The fact that he calls Portland, Oregon his adopted home is no surprise, given his side-swept curls and the layers of denim he’s wearing. He’s being filmed in his living room—sunny, hardwood, homey—perched amicably on a leather couch. Giving the camera a soft smile, he says simply, “I feel like this story in my life is so tired, because I’ve told it to my fans multiple times, but for whatever reason when I’m working on an album I always have vocal issues.”
This is singer-songwriter Josh Garrels, and he’s talking about his recently released single Butterfly. The song is typical Garrels; lyrical, crooning and gently hopeful without being obnoxiously optimistic. And it has a backstory, something that Garrels disclosed in a video last Thursday.
In an 8-minute clip, he talks about a trip to Charlottesville last year to record, saying that it felt like a “losing endeavor” because of his voice even before he went. “I don’t know why I have to go through these times that the very thing I feel like I’m made to do is so often taken away from me,” Garrels laments. I won’t say too much more, because you should hear the rest from Garrels himself, but the upshot is that he felt led by the Holy Spirit to pray and to praise “with a voice I didn’t have” and something miraculous happened. Out of this experience comes Butterfly and its accompanying album Chrysaline, scheduled to be released in July 2019.
If you don’t already, you should listen to Josh Garrels because this kind of message about hope in God characterizes his existence as a human and as an artist. Garrels is unique, however, because he writes music that’s spiritual without always being overtly Christian—even though the artist himself is devoted to Jesus. “The music I make doesn’t tend to go there all that often, like, just in awe of God,” Garrels said in an interview with NPR, “More my music, I would say, is trying to peel back layers and find out where is God in the midst of this city that I live in, and this marriage I’m in, and these things that are going wrong and these things that are going right.”
Garrels’ music has a smooth, folksy touch with lyrics of vibrant thoughtfulness and spiritual depth. His online bio says this, “Josh Garrels has built his career on deeply personal, introspective lyrics and exploratory sounds that range from pastoral indie folk to hip-hop.” He’s a diverse, skilled artist who resists categorizing his music as either Christian or secular.
And so far it’s working. For someone with persistent vocal issues Garrels has still had tremendous success in the industry. He co-founded the record label Small Voice Records in 2005 and has since released seven albums. His sixth, Love and War and the Sea In Between, was named Christianity Today’s Album of the Year in 2011.
And yet still Garrels struggles with his voice sometimes, and with his confidence about his work. Which is the point of the video about Butterfly: God always returns, again, to make all things new. He’s always doing something, even in our cocoon-like paralysis. Read Psalm 85 and you’ll see that the psalmist’s plea is not for the Lord to save Israel once and for all, but just to do it again. “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6).
There’s one song by Josh Garrels that I listen to when I feel trapped by the cyclicality of life’s sorrows and confusions. It’s called Farther Along, and the refrain goes like this: “Farther along we’ll know all about it, farther along we’ll understand why, so cheer up my brothers live in the sunshine, we’ll understand this by and by.”
This song, this message, helps me breathe when I feel like again I have forgotten to praise, again I have stumbled into selfishness or shame, again I have lost something precious. It, like the psalms, promises that as often as these things are true, God will be faithful and help us make sense of them—farther along.
After Garrels’ experience with God (watch the video!) he reflects, “something happened, something opened,” concluding that he thinks he’s been inside the cocoon for a while now. “This whole season for me has been one of hiddenness, one of winter,” Garrels says, describing how he feels like the whole album Chrysaline embodies this experience. In the end, however, he knows that God will have the last word.
So listen to his video about Butterfly, queue up Love and War and the Sea In Between for your next car ride and keep an eye out for Chrysaline in July. Read Psalm 85, and remember that you too are shedding old skin and trading it for something new, you too were intended for wholeness and resurrection, just like the butterfly.