Gifted lyricist shares faith, offers different perspective on making music
By Joshua Maloni
It's not often you hear a Grammy Award-winning, chart-topping artist say, "I can't do this alone" But that's the message TobyMac is delivering on his latest album, "This Is Not a Test."
Though the hip-hop singer/songwriter has sold 11 million albums and performed at the largest venues around the world, and even as his songs appear on television and he headlines Christian music festivals like Kingdom Bound, Toby is the first to admit such success is not his own doing.
"The song 'Beyond Me,' specifically, is sort of the heart of the record," he said in a recent phone interview. "It was the first single - not because it was necessarily the greatest radio song. It was the first single, because it's the heart of the record. This song is completely about that. It's completely about 'Do something beyond me; something more poetic than I could ever write; something more melodic than I could ever sing.'
"This is my prayer walking into the studio each day. 'Breathe something through me that is literally beyond; that I could not conjure up on my own.' And just having faith in that."
What Toby has learned, he said, is that his own talents and ability will only take him so far. For him to succeed in not only reaching listeners around the world, but inspiring them, he needs a powerful partner.
It's a message that goes against the grain of today's "Look at me" mentality.
"I think people want to hear songs that are saying, 'I can do it.' 'You can overcome.' 'You got the goods to do this.' And I'm sitting here going, 'I know I don't. But I know if I lean into God, he's the almighty.'
"I'm not sure that people are ready for that. In some ways, on the macro, they want to turn on the radio and be positively encouraged, and I'm saying, 'Well, I'm kind of telling you I don't have the goods. But I trust God.' "
Such honesty has caused people who might've shied away from "Christian music" to give it a listen.
"If we're transparent, and I want to be when I write ... I think transparency definitely resonates with people. They can sense it. And I think when we admit that we're imperfect, we're frail humans that need a big God, I think that definitely invites people in. It invites people in to a real world."
Michele Miner-Ortman of Niagara Falls has watched Toby perform at Darien Lake and Roberts Wesleyan College.
"I enjoy TobyMac, because he is very genuine. He loves what he does and why he does it - for Christ!" she said.
On the way to Houghton College for an Oct. 11 concert, Toby spoke to NFP about his new album "This Is Not a Test," his time in the studio, and reuniting with dc Talk bandmates Kevin Max and Michael Tait for the song "Love Feels Like."
NFP: You're a Virginia guy. You've spent a lot of time in the south. Did you ever think you'd spend so much time in the Buffalo area, or that it would be such an important market?
TobyMac: "I really enjoy Buffalo - especially in the summer (laughs). I didn't ever imagine this - I didn't ever imagine I'd be in music, even. My life's taken a lot of turns in very God-like ways and very cool ways. Who knew?
"But, yeah, Buffalo's one of the places I treasure, because we take Kingdom Bound up there. It's always a great crowd; very appreciative. Because we don't get up there all the time ... Buffalo is not frequented as much. ... I kind of treasure it. I look forward to it."
NFP: You said you started collecting concepts for "This is Not a Test" three years ago. What did you want to get across, and how did it ultimately come together for you?
TobyMac: "Man, I kind of just write about what I'm going through in life. It can be anything. It can be a struggle with someone; that I'm sort of just struggling in a friendship. Or it can be my own personal victory I got in something. Maybe where I miscued and stumbled in some area. Or trying to love someone well that wasn't ready to receive love. Or laughing with my wife and kids at the dinner table. It can be about so many things.
"I really do try to write about life, because I figure, you know, I'm walking through this world - this crazy world - trying to stay faithful to God. And that's what people want to hear about. They want to hear about the songs; the struggle in trying to stay faithful in a crazy world."
NFP: It's such a smart, creative album. I know you give God the credit. Tell me about the moments when you're in the studio and you hear something played back or you see something come together in an amazing way and you just sit there, and smile, and thank God, and think "I can't believe this happened again. I'm so blessed and fortunate."
TobyMac: "I mean, you answered the question for me. That's exactly how I feel, honestly.
"My work ethic is strong when it comes to making music, but there's also this deep passion there. And a respect. And a lot of gratitude for what I'm doing. When I go at it, I get deep in the trenches. I just don't come up until it's there. I'm hands-on all the way through; I don't hand it over to a producer to do what he does. Of course, he's there with me. But we lock arms and we go at a song with everything we have.
"A song like 'Til the Day I Die,' we did three completely different versions of that song, because the first two did not capture the lyric, musically, the way it needed to. And I knew it needed to come across as passionate a song as I've ever written in my life, because I'm talking about everything I'm about till the day I die.
"I feel like - everything matters to me. Every moment; every high hat; every kick drum; every lyric; every whispered vocal - I take it very seriously. And I don't let myself off the hook very easily. ... It's literally blood, sweat and tears. Literally. For me, it's a year and a half of grinding it out in the studio."
