The Making of the Jesus Album - Remembering Rich

Premier Magazine Interview

Angela Little

October 1998

On 19th September 1997 Rich Mullins was killed in a tragic car accident. In February 1998 I find myself in London's infamous Abbey Road Studio 2 with Rich's longtime friend and 'Ragamuffin', Rick Elias. His challenge, as a record producer, was to bring to fruition Rich Mullins' final album, a project simply titled Jesus.

Several months later in their hometown of Nashville, I meet again with Rick, fellow Ragamuffins Mark Robertson and Aaron Smith and Rich's friend and business manager, Jim Dunning. It's the eve of the Dove Awards and stepping in on the interview (to rescue my flu departed voice!) Electric's front man Sammy Horner hosts the chat about Rich, what he stood for, and the making of the Jesus Record...

About the album...

Rick: Originally when Rich approached us about the record he wanted each of us (the members of the Ragamuffin Band) to write two of them and sing those two songs. But I think as time went on we all knew it wasn't going to happen that way, it wasn't going to be as strong as we all thought it should be. Rich himself was very prolific and so it ended up that he wrote almost everything... Rich demo-ed all the songs and we were about two weeks away from going into the studio when he was killed.

Angela: It's the most obvious concept for the Christian music scene, yet it's never been done...

Rick: Yeah, that's exactly it, and I remember someone in the industry saying to us, 'Make sure no-one knows about this record or hears of the title'. And that was long before Rich died!

Jim: Rich used to talk about it on stage though. He'd say, 'Y'know I think I'm gonna do this album about Jesus and just call it Ten Songs About Jesus'. And people would laugh. They didn't take it seriously.

Rick: The thing is with Rich, you knew if he was going to do it, it was going to be great. If anyone should tackle the subject in just ten songs, he was the guy.

Sam: Was it strange recording the album when a guy that you've worked with so much just lost his life?

Rick: One thing I keep saying very clearly is 'it is not a tribute record.' Secondly, the record is about Jesus, not about Rich. So in that regard it made it a bit easier to move on. Although when we first started the sessions there was definitely quite a palpable sense of his presence, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that he was just such an amazing songwriter, he could really invest something of himself into his music. But for me as producer, I never got into this stuff like 'What would Rich think...' Rich blessed us by being very specific - which was very unusual for him - about what he thought the record was. We discussed in detail how it should be done, so really it was a matter of just doing it.

Sam: Nashville is a big music center. Why did you want to go to Abby Road in London to record the orchestral sections?

Rick: There are a couple of practical things. It's actually cheaper to record strings in London than here in Nashville. So when we checked out the possibility of recording in England, it turned out that Abbey Road was available and I remember sitting thinking 'Oh my gosh,' I hadn't even thought that it was a possibility. And Rich was a huge John Lennon fan, he would have been thrilled to record in there... The interesting thing is that these guys (the musicians) do sessions every day. They don't know and don't really much care what they're playing, they just read the music, but I had many of them come up and say, 'Who was this guy, this music is beautiful', and I got a chance to tell them a little bit about who Rich was and what we were doing. I feel those string players really brought the level of the record up. That room just had a vibe to it. It was fascinating for me to be there.

Awards and tribute...

Sam: We have a saying in Ireland, 'When you're dead you're great but when you're alive you sometimes can't pay the bills.' Does it annoy you that Rich is only now getting all this attention?

Mark: Rich was nominated for Dove Awards and he didn't win any in his lifetime. Now he's up for four, and odds are he will win one. I think the Dove Awards are so contrary to our faith - to give out awards for 'the best'. The idea of a show to celebrate music related to faith and to perhaps randomly pick bands might be more in keeping with the spirit of what we should be doing as gospel artists. Rich didn't particularly dig that aspect of it. We could be mad about it, but then I guess if any one does deserve to win tonight, he does.

Aaron: When Rich died it caused people to reflect on what he'd said and done and who he was and I think a lot of people in the industry realized in the end just what an impact he'd had on Christian music. A lot of times great artists aren't recognized until they're dead and gone, and I think that happened to Rich as far as the industry is concerned. His fans, the people, knew exactly how valuable and treasured he was.

Sam: When you came to Glasgow I remember we all jammed in the pub one night, and a lot of the guys from the pub came to the show the next night, though they didn't know anything about what you were doing. When they found out Rich had died they were really upset...

Rick: He had that impact. I never heard Rich say anything about 'crossing over' with his music. The music Rich played was the same under any circumstances and because of that it had a purity and a sense of conviction that drew people to it. Even non Christians I know, I would play them a Rich Mullins record before I play them something by an artist that is presumably a Christian but making music for the world. I guarantee it has a greater impact on them. Maybe they don't agree with him or understand him, but man, they cannot deny the excellence of what he did. Beyond that, the conviction and truth that he would speak... Rich was one of few Christian artists that really did make music about what he believed with the same passion and energy and excellence as Sting does, or Marilyn Manson does about what they believe.

About the songs...

Rick: It starts out with 'My Deliverer', which is an epic. I view the whole record, from the very beginning, more as a film. It's meant to be taken as a whole piece. You've got a song like 'My Deliverer', which is panoramic, like a huge crane shot, then you've got these other songs that are more like little close ups. You really need to get the whole flow of what is happening and where this record is going. That gave us a lot of freedom, genre wise, in how to approach the whole thing. 'My Deliverer' is my favorite song. It's the one that I knew as a producer that if I dropped the ball on nine songs, I couldn't drop it on that one. I was really afraid that I might, 'cause it was a huge, big song, there's a lot to it. And when it came off I breathed a sigh of relief. It's got amazingly poetic lyrics. Rich had this way of getting a lyric in there that was so well written and you knew you were looking into the man's heart. It's just unbelievable.

