Two years ago, Brandon Heath was just another promising musician waiting for his big break. He'd had one minor hit, "I'm Not Who I Was," off his first album, but it wasn't till "Give Me Your Eyes," from 2008's What If We, blew up the charts that Heath had clearly become a star. (And even among the stars: "Give Me Your Eyes" was the official wake-up song for the Endeavour space shuttle crew last February.) The song was No. 1 at Christian radio for an astonishing 14 weeks, and won a Dove Award as 2009's song of the year.
But all was not glitter and gold in Heath's world. He'd recently emerged from a difficult breakup, and was wrestling with personal demons from decades past. His parents had divorced when he was young, and the broken home life had left its share of scars. A counselor helped Heath work through his pain by encouraging him to go back to the beginning—not to his childhood, but to the beginning of humankind, to Genesis, and to the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. Heath was urged to mourn Adam and Eve's original sin, and its consequences for us all.
Which brings him to his third album, Leaving Eden, releasing today. We chatted with Heath, 31, about the new album, how he's grown through painful seasons, and about his hopes for the years ahead. But not before we asked about his real name …
I recently learned that your real last name is Knell, and your middle name is Heath. Why'd you drop the Knell?
There's a funny story behind it. Before I was doing music fulltime, I was on the road with a buddy, and we were joking about what our stage names would be. I said I'd thought about using my middle name because people often mispronounce or misspell my last name, with the silent "K." But then I said, "I don't know, it seems dorky to start going by a stage name if you're not famous." Then somebody said you have to do that before you get famous. So we literally flipped a coin in the car and it landed on Heath. So that night I was Brandon Heath, and have been ever since.
You probably could have been Brandon Knell until about two years ago, but then your song "Give Me Your Eyes" exploded and everybody knew your name. What was that like?
When something you've been building for so long takes off, it's really rewarding. I didn't believe in myself any more or less after that, but it was just affirming how people responded to the song. It just gave me a boost of confidence. I knew I was doing what I was made to do.
But it can be challenging when all that dies and it's time to put out another monster single, and you don't have something like that. So when I did this new record, I wanted to make sure it was chock full of huge songs. It's important to keep artistic integrity, but you know, you have to get stuff on the radio.
Does that feel like a compromise, from a creative standpoint?
Sometimes. But I would never, ever put something on my record that was a compromise. Some days you feel like you're trying to write a hit, and it just doesn't feel natural—you're not being yourself. But I want to be true to who I am.
The first single, "Your Love," took off in a hurry.
That's a big sigh of relief because, let's be honest, I can't play the new guy card any more. I can't be the new kid on the block with the fresh, unique sound. Once you've put out a big song, people expect a lot of you, and that's nerve-wracking.
The album title, Leaving Eden, is a bit of a downer.
I got a lot of pushback on that title, because it sounds so dark. But I want people to know that healing has been a big part of my journey in the last three years. It was prompted by a really hard breakup. It's tough on somebody who has been looking for a long time and wonders, Man, am I ever going to get married? I went to a counselor after this breakup, and we went really deep into my own history. My counselor said, "Let's go all the way to the very beginning. Let's talk about sin. I want you to mourn the loss of Eden. Because it's something we all struggle with, and it's the root of all problems. And if you don't ever really face it, you'll always hold a little bit of bitterness."