Mike Cosper is the producer and lead guitarist on Songs for the Advent, a unique and heartfelt Christmas CD. We found this CD so engaging that we felt it would be interesting to pick the brain of one of the main visionaries behind this project. Cosper answers our questions below, revealing himself to be a thoughtful and articulate man who heads up an ambitious musical project.
How did you learn to play guitar and produce music?
Learning to play guitar has been going on for about 10 years now. I’m mostly self-taught, though in the last couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to study with a some amazing musicians, particularly Craig Wagner and Ric Hordinski. Craig plays with a jazz group called the java men, and plays around in the contemporary jazz world. Ric is a solo artist and a producer, and has played with a lot of bands over the years, including Over the Rhine. My season with them really taught me a lot. A guy like Craig, who has such technical mastery, really helps you to think about the instrument in different ways. Rich has a whole philosophy of how to play that’s fascinating.
As far as production goes, I’ve produced three records for sojourn, and that’s about all I’ve done. Any learning has come from listening to records and thinking “I like that” or “I don’t like that.” So when I’m in the studio, I really just try to listen to the songs and let the character of the song take shape, looking for tones and sounds that match the mood of the song.
What musical projects have you worked on?
As I said, I’ve done three sojourn projects, a live project (that’s not available anymore), a project featuring the songs of Jeremy Quillo, and the Christmas record. Other than that, I’ve recorded some sessions as a guitar player for some singer-songwriters and some worship leaders. I just recently did some work for a country singer named Leanne Sinclair. I’ve actually never met her; I just came into the studio to lay down some guitar parts. I have plans to do a solo-acoustic record.
What sparked the idea for Sojourn to create a Christmas CD?
The idea really came from our Christmas services. We felt like at Christmas time, the music in our church really created a mood. Advent is a season when you remember the coming of Christ, and the deep longing in the hearts of Israel for the coming of the Messiah, and you look forward to his return. There’s a tension in advent, and a contemplative mystery. Often, the very commercial air of Christmas music misses this tension. So we wanted to try to capture something of it.
What was the recording process of “Songs for the Advent” like?
We began with a list of potential songs from the stuff we did at our services. I asked Of Asaph and Nathan Stites to consider writing instrumentals with Christmas themes, and we began to look at who sang what and where the voices would fit well on the record. Over time, working on the record gave rise to new material like “God is With Us” and “Glory Be.” From there, we just started laying out tracks and seeing what worked.
Are there any more Sojourn recordings coming in the future?
We’re in process right now with one. It will feature Rebecca Dennison and Jeremy Quillo, with a lot of songs from the Psalms.
How do you see ART in the life of the church? What role should the arts play in church life?
That’s a huge question. I think I would start by encouraging anyone who wants to engage the arts to read “Unceasing Worship” by Harold Best. He makes a good case that the arts have an important role to play in the life of the church, but that we sell it out for cute kitsch experiences and petty emotionalism. We show up to church and say “Here we are now, entertain us.” I just think a lot is done in the name of “art” in the church that isn’t much in the way of art, and may not belong in the church. We want to package the arts and put it in a worship service, so we can say “we’re artsy.” The church should be the first to appreciate great art and the last to cheapen it and market it. I’m afraid that’s not the case. Best’s book deals with that and a lot more. It’s really inspiring.
Our community has made efforts to engage the arts, including this record. I’d encourage you as well to check out our online art gallery at www.sojourncommunity.com. The artists’ statements are definitely worth reading.
What is the most important bit of knowledge that a musician needs in order to succeed?
I wish I knew!!
What advice would you give to a young musician?
Practice every day. Practice stuff that’s boring and painful on your fingers. It’ll pay off in the long run. Listen to great music. Take lessons.
As a musician, what do you try to bring to audiences?
I try to make music interesting. I try to not be trite and repetitive. I think good tones are as important as good playing.
Who are some artists you enjoy?
Tommy Emmanuel, Mindy Smith, Lenny Breau, Pearl Jam, The Mars Volta, Hank Mobley, Derek Trucks, Madeleine Peyroux, The Fire Theft, Pat Metheny, The Black Crowes. Just to name a few.
What is your take on the current Christian music world?
You know, about 8-10 years ago, there was all this energy in the Christian music world, with Tooth and Nail Records and Five Minute Walk signing folks who wouldn’t have gotten signed otherwise. Bands like Luxury and Black Eyed Sceva were just amazing, especially Black Eyed Sceva (and Model Engine). It seemed like gradually, some of those bands crossed over to the “secular” indie rock scene, and most of the rest of them got day jobs. As far as I can tell these days, Northern Records seems to have retained some of that energy, but the focus now is on crossing over to mainstream radio. I don’t know if that’s better or worse. I guess I just with Jeremy Post was still around. Christian music as a whole doesn’t seem to have that gritty creative energy, or the deeply passionate thought that some of the stuff around back then did (with some obvious exceptions like Caedmon’s Call).
The other phenomenon is the whole “Modern Worship” thing. That’s rapidly becoming a million dollar industry, and so many of the songs and records are being produced the exact same, well tailored to Christian radio. I’m referring to the tones, the sounds of the songs, the sounds of the guitars. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but it puts a bad taste in my mouth. Delirious’ new record I really enjoy. There’s some great songs on there, and their lyrics are just continually growing with depth and passion.
I’m not sure that there’s ever going to exist a Christian music industry that doesn’t have these kinds of tensions. I think one of the problems is the sacred/secular distinction that exists simply because the Christian music industry exists. It’s as though a jazz record on Blue Note Records is “secular” or unclean and a cheeseball, crappy CCM record on Word records is “sacred” because of how it’s marketed and what stores it ends up in.
Any other comments?
Thanks for the review. Your words were very kind.