He’s led worship in mammoth arena settings, stirred souls in the smallest of churches, performed on no less than four continents spanning many major American festivals to an audience of over 10,000 in Brazil, but even with experience at literally every level and cultural crossroad, Jake Hamilton and the Sound still have no idea what they’re doing. Sure, there’s the tangible success found in concerts alongside Third Day, Jeremy Camp, MercyMe and three years of Jesus Culture conferences or frequently collaborating with guitar great Marc Ford (The Black Crowes, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals), but as the singer/songwriter/praise leader so poignantly points out across the third worldwide release Beautiful Rider (Fuel Music Distribution), he’s simply along for a ride that finds God exclusively directing the driver’s seat.
“I’ve been in ministry since I’ve been 19 and the one I thing I know is I don’t know anything, but the more I’ve tried to figure it out, the further I feel from God,” admits a humble Hamilton. “I see Him more when I give into the mystery, and I’m not afraid of the hurt or pain because I know He’s going to catch me. The new project’s title is about the marriage of something pure, delicate, kind and very sweet next to a rider on a white horse coming to judge and rule with power, authority and holiness. It’s a marriage of finding new ways to say ‘we love you Lord,’ but also to authentically express the fact that we have no idea what we’re doing or playing, just really trusting in Him to lead the way. People can see the whole gamut of who we are- from rockers to ballads- tied to the same heart, which is simply to be authentically who we are.”
A mere scan of Beautiful Rider finds Hamilton and his close knit musical community sounding like a true anomaly compared to the rest of modern worship sphere, which aside from undeniably vertical lyrics, are perhaps more akin to a melodic blend between Jack White and the Foo Fighters. Add in everything from the classic rock riffs of Led Zeppelin, to the vivid storytelling of Bob Dylan, plus the old time gospel flavor of Mavis Staples, and the project truly stands in a class all its own.
“The church sometimes creates definitions as to what’s Christian and not based on style, and as a result, they’ve handed the enemy these styles and said ‘go for it,’” observes Hamilton, citing a current shortage in faith-based hip-hop or metal as a few examples. “There was a time when Kurt Cobain was singing ‘Come As You Are’ to a broken, hurting and disenfranchised generation, and instead of the church trying to fix someone before they come in, they should actually tell people to come exactly how they are- broken, dirty and dying because Jesus can save them. Instead, we let Kurt say that message back then, and now more than a decade later, those sounds are becoming more accepted and Christian artists may find themselves trying to copy them. The problem is it’s not authentic when we replicate what the world is doing and I’m convinced there’s no such thing as Christian music or art. There’s just authenticity, and if it’s pointed at Jesus, it doesn’t matter how broken you are because it’s all worship to me. When the world sees the authenticity it blurs the line. I’m not going to compromise or remove the name of Jesus, but simply be a real person with a real sound and message the world needs to hear.”
Hamilton may be bold in his observations, but he can report firsthand to the fruits of being completely open hearted and genuine in his delivery throughout global travels as distant as the Ukraine, Germany, South Africa, Mozambique, India, Brazil, Australia and Mexico. Though there’s something to be said about having internationally distributed CDs and MP3s, much of the group’s travels are booked on sheer faith- from an inquiry by a tiny church who can’t even afford their airfare to a mega-festival looking for a familiar face. Money’s never actually been a factor in the decision-making equation, but rather, a sincere need for an uplifting, albeit somewhat unconventional worship experience that’s yielded testimonies as diverse as deliverance from pornography and sexual addiction to cancer healings.
“We’re actually part worship leaders and part missionaries in the sense that many of these places actually cost me money to go there and they are areas that wouldn’t normally hear any type of Christian music,” suggests Hamilton. “Nothing for us changes no matter where we go whether we’re in a room of 50 or 5,000 because we play the exact same way with the same hearts. I even went through the streets of India declaring the name of Jesus and found 400 people joining me in a public park, followed by an invitation to sing at a local temple, even though the mere mention of Christ’s name has been known to get people stoned!”
Fast forward to a trip to the Ukraine, and Hamilton had the honor of singing for nearly four hours comforting and hugging somewhere between 300-400 children, including some whose parents were victims of modern day martyrdom. “I met a son of a guy who as recently as 20 years ago was holding an underground Christian church, but then the government showed up at his house and asked him to denounce the name of Jesus. He replied ‘no, the same Jesus I’m worshiping is the same Jesus that will save your life one day and you need Him just as bad as I do’ and they shot him dead in the back yard and left the body for his family to pick up. In the western church, we’re under the impression that this doesn’t happen any more, but in my travels, I’ve heard of it still happening first hand.”
Given the unbelievably assorted body of believers and seekers alike encountered by Hamilton and the Sound, it’s essential to have an arsenal of anthems that can be sung across all cultural and geographical borders. In the case of Beautiful Rider, “Never Let Me Down” and “Just Beyond The Breaking” could both simultaneously fill that void, and while the old school blues rock riff of the first or the surging piano/guitar amalgamation of the second might not be as common coming from a church pulpit, the message comes across loud and clear. “Every time we play ‘Never Let Me Down’ no matter where we are at, it triggers a sing-a-long with people declaring that the Lord will never let us down, leave us or forsake us. That idea ties into ‘Just Beyond The Breaking’ and the fact that God always shows up in the most beautiful and tangible way, even when we have no idea what we’re doing. Don’t worry about the details or people showing up, just keep moving forward and know that the way we win is to never give up trust in the Lord.”
Given all of the above sentiments, it’s no surprise that Hamilton is just as unconcerned about how the traditional Christian music market may embrace Beautiful Rider as he is the uncertainty of this ongoing journey. He simply hopes that whoever needs to hear these words would have the opportunity, rather than being prevented because of specific formats or ascetics. “Could any of these songs be Christian radio singles?” he ponders. “On one hand, they are totally vertical, but will the stylistic differences allow it to get played anywhere and will a church want to rock out on Sunday morning? I don’t know. I just hope we can be close enough to the box where people don’t write us off all together, but also just far enough outside the box where they will question how they lead worship the next time.”
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