It has been sort of a strange ending for Mike Donehey and Tenth Avenue North. Set to disband after 20 years with a highly touted farewell tour in 2020, the celebrated quartet never got their chance. Cut short due to the global pandemic, Donehey and company were left sitting at home. For Donehey, he was wondering what his next move would be in Christian music.
After much thought and prayer, he has decided to pursue a diversified path that includes music, writing, and even hosting a podcast (Chasing the Beauty). Donehey begins this new chapter with the release of not one, but two EPs, Work of Art and A Father and Two Sons that are available now.
I recently spoke with Donehey about what God taught him through fronting on of contemporary Christian music’s most popular bands for two decades, why he chose to record EPs rather a full-length album to begin his solo career, and shares some of his greatest songwriter influences that have fueled and inspired his own songwriting.
Well, your EP’s are just out, and you are in the final stages of winding things down with Tenth Avenue North as you have a farewell livestream concert coming in April (tonight). This must be a bittersweet time for you. Your thoughts?
Well, we broke up as a band right before the pandemic and announced a farewell tour that then got canceled. So, I think we’ve had enough time to be sad over the last year. Now, we’re just happy that we’re actually going to get to do some sort of proper farewell. I think we’ve had the time to mourn it and what’s fun is when we were in college, we had a whole host of different guys and gals who were in our band through the years. All of them are coming to guest in our final show. So, it’s going to be like a big old reunion.
What can we expect at these farewell shows? Any teases you can provide? Will people be allowed into the auditorium where you’ll be playing?
It’s a massive church in Orlando, Florida, and we will be able to allow up to 25% capacity or something. People will be distanced and asked to wear a mask, so it should be pretty safe. And so, obviously we’re making the shows available on streaming so that anybody who’s uncomfortable or who can’t make it can watch easily. Because we have such limited seating I’m hoping people will join us online. It’s obviously not ideal but we are working with what we’ve been given.
Twenty years under the bridge with Tenth Avenue North. If I were to ask what God taught you through that experience, through all of those years, what would you say?
I think more than any other thing, the thing that I’m learning, the thing that I’m hanging my hat on, is that I’m going to take a lot of wrong steps. I’m going to make a lot of wrong choices and yet God is absolutely intent on redeeming me and redeeming us. And every way in which God used Tenth Avenue North was just a testament to me of how God uses broken things to accomplish His means and redeems us in the process.
Do you have any regrets on those 20 years with Tenth Avenue North or was it all roses and sunshine?
Well, you know, regret is like the belief that the mistakes I made, God can’t redeem. So, I don’t have regret. I definitely lament a lot of choices I made and would do them differently, but that’s my life. And I really love where I am. So, if all those wrong turns led me here, then I’m grateful for them.
You’ve got a lot going on right now … a book about a year ago, a second on the way, a new podcast, and two new EPs. You seem to be kicking it into overdrive. Why have you chosen to really go at things hard in this new season?
You know, it’s funny. I feel like it’s been the lowest key year I’ve ever had because I have just been at home all day, every day. I’ve always been flying around or busing somewhere. So, my feeling has been that I have all the time in the world. What do you even do with all this time?
It’s all how you frame it. I love learning. And when a foolish man hates being told he’s wrong, a wise man loves it. I find this to be true especially with my podcast. I’m kind of learning instead of just restating how right I am about something. Having conversations with people about things that maybe I don’t fully understand. Oh man, it’s just such a beautiful place to just be.
Actor Jeff Goldblum recently shared a quote from some old obscure French actor. I forget his name. But he said, “The key to acting is not to be fascinating or interesting. It’s to be fascinated and interested.” And I just love that perspective. So much of social media now is to show the world how interesting and fascinating we are. The secret to a fulfilling life is to be interested in things, to be fascinated by things, to be looking for the glory of God, even in the places you didn’t think it could be. I want to look for and find God in the unexpected places.
No, absolutely not. I just don’t think I would have had the time and space to write the songs or record the songs. But it was really like me kind of looking at the blank slate of no touring in the near future and going well, how do you retain the time? I’m a songwriter. I should write songs and put them out.
It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. So, in some ways the quarantine can be seen as a blessing for you in that it allowed you to and freed up the time to really dig in and work on this kind of stuff.
So, the first episode from my podcast is about my band breaking up. And that’s my perspective on just about everything. Everything is a wedding and a funeral. We in the West, need things to be either/or. It’s like which team do you pull for? Are you predestination person or are you a freewill person? Are you a post-tribulation or pre-tribulation? We need everything to be this or that. And we have a really hard time with duplicity. I think any really biblically astute person will see this system showing up. Scripture is constantly presenting us the tension between two truths. And of course it was a blessing and of course it was a curse. Can it be both?
Consider this. If you break your leg it grows back stronger than it was before. So, was breaking your leg a blessing? Of course. Was breaking your leg a curse. Of course.
Many years ago at a GMA (Gospel Music Association) Week, there was an artist breakfast that you and I were paired to sit together. Jars of Clay was one of the featured artists. They performed a pretty amazing acoustic song. You turned and said to me, “Dan (Haseltine) is such an amazing songwriter.” This memory led me to think that you probably have had some pretty great songwriting influences over the years. Who are some of them?
That’s a great question. I grew up in a household of Motown and the oldies. If it didn’t come out in the1950s, 60s, or 70s, my family probably wasn’t listening to it. I kind of have that musical sort of background, which makes me excited about this “Father and Two Sons” EP, because I really wanted to showcase that part of my growing up.
So, it’s got some Beatles and Beach Boys influence on it, a 1960s rock kind of thing. As for songwriters, one of the first records I heard that made me want to write songs was that first Jars of Clay record. That record taught me that you can write songs about your faith in God that isn’t prescriptive, that everything is perfect. Everything is awesome. God is amazing type of thing. Don’t get me wrong, that has its place. Songs are broken up into three categories: songs of praise, songs of Thanksgiving, and songs of lament. What a lot of people don’t realize is the largest category of songs is the songs of lament. There are more songs of lament than there are for praise and Thanksgiving. Jars of Clay, Caedmon’s Call’s Derek Webb was huge for me. When I first started out, there was a singer songwriter named David Wilcox. Oh man, go listen to the “Live Songs and Stories” record the next time you have a long drive. I just love his storytelling. And then of course, Jon Foreman and Switchfoot. They gave me the idea that not only can you write songs about your faith and how you struggle, but you can be really cool in how you do it.
Final question for you. after people have listened to Work of Art and A Father and Two Sons, what would you like your audiences to get out of the listening experience? What’s your greatest hope these EPs?
Here’s the thing, I watch my hopes closely because I have really grand hopes. Then, at the same time, I have very small hopes because you play music for some people and some people will give it five seconds and say, “Nope, don’t like that.” And they turn it off. However, other people will go, “Hey, I know you didn’t mean the song to be about this, but this just really helped restore my marriage.” Or, “I found peace when a family member died,” or “I’d been hurt by this person and we reconciled.” I’m just learning that in some ways, the songs will do much less than I hope. And in other ways they’ll do far more than I could’ve ever hoped. I’m just excited to see what kind of stories come back to me. That’s the one thing I’ve learned putting out music over the years is you just end up getting feedback that you never could have written yourself. And I look forward to seeing what the stories are.
Watch Mike Donehey as He Shares the Story of Work of Art: