Christian trailblazer TobyMac thought he'd laid down his iconic up-tempo songs for good following his son's death. But in creating songs for his new albumLife After DeathGod revealed that even in the darkest depths of despair, he still had it in him and music would bring healing to him and his family.
In the album, TobyMac, whose real name is Kevin Michael McKeehan, opens the curtains to reveal the journey of grief he's been walking through since his family's loss and how God has walked with him every step of the way.
During an interview with The Christian Post, TobyMac opened up about the depth of his grief after his son, Truett Foster McKeehan, died from an overdose at his home on Oct. 23, 2019.
"Through this season, I just kept writing. I think it was my way of dealing with it, honestly, and even asking, being confused, and even being willing to lay out being confused in a song and being frustrated with God," he told CP. "But coming out on the other side, I realized how He's so good to us, and kind. Even in the darkest valley, He doesn't promise to take away the pain, but He promises that He'll be there in it with us, and He was and He is still."
The father of four said he and his family have done many things to process their grief, including writing songs together. Life After Death features a song penned with his daughter Marlee titled "Everything About You."
"I was just thinking to myself, 'How could I help my kids and myself deal with this kind of grief?'" he recalled thinking before approaching his daughter for the collaboration.
Life After Death is a collection of music that serves as a journal for the Grammy Award-winner where he expresses the "good, bad and ugly" of losing his firstborn son.
The new album is set to release on Aug. 19 and features 15 tracks, including his singles "21 Years" and "Help Is On the Way (Maybe Midnight)," which reached No. 1 on multiple charts. Also featured is a duet with Sheryl Crow, which speaks to hoping for the "Promised Land" amid the pain. His new hit single track "The Goodness" is also included in the collection of songs.
In a Q&A with CP, TobyMac shared details about many of his new songs and described the pain that led him to think he'd never write another uplifting, energetic song.
CP: Can you speak about the album's title, Life After Death?
TobyMac: I think the whole record is kind of a journey — a journey from losing Truett to where I am today. I've always written songs from my experiences [in] my life. So, I just kept writing through all the grief and pain and chronicled as I walked with the King, as I walked with God through it.
It's a story of life after death. In some ways, it's the agony of the valley but landing on the fact [in] the belief that there is life after death.
CP: For this record, you wrote a song with your daughter, Marlee, where you both share your grief together. What was that experience like?
TobyMac: It was really special, something I'll never forget. A friend of mine, Jon Reddick, who's an artist, would come over and play music [for] our family. After Truett passed, for the first week he would just come over and sit at a piano and let the music wash over us. It was his way of just loving us.
After the first week or so I was just thinking to myself, "How could I help my kids and myself deal with this kind of grief?" So, I asked Marlee if she [wanted] to write a song. She sings; she always plays piano, sits there and plays in our house. And I said, "Would you like to write a song together?" She surprisingly said yes.
I didn't know if she'd want to, but I thought we could write about the pain that we were experiencing and maybe it would be a good moment in a way for me to ... without just talking to her like a counselor, but just being there for her like a dad. I was just trying to get some time with her at the piano. Jon came over and played and we sang, we wrote and this song emerged, called "Everything About You."
It was really special and it was probably good for both of us to deal with our grief.
CP: Your song "Life On It," is a declaration that regardless [of] what you've gone through, you put your life on God. What causes you to still say things like that despite all you've been through?
TobyMac: I do put my life on it. That song came later, it came after I wrestled a bit. After He found me and never left me in that valley season. The goodness of God was demonstrated to me and it confirmed everything I thought I believed but it was nice that it was confirmed. I think that I'm able to say I put my life on it because God did what He promised.
I can say I'll put my life on Him. I'll put my life on this belief because He promised to never leave me or forsake me and He didn't. He was there for me and because of that, my trust in Him has even increased. In the midst of pain, my trust is increased because He's been true to His promise. He's been true to His word in my life.
CP: What would you say to this generation to encourage them to stay faithful as you declare in your song "Faithfully"?
TobyMac: I would encourage them by asking them to give Him a chance to be faithful: Not base their view of God on what they've learned from their parents or what people say online. But to actually give God a chance. That's what I had to do, honestly.
In this season, I had to say, "OK, hold on. I'm going to stop listening to everybody. I'm going to read the Bible, read God's Word. And even though it sounds like it was written 2,000 years ago to a whole different culture, I'm going to see if it's really alive. I'm going to take Him at His word and I'm going to read this. I'm going to give Him a chance for some months or some years of my life before I run away, or before I choose something else that looks more satisfying. I'm going to give God a chance. I'm going to give Him a chance to start to speak to me."
