An extended interview with John Van Deusen
Ahoy! This is an extended version of the piece I published in early August, an interview with the Anacortes, WA- based "Christian" (scare quotes for many reasons, see below!) musician John Van Deusen, formerly of the Lonely Forest. It's a bit more sprawling and less edited than the published piece, which you can find here.
I hope you're well! - JHH, Vancouver, BC
John Van Deusen’s music feels like the apotheosis of Northwest Christian indie rock, and his recently completed four-album series, (I Am) Origami, will feel instantly warm, familiar, and right to anyone who’s spent time in the Venn diagram that envelops large swathes of the Pacific Northwest’s independent rock scene and its evangelical churches in the last thirty years. Put it all in a blender – or probably more appropriately, an oak barrel in a craft brewery – Tooth and Nail Records, Mars Hill Church and the Paradox Theater, Damien Jurado, Pedro the Lion, the Teen Dance Ordinance and all-ages clubs in suburbs, The Stranger’s music section, KEXP, church basement shows, the DIY scenes in Olympia and Anacortes, Sunday morning worship at any church in Vancouver (either one!) or Bellingham or Spokane – and you get these four albums that together form both a portrait of the artist as young Christian musician, and a map of the myriad influences that have shaped this region’s unique religious culture.
Every Power Wide Awake (the second in the series) is already a minor classic of non-mainstream worship music (The Gospel Coalition named it #4 on their list of the 'best Christian albums of the 2010s), but Van Deusen has been writing honestly about things profane and sacred since the early 2000s, first with his band the Lonley Forest, and then his more devotional solo work as he’s retired from the grind of the touring band scene and settled into family life as a music minister at a Presbyterian church in his hometown of Anacortes.
I first met Van Deusen when his band needed a place to stay while on tour in Northern California fifteen years ago. They crashed in our apartment, and I’ve followed his career with interest ever since. We’ve both spent our lives embedded in the culture I referred to above – him as a musician toeing the line between the secular and Christian independent music worlds of the Pacific Northwest, myself as a chronicler of those scenes as a music critic – so I jumped at the chance to talk to him about his recently completed album series and how it reflects his faith, his life in our region, and the strange landscape Pacific Northwest Christian art sometimes sits in. What follows is a lightly edited conversation we had over Zoom (him in Anacortes, me in Honolulu) a few weeks before his newest album, Marathon Daze, Part Four of (I Am) Origami, was released.
Joel: I've been surprised at how often I mention your and someone's like, “oh yeah, I know that song!” I bought a copy of your (I Am) Origami Part 1 record and had it shipped it to my friend's house. He sent me a video of him putting it on his turntable, and when the first song came on, and he texted me “I've definitely heard this song, but I'm not sure where.”
So here's really where I want to start. You made four solo records, which feels like a lot, and I just went back and listened to this interview you did with KEXP right was the first one was coming out in maybe 2017, and in that you said that these songs were quite old even then. So I'm really curious how you got to the point where you're like, I'm going to make four solo records, I've got them all mapped out, this is what they're going to be. Where did the whole vision for this for album series come from?
JVD: It's a great question. I have always written a lot of songs. I've been a fairly prolific songwriter, and I demo a lot of songs, and that's been true of me since I was maybe 17-18. The way the Lonely Forest functioned was that I would write songs by myself, and I would demo them by myself, and then I would send them via email or text to my bandmates, and they would then listen and digest them and we'd get together later on. And it would change a little, sometimes change a lot, but it would become a Lonely Forest song. Well, I always demoed and wrote lots of songs, even if we weren't preparing a record, and what ended up happening, which still happens today with my new bands, is I just wrote too many songs. I overwhelmed them. they got too many texts with demos, they couldn't weed through my list of songs to pick the ones they thought should be Lonely Forest songs. So there was just this excessive amount of leftovers.
When the Lonely Forest ended, I had hundreds of songs that were never used. Annababe, my wife, and I, two days after the last Lonely Forest show, went overseas to kind of take a break from music. I can pinpoint the exact moment when I decided I would do an album series, because I was riding a train in Beijing. I had picked up Annababe’s iPod -- yes, I was listening to an iPod -- that for some reason had all of my demos on it, and I was listening to them on this hourlong train ride, and I just knew at that moment I remember telling her, like, I'm going to record these and I'm going to put them out in a series, and maybe there's three or four or five or six, I don't know, but I have to do it.
Joel: When you say you knew it was going to be a series, I feel like that's different from somebody being like, “I was in a band, and now I have a solo career. I’ll just put a record, and then maybe I’ll put another one out.” How does that work?
