The subculture of contemporary Christian rock music--whose followers fawn over essentially the same derivative drivel heard on any modern rock radio station, but with lyrics praising Jesus instead--has become so enormously successful and lucrative that one hesitates to classify it as a subculture any longer.
Ever heard of the band MercyMe? Don't feel too bad, even though their albums sell in the millions, and their most recent, Coming Up to Breathe, recently debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard album chart.
Sharing the same planet, if an alternate universe, are "outsider" artists--most of whose music is secular--who are considered successful if their albums sell in the five-figures: Jandek, Daniel Johnston, Jad Fair, etc.
Standing at the intersection of these two seemingly divergent paths is one Daniel Smith.
Born in Camden, N.J., but raised in Clarksboro, N.J., Smith was the eldest of five children. His father, Lenny Smith, was a priest before he, as Smith explained last week, "left the Catholic church on a spiritual journey to get closer to God"--and became a gospel folksinger. "That's the environment we grew up in--it's very much this kind of Jesus hippie movement of the '70s ... where it wasn't about a building or a fashion or structure, in terms of typical religious services; it was much more about worship and community and things like that."
In addition to being exposed to his father's gospel folk songs, Smith also discovered the music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan at a very early age. But like any teenager, Smith soon began his musical rebellion. "I got into punk rock and psychedelic music and all that stuff." Interestingly, though, he says he never really made a distinction between his father's gospel folk songs and the punk rock he discovered later: "Good music is good music, right?" he asks.
After graduating high school, Smith attended Rutgers University's Mason Gross School of the Arts, where he concentrated on printmaking and sculpture, though he was also writing music. During his senior year of college, he had a "spiritual kind of coming back home," as he describes it. He had been feeling out of touch, so he began making trips back to Clarksboro, reconnecting with his family and collaborating with them on various art projects, including music. When it came time for the art opening for his senior thesis, a multimedia affair, he says, "It just made a lot of sense to ask my siblings to join me on these songs I'd been writing; so we performed them at the art opening."
The opening was extremely well-received, and Smith decided to write and record more songs--some of which were also performed with his siblings. Those songs, which incorporated his spirituality, eventually became A Prayer for Every Hour, the first album released under the name Danielson.
Now is as good a time as any to address Smith's take on Christianity and spirituality. When asked at what age he discovered religion, he replies, "I mean, I never found religion, to be honest with you. It's a spiritual journey, not a religious journey."
Still, he doesn't hesitate to identify himself as a Christian: "Well, I'm a Christian, and even that word--we don't know what that means anymore. You know, there are many definitions of that, but I certainly line myself up with the teachings of Christ. ... For me, it's very much a spiritual journey and one that's between me and my maker."
Despite the fact that, in 1996, A Prayer for Every Hour was released on Tooth and Nail--one of the foremost labels associated with the mainstream Christian rock movement--he takes great strides to distance himself. "I didn't grow up with Christian music, really, and I don't really subscribe to the philosophy of this sort of hidden-away subculture. To me, I listen to music, and I play music that is in the mainstream, indie, underground world--it's just music to me.
"Now, I had sent the first album out to probably 15 labels. One of them was this label Tooth and Nail, who did have a large hand in the Christian music world, and at the same time they were the only ones who wrote me back, and they were interested in putting the record out. So, I decided to go with it, only because they did have independent mainstream distribution through Caroline Records, and that was the thing that mattered to me. I wasn't opposed to the music being exposed to Christian kids, of course. I don't want to limit any audience--but that's the whole point: I want the music to come out in a place where it's available to everybody."
The Christian-music faithful were less than impressed with the album, which boasted Smith's grower of a voice backed by a charmingly ramshackle, exuberant and genuinely engaging approach to message music the likes of which the Christian mainstream had never before heard. In other words, it sounded nothing like Creed. It certainly didn't help that the band included family members and wore nurse uniforms during live performances--to signify the healing power of their music--which led many to dismiss them as a cult-in-waiting.
Smith and a revolving crew of collaborators released three more albums on Tooth and Nail, under several different names (Danielson, Danielson Familie, Tri-Danielson), before moving on to Secretly Canadian, a secular indie-rock label, where the music has been given the freedom to truly flourish.
His latest album, Ships, is by far his most ambitious to date. Everyone who has ever played on one of his albums makes a return appearance (including his siblings and Sufjan Stevens, whose albums are distributed by Smith's Sounds Familyre imprint), and he invited a host of people he's always wanted to work with--members of Deerhoof, Why? and Serena Maneesh. "It was just one big experiment," he says, "just like every record ... and it was a good two years to get the thing written and recorded."
And it sounds like it; it can't help but win him some new fans. Whether it pulls him out of the outsider artist ghetto remains to be seen, but it's a far cry from anything Creed ever released--and we can all thank God for that.