The Wind and the Wheat by Phil Keaggy. Via Flickr

Sensitized to the Heart's Desire

Traces caught up with Phil Keaggy to explore his approach to life, namely allowing his experiences to inform his work, reflecting his honest embrace of reality.
Timothy Dolch

Phil Keaggy is a truly novel guitarist, singer, songwriter, and composer with over 50 albums to his name in a career spanning five decades, full of awards and Hall of Fame recognitions– a career that was never thwarted by the fact that he is even missing a finger, due to a childhood accident. In fact, it is perhaps his embrace and articulation of the suffering that has visited his life that makes his work so attractive to listeners. Traces caught up with Phil in Nashville, TN, to explore this uniquely fruitful and entirely natural approach of allowing his life experiences to inform his work in such a way that it reflects his honest embrace of reality–and speaks of (and with) arresting beauty.

In popular music today, there appears to be a trend of deep hopelessness and darkness. By contrast, much of your music features a definite sense of melancholy, but one of “divine sadness”–the feeling that comes from recognizing a mysterious “lack” of something in the heart. I think, for example, of your composition “The Apprentice” from the album In the Quiet Hours….
In that example, part of the difference is that when you listen to instrumental music, you interpret your own story inside it. It takes you to your own solitary place, as opposed to when the lyricist speaks from a psychiatrist’s couch, as in a lot of popular music now, as you pointed out. I think with instrumental melancholy, you’re free to interpret your own disappointments, dreams, hopes, and resolve through the music you hear. In “The Apprentice,” the actual chords create a particular emotion due to the alternate guitar tuning I used. The association between longing and playing, really heartfelt longing, comes through the fingers, for a musician who’s sensitized to his heart’s desire.

This is also clear in your vocal music… the entire vocal album Inseparable is also quiet, mysterious, and melancholic, but it takes the listener somewhere, and is full of hope as much as it is of melancholy. From the song “Chalice,” off that album: “Suffering restores us, burns away the empty shallowness/ Softening the heart, to be broken bread and poured out wine.” How is this “Eucharistic” suffering expressed in your vocal music different from merely passive suffering?
I’m not exactly sure, but the difference must be there. I’ve gotten a lot of letters and e-mails from people to whom that album meant so much–people who had gone through a lot of hurt and pain in their lives. But it’s not stories I tell on that album; it’s about spiritual poverty.

How so?
The same people said they heard something in those songs they identify with, which they relate to their own personal experiences, without the lyrics spelling out what their experiences were. They mentioned the song “The Seeing Eye” off that album: “Stardust trails in the Milky Way / Eagles fly high in the desert sky / This I know of the seeing eye / Yet we long to see You.”

Limiting the question to your solo albums for the moment, with which are you the most satisfied? Or rather, on which are you most yourself?
The Wind and the Wheat, which was just remastered, and Beyond Nature, Lights of Madrid, Inseparable, Phantasmagorical, Welcome Inn, and the self-titled album.

Phil Keaggy. Photo by Martin Spriggs via Flickr

On the self-titled album Phil Keaggy, some of your lyrics have an intriguing and enigmatic character. From “A Sign Came Through a Window” off that album: “Let the sad eyes of the former days / Worries in the winter blow away / One of these painful stories may find a life. / Let me say it in your ear now / If you want a life and you’re out of luck / How in heaven’s name will you win tonight? / A sign came through a window / Take a look, see how I’m amazed at what you know now.” What is the sign that came through the window?
We’re letting the light in the window. The sign that comes through is: a virgin shall conceive, bear a son, and His name shall be called God-with-us. All after the “You” in the song couldn’t find room at the inn in the winter.

