The Christian group now does much of the work on their songs by collaborating over the Internet
CAMAS — “We never broke up” says Smalltown Poets guitarist Kevin Breuner from his basement studio at his home in Camas, “we all just kind of drifted off our separate ways and started having families.”
For fans of Christian music in the 90’s and early 2000’s, Smalltown Poets represented a thinking man’s alternative to mega stars like DC Talk, Michael W. Smith and others. The group’s self-titled debut album, released in 1997, earned them their first of two Grammy nominations, along with a handful of Dove Award nods. They earned another Grammy nomination with their third studio album, Third Verse. But life on the road took a toll, and life in general began to catch up to the group.
“Our keyboard player had had a baby — he was the first one in the band to have a kid — and the whole first year he had a son he was hardly home,” says Breuner, “and so all those things started becoming a factor and we all just slowly, one by one, kind of went on our separate paths for a bit.”
The group took a break after their fourth album, It’s Later than it’s Ever Been, hit shelves in 2004. Breuner wasn’t involved in that project. He’d gotten married to Stephanie, whom he met in Nashville, and the two wanted to move back west where they both grew up. Eventually they settled in Vancouver, before moving to Camas where they now live with their daughters, ages 11 and 8.
Breuner, who now leads marketing for CDBaby.com, a music distribution company that works largely with independent artists, says the group stayed in touch. They got together in Atlanta in 2008, and played together at a church one of the members was working for.
“It just felt like the glove that just fits perfectly, you know?” he says, smiling.
In 2010 they released a new Christmas single In the Bleak Midwinter, and followed that up the next year with their first new album in six years, Smalltown Poets Christmas.
“After working on multiple other projects with different people,” says Breuner, “when we started working on music again together it just felt like ‘man, there’s something special about the five of us making music together that doesn’t happen when we’re working with other people’.”
While most of their work in recent years has revolved around Christmas music, the group released a 7-track EP, Under the New Sun, in 2012, then another Christmas album, Christmas Time Again, in 2014.
The release of Say Hello, however, marks the group’s full return to their roots, with catchy melodies and poetic lyrics. “I mean, if your name is Smalltown Poets,” says Breuner with a smile, “then your lyrics better not suck.”
A couple of the band members still live in Atlanta, but the rest of the group is spread across the country. It’s a situation that, during their original run, would have been impossible. But the modern age allows for more flexibility and new ways of collaboration.
In Breuner’s case, if he’s working on a song, he can lay down some basic tracks in his home studio, then upload them to the Internet for the other members of the group to check out.
“I send the files to them, and they start going ‘oh yeah, I’m hearing some melodies here’,” he says, “or ‘I’ve got a vision for it here’, and we’ll start hammering ideas back and forth.”
It’s actually a luxury they couldn’t afford back in the “old days”. Breuner recalls that creating an album back then meant renting a studio so you could work out the parts.
“You’re paying for this stuff, and there wasn’t a lot of time to sit and process what you did,” he says, “The clock’s running, the dollar signs are going up. If you’re a superstar it doesn’t matter, you got all the time in the world, but in that scenario you know the clock is ticking.”
Now, he says, he’ll sometimes labor over a guitar riff for days at a time to get it just right. And sometimes what he comes up with inspires another member of the group to change their part, ultimately creating a much different song than they started out with.
The group did get together for a couple weeks at a small farm one of them owns so they could work on the album in person. Then, to record the bulk of the album, they returned to the same Memphis studio where their debut album was recorded. Breuner calls it a “surreal” experience.
“Our debut album just had its 20th anniversary, and Memphis was such a musical formation point in our lives when we were signed to a label and going there to record,” he recalls. “We just kind of wanted to go back to that as not only an interesting story point for the band, but just a lot had happened.”
Including the deaths of the studio owner, and their former producer within the same week, along with another close friend of the group a few months before they started recording.
“There was a lot of emotional moments of us being there, making this record, and wishing those people were still around,” says Breuner, “They were so influential in our lives.”
Thus far Say Hello is meeting with positive reviews, with CCM Magazine giving it four stars, calling it “a mature, melodic record replete with hooks and some surprises”. Breuner says they’re planning a small tour beginning later this year, though the group doesn’t intend to return to the road weary ways of their earlier years. While Breuner’s job allows him a little more freedom, most of the other guys can’t just step away from the lives they’ve created outside of music. It’s a reality increasingly common, especially for Christian musicians trying to balance the needs of family, with the love of their art.