Listen: Zach Bolen of Citizens & Saints chats to Sam Robinson.
Sam Robinson of Fresh caught up with Citizens & Saints singer Zach Bolen. He chats about the band’s new album A Mirror Dimly—and the tough experiences that inspired it.
This is a personal record for you and the band, coming out of a season at Mars Hill Church. Would you mind sharing with us how this record fits into that story?
We were coming out of a really difficult church situation – more than a situation. Our church basically fell apart. So we went from being a band that led together and wrote songs together for one local church, to all of a sudden being a part of being different churches. When the band started, it had a specific focus: to write songs for the church to sing. That changed. Writing songs for the church became a lot harder, because every community is a little different.
So we decided that we should write about all these things we’re experiencing now, post all the fallout from the church. We also felt that there was a piece of honesty that was missing before, just because we were trying to write for a broader audience; a corporate setting. We made this record more personal.
When and where did you record this album?
We recorded here in Seattle at a really great studio, literally five houses down from my house, on my street – the same guy that works on a lot of Soundgarden’s records. It’s a really iconic and great studio. We tracked about 75 per cent of the record in a live setting: drums, bass and two electric guitars. So rather than each instrument recording all their parts and adding the next one we chose to record them together. It feels a bit more raw. There were certain imperfections that we kept, because to us it added a certain character.
The first track is called Crown Him. What can you tell us about this song?
This song kicks the journey off with all of creation beholding the glory of God, and seeing that he is this incredible power that has brought life and beauty into creation…it’s completely captivating. That’s why we put this song first; all of creation crowning Jesus as King.
There is a song called Madness…What’s the story behind it?
That came out of a dark place that I was in personally. I was wrestling through a lot of belief in God over certain issues, in particular His sovereignty. I was feeling a lot of pain and agony over the church stuff we had gone through, but also the loss of one of my friend’s young daughter. It was causing me to contemplate who God was, and why these things can even happen. It was just a big struggle and journey for me. But ultimately there is a bit of peace that God brings us in the midst of mystery and that’s what that song entails. That song took me a lot of months to write. It feels pretty heavy because it wasn’t just written in one sitting; it was a bunch of sessions and sorting through my own junk.
Why did you want to explore the idea of doubt on an album?
It was the ‘realest’ thing for us at the time. In the church, doubt is not really talked about very regularly. Sometimes there’s a [feeling] where, when we say ‘we don’t believe that right now’, it makes you ‘not a Christian’, or think that people are going to shame you. I think we need to grow past that and start embracing the fact that we don’t know everything—and that we do have moments and certain circumstances in our life that just wreck us more than we anticipated. That was certainly the case with us.
What can you tell us about the song Faith?
It’s really an eerie combination of confidence, and ‘you’re crazy to believe’. It’s like, ‘It can’t be possible that you believe so much’. But isn’t that what faith is? We’re believing in a God we can’t see, yet at the same time we’ve felt His presence. We believe God hears us, yet we don’t always hear Him speak. This song is special to me because it’s sort of that odd thing that is not easy to describe. When you get to the chorus, it’s kind of telling people that faith is true sight. And the only way I can really show you that that is true for me personally, is to testify through the confidence that I have in Christ.
The song Relent seems to have a massive sound.
We took our time on this song. I really felt the lyrics. I have a lasting memory of walking around my living room thinking through and discussing in my head and verbally processing these lyrics. [It’s about] getting to the place where I have just wrestled and put everything I have into one thing, and realising that I’m tired. I think it’s a place we go to a lot. We just forget to trust God and think our way is better. I see that all the time as a dad with my kids. It’s sort of discussing the idea that even though I’m trying to forge my way in another direction, I can return.
Listen: ‘Day By Day’
What can you tell us about Day By Day?
This is where you’re coming out of the trenches. I was tired; I found peace and belonging and I surrendered. But isn’t that the Christian life? A constant process of surrendering and dying to yourself. Day By Day is all about sanctification, and God changing our will and desire, so that the desire I used to have to want to run away, and do something on my own, becomes less and less. It’s an uplifting song about this beautiful process that, despite the fact that I struggle, ultimately God loves me and lives in me and is changing me.
Within the darkness of this record, there are beautiful songs that remind us of God’s grace. Kids really explodes, there’s a lot of synth on this track. Tell us about it.
We love this song. The thought that captivated me and that kept grabbing me was this idea that we are God’s kids. Being a dad of four kids, I think about them and the fact that they can run off and do the dumbest things, but they can come home and know that I love them and care for them. To me it’s like our relationship with God. We’re God’s kids. We abandon and ignore him yet he continues to lovingly correct us, guide us and remain with us.
I love the instrumental in the middle. I can imagine cats flying around with lasers flying out of their eyes…
It’s exactly what we had in mind; we were thinking kids or cats…
Tell us about Majestic?
It’s an invitation song to all people, whether you are broken or you feel whole or you are completely at peace, or just filled with deep violence. Whether you are a peace maker or a murderer, whether you are someone who unifies or tears someone down, the invitation is to all people, to come and gaze upon the goodness and glory of God.
My Joy Is Complete is the second last is track. What’s the story behind this one?
That was the first song I wrote after Mars Hill. Much of that was the result of my wife and I spending time in the first eight songs and a theme was really apparent to us – that God is our peace, our refuge and strength. It put the idea of rejoicing in a new category for us. We were sad, yet we had joy in Christ. We were confident that it won’t always feel like this. Even if it doesn’t happen here on earth, in eternity it won’t be like that. From day to day, it’s difficult to see past things right in front of our face; to look beyond to something better we can find rest in. In our case it’s resting in the midst of pain and somehow being really grateful for that experience. It doesn’t make sense yet that’s what God does. He turns a really bad thing and manages to bring something good out of it, and I can testify to that. Losing my dad at six years old – I see the good that God has brought from that. I think the song is about the fact that even in the midst of pain there can be moments of beautiful joy.
Doubting Doubts, what can you tell us about this song?
God loves us no less when we doubt and loves us no more when we believe. This song is about having doubts, but beginning to doubt those doubts. To be honest there’s something gratifying about having a certain doubt, I don’t know why, but then it quickly turns into a crisis. It’s such a relief when you can look at that doubt in the face and say “I don’t believe that” or “I believe that there is hope”, “I believe God is better than that”. The record ends this way because the last thing we want people to remember is – I’m loved, God loves me no matter what.
Do you have any ideas on where to go from here?
We want to keep going. I feel like I have so much gas left in the tank. I feel like this is just the beginning. I feel like a puppy that just wants to run around and explore. It doesn’t feel like a chore or job yet. I’m constantly inspired to write. Every time I hear a story from somebody about songs that have encouraged them, I feel so small and humbled in a good way. It shows me that God works in so many miraculous and unexpected ways. It’s just incredible to me that we’ve played a part in someone’s salvation story or in redemption of someone’s marriage. I never saw that our music was going to transcend generations.