Mason Jar Music's "The Sea In Between"

I looked around with astonishment at the young, spirited crowd filling up the room at 92YTribeca, struck not just by the amount of people there, but their palpable energy. Strangers milled around the bar talking about Josh Garrels' music like they were in on some marvelous secret - some good news - that was quickly spreading. 

Three younger guys were especially visible, laughing and hugging their way up and down the aisles, weaving in and out of beer-sipping Brooklynites, middle-aged professionals - even a group of Franciscan Friars calling each other "chief" - and then emerging out onto the stage to casually introduce their documentary.

None of us really knew what to expect at Mason Jar Music's premiere of The Sea In Between and Josh Garrels' accompanying performance, especially since the tickets were only $13 (chump change for a night out in NYC).

We'd been following Garrels' music for a while - at least since his free release of Love & War & the Sea In Between - and knew that this soul-stirring voice out of Portland was not to be missed. But what would it look like when this quasi-cloistered singer teamed up with a Brooklyn-based media collective and a team of classically trained musicians?

What we got was a glimpse at a new horizon for post-millennial music - the shining promise of "analog principles" informing the digital age, and of community trumping commodity.

"Josh Garrels is a lot of things, or has been," the promotion reads. "Son of a hippie commune, skater boy, suburban drug dealer, music/design student, coffee roaster, urban shepherd, and now globe-trotting minstrel of hope and healing. 
He is also a beacon of light in a marketplace rife with artists who, whether wanting to acquire fame or just their next meals, have sold their souls to the not-so-almighty dollar and forsaken their first loves — the song — in the process."

Although Garrels received offers from major labels, he continued to record and distribute his music with his wife, the two of them tackling all of the burdensome tasks that go with production, distribution, and marketing. (One moving scene shows the two of them in their living room, simultaneously taking care of their children and stamping album covers in a mini-assembly line.)

No wonder, then, that Mason Jar Music reached out to him to produce a video for "Words Remain" in 2010. The Brooklyn-based crew - which has worked with high-profile artists like Alicia Keys - combines "the 21st century's affordable digital tools with tried-and-true analog philosophies and skilled craftsmanship to create high-quality audio and video."

Though sales of recorded music are down, people are consuming more content than ever before. Large commercial studios are a dying breed, and a new paradigm must replace them. Technology has made it easier and more affordable for the average consumer to produce and distribute his or her own music, and to some that means the death of the producer, the engineer, and the art of recording. We disagree. To us it means that the power structure has changed; the control is in the hands of the content creators.

From the opening frames of The Sea In Between, this is exactly the impression you get: that this is something hand-crafted and precious to its creators, who trailblaze their own path to make a meaningful musical experience out of nothing - and succeed brilliantly. The sound mixing is Oscar-worthy, the visuals are beautiful, and the storyline is thoughtful. Most important, though, is the quality and substance of the music behind it all.

The film opens up on Garrels singing "Ulysses," a stirring acoustic song about the Greek hero traveling a lonesome, perilous path back home. This song perfectly captures Garrels' aesthetic: the presentation is stripped and authentic, with no frills and no pretense; the instrumentation thrives off immediacy and simplicity; and the lyrics glimpse the varieties of the human condition and the quest for the divine. It's clear that Mason Jar understands and appreciates this approach; every performance