Anchor & Braille is the solo project of powerhouse singer/songwriter Stephen Christian. While writing for his rock band Anberlin (which released seven albums and sold more than 1 million records before disbanding in 2014), Christian often created songs that didn’t fit the band’s aesthetic. The result was an alias outlet for the content: Anchor & Braille.
As Christian’s library of songs accumulated, he released an Anchor & Braille record, each one reflecting his current musical interests. “Felt,” his first release, oozed indie rock. Then “The Quiet Life,” a record focused on instrumentation. His third release, “Songs For The Late Night Drive Home,” illuminated the beauty of simplicity in song structure. His newest record, “Tension,” is about ease.
It’s Christian’s most effortless project to date, the ease manifests into the record’s tone. Tension coaxes the listener to feel the same freedom Christian felt while writing it, departing from the rock genre he’s known for in an effort to pursue pop driven sensibilities. Intended as a reprieve from life’s burdens, “Tension” is a reflection Christian’s current appetite for fun. An explorative album, “Tension,” is available now on Tooth & Nail Records!
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Stephen Christian for a deep dive into the making of the latest Anchor & Braille record. Along the way, Stephen offers insight into his creative process, the challenges of bringing his vision to life and what the future may hold for him musically.
It’s no secret faith played a big role in your life. You took the next step in 2019, when you accepted a ministerial position in your church. How did that come about and what’s been happening for you in terms of the pandemic?
As soon as I got out of Anberlin, I was offered the opportunity to become a director in New Mexico. At first, I was a little hesitant because I had obviously never worked in a church before. I felt a little bit out of place. When my wife and I flew there, we completely fell in love with not only the town and the scenery but the community and the people there. They were just incredible, beautiful people. For me, it was never far-fetched, or it wouldn’t have surprised me if I told myself 15 years ago that I would end up being a pastor. The entire time with Anberlin, the whole goal was to inspire people to take their lives, no matter where they were, and get one step farther. There were a lot of times where we would work with organizations like Food for the Hungry, World Vision or Children’s International. We are always doing some type of humanitarian work in some shape or form. Now, translating that work over into the ministry seems very seamless. My goal is to continue to inspire people to go from where they are to where they need to be, as well as meeting people’s needs right where they are at. I want to help in any way, shape or form that I can.
You picked a pivotal time to make that transition with everything we have seen in 2020. How have the experiences over the past few months impacted you?
Considering the pandemic, I don’t want to negate any type of personal atrocities in people’s lives from losing their jobs or a loved one, but I assume all of humanity would try to make the best of it. To me that meant that I got a chance to go on long walks with my family, spend time in the pool but, at the same time, I was able to really reach out and develop community even though we weren’t side by side. I tried to develop community as best I could, whether it was phone calls, Zoom calls and a lot of Facetime. There were also a lot of personal reflections. It was a challenging time as I’m sure it was for everyone but, at the same time, I was trying to reach out and help in any way we could. Our church was very big on drive-by drop-offs. People would drop off laptops or non-perishable items and we would try to distribute them to those in our community that were in need. For example, a single mom who may not be able to afford a laptop for their child who is now learning from home all of a sudden and had no means to get online. We were trying to provide for them as well as provide for those who couldn’t put food on the table during that time.
Obviously, there is also the musical side of your life. It’s been cool to see so much of you online during this period and connecting with so many people. You put this unexpected free time to good use.
One of my friend’s said to me, “Ya know, if anything positive has come from this pandemic, it’s that I’ve actually seen you online now!” [laughs] It is what it is, but I had very little else to do! [laughs]
Music played a huge part in your story. When did music take hold in your youth and when did you know it was more than a passing interest?
