“When you join a band at 20 years old, you don’t think about what it might mean to remain together for another 20 years,” says Matt Odmark, Jars of Clay’s rhythm guitarist, banjo player and harmony vocalist. In 2012, the Jars celebrated their 18th year together. They’d written over 100 songs, made 10 studio records, toured internationally and created the Blood:Water Mission, an organization dedicated to providing clean blood and water for African nations suffering from the HIV/AIDS crises. Although the band has had its share of successes, including three Grammys for Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album (Much Afraid, 1997; If I Left the Zoo, 1999; The Eleventh Hour, 2002), they began to ask themselves what came next. For the answer, they decided to look inward and head inland.
Lead singer Dan Haseltine explains: “In Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus returns to land after a life on the sea, he’s told to take his oar and walk inland until he finds someone who doesn’t know what an oar is. For us, the story suggested moving from a comfortable place into unexplored territory. We decided to turn away from everything we’d done before and find our own voice as a band. It took a year of writing to complete the process, but we wanted these songs to be musically and emotionally honest, a believable expression of what’s going on inside of us right now. Inland seemed like a fitting title.”
“At 40, you’re more aware of life’s limits than when you’re younger,” Odmark continues. “Part of the spiritual journey is facing the grief and frustration of every day life. Songs are a great way to look at the questions we don't have the answers to, with an open heart. By writing about our lives at this moment, we can wrestle with these problems in a redemptive way and offer the results to other people.”
The band, which also includes keyboard wizard Charlie Lowell and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Mason, writes collectively, letting the songs guide their journey. “We sit in a circle and play,” Haseltine says. “The sessions were more like therapy than songwriting at times. We were vulnerable with each other and, out of that, came the themes of the album. We drew on everything we’ve ever done and experimented to see how far beyond that we could go. The record became about moving out of the familiar and into the unknown.”
Part of the Inland journey was leaving their hometown of Nashville. They enlisted producer Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, Beth Orton, The Decemberists) and recorded at Flora, his Portland studio. “We went to Portland to refocus creatively,” Haseltine says. “We all have wives and kids and usually make records while carrying on our daily lives. We’re never in the studio for a full day because we have to clock out and drive home every evening. Tucker provided a sacred creative space to make something beautiful and provocative. We missed our families, but we wanted to be present with each other and give this record a chance to be fully realized.”
The Jars cut the album live, straight to analogue tape, with several songs captured in one take. Matt Chamberlain (Springsteen, Tori Amos, Wallflowers) supplied his subtly powerful drumming, while Martine crafted the album’s signature sound, a blend of acoustic and electronic tones with dramatic waves of spacey synthesizer, subtle dub reggae effects and an inventive approach to Haseltine’s vocals. “Tucker spent as much time on my vocals as he did on getting the guitar sound right,” Haseltine says. “We used my voice as another instrument. I improvised the wordless vocal fills on the spot, and sang harmonies with myself, so the singing on Inland has a quality that sets it apart from our other albums.”
The music on Inland has a rich cinematic quality, marked by Lowell’s lush keyboard melodies, Odmark’s strong acoustic rhythm guitar and Mason’s serpentine bass lines. The lyric of “After The Fight” suggests the tale of Jacob wrestling with the angel, while the music has a low-key swagger that brings to mind the intergalactic art rock of Bowie and Peter Murphy. Haseltine explores the upper limits of his high end with an aching vocal that combines equal measures of passion and resignation. “We asked Adrian Belew if he’d come in and work his magic,” Haseltine says. “He produced two songs on our first record, but we were too intimidated to let him play guitar. This time he added his big, wild, twanging guitar sound, the reverse solos and all the other effects he’s famous for.”
Mason’s sighing pedal steel floats above the measured heartbeat of Chamberlain’s bass drum to set the mournful tone of “Inland.” It has a country/pop sound that harks back to songs on the band’s earlier albums, a blend of singer/songwriter and rock. Haseltine’s wordless vocal accents soar through the mix like delirious angels, anchored by Mason’s sharp, distorted chord clusters. “Fall Asleep,” the band’s first piano ballad, is a showcase for Haseltine’s vulnerable singing and Lowell’s contemplative piano. The song was captured in one take. “It’s about a relationship that can’t last and asks if we can accept the grace of a single moment,” Odmark explains. “It’s a narrative of impermanence and sums up the themes of the record. Since nothing lasts forever, is there a way to live in the present and find peace with the knowledge of limitation?”
“Skin and Bones” is an anthemic neo-R&B tune that reminds us that love is more than physical. A propulsive bass line and gospel flavored piano open “Left Undone,” an energetic mid-tempo rocker with that reminds us that our time on earth is limited, while “Reckless Forgiver” is a solid country rock tune with sprightly Celtic fiddling by Jeremy Kittel.
“These are songs for the ordinary days, when life is weighty and uncertain,” Odmark says, summing up the album’s ethos. “Doubt is the necessary partner of faith, the middle ground where you and I do the gritty work of actually living. The space in between the way the world is and, even underneath the most cynical exteriors, the way we know the world ought to be.”
Jars of Clay gained broad recognition with the release of their self-titled debut in 1995. Although described as a "Christian band," Jars of Clay has never confined their musical or lyrical vision to a single genre. Haseltine says, "Being labeled a "Christian Band" often attaches too much prejudice or personal religious baggage to the music we write and perform. It is a label we would never use to describe the band."
Over the last decade, we've been influenced by voices that should not have mattered, talking about market needs, or church needs, voices that made it difficult to create art, and not simply fill a space in a market. It took a long time to strip away every voice that wasn't ours to make INLAND. For me, it's always been about a great song. We want to connect with people who love music for music. That's why created our own label, Gray Matters."
“We’ve had enough experience with record labels working a project because they have to. You talk about creative vision and there’s a lot of eye rolling, so we built a team. Everyone we work with loves the record and wants to help us build something as a band with a big creative vision. If you’re a musician, you don't realize that you’re a small business owner too. So the label is a building block to the next level.”
Another part of the band’s vision is the Blood:Water Mission, founded in 2002 to help combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. “LIVE AID showed us it was possible for artists to come together and raise awareness. Blood:Water Mission is our opportunity to do the same. Our goal is to get African nations clean blood and clean water by building sustainable relationships. We partner with Africans on the ground, who become heroes in their own communities. We tell the story and raise funds. With our partners, we’ve dug 1,300 wells in over 11 countries providing 800,000 people with clean water, started four clinics that give about 25,000 people access to HIV testing and antiviral drugs. A few of the clinics are building maternity wards so there will be a clean, safe place to have babies. This was all born out of our idea that our fans would join us and make the Mission part of their story. It’s been an incredible experience.”