A bigger God

Releasing a new single, Denver-based songwriter Joel Ansett talks about his vision of God, the limitations of Christian music, and learning from Bowie

0
JON COSPITO

If Joel Ansett’s 2019 album, A Place I Knew Before, was an ode to searching — for meaning, for forgiveness, for peace — then it seems only fair that his most recent songs are an invitation to rest.

The Denver-based singer-songwriter is set to release a new single, “Just Fine,” on Feb. 5, a sibling to his late 2020 single “Ease.” The two tracks detail living with different types of chronic pain; emotional and physical — both unseen, both exhausting. 

“I should get some rest / But I don’t know how,” Ansett laments about himself in “Ease,” an acoustic guitar-driven track with an unassuming beat cradling the chorus. “See it in my eyes / When I spiral down / Self-aware to self-absorbed / Can’t escape the back and forth.”

For “Just Fine,” he steps into a groovier, atonal beat to transmit a friend’s experience with multiple sclerosis-induced pain:

“Nobody can see this fight I’m fighting / When it’s all inside / And you look just fine.”

“I had this title written in my songwriting journal for a long time: ‘But you look so good.’ That was the [name of a] support group that my friend [with MS] told me about,” Ansett says. “MS attacks the protective covering around your nerves, so you’re over-feeling everything. Physically [my friend] looked great. She just looked like anybody else you’d see; there was no external evidence of the pain. And she told me about this support group where she and her friends with MS commiserate that the intense pain they are under is invisible.”

The sense of carrying on through exhaustion was familiar for Ansett, a man with a soft voice and a tendency to verge toward gentle exclamations like, “oh my goodness.” Anxiety is a familiar foe.

“[Invisible pain] feels like a theme I’m going to be writing about for my whole life,” Ansett admits with a laugh. 

But Ansett is a man of faith, a music and arts director at St. Patrick’s Presbyterian Church in Denver. 

“[The idea of rest is] faith-inspired, really,” he says. “In the Bible there’s this paradox, that to take a day off is actually more productive. It kind of bucks up against the American notion of identity via productivity. It’s almost bragging rights to be on the grind and to be working long hours. It’s this badge of pride that I think is hurting us more than we realize.

“Ultimately, for me, the source of any good thing is actually not me, it’s actually relying on a higher power.”

With a catalog of R&B-inspired folk songs that address depression, self-awareness, nostalgia, love and loss, Ansett’s music takes an abstracted approach to addressing his faith.  

“I think the way the quote-unquote Christian music industry has approached the arts points to a smaller God than I believe in,” he says. “I want to sing about [God] in a way that is vast and beautiful and mysterious and glorious. It just pains me that when you say the words Christian music, the first thing in people’s minds is maybe a very specific sonic style with some kind of pre-packaged, catchy Christian phrases and a metaphor about the ocean. I just want to sing about a bigger God. ”

Ansett’s not alone. A “sex-positive and LGBTQ-affirming Christian” blogger by the name of Valentine Wiggins (most likely a pseudonym taken from the Ender’s Game sci-fi series) expressed nearly similar feelings in a 2019 Medium post:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if today’s Christian music is generated by an algorithm rather than a human songwriter,” Wiggins wrote. “If you have a piano or a guitar, a basic pop beat, a mention of overcoming a vague struggle, and a reference to water, you have a Christian song.”

Lyrically, Ansett escapes the cliches by removing the separation between the sacred and the secular. 

“If Christianity is true, if God did become a man and actually walked this physical earth, it was a declaration that it is all sacred and it is all meaningful,” he says. “And so for me, as a songwriter, to write a song about an Aspen tree, a relationship, a friend’s pain, I would view all that as sacred songs, Christian songs.”

He deviates sonically by collaborating with other musicians who have helped him open his sound up from the singer-songwriter-guy-with-a-guitar format that comes naturally to Ansett. Like his work with LA-based producer Jon Joseph, who gave Ansett’s last album its pop luster and ushered in the hypnotic beat that subtly drives “Just Fine.”

“I have a loose relationship with really the sonic qualities of a song,” Ansett says. “My focus is on songwriting. I want to be a great songwriter and that’s what I’m going to spend almost all my time on. … With Jon, I got the sense immediately that as much as I care about songs, he cares about production. That’s his language.”

Ansett’s gentle tenor and accessible lyrics have obviously struck a chord: fans donated more than $30,000 on Kickstarter to fund his second album, A Place I Knew Before, and last year, one of his songs was placed in the Marvel-based TV show The Punisher. 

“David Bowie has this amazing quote about creativity that I try to live by,” Ansett says. “It’s like you’re walking out into the ocean and when your tiptoes can just barely touch the bottom, you’re just about in the right creative space — not drowning, but taking some risk.”  

LISTEN UP: “Just Fine,” a new single by Joel Ansett, drops on Friday, Feb. 5 wherever you get your music. Learn more at joelansett.com