I had also been surrounded by music. Both sets of my grandparents were very musically inclined. One of my aunts was an opera singer in Chicago and then Cologne, Canada currently. My other aunt was a music teacher. Every type of holiday or social gathering with my family erupted into some sort of song! Something was always happening in which music was a part of it and I just assumed that was normal. I just thought, “Oh, everybody’s family does this. It’s just traditional.” I soon realized that was not the case! We were just genetically inclined to be a little more oriented to music. So, growing up, I never thought music was going to be my profession. I assumed it would be a hobby or a passion at best. I didn’t actually see that there was a chance for this to get bigger until Anberlin first signed with Tooth & Nail Records. That was the point I thought, “OK, here’s our shot! Here’s our chance!” We worked abnormally hard and the rest, I guess, is history! It was a very gradual transition from a passion to a profession or career in music.
Who had a profound impact on you as an artist and gave you the inspiration to keep going during difficult times?
I think one of the big ones was a guy named Heath Burgett, who was my childhood best friend. He is a singer now out in Las Vegas. He has an incredible band out there and they are still crushing it right now; it’s called Mo5aic. He was very much into R&B and Hip Hop, so I was exposed to a different side of music that I had really never listened to until meeting him. His voice is next level! Being around him so much made it really easy to learn how to harmonize because he was always on melody from being such a phenomenal singer. I attribute a lot of the melodies that my head creates to those early days, 13 to 17 years old, singing with that guy. That’s one of the early touchstones. There were also a lot of local bands in the Winter Haven scene like bands named Syrup, Faceless, I’m Not Sure, Copeland, Delivery Boy, Underoath and Atom Smashers Named Susie. There were so many bands in our scene and we were all very much driving each other to excel. Somebody would inevitably be playing with one another every weekend. It would be like, “Hey, we are playing over here. You guys should come and open up.” We were always playing somewhere! I think all of those bands that I just named had a big impact. I have no idea what Anberlin would have sounded like or, at the very least, what they would have sounded like and I’m not even talking about our clothing. I’m talking about how we used to play a lot of shows with metal bands and harder bands. That led me to realize early on that I love energy! I love crowd energy and crowd participation. I would rather write a song where everybody is going to move around than a ballad where everyone just stands still! That energy came out of watching other bands in our local scene and emulating that sound.
When did you come into your own both on stage and as a songwriter?
I think it would be right after “Never Take Friendship Personal.” I think we were all still trying to figure it out with those first two records. We were trying to figure out what the songwriting looked like, who we were and what direction we were aiming. Tooth & Nail really wanted us to be in this miniature Christian world and we wanted to be ourselves and head in a totally different direction. We didn’t fit into the Christian mold and we didn’t want to play the youth group and churches. We felt kind of inclined to go in a totally different direction and so we did! I think that we really didn’t find ourselves until after “Never Take Friendship Personal” and I think that’s why the “Cities” record is so blatantly personal. I say that because it was at that point in time I felt completely liberated to be Anberlin.
What lessons did you learn early on as an artist that had a profound impact on the rest of your career?
Where do you begin!? [laughs] That’s such a broad question and I don’t even know where to start. Ya know, I think that confidence in yourself is massive. To be able to drown out the noise and negativity coming from other people, as well as your own self-doubt, and really lean into what you were designed to do and designed to create is very important. I wish I could just go back in time and give myself that lesson early on that it doesn’t matter what other people think and everything is going to turn out fine. Just focus on finding yourself and being self-aware while taking very, very long looks in the mirror to figure yourself out and then try to figure the world out. Don’t listen to the world or the negativity. I think that was a huge lesson.
As far as the music goes, there is a list of things I wish I could have done. I should’ve learned my instrument way better than I did. I should have taken guitar lessons on day one! I should’ve learned Pro Tools. I should’ve expanded my musical horizons and listened to all genres, as opposed to the finite music that I was focused on. We didn’t have massive playlists on Spotify when I was starting out. It was more about discovering music through whatever somebody else would hand you. I wish I would’ve sought out music more. Then, I wish I would’ve taken bigger risks musically, socially and culturally. I was so worried about making sure that tomorrow existed within the confines of the band that I just played it safe. In reality, some of the greatest music that I listen to now is based on the biggest experimentations or feeling absolutely liberated to do whatever comes to mind. I should just go ahead and write a book about the lessons I should’ve taught myself! [laughs] I feel like that is such a human experience for everyone. Everybody says, “Oh, yesterday was crystal clear … ,” but the hard part is navigating to now.
