Danny Gokey never set an intention to make a genre-busting album. “It just happened,” he says over a call from his Nashville home. The 12-track Jesus People, out today (August 20), zig-zags from glistening dance-pop opener “Make a Difference” to the Latin-flavored “Agradecido” and “All Are Welcome,” a more classically structured worship song. Such musical diversity seems, if anything, to truly capture Gokey’s heart and vocal chops, as he swings from bombastic mountaintops to the cool valleys of intimacy.
“When you get to the radio format, you start noticing that there are genres, and I get why they do that. People like to know that this is the radio station to go to if you like this genre,” Gokey tells American Songwriter. “But, for someone like me, who grew up listening to all kinds of music, it was really hard to kind of pick just one genre or sound. I wonder how that’s gonna translate to people. I’m hoping people are open to the different sounds.”
Following two records in 2019, Haven’t Seen It Yet and the holiday-themed The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Collection, the singer-songwriter awoke with a start in late December that year. “With Revelation 22 heavy on my heart,” he flipped open the Bible’s crisp pages and began diving into the scripture to uncover its meaning. One verse of many which stuck out to him was verse 17. It reads: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.”
Gokey immediately felt a strong “sense in my heart that the Lord was just calling out to His people and calling out to the world,” he says. That’s when he wrote “All Are Welcome,” a backbone to the record, and the firestarter he needed to propel him into writing the new music. He’s calling his daughters / He’s calling his sons / To return to the Father’s great love, he sings, his voice radiant and soothing.
Once the pandemic hit, Gokey saw it as “basically a restart,” personally and creatively. “Usually, I’m trying to fit in writing in all these things, and it actually turned out to be a blessing to be able to do that,” he says. He continued pouring over scripture, turning to various passages, including 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, which became the thread line throughout the record, as he examines human hunger for love and how, when you don’t have love, you can feel abandoned and fearful and lose faith altogether.
“This world has had enough religion, and that’s exemplified when you look at how religions are kind of scoffed at. I think for years people have heard and heard about Jesus, and there are people who have probably misrepresented it pretty bad,” he says. “People want the real thing. They really do want the real thing. This record is one of those records where I get a little deeper with some of the messages. We all knew Jesus was a key. That was one thing I wanted to discuss.
“I don’t care if you’re rich or poor, or what culture you represent. You need Jesus, and I need Jesus. We don’t think we need Jesus, and that’s where the problem starts,” he continues. “Then, you begin to judge people by your standard, and your standard is flawed and broken. That standard will always elevate you and de-elevate others around you. That’s really the pinpoint of the problem that we have in our society; it’s pointing the finger and shifting the blame.”
Within such a conversation, there arises the concern about faith versus institutionalized religion, which Gokey calls a “man-made attempt” at true faith. “For instance, if I break that down, the Bible says, ‘Faith works by love’ [Galatians 5:6]. They increase their faith when they realize how much they’re loved. When you realize what God’s love has done for you, that’s when your faith begins to work, and then you can reciprocate that.”
Songs like “Stand in Faith” and “Stay Strong,” the latter an evocative piano ballad, explore two sides to the same coin. You bring beauty from my pain / It’s never wasted, he sings, turning his gaze heavenward. Gokey draws upon his own wealth of troubles, particularly the circumstances surrounding the death of his first wife, who suffered complications after surgery for congenital heart disease in 2008.
“I think a lot of people are stuck in that zone. We prayed for healing for my first wife, and then it didn’t happen the way we felt like it should have,” he reflects. “We thought God was gonna heal her; we had scriptures to stand on.” With “Stay Strong,” quickly ascending with waves of production, he outlines “what happens when your faith isn’t answered the way that you thought that God said it would be answered.”
“Make a Difference,” bursting with a joyous pop treatment, sets the record’s bubbly, musically satisfying tone. Nestled alongside synths and a gently-peeking saxophone line, the track serves as “a simple declaration,” he says, “and it really stands out for people who are in the church. People that make the difference are the people who are in the church because we understand that we’re ambassadors of God. I love a good pop melody.”
Later, on “Do for Love,” a collaboration with rapper Angie Rose, Gokey eyes the goodness God has brought into his life. Inspired by an idea from co-writer Emily Weisband, the Top 40-ready track exudes not only a musical warmth but gives Gokey agency to vocally dance and bend. “It’s got these really soaring melodies which I love. I love the falsetto,” he says. “In the way I approached it, I noticed that my vocal approach was a really sweet, tender approach.” As such, it felt it needed a contrasting performance from Rose. “It’s a special one because I’ve never even thought about featuring a female rapper on my music before.”
While Jesus People celebrates unwavering faith, Gokey will be the first to admit the last year has “definitely been a test,” he says. “I’ve had to learn to trust when I don’t understand and when I don’t see Him. I think it’s every believer’s story. God has a bigger picture in His mind than we ever would. Over the years, it has been a struggle. There have been times where I wasn’t sure if I was scared that my faith wouldn’t make it.”
Jesus People is playful, a musically-enriching set to demonstrate Gokey has unapologetically come into his own. Whether he’s setting the rafters on fire (“Truth Is”) or gliding across an indie guitar groove (“We All Need Jesus,” with Koryn Hawthorne), each piece comes together to complete a vibrant portrait of Gokey’s thriving musical thinking and his continued commitment to faith.