"Thanks for hanging in there through my mini-meltdown."
Jason Harrod is playing the legendary Club Passim in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He wipes sweat from his forehead (and was that a tear?), then leaves his hands on either side of his head, like he's just run a sprint and needs to catch his breath.
At 6'2", the 41-year-old songwriter dwarfs the already small stage at a venue where Joan Baez and Bob Dylan hung out in the 1960s. Tonight he's in a pair of dark jeans and an eggplant button-up, which haphazardly hangs open beneath his guitar strap. The strap holds a handmade Lowden 032c, marked by a piece of graffiti: Pete Seeger's autograph.
The "mini-meltdown" wasn't a meltdown, in fact, not even a "mini" one: Harrod forgot the words to one of his old songs—not entirely uncommon for singer-songwriters whose careers span three decades. "My spirit's willing, but my mind . . . ." he trails off.
After playing a full set from his third solo record, Highliner (Lincoln City Records), accompanied by a drummer and bassist, Harrod treats the 90 or so fans gathered to a solo acoustic set featuring songs from the earlier days. The crowd is virtually sitting on top of each other, leaning into the stage, but the intimacy is part of what makes Club Passim special.
Tonight the room is brimming with longtime Harrod devotees who have been following his career since the early 1990s, when he was just a kid out of Wheaton College and one half of the folk duo Harrod & Funck. He and Brian Funck moved from Illinois to Boston, when the folk scene was experiencing something of a renaissance; Patty Griffin, Tracy Chapman, and Peter Mulvey all got their start busking Beantown's streets and subways. While Harrod lives in New York now, playing in Boston is a kind of homecoming.
I was a freshman at Gordon College when I first heard Jason Harrod in 1999, right around the time Harrod & Funck were getting ready to call it quits. If you're familiar with Harrod & Funck, there's a good chance that you were a Christian college student when you first heard them. They were that kind of group—the kind that attracts young Christians who don't listen to much Christian music.
Maybe that's because on each of their two studio albums, as well as on their final recording (a live album), the duo sang casually about smoking and committing "murder in the first," and imagined life (and death) as a member of the Heaven's Gate cult. Still, Christian record labels came knocking. Harrod tells me that they turned down several Christian labels, including Michael W. Smith's Rocketown Records as well as a subsidiary of Word Records.
Probably, though, their lyrics—as well as the ones that Harrod writes today—aren't the reason Harrod eschews the "Christian singer-songwriter" label. Rather, it's because Harrod's songs reveal a personal anguish rarely spoken of among Christian artists, even those on the fringes who openly struggle with institutional faith. His lyrics betray a deep-seated insecurity, about his own abilities, about his value, and, ultimately, about his belief.
"For a long time I wasn't sure if I was [a Christian] or not," Harrod says. "And I flirted with the idea of 'taking a leap of doubt,' that is, living as if there was no God."
These are bold words from a man who currently serves as a church music director at a Christian Reformed Church on Manhattan's Lower East Side. But, Harrod tells me, Dwell Church leaders knew what they were getting into. It's his lack of "slickness," he says, that got him the job. Still, even when leading worship, Harrod wrestles with doubts. "There are times when I'm singing a hymn in front of the congregation and I think, I need to quit this job."
Harrod's doubts extend beyond his faith, however; he often wrestles with personal insecurities as well. Concerts, especially, have long proved challenging for Harrod. Ever since Harrod & Funck split up, in part because Brian Funck disliked performing live, Harrod has faced extreme performance anxiety.
"It's just a feeling of ugliness," he tells me. "I think partly my singing has always been, in a way, combating that—trying to make a beautiful sound, trying to make beauty."
That moment at Club Passim when Harrod lost the lyrics of "39," a track from Harrod & Funck's self-titled second record (1997), perfectly exemplifies Harrod's ongoing struggle. He recovered when the room full of fans picked up the lyrics where he left off. "My songs are so personal because they really are a part of me," he says. "To make this beautiful thing come out of me is a way of combating that feeling [of ugliness]."
Coming Off the Mountain
Harrod's latest record marks the latest stop, the furthest outpost, in his struggle toward a more grounded faith.
Highliner sounds much like his previous records: a hybrid of twangy folk, superb guitar work, and catchy hooks. But this record is more polished, in part because it was funded by a very successful Kickstarter campaign. The record interchanges stories from Harrod's personal life with fantastical tales and folk romps. For example, in back-to-back tracks, "Moon Mission" and "Grandma," he memorializes the underappreciated last man on the moon, astronaut Eugene Cernan, and pays tribute to his grandmother.
On "One of These Days," Harrod promises to "get it right," but then counters, "until then I want to get so gone, I want to be so wrong, I want to see what damage I can do." He refers to himself as a "bitter old batch" and "a filthy old rat" who is "sinking down to a deep dark place." Still, he invites the listener along: "I'm thinking when I'm sinking I don't want to sink alone."
"Mountain," the third song on Highliner, neatly describes Harrod's lifetime experience with faith:
When I came down off the mountain
I was breaking like a wave, rolling over everything in sight
Shining like a silver-plated nickel in the sun
I was dispersed across the universe of light.
Scannin' the horizon looking for a sign of you
When I saw your silhouette my heart stopped
But then I got up close and found out it was just a ghost
And I was sad that I had left the mountaintop.
"I knew vaguely that it was a 'God song' when I wrote 'Mountain,' " says Harrod. "But when I was asked to talk with a youth group at a Detroit church about how my faith affects my songwriting, it became very clear to me that the song is autobiographical.
"The last verse of 'Mountain' isn't about resting in God's arms or about resting in faith," Harrod tells me. "It's about climbing a mountain looking for God. So there's an element of dissatisfaction and searching."
There's reason to be hopeful for Harrod, however. In "Chains," the eighth track on "Highliner," he sings, "I'm not old / I'm not young / I been down / but I'm not done / I believe, I don't know why / Only you can make me shine."
And shining is almost literally what Harrod does after his show at Club Passim. He was in the middle of a national tour that brought him into people's homes and backyards in small towns and suburbs, as well as onto stages of music clubs in major cities. He had, for the most part, managed to keep his performance anxiety and persistent insecurities at bay while doing what he loves. And, at each stop, he was surrounded by people who love him for doing it.
Writing and singing over the past two decades has been, for Harrod, his literal lifeblood. As a professional musician, the songs pay the bills, but more than that, they connect Harrod with God. "For all my doubts and for all my periodic profligacy and dissolution, I can't escape the kernel of faith that is in me," Harrod tells me.
"I'm happy when I sing, Praise God. I believe when I sing. I might be a tired, angry guy, with an underlying suspicion of futility. But when I sing, I believe."
When he sings, his fans believe too.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is the author of Not Your Mother's Morals: How the New Sincerity Is Changing Pop Culture for the Better and the editor of Patrolmag.com.