When Jason Gray explains that his last three records were written in the hardest years of his life, he’s not being dramatic. He’s just stating facts. And when he says that his new Centricity Music project—Where the Light Gets In—is a brighter and more hope-centered travelogue of the next leg of that journey through deep sorrows, he’s not suggesting easy platitudes, but an active sense of God’s redemptive presence at work even in the midst of difficulties.
The songs that have propelled Jason’s recent successes—multiple ASCAP Performance Awards, an album hailed by critics as “Album of the Year,” five top 5 radio singles including a #1 for 9 weeks straight—ironically came during his own darkest days. Then again, maybe it’s not irony at all. Maybe that’s how redemption actually works. Maybe it’s only by walking through the valley of the shadow ourselves and finding a real hope there that we have anything of substance to offer to others walking deep valleys of their own.
“The hope of Easter,” Jason says, recounting words his pastor once spoke, “isn’t so much for the people sitting in the hospital waiting room fearing what the news might be. The hope of Easter, rather, is for those who already got the worst news they ever could have imagined. A little over a year ago my own life came to that point. I had to say ‘The worst has happened. Now what? Where do we go from here?’ And in that aftermath I started to write the songs I needed, and the songs I needed most were songs of hope.”
As a project, Where the Light Gets In is a stirring weave of sorrow and light and hope and even of celebration. That it holds together thematically is to be expected. Jason Gray’s candid, confessional songwriting approach delivered in his easy, distinctive vocal style and channeled through his artful pop aesthetic is a given. But the sonic cohesiveness of the thirteen-song project is nonetheless remarkable, considering that the tracks were built simultaneously by nine different producers (Jason Ingram, Ben Glover, & others) helming one or two songs apiece. [In case you’re wondering, this is not the way records are typically made in Nashville.]
“I’m a one-producer kind of artist,” Jason explains. “Making a record this way scared me. But my life was in flux so being in Nashville for a month at a time wasn’t an option. I either had to record this way or not record at all. But by the grace of God, recording with nine producers ended up not only working, but working really well, because every song had a champion, a producer who was so invested in their one track. Every song on the record got treated as if it was the only song on the record, and you hear that passionate attention to detail through the whole album.”
The project’s title track, The Wound is Where the Light Gets In,anchors the album, masterfully utilizing a deftly understated production that makes listeners want to lean in to the song. Co-written with and featuring Jars of Clay frontman Dan Haseltine, the track is a redemptively subversive Christian manifesto that beautifully rewrites the narrative of suffering, investing it with eternal meaning and spinning it into a hope more deeply rooted than any grief.
“One of my favorite quotes ever is by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross,” Jason says. “She wrote that ‘The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.’ I wanted to capture that idea in my songwriting. I thinkWhere the Light Gets In is really about having a more fully realized hope. It’s not a hope based on circumstances or on things going the way you hoped they would, but on a hope that abides, even when the worst happens.”
For Jason Gray, the worst came during a time when his stepfather was battling cancer, and he and Jason’s mom were losing their house as a result of the medical bills. Jason was trying to help them, but that ongoing emergency was only the tip of the iceberg. He was also faced with the breakup of his own home, and trying to learn to balance the demands of providing for his family as a touring recording artist with being, for the first time in his life, a single dad.
“People tend to think of the failure of a marriage as an event,” Jason says, “but the reality of it can be more like a long, slow death that goes on for years right in front of your eyes while you feel helpless to save it. A little over a year ago my marriage officially ended, though the relationship had already ceased to exist long before that. Just three weeks later, I had to be out on the road again. I was scared, numb and jaded, dealing with my own pain and asking ‘How did this become a part of my story?’ I was in shock and so exhausted and disillusioned I didn’t even know how prayer worked anymore. How could I get up on a stage again and sing to people about God and hope?”
That first night of the tour though, a couple from the audience who had no idea what Jason was dealing with came to him after the show asking for prayer for their own marriage which was on the verge of coming apart. The next night in a different city the same thing happened again with a second couple. In fact, every night for the first week of the tour, Jason was approached by married couples in crisis asking if he would pray for them. And in those requests, Jason himself began to find a new hope.
“I had walked out on stage that first night feeling like I didn’t even know how to pray any more, but when those people came to me it was like, well I know how to pray for this, I know how to pray for you because I know what it feels like. I know how you’re hurting because I’m hurting in exactly the same way. That’s the one thing I know how to do. Praying for their broken hearts was a kind of healing experience for me, and it was the beginning of the hope that I still have good work to do for the kingdom of God, not only in spite of, but maybe even because of what I had gone through.”
That notion that God takes our own hurts and wounds and brokenness and uses them as a means of grace through which we offer his hope and healing to others is one of several threads that bind the Where the Lights Gets In into a conceptual whole. The idea of being a wounded healer is present in the upbeat pop manifesto Resurrection, in the gentle strength of the conversational track Learning To Be Found and most notably in the soaring anthem I Will Rise Again, a song of rooted hope penned from a shared communion of loss.
“I wrote I Will Rise Again with my friend Ross King,” Jason explains. “He had just lost his dad unexpectedly in a fishing accident and I had just had my life turned upside-down and so both of us were still in shock when we got together to write. We were in places where our stories didn’t make sense to us anymore, sitting in the death of so many dreams and expectations. But it was from that place that I Will Rise Again was written. Sometimes the worst experiences that you go through may be the things that create the capacity in you to become more like Jesus. How do we learn to be courageous if we aren’t faced with fear? How do we learn about grace until we know how much we need it? How can we ever experience rebirth and resurrection unless we first experience some kind of death?”
Other standout tracks on Where the Light Gets In include the bright, celebrative Sparrows, a call to trust even in the midst of anxieties, and the album opener Learning, a song Jason describes as “the most pop song” he’s ever recorded—and an unapologetic empowerment anthem to boot.
“My last album was all about grief,” he says, “and so I wanted to make a statement right at the beginning of this record that it’s about hope and that it’s got some fun in it too. So I put Learning at the beginning of the record. I’m usually annoyed by empowerment anthems because I think they can be self-focused and ignore a lot of reality, but in this case I thought, ‘I want to tweak the genre to create an empowerment anthem that’s based, not on my own power, but on a real confidence in the grace of God.’”
That hard-won confidence in grace emerges in a dozen different ways as the dominant theme of Jason Gray’s new project. It’s the idea that no matter what we’ve been through, no matter how deep our wounds, we are still truly and deeply known and held and forgiven and loved, that our lives still have meaning and our identities are still rooted in a joyous hope and a call to bring all that we are, even our brokenness—perhaps especially our brokenness—as means by which we can love and serve others in desperate need of that same hope.
“The subversive irony of the gospel,” Jason says, “is that if you’ve gone through depression or divorce or loss or failure or a sickness, you are uniquely equipped to be able to bring mercy to other people going through those same things. It removes judgment from your life. It removes self-righteousness or misguided opinions. That’s what Where the Light Gets In is about. Don’t be anxious about the worst thing that happens to you. The message of the resurrection gives hope that even the worst will produce something beautiful in us, and will ultimately help make us who we most want to be.”