You just released your fourth Anchor & Braille record titled “Tension.” What does this project mean to you creatively?
Anchor & Braille is pure freedom! It’s been pure freedom since day one. It’s my passion project. There are advantages to being in a band because when something is garbage, someone is going to quickly call you out and say, “Hey, man. That’s crap and it’s not going on the record.” So, when you are a solo artist, you’re like, “This is pure gold,” but it’s the worst! [laughs] So, there are definitely advantages to being in a band. To me, Anchor & Braille is the antithesis of everything professional that I’m used to. If I hear a song in my head, I can translate that to an album and that is crazy to be able to have that liberty and freedom. Also, everything is on my timetable. There is no record label breathing down my neck and saying, “Where is the next record? Why aren’t you on tour? What’s next?” You’ve also got to pay to make sure that these mouths are fed and put your tour manager on retainer. It goes on and on. With Anchor & Braille, it’s nothing like that. It’s more like, “Whenever you feel like putting the right music out, we’re here!” It’s always like I can wait until the record is ready to come out. I don’t have to rush and say, “Oh, it’s been a year and half!” It’s more like, “OK, the songs aren’t here. Let’s not rush it.” This new Anchor & Braille record took about a year and a half to craft and there were large gaps of time in between when I would write or be inspired. Finally, this past Christmas, I felt like I had enough, and I was ready to go! I called my friend Chad [Carothers] and said, “Are you ready?” He said yes and I went to Nashville, Tennessee to record “Tension” there.
Did you have a vision in mind for this album at the start of the creative process?
For me, every time I create a record, it’s almost like a movie trailer playing in my head. That movie trailer for my last Anchor & Braille record, “Songs For The Late Night Drive Home,” was literal. That was the movie in my head. I just saw somebody by themselves in their car at 2 a.m. driving down the streets of the Lower East Side in New York City and they are listening to this record. That’s kind of the theme of that one. For this one, ironically, it was just someone in their bedroom, with themselves, with a friend or with their partner and they are just dancing and having the best time by themselves. Then, obviously, Covid-19 hit and that movie trailer in my head has probably taken place several times! [laughs] That was kind of the theme for this one. It was a very carefree record to create and a carefree listening experience that I was trying to create.
As you said, you were able to take your time in creating this album. Was there a moment you knew that you had it?
Yeah. While we were recording it, I was just amazed and shocked by the way it was all coming together so perfectly and so beautifully. Ya know, I heard that Dave Grohl’s first record with Foo Fighters took two weeks to create. I don’t know if that’s true and it may just be a rumor but it’s a great rumor! There is something to be said about something that’s carefree and everything transpires and comes together like a perfect puzzle. There is something to be said about it when it feels effortless and you know you’re on to something. The whole recording experience felt so genuine! There was so much laughter and we were having the best time, to the point where we were like, “Alright, alright. Maybe we should cut this off!” [laughs] We were just adding layer upon layer upon layer and having the best time doing it. That experience was so cool. Leaving Nashville, I knew it was done and that it was going to be incredible!
You’ve been involved with all parts of the recording process through the years. Is there a part of that process you’ve fallen more in love with over time?
Yeah! Ya know, I used to dread going into the studio. Now, I love it! It’s a pinnacle moment! It’s so much fun to be there. In the beginning, it was so meticulous and monotonous as far as the band was concerned. We would get into yelling matches, and it wasn’t out of anger and no one hated each other, but there was definitely some tension going on whenever Anberlin would record. The experience for me was always like, “Ugh, let’s get this over with so we can get back out on the road.” Now, I love the recording process. I wish I was one of those multi-billionaires so I could hire a production team and pump out every genre of record! I just love writing and recording these days. It’s so much fun!
Did the writing process for Anchor & Braille’s “Tension” differ from what you’ve done on past albums?
