It’s not only artists and pundits who occupy platforms. There’s a performer in everyone. Pining for affirmation, striving to save face, yearning for contentment, covering a blemish. Man’s effort to craft and present his version of the best life will rarely leave him satisfied. Or anyone else impressed. The clutter of his clumsy work produces little more than an inevitable mess and limited space for an intervention that can truly save this performance. The solution? Clear everything from the stage. And get out of the way. – Matt Ingle
Reality hit Jimmy Needham pretty hard as he started work on his fifth studio project Clear The Stage. This record could potentially turn out a disaster. Even with iconic producer/songwriter Ed Cash stepping on board to lend his award-winning expertise behind the soundboard, Jimmy’s task at hand was overwhelming at best.
“I felt so inadequate going into the studio to make this album,” Jimmy reflects. “Not all of the songs were written yet, I was working with a new producer, and on top of all that, I had just become a father. Nothing has proven to demonstrate my inadequacy like fatherhood and leading a family. I remember praying, ‘If I ever needed grace, God, it’s now.’”
That initial prayer resulted in the vulnerable, anthemic lead single to Jimmy’s most personal record to date.
“The fact that ‘If I Ever Needed Grace’ came at the eleventh hour, when it seemed like I had nothing—and resulted in one of the most powerful songs I’ve ever written—is such a testament of God’s grace,” Jimmy says. “It was awesome to take steps of faith and lean on God throughout this record, and to see Him come through in big ways over and over again.”
Never one to shy away from pouring his heart into lyrics, as past radio hit singles like “Dearly Loved,” “Hurricane,” and “Forgiven & Loved” can attest, Jimmy’s declaration that Clear The Stage is his most personal and honest effort of his seven-year career to date is bold, remarkable, and at least, intriguing.
“There’s a nuance I try to capture in every record, but this one was a lot more eclectic, thematically,” Jimmy says. “If there’s a common thread, it’s how all of the facets of my personal life keep leading me to an expanding view of Christ; marriage to my wife Kelly, our daughter’s birth, and the miscarriages we experienced before our daughter’s birth. In all of these things, and in every way I attempt to navigate life, my only satisfaction —the only true answers—will be found in Christ. I’ve come to understand obedience as more than simply not doing bad things, but running to God to drink deeply in Him so that I don’t want to run to any other source.”
Jimmy best encapsulates this revelation on “The Only One,” perhaps the most personal song on the record. In light of coming to grips with God as the ultimate satisfier, he confesses, “All of my lovers are found in my billfold. They rest on my mantel. I can’t get a handle on what satisfies me.”
Not unlike most singer-songwriters accustomed to recording their own material, and only their material, Jimmy’s exercise of getting out of the way and opening himself up to song pitches from other writers for the record was a painstaking challenge. Though it did prove to be the right idea.
“My ego takes a hit when something’s added to my record that I didn’t contribute to,” Jimmy says. “But when the idea came into my head to include a song written by my buddy Ross King called, ‘Clear The Stage,’ it became so obvious that this song should be included. It needs to be shared with the world. It’s the cornerstone of the record.
“The first time I heard this song as a high school student, it shipwrecked me. I don’t think anyone can be the same person after hearing this song. I’ll never forget hearing those words and immediately getting on my face before God. As the final track on the record, it’s a heavy way to close, but my hope is that by the end, every listener will say ‘I want more of Jesus and less of everything else.’”
Contrary to most artists, Jimmy’s idea of “stepping out” on this record stylistically meant taking deliberate strides toward a more down-the-middle, mainstream approach, both musically and lyrically. Writing songs with simpler chord structures and accessible lyrical content, while staying true to the integrity of the blue-eyed soulfulness that’s brought him critical acclaim over his career spanning seven years. The finished product amounts to a batch of intently crafted, accessible pop songs, dabbled in a variety of genres from Stevie Wonder-inspired R&B, to Americana, to shades of reggae.
“The content musically is as diverse as the content lyrically,” Jimmy adds. “It was important not to alienate my fanbase by going a completely different direction artistically, but I wanted to write in a way that made my music more accessible and easier to embrace, which was a pretty risky decision for me.”
Another first for Jimmy while recording Clear The Stage was foregoing session musicians and opting to use his touring band live in the studio.
“I wanted to use my own guys and they came in and killed it,” Jimmy exclaims. “We recorded the funkiest, most soulful song I’ve ever put on a record called, ‘I Will Find You’ (featuring rapper Lecrae), and they knocked it out of the park.”
Other particularly memorable points on the record include, “My Victory,” a somewhat stylistic departure in the way of a corporate worship song co-written with Cash and Matt Armstrong; “Daddy’s Baby Girl,” a playful tune written for Jimmy’s daughter Lively; and “In the Middle,” a ballad for his wife as encouragement in the wake of a heartbreaking series of miscarriages.
“I hope that I’ve changed since the last record, but I know I have,” Jimmy concludes. “I’m more aware of my desperate need for Jesus in everything that I do. In every circumstance that’s thrown my way. The most important takeaway that anyone can get from this record is to see Jesus as so satisfying, that every other pursuit or effort to make our lives better seems dull compared to life in His presence.”