Josh Garrels is out on a limb. And that's no mere idiom. Idiotic, maybe. Reckless, certainly. Because at the moment, he's scampering about the highest branches of a tree, hamming it up like a gangly Tarzan—he's a skinny 6-foot-4, with the wingspan of a condor—swinging, swaying, swaggering. He's climbing trees with friends, and one of them is a girl he's trying to impress.
When he's sure she's looking, Garrels takes a flying leap from one branch to another, nothing but air between him and the ground far below. He sticks the landing. The girl is both aghast and astonished. And she's sold. This is the man—the crazy, passionate, Jesus-loving man for whom carpe diem barely begins to describe the way he embraces life—she is going to marry. "I was smitten," she says today.
Garrels was too, from the moment he met Michelle Ramsdale just a couple days earlier in that summer of 2001. She had grown up in Peru as a missionary kid and, as a young adult, had returned there to work with Food for the Hungry. She had come to Muncie, Indiana, for her brother's wedding, where Garrels was scheduled to play. They met at the rehearsal dinner, and "I knew it pretty instantly," says Josh. Michelle concurs: "Instantly."
When Michelle returned to Peru, Garrels was suddenly interested in taking his first "missions" trip—to the jungles of Peru, where they also have trees with high branches. For Josh, it was another leap of faith—metaphorically and literally—in a life that has been (and still is) defined by taking one leap after another.
Skipping like a calf loosed from its stall
I'm free to love once and for all
And even when I fall I'll get back up
For the joy that overflows my cup
So go several lines from "Farther Along," the signature song from Garrels's latest leap, Love & War & the Sea In Between, Christianity Today's Album of the Year for 2011. (See the complete list of our award winners here.) In the tune, Garrels, an indie singer-songwriter who lives in Portland, Oregon, with Michelle (whom he married in 2005) and their two young children, addresses life's mysteries ("I wondered why the good man died / the bad man thrives … / Confusing illusions I've seen") with the honesty of a man who knows no other way. An interested record label once asked Garrels if he had to be so candid with his lyrics; he turned down their offer, opting to remain independent so he can write what he wants.
"Josh doesn't know how to be dishonest in his songwriting," says Michelle. "He writes about what he is learning—spiritually, relationally. Whether he chooses to write that in a straightforward or a more symbolic, storytelling way may vary from song to song, but the subject matter is always springing from real life lived. I believe he is a true prophet in music."
Longtime friend Jay Kirkpatrick agrees. "His songs are honest and really do reflect his heart. That's why people love his music. People can tell when a songwriter doesn't believe what he says …. I think Josh's songs are able to penetrate the defenses in people's heads and hearts, and hit them at a spirit level. Like flicking at an eternal tuning fork that has been placed in us all."
'Destined for something'
Garrels, 31, has always been in touch with his own inner tuning fork. As a young child, well before he dove headlong into Jesus, he believed God made him for a reason. Through his rebellious teen years—skater dude, party animal, drug abuser (everything from pot to hallucinogens)—he somehow still believed it. "Even when I was on these crazy acid trips, I had this weird sense that the Spirit of God was with me, saying, 'You're God's child. You're destined for something.' "