Cussing Christians and Creativity – an interview with Jon Guerra of Milano

8 Nov

Here’s the deal. Last Friday I reviewed Milano‘s fabulous new eP, Gloria. In the review I mentioned that a) the third track dropped the f-bomb and b) I’d have an interview with lead singer Jon Guerra. Here is that interview, which we conducted via an email exchange. I actually had a conversation with him outside of the interview to discuss how to present the material. Obviously we were always going to talk about his choice of words, and I couldn’t decide whether to censor the writing with ***s or just write them as they stand.

That discussion with Guerra was very insightful to the difference between sung/aural mediums versus the written word. The word just stares you down, hard and unflinching. The spoken or sung word passes by and, though it has an impact, is only one part of a broader canvas. Thus, in some ways, the audible version is oftentimes less startling, though I would say I think it depends on its usage. To read such words in a non-specific context may be more arresting than to hear them sung in a similar way, but to hear them directed at an individual person in a demeaning way, especially a child, is to me more of an issue. Anyway, I listened to Jon and went with his suggestion that for the benefit of discussion and drawing people in, rather than risking their leaving offended, I have used the ol’ **s to blank out words. Without further ado, meet Jon Guerra:

Congratulations on the release of Gloria – what’s the response been like from fans and press so far?

Response has been phenomenal from fans and press alike. It’s a marvelous thing to live in a day and age where you can record something in a dingy makeshift basement studio and have it turn out sounding ok!

So what’s your day job? Or are you a full time musician?

I actually do get to do this full-time. There is a church in Chicago called The Line that supports me full-time to write, record, and perform in Milano. The idea is this: often times, when a musician is hired by a church, his or her time is monopolized with picking songs for services, youth group meetings, church videos, picnics, bake-offs etc. All that is just fine. The negative side to that model is this: they no longer have time or energy for writing/recording/performing in the music scene in their city. They become staff members and not artists. The Line is a church that is trying to flip that model on its head. All Christians are to be redeemed versions of whatever it is they are – business men, baristas, actors, electricians, and musicians. What if the church actually supported artists to do what they were meant to do? The Line is trying to answer that question, and a full-time salary for me is their first (and brilliant, might I add!!) attempt. I’m gladly the first guinea pig.

Let’s just get into this then: the third track on the EP, “So What?!”, is infectious, epic and features several instances of “p**sed off” and one “f**ked up”. How intentional was the lyrical choice, the musical setting and what are your intentions with using these words?

Everything is intentional, but not intentionally contentious. I do what I think is right for the song. In no way was it an attempt to “push boundaries of conservative evangelical dogma” or something like that. I have some fights to pick and that sure as hell won’t be one of them. If it’s upsetting to people, then turn it off and listen to something else….like any of the other 7 songs we’ve released. My intention was to deliver something true and meaningful. Those lyrics were the best option to me.

OK, so you’re not trying to pick a fight or prove a point. At the same time, it’s stark enough to demand attention, and clearly you believe there are times that strong language is appropriate. It’s contextual. Do you think that Christian culture has ‘churchified’ language? Have we lost some of the appropriate saltiness that we see in Isaiah’s “filthy rags” statement?

I think the issue is deeper than the sterilization of our vocabulary. Language is a means, a vehicle. In a narrow sense, perhaps some communities could use a little more of the prophet’s and psalmist’s blood and guts. But teaching the preacher to cuss isn’t the solution. Not to be “that guy” but Aristotle says the aim of education is to cause the pupil to like and dislike what he ought, or something like that. Augustine and Edwards pound these ideas into magnificent theological treatises. It’s a travesty that some of us don’t marvel at the sight of a waterfall, or sunrise – but it’s equally appalling, if not more, that we don’t recognize the terror of what is inside every one of us. Art can teach us what to love and what to hate in a way that does justice to the inherent loveliness or hatefulness of an object. The problem isn’t that our language is too offensive, but that it’s not offensive enough!

