We’ve all heard it said that music is the universal language, and it’s so true. No other vehicle more powerfully captures our collective hopes and fears or more poignantly celebrates our dreams and triumphs. With one listen to the music of Tenth Avenue North, it becomes obvious that songwriter Mike Donehey and his bandmates have a gift for expressing truth in a way that simultaneously educates, enlightens and entertains.
“Most of the themes in our songs are about truth and about the struggle to believe it,” Donehey says of the music on the band’s debut disc Over and Underneath. “I think we have to represent both sides of that coin. Jesus said, ‘True worshipers will worship in spirit and in truth.’ When we sit down to write a song, essentially we are dealing with two things: Truth and the struggle to accept that truth. Emotion without truth is just sentimental and truth without emotion becomes cruel. Hopefully in our music, we are talking about the truth of God, but marrying that with the struggle that is within every person to believe. I think it’s a struggle that will last for our whole lives.”
It’s that rare ability to tap into those complex emotions that is at the core of Tenth Avenue North’s music. Its songs are intellectual, melodic pop/rock that listeners will find reminiscent of Jars of Clay, yet there’s a vulnerability that makes its music even more accessible in many ways. “To me, the most amazing thing is the songs,” says Jason Ingram, who co-produced the band with Phillip LaRue. “The songs are just rooted in so much truth and passion. Mike’s ability to communicate, both as a singer and songwriter, is on an exceptional level. I’m still overwhelmed at the way God uses these guys to teach us and compel us into a greater understanding of the gospel.”
The four members of Tenth Avenue North met at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida. “Tenth Avenue North started with Mike and I playing music together back in college,” says Jamison, who joined Donehey in leading worship on campus. “We have just continued on and since then we brought in Scott and Jeff. It’s been amazing.”
Donehey began sharing his songs while leading worship at a church in West Palm Beach, and after a while the band decided to hit the road, booking themselves in churches and at camps from Florida to Colorado. “The first summer tour we did was interesting to say the least. We literally got a map out and said ‘Alright, everyone point out a spot where you’ve never been and where you’d like to go.’
That’s not the way you should go about it,” Donehey confesses with a smile. “We borrowed a van from the college that we went to and it was fun. God provided for us. We met cool people and we ate lots of bologna.”
They also forged a strong bond that infuses the music and ignites the spirit of the band. “It’s a brotherhood,” comments Sanders. “We’re not going to say that we don’t clash at all, but that’s part of growing and living together. We spend more time with each other than any other friends. I know what they love and what I can do to encourage them.”
Each member of the band brings a distinct flavor to Tenth Avenue North, sharing an array of musical influences. “We’re pretty eclectic,” admits Jamison. “A little bit of country, folk, rock, singer/songwriter acoustic, mainstream pop, hard rock to mid ‘90s bands like Pearl Jam. We really have a very strange conglomeration of musical interests.”
Those diverse musical roots meld to create a fresh, warmly textured sound. Their passion for sharing the gospel and the quality of the band’s music caught the attention of Provident Music Group executives. “There’s a great deal of depth to each and every song,” says Provident Music Group president Terry Hemmings. “The songs are distinct from one to another. So I think when somebody listens to the record, they aren’t just listening to a group of songs that sort of flow in and out of each other; they are listening to 10 or 11 distinct moments that the band has created.”
Among those moments are such songs as the band’s first single, “Love is Here,” an uplifting anthem with an incredibly potent chorus. The album’s title comes from “Times,” a song the entire band cites as their favorite. It’s a tender, transparent ballad that seeps into the listener’s soul as Donehey reminds us of God’s faithfulness and His promises. With its simple, understated production, the song serves as a perfect showcase for Donehey’s voice. Teeming with emotion, it’s his heart-in-the throat vocals that bring this collection of songs vibrantly to life.
“Hallelujah” is a compelling worship song with a shimmering melody and a lyric that sounds familiar even though it’s a brand new tune. Instantly memorable, it’s a sure bet to be embraced by churches for corporate worship, yet will also become a favorite in times of personal, intimate fellowship with God. As Donehey sings “Inside your wounds we hide away,” rarely has the cross felt closer and Christ’s love for us more palatable and real. “That’s the uniting factor,” says Owen. “We’re all covered by the blood of Christ.”
Another of the album’s many highlights is the poignant ballad “Hold My Heart,” a vulnerable cry from a shattered soul pleading for God to reveal himself. The raw passion in the lyric exemplifies what makes Tenth Avenue North so unique.
“There are some people who are able to detach themselves and write certain things – but I’ve never been that kind of songwriter,” Donehey admits. “It’s just more natural for me to be honest, just to say it like it is, ‘Hey, this is it. This is what’s going on.’ There are a lot of people who can write songs, while removing themselves from the subject matter, but I’ve never been that way. Whatever I’ve written – whether it be a short story, prayer, a poem or a song – it’s always saying, ‘This is where I am!’
As far as my struggle to believe truth goes, I guess I’d say that the more we believe the gospel, the more we can rest in the fact that Jesus qualifies us, that our identity is wrapped up in what he has done and not how well we’re doing. When we can come to grips with that, I think the easier it will be to be open, to be honest, and to be vulnerable because we’re not continually trying to prove ourselves to everyone.”
As the band looked to take their music to a national audience, Donehey says Provident was the perfect label home. He recalls Hemmings sharing a comment at dinner one night that really struck a chord with the group. “Terry was just talking about the mindset of this label and he shared with us something that Mark Hall from Casting Crowns had told him. He said, ‘We believe that music is important, but the word of God is the food. It’s the meal that we’re serving and the music is the plate we’re serving it on.’ As soon as we heard that, we said ‘This is the label that we want to be a part of.’”
Tenth Avenue North has nothing to prove, but so much to share, and they do it with songs that echo the heart of the human condition and the hope of the risen Savior. “Simply, our mission as a band is to know Christ and to make him known,” says Donehey. “It’s a grand adventure.”