NFP: You are seen as the coolest person in a genre not always known for its coolness. How does that sit with you?
"I don't look at myself the way most people probably do on the outside. I don't look at myself in this niche called 'Christian music.' I look at myself in music. I don't compare myself to other people in Christian music. I compare myself, musically, to the world of music. I don't look at it like a separate little niche and try to be the best in that little box. I just try to do things as passionately and as excellent as I can do them - in the world of music. And, hopefully, it stands out. Because I am a believer.
"In sharing about my life, through my songs, I'm also sharing about my faith through my songs. So, I want them to be great. Because it's easy for the marketplace to thrush those aside, because they got me labeled a Christian artist. So, I think I have to deliver even a stronger set of songs."
NFP: How do you balance the entertainment aspect with the message?
TobyMac: "That's what we do, our whole lives, as musicians that are talking about our faith - as entertainers that are talking about our faith. The balance ... we've watched people in our marketplace sort of go too far one way, and lose the value of entertaining people. We found people go too far the other way and lose the value of the words and how they could turn people's eyes to the king.
"If I talk to any young artist, that's what I'm talking to them about nine out of 10 times is trying to find that balance.
"I always (say) I want people to leave my show sweaty from dancing, hoarse from screaming all night, but refreshed in their spirit. That, to me, is a great concert.
"Somebody leaves sweaty, because they've been throwing their hands in the air and having a great time. They're hoarse, because they've been singing out the lyrics, and screaming out even the worship. And then just refreshed in their spirit. They feel invigorated and ready ... to do all the things that they felt ... that they had forgotten about, or that they had gotten weary of. That, to me, is a great show.
"Do I want to entertain? Absolutely, man. I want people to think, 'That was one of the best shows I've ever seen in my life.' But at the same time, I sure hope there's something cool going on in their heart."
(In between songs on "This Is Not a Test," there's a comedic snippet speaking to the constant question of if or when dc Talk will reunite.)
NFP: What made this the right time to reteam with Michael and Kevin?
TobyMac: "I think it was the right song more than it was the right time, but I guess, maybe, both. Because there's bigger things in control than me.
"I think it was the right song. I think it's a heavy song. It's very deep song. It's a very personal song for me. I've learned over the past couple of years to love at a deeper level. I've learned that love and just serving with your hands and feet is the most fulfilling love of all, though it's the most tiring. It's the most taxing on you. It is the most fulfilling. And I wanted to capture the heart of that song in a big way.
"I know no two bigger voices than Michael and Kevin, as far as how they deliver with passion and the history that we have together. I knew it would put the spotlight on that song that is very important to me. And I think it can really be there for some people when they need it. And Michael and Kevin knew that it meant a lot to me, and they said 'Yes' immediately. And I'm honored that they would do it with me."
NFP: TobyMac alone is more than worth the price of admission. But tell me about touring with Colton Dixon and Britt Nicole. That's a pretty solid show from start to finish.
TobyMac: "I've always been an advocate of diversity - whether it's the color of our skin or our denominations or socio-economic. I'm a big fan of diversity - and that includes musically. I think Colton, Britt and I - there's a good balance there between rock 'n' roll and vocalist and pop and a little bit of hip-hop sprinkled in. I always call it 'the big ol' pot of musical gumbo.' That's what I love. It has a little bit of everything in the pot.
"I love it musically; I love the diversity of it. I've always liked to do big shows. When I come into town, I want to play the big place. There's something very special about playing a small venue, a theater or even a coffee shop. And I still do that stuff sometimes. It's fun; I love it. But, when I put together a tour on a new record, I want to come in town and make some noise. I want to play the big arena where every other band plays. Because I think it says something about what we do.
"When people are pulling up to the big arena, where they see every other band, I think it sort of causes people that like the kind of music we like to hold their head high, and to say, 'Come on. Come with me to this show.' It's a place - it's an environment - that anyone would walk into, because they're used to walking into shows there.
"Listen, I have nothing against playing small churches. ... But, when you're taking someone there, you're inviting someone there, it's a lot more of a thing than to say, 'Hey, come down to the auditorium where all the other shows are.'
"That's how I want to do it when I can. As long as I can, I want to do that - to get great acts to tour with, that also draw people and will get people talking. ...
"And then, this is the obvious one, man. If you know anything about Britt and Colton, they're very serious people. They're serious about their faith. They're serious about relationship. And they're serious about the music. They both impress me. Big time. I'm not just saying this because they're on tour with me. We chose them to tour with, because they're impressive artists and people."
TobyMac, Colton Dixon and Britt Nicole perform Sunday, Oct. 11, at Houghton College. Click HERE for more information.
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