When he was 19 years old, Cory Asbury set aside the plan to pursue professional baseball following a trip to Kansas City’s International House of Prayer. If you take a peek on his Facebook page, you’ll see evidence that his love of sports has never faded (check the video of his 60-yard pass between buildings in a parking lot which was executed with impressive precision). He says despite his reluctance to go to IHOP, it eventually saved his life from becoming an “absolute mess.”
Cory has built a storied music career, earning a Grammy nomination and multiple Dove Awards. But it was the momentum from 2018’s ASCAP Song of the Year “Reckless Love” that served as a tipping point for both wild success and an urgency for respite. He and his wife Anna decided their family needed more focused time together, plus Cory was growing tired of trying to make everyone around him happy.
He left the whole music “scene” for one year, and brings back with him a collection of songs on the album To Love a Fool which exposes the intimate reflections of a man who was torn to shreds and is now joyfully rebuilding.
I spoke with Cory recently about the album To Love a Fool, social media, sparrows, which songs he cares about, and why it’s a good thing to become unraveled.
Did you think that at 19 years old you would be at this point today? Did you have any prophetic visions of this future?
No. I wouldn’t say that I was even a wildly ambitious person as far as career goes. I always knew that I had a drive for greatness and you know, it was definitely in me, but I didn’t have a goal in mind necessarily.
Some people have a natural leadership ability in them, even if they’re not meant to lead a specific group of people. That’s something I noticed just being a listener of your music early on. Have you ever been drawn to a leadership role or have people placed you there?
I think my whole life that’s kind of been natural for me. I don’t know if you do Enneagram stuff, but I’m an eight on the Enneagram. Very forceful, very straightforward, very challenging. And I think a lot of times that personality type, super-driven is just people naturally look to them for leadership. So, yeah, like you said, even if I didn’t have the title per se, I was still definitely leaned upon.
Well, that personality type can get overwhelmed and exhausted if you don’t take a break. So tell me about the time after ‘Reckless Love’ when you took a break. At what point did you know that it was the right time?
Yeah, I mean, ‘Reckless Love’ was a wild time. It was a wild season in my life and my family’s life. Anytime you see even low levels of success it changes dynamics in your life – people pull on you differently. They lean on you differently. I think that just started to wear me out really quickly. You know, I thought earlier in my life, I could just run, run, run and go hard. That was sort of my personality. I’ll never stop. And you probably know a lot of people like that. I would just keep going whether I was on E or full. Right. That was just sort of who I was. And all of a sudden in the midst of this little bit of success, it stopped me in my tracks. Honestly, I realized I don’t have as much to give as I thought.
It started to take a toll on family. You know, I was losing patience and I didn’t have the grace for my kids and even my wife that I wanted to. The word I think of is ‘threadbare.’ You’re just kind of worn out. It was early on in 2018. The record came out in January of 2018, so I want to say it was March that Anna, my wife, and I had a really honest connect and went like, ‘Hey, this isn’t working. This is too much.’ I was gone every weekend doing different radio events ‘cause radio was popping off at that point, and I wanted to get the song out. I wanted to honor Bethel Music, my record label, and do everything that they were asking me to do.
So, in this conversation Anna and I had, it was basically, ‘Hey, this isn’t working, let’s ask God very pointedly, what we should do.’ We heard a couple of phrases – very, very clearly in our hearts and our spirits. He made it really clear that it was time to take a break, and I remember that being a really weighty thing. I literally just cried and Anna sat there and cried with me ‘cause she knew what it meant for me to give up essentially career and open doors and opportunities. We decided it would be a year – it was very set in stone. 2019 would be completely off. No – nothing. And we sort of mourned it almost. It was weird, but we knew it was right. That actually helped us walk through the rest of 2018, knowing that we had this time together after all of it.
Something you said made me think of the song ‘Dear God,’ which is from the new album To Love a Fool. Honestly, in every song it feels like you’ve invited me into your journal and you’re showing me everything that fell apart. And then you’re showing me how it is all coming back together. You can tell that you spent a lot of time with these words. Was there a particular approach to these songs? How did you choose what made it onto the album?
You know, it was time off and it was a lot of introspection and a lot of reassessing and reevaluating where I was at as a person, where I was at as a dad, as a husband, as a lover of Jesus. It’s almost like I was doing an evaluation of myself and just being brutally honest in all of it, instead of checking 10 on everything. ‘Oh, how are you doing? 10. I’m up 10 out of 10.’ You know? ‘How’s your life and God?’ ‘Oh, a 10 for sure.’ ‘Cause I think that’s what a lot of Christians do. We’re just like, ‘Oh, everything’s perfect. You know, I’m good! Yeah, God is good. My life is perfect.’ And the truth is there are a lot of fault lines under the surface, I think for most of us, maybe even all of us. Because I’m almost positive Jesus was the only one to walk the planet and sinless perfection.
It’s taking note of where you’re at in life and being honest about it. And then not just being honest about it and being like, ‘Okay, well this is where I’m at.’ But going, ‘Okay, God, this is where I’m at – I need help. I need you to come alongside of me. I need you to give me wisdom in this area. I need you to speak into this area.’ Allowing Him into those places rather than walling them off or shoving them down into the basement or the cellar or the place that we never see or go. So you find pretty honest songs in there. Like ‘Dear God,’ where it’s like, this is how I feel and I can’t change it. I can’t lie about it. Why write a song that says, ‘Dear God, everything is perfect and I’ve never actually needed You’? It’s stupid. Why would we do that? Let’s be honest about where we’re at. I think there’s a biblical precedent for that in the songs. David was really honest and David was also the guy that was called a man after God’s own heart. So I find that a pretty good example.