Anyone who’s been the victim of physical or sexual abuse has no problem with the “F” bomb when you say that physical and sexual abuse is f**ked up. In fact, they may resent the use of the language not for it’s impropriety but for it’s disservice. They know that only the greatest poets could describe and condemn physical or sexual abuse with the appropriate vitriol. Similarly, to say that “our praise and delight in beautiful things is far too shallow” would be a stunning understatement. In fact, that may be the core of this issue. If we understood the beauty and praiseworthiness of certain things, we would spare no dignity in condemning that which desecrates it. “So What?!” is meant to be a bit of a playful tune. To say that “Everyone in this room is f**ked up” is a playful way of talking about something far deeper. I just didn’t have a paragraph to get into it…till now!

How have people been responding to this, both within your church, the Christian culture at large and people at your shows?

I can’t really speak to the Christian Culture at large – as far as I know, no one really cares about us “at large” haha. People at shows generally seem to have a good time. There was this one time though – there was an older gentleman sitting in the back  – maybe 70 yrs old. He came up to me and asked me why my lyrics were so depressing. I told him in accented broken English that I didn’t know what he was talking about and that he must have mistaken me for someone else, but that I was looking for a man by the name of Baby Face Burke and he sure looked a heck of a lot like him.

People at my church are incredibly supportive. I get to perform a lot of my songs at church on Sunday mornings as a part of our liturgy, so they’ve had some time to get used to it.

It’s pretty obvious that you and your bandmates have been gifted musically, and you’re pushing your creativity hard. What’s your perspective on the creative arts and how that impacts you as a Christian, and how following Jesus should impact your creativity?

I think my perspective as a Christian influences my art more than the other way around. I live in a city where people eat, sleep and crap their work, their art. The cultures of expertise in Chicago really are astounding. People in that tribe have a unique set of motivations, struggles, idols etc. For many of us, art is life or death, work is the end-all be-all of our existence. Not unlike Harold Abrams in Chariots of Fire who gets “10 seconds to justify his existence.” (not sure if that’s the exact quote or not). As a Christian I believe we go on forever. I’ll be writing music long after I’m dead. The urgency comes from a different place. The drama, the pageantry, the successes and failures all mean something different because fundamentally, I believe that I am free. I am free to fail or succeed or do whatever with my music precisely because the weight of my existence isn’t contingent on it. At least that’s how it should work. I’m certainly still in process.

From what I can tell, it might not be long before the culture at large is much more aware of Guerra and Milano. Check out their eP, Gloria, on iTunes now.

3 Responses to “Cussing Christians and Creativity – an interview with Jon Guerra of Milano”

  1. paul g November 11, 2010 at 9:06 am #

    “There was this one time though – there was an older gentleman sitting in the back – maybe 70 yrs old. He came up to me and asked me why my lyrics were so depressing. I told him in accented broken English that I didn’t know what he was talking about and that he must have mistaken me for someone else, but that I was looking for a man by the name of Baby Face Burke and he sure looked a heck of a lot like him.”

    jon, i’m totally lost on this reference, to me it sounds as if he’s antagonizing a man his seniour for having a legitimate question… either way this is confusing. what is your take?

  2. Jonathan November 11, 2010 at 7:10 pm #

    Having conversed with Jon Guerra way more than the interview content itself, I’m pretty certain he was not trying to antagonize the man in question. My suspicion (and Jon can go ahead and correct me) is that he has a slightly offbeat sense of humor, and that is coupled with no great desire to be embroiled in much debate. Therefore the “why are you so depressing” or “why are you this or that” might not be his favorite way of conversing with people.

    As an artist, he can be open to talk with people, but with art in general we have to remember that the audience has no right over the artist. We cannot force insights from them and we cannot demand they tell us why they do certain things.

    The above paragraph may or may not have anything to do with it at all. I’m just saying there are a multitude of reasons Jon might not have wanted to get into a discussion and found a rather odd way out of the situation.

    He can, of course, correct me.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. an argument for clean speech « Reflective Musings - November 13, 2010

    […] certain language on their new EP. He dialogued with me about a comment he was going to post on the Jon Guerra interview, but due to its length I suggested a guest post on the blog. He kindly agreed, and what follows on […]

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