The most unique sound that reaches the ear upon listening to “Roots” isn’t the sinewy, snaking interplay of percussion and bass, or the empyrean voices wafting through the ether. Nor is it the watery, warbling guitars, skewed tinkling of toy piano, drowsily yawning horns or reedy wheezes of accordion, though those rich sonic textures definitely aren’t the makings of just any old song. The rarest sound is that of an artist and a truly wise man describing the soil in which he’s grounded his soul through the changing seasons.
Oh, men like these, they are just like trees planted near streams of water…
That artist and wise man is Shawn McDonald and his chronicle of lived wisdom is Roots, a collection of 12 transparent meditations on the divine sustenance that feeds the soul, his third dispatch from the studio and fifth overall album. These earthy folk-soul pearls explore elements that the 30 year old Oregon-raised, Seattle-based singer-songwriter has learned are essential for life, health and growth—clear, uninterrupted vision; fear-shattering trust; delight in truly good things rather than stomach-sickening junk; an unhurried rhythm of life that embraces each season as it comes; the contentment to hold whatever God brings in an open hand.
If Simply Nothing—McDonald’s 2004 debut—was the cathartic cry of a young man who’d traveled darkened paths alone only to be stared in the face with his desperate need for God, and Ripen was the raw-hearted vignette of a young man stretched by the weight of new responsibilities, then Roots is a portrait of that same man savoring the wealth of lessons learned through marriage (he and his wife Kate are entering their third year), new fatherhood (baby boy Cohen Reid McDonald arrived in April of 2007) and a pilgrimages to foreign lands (Zimbabwe and Israel, to be exact). You might call it musical wisdom literature of a sort. “This is the message that I want to come across: being a man that flourishes in Christ,” he shares. “For me it was a time of rejoicing in the growth that I feel like God has put into my life.”
McDonald is known for lending his fluid, breathy rasp to intoxicatingly passionate spiritual anthems (a quick visit to YouTube reveals just how many listeners have identified strongly enough with his songs to pick up a guitar and belt them out themselves). This new batch still contains plenty that could unite a roomful of voices in intimate communion with God, but songs like “Clarity”—with its syncopated, stop-on-a-dime acoustic groove—and “Greed”—best described as folk-funk seasoned with cursive strings and banjo—display a deepening and broadening of his artistic voice.
Incidentally, both songs were inspired by McDonald’s transformative experiences in Zimbabwe. “I’m a fan of perspective-changing. I’m a fan of seeing things through different eyes.” That’s exactly what happened when the artist and his wife opened their hearts to their African surroundings. “Here these people have complete need—they need medicine, they need food, they need education; they need all these things,” reflects McDonald about the impetus for the song “Greed.” “But what I found in these people was peace and joy that somehow despite all the needs they still retain this sense of life that I don’t always experience in the States and for me that was really profound.”
For someone as deeply moved by the arts as McDonald, it’s not surprising that music isn’t his only mode of artistic expression. He plumbs the depths of his soul through songwriting and turns his perceptive gaze outward with photography. “I almost feel like I have to do it—it’s a part of who I am. The art’s already in me. I just let it out.” McDonald took loads of photographs in Zimbabwe, compellingly capturing the spirit of the people he encountered in villages, clinics and orphanages. The couple has made a series of trips abroad and has more planned for a book of stories and images that he and Kate are creating for international relief organization World Vision. “We just want to bring awareness and help people in need. I think it’s good to step outside of yourself and help others. That’s the call of Christ.”
Likewise, McDonald found an approach to touring last year that wedded creativity and generosity. As an art-lover who strives to foster a unique sense of community at his shows, he welcomed visual artist Scott Erikson to paint new works each night on stage, and the paintings were eventually auctioned off to benefit the Transpire Project. Knowing firsthand what an uphill struggle independent artistry can be, McDonald invited unsigned singer-songwriter Alli Rogers to join him on the road. “If the art is good and I believe in it, I want to share it just as much as I want somebody else to share my music.”
McDonald’s Zimbabwe experience was only one of the nutrients feeding his songwriting on Roots. The artist plunged deeper into the fertile soil of scripture than ever before, concluding the album with a trio of songs firmly planted in scriptural ground. “Time” echoes the wisdom of Ecclesiastes 3—a reminder that God has created various seasons within the cycle of life. “Shadowlands”—previously included on McDonald’s Scattered Pieces: Live—borrows from Psalm 23 to confess faith in the midst of danger. “Hallelujah” comes like a gorgeous exhale at the album’s close: his hushed voice is born aloft on a regal swell of strings, as he moves between meditation on the virtues lauded in the Beatitudes (found in Matthew 5) and wholehearted assent to those divine truths. As the music fades, he can still be heard singing, as if to say ‘Let the meditation on these things continue even after the last note has rung.’ “In my experience, sometimes scripture says it in a way that’s way more powerful than I can say it,” McDonald explains.
Roots also marks the first time he’s done much collaborating in songwriting. “I think with the past records it was almost a sense of pride—I just didn’t want other people’s names on it,” he shares. “With this record, I came into it with a new mindset. I just want to make the best art that I can make, and if that means that I sometimes have other ideas given to me by other people, then I guess that’s what I’m going to do.” Songs like “Slow Down” are the best of both worlds—McDonald’s hallmark soul-bearing honesty delving into new territory. The short, spare tune—co-written with Ben Glover—speaks from their wives’ perspectives, offering a rare glimpse into the often hurried, harried home life of a touring musician. Throughout the song, crackling—like that of a dusty, old phonograph—hearkens back to a slower, simpler time, and the music’s lulling pulse literally slows at the end.
Other collaborators include Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman, Marc Byrd and Christopher Stevens, the latter of whom has manned the production helm during all three of McDonald’s studio albums. Stevens and McDonald waxed experimental on Ripen with an Indonesian Timor guitar from eBay and a broken thrift store piano, and further widened the range of unorthodox instrumentation this time. It’s a true reflection of McDonald’s own adventurous spirit. “I love stuff that’s out of the ordinary. You hear the bass-drums-guitar thing all the time. We’re trying to create our own sense of music and use different things in ways that they’ve never been used before. I don’t want to make music because it’s what’s popular—I want to make music because it’s what I love, and what drives me as a person.”
McDonald knows that fostering growth means finding and sustaining community, especially when you find yourself in a cycle of planting and transplanting one’s roots. “Being a musician and traveling is a hard lifestyle—you’re always away from home. I love it, but at the same time family can hurt because of it. I never realized before how much having people that relate to us and understand what we’re going through in our lives really effects our growth.”
…with roots that grow deep, deep into the ground.
Roots are like branches beneath the earth, ever-pushing and spreading to support the weight of the entire tree. They’re simultaneously old and new, all that they’re becoming with traces of all that they’ve been. Shawn McDonald is like that. Some nights he unfurls the gripping story of a drug dealer in trouble with the law-turned God-seeker with a burning heart, a guitar and a down-to-earth way with words. Some nights he tells the story’s latest chapter. “Whatever I feel led to talk about in the moment I usually do. It can be all over the place. I think that’s the beauty of life—we’re all figuring it out. I want it to be that people come and it’s an experience and they learn something different every time. For me personally, when I go see an artist that’s what I want—I want to hear new things; I want to hear new thoughts and ideas; I want to hear growth.”
A wise man, indeed.