The only way He can really speak to me is by reading His word. And the only way I can really speak to Him is by praying. So, if I'm not reading His word and praying, I didn't even really give the relationship a chance because I'm not in one yet. The only way you can be in a relationship is if God's talking to you and you're talking to Him, just like a human relationship. So, when I gave Him a chance, like a real chance, He gave me a reason to trust Him. So that's what I would say, is give God a real chance.
CP: You did a song titled "Space" on this album where you reunited with Kevin Max and Michael Tait, once collectively called DC Talk. What was it like for you to work together on projects after taking your own paths?
TobyMac: It's something I look forward to, those [are] my friends. Sure, we're climbing different mountains today. Whereas in the past, we climbed a mountain together. We leaned on each other, we laughed a lot, prayed a lot, cried a lot, fought a lot. But I think for us to come back together is something I always look forward to because I love their voices. I love their artistic minds.
It feels natural. It feels like putting a glove on that fits perfectly, it's very natural to be on a song with them. I still write songs all the time where I'll hear, "Kevin's voice would be perfect for that. Michael's voice [would be] perfect [for] that." So, this time, when I wrote that song, and it was about the space that comes between us as humans. Space has come between us. Family has come between us — we have kids and have wives, and we have schedules. Michael's singing for the NewsBoys, Kevin's making records as Kevin Max and I'm doing TobyMac.
So, this space has come between us but there's no love lost. When I hear their voices on things, this one, I thought this is perfect. ... I want to get them on this song. So, I asked them both and they both said "Yes."
I think it's pretty special because it ends with "Love keeps no record of wrong." I think that's a beautiful, beautiful thing and hard to live up to. It's hard to live up to that standard to keep no record of wrong. So, I wanted people to hear us saying that. People that they think broke up and split up and they didn't like each other. No! We realize the truth is the truth, and love keeps no record of wrong.
CP: You have a song called "Sorry" in which you're lamenting for America as a nation. What inspired that?
TobyMac: I took a trip to Israel with a teacher who's one of my and my wife's good friends, Christie McClellan. And she teaches through the Middle Eastern lens what Jesus was saying and what it meant if you were Middle Eastern, and lived then, how you would have received that? Why He said it the way He did, what some of the parables he spoke about meant to that culture? It helps us to digest it differently than looking at it through the eyes of American culture.
So, I went there, and we walked up on a mountain top one day ... close to where the Sermon on the Mount would have been. A guy and Christie were introducing us to this area and all of a sudden, he just was talking and unbeknownst to us, he just went into the Sermon on the Mount and memorized it from the beginning to the end. And did it right there like Jesus would have delivered it.
When I heard it, I just started thinking about our culture. And I felt really ashamed of the things I chase. Forget anybody else, the things I chase after and what capitalism even is. I don't think capitalism is wrong, I think it's a decent system, but it sort of makes us chase things. The strongest survive and we're not looking after the weak or the downtrodden or the disenfranchised.
It made me realize "wow," and I'm not putting this on anybody else except for myself. The way I was raised is the opposite of what the Sermon on the Mount is, the opposite! So, I began to feel guilty and that song came out of that moment in Israel when I heard the Sermon on the Mount. I've heard it a million times but I heard it fresh for the first time and I was convicted. I was convicted and I wanted to tell God "I'm sorry."
CP: Anything else you'd like to add about the new album?
TobyMac: "Goodness," the song that's my current single, it's kind of where my journey landed. I remember, I never thought I would write another up-tempo song, because I thought, "It's just not in me." I mean, the pain I'm experiencing, it's not in me to write something up and energetic. Then I wrote "Help is on the Way," after reading a scripture that said, "God is rolling up His sleeves." When I read this scripture, in Isaiah, and in Psalms, it says, "God is rolling up His sleeves" in The Message [book transliteration], but it's the heart of what He's saying.
God is rolling up His sleeves on my behalf. He's coming to my rescue. And I thought, what promise there is, and I began to believe it. I'm beginning to actually believe it. I wrote that song "Help us on the Way," I looked up and I was like, "Whoa, I actually wrote an up-tempo song. I didn't think it was in me anymore." It wasn't a happy song. It's a promise, but it's mostly intense and brewing. Then I started to believe that help was on the way. Actually, my own song started talking to me.
Then I wrote on a napkin one day in a restaurant, "You're still the goodness in my life." And I'm like, "Oh, do I really believe that? Because if I do, that needs to be a song." I wrote the song and then I read a quote that said "a saint is not someone who is good, but it's someone who experiences the goodness of God." I have experienced the goodness of God. God's been faithful to me.
TobyMac will be hosting a one-night-only, 360° immersive audio and visual experience of his new album, Life After Death on Aug. 25. Visit the event's website for more information.
Jeannie Ortega Law is a reporter for The Christian Post. Reach her at: email@example.com She's also the author of the book, What Is Happening to Me? How to Defeat Your Unseen Enemy Follow her on Twitter: @jlawcp Facebook: JeannieOMusic