Friday, September 08, 2006

Ode to the Rockstar-Editor

The other day, a reader e.mailed that Almost Holy -- my bi-weekly column at Busted Halo -- is "more interesting than Whispers."

I'm terribly grateful for the sentiment. And you can thank Bill McGarvey for the interestingness.

A fellow product of this strange, parochial place we call the City of Brotherly Love -- he's a son of St Joe's Prep -- it's McGarvey's day job to corral yours truly and the other writing-heads who make up the BH gang, honing and prodding us to think beyond ourselves and create the best product we can for the wider conversation.

As you could imagine, honing and prodding this scribe requires a particular infusion of patience, not to mention fortitude -- think hashing out pieces at the prime working hour of 1am, or thereabout. But Bill's true passion and life's work is music -- his music, to be precise. To commemorate his latest, Beautiful Mess, he's the cover story of the current NCR:
While McGarvey names Dylan and the Beatles as influences, he could just as easily have decorated these walls with photos of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. These Catholic authors have profoundly shaped McGarvey, who, in addition to his musical pursuits, has served for the last two years as the editor-in-chief of, a growing online magazine for “spiritual seekers” in their 20s and 30s.

Raised in a West Philadelphia family where Catholicism forged much of his identity, and where the archdiocesan newspaper “loomed large” over his boyhood, McGarvey studied English at Washington’s Georgetown University, the place where he eventually decided to pursue music full-time. While his songs don’t qualify as liturgical -- McGarvey is as unapologetically rock ’n’ roll as they come -- his art has always had a spiritual dimension. The themes of “Beautiful Mess,” McGarvey’s latest album, are rarely Christian in an overt sense.

“I know as much about making a praise and worship record as I do about building a spaceship,” he said. “And I’ve personally never gotten as much transcendence from church music as I have from an Elvis Costello record.”

Even so, McGarvey’s lyrics often are charged with a sense of spiritual exploration.

“The elements are there,” he said. “I never set out to make a religious record, but if you’re making art about what’s important in life, those beliefs and that longing will come through. More than anything, the language is there, a language to talk about love with.”

Often the spiritual elements emerge in understated ways. Like the great Catholic writers whom he admires, McGarvey doesn’t proselytize. Rather, he points his listeners toward life’s great mysteries and miracles -- such as love and grace -- with subtle care. In his lyrics, questions are frequent and answers aren’t forced. But the questions come from the voice of a believer. McGarvey sees a parallel with Flannery O’Connor’s work in particular.

“In her stories people are haunted by doubt and faith,” he said. “It’s never a Pollyanna kind of faith. It’s one that explores real issues and questions. And the sacred often doesn’t come out in the expected way.”...

Gary Solomon, a recording engineer who has collaborated with McGarvey for nearly a decade, recognizes McGarvey as a real talent.

“Bill’s an excellent lyricist with thoughtful lyrics,” said Solomon, who has also worked with Bon Jovi and Cher.

“My usual tendency is to get drawn into the music first, then discover the words later,” he said. “But with Bill, it’s different. He has the gift of both.”

Solomon recognized a uniqueness in McGarvey’s lyrics that has carried over to his solo work.

“There’s a spirituality there,” Solomon said. “There’s a deep thoughtfulness and a lot of compassion. As he reflects about himself or his position in his own world, he questions things. And I think as he questions things, he provokes his listeners to question things.”

Congrats and kudos to my editor, partner in crime and dear friend.... Do go read -- and check out the sound-clips.