Phil Madeira: On Mercyland

Music Features Phil Madeira's Mercyland
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Whether you’re an avid churchgoer or you haven’t touched a book of scripture in years, it’s hard not to notice the rising temperature—and rising volume—surrounding the discussion of religion in America over the last decade. Everywhere you look, it seems like faith is being used as a cudgel to get someone’s point across, and the religious and non-religious alike have crouched into a defensive stance, ready to cry persecution at the slightest provocation. More and more often, it seems like God is fodder for debate instead of a source of comfort—fuel for finger-pointing rather than personal reflection.

For producer, singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Phil Madeira, it’s been disheartening to watch productive spiritual dialogue drowned out by recrimination—but it also served as the inspiration for Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us, the Kickstarter-fueled compilation album he’s curated. Featuring performances from a rootsy grab bag of artists that includes The Civil Wars, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Emmylou Harris, the North Mississippi Allstars, John Scofield and Buddy Miller, Mercyland is a sweetly plaintive balm for anyone who’s been rubbed raw or beaten down by the holier-than-thou. It speaks in calm, comforting tones, offering solace in mystery instead of speaking in absolutes—and reminding us that if we’re going to believe in anything, it might as well be love.

Paste: Did the inspiration for Mercyland come to you gradually, or was it prompted by a specific event?

Madeira: I’ve been increasingly alarmed with the louder voices of faith over the years. They seem to be lacking compassion and lacking in a willingness to dialogue with people who are different. I think it was a culmination of things—you know, seeing those people with “God Hates Fags” signs and so on. Just my own disenchantment with the religious community constantly sending out a negative message.

But it kind of came to a head during the last presidential election cycle. I was out with Emmylou Harris and noticed all these people who identified themselves with religion and had all these terrible things to say. I wrote to Emmylou and a couple of other artists, and said I’d like to do a record of mostly original stuff that said “What if God is love?”

Emmylou loved the idea. Of all the people invited, I think only one didn’t climb on board. It was a pretty easy sell.

Paste : So have you been compiling tracks for the last three and a half years, or did it take longer to start the actual recording process?

Madeira: Yeah, I guess it’s been about that long. The first thing I recorded was The Civil Wars—we wrote together, and little did any of us know that they were going to skyrocket. I just thought they were great artists and thought it would be fun to have a new voice on the album.

Really, it was just a vehicle for me to write. If an artist didn’t have a song—like, when Buddy Miller came in, he didn’t have one, so we used “I Believe in You,” which I wrote back in 1988. I pieced the record together as I went along and as I met people. For instance, I met Mat Kearney at a cocktail party, and I’d never heard his music before, but there was just something about his personality. I’m glad I like his music, because I invited him without hearing it. [Laughs] We wrote, and had a great time writing.

My friend Cindy Morgan, who comes out of the Christian music world, she was very inspirational in terms of encouraging me to find something like this to do. She was the person who told me that if I invited people to work with me, they would—that was a concept I didn’t have.

The John Scofield connection, I met him a few years ago. We clicked and stayed in touch every once in a blue moon, so I invited him in. He said “You know I’m not a Christian, right?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s kind of the point.”

It’s Jesus-friendly, but without getting heavy-handed about it. I think a lot of these songs are able to cross borders—you can hear a literal Christ figure or a metaphorical one. I just feel like it’s good music. I think it works.

People have asked if it’s a Christian record, and I say no. Christian companies wanted to put it out, but I didn’t want to do that, because it would have felt like a betrayal. I mean, I had meetings where those guys were worried about who might be on the album, and that didn’t concern me at all.

Paste : The album’s message is one of inclusion, but as you say, the rhetoric from much of the mainstream religious community can be pretty angry and divisive. Being that you live and work in Nashville, did you ever feel like you might have been sticking your neck out professionally by spearheading this project?

Madeira: Well, there’s a fine line. I don’t have any interest in the Christian music community. I have friends who are involved, and I was a long time ago. I even won a Dove Award, which was great. I think if I stood to lose anybody, I would expect it to be from that side.

I specifically invited a Christian artist named Jennifer Knapp to participate in the project. She wasn’t right to take a lead vocal, but she added a harmony to Mat Kearney’s tune. He isn’t a Christian artist per se, but he’s really beloved in that community, and Jennifer had come out of the closet as a lesbian a few years ago, so asking her to sing on that track was a very conscious choice. A way for me to put my money where my mouth was in terms of the album’s inclusive message.

You know, another funny thing is just the subtitle of the album, Hymns for the Rest of Us. I mean, it does imply…it’s almost like an exclusive stance for people who feel excluded. [Laughs] In my essay for the Kickstarter campaign, I said “What about the rest of us? Those of us who aren’t fundamentalists, be it the Christian ilk, the Muslim, or the atheist?” I heard from a fundamentalist guy who wrote and said he’d been a fan of my work and wanted to support the project, but he said he was angry because he felt like I was excluding him.

I wrote back to him and said I’m not a fundamentalist, but that if he wanted to partake in the music, I hoped he would, and if he wanted to partake in dialogue, even better. Of course, in my mind, a fundamentalist who’s willing to dialogue is probably not a fundamentalist.

Before it had the title, Emmylou kept calling it “Phil’s gospel record,” and I’d cringe whenever she called it that. But a few weeks ago, I realized she was right—f you’re using that word strictly for what it means, it just means good news. That’s another funny thing about church. If Jesus said “preach the gospel,” then—and this is a generalization, of course—where’s the good news?

Paste : What was your experience with Kickstarter like?

Madeira: Kickstarter was really interesting. I’d seen some people get on there and ask for more money than they were ever going to get—they were realistic about the cost of recording, but unrealistic about the level of interest for their stuff, and so they ended up getting nothing. I had already pressed 5,000 CDs, so I owed the money to the plant, and I figured I’d just ask for $5,000 in order to meet the majority of that bill. I thought I could do that. What ended up happening was that I got about 700 percent of my goal, which was wonderful.

What it taught me was that, first of all, people were responding to the wonderful artists on the album. That’s the main thing. But I also came away feeling like people are hungry for a spiritual dialogue that isn’t fear-based. I feel like I’ve created a safe place for that. I hope I have.

I don’t know that I’ll make a whole lot of money on this project, but it would be really wonderful for it to all pay for itself and for me to feel like I made something commensurate with the amount of time I put into it.

Paste : It seems like putting together a passion project like this, and then receiving this kind of response even before it’s out there, could have a really transformative effect on you as an artist.

Madeira: You know, I came to Nashville to be a recording artist, but I haven’t released an album since 1996, I think. A lot of other things happened in my career that I accepted, but this makes me feel like—I mean, Willie Nelson was 50 years old before anything happened for him. I feel like that. I’m older than Willie was, and I’m feeling like, wow, I really love doing my stuff. And I could be doing something that people really want to listen to.

Paste : Do you have any broader ideas or goals for the Mercyland idea? Future projects, or even turning it into a discussion forum for people? Maybe some live shows?

Madeira: A number of people have wondered how to put shows together. I was invited to perform at the Wild Goose Festival, and I’m going to fly out there—me and Cindy Morgan and we’ll see who else. That’s all new to me; I’m used to being invited to play on someone else’s project.

I think there could be more Mercylands to come. But then again, there’s a side of me that wonders what else I could want to say. In the meantime, I just love working, playing, writing and producing. I love doing what I do. I’m really tickled that I get to do this.