Interviews Music

Jon Foreman on Switchfoot’s new Album Where the Light Shines Through

Switchfoot’s latest album was released on July 8, 2016, and it is a powerful new album which raises big questions about the current state of our world, and where meaning and hope can be found. Last week, Converge caught up with the band’s frontman Jon Foreman—here’s some of the things we talked about.

Converge Magazine: Good to hear from you John. Thanks for Joining us!
Jon Foreman: Thanks for having me.

CM: You guys just had the 12th Bro-Am. Could you explain what Bro-am is and what the importance of it is for you and the band?
JF: Yeah. Bro-am is Rock and Roll. It is all benefitting various organizations that help underprivileged youth. Homeless kids, at risk youth, and getting them access to the arts, etc. [There’s a] bunch of different branches of what we do within our community and Bro-Am is the one big day a year that we celebrate these kids.

CM: Awesome. You mentioned you were going to release your new songs to Bro-Am first. Can you tell us how it was received. Any stories of how that went?
JF: Oh it was great, Man. That whole week we had different events going on. It felt like, if you’re going to have an album about light and darkness and hope in a difficult situation, Bro-Am is in line with that kind of spirit. So to be able to play these songs and release the record during that kind of climate in our own hometown first just felt amazing.

CM: You mentioned light and darkness and this theme of hope that’s running through your album. I noticed the first line of the album is “Because hope deserves an anthem.” Canadian poet Leonard Cohen has a song called “Anthem” where he says “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” was that an intentional reference?

JF: You know, I love that line… we’ve got a couple Leonard Cohen records on Vinyl. Now that you’re pointing out, but I haven’t made that connection. “Where the line shines through” is actually quoting Rumi, a poet who precedes Leonard Cohen so perhaps we’re both drawing from the same well.

CM: Apparently your last album Fading West was inspired by being on tour. In emails and blog posts for Where The Light Shines Through you mentioned that these are some of the most personal and raw songs that Switchfoot has ever done. Could you explain some of the inspiration comes from for these songs?

JF: Absolutely.  As we were making Where The Light Shines Though, for us as a band sometimes you have a clear-cut vision of what you’re trying to achieve or what you’re chasing. For Fading West it was fairly clear-cut: we were trying to be inspired by the places we were in. [We were] traveling around Bali, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand; gleaning inspiration and drawing upon that inspiration for new songs. For this project we had no real intentionality at the outset, it was “let’s write some songs and let’s tell the truth.” That was it. That was the beginning and the end of it.

The irony is, at the beginning I thought we were making a really dark record. We were wrestling with some really dark, heavy issues, I think our country is wrestling with some really really weighty times and our planet with recent attacks in France and the week before the week we had in the US with racial tensions and the week before that in Florida. It feels like these are violent times where people are looking for hope. So for us as we’re wrestling with these things as a band, I thought we were making a really dark, brooding record but somehow through the process light began to break through and it was in the most unexpected places. That’s where the title for the record come from, the full title is “The Wound is Where The Light Shines Through.” When we are brave enough to stand there and admit our pain, admit our defeat, admit our shortcomings, there can be beauty that shines through these broken places. Every song on the album comes back to bear on the title.

CM: The track “Looking for America”, which raised a lot of heavy questions about where the USA is in light of the past, wondering if America has deviated from some of its original intentions. I wonder you could speak to the inspiration behind that song?

JF: Yeah, that song was inspired by, not necessarily the events we had last week, but the many many acts of violence we have been seeing flood the news lately. I was born in San Bernardino, so when that particular terrorist attack hit it hit really close to home. That’s right near where Jerome lives, I have a lot of friends out there. I think you can look to the present and you can say “okay, where is this violence coming from, how do we solve it, what is the remedy?” There’s all sorts of opinions and ideas, frustrations, anger, hurt in the present with the recent actions, and I think what the song is trying to do is  bring it into the context of the nation that we are. The nation that we have been. I’m proud of many of the things that it means to be American. And there are other things I feel like we would love to sweep under the rug and forget about. The way we treated Native Americans, our foreign policy throughout history and maybe even now in the present. To talk about America you have to be able to ask these bigger questions. So that’s what the song was trying to do was to say “okay, so yes race is an issue right now, but let’s not forget the way we imported humans to work as slaves in our nation.” The irreparable damage we’ve done to families and the lives that have already been lost on American soil.

So this is not a new thing, and what the song is trying to do is say “okay, America, who are you?” And the beautiful thing about America is we are not defined just by lineage, we are a nation of immigrants that is built upon a promise that we believe that all men are created equal and to live out that creed means to ask ourselves some hard questions. The beauty is, every day as a nation we get to ask ourselves those hard questions. So that’s what the song is asking: “America, who are you?”

CM: Could you unpack some of the ways you see light shining through in this very tense racial situation. Because for a lot of people it feels quite hopeless. Now Donald Trump is not just forerunner, but is the nominee for the Republican party and it seems like a really tumultuous time. Where do you see light shining through? How can you maintain this thread of hope that runs through your album in light of the circumstances.

