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Making Worship Human Again: Young Oceans’ Eric Marshall

with Eric Marshall | May 26, 2023
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The lights are low, the band is hot, the hands are raised. Are we missing something in too-perfect worship music? Young Oceans' songwriter Eric Marshall weighs in on worship as prayer rather than perfection.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Shelby Abbott

    Shelby Abbott is an author, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with the ministry of Cru. His passion for university students has led him to speak at college campuses all over the United States. Abbott is the author of Jacked and I Am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life), Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress and DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard. He and his wife, Rachael, have two daughters and live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

The lights are low, the band is hot, the hands are raised. Are we missing something in too-perfect worship? Young Oceans’ songwriter Eric Marshall weighs in.

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Making Worship Human Again: Young Oceans’ Eric Marshall

With Eric Marshall
May 26, 2023
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Season 1, Episode 38: Making Worship Human Again: Young Oceans'

Guest: Eric Marshall
Air Date: May 27, 2023

Eric: Pain has to be dealt with, you know. And that is the precedent - by the way, in the Psalms. I talk about this all the time. That has been the church's prayer book since the get-go, since before Christ. Jesus himself prayed the Psalms. We don't need to look any further.

Shelby: mm-hmm.

Eric: Why have you forsaken me? That's what Jesus said from the cross, you know? So if we take that as. Pathway. Our pathway is complete honesty before the Lord. That's where he meets us.

Shelby: Somewhat anxious, always authentic. This is Real Life Loading.

I'm your host, Shelby Abbott, and our desire with this podcast is to help guide you toward the life-changing power of Jesus for relationships and a constantly shifting culture. I'm passionate about that, and even though this is a podcast, I want to come alongside you as a friend and help you walk closely with God in the humor and hardship of life.

Well, today's going to be great. I've been friends for a while with a guy named, Eric Marshall, better known as the main mind and voice behind the band Young Oceans. For a long time, Eric was a worship leader at a church in New York City, but now he lives in Nashville doing Young Oceans full-time. He's a super talented artist and writer who has created some of the most repeated tracks in my Apple Music listening history. I loved his pop stuff from the past, but now he makes worship music. Or better said, he makes prayer music. Eric's unique style and viewpoint on how to create music in the Christian or worship genre is quite interesting to hear, and it might seem a bit provocative at first, but listen all the way through to how he brings it around and unpacks his viewpoint when he shares with us today.

Ultimately, I think you'll understand what he's saying and what he's not. It's a compelling look behind the scenes of the music industry today on Real Life Loading. So, here's my time with Eric Marshall.
What has been some of your favorite music produced in like the last five years or so?

Eric: Man, I almost exclusively just listened to indie rock bands, you know, and rock bands like I, I don't listen to worship music at all. Okay. Which sometimes throws people off. We can get into why later. There are some good reasons for it.

Shelby: Yes. I need to talk to you about that eventually.

Eric: Yes. I mean, one of my favorite songwriters is a guy named Mason Jennings. He's out of Minneapolis. I love bands like the Killers, the War on Drugs, the national, the new band, I don't know if they're American or from the UK called Alvvays. It's spelled A- L-V- V- A- Y-S. Alvvays. That kind of stuff, man. I really don't lock into whatever is like the newest hit kind of stuff, you know? I just in general, don’t trust, like things that are really popular, although the Killers and the War on Drugs are very popular.

Shelby: Right. I understand. What's something in the music business that you know or have experienced that young people might be surprised to hear is actually true?

Eric: Well, this is a little cynical, but I think it's important. You know, Nashville. I'm from Philly as you, as you know, Shelby - but really New York is where I live the most out of. It was the longest I've lived anywhere. So, New York kind of feels like home still to me somehow. But we've been in Nashville here for about four years. And Nashville is, all types of music is here, of course, like anything and everything, but it, of course we, most people, know it as the country music capital.

But it's also the Christian music hub. And those two things sometimes are pretty related, but.

Shelby: Right.

Eric: I have a bunch of friends who as a full-time job, write country songs, you know, and some of them have been really successful and the whole point when they get into that co-writing room is to write the biggest hit possible in order to make the most money possible. The goals are really clear. Right?

Shelby: Right.

