Jars of Clay is Dan Haseltine, Charlie Lowell, Stephen Mason, and Matt Odmark.The band was formed at Greenville College in Greenville, IL when four young lads met and discovered friendship through music. They were majors in “Contemporary Christian Music”, a somewhat recent department in the college. Charlie Lowell, Dan Haseltine and Matt Bronleewe had been there for the year of 1992 and played in various bands as well as producing their own studio projects. These bands included Chrysalis, Jazon, Yellow #7, Second Level, and many other school bands involving students from the CCM department as well as others. When Stephen Mason appeared on the scene in september of 1993, and had similar interests in music, the guys decided to write a song together, “just for fun”. Dan had met Stephen because he had a Toad the Wet Sprocket shirt on, a band which they both admired for their unique sound.
The band wrote and recorded a song called “Fade to Grey”, which included many drum loops and samples, a very techno-oriented song. It was simply a studio project for credit in a recording class. Their friends enjoyed the song and they performed it in late October for a college cafe called the “Underground Cafe”, which they had put together to raise money for homeless shelters and jail ministries. The “Underground” was the dormitory that the vast majority of music majors inhabited. The band continued classes and when they found more time, decided to play “Little Drummer Boy” for the Underground Cafe on December 7th, as it was nearing Christmas time. A strange and distorted version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was also played impromptu this evening, to the tune of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
Following Christmas vacation, the four of them decided they’d like to write additional songs to add to their live repertoire and satisfy the requirements of their recording studio class, but thought it would be appropriate to give a name to these collaborations. Charlie recalled a Bible verse he had read which discussed the frailty of man, and the irony that this amazing life has been breathed into our frail, physical bodies by our Lord. This passage, which related the struggles of man and the testing of our wills and bodies, which ultimately provides us the strength to endure the hardships of life, included the phrase “Jars of Clay”. The phrase was penned by the Apostle Paul, and was from 2 Corinthians, chapter four verse seven: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us”. The band thought that was a good way to keep themselves humble – to have a band name that would force them to continually realize that all of their blessings had come from God, including this talent to write songs that their classmates enjoyed. So in January of 1994, Jars of Clay was born.
“Love Song for a Savior”, a repetitive but catchy pop tune, one which was popular with classmates. In high school, Dan had read a book called “Death by Child Abuse” by Ursula Sunshine. The book detailed the struggle for survival of a young girl who had been abused and killed by a family member. This touched his heart and the band wanted to write not about the depressing actions she underwent, but the hope that we have despite the troubles the world has. They penned “He” in March and recorded it for fun. Following this, they played a brief concert at Tower Grove Christian School in St. Louis on March 18, and also scheduled a concert at Grace Community Baptist Church, in Trenton, IL for the 23rd of March. In addition, they performed a concert in Steve’s hometown and played two shows at Six Flags for a Christian festival.
The classes continued and the band struggled for time to write together. Charlie noticed an advertisement in CCM Magazine for a talent contest, which he thought would be fun to enter – and had no expectations of being chosen to play live months later in Nashville for record companies. Ten finalists were chosen from all of the demos sent in, and Jars of Clay were elated to be one of them.
On April 27, 1994, Jars of Clay performed for the Gospel Music Association Spotlight Competition at 328 Performance Hall in Nashville, TN. This appearance was the final test of the competition for best new Christian band, and Jars passed the test obtaining the grand prize. The played “Fade to Grey” and “Like a Child” complete with choreography and baby “binkies” in their mouths and met with great response from record companies who were present.
Also in April, the band decided to finish up their demo cd which was entitled Frail. They printed 1,000 copies for friends and family members to purchase and had a small release party at school. The copies went fast, and by June they printed 500 more for record companies and those who weren’t able to obtain them the first time around.
They returned to Greenville to finish up the year and finally played for the school again in May at a “Midnight Breakfast”. At this event they played “Love Song for a Savior” and “Fade to Grey” for their classmates, and received an overwhelming response. Two concerts were performed this month for the Agape Festival in Greenville at this time.
Meanwhile, they received phone calls on their dormitory pay phone from record companies seeking out the band and wanting to sign them for an album. The band then decided that they should pursue the avenue of music and move to Nashville, putting their college careers “on hold”. Matt Bronleewe decided to continue with school for the time, and was getting married as well, so decided not to move to Nashville with the band. Because the band’s sound included an acoustic guitar duo, it was necessary to find a new member to fill the gaps, and Charlie’s best friend from high school decided after much debate to join the band and move to Nashville in August. Matt Odmark had been at the University of Rochester as an English major but enjoyed playing his guitar at small cafe’s. His assimilation into the band was difficult due to his lack of involvement in the music industry, but by August the band was very comfortable together while they lived in close quarters in a small two bedroom apartment in Antioch, TN. They also accepted jobs during this time, at places such as pizza shops, mall stores and book warehouses while waiting for the contract, and wondered if they ever really would be able to sign with a company.
They shopped their demo and met with many record companies during the summer, negotiated their potential contracts with a lawyer during autumn, and in winter finally signed with Essential Records, a division of Brentwood Music (now collectively entitled Provident Records). This was an unexpected step for the band, as Essential was the smallest company that they interviewed with, but they felt it was most like a family. In addition, Essential had solid backing power from the larger Brentwood Music company which owned it, and Brentwood used a secular distributor, Silvertone Records of Zomba/Jive, in order to reach a wider audience.
During autumn, they also made time for occasional performances during their busy work schedules. They played a show on September 29 for about forty people at “Stage Left” (literally the left side of a stage) at Austin Peay University in Clarksville, TN. They rented all of the equipment needed for this show and actually lost a significant amount of money but enjoyed the experience. They played 40 minutes of their new songs and 40 minutes of cover tunes by PFR, The Monkees, Third Matinee, New Order, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and others. They scheduled other occasional shows, one with Sixpence None the Richer at Rocketown in October, another acoustic performance at AM/PM coffeehouse, one at a Catholic high school in St. Louis, a concert at Greenville again with Sixpence, and finally, Caffe Milano in Nashville, TN.
During winter and spring they recorded their debut album for Essential and released the album in May 1995 following their first real tour on which they opened for PFR and Brent Bourgeois. An intern at Essential, who was a good friend of the guys, happened to be the niece of improvisational guitarist and prolific songwriter Adrian Belew. She delivered the Frail demo to him and he was very impressed. Belew had also been investigating the Christian faith, so he decided to produce a couple songs for the album. His previous collaborations with Laurie Anderson, The Talking Heads, Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie, Frank Zappa and longtime involvment with King Crimson, not to mention many solo albums, made him a primary candidate for producer. They decided to have him produce “Flood” and “Liquid”, the more alternative songs, and then they self-produced the remainder of the songs on the album for lack of money. Many studio musicians were brought in to fill in gaps and Ron Huff did lush string arrangements to embellish the songs and give them their unique orchestral quality.
The first single from the debut album released to Christian radio was “Flood”, and lingered at number one for a long time. The band met with high critical acclaim in numerous Christian magazine articles and other sources due to the unique harmonies and instrumentation on the album as well as their extreme honesty and relational lyrics discussing real life situations and faith in God who pulls us through difficult challenges.
The rest is history…