JVD: I think from the get-go, I knew that each record would be moderately different -- thematically different, you know, lyrically different. I knew that I kind of wanted to mingle lyrics about my faith with everything else. And so the idea was, I want to do this record series so that if somebody really likes part three, they at the very least know that there's a part two and part one.
Joel: That's pretty shrewd marketing.
JVD: I was trying to encourage like people to think of it as a bigger project, and it's actually worked because people will find the other parts, and they'll write me about it. Like, oh gosh, I've got into Every Power Wide Awake and then realized it was a Part Two, so I found Part One and then that led me to Part Three, and now I see you releasing a Part Four. It really is marketing.
Joel: It works pretty well! I like the notion of there being different themes, or sort of flavors to the records. I tried listening to them all in the last couple of days. I was trying to figure out if I felt that there were things that differentiated them. I see Parts One and Three as being similar and I see Two and Four as similar. Does that seem fair to you?
JVD: I've had people reach different conclusions. It's pretty common for someone to say, you know, Part Three reminds me of part one or Part Two reminds me of Part Four, but I've also noticed a lot of people connecting the others.
As far as production is concerned, Part One has the most pop sensibility. Part Two obviously was kind of nodding to all of the DIY recordings that I grew up around, like the Microphones, Mount Erie, or Neutral Milk Hotel. The third, I was trying to make a record that I would have liked in high school. You know, in maybe eighth or ninth grade I listened to a lot of loud, what you'd call maybe pop punk. You know, Weezer's Pinkerton and stuff like that.
I think the reason maybe Part Two reminds you of Part Four is that I self-recorded both of those records, and did them in spaces that are not normally used as recording studios. I wanted them to sound like bedroom records.
Joel: Yeah, they sound warmer to me for sure.
JVD: And then Three and One were produced by Andy Park, who actually is mixing my fifth LP right now. Also, it was really important to me thematically to end Marathon Daze on a hopeful note, and especially when you listen to the deluxe version, which will be what the vinyl is, I feel like the story arc there, beginning with “Oh Sweetest Name” and finishing with a song called “If I Get to Heaven,” to me, is an extremely redemptive arc.
Joel: I have a sense, from talking to you and from some of the lyrics on these records, that there was a point where you looked back at a period of your life and you have sort of self-critical notion of like, I was living wrong. I don’t know if there was an inflection point or a sort of Damascus moment , but I am curious about it, because I see a lot of that in your music. You know, it always sort of felt wrong to me when Christian bands would sing about, like, “oh I used to be bad,” but it’s like, I don’t know, you were just like a white evangelical in Tennessee your whole life.
JVD: Yeah, I don't know, Toby Mac is edgy, man!
Joel: I sense a lot of these four records as being a coming to terms with a kind of maturity in some ways, whether that is a spiritual maturity, or grappling with difficult things about being an adult, a sense of choosing a certain life, right? I think the second record very clearly lays that out in a devotional way, like, “spiritually, this is the path I‘m taking.” But also some of the songs make statements about “this is where I'm choosing to make my home, I want to live here, where my family is, where my friends are,” these types of things.
Am I right that there is a kind of spirit of looking back, maybe not in regret but at least in a kind of critique or a kind of lament for a certain time in your life?
JVD: When I'm telling the story of my life to somebody, I often refer to myself as the antagonist and my own story. And most of the songs in this album series where I'm talking about maybe a toxic way of living, or mistakes or, you know, a destructive lifestyle – a lot of those are old songs, where I was either still living in it or was not very far removed. I often write those songs when I'm still feeling the like emotional weight of a bad decision or a toxic time.
And I did kind of have a Damascus moment which led to me becoming a believer and properly submitting my life to Christ. And then, you know, subsequently a change began to happen in me, but it also kind of led to me stepping away from the Lonely Forest and preserving my marriage.
I got married to Annababe in 2010, and I left on tour a few days after our honeymoon. The first three years of our marriage were really difficult. I was gone a lot. The song “Mass Affection” is literally about me coming home from tour, pulling the shades, not wanting to see friends, not wanting to do anything really, just wanting to be anti-social and escaping into a video game. In that case, and I can kind of look back and talk about a lot of these songs, especially on The Universal Sigh, “Forgive me, Audrey Horne” which is a Twin Peaks reference but like, I'm clearly singing to Annababe. I wrote that in the thick of an “I might lose my marriage”- type moment, so the lyrics of “If I change my ways/ commit my days” -- that’s literally me still living in that.
