A Conversation About Art And Faith Between David Bazan And Alicia Jo Rabins


Alicia Jo Rabins (a.k.a. Girls In Trouble) writes indie-folk songs that tell the tales of women found in the Bible. A classically trained violinist, Rabins moved to Jerusalem for two years to study ancient Jewish texts before relocating to Brooklyn to write and record Girls In Trouble’s self-titled debut (out last month on the JDub label). David Bazan made a name for himself in Pedro The Lion, whose decade-long existence was defined by songs that both celebrated and questioned his Christian faith and Evangelical upbringing. With new album Curse Your Branches (Barsuk), Bazan again writes about religion—actually, losing his religion; Bazan is now an agnostic. What follows is a conversation between Rabins and Bazan about faith and art and the intersection of the two.

David Bazan’s “Bless This Mess” (download):

Girls In Trouble’s “Secrets You’re Always Watching” (download):

Rabins: So, I just got married at city hall and it took a little longer than we thought, so I’m going to be walking for the first few minutes, if that’s OK.
Bazan: Oh, congratulations. That is awesome!

Thank you. We’re having the religious ceremony later, but this was the civil one. It’s good to have an exciting conversation right afterward!
Yeah! Well, hopefully. [Laughs]

I was thinking about the relationship between being an artist and being a person who wrestles with faith, who is engaged with religious practice and thinking. And I was wondering if you could talk about how your artistic practice informs your spiritual practice or vice versa.
Well, I don’t know how it is for different religious practices, but in the one I grew up in, namely Evangelical Christianity, a big component of it is to try to convince other people that your belief system is the right one. And if a person holds that to be true on the one hand, and then tries to make art on the other hand—in artist practice there’s a lot more exploration and you’re not working from conclusions and you’re trying to engage in a discovery process about yourself and the world. And I think that for me, those two ideas tended to be at odds with one another. But then I started thinking differently about the religious side of it, thinking, “Why does it have to be this way? If this thing is true, shouldn’t you be able to explore that as well, and then you’d always end up with truth?” And so I think that it ended up feeling better to try to do the artistic process—that that was more honest and less loaded with a bunch of ascribed meanings or what have you.

Do you think that that informed your spiritual practice?
Oh man, I don’t know.

You know what I’m saying; Do you think the more exploratory open-ended artist model ended up pushing your spiritual practice or interior life a little more toward the artistic model?
I don’t know if that’s directly where it came from or if I even got it from a third place that I can’t think of, that influenced both of those spheres simultaneously. Because I used to write songs a lot differently, too; early on, I was a little more deliberately didactic with the music I was making, so I feel like those shifts might have happened in the religious sphere and the artistic sphere at the same time. But it’s hard to know. I mean, is your religious identity one that’s really conflicted, or is there a religious expression that you engage in that you’re not particularly conflicted about?

Well, I grew up knowing I was Jewish, and doing some rituals, but having a very limited understanding of what that meant spiritually. It was more cultural. And then I started realizing that I wanted to deal with spiritual questions more directly. I’d been doing it through poetry and music and art, and that had been enough. But then I felt, I don’t want to have to translate, I want to be able to use the word God. I don’t even know what that word means, but I want to engage directly in questions about what that power is, instead of having to turn it into beauty or something.
Right, instead of having to be vague about it, you want to be able to handle the actual concept. Yeah, I agree. There is something about that that seems—I mean it’s super uncool, for one thing, and there’s an appeal there for me.

Yes, exactly! So I ended up finding out about this school in Jerusalem and spending two years immersed in the texts and learning ancient Hebrew and Aramaic and Talmud and all that stuff. I feel like I was pretty lucky because I wasn’t raised with any coercive model of it. I came to it as an adult, so I got to pick and choose. And I really appreciated the back and forth of the Talmud. For me, when I’m making art, a lot of it is about interrogating stuff, and in Judaism that’s really seen as an act of love, and not of attack.
In this record that I just put out, I talked to some buddies and it’s been proposed that the way that I express certain ideas was very similar or parallel to a Jewish way of going about that kind of dialogue and interrogation, even though in the Evangelical concept, it sounds like something really bad. But there’s an Old Testament precedent for that kind of engaging, and there’s a further historical, Judaic concept of that. And part of this whole process for me was trying to find an identity to replace the one that was such a strong part of me growing up, so that was comforting for me to hear that at least there was some precedent for that line of thinking. But then in the end, I like to feel like you don’t need a precedent to just say what you’re thinking. But it is comforting. But that’s amazing; and so is the Talmud a different sort of document from the Torah? [A long discussion of Torah, Talmud, religious practice, and artistic practice ensues]

