By BEN WRIGHT
Not many love affairs (musical of otherwise) start with a recommendation from your mother. As with many things, Tree63 was different (or Tree as they were known back when kids still played outside and people left their doors unlocked.)
Before Tree made it in America, they were touring my home country, England. As an evangelical teenager, I used to go to the sorts of places that Tree played– places like Greenbelt or Soul Survivor. These were places where I could worship loudly and proudly; and they were full of the right sort of chicks – Christian chicks. Loads of them. That’s not to take anything away from those types of festivals. It’s just that people often do good things with dual motives – be it teenagers or the people who run the Christian music industry.
More on the latter later.
I recently rediscovered Tree after several years of shunning most things Christian. Having burnt out working as a youth minister in America, I had a pretty bullet-proof system in place, which minimised my interaction with the web of bands, books and events that the West’s evangelical machine spins. Tree nevertheless managed to shuffle their way onto my playlist. To quote Vinnie Jones, “It’s been emotional” – like finding a box full of poems you wrote when you were 12, except these are really good poems.
Tree was important to me as a young person because they gave my fledgling faith words and phrases I couldn’t conjure up myself. A band before they were believers, their first albums lacked the baggage that so often plagues Christian music. There was always an audacious honesty to their lyrics that gave me a lexicon for praying and arguing with God. Everything was not okay in my corner of Christendom. I knew this was not how it was meant to be. So did Tree.
Finding them again has reminded me of what a young, new faith sounds like. Overflow exhibits a brash irreverent form of joy; smart, intelligent, and raucous; without the naval gazing. Later, 63 was, musically speaking, a giant leap forward, sounding thicker and darker. The joy is still there (Treasure) but it’s dancing with doubt now (Have Your Way). However, after Life And Times, the freshness seemed to become fainter, as if made opaque by increasing layers of evangelical sheen.
In many ways, Tree’s musical journey mirrors that of many Christians. It certainly mirrored mine. Overflow is the guy who just met Jesus and doesn’t know any of the rules yet. Room exists for humour. Hope and naivety breed a raw bounce. Then, 63 steps up the commitment; the fury is focused and taking numbers; doubt creeps in but hope triumphs. Life And Times is something of a high tide for “the glorious ones”. But by The Answer To The Question the honeymoon is over. Things start to ossify. Church politics casts a shadow, disguising clichés as compromise. It’s still possible to find gems (Overdue), but the first love is being forgotten. I never listened to Sunday until I started writing this piece. It sounds like burnout.
What happened to Tree? Perhaps a random Brit living in America isn’t the best judge. Nevertheless, here goes.
In 2004, John Sullivan wrote in GQ: “Christian rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off of evangelical Christians.” It does this through “obviousness and maximum palatability” providing the faithful with a steady stream of domesticated knock-off brands that mirror secular music. Because of this, Sullivan concluded, Christian music “has excellence-proofed itself” – the core mission is not artful expression (those guys get weeded out) but sanctified mediocrity.
I think Tree spent their time in the genre like a square peg being forced into a round hole. No wonder they look hammered when I met them.
That was in 2003, back when I was a youth minister in El Paso, Texas. A big church had booked them and I was the warm-up act. After I’d played my set, I got to meet the band in their camper van backstage. They were friendly, but obviously tired. I remember noticing one member of the band’s pupils dilating a little when I sat down and made myself comfortable. Luckily I was politely whisked away by some minders before I’d had the chance to pick their weary brains. Their gig went well (they were always pros weren’t they?) and afterward they were generous with their time, talking to kids and signing autographs. But I remember later reflecting on how tired they had seemed in that camper. And how unglamorous being a Christian musician actually was.
John Ellis recently told Rolling Stone that Tree “very nearly became a run-of-the-mill money-making machine.” I’m glad they didn’t because those sorts of golden handcuffs are hard to escape. For established Christian bands in America the deal is simple:
* Don’t come out as gay (or – worse – a Democrat)
* Don’t speak truth to power
* Stick to singing variations of “Jesus is my girlfriend, this I know”
* Rinse and repeat.
If you do this, you’ll have no problem affording one of those big houses in some sunbelt suburb—that was certainly where I expected to find Tree earlier this year when I went a’googling. Having turned my own corner, I‘ve been exploring how to reconnect with the larger Christian community while avoiding the sorts of things that make me boil over into cynicism. (Things like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-WOneEXr00). I figured Tree would either be churning out new covers of Matt Redman songs or would have fizzled out. With that in mind, it was with real joy that I discovered Ellis’ solo music.
Beautifully honest, eloquently provocative and devoid of the Christianese that had crept in at Tree’s nadir, Ellis has much to be proud of. Sometimes I wonder how these songs would sound with Darryl Swart and Daniel Ornellas in the engine room, but there’s a time for everything. Ellis’ sound doesn’t have the swash and buckle that marked Tree, but room has been made for something more vulnerable. Just like with the faith story of a person, hurt and distrust can eventually give way to the sort of humility and maturity you hear across Rural; the cry for justice heard on Rights All Wronged; the cheerful pathos of All Too Soon or the mocking ambiguity of Waiting to be Rescued.
With this in mind, I’m a little confused as to the disappointment (not to mention outrage) that Ellis has elicited from certain people. His music and persona seem a logical progression from Tree63 – the same honesty and pugnacity; more edge, more politics; different context. As an outsider to the South African scene, it appears that he’s said a few things on the radio or in print that were broad enough to be construed as discouraging. But isn’t that understandable? People make the Bible mean whatever they want it to mean – do we expect artists to do any different?
The Old Testament prophets raged against the machine, exposing sin not just through their words, but also through the reaction their words precipitated. I’m not saying Ellis is a prophet, but judging by the comments section on his blog, there is a soft underbelly of hypocrisy in the church, on either side of the Atlantic, that he slices open. And for that I am eternally grateful.
Most of all, I’m grateful he got out.
The Christian music industry is a world where dreams are all for sale. It chews up and spits out the best of what it trolls. The bands that survive are the apparatchiks who tow the party line, cheesy chorus after chorus. To all this Ellis said, in his own words, “f**k it.” He could only have been more orthodox if he’d turned over the tables and whipped the moneylenders.
But happily, the story doesn’t end there. Today, the music industry is evolving rapidly. Perhaps, 20 years ago, Ellis’ solo music would have remained locked up in the obscurity of Durban coffee shops. Instead, it’s now accessible to all, unadulterated by the need to get past some record label exec. The machine has lost control of the means of production. The musings of the meek are free to inherit the earth, one retweet (or better still one Bandcamp donation) at a time.
Tree came to fruition in an industry where you had to pick sides. Ultimately, they were too edgy for those in the church and too churchy for those on the edge. That’s not something that John Ellis has to worry about any more.
Ben Wright worships and writes in Austin, Texas. You can listen to his music at https://soundcloud.com/ben-wrightintx/. His Twitter handle is @benwrightintx.