Those songs still existed and I was thinking, they're still true, they still have this weight to them, and I know that other people will relate to them, so I'm going to release them.
In the I Am Origami series, anytime you sense peace, health, balance – you know, “I was this and now I'm stepping away from this” -- those songs have come out of the last five years of my life. I don't know if that answers your question.
Joel: I think it does. But something I'm curious about is when you say you felt you “became a believer” -- that language has always been tricky for me. I think as somebody who grew up in a family where my parents had conversions in a true sense, from seemingly little or no faith to a very sincere kind of evangelical faith -- because I didn't have that, I just grew up with that faith already in place, it's hard for me to understand. And when I saw your early records floating around, it was within what I think of as the Christian music world, so it does surprise me to hear you say “I became a believer.” What does that actually mean to you?
JVD: I was raised in the church. My dad was a missionary and a pastor, and I got baptized at 10.
But if I was to tell my testimony, to use that word – by the time I started properly reading books, and I mean like more than just the Chronicles of Narnia or Ender's Game, I think I began to question my worldview. By the time I was 19 I was writing songs like “God is Dead.”
Joel: Yeah, but that’s not really what it sounds like it's about, though.
JVD: It’s not, but the point is, I had observed what I would have called hypocrisy at that time in my life. I didn't feel any connection to Christianity culturally, and I think at that point I would have said I believed in a God, but as I got older, it became fuzzier and fuzzier to the point where I didn't even think about it. And when I did think about it, it was just like “yeah, I think there's a God maybe, but I don't really know.”
My vocabulary became really vague, and it took a backseat, in general, in my thinking. I still wrote these kind of spiritually sensitive songs; there are songs on the first few Lonely Forest records where I'm clearly singing from a Christian worldview, but looking back, I'd say I wasn't a Christian. I didn't believe Jesus was who He said He was. We Sing the Body Electric, which is the second one, probably has the most vulnerable lyrics have ever written. It’s actually my favorite, and the stories behind those songs are so intense. If I put that record in and listen to it, it's very difficult, because of what was going on in my life. But on the big track at the end of the record, I'm clearly singing a prayer, so even then, I wouldn't have called myself a Christian, but I was clearly singing to God. And a couple years later you can hear that in the Lonely Forest release Arrows, like the song “Be Everything,” it's a clear prayer to God.
Here's the thing: right before we recorded that record my dad gave me this book called Can the Real Jesus Still Be Found? I don't know if it's a very good book, but all I know is that by the time I finished reading it I, for whatever reason, mysteriously would have told you I think Jesus is God.
And so, my vague kind of fuzzy belief in a higher power was focused. I wasn't vacillating between like all this uncertainty. The kicker is that I would have told you then that I was a Christian. The song “(I Am) The Love Addict” is clearly what I would call a Christian rock song.
So I would have said I'm a Christian, but the thing is I wasn't experiencing any change. That's the thing, when I look back, I realized that I believed in Jesus but it wasn't producing fruit in me, the spiritual rebirth that I’d been told would happen, growing up in the church. That confounded me. I was still addicted I was still living this toxic lifestyle, and a lot of the songs
In the (I Am) Origami series are looking back to that time, where I was desperate to change but couldn't change.
So the crazy thing is, the Lonely Forest went on a Jagermeister tour. We were opening for Portugal. the man. It was a fantastic tour from a career perspective. Our career trajectory was still going up. I was reading the Bible in the tour van, and listening to worship before shows, really trying to change, but I wasn't.
That that tour was, to use an over-abused term, rock bottom for me. Straight up way too much drinking, very lonely, I'm realizing all this ambition that fueled me for so long, and even though my band is playing for 2000-3000 people a night, I'm like, miserable.
I came home from that tour and for the first time, realized that I needed God. So there was this shift from belief in God to actually realizing I needed whatever God had to offer me. What I would say is, that's the first time I felt poor in spirit. Right after coming home from that tour decided to get baptized again. I got baptized at my birthday party. My wife and I started going to marriage counseling, and that's actually the beginning of when I started to see a spiritual change in me.
So when I talk about becoming a Christian, that's my story. There was a huge shift there. It’s really funny because now you've got me thinking about when and where I was when I wrote all of these songs.
