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."
So Leaving Eden is really a process of healing—of realizing, yes, we're walking away from Eden, but there are two directions we could go: One, in the direction of hope, or the other, in the direction of hopelessness. The album moves more in the direction of hope. The song "Leaving Eden" lists a bunch of headlines and says, "It feels like I'm leaving Eden. It's like I'm further away with every step I take, and I can't go back."
I believe there are pieces of Eden that still exist within our hearts, little pieces of innocence that we need to protect. If I have any kind of addiction, it's watching the news; CNN is always on. But news can lead us to fear; we give it so much power over us, and that's dangerous. Which leads me back to Eden, where the first temptation was knowledge. That's still a temptation for me. It's the apple I've eaten for too long, and I want to move on. So that's why I thought the title was appropriate.
The song "Leaving Eden" is mostly a bleak picture of the world, but the bridge says: "I'm going home / There's no place like home." Talk about that.
Well, I know my eternal destination. With "There's no place like home," I certainly thought about Dorothy and all the fantastical things she saw in Oz. But it wasn't home. It wasn't real. And it wasn't permanent. When you're leaving Eden, everything else kind of plays on "there's no place like home." This world, as magnificent as it is, is not home. It's not heaven. That was really the point.
Your counselor took you pretty deep and pretty far back. Did you have to go through some healing from some of your childhood years?
Yeah. My dad and I have had a hard relationship. When I was in college, we had a conversation. I sat in his truck and I told him I knew why my parents divorced—because of infidelity. He never knew that I knew that. But I said, "I don't tell you that to throw it into your face. I tell you because I need for you to know that I forgive you." That was one of the big turning points for my dad and why he turned to Jesus, because he'd never experienced that kind of forgiveness. And it was a definitive turning point for our relationship. We have a great relationship now, and he's in a healthy marriage.
How has being a child of divorce affected you, even today?
You wonder if anybody should ever get married—especially as some of my own peers are getting divorced. There's a sense of disillusionment in a lot of people my age about marriage, because it's kind of losing its value on so many different levels. It doesn't seem very rooted in the Word or in God anymore. It just seems like a formality, and there is something really uninspiring about that. For me, especially coming off of a breakup, it's like, Is it even worth it? I'm never going to put myself through that again. About that time, somebody asked me, "Would you rather love and lose or never love at all?" And I said, "Never love at all."
Would you give the same answer today?
Absolutely not. I realize now that if we don't love, we don't live. One of the things I've learned through counseling is how to experience grief, to experience those hard things. And I've never felt more alive. I just feel like I can feel my pulse more, like I'm engaging life. Never loving is really being numb. What a wasted life to have never loved. So I'd absolutely change my answer now, but at the time, I was answering out of bitterness.
Getting back to the album: What do you hope for the listener?
I hope they'll be entertained, one. We've put some great beats on this record, and I've walked down some new avenues. The song "Might Save Your Life" has kind of a Genesis sound, especially on the toms, like Phil Collins. I've kind of borrowed from some of my musical heroes on this one.
A few songs in particular, "Only Water" and "As Long As I'm Here," I hope they resonate more with listeners. I feel like they've had a sense of a story being told.
Talk about "Only Water." You're an active supporter of Blood:Water Mission, which digs wells in developing countries.
I wrote that song with Lee Thomas Miller, a successful country writer. He had been writing with another guy, and they had the idea of "only water." Lee said, "Let's call Brandon and see if he wants to write it with us." So they called me in and told me the idea, and the song almost wrote itself in about an hour. By the time we got to the last verse, Lee said, "There once was a wedding / All the wine was gone." And I was like, "I know where you're going." I added, "They say he's just a man / That's where it all began / It was only water." That was a moment where you sit back and think, This song is going to touch people.
Water plays a significant role in the world. We're made of 75 percent of it. It covers most of the earth. God has used it in amazing ways. But it only has power because he gives it power. We often forget how much power we have, because God is with us and in us. God can do a lot with just one person.
Which brings us to the last song on the album, titled "One."
Yeah. That was an eleventh hour song, and I was begrudgingly writing it. I was literally out of ideas; I had nothing. I was on the internet looking at the news. [Civil rights activist] Dorothy Height had just died, and President Obama was at the funeral. I thought Man, she was just one person, and look what she did. She overcame adversity and made a difference. I had a feeling that she must have known Jesus intimately.
I recently heard a pastor say, "Most of the social change that's happened in our country was brought about the church. Most people think the church is trying to keep them from changing, but that's not how the church works. We are the ones who are supposed to bring social change. And it's through love and not hate that we get things done." And I thought, Man, you're so right. Most people think the church is here to keep you from partying and having a good time, but we're the ones that are shaping the future. And that can start with one person.
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