"Thanks for hanging in there through my mini-meltdown."
Jason Harrod is playing the legendary Club Passim in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He wipes sweat from his forehead (and was that a tear?), then leaves his hands on either side of his head, like he's just run a sprint and needs to catch his breath.
At 6'2", the 41-year-old songwriter dwarfs the already small stage at a venue where Joan Baez and Bob Dylan hung out in the 1960s. Tonight he's in a pair of dark jeans and an eggplant button-up, which haphazardly hangs open beneath his guitar strap. The strap holds a handmade Lowden 032c, marked by a piece of graffiti: Pete Seeger's autograph.
The "mini-meltdown" wasn't a meltdown, in fact, not even a "mini" one: Harrod forgot the words to one of his old songs—not entirely uncommon for singer-songwriters whose careers span three decades. "My spirit's willing, but my mind . . . ." he trails off.
After playing a full set from his third solo record, Highliner (Lincoln City Records), accompanied by a drummer and bassist, Harrod treats the 90 or so fans gathered to a solo acoustic set featuring songs from the earlier days. The crowd is virtually sitting on top of each other, leaning into the stage, but the intimacy is part of what makes Club Passim special.
Tonight the room is brimming with longtime Harrod devotees who have been following his career since the early 1990s, when he was just a kid out of Wheaton College and one half of the folk duo Harrod & Funck. He and Brian Funck moved from Illinois to Boston, when the folk scene was experiencing something of a renaissance; Patty Griffin, Tracy Chapman, and Peter Mulvey all got their start busking Beantown's streets and subways. While Harrod lives in New York now, playing in Boston is a kind of homecoming.
I was a freshman at Gordon College when I first heard Jason Harrod in 1999, right around the time Harrod & Funck were getting ready to call it quits. If you're familiar with Harrod & Funck, there's a good chance that you were a Christian college student when you first heard them. They were that kind of group—the kind that attracts young Christians who don't listen to much Christian music.
Maybe that's because on each of their two studio albums, as well as on their final recording (a live album), the duo sang casually about smoking and committing "murder in the first," and imagined life (and death) as a member of the Heaven's Gate cult. Still, Christian record labels came knocking. Harrod tells me that they turned down several Christian labels, including Michael W. Smith's Rocketown Records as well as a subsidiary of Word Records.
Probably, though, their lyrics—as well as the ones that Harrod writes today—aren't the reason Harrod eschews the "Christian singer-songwriter" label. Rather, it's because Harrod's songs reveal a personal anguish rarely spoken of among Christian artists, even those on the fringes who openly struggle with institutional faith. His lyrics betray a deep-seated insecurity, about his own abilities, about his value, and, ultimately, about his belief.
"For a long time I wasn't sure if I was [a Christian] or not," Harrod says. "And I flirted with the idea of 'taking a leap of doubt,' that is, living as if there was no God."
These are bold words from a man who currently serves as a church music director at a Christian Reformed Church on Manhattan's Lower East Side. But, Harrod tells me, Dwell Church leaders knew what they were getting into. It's his lack of "slickness," he says, that got him the job. Still, even when leading worship, Harrod wrestles with doubts. "There are times when I'm singing a hymn in front of the congregation and I think, I need to quit this job."