Eric: Which is kind of nice. Like there's no question that this is what they're after. It's a completely capitalistic-

Shelby: They know exactly what they're doing.

Eric: -Right. And that's not to say that like, that the songs are bad. Like some of those songs are a ton of fun and, and wonderful and whatever. But one of the things that I've learned since being here is that, that same kind of ruthlessness has also been pretty prevalent in the Christian industry here, which really bones me out. And I got tastes of it right when we got here. Did a lot of co-writes and still do, but I'm really choosy.

It's not like people are hounding me and knocking down my door to have me write.
In the little worlds that I'm known in, I'm known as the person that is completely unmarketable. [Laughter] So, you know, which is like I'm happy about that.

Shelby: Yes, sure.

Eric: But you know, sadly, that's one of the things that I've just seen way too closely here in this town is a mismatch of goals, you know? And I get really passionate about it and really frustrated, because I've tried to set out with my writing to never have that be the thing that's on my mind, you know.

Shelby: Yes, the driving factor.

Eric: It should never be about it money or numbers or the amount of people you know, that can ingest this little piece of musical candy. That kind of stuff you really gotta watch for and it really takes, we all need to learn how to kind of like tune our ears with media to be able to recognize does this feel authentic or not you know and sometimes it's hard to tell.

Shelby: In an interview I read with you, you said, “I've noticed that when you say the words worship music, many people in the west call to mind a huge megachurch stage with fog and lights and young, beautiful swaying people in hats.” [Laughter] You said, “It's gotten kind of silly. So, I call what I make prayer music.” Okay. That's your quote.
I laughed out loud when I read that and it was amazing.

What have been your specific efforts to shape what you call prayer music and how has it been different than making worship music?

Eric: Thanks for that quote. Wow, that guy sounds like a bit of a jerk. Yes. [Laughter] Wow. I mean, this has been a journey for me. I've even dug deeper and I have this ongoing conversation that I have to be very careful. Doesn't get overly cynical. Like there's a fine line between being constructive and being just cynical or just hurtful, you know?

Shelby: Mm-hmm.

Eric: My heart is never to say, “Oh, well, because people are doing it differently than I am, then someone's right and someone's wrong.” That is so not true. You know? I have, what I'm bringing to my art and to my opinions is certainly, I'm one type of person out of billions, right? And there's probably a lot of artists that maybe am wired the way I am, but there's also a lot of artists that are wired in a completely different way, thank the Lord, right?

Shelby: Mm-hmm.

Eric: If we were all the same, it'd be total snooze. That is not God's heart for humanity. He loves great variety as we know.

The hat thing though, is emblematic of something that we have to watch in all areas of our life that which is we live in the age of the image. I don’t know if it was Mark Sayers who first started talking about that. I first heard him say it. We are, we are in the age of the image.

What I've noticed with modern worship music is as the decibels have gone up in the room, as the vocals have begun, being tuned on the fly so that they're no one's ever out of pitch. As the lights have gotten lower. All the cues are saying, this is a rock show. You're being entertained. I think everybody gets that and some people are like, yes, great. I want to be entertained.

At a deeper level though, what's happening is that we're being given week after week in certain church contexts. We're given an example that worship needs to be perfect. Worship needs to be beautiful and charismatic and smiley white teeth. And I think what we're experiencing as the church is - I call it “avatar worship.” You have up on stage basically a more beautiful, younger, more fit, more charismatic version of yourself, and they're doing the worshiping for you. This is a big problem for me.

Shelby: Right, yes.

Eric: And they literally are because you, you can't hear yourself anyway in that room.
We go to a lovely church here in town that I, I respect the leaders tremendously. I literally have to wear earplugs during the sermon. The decibels are so high - I've done it a check on my phone. Even during the sermon, the decibels can be over a hundred, which is like probably illegal, you know? [Laughter]

And even if I was singing at the top of my lungs, which I'm not because they're in keys that I can't hit, because all the male vocalists or tenors, and they're not keying for the crowd, I couldn't hear myself anyway.

So, the question becomes, what are we doing here? And that's when I get pretty serious about this because there's absolutely nothing wrong with going to a U2 show or a Killer show or a Taylor Swift show and having the lead singer like rock you. You know what I mean? And, but that's what we do at rock shows. We kind of, we pretend we're them for like a bit, you know what I mean? We're in it.