One of the lines that really caught my attention from ‘Dear God’ was. ‘I’ve been chasing their approval and it’s killing me.’ Is that something that was in your heart and your mind before you took the sabbatical? And then the response portion in the song – is that something that you learned from your time?
I think so. The particular line that you referenced, I think again, once you have even a low level of success, it’s like you want to keep that going. It’s kind of like a locomotive. It’s like, ‘Oh, I gotta keep this momentum, and I gotta keep people fired up on the songs and the ideas and all this kind of stuff.’ And especially in our social media age where the response is so quick, you post something and ‘Do people like it, or did they not? Did they say it’s awesome or do they not?’ There’s this pressure to not only please everybody, but also get value and derive a sense of worth from them. I think that’s what that line speaks to specifically is the social media culture. As much as we try to say it doesn’t, it does define us. I think so many people are like, ‘Oh, did I get a thousand likes on that? Oh, that was successful and I feel good today. I feel successful because I looked cool in my picture or whatever.’ And the truth is none of that crap matters.
That’s something else I wondered because like I asked you earlier about your football pass, and now I’m wondering about the bird’s nest that you found on your front door. And I just thought as I was looking at the Facebook post – ‘This guy has strangers who know what his front door looks like! Is he okay with this?’ Is it weird when someone you don’t know says, ‘So Cory, how are those birds doing?’
I find that the more accessible I am as a human, the more human I feel and the better I feel even though sometimes it is draining. I think when you try to live on a pedestal and not let anyone touch you or see you or realize your humanness, it actually makes it more difficult because it feels like you’re living up to an unreal standard or unattainable sort of example for people, if all they ever see is your perfect life and your perfect family and your porcelain kids. Then it’s just not worth anything. So it’s almost like I prefer to make myself accessible and seen. I even did this new thing where people can text you, which is wild because I love connecting with people genuinely. I really do – and making them feel valued. But there’s a fine line between pleasing everybody and giving them what they want and actually protecting your own energy levels, your own sanity, your own time and resources. So I’m always trying to walk that line with precision.
Has there ever been a song that you’ve written where you thought, ‘No, I can’t share that – that’s too deep’?
No, definitely not. Those are my favorite ones! Those are the ones I feel happiest about. I want every song to resonate in that sort of space. And I think if I don’t, then it’s just – I’m trying to think of a sensory word for what I want to say here. It’s fake. It’s not real.
I want to ask you about the song ‘Unraveling.’ The line at the very end that says, ‘I’m coming apart at the seams, it’s worse than I thought it would be, but I’ve never been happier.’ Can you tell me what that means to you?
That’s probably my favorite song on the record. Second of all, that’s possibly my favorite line. I think to understand that line, you have to understand the context of the whole song, which it starts out with that same exact first line. And in the first line, it says, ‘everyone’s pulling at me and I’m unraveling.’ I think that’s sort of that pressure that you feel as a person in a spotlight or people looking at you for an example, and then everyone wants a piece. It’s like once you’re ‘cool’ everyone wants to hang with you, talk to you, glean from you, get wisdom from you. It’s almost like all the relationships in my life flipped when ‘Reckless Love’ happened.
You know, I used to have a lot of young people that I could go to for advice. And now if I go to those people, they flip it right on me. ‘Oh, I need you to speak into my life.’ And I’m like, ah, it sucks – it really does. It sucks. It’s terrible! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed by that reality. So that first line ‘I’m coming apart at the seams, everyone’s pulling at me and I am unraveling.’ The final line is ‘I’m coming apart at the seams. It’s worse than I thought it would be, but I’ve never been happier.’ The chorus says ‘In the unraveling, Father unravel me.’ Essentially what I’m trying to say is when everything’s coming apart, when all of the constructs that I’ve known – my comforts, security – when it’s coming apart, then Father, rip it all apart. Let me get down to the bottom of everything and really examine what’s going on. Tear it to shreds and let’s figure this thing out. Let’s rebuild in a healthy way. So that final line is kind of the catharsis, if you will, of everything – the whole record. I’m coming apart and it’s terrible. It’s way worse than I thought it would be. But I’m rebuilding in a way that actually brings true joy.
What are you looking at for the future? I know touring is a little up in the air for everybody or even live dates. So how are you going to keep sharing your music with us?
Oh man. It’s a great question. I mean, I’ve never been a big tourer, if you will. I don’t necessarily enjoy being out on the road all the time. For me, I’m going to go once a month and do like one day or one string of three and then get back to my family. So I’m not super bummed that the world is flipped upside down in that regard, because I think honestly if God shakes it all up and if half the Christian music industry doesn’t exist at the end of this, I’m going to be really happy. I think so much of it is built on the back of having to do stuff to sustain and maintain your career. And if that’s the case, you should probably quit. If God’s not doing it and sustaining it for you and you’re having to really grind and hustle super hard, I question whether it’s the right move. I’m kinda stoked that stuff’s getting shaken up in that regard. I’m just gonna keep writing and put it out when it’s ready. If people listen and appreciate it, awesome. And if they don’t, I’ll be a little bit bummed, but I’ll get over it.
Is there anything you’ve ever wanted to talk about that no one’s ever asked you?
No. I mean, honestly you hit some stuff that I really feel and actually care about. The unraveling stuff is a lot of times, especially in the Christian world, people don’t really care about that kind of stuff. They’re just like, ‘Oh, give me the next big worship song,’ you know, but I think to me the journey songs, the story songs, the ones that can literally relate to and have a broader scope, those are the songs that make me really happy. ‘Cause I know that they can touch maybe even a broader audience. Maybe even an unbeliever would hear that and go, ‘Oh my gosh, I felt that before. This really helps.’ That’s the stuff that I really care about.
Check out the acoustic video for “Sparrows” below, and click here for the complete album To Love a Fool.