The words "pastor" and "artist" aren't often used for the same person, but Justin McRoberts is an exception that proves the rule. Co-pastor of a church in Concord, California, McRoberts is also a hard-working indie musician and author with a busy touring schedule.
McRoberts's latest work, The CMYK Project, started with an encouraging letter he received at a difficult time. He began writing letters of his own, and commissioned three different artists to create artwork for a book containing them. What ties the book together is the idea that Jesus is master of everything—especially a community full of lovely, crazy, terrible, and forgiven people. In addition to crafting the book, McRoberts wrote fifteen original songs as a soundtrack. These different elements combine, much like the four printer's inks of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, to paint a compelling picture of life together under Christ's lordship.
CT contributor Jonathan Ryan interviewed McRoberts at home in Northern California, during an A's/Cardinals baseball game, and by e-mail.
How do you balance the roles of pastor and touring artist?
I don't really think I do, to be honest. I've aimed for balance in the past and I always felt like I missed it. We planted the church about the same time I launched a career in the arts, so my vocational branches grew up together. This means I'm always tending both to some degree. I soon realized achieving balance just meant forcing my own expectations on my life. I realized I needed to focus on what God put in front of me and not worry about an arbitrary "balance."
So, now I look at my twin callings revolving through "seasons." Seasons of construction or creation, seasons of reflection, seasons focused on my primary relationships, seasons on the road. The past two and a half years has been a more natural season to focus on my work at home, because of the birth of my son. This allows me to put in major time with the people at our church in Concord. This "season" is the soil from which CMYK sprang to life. The next season will be launching the book and album into the world.
The book and album are full of little touches that must have taken extra time and attention. For example, I'm floored by the time you took with each page layout in the design, typesetting and artwork. Why was it so important to get those little details right?
I want to make art that continues to capture readers and listeners during their third or fourth time through. Details are a huge part of that. I listened to Pearl Jam's 1993 release "Vs" for months before I realized that, during the last thirty seconds of "Daughter," drummer Dave Abbruzzese plays the backbeat on his lap. That speaks to me of the band's and producer's level of intentionality and creativity. Finding those kinds of details in a piece tells me the artist is incarnate in their work. I want my listeners and readers to feel me in the details.
The attention to detail developed into a communal effort. Greg Madsen, the project's art director, and Dan Portnoy, the executive producer, and I pushed one other to uphold the ideas and dreams we committed to in our best moments.
We didn't want the CMYK Project, and particularly the book, to feel like our first attempt. All of the elements we included (3 EPs, a full-length record, and a book of letters, essays, and collaborative visual art) would come off sloppy or unfinished if we didn't pay attention to every fine point. We went twelve rounds with the printer to be certain we got it right.
How did the personal letters in the book shape the whole project?
The letters are the heart of the CMYK Project, and my heart, if I'm being honest. I wanted the rest of the project to feel human, honest and raw. The first round of songs, the fifteen we released on three EPs, went mostly unedited. The recordings are very raw, almost to the point of feeling "unfinished." That raw, ragged feel just made sense to me since the songs told stories of friends, their lives, and their hearts. I felt like it told the truth about life and our hearts.
I tried to spend as little time as possible in the world of disembodied ideas, and more in the world of personal narrative. Ideas are fun and interesting, but what makes an idea matter is the way it changes the life of the person entertaining that idea. While the reflections touch on "issues" like sexual identity, theology, faith, and so forth, they're not academic essays. I wanted to write about people intertwined in my life and how we live together as we sort through these issues. The whole process made me realize ideas matter only because people matter.
Was your confession about your anger after your father's suicide the hardest part to write?
No. Those are sentiments I've been expressing for years in personal and public conversations. I've spoken with a lot of folks who needed a kind of permission to be angry about having lost loved ones. I think anger is a key part of the grief process, and I've been happy to let my own story provide some language for their emotions.
The most difficult section in the book is called "Remember Me, Jesus", where I write a letter to a queer sister. This leads to me reflecting on my relationship with a gay friend in college. The subject matter itself doesn't bother me, but I kept fighting off my inclination to pull punches. Most of me wanted to play it safe, but doing so would have been dishonest.
Homosexuality, as a topic, can derail a reader or listener. I didn't want the project to suffer from becoming an artifact of a culture war. In the end, I pulled no punches at all, knowing that I didn't write about the idea or category of "homosexuality." I wrote about people I know and love who are homosexuals.
What was it like to move from making music to making a book?
The editing process forced me to remain far more open to critique than I am in the studio. I'm certainly not a control freak about my music. However, after close to fifteen years of making records, the process is second nature to me. As I wrote the book, going through editing, critique and shaping really tested me.
I felt pretty deflated at times, especially if I didn't know how to fix a paragraph, tweak a sentence or clarify an idea. At the same time, feeling that out of control really fueled the creative process.
The cathartic experience came when we finished everything. I can't remember if I've ever experienced something that liberating, even my early albums. We threw a big party and celebrated.
What did you learn about community through this project?
More than anything else, writing the book gave me the opportunity to see the rich gift of other people. Writing and delivering the letters in the book led to galvanizing moments in these relationships. They allowed us to pause, examine, and really go deeper.
I spoke with a man recently who had finished the book and started writing letters to people he loved, including his son. He's embracing the unique role he has to play in the lives of those to whom he's been given.
This is what I'd love everyone to get out of CMYK. CMYK refers to the colors used in the printing process; the colors of cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black). All of them are essential to the process. I think every member of a family or community plays an essential role in our lives. I wrote the book to say that the words you have for the people you love can only be written by your hand or spoken by your mouth.
Jonathan Ryan is a writer living in Ohio. His novel, 3 Gates of the Dead, will be published Oct. 15. His website is www.authorjonathanryan.com.