But I just don't think that that is serving our psyche and our habits in the church. And I sound like an old person, but that's kind of where I was going with all that.

Shelby: Yes, I understand what you mean. And I've definitely seen that it's scripted and filtered. Well, I like your illustration, the avatar worshiper, because then you can like critique anything that doesn't live up to what you want your avatar to be.

Eric: Right. And this has to be sort of a, a living debate and a living conversation. Then again, there's not a right or wrong, but what you're experiencing is, and I've heard the argument from that side of things, and it goes something like this: “Well, we tune the vocals because we don't want bad notes to distract from people's encounter with the Lord.”

And it kind of makes you go, oh well I guess I could see where they're coming from. Or we have young, charismatic people because that's just the culture, you know, and it's just what people are used to. And you kind of go, oh, I guess that makes sense, you know. Where I'm at with it is like, absolutely, I have no problem experiencing something that is way outside of like my sort of Preference Zone.

Shelby: Mm-hmm.

Eric: But what I've learned is that when I only live in high flash, high media, high perfection environments, particularly when it comes to this, basically what we're talking about, the conversation, the spiritual conversation with the creative universe, we're only doing ourselves a disservice. We're sort of training our senses that God shows up when everything is just right.

Shelby: That's good.

Eric: And that's where I'm going here. I just don't think that that's true. And that's when I come down pretty hard. I actually say that - that's not true almost ever.

Shelby: Yes exactly. He always meets us in our mess.

Eric: Absolutely. I'm just so passionate about that because that's just been my brutal experience of, of a life, of a lot of waiting and a lot of pain like most people are experiencing, just like everybody's experiencing. When your worship becomes an escape from reality as opposed to a deeper dive with the true reality, I think we need to ask some hard questions.

Shelby: I was going to say earlier that you know, Scripture says God's power is made perfect in our weakness, we boast in our weaknesses. Why do we do that? Why on earth would anybody ever do that, boast in their weaknesses? In order to highlight the strengths of God? That's the answer. It's not about us, it's about Him. And I think it's difficult to figure out and thread the needle between making music that's good that people want to listen to and boasting in our weaknesses.

Eric: Right.

We'll get back to my time with Eric in just a second, but now it's time for a Shelby Sidebar.

They got what they deserved. You've no doubt heard this phrase before or maybe you've even said it yourself from time to time. We like it when justice is served, especially when we think the offense deserves punishment. But what happens when the tables turn and we ourselves are the ones who deserve to be punished?

There's this fascinating story in Genesis 18 where Abraham is pleading with God to save the city where his nephew lives. The city itself is evil and deserves to be destroyed, but Abraham loves his nephew, so he asks God to save the city if only 50 righteous people can be found in it. God agrees to refrain from wiping the city out if he can find 50 righteous people.

But then Abraham's starts decreasing the number and eventually asking God to spare the city if only 10 righteous people were found. God agrees. But in the end, only Abraham's nephew and his two daughters are spared from the city's destruction.

Now, a lot of people label this passage as Abraham kind of bargaining with God. But we can't forget that the Lord is sovereign, knowing the past, present, and future. God knew exactly how the whole conversation with Abraham would unfold. So, the focus of it shouldn't necessarily be on the bargaining, but on the grace. The city was evil and, in the end, only three people were spared. It deserved to be destroyed. Yet God was willing to relent from judgment of the whole place if only 10 righteous people were found in it.

This is grace. Unmerited favor from God to an entire city that deserved to be demolished. Again, we like it when wickedness gets punished, but what if you were one of the residents of that evil city? You'd probably want to be spared from ruin and extended grace from a perfect holy God, right?

Well ultimately, the righteous three were exempt from God's judgment. We should never forget the patient lengths the Lord goes to in order to extend loving grace to people who don't deserve it, namely all of us. Because of Christ's perfect righteousness, we are the ones who benefit from His perfection. If we're willing to humble ourselves and accept the grace God offers to us in and through His son. We don't deserve it, which is what makes it grace.

This has been a Shelby Sidebar on Real Life Loading. Now let's get back to my time with Eric Marshall.

Well, you mentioned like struggles and suffering. How have your struggles and trials or suffering formed the way that you make music? Like what difficult times have spilled out from your life and landed in the music that you create?

Eric: Well, I want to tread carefully here because I largely have been given an incredibly beautiful life, which I didn’t deserve or didn't, certainly didn't create. God has given me incredible gifts, a healthy family and pretty healthy body. And one of the first things, we experienced as a family is my wife lost her mother.

We were just starting in on our second full length album. This is so long ago now. The album is called I Must Find You, and I wrote about it in the little liner notes, because it just was so much a part of our experience recording. But my wife's [Emily] mother actually took her own life. We found out the day we were starting that record.

Shelby: Wow.

Eric: And I, I had like seven missed calls from my wife and that's never good. I remember getting the news and just laying on the floor and just realizing this is never going to go away here for us, and particularly for Emily. And one of the things I noticed is that I - my prayer when I write is always, “God, what would you have us sing?”

For some reason, I don't know when I started doing that, maybe I heard it from someone, but that's always basically the prayer that I pray when I sit down. It was only after that bomb hit us of Em's mom, that I began to piece together why I had been given these songs for that record. One in particular is a song that even to this day, I've had the strange, I don't know if the word is privilege, but sort of honor maybe, is the word of
leading this song at many funerals over the years. This song is called Until These Tears are Gone, and ironically happens to be like one of our most popular songs. And what does that tell you? You know?

Shelby: Yes. Yep.

Eric: That this is just the human experience.

Shelby: Yes. People hurt. Yes.

Eric: Yes. So, I mean, and the other layer to all this is that like, you know, when I was 12 years old, I didn't dream of being in a indie meditative, you know, alt rock, like—

Shelby: -popular funeral song.

Eric: Yes, right. When I was 12, I wanted to be a fighter pilot, you know, obviously, or a Jedi, right? No, but eventually when I settled on music, I just wanted to just be in a rock band and have a hit and maybe be famous, you know. Nobody was overthinking it. It was just have having fun with friends.

And hopefully we can do this for a living, you know? And I guess we need some songs, so we should write some songs, you know?

Shelby: Yes. That little key factor.

Eric: -not a whole lot of thinking. It really took me feeling called, and I still feel called to this type of art. It took that calling for me to realize, I have to be completely honest now.

I can't live with my work unless it's completely honest for this project. If I'm putting words in people's mouths, cause a lot of these songs were originally written when I was a full-time worship leader and we were singing a lot of these songs in our communities. That's a very heavy idea, you know.

And so yes to get to the point, pain has to be dealt with and that is the precedent, by the way, in the Psalms. I talk about this all the time. It's another reason why I have trouble with people just saying it's worship music. Not all prayer is worship; some prayer is just questions; some prayer is just silence; some prayer is just agony and maybe an anger, you know. And we have that as a precedent all over the Psalms. That has been the church's prayer book since the get-go, you know, since before Christ - Jesus himself prayed the Psalms, you know like, we don't need to look any further.

Why have you forsaken me? That's not a worship song. That's what Jesus said from the cross, you know? So, if we take that as our pathway – it has been well trodden, but we forget because you know, oh we're trying to make hits. You know, like no, our pathway is complete honesty before the Lord. That's where He meets us.

Shelby: I love not only that you answered that way, but it's actually true for you. Your music is a reflection of that. Yes, the “How long, oh Lord?” That's more of an honest depiction of how most people are doing, than - Rejoice. Rejoice. Rejoice. I say it again. Rejoice. But I mean there's sure different definitions of the word rejoice.

But yes, it's a lot of prayers wrestling. I've found that most of my prayers in the last ten years, if you were to put them in a spreadsheet, most of them would be wrestling prayers.

Eric: Sure.

Shelby: They wouldn't be thankful prayers or even supplication prayers, where I'm asking for stuff. It's wrestling prayers, questioning, you know, there's, that's, that's a valuable part of it. And if we think, oh, we shouldn't do that, then maybe we haven't read the Psalms. Because if God's willing to include that in His canon, in His Scriptures, it's His voice, it's His word. That should give us permission to be able to beat on God's chest through our prayers, you know.

Eric: Yes, absolutely.

Shelby: Okay, so one of the things that's, I think relatively new for you, what's the story behind the formation of Color Vault?

Eric: Yes, good question. So, I mentioned I lived in New York for. Now in Nashville, there's a church up there called Lower Manhattan Community Church, LMCC, that did this beautiful thing where they said we want to set up a basically an artist in Residence Collective. And they brought in me and two other songwriters. They basically just said, we want you guys to experiment and go crazy and do this thing that I've been doing in the context of Young Oceans, again, call it prayer music, but to do it in a much more experimental and pop way.

So Color Vault for me is basically pop music. Like what does it look like to have a party and be honest before the Lord? Whereas Young Oceans is more like, what does it look like to be really sad and be, you know when-

Shelby: -and also before the Lord. Well, Color Vault on the, at least on the research that I'd done, there was this quote from that initiative that said, “Worship is defiance and worship is surrender.” What does that mean?

Eric: I don't know. I didn't write that. [Laughter]

Shelby: It's a beautiful, it's a beautiful sentence. I was really hoping you would give me some like Okay. Profound answer.

Eric: I know the guy that wrote that. So yes, like that idea of defiance, I mean, you talked about wrestling prayer. It’s Jacob who wrestled with God, right? We've been given the Scriptures. Dallas Willard says, “In hearing, God, we grow up.” If you grew up in the church you hear the stories of, of these biblical, we call them characters. But they're not characters, these are historical people. These people walked the earth, real people. But Dallas Willard says, “Put yourself in their shoes. You're meant to sort of be like them in the story.” We do that I think naturally with story and that's why story is so important. But you know, if Jacob wrestled with the Lord until the Lord blessed him. Like there's something to the pursuit of just laying yourself bare before the Lord, that I just think not only does He then meet you there, but it sort of like pays dividends in your life in that it kills ego, you know?

Shelby: Mm-hmm.

Eric: We talk a lot about, with that project that famous scene where King David is dancing before the Lord and essentially his underwear. And someone from his house, one of the women is, is embarrassed watching him thinking, “You're making fools of yourself and or fool yourself and fools of us.”

And David says, “No, this is exactly what I need to be doing right now and I'm going to be even more undignified than this. Easy to say, easy to reference, but what does that look like? You know, still within the context of humility. That's why this Color Vault thing is a grand experiment. What does it look like to do pop music with humility? We're in process - trying to figure it out.

Shelby: Pop music, humility, two things that often do not mix well.

Eric: They do not. It's so oil and water, you know. So, I don't know, it may end up being the type of thing that that doesn't connect with a lot of people. I'm having to really change my attitude as I posture, like when making those recordings. Because I'm having so much fun. It's hilarious that after all these years of walking with the Lord, I sometimes feel bad for having fun. It's just like, It's silly. So as serious as I can be, I need to learn how to lighten up. So I'm thankful for that project.

Shelby: And that's healthy too, because as you think about like who you are as a human being, the times that you often want to replicate are times where things are fun, or you're laughing, or you're connecting with people and smiling. There's nothing wrong with that. There is a ton of seriousness in this world, but I found when I get with certain people and I laugh super hard to the point that like my belly hurts, or I've got like, tears watering in my eyes. I found that I want to replicate that. I want to be back with those people, and I want to do that. God cares about that because God cares about us as people, and we shouldn't feel ashamed of that at all in any way.

Well, brother, thanks for being with me today. It's so good to talk to you. I love talking this kind of stuff and seeing where the Lord has led you. We've been friends for a long time and it's really cool to see your journey like from the beginning and how God has led you to where you're at right now. You're helping people. I am one of those people. So, thanks brother.

Eric: Thanks, Shelby. Been an honor.

Shelby: If this time with Eric piqued your interest and you've thought, what in the world is prayer music? Well be sure to check out Young Oceans anywhere you get your music. It's really fantastic stuff. If this episode with Eric Marshall from Young Oceans and Color Vault was helpful for you, I'd love for you to share today's podcast with a friend and wherever you get your podcast, it could really advance what we're doing with Real Life Loading, if you'd rate and review us.

And it's jumbo, easy, jumbo. I'm running out of adverbs. Easy to find us on our social channels. Just search for Real Life Loading or look for our link tree in the. I want to thank everyone who's on the Real Life Loading team. Josh, Kaytlynn, Jarrett, and Chloe. I'm Shelby Abbott. I'll see you back next time on Real Life Loading

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