JF: I think first and foremost by admitting our own brokenness and saying “yes, America, let’s admit it. We are in a rough spot. Let’s stop holding onto the facade. Let’s drop our mask and admit how far we’ve fallen.” I think that Trump is a loud voice. He has gotten to where he is by yelling the loudest, and certain media has aided him in that pursuit. But there are a lot of quiet conversations that are happening that give me hope. It’s always the vocal minority that makes the headlines, and whether you’re talking about Trump or a Terrorist attack that’s always been the case, and so my hope does not lie in the screaming matches that you see on TV, my hope lies in the quiet conversations that are actually, really, digging into the issues at hand. These last couple weeks I’ve been in the room on some of my favorite conversations that have come from these horrible acts of violence. They’ve come out of a desperation that not just America, but the world is feeling right now.

CM: That goes really well with the theme of your album. I’m curious how that ties in with this motto that you guys have adopted. In your band documentary “Fading West” there was a comment about how the band has adopted the motto “life is short; live it well” and that refrain runs through the song “Live it Well”. I’m curious how that theme, “live it well,” ties into this conversation, the themes of hope and light shining through darkness.

JF: I think “Living it well” a lot of times people equate that with what you’re doing: I’ve got my house paid off, I’ve got a nice car, I’ve got some wonderful friends, I’m hanging out at the beach. That’s living it well. That sounds like living it well to me as far as on the outside but I think a lot of times we end up chasing these guffs around: once I get my degree, once I’m married, or if only I were single, or if only I had that car. So our happiness and our ability to live it well is hinging upon these external factors. The way I see it is maybe living it well is found in the moment no matter what that moment is. When things are going wrong, when you got a flat tire. When the guy in front of you has a flat tire you should pull over and help him change it! Maybe that’s living it well. Maybe the kingdom of heaven is at hand and our ability to live it well is not hinging on these external factors but rather is found in the present tense. So that’s what that song is about. The first verse is a prayer:

Take the burden from my arms
Take the anchors off my lungs
Take me broken and make me one
Break the silence and make it a song

So it’s found in the broken places. I’m sure you can live it well at the beach to but that’s not where we live our lives all time.

CM: Could you speak to how hope plays into that? So you’re in the moment, but yet there’s this throughline of hope, “because hope deserves an anthem.” Could you unpack what hope means in light of living in the moment?

JF: A lot of times I think people forget that hope can only be found when things are going wrong. You can only possess hope when you’re yearning for a brighter day. When things are going wrong you see a broken system. That’s where hope lives! Hope does not live after people win the world series. That isn’t hope, that’s a dream come true. For me, the reason that we sing these songs is because we’re still hoping, still broken, still bleeding and wanting more.

CM: That’s very beautiful thank you. So this is your tenth studio album. Congratulations. That’s a big milestone.

JF: Thank you. Yeah, man.

CM: Any thoughts on what it looks like for Switchfoot moving forward? Any new plans as of yet? Or just touring this album for a while.

JF: The Switchfoot plan is no plan. Always. It’s the same with our set list, every night we mix up the set list. We’ll even go up on stage with a certain set list and then halfway through the set we’ll go off the rails and play something else. I think that’s part of who we are is to just be in the moment. One step at a time. We’re thankful to be here. To look back on ten records is a gift, but I don’t know what the future holds. Keep playing one night at a time, you know?

CM: Living it well it the moment. I like that. One more question. We talked about America and racial injustice, xenophobia, and turmoil in the nation. But, zooming the camera out a bit, you mentioned a little bit about this bigger scope you guys have as well, many of these songs being inspired by world travels. You went to the Philippines to film the music video for “float”. What inspired a trip to the Philippines?

JF: We’ve been to the Philippines twice this year: once to play and show and once Chad and Jerome went back to work with this organization called Cure provides medical attention and surgeries for underprivileged kids throughout the world who can’t afford these things. And the Philippines, man, what incredible, amazing people. Every time we have a chance to go over to Manila we’re excited. This was our first time to really be able to dive into an underprivileged community. [The community] was built on an old trash dump. Seeing 2, 3, 4-year-old kids completely naked forging through the trash is a really tough thing to make sense of. It’s like “why is this happening?” And you want to help, you want to dive in.

So we were there, and the song “Float” is written for a friend of mine who was going through a dark time and right then it felt like that was what was needed in the community. We can provide access to surgeries, we can provide access to education, but these all felt like bandaids on wound. And certainly I’m not a doctor, what do I have? I’ve got a guitar. And the office of the music video was “how can we lift the spirits of this community?” So we ended up filming a music video right there in the middle of the street, shutting down the traffic and just dancing with the kids, and that’s where the music video was shot: right there in heart of Manila.

CM: I like that a lot. Just being present like you said. In the moment, participating in the suffering and allowing the light to shine through. That’s beautiful.

JF: Yeah, definitely one of my favorite moments we’ve every had shooting a music video. Incredible.

CM: Well I’m very thankful for your time, Jon, this has been a really fun, inspiring conversation. God bless you with all the rest of your activities: tour, travel, everything.

JF: Thank you so much, thank you for your time. Enjoy Canada!