You are an Evangelical Protestant. Nonetheless, much of your music is full of references taken from sources as diverse as C.S. Lewis, the poets Henry Longfellow and Robert Herrick, and the Russian Orthodox classic Way of a Pilgrim (in the instrumental of same title on the album On the Fly). There are also plenty of references in your music to the Catholic world, the most prominent being your song “Above All Things” from the self-titled album, adapted from a sermon by St. John Chrysostom about marriage. How did these sources come to influence your music?
In the case of Way of a Pilgrim, it was simply that I was reading that wonderful book when I composed the instrumental, and I thought it was an appropriate title–there are different sections to that composition, reminiscent of slow walking, fast walking, etc. As for my affection for Catholicism, it has a lot to do with my mother. I was raised Catholic, one of ten kids, and my mom was the one who made sure we went to church. Later, I got into bands and music; I was searching and I even tried some psychedelic drugs. All that became my main world. It was the culture, but I believe the Lord allowed me to experience some things, because He was with me, even though I didn’t know Him as I know Him now. He was never far from me. My mom prayed for me in those days, and she would write her prayers out. She sent them to Padre Pio, who was living then, and to another priest she used to write to. She said, “Pray for my son Phil, because he has a gift in music.” Something happened in the spiritual realm because soon after those days, my mom was killed in a car accident. It devastated me. In the aftermath, my older sister took me to a small Pentecostal church and I gave the Lord my heart. I became born again, as we say, which to me is not just a Protestant thing at all. It’s truly a Holy Spirit thing. It makes us, like Abraham, a blessing to others in this life; we can actually have a different life in this world that we inhabit, in this existence. But, as I say, something had happened in the heavenly realm. Later, despite my mom having passed on, I think she personally picked out my lovely wife for me!

In the book Losing You Too Soon (titled A Deeper Shade of Grace in the first printing), your wife Bernadette wrote about your life in the wake of some terrible early losses of children that you suffered together. She wrote that after years of confusion and of wrestling with what had happened, “We were ready to stop performing for God and simply rest in His goodness, no matter what. We were not so intent on getting what we wanted and a little more ready to let God carry us through whatever He might have for us.” How did you come to see the whole experience so providentially?
That happened in the healing process. There were nightmares, sleepless nights… We read Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy, which certainly helped us to see suffering in the way Bernadette wrote about. We had to find out how to deal with it as a couple as well as individually. The Lord helped us. We got on our knees and begged and held each other and said, “We’re going to get through this.” We prayed and fasted. When Bernadette was pregnant again, and when our first daughter who was able to live was born, we realized some healing had already happened. Now we have three grown children. He helped us through it, by the power of His Spirit, and by good friends. If a musician’s life is merely his music, there’s something missing. Our life needs to be rooted in the love of Jesus, our hope–hope based upon nothing but Him and His righteousness.

Was some of your music during those times reflective of these experiences?
Well, the piece “Deep Calls Unto Deep,” a guitar composition off The Master and the Musician, certainly has a lot of what you’d probably call divine sadness. In the fade out, the electric guitar notes were the last notes I played during a session, and I said to myself: “I’ve got to get home to my wife.” This was not long after one of the losses we wrote about.

You’ve done many arrangements of works from your favorite composers: Vaughan Williams, Bach, and Grieg. Why do they move you?
The lush chord movements behind the melodies. The harmonies give the melodies their emotion. It’s the relation between you (like the melody) and a group of people (like the chord) going on in this dynamic. In music there’s always a relationship between people going on. It’s the same dynamic behind how we treat our fellow man and how we respond to hate. Jesus said, “Love your enemies”–this connection happens in the heavenly realm, in the hearts of people, and in the world of music.

*Phil Keaggy was born March 23, 1951, in Youngstown, Ohio, into a family of 10 children. He is the recipient of eight Dove awards, the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Golden Note Award, two Grammy nominations, and was recently inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. He rose to fame as the guitarist of the band Glass Harp (featured in an exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH) which played as the opening act for rock and roll bands such as The Kinks, Yes, and The Doors. Much of his subsequent output has featured both quiet, reflective songwriting as well as sophisticated instrumental compositions for both acoustic and electric guitar.