If you ask a group of children what they want to be when they grow up, you’ll get answers that are ambitious but attainable – doctor, firefighter, astronaut – and then you’ll get the responses from the kids who are probably just dreaming: President, rock star, professional athlete. We adults smile at their ambition but know that one day, reality will recast their vision.
Jonny Diaz is the glaring exception. He was just a teenager when the preternaturally gifted Diaz faced a choice that few have ever considered: a career in sports or a career in music. He was raised in a baseball family. His brother Matt played for seven seasons with the Atlanta Braves, and Jonny had a baseball scholarship to powerhouse Florida State University. Along the way, though, he found a passion for music, writing songs from an early age and leading worship in his youth group. People quickly noticed his gift for connecting with people through his lyrics and his presence on the stage. That connection became a calling, and the call was too strong to ignore. After his first year, Diaz told his coach that he had made a decision.
“Baseball was something that I enjoyed my whole life and it had always been a passion, but all of a sudden at that point it felt like more of a job than anything else. Meanwhile, I was getting more songs than ever to write about. I had an opportunity to go record a CD, and I realized that both of these were kind of full-time things. I didn't have time to do both of these with any kind of success at all. I started pursuing music in my freshman year, which was great because I really had three years of college to learn how to write a song, how to play a concert, how to sell a CD, how to make contacts, all of these things. I had three years with no pressure, where I could learn to do those things at an easy pace.”
Diaz stayed at FSU and got a degree in Marketing, “just in case”, which hints at something that’s dogged Diaz for years now. “My entire musical career, from very early on, and even when I had the number one song in the country, was shadowed with fear. What if I can't follow this up? What if they don't like this? Am I a good enough singer, am I good enough guitar player?” Diaz realized his fears were born out of comparison. “It's a tough industry in that regard, because they chart everything we do. ‘Hey, here's how popular or not popular you are this week!’ It's so hard to not compare yourself to others.”
Ironically, just as Diaz was proclaiming how valued we all are in God’s eyes in his breakthrough song “More Beautiful You,” he was riddled with his own insecurities. “I finally realized for myself what I had been saying to others, that God has gifted me exactly like He wanted to, that He did it exactly like He did it for a reason.”
This powerful idea of being used by God and trusting that we are who He wants us to be when we follow Him is strong in Let It Fly, Diaz’s new EP on Centricity Music. “Use Me Too” is a toe-tapping anthem for the underdog. The opening verse invokes the ultimate tale of someone who was ill-equipped in the world’s eyes as David battles Goliath. Like the most skilled of songwriters, Diaz captures deep emotion and insightful theology in seven short words: “He wasn’t ready, but he was willing.” The second verse recognizes the willingness of Mary, seeing the unlikely entry of our Savior into the world as a metaphor for the way God uses us in unexpected ways. And the chorus becomes our rallying cry when we face self-doubt: The small, the weak, with ready, willing, and open hands/That’s who you seek to bring to life all Your biggest plans/All that I have is more than enough for you/Use me, use me too.
“Live Like He’s Alive” puts a voice to the transformation that can occur when we recognize the very real vitality of faith, when it becomes an ever-present victory. Diaz notes one personal change that happens when he lives in the full awareness of the presence of God: “The big thing it changes for me is my perception of other people. I can sometimes tend to treat other people as if they're getting in the way -- the person who takes forever in line in front of me, or the person who cut me off in traffic, or the person who mistreated me -- I treat them like they're in the way. But when we really have that perspective of God living in us, then people become the things we care about most. Suddenly the person who was in the way becomes the most important part of your day.”
That honesty and personal connection continues on “You Just Gotta Believe,” when Diaz confesses a need that so many share for evidence in the midst of faith. “Call it skepticism,” the lyric states, “I’m a realist at best.” Diaz notes a contrast with his wife Libby, who has a strong childlike faith, but he also recognizes that faith is pervasive, even in those who deny it. “It gets to a point, especially when we’re talking to non-Christians, where we realize that it takes a leap of faith in either direction. If you're going to say there's a God that does take a large leap of faith. But if you're going to say that all this happened by accident, and we’re all only here in random order, I think that takes a huge leap of faith as well. It's just a different kind. We have to believe in something. It's a matter of taking that leap and doing the due diligence to know what you believe and why you believe it.”
A pair of songs on the new EP reveal a little-known side of Diaz – the nascent country artist. Fans needn’t fear – your favorite pop artist won’t be adding a twang to his voice anytime soon – but Diaz did grow up listening to country music, and it helped shape his keen ability to fashion songs that tell stories to which so many can relate. “Like Your Love” is flavored by banjo and mandolin, and it’s easy to imagine “Thank God I Got Her” on country radio. Diaz never really intended to record the latter, but it’s become such a concert favorite (especially among the husbands who just don’t get the purpose of throw pillows and towels that aren’t allowed to get wet) that fans practically demanded it.
“Upside Down” is another song that shows off Diaz’s ability to capture so much in a three minute pop song, but this one’s not a story song. It’s a theologically rich list of the paradoxes that define the Christian faith: freedom in slavery, faith in the unseen, loving enemies, and more. It’s a great example of the personal mission statement Diaz has crafted when he writes songs. He seeks to entertain, to encourage, and to challenge the body of Christ. He accomplishes all three here, featuring his broad vocal range, giving comfort to those pondering the tricky spots of Christianity, and reminding believers that “losing my life is the only way I can be found.”
Through each of these excellent new songs, Jonny Diaz finds himself used by God to connect with people, which is probably what God had in mind all along. The wunderkind who could have wielded a baseball bat as effectively as a six string has overcome the fear of comparison, and he’s finding new ways to entertain, encourage, and challenge.