Yeah, it absolutely did. Every single one of these albums looks so different. Every single Anchor & Braille record has had a different producer. That’s almost on purpose in a way that I want a new set of eyes and ears on the project. I feel like when somebody begins to know your style, they kind of re-sedate you. I wanted someone to walk in, listen to these songs and say, “OK, I get it. Let’s try this. Let’s try something new and see if we can’t head this way.” So, on the first two records, I wrote 100% of everything. I wrote the music, lyrics and melody lines. The third record, “Songs For The Late Night Drive Home,” was the first time that I had a co-writer and co-producer. His name was Ryan Bernal. This one was a co-write as well with Chad [Carothers] doing the music and us bouncing ideas off of each other, obviously. That’s been a cool experience, getting to understand his mind and Ryan’s mind to understand what they would do, how they would song-write and where they would stick the chorus. So, I learned a lot, but the creation of this album was definitely a different process than the first two records that I put out.
Where do you look for inspiration and, when inspiration strikes, what goes into cataloging those ideas?
Man, it’s all over the place! I usually put lyrics in moleskine journals. I find myself on Logic Pro X a lot. I’m constantly singing into it or playing some chords on a guitar. That’s kind of where I compile everything and write notes to myself like, “Here’s the lyrical content. Here’s the direction I am aiming, and this is what I think the chorus can be.” I have tons of stuff on Dropbox that will never see the light of day. Some of it I’m kind of bummed about. It’s like, “This would’ve been a perfect Anberlin song but I have nowhere to put it right now but who knows.” It’s just a process. A lot of times I go back and listen to the lyrics or the melody lines and I think, “Wow. I’ve evolved so much since this. I could never put this out.” I say that because it’s just not me. It’s almost like I’m covering a singer from some different era and it’s just not mine anymore. I might not relate to the lyrics or feel the melody lines just aren’t me.
It sounds as if the making of this album was a delight. However, I’m sure there were challenges along the way.
Definitely. The biggest one was time. I wanted more time in the studio and more time to write but I’m being pulled in so many different directions right now that it’s hard for me to sit there and think, “OK, this can happen. I can do this here.” It’s been a process of creating space for the creative process and that’s tough!
While this record is new to us, you’ve lived with it for quite some time. I’m hoping you’ve already got a vision for the next Anchor & Braille album.
I do, man! I do! Ya know, it may kill the entire momentum that Anchor & Braille has built. Honestly, no two records sound identical. It’s almost like you can hear the self-growth. I feel like I really want to go back to bare bones minimum. I’m thinking of an acoustic guitar, a cello and maybe a female singer with me — literally that simple! It’s just kind of what I’m into right now. I love being able to set an ambiance. It’s hard to predict, so I have no idea if that’s how it will turn out. Again, I just put this record out, so I have no idea when I will even be inspired to begin to write. However, I just feel that would be so incredible to be able to put something down where it feels so simple, like Damien Rice or something like that. That’s the direction I think I might head but who knows! Tomorrow, I could be like, “Nevermind! I’m going full polka!” [laughs] I have no clue.
2020 hasn’t been easy to predict. With that said, where does your focus lie at this point in time?
A couple of different places. First off, I started a podcast and a digital creative media company called Reactant Media. That’s going to be a lot of fun to develop and pour into. I can also see more songwriting in the near future. Whether it’s for Anberlin or for whatever, who knows, but I know it’s a focus for the rest of the year. Additionally, Anberlin is very much into playing online shows right now and trying to figure out different ways to bridge the gap between us and the fans we won’t be able to tour and see. We were supposed to go out for a U.S. tour in July. Obviously, that’s not going to happen now, so we’re trying to figure out different and unique ways to connect with the people we won’t be able to reach this summer.
You guys are doing a great job with that, so I’m excited to see what lies ahead. Thank you so much for your time today, Stephen, as well as for an awesome new album! Stay out of trouble!
[laughs] Thank you, Jason. I will do my best!