I was reading an interview where you were talking about doing a nine-to-five schedule with your band, and I was really inspired by that because I find that it’s hard to create a regular practice, but practice provides the structure for amazing things to come through. But for me, there’s also a danger of going the opposite direction, of forcing—I can be too strict about it and lose the joy in it.
Yeah. Well, I want to be making music, I want to be in a place every day where if something hits, I’m ready, I’m warmed up, I’m already doing it. For me, learning and playing covers is a really great way for me to interact with a larger set of ideas and expand my vocabulary, but also there’s just a wonder—and this relates to religion and spirituality—there’s a wonder that music inspires. When I learn a chord change in a Deerhoof song and I’m just flabbergasted by it—because I never would have thought of that, and yet it’s so simple and so elegant and beautiful—there’s a wonder, so it maintains that sense. And for me, with spirituality, that empathy and wonder and really just always trying to maintain that kind of posture—I feel like even if I’m not specifically engaging in some sort of religious discipline, like reading the Bible or some other religious text, or praying. Because I’m really lost in a lot of ways when it comes to how I feel about all that stuff, but if I stay in close proximity to the things that inspire a feeling of wonder in me, or a feeling of empathy, especially for somebody that’s really different than myself, then I feel like I can do that as my religious practice. And then I am struck by notions of God that come around every now and again in a way that are more meaningful—or notions of justice, but on a spiritual and more cosmic, widespread-humanity kind of level. And so for me that really satisfies a feeling of being engaged spiritually and keeping my ear to the ground as far as all that stuff goes, when beyond that I really don’t know what kind of ritual I would feel OK about engaging in on any kind of regular basis, because I really just feel lost on that level. But I still want to be involved. So I think about that similarly; I can’t just sit and write for six hours a day, every day, because then I just start to hate myself. But if I play other people’s songs that I love, then I have a great time. And then when my own tune comes, you know, you’re just off and running.

That’s kind of amazing. That seems like a pretty close musical parallel to reading the Bible, in an open inquiry way as opposed to any kind of punishing dark way. When I’m studying Torah, I think it’s a similar thing; it’s putting you in a place where you’re keeping an open space in your mind to think about these things and broaden your internal landscape. And then when you get your own insight, that container is open for it. But you don’t have to be constantly praying all the time or coming up with genuine spiritual connection constantly, ’cause it gives you a place to go have a conversation with it.
Yeah, absolutely, because you can’t. You have to find a sustainable pace of engagement, a sustainable posture so that you can not feel so manic all the time. Or that’s important to me, anyway. And keeping open. On a spiritual level, be open to what’s coming, rather than just getting burned out totally.

Right. Have you read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind?

It’s by a Zen monk named named Shunryu Suzuki, and it’s basically about that state of mind that he calls “beginner’s mind,” that whenever you start thinking, you’re an expert about something, you’re getting into this hardened state, and that’s trouble. So part of the practice that he’s talking about of is being in that beginner’s mind where you’re like, “I dont know, I dont know,” and just being open. Letting a sound be a sound, instead of naming it as, like, a jackhammer. On all different levels, resisting that urge to put categories and definitions on things.
That’s crazy. That’s really great, because sometimes I feel that way—and I don’t know if its the exact same thing, but I feel that way and I feel unaccomplished or something. Like, I should be past this, but I just don’t understand. Or being able to just take things as they come and not having to categorize things all the time—being allowed to be naive about the ideas. That’s not the same thing that you’re talking about, is it?

Yeah, I think it is. I mean, I don’t know. This is all stuff I’m constantly trying to work out or be in conversation with, but I feel like we have this Western-society idea of a linear progression toward expertness. I loved that book and that concept because it’s like, the most expert is the one who’s in a constant state of complete beginning-ness.
Yeah, and a steady of feeling of wonder can come from that, because when you become expert about things, you’re not as wowed by the simple beauty of, like you’re saying, the sound of a jackhammer. You just categorize it and move on, without thinking, “Holy shit, that is a remarkable noise!”

Exactly, a kid would look at the machine and be like, “Oh my god, that’s powerful,” but walking by it in New York, you’re like, “Oh my god, another fucking loud jackhammer.”

And I think that’s also linked to the creative impulse because you have to have that openness in order to make anything new—in a way, I guess nothing’s new, but to make your own thing, and not just be doing whatever’s trendy at the moment, or restating what other people are doing.
I agree. You make a good point that nothing is new, and I think that anyone who really looks at it realizes that, and yet there is something when you discover 1-4-5 (chord progression) for the first time, and all the different ways that with your taste and influences you can exploit that. Or even when you run into somebody like the Shins; James Mercer just figures out crazy ways to continue to exploit that very played-out chord progression, and sometimes I think, quoting the Dude, “Man, thinking has been way too uptight about all this stuff.” But being able to look at these things in a non-jaded way, like, “Oh, that’s just 1-4-5.” Well yeah, that’s true, but that’s amazing. You don’t get that part of it, too?

It’s funny.

And so my one other question is—I hadn’t thought of it before, but it’s coming up as we’ve been talking—how do you think your these questions of spirituality or whatever relate to your experience in the music world?
I have a set of buddies, a bunch of people who have been a part of this gang of musicians for years and years. And I have this sense that we all used to have really narrow ideas of what was good and what we liked and what we wanted to be identified with. And as we grow up, I have this feeling, I just constantly look at these guys and I’m kind of wowed by how generous I think they are, both personally and musically. I’ll sit with another buddy and we’ll be comparing notes about this band and that band, and then somebody will admit that, like, they really love the Stone Temple Pilots or something, and then someone’s like, “Yeah! I love them!” And I feel like the older that I get or the older that buddies of mine I really respect get, the more you just see beauty everywhere and are not so begrudging to people who are apparently a little less mature in their conception of music or even in just the way they express themselves. Usually it’s the guilty-pleasure thing that people are way cooler about—like somebody will say, “I love the first, uh, Counting Crowes record a lot.” And someone’s like, “What? You’re crazy!” And you’re like, “No, listen to it again.” Your counterculture identity is not at stake anymore, because this is music and this is life and it’s exciting, and there is good shit everywhere.

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