A Conversation with David Clifton
David Clifton is a man from many places. Beginning his musical career as a young man in choral studies at Peterborough Cathedral north of Cambridge, he proceeded to major in ceramics and play his way through multiple international acts, opening for and sitting in with the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Steve Earle, Sheryl Crow, and Clannad. These days, he divides his time between Knoxville and London, producing records from vastly differing genres and leading music as a pastor at Apostles Anglican Church. On a beautiful evening in late June, we received the privilege of sitting with David atop an old building in downtown Knoxville, watching a coming storm light up the sky and wandering through the topics of sacred and secular arts. Tom Petty played through the background speakers, and our conversation ploughed late into the night.
FH: To start off, you’ve lived and played in sacred settings in both the United Kingdom and the States, and you’ve also toured with a number of secular artists. Sacred music, and the wire-crossing of Christianity and the arts, is very different in the two countries. To your mind, what are those differences?
DC: Well, I have to be very careful what I say, because I don’t mean to offend anyone. But, to me, everything is God’s, every sort of music. Because we’re all made in the image of God, everything has a certain degree of God within it, and God will use all sorts of music to reach out to people. The difference is, of course, if it’s sin, God can’t allow his Holy Spirit to speak to people through it. Having said that, God is faithful to his word. So that’s why, when pastors’ lives fail or worship leaders fall, and people ostracize them, the music will still bless people—because God is faithful to his word. We do our best, but we fall and fail—everyone does.
Some of the best times of worship I’ve had, when I get all connected with God, spirit to Spirit, have happened in mainstream concerts, whether it’s Hem, or Jane Siberry, or U2, or XTC, or whoever it happens to be, because there are elements of life-stories that Jesus spoke into that are revealed through people’s personal struggles. So they will be writing about their personal struggles—God loves them, whether they acknowledge God loving them or not—they’re working out life, the same as we’re working out life. They’re writing about it, singing about it, painting about it. The difference, I would say, is that there is some music that is specifically written for believers who are worshipping God in a sacred space.
But, you see, I long for the contemporary musicians of today to be the same as Handel, Bach, or Vivaldi, or Brahms, who had no trouble writing [sacred music.] Vivaldi wrote The Four Seasons and cello concertos, he also wrote the Gloria—he wrote all sorts of sacred music. Handel wrote Water Music and Fireworks—Handel also wrote The Messiah. And it’s a great source of sadness to me that somebody didn’t commission The Beatles to write a sacred communion service or an evensong setting, a matins setting, or whatever. In the process of doing that, they might have encountered God in the same way that actors and actresses, when they play very significant parts in films, often come to faith, such as with Fury.
FH: With Shia LaBeouf?
DC: Right, like with Shia LaBeouf. So there are specific instances in which musicians will write music that is designed for congregational worship, or for solo performance—there’s nothing wrong with solo performance. Although, I do feel that worship, in a corporate setting, should be on the lips of the people. There’s been this pendulum effect over history, where music, you know, ‘only the best is good enough for God’—so the only thing spoiling it was the congregation. So the choir and the clergy would sing, and there was no worship on the lips of the congregation. Every revival from the years back—specifically the eighteenth century—re-addressed that.
FH: Where’s that right now, though? Because the rock star persona has been around for a long time—roughly since Franz Liszt.
DC: Oh, absolutely. It’s always been like that, but there’s been this swing effect, and I think it’s coming back. When you look at what’s happening with All Sons and Daughters and the United Pursuit guys and the guy that wrote “Good, Good Father,” they’re encouraging corporate, congregational worship.
The danger with some of the big American churches—and it happens in England—is that I see people importing mainstream rock values into the church setting. Now, we shouldn’t be imitating culture; we should be setting the new standard which the culture imitates.
FH: What are those mainstream rock values that get imported?
DC: I would say that you are looking at songs which are performance-oriented. They’re often too high for people to sing; the melodies are too complicated. Some of the lyrics are fairly vacuous. You walk into a building and the auditorium is dark. The focus is on the stage and the band. All the lighting is up front, the sound is coming from the front, some of the music is so overwhelmingly loud that the congregation can’t hear themselves anyway—I’m being general here; it’s a generalization. So, the focus is implying that what is happening in the body of the church is not important, but that what’s happening on the front end—where the band are, and the lights are, and sometimes the smoke and the dry ice (which is probably a modern form of incense, I don’t know)—that that’s the important place. And that’s not the important place. It’s the worship being on the lips of the people. The band are merely the signpost on the interstate showing you where the holiday destination is. We don’t get to the destination talking about how wonderful the signposts were on the interstate; we enjoy the beach, and the seas, and the rest.
Whenever I talk to worship teams, I say, “Go and exorcise your inner rock star demon.” Join a band and go play in pubs and clubs and sing pop songs about cars and girls. That’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. Do that; connect with culture and get that out of your system, but the worship should be on the lips of the people. Your job is a musician and a writer is not to overwhelm the congregation but to allow space for the congregation to sing. The idea is to allow people to connect with God Spirit to spirit in our sacred settings.
And that, of course, can happen in a venue. You can have those moments of connection. I’ve listened to people around town where the Lord is so present and speaking through what somebody’s doing—whether the singer is aware of it or not. Now, it could just be emotionalism on my part, but generally, when you get to talk to the people, they’re writing songs about life issues—issues that are modern parables. Jesus spoke in very modern phraseology and similes that were easy for the people of his day to understand. The danger with our liturgical services is that they speak in ‘Christianese,’ a language that’s so foreign to the person on the street—he can’t relate to thrones and kingdoms and glory and worthy. “Worthy is the Lamb that sits upon the throne”—what does that mean to somebody who’s not grown up in church?
