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After the storm

I interviewed worship collective Young Oceans to tell the story of the “Advent” EP they made soon after Hurricane Sandy plowed through New York City. My colleague Wes Latta filmed and edited the accompanying video.

On a sunny afternoon in early November, we gathered off the piers in Red Hook, Brooklyn to meet with Young Oceans, the worship collective out of Trinity Grace Church whose self-titled debut struck a surprise chord with many earlier this year. With long, contemplative arrangements – soundscapes, as the band calls them – the project was a departure from much of today’s popular worship music. Now, they were recording their follow-up, a six-song EP for Advent.

A week earlier, this area was underwater as Hurricane Sandy pushed the Upper New York Bay over the seawalls and flooded much of the neighborhood. The Fairway Market across the street, a 52,000 square-foot megaplex of groceries, would be closed until January at least. Much of the neighborhood had no power, and many were still in cleanup mode.

Fortunately, Hot Wood Studios, located in a second-floor warehouse loft, had power, and that’s where Young Oceans was making music. We shot a little footage, as you can see above. And we spoke with Eric Marshall, a worship leader at Trinity Grace and main songwriter for the band, about the new project, the surprise response to their debut, and how Hurricane Sandy impacted the making of this record.

What are you guys working on now?

Eric Marshall: We are working on an Advent EP – a short album. Not a Christmas album, an Advent album.

What’s the difference?

We had been kicking around the idea of doing a Christmas record, and as I started studying what that might look like lyrically and sonically, I felt more drawn to Advent, more drawn to songs about longing and expectation, and by their nature have a darker tone to them. I felt really strongly that that would fit our aesthetic better.

You guys put out the debut album earlier this year. What gave you the idea to make more music now?

One of my main goals at the outset was to have this be a free project – not free as in no money, but free, spiritually speaking.. something that is not bound to a label’s interest, and we felt like we really, amazingly, achieved that with the first record.  When the first album came out, there was a sense from everyone that there were no strings attached.  It’s just a resource for the people.

So, we had a little bit of money left over that was intended for ‘marketing’. For months and months, we tried to find a smart way to spend it but nothing was really making sense. There were a few options but they all felt like the same old music-biz peddling.  So, a few months ago we decided to use that extra cash to simply make more music.. and here we are.

Were you surprised by the response to the first album? Or did you have a feeling that there was a space for this, and when you fill that space, people will come?

I had no idea if it was going to work or not. There were moments when we got into it when we felt this feeling of  “Whoa, we might really be onto something here.” But we also had feelings during the recording process of, “We’re crazy. People are going to completely reject this.”

We couldn’t put our finger on what it sounded like, but we just trusted our first instincts and tried not to over think.  Somehow it worked out.  Almost on a daily basis, people tell me what a powerful resource it’s been for them. People tell me it’s what they listen to when they pray in the morning. Needless to say, we’ve been incredibly encouraged. We feel like we’ve stumbled onto something, and as more time goes by, the more we think there is a world of folks out there looking for something like this.

What does New York City, and creating and leading worship here, mean to the band?

It’s a huge part of it. We use the phrase at Trinity Grace that “we live in contested space.” We feel that physically, we feel that economically – paying way too much money for way too small a place.  We feel it spiritually; that there’s a battle taking place around us for people’s hearts.

And then you throw in the fact that most people come here with largely selfish ambitions in their career, in their life. People seeking power.  And more often than not, it is just a dark world out there. We’ve had people who live in other cities – worship leaders or people who are into that kind of scene – will come to Trinity Grace and comment on how somber things feel compared to their home church in the Midwest or somewhere else in the States.

We think it’s probably because being on the streets of New York and being in workplaces for most of our congregants is hard. It’s day in, day out. It’s just grueling. Spiritually it’s very taxing. And we think that Sundays for people tend to be an oasis, a rest, and they don’t necessarily want to come in and get hyped up. They want to come in and just receive and sit in something humble.

Hurricane Sandy hit New York right before you were to start recording. How did the storm and its aftermath affect the spirit or perspective of the project?

We’re still trying to wrap our heads around it.  The studio where we’re working on this EP is in Red Hook, which was one of the worst hit areas of the storm. Everywhere around us, places were flooded. Businesses have lost everything. Families lost their homes. And many people don’t have power yet, ten days later.

There’s nothing around here where we can get even buy food. That’s no big deal, but there is a sense of like, “Should we be working on this record right now, or should we be out there helping people pump out their basements?” And we really wrestled with whether we should come in and begin working.

The great paradox of the Advent season is that we’re not only remembering what those generations went through 2,000 years ago when they were longing for Christ to be born, but we’re looking forward to the second coming, to the fulfillment.  So here we are in Brooklyn, 2012 and there’s literally no gas to put in the cars, grocery stores are empty, teams of volunteers are working around to clock to give out blankets, food and water. We’re here singing about hope, singing about the fulfillment of all things; its pretty intense.

Everybody has a strong sense that this is what we need to do. We need to get this thing done, not for our sake, and not because we’re these cowboys that gotta make the music, but because we simply feel called by the Lord to do it.  And we feel that, maybe in some small way, these pieces of art, these resources for the church, are maybe more important now than we could have imagined.