Bethany Dillon’s 2004 Sparrow Records debut stood out, because at only 14, she was a serious writer and artist creating her own material, mature beyond her years, with an authenticity of expression and an ability to own the emotion in her music. Audiences connected with her first record almost immediately, and the results included several hit singles, multiple Dove nods, critical acclaim, and an exponentially increasing grassroots fan base that propelled her career forward in great leaps.
Now four birthdays later, an 18-year-old Bethany is releasing her third acoustically-rooted, rock-influenced, pop project, Waking Up. This release finds her venturing into ever-deeper waters musically and thematically, leaning forward into life, and beginning to wrestle with her own shadows even as she celebrates the light that illumines them. The x-factor that informs Bethany’s constantly maturing artistry is the fact that her songs aren’t created in a vacuum. They’re coming from a place of personal weakness and hope that she willingly lives in, in increasing measure. For Bethany, there’s no such thing as an easy song. All of them are hard earned, and fraught with wonder and meaning.
“Waking Up is the most joyful record I’ve made,” Bethany explains, “even though it revolves around themes of brokenness and this feeling of being really, really small in the presence of God. When the Lord is growing something in me, it feels like a lot of things are dying—because they really are. And when the Lord is making things soft and vulnerable in me, it’s really painful. But even so, I think this is the freest sounding project I’ve created.”
Influenced for years by penetrating and poetic writers like Rich Mullins, Keith Green, and Sara Groves, Bethany has tended to gravitate toward themes that require a measure of courage and open-heartedness to explore. Co-produced by GMA’s 2005 Producer of the Year Ed Cash, as well as Will Hunt and John Alagia (John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band), Waking Up embraces big questions of suffering, barrenness, vulnerability, romance, and faithfulness. Like the writers Bethany has modeled herself after, she proves herself willing to live and create in that place of ambivalent tension that inevitably comes from refusing to settle for easy, feel-good answers. And yet, like the psalmist, Bethany has a penchant for finding the redemption in the midst of the pain.
“The first song on the record is ‘The Kingdom,’” Bethany explains. “I wrote it while I was visiting my cousin and his wife. They had suffered the loss of two babies who both died within a few days of birth. The song comes from a place of not understanding, but seeing that somehow our grief is sweet to God, because it makes our need for Him tangible. The barren womb screams of our need for Jesus; the young girl with cancer screams of our need for Jesus. The things that are broken and empty and in need of hope, they remind us of the coming Kingdom, of the things we can’t see yet. Our heartbreaks push us to Christ.
In fact, it was a heartbreaking trip to India last year that served as the catalyst for several of the songs on Waking Up. Shocked by her first encounter with the wrenching poverty, sickness, and despair of the Third World, Bethany found herself struggling with the outward burden of overwhelming need, and the related inward struggle to reevaluate her own materialism and desire for comfort in life.
“It was a confusing journey,” Bethany admits. “The whole time I was there I just felt like weeping. Nothing can prepare you for the reality of what it’s like. Standing at the train station; the smell of poverty; the people laying on mats all around you; a girl holding a baby tapping on your arm, just standing there tapping. But you know you can’t even make eye contact or you’ll be mobbed by all the homeless people around you. Everything in me just wanted to get down on that sidewalk covered with flies and hold that little girl and cry.”
During one of the long train rides through India, Bethany poured her confusion into one of the more expansive, haunting, experimental songs on the record, “Beggar’s Heart.” By personalizing her response, and pointing it back to her own need, she managed to avoid cliché, creating a compelling invitation for listeners to carry the darkness of their own hearts into the light.
“The hardest part of going to India,” Bethany observes, “is being back here now with a full stomach and a nice room and a superstore close by. I see the pictures of the orphans I met pinned up on my wall and I know how different their lives are. I’m still struggling with what an appropriate response is. I know it’s going to be a process for me, for a middle class white kid who grew up in the country. It’ll take some time to realize what it really looks like for me to reflect Jesus.”
Another foray into new territory for Bethany was the inclusion of several cuts on Waking Up that deal with love and human relationships. Drawing on her own observations, as well as those of family and friends, she finds in such relationships a living portrait of the “divine romance” of God for His people.
“I feel like the things expressed in love songs are sometimes the closest and clearest reflection of our relationship with Jesus,” Bethany explains. “When it's sweet and whole-hearted, to me it's such an echo of the Source of those things: pursuit, unconditional love, faithfulness, affection. Those are all things worth talking and writing and singing about.”
Such songs might be an unexpected surprise for fans who have grown accustomed to the hard-working, professional, on-stage Bethany, but have never had the privilege of spending a low-key afternoon with the “average-18-year-old” side of her. On the road or off, downtime for Bethany is a coveted commodity, and she always knows exactly how she wants to spend it—in unstructured re-charging, sometimes alone, sometimes with family and friends.
“My off-days are often spent babysitting,” she says, “which I love to do! Staying home with my younger brothers is such a refreshing thing. I miss it when I've been out on the road. Babysitting, cleaning around the house, reading, journaling, spending time with my family, it’s a treat to have time to do those things. I'm very much an introvert, so even if I’m in some random city between shows, I love to find a bookstore, grab a cup of coffee, sit in a corner and just be quiet for hours on end.”
At the end of the day, it’s probably the fact that Bethany has made it a priority to remain grounded in real life, in family, in friendships, and in her faith that has allowed her to keep four years of career successes in context. In fact, she says, it’s the people who know her well enough to “knock her down to size, or to speak an encouraging word” when she needs it, who have kept her going and focused on the things that are eternally important.
“Records collect dust and they get scratched up and they’ll get stepped on in someone’s car and the packaging gets lost,” she acknowledges. “My highest hope for these songs is just that people who listen are somehow overwhelmed by the reality of Jesus.”
For a young artist whose career discography has already revealed deep insight and spiritual maturity beyond her years, there’s no doubt listeners will indeed be Waking Up to the heartbeat of Christ in Bethany’s music once again.