FH: Regarding that, a lot of Christian writers in the United States seem very focused on writing in a narrow defile, if you will, about certain Christian things. The few that write outside of that don’t often get played on the radio. Writers in Scotland and England don’t seem to worry about that.
DC: Well, the reality is that we’re talking into a post-Christian culture in Britain and, very soon, in America. What we do in worship services on a Sunday is irrelevant to about 90% of Britain and 85% of America. I hate to say that, but it means nothing to them. When I was in north London, our youth workers used to go into the local school and help out. They decided to do a quiz day near the end of term when they weren’t teaching lessons, and on the quiz that they were doing, one of the questions was, “Name the four gospels.” This was to a north London school. The answer, I’ll not kid you: “John, Paul, George, and Ringo.” At least they got one of them.
FH: And an apostle!
DC: Right, absolutely. But the reality is, you’re speaking into a culture in America, but particularly in Britain, that has none of that education. So, get this: Morrison’s, a big chain—it’s the equivalent of Kroger, really—they’re doing a big advertising campaign for Easter chocolate. So, the advert went out: “Everyone knows what Easter celebrates—the birth of Jesus!” Literally, that went out. It was soon recalled, but that’s a major supermarket’s advertising. You’re talking a level, a lack of understanding of the Gospel, which is probably more difficult for us to speak into than the disciples, because at least the disciples were speaking into a Jewish culture that had some sort of framework. It’s probably on par with Paul having to use his best skills in rhetoric to speak to the Greeks.
The people who are musicians—the danger is that we only do things in a Christian context, things that we’re passionate about. That’s great, but art is an element to music. Some of the best gigs I know, you’ve probably been to—they’re those quiet moments when they put down the instruments and get the people in the audience singing along. Allison Krauss, James Taylor used to, Hem—there are lots of artists, there will be a moment when they just pull it back and everyone sings along. And sometimes they’re the most special connecting moments in a show. The danger of solo singer-songwriter stuff is it’s like complex operatic anthems. Nobody else can sing along. You’ve got to have a level of musical skill to get those notes. Congregation worship has to be, by its nature, somewhat simpler. It doesn’t have to be simplistic, but you’ve got to think very carefully about how you structure corporate worship.
Britain is filled with newer churches that sometimes copy what happens in America and can easily fall into that same trap. We do something that is culturally relevant, but we don’t necessarily copy the culture. Why don’t we do what Vivaldi did? Vivaldi, Brahms, Beethoven—all these people. These guys were strong Christian people. They set the standard of their day as composers across all genres, whether it was orchestral pieces, choral pieces, sacred works, ordinary fun things. It doesn’t matter, it’s all God’s, unless it’s sin, unless it’s promoting the cause of evil—which generally it’s not. And there are elements of God that God will use his Holy Spirit to reach people.
FH: You started out doing ceramics in college. How does that translate into your writing process?
DC: I’ve always loved exploring the different creative arts. The danger is—it says on my Twitter account, “Jack of all trades, master of some.” It probably should be master of none. But I love the fact that the creative principle works in so many different ways. You can draw a picture, you can make a pot, you can write a song, you can write a poem or a play. There are so many different things you can do to express beauty, and I think the call of believers, in this beautiful, amazing, abundant spiral of a world that is whizzing around—and we do it in our failing manner—is to reflect the incredible beauty and attention to detail that God surrounds us with.
Now, I know there’s all sorts of talk about creation and evolution. I don’t think evolution is ruled out by creation or is inconsistent with it. I think it’s part of it, I think things develop. But I think that there is, at the heart of the universe and the cosmos is an amazing creative force of love and power. And I love exploring different ways of doing that. I’d always played guitar in bands during school, but I decided to specialize in art, because I loved painting and pots—playing in mud, basically. But the early pieces I did, I was fascinated by cycles. So, the cycle—we might witness Halley’s Comet once in a lifetime, if we’re lucky. The cycle of the planets, the orbits around the sun, the life cycle of animals, insects—lobsters, if it wasn’t for the fact that we ate them or they outgrew their shells, they would probably live hundreds of years. A mayfly could be born now, hatch out, fly around, mate—it might not even live to see the dawn. So it’s take on this place it that it’s a place of darkness. There are butterflies that migrate from North to South America once a year. There are these incredible mysteries that we still haven’t got a handle on.
So, my early pots were really ridiculously complex. I did a series of one inside another inside another to reflect those circles and spheres of the different cycles of life. And if I’m doing a recording project, sometimes it’s nice to just get in the car and drive out and sit on a hill and do a sketch of the Smokies or something completely different. I’ll go down to Mighty Mud. My last project was “Ten Green Bottles.” Unfortunately, I messed up the glaze on three of them, so it’s “Seven Green Bottles.” Most of my stuff is hand-built—slab pots and things like that. It allows you space to think, and pray, and meditate—particularly with pottery. It’s nice to do something as a completely different discipline that’s still creative.
David Clifton’s work can be found at Littleroom.com. David himself, when he’s stateside, can regularly be found at Preservation Pub in Knoxville, Tennessee, playing tunes and encouraging local songwriters.