'Songs Still Matter'
Toby McKeehan, better known as the rock/rap artist TobyMac, releases his fourth studio album today, Tonight—an album he feels is his most urgent with its messages of hope, redemption, and second chances. "I still believe a song can penetrate a heart," Toby says. "I believe God can use a song to open someone's mind and heart. I still believe that songs matter."
Formerly one-third of the Christian supergroup dc Talk, McKeehan has been flying solo since 2000 when the group went on an extended "hiatus." Fresh off another Grammy nomination—he's won four in the past, but this time he lost to Mary Mary in the Best Gospel Song category (Toby for "City on Our Knees," Mary Mary for "God in Me")—McKeehan spoke with us about his new album, his family, his duets with son "TruDog," and more.
You seem to release an album about every three years. Is that a typical cycle?
It is probably my typical creative cycle, although there are songs on each album that I have been sitting on for a couple years. I usually end up with 30 to 40 songs to choose from, and I always believe the cream rises to the top. Another reason for the delay between records is I am touring the entire time from release to release and rarely slow down to make the record. Unfortunately in the Christian industry it takes a while for everyone to be aware of it. We have to work harder and longer on the road to make people aware of our releases. In other words, we got to "let it stew."
Why's the album called Tonight? Does that capture the overall theme?
When you are a touring artist your entire focus is on the concert that you are about to play. Our prayer and our focus is on what happens that night. My hope is that everyone leaves that arena changed maybe mildly, maybe in a grand way, but I am hoping for change in myself as well as the people that are there … tonight.
The title track says you're "locked up and held captive in the clutches of my doubt." What's that mean?
In my pursuit of holiness sometimes I'm sprinting down the road to the mark, while other days I'm lying on the side of the road, gasping, doubting whether or not I can continue the race. Sometimes it's insecurity, other days it's pride, but either way I'm tripped up and fearful. Whether from a friend or from God's Word, I am reminded of his grace, which gives me the courage to get back up. Maybe people can just dial it in and maintain; I have never had that strength. The ebb and flow of my spiritual walk in a crazy world has always been a frustrating routine.
Speaking of "Get Back Up," is that about you, or someone in particular?
I have a friend who made some bad choices and lost his marriage, family, and essentially life as he knew it. He felt useless to God's kingdom, and I'd even go far enough to say worthless in many respects. I wanted to remind him that we all fall and he may be knocked down now but he is not out forever. On the outro (the most important part), I wanted him to hear God's voice saying, "This is love calling, love calling out to the broken."
Why'd you release "City on Our Knees" SO far in advance of the album? And is there a story behind that song?
Sometimes when you are passionate about something you can't hold it back. This one was finished and we all felt it was timely for society, so we sent it out early. Many times when I am writing a lyric I take 2-3 months per song, but in the case of "City" I didn't wrestle with God on this one. I just opened myself up and let him breathe it through me. Twenty-five minutes later it was finished. The song is based on something I have always dreamed of—letting go of the things that divide us, stepping across the line and being a body recognizing one God.