'Nothing is Beyond You', which Amy Grant sings, is a great song and for a long time we didn't know who was going to sing it. Amy did a great job, she really poured herself into it and made it her own. Then there's 'You Did Not Have A Home', which is one of the first songs Rich played me for the record. It's based around scripture, 'Birds have nests, foxes have dens, the weight of the whole world rests on the shoulders of a homeless man...the world can't stand what it can't own and it can't own you 'cause you did not have a home'. It's lighthearted. Rich considered it a bit of a jab at right wing conservative Christianity. For a guy who had so many opinions he, at the same time, rarely had an axe to grind with people. He did against systems, but not people. He showed an enormous amount of grace towards individuals...

Mark: He had a tendency to make fun of every denomination, including his own. He thought we were too precious about little things, and if we really were one body... When we played largely 'religious right' kind of churches the only people he would really praise were the Catholics, 'cause he knew that's who they hated the most. That's the only people he really praised. Except when we played at a Catholic function, then he would put down the Catholics really bad! His message really was just to 'get over yourself'. It wasn't about putting anybody down.

Rick: The fifth song is this one called 'Jesus'. The truth is that on the tape he played us, it perhaps wasn't one of the stronger songs. It lacked a certain amount of the poetry that you came to expect from Rich. It was a very honest, heartfelt admission of broken-ness and it was written in such a way that it was very pleading. But he believed in it... and I'll tell you what, having Ashley (Cleveland) sing it is probably the most proud moment on the record. The minute she opened her mouth it was unbelievable. If there was ever a singer and a song made for each other... it was like seeing a Mary scene. It's got that much power, it's cinematic. And Tom Howard's arrangement is just glorious. There is no way you can listen to that song in the middle of the record and not be touched on some level and challenged as to 'who was this Jesus, and who am I in context to him?' whether you're a believer or not.

Then it's 'All the Way to Kingdom Come'. Rich had this ability to write songs that were kind of light and sing-songy and he did it better than most. Phil Keaggy sings on it and it's got a real 'Travelling Wilburies' kind of vibe. We all sing on it. Then 'Man of No Reputation' is a song that I wrote. Rich believed in it before and long after I ever did...

'Heaven in His Eyes', I was surprised to find out, is a really old song, written in the late 70s or something. Michael W Smith sings it. And I've got to confess, I was most worried about that song because I couldn't picture any of us singing it and I didn't know who could. But Smitty did a wonderful job.

The last song is 'That Where I Am There You...' We were going to make it so Amy and Smitty and all of us sang on it. Then at the last minute we played Rich's original tape and Aaron started playing his drums along to it just to warm up and I said, 'Hey that sounds great, let's do it like that', and we tried one pass on it and again it was one of those magical moments, just playing along with Rich. At the end of the song you hear Rich laugh and some guy starts clapping and it's a really nice way to end the record.

The impact...

Sam: So what's the other record in the two CD pack?

Rick: The other disc is Rich's demo that he did on a boom box in this church. The beauty of this thing is, it's one hour of his life. It's him sitting there playing the songs top to bottom. He did nine of them. He wouldn't sing 'Man of No Reputation', he made me sing it later. And I wish to God he had sung it. If I have a regret, it's that... But the disc is compelling. It's the way we've been listening to it for six months.

Angela: Are you happy with the record, as both producer and Rich's friend?

Rick: Yes. I couldn't have done any better. But only an idiot could have produced this thing poorly, because of the nature of the songs. All I had to do was sit there and let them come to life, and cast the record well. At the end of the day, all the DNA for the arrangements was in those songs. Over the time people came in and every now and again I'd stand back and play them something and they would fall apart. I think people are going to bring a lot of baggage to the record. The record is that important. And the only way to overcome the baggage is to listen to the record repeatedly. If people do that they will find that it takes them through a multitude of emotions. From anger, to an enormous sense of loss, doubt, fear, mystery, joy, hope, and ultimately faith. I think that's what Rich wanted of the record. All those things are embodied in our pursuit of Christ and all those things were embodied in Rich and were certainly manifested through his writing. That's the power of the record and in itself it will have a cathartic affect on any listener, especially those who were fans of his and haven't had a chance to resolve feelings about his death.

Mark: I think the one that hit me most was when Kenny Greenburg, Ashley Cleveland's husband, came in to listen to 'Jesus' and he started tearing up, visibly loosing it. It didn't hit me for a while, I just thought, 'Well, he misses Rich', then I thought how amazing it must be that the woman that you love is singing a song that was written by the man that led him to the Lord. What a combo for him. It's worth recording just to give it to Kenny. And I hope that people can personalize it on different levels like that.

Jim: The thing is, this record needed to be done. And I know these guys thought long and hard about it, but they did the right thing. It was one of the weird thoughts I had the day after the accident. The day Rich was killed I got my copy of the demo tape in the mail from him. That night we listened to it at home. The next day I had such a strong thought that we needed to do this. It wasn't right to talk about it then, but what struck me most was that before he died, Rich was clear that he wanted Rick to produce and the Ragamuffins to sing...

Rick: Yeah, Rich didn't enjoy recording. He loved collaborative efforts. And that's exactly what happened here. Everybody had to pitch in, from the label, to management, to the band, to the ancillary musicians, everybody for the right reasons got on the same page and made this thing happen. This really is the result of one man's vision and a whole lot of people getting behind it to see it come about. Not many records are made like that anymore.

Angela: So Rich had the last laugh?

Rick: Yeah, and he would've had a blast making this record. We did.

Transcribed by Sandy McMullen

Copyrighted by Premier Magazine, 1998

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