Ask a musician which they would prefer for the trajectory of their career – a long journey with no certainty or a shorter adventure with a chosen route – and the answers will likely vary, depending on how a person views the pursuit of making music against the rest of what, and who, is in their life. It’s a matter of life experience and personal desire. In the case of songwriter Stephen Christian, no two elements of thought could better frame what has driven, and continues to shape, the story of his multi-style music project, Anchor and Braille.
Though Christian’s cumulative career spans far longer and comes with widespread familiarity thanks to his time with stalwart alternative band Anberlin, over the course of Anchor and Braille’s more than 10 year span thus far, Christian has definitely taken listeners on a journey that has provided much less fixed certainty than his previous endeavor. Beyond carving out a musical identity unique from Anberlin, Anchor and Braille has wrestled with its own sense of musical constitution over the course of three albums, traversing paths between lo-fi indie rock; quirky-but-unaggressive alternative; and pronounced, smoldering synth-rock. Now with the arrival of fourth record, Tension, some degree of sonic affirmation seems to have finally found a place in Anchor and Braille’s canon.
While a budding legacy of stylistic oscillation may come as a surprise given his breadth of experience as a musician and a professional artist, it’s actually the very long-running and successful nature of Christian’s journey that opened the door for Anchor and Braille to embrace so much musical diversity.
“This album absolutely feels different than the rest, on many different levels. I mean, I haven’t had this much joy recording or creating a record, in some time. A lot of times, musicians, they find their way to music through becoming a hobby and it slowly turns into their passion and then soon, for a few of us – those few blessed, those lucky of us – it becomes our profession, it’s what we do for a living,” says Christian.
“And sometimes,” he continues, “there’s a source of joy that’s taken out of the music process – the entire process, the recording process, the writing process – when it becomes our profession. And I’m excited that music is now back to being my hobby and my passion. You never know what’s around the corner and I think for me, [the shift] gave me a brand new sense of liberty and freedom.” he says.
The ability to write, record, and create without the pressure of financial obligations intertwined in the decisions of that process, is seemingly earned much the same way others work hard throughout life so as to eventually be free to rest, give back, and finally connect inward with one’s feelings, after years of placing them aside. In making music for the public, it’s a rewarding state that far fewer achieve than attempt and, reaching this acme isn’t an accomplishment Christian takes lightly.
“You know, even to be recording this record with my friend Chad [Carothers]…we were laughing and just having the best time. But again, it’s because there’s a sense of passion that’s back in it. And I’m not having to create to live. I’m not having to create to survive or feed a family, or a tour manager, or a manager, or a booking agent, all these people that are involved in a big band and a solid business. And so there was definitely liberty and a lot of joy in creating this fourth [Anchor and Braille] record,” Christian says.
Still, the swinging pendulum between limitless freedom and recognizable consistency remains an ever-present factor in establishing a musical identity, no matter how many years one has been in the music business. The salient point worth remembering when going from Songs for the Late Night Drive into Tension though, is that while the latter might appear somewhat similar in its end form, Christian took a far different looking path to get to that point. The road to this record was lined with a variety of vastly different motivations, inspirations, and objectives than the one before, even if its sonic representation appears the same.
“There was a conscious commitment [to continue the musical style with Tension]. Early on in my writing it was just very easy, in the sense that, when you’re songwriting – I’ve heard it said before, this is nothing that I came up with – you have your whole life to write your first record. And I would say that’s true for your first record and perhaps for some of your second. And then when you kind of dive in and continue to go through records, there’s a time when you just feel like you yourself are redundant. You’re ripping yourself off. You’re copying yourself. You have a centralized theme of what you think sonically your band should sound like [and] lyrically. You have this very heavy weight of what you think that the fans are expecting and want to hear,” Christian says.
In a sudden pivot of specificity, Christian moves to a reflect on this point with an example direct from Anberlin’s discography.
“And then you have disasters. Like for me, [with] a record I put out called New Surrender, I thought I needed to create an album for a record label. And that was just the worst thing I could do. You know, as the old saying says, ‘Write a song for one person and you’ll reach a thousand; write a song for a thousand people and you’ll reach no one.’ And for me personally, [New Surrender] didn’t reach me. It didn’t touch me. It didn’t mean that much to me. I was aiming to reach the masses and not be true to myself,” says Christian.
Not one to dwell long on the negative, Christian’s thoughts of this self-contained shortcoming quickly lead into how that experience helped him to transform his own approach to composing and storytelling.
“As I grew more mature into songwriting, I realized that I create best through osmosis. I just mean, I try my best to absorb everything around me. I try to absorb stories, and books, and movies, and music, and art, and all of it. Then I try to translate it through my own filter and just have it come out into songwriting form. And so each and every record that Anchor and Braille’s put out kind of describes a different era of my life. Anchor and Braille is just such a passion project. It was always meant to just be like music that excites me [and] songs that are a joy to write. Not necessarily for a record label, not necessarily for TV or film or anything other than, ‘Hey, this is what gives me pure joy.’ And what better way to motivate yourself to song write than if it brings you happiness?” he says.
Understandably, it’s difficult not to wonder exactly what kinds of things in Christian’s life excited and motivated him enough to influence the music on Tension. While it might surprise some to hear that underneath Tension’s familiar synth-based sound another very distinct style is sewn into the record’s musical personality, such a sonic Easter egg makes a lot of sense in the context of what’s been around Christian a lot as of late.
“So, my family is super into Motown,” says Christian. “Like, we love Nina Simone, and Stevie Wonder is another constantly in rotation.”
“And so,” he continues, “If you go back and listen [to Tension], yeah, obviously there’s electronic instrumentation, electric guitars, acoustic guitars randomly here and there, wide drums, and fake drums, and all this other stuff. But the underlying chorus just has that haphazard, carefree feeling you get when you listen to Motown records. And that’s kind of what I was aiming for and that’s kind of the excitement and joy of building this record.”
That said, if this single revelation has some people jumping to conclusions about Christian dashing off to reinvent himself as a champion of Motown music, within Tension, it’s more so about highlighting a mood the style and time period inspires, more than it’s about projecting the exact qualities of Motown greats.
“I wasn’t aiming to say like, ‘I wanna be Stevie Wonder!’ I want [Tension] to be my own project and I definitely want it to portray, again, that carefree spirit that I feel resides in Motown music.”
Interestingly enough, as intriguing as an appreciation for Motown might be for influencing Anchor and Braille’s new work, it wasn’t just small everyday elements like a favorite set of records or a good book that set the course for Tension. This dichotomy of specific details versus broader concepts persists throughout the album and that pairing really brings to light just how many different ways Christian approached the idea of what it means to experience tension. Seeing as it’s such a straightforward term, “tension” certainly leaves itself wide open for interpretation, as to whether it’s referencing distress, the friction of increasing energy or, more positively, whether it’s about something or someone having security by being held tight with tension.
“I think it’s a lot of the above, all of the above, and then some,” says Christian. “You know, part of the title comes from a friend of mine named Jim Thomas. We were hanging out one time and talking about everything from technology to philosophy, and life in general. And that’s when he said to me, ‘You know, life’s meant to be lived in healthy tension,’ and that just kind of like, took me back for a second because I was just trying to ponder and let it sink in at the same time,” he says.
Fully aware that Anchor and Braille’s new album won’t exist in a vacuum, Christian astutely brought his friend’s insights into the context of the present, alongside the tensions people are feeling all across the globe amid the unknowns of COVID-19.
“Even in this time, if [Jim] was here talking with you and I about COVID, he’d say, ‘The extreme is not to board yourself into a house or move into the mountains. [Conversely,] it’s not to get in your car, go to the beach and start hugging everybody.’ The object of life is to live in the middle somewhere. You know, be grounded. Be exactly where you are. And not live life to so much of an extreme that you have to remove yourself from any humanity or thoughts or feelings or emotions when you’re so far to one side. And that can be [applied to] actually anything from politics to music writing. I think that’s just kind of living in that healthy tension,” Christian says.
Speaking from a more personal place and bringing focus back to his individual evolution as a songwriter, Christian ties together more of his past with the his current sense of creativity with Anchor and Braille and in doing so, seems to inadvertently point out theplace where tension – both the feeling and the album – fits in the grand design of who he was, is, and may still partially be, in the future.
“I think for a lot of bands there’s often this kind of life theme that dangles in the background and it’s kind of a guiding light. And for me, I think there is a sense of darkness in light; there is a sense of, ‘Man, things are going to get rough in this life’. But there’s always going to be hope. I think that’s kind of a looming theme in all of my writings. And so “tension” just felt necessary,” says Christian.
“’Tension’ just felt like, that has to be the title,” he continues. “Not only because of the lyrical content but also the hope that can be found at the end. And also, even just the chord structure that we chose within these songs that all led up to [the album] being called Tension.”
While neither Christian himself, nor his listeners, may be able to know what the future holds for Anchor and Braille, the multi-faceted musician provides plenty of reason to have faith that the project’s central driving pillars of being “a passion project” and being about embracing music that’s “a joy to write,” aren’t going anywhere. Look no further for direct evidence than Tension’s finished track list, which at one point, was almost trimmed from 10 songs down to nine, sans early single, “Eventful Horizons.”
“There are these minor chords (in “Eventful Horizons”) that are just pouncing on you time and time again – almost emotionally draining. But, when the chorus hits, it’s such a lift into major keys that it’s kind of like [a] relief. And then you go right back into (the minor chords) on the verse, and then the chorus brings you back out,” says Christian, before going on to explain how he and Carothers, his producer, originally stood quite far apart over the tonality of the song.
“Chad was like, ‘Man, I’m letting you know, the harmonies you have here don’t work. They’re off. They feel – how you’re choosing to sing them and everything – please, no. Don’t do it. Let’s clean them up’. At one point, Chad wanted to cut the song completely off the record.”
Christian continues, providing the counterpoint to his producer’s concerns.
“I listen to him all the time but [this time] I was like, ‘No. Actually, this feels maniacal. This (progression) feels like this should not belong but it all comes together as soon as there’s a bright spot: as soon as the chorus hits. I can’t explain it – that feeling that just kind of pulls and tugs on the soul, and then suddenly there’s this call of relief where you’re just like, ‘I am on a mountain top!’ That’s how it felt in the studio recording it. It just felt heavy and then light, and heavy and light, and it just worked out so beautifully at the end of it.” Christian says.
“[Ultimately,]” he continues, “I just asked [Chad] to listen through a few more times to just hear where I was going with it. And after we got done with the rock record he was just like, ‘Thank God. It turned out to be like my favorite song on [Tension.].”