Joel: Well, not that it has to all be connected to exactly what was going on in your life, but it's just interesting. In some other interview I was listening to with you, you said something about a touring lifestyle ultimately being something you decided you didn't want, or that wasn't going to be good for you. And I do want to talk a little bit about this, your sense of place or your sense of rootedness, if that's something you feel. The reason I mention it is that when I think I sort of reacquainted myself with your band, when Arrows came out in 2011, I was living in China to do my PhD research. I left on like maybe August 20, and then my wife found out she was pregnant on August 26, I think. So I was gone for the whole first trimester of her pregnancy with our oldest son, who’s ten now. I started listening to that song “I Don’t Want to Live There.”
I started listening to that and just wept, like, almost daily, because it was about my home.
I realize it’s about your home, but in a larger sense it was describing my world, the world that I've lived in for pretty much my entire life. And I felt such a tangible longing, man. I came back and we had New Years’ with some friends in Birch Bay up by Blaine. And I just remember waking up, I woke up before everybody else, and I put that song on my headphones I just looked out over the bay and I’d just never felt so happy, or maybe it was one of a handful of times I'd never felt so much like I was in the right place. Like, this is where I'm supposed to be.
JVD: I'm honored that I got to be a little bit of a part of that.
Joel: I really like that songs can do that. I think that songs, you know get played at you, I think you listen to a song into your life, which I think is a really cool thing to do.
So tell me a little bit about that. It's just unusual even to hear a contemporary rock musician be like, “I'm visiting my parents.” (On “Marathon Daze.”) It's not a normal thing, but I think it's a really powerful thing, and I love hearing it and it seems like it's meaningful to you. So I wonder if you could say a little bit about that notion of home or rootedness where you are.
JVD: Well, I mean, Anacortes, Washington where I live now and where I've grown up is very important to me, and it's shaped my artistic identity. When I first started touring, I realized that I just like small quiet places more than bigger places. I often reference places on Fidalgo Island, where I live, in my songs. Because I like having a sense of place, and then I often have written songs about being away from Anacortes but also everything it represents to me.
The record Adding up the Wasted Hours, which is the last Lonely Forest record -- so much of that record was about being away from my sense of place, and needing to kind of get back to myself, get back to what I know.
But I've also always had a problem where, I don't know if you'd call it a grass is greener mentality, but I always want to move to another island. I actually tried to write a song recently where I was talking about “I'm always dreaming of another shore.” But I mean like a literal shore, because I’ll look at like, Nova Scotia and New Zealand. So I’m actually always kind of wanting to go to a new place that's quieter and farther removed where nobody knows who I am.
I don't know if you've read the lyrics of the song “Marathon Daze,” but the first part of that song I wrote while being in Nuremberg, Germany, and then the second half of that song where I say “no more car alarms, crowded subway cars, indoor cigarettes” I'm talking about Beijing.
So it’s actually interesting that you were living in China, we are connected there, because that whole song is about wrestling with culture shock. And I love China, let's make that clear, but being in Beijing is the epitome of loud and fast, and I'm just aching for as I sing in the song “endless fields, early family meals” - things that give me a sense of place. Climbing the cherry tree in my parents’ backyard, and the places that I know.
I'm still trying to determine if I feel like Anacortes is home. That's the weird part about this whole thing, even though this is where I want to be. It doesn't matter where I'm at, I'm always aching for a greater sense of place. And so, it's almost as if my feelings of about home and place are somewhat fleeting, and there's something like deep inside of me that's still kind of broken and needs to be fixed. I find that very interesting. It's like, maybe as I get older, I'm trying to determine like how can I actually enjoy the roots that I've put down instead of like always aching for some imagined place.
As a side note, “Marathon Daze,” that song makes more people cry than any song I've ever written, because I'll be playing a show where somebody is away from home, and they come up to me and they're like, “that wrecked me,” because I sing, you know, “walking with my mom, coffee with my dad,” my sisters – and it just gets people. When I was playing it on tour in Europe, expats would just be destroyed, because all they wanted was, you know, to be in Ann Arbor or Jacksonville.
Joel: Speaking of place, what does it mean to you to be a musician in the Northwest, or what does it mean to be a musician slash Christian musician slash “churchman” in the northwest?
JVD: Well, I love being an artist from the Northwest. I think there's a Northwest sound. People, if I'm somewhere far away can usually tell.
Joel: I mean, if I had to pick the archetypal Northwest sound, it would be yours.
JVD: Wow. I mean, that means a lot to me, because most of my favorite bands are from the Northwest or from the UK. I loved growing up in the scene in Anacortes, and the Seattle and Bellingham scene that I was kind of a part of, back ten years before to like Death Cab for Cutie, and Sunny Day Real Estate and bands like that.
And being a Christian -- here's the thing, even after I became a like proper believer or a little bit before that when I was when I would have told you I was a Christian and I was writing spiritually sensitive lyrics, I didn't like talking about my faith, because people would write me off, and they still do to this day. It's just that people will claim me personally, they'll be friends of mine and acquaintances who will be like “yeah, I like your record,” but they probably would never tell the public that they like it.”
Throughout my entire career, have met a lot of Christians who I think tried to hide their faith. And they probably have some good reasons and some bad reasons. Maybe some of the good is, I just want to exist, and if somebody notices that I'm different because of how I act, that's my, for lack of a better term, witness. I also think I've known a lot of musicians, and felt this way myself, where they're just afraid. They're afraid that KEXP won't play them, or they're not going to get to support this band on tour, and things are going to get political.
Especially in the last five years, with the arrival of Trumpism, I think it's become the worst possible time for me to talk openly about my faith. You mix that in with the fact that I'm also still writing lyrics that piss Christians off, and I've made the worst possible business decision.
On my new record, it’s like I've made it really hard on people to get into, because I've been getting a lot of messages about the lyrics, like, “what do you mean by this?” I think I've been trying to create art that reflects who I am holistically, and because of that, it's becoming increasingly niche. The audience grows smaller, but the people who like it really like it. So I struggle on a daily basis about what does it mean to be a Christian making art, because I don't think all Christians make art need to make devotional art. I don't think all Christian art needs to be used by the church. It doesn't all have to have a utility.
I also don't feel connected to Christian culture at all. The only Christian culture I feel connected to is that of the local church where I live, because that's where I work, and also maybe the Brehem residency, and Shannon Sigler, and the people I know who are curating good art made by people of faith. But it's all on the outer edges of Christian culture. It’s a difficult time to be too Christian, too pagan.
Joel: I agree. To me, the notion of Christian culture or the evangelical culture that I grew up with, to me it's sort of incoherent at this point. I think that there was a really robust scene that feels like it's gone for a variety of reasons, I think it left maybe within the last 10 or 15 years. It just has evaporated or turned into something else. I grew up in Spokane, and I would go to church basement shows with touring Christian indie rock bands and that was a huge part of my life when I was a teenager. It was a unique time, especially in the Northwest.
It was a really beautiful vibrant scene, I think, that got twisted into the Mars Hill thing and then it was horribly mangled and destroyed. But what's interesting about it is that stuff really seemed to me to take place outside of churches; it was people who came from churches, and were looking for an alternative to whatever it was they were seeing in in the church.
I live in Vancouver BC now which is sort of even less Christian than Washington, probably. I find it a really interesting time and place to be a Christian. I'm not part of the dominant power structure in some ways, if that makes sense. And I'm learning what it's like to be part of something that is viewed as a little bit weird or a little bit outsidery. I wonder for you, is there a sense of that kind of outsider-ness? Is that fruitful to you at all or does that feel kind of just hard?
JVD: I guess it depends on who or what I'm outside of because, sure, I released two worship record and released a worship song with a prominent artist.
Joel: I have not heard that song, by the way, but it's your number one song on Spotify.
JVD: Right, so that's where I become an outsider to my peers who play in secular bands. They're my friends and we enjoy each other and we'll go to each others’ shows and maybe even play together, but ultimately I am outside of that.
So I have to kind of walk that line, and let go of my desire to be included, especially in the scene I used to be a part of. But the thing is, I'm also kind of an outsider from the greater Christian music world, and the Internet has kind of destroyed local scenes. So now, because of the algorithm, if you listen to my worship song, you’re probably only listening to that one song, and you can be anywhere in the world that's going to be the one John Van Deusen song you know, and then your next song is going to be a Chris Tomlin song or, you name a major Christian artist.
So that's a long way of saying, I do feel like an outsider, though it allows me to be kind of a shapeshifter, like I have access to certain places that others don't. I could get a mainstream Christian artist to feature on my song, and I could also get a Sub Pop artist to feature on my song, and I could put those songs on the same record. It carves out this space for being in no man's land, and like I said earlier, is a bad business decision. Eventually in the long run, I think it will be a strength, because I won't be able to be lumped into any one category.
Joel: What I like about what you just said is there's a flattening of differences, probably artificial differences that were built up culturally, that I think is really healthy to figure out a way to get away from. The notion of Christianity as a culturally dominant force isn't always there anymore like it maybe was once, and I feel like that opens up some interesting spaces, and I feel like somebody like you is doing something that does open up possibilities for everybody.
JVD: That means a lot to me, that really does. I appreciate that. It’s a strange landscape to be a part of.