Eric Owyoung is a great example of a person chasing that God-echo within. You know, they sense God’s desire for their lives and they wake up each morning, have a cup of coffee and work. Hard. The life of a musician is often viewed through rose-colored lenses. But, like anything worth doing in this life, there’s a rigor to it.
Eric’s band Future of Forestry has made a name for itself since 2006, with it’s nine studio recordings (original and collections) and Christmas DVD, Solstice. Eric has garnered a reputation for creating awe-inspiring music with a live concert experience that is beautiful and almost otherworldly.
I spoke with Eric in the early morning hours to discuss the rigor of doing the work that you love, the beauty that comes from pain, and how the church can get behind its artists. In Part I of my interview Eric talks about the relationship between beauty and pain.
Tim: You said that some of your songs communicate or delve into your everyday life. Those stories and thought sketches express tension and beauty. In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis says that when we see or hear something beautiful that we really are longing for that “thing” behind it—that we’re longing for God.
So give me your definition of beauty and then maybe comment on whether or not you feel Lewis’ statement is true. When we hear your music, for example, and experience the beauty and power of your concert are we really experiencing God?
Eric: I don’t have a definition of beauty. It’s not something I think of cognitively if I’m in the process. But in just talking with you and thinking about it, beauty is such an intangible concept. When you hear a song and it’s warm and uplifting, it can be just beautiful and can bring you to tears.
Then sometimes you listen to a song that’s haunting and almost frightening, but at the same time, it’s beautiful. It’s strange to me that you can have such a wide variety of what is beautiful. I think because of that, I definitely haven’t tried to sit down and define it.
But in its application to my work and to my creative process, I’m sure that in every aspect of creating that I am striving to attain beauty, whether that’s through a dark haunting song or through a warm, embracing song. I equate beauty in many ways to the emotion I feel, that intangible emotion, and I used to be afraid of that.
I grew up in a Christianity that was all about a cognitive process and that frowned upon emotion. In my high school years I began discover how much of an emotional person I was and still am. I felt things very deeply. I could try as hard as I could to make that a purely cognitive process but I never succeeded. So I began to lean into the emotion and I think that’s why I started music because with all of those feelings that I had, that I could never explain or give anybody a definition of beauty, I felt in such a real way that music was the only way that I could express those things.
I always knew from the very beginning that those feelings were about God, it embraced God, it involved God, it was God. So no matter how I look at beauty, I know God is that pain and aching that is in my music all the time.
Tim: You went through a “pain and aching” time in your life. How were you able to find beauty and come out of the pain of the shadows of that life period with such a grasp on creating something that is beautiful, that has dissonance, and yet is melodic and can really soar? Was there anything specific that happened to you or in your spirit?
Eric: During the first Future of Forestry album, I had just gone through a really painful divorce. I was feeling such pain, and that kind of pain is really different from the pain you feel as an ache for God, just a simple ache for the glory and beauty of God. This is more the ache that you do not want to have. But with that ache I always knew and saw around me that there’s basically only two choices when you go through something like that. It’s either to draw closer to God or to get angry at God.
I knew there was a part of me that wanted to get angry at God because you’ve got to blame someone for your pain, and the easiest place to go is to the guy who’s supposed to be in control of all this and who is supposed to protect me and somehow didn’t do His job.
So I’m going, “Well, I can do that,” but I knew deep down that would never be a road to take me to a place that I would find fulfillment. It would just take me to more emptiness. I knew God well enough to know He was a friend and I knew I had to work some stuff out with Him through that. I just dove in. I’m an all or nothing guy and I don’t ever do anything halfway. I go for it, whether it’s music or any other project I’m working on.
When it came down to healing, I literally took that at full steam. I said, “If I’m going to heal, I need to face this hard thing and go straight to God.” And so, I took several trips by myself. I knew it wasn’t going to be through finding some advice from a pastor that would be the only answer for me. I knew it was between me and God, that I needed to work things out.
I took a trip to the Redwood Forest. I even took a trip to Maui, and it was a very barren experience. I was sitting on the beach by myself, talking to God. It was painful, but a lot of songs came out of that, a lot of grief and healing came out of that.
Tim: So often you hear people quote Lewis’s “... pain is a megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Did the pain in your life arouse something in you that catapulted you to something else, some other place, a place that you understood God even more than you did before?
Eric: Yeah, I not only understood God, I understood myself. I understood the concept of love. The whole album “Twilight” was written around that aspect. The song was written in a twilight time of change because I was in the process of healing, and I also fell in love again with a childhood friend who I ended up marrying.
That twilight stage was this in-between stage, but one of the lines at the end of the chorus says, “In this twilight we are pale, in this twilight nothing else could be so real.” The idea of being real is exactly what you’re saying about the megaphone. It’s like going through that experience left me so raw and so human, so not what I felt before.
I felt untouchable before; I hadn’t gone through anything like that before. Things just weren’t real, I was living a fairytale life. When that happened it was like I got to be the guy in the movie who was just going through it and it stripped me of everything I had and left me with just me.
It was gruesome but at the same time, it was beautiful because I got to see myself as a frail, fragile, needy human being.
This interview will be printed and distributed in its entirety at the Catalyst Conference in Atlanta next week in the Review of Leadership Thought & Practice, of which I am the editor. All content here used by permission.
If you haven't purchased Future of Forestry's latest release Young Man Follow, do so here.
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Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.