Throughout his seventeen-year discography, singer-songwriter Bebo Norman has been applauded for laying it all on the table. Lyrically transparent and musically vulnerable, Norman’s music provides a common ground for the songwriter and the listener to collaborate in a discourse on life’s curious details, and how those day-to-day unknowns play in the greater mystery of faith.
But being honest doesn’t come without cost. And when Bebo began penning songs for his eighth studio recording, Lights of Distant Cities (BEC), he found himself unable to connect the faith he grew up on – and has provided the spiritual content for the bulk of his successful back catalog – with the seemingly endless desert of despair that was currently swallowing his hope whole.
“In the dark night / Is there a shelter or rescue light / Is there a fire burning up the plight / That plagues my shallow heart . . .” (from “The Broken”)
“The last few years have been pretty intense – a long, slow progression, or digression, into a spiritual desert,” he remembers, disclosing the belaboring process of writing songs in the dark of the desert. “I struggled to write anything hopeful. But I wanted to be true to the season I was in, so I simply wrote about the hopelessness I was experiencing.”
With the same transparency that has attracted listeners to his lyrics for nearly two decades, Bebo admits, “My tendency is to allow the darkness to override the hope I have in Christ. A few months prior to recording I experienced an intense season of recovery and renewal. I finished nearly all of the songs after the recovery process. So you have desperation and recovery – darkness and light – represented within the same song.”
A poignant contrast evidenced throughout the eleven-song track list, and especially affective when heard within the brief parameters of individual songs, Bebo says the end result is perhaps the most unique offering of his career. “It’s as if two years of spiritual journeying are contained in three or four minutes – songs that speak wholeheartedly to the desperation of a broken, desert season, but also speak to the hope that comes out of those seasons when we persevere and God shows up. Rarely have I written songs where the whole story can be represented in one song.”
“I’ve seen beauty in my hands / Kissed her mouth and watch her turn to sand / All these things and still I hold on tight / To the altars I keep building to the sky . . .” (from “Collide”)
Cultivating a substantial national following as a self-supported independent artist in the mid-90’s, Bebo became the poster child for Christian music’s acoustic singer-songwriter revival with his 1999 major label debut, catapulting his acoustic musings to the top of radio and retail, and plastering his name on some of the industry’s largest touring tickets. But as in every career, markets change and popular growth is countered by commercial decline. And in recent years Bebo has wondered if his vulnerable acoustics were still relevant within the context of the very industry that helped define his early career.
“As a young songwriter, there is so much freedom and beauty in just writing songs. But when your songs become your career, whether you admit it or not, you are influenced by what you think people want to hear,” the widely respected songwriter and music industry veteran explains. “Having seen my career pass its commercial peak and to still be standing as a musician, I’ve landed in a place of freedom again creatively.”
Using close friend and longtime live collaborator, multi-instrumentalist Gabe Scott, to co-write Lights of Distant Cities, Bebo says it is unexplainable why the creative partners had never written a tune together until now. “As my friend, Gabe knew nearly every detail of this desert season I was in,” Norman says, explaining the personal influence Gabe exercised in the songwriting process. “So when we wrote our first song together we completed each other’s sentences instantly.”
Having spent over a decade completing each other’s musical statements on the road, Gabe was also a natural fit for helming the project in the studio, co-producing Lights of Distant Cities with Bebo and Ben Shive (Andrew Peterson, Sara Groves). “Because Gabe and Ben played many of the instruments on the record, we had this great freedom to record ideas as we were writing. We wanted to craft these songs as classic – personal, honest and relatable songwriter songs, then treat them so they capture some deep, vivid emotion. What does joy sound like? Or serenity, ache, uncertainty and hope? Trying to answer those questions, we wrote and recorded music that we felt best voiced the emotion of each song, regardless of what musical genre it landed in.”
“We also decided to write and record every song as if there was no such thing as radio,” Bebo adds, having honed his craft long before before becoming a radio staple. “Not because radio is bad, but because we wanted to make a record true to the spirit of creativity and not the spirit of ‘what do people want to hear.’ In that sense, this record might be more honest than any I’ve ever written.”
Coming full circle, Bebo says the process of making Lights once again prioritized creative satisfaction over commercial achievement. “I can write raw again, to say what is true, where both beauty and ugliness have a voice. Besides,” he says, smiling dryly. “I have no clue what works on Christian radio, confirmation I’m officially an old man in this business.”
“So tell all my secrets / And open my scars / Break me to pieces / ‘Cause at the end of me, at the end of me / That’s where you start” (from “At the End of Me”)
As a husband to Roshare, his wife of nine years, and dad to Smith, 5, and Miller, 3, Bebo’s perspectives have broadened dramatically since he first graced the music scene as a post-collegiate bachelor. Perspectives, he says, that poignantly color the hopeless to hopeful songs on Lights of Distant Cities.
“This is another record of me dealing with grown-up issues. How to maintain hope in a world that feels dark much of the time. How to love my wife well. How to ache and hurt and suffer well so that my faith doesn’t spiral into despair,” he shares, citing music as a tool to confess the darkness so he can better understand the light. “For too long I have trusted in my own knowledge, my own self-sufficiency. Now, one year shy of 40, having seen so many of my own personal kingdoms rise and fall, I think I’m finally beginning to trust in the sufficiency of Christ alone.”
“I keep coming back to the goodness of God in a terribly messy world with these songs,” he shares, quoting the German mystic Meister Eckhart’s 1300 quote, ‘If the soul could have known God without the world, God would have never created the world,’ as one inspiration in simplifying the seemingly complex relationship between God and man.
“Like the lights of distant cities we’ve dreamed of and never seen, this record is a nod to all that draws us forward in life, that stirs our hearts and peaks our imaginations to remind us that there is still so much to be hopeful for. This record is an invitation to dive into the mysteries of this world with complete confidence in the simple goodness of God.”