the tune is ‘I don’t know why it happened. I don’t know why these things are happening to you. But what I do know is that his love is crystal clear because he’s been there too.’ He spent six hours on the cross. It was the most unjust thing that’s ever been done. The perfect man hung up on a cross for somebody else’s sin. He was up there suffering for us. That’s usually our beef with God: this is unjust because I didn’t deserve this. The gospel as it relates to that song is that Christ is the biggest recipient of the unjust thing that we shake our fist at God about. Because he was up there on the cross, he understands our plight. He understands the things we go through. And he knows what’s happening. Omnipresent, omniscient. He knows what’s happening and he’s been there. We’re not alone in what we do.
What’s next for you?
We will tour in the fall to support the release of the EP. I still don’t know what that looks like actually. We’ve bounced around a couple of ideas and it’s still not locked in officially. In the meantime, I have some one-offs over summer.
Before I go, I’d love to know where you’ve driven me today. I don’t know much about Texas. Where have we gone in this time?
Well when we got on the phone we’d just left Austin. And now we are probably in Waco… Are we in Waco? So we went a hundred miles… No… We probably went about forty miles north. So we’re about halfway to Waco.
Well thanks for driving me through Texas so safely, and thanks for the chat!
Thanks for being in the car with us!
Crystal Clear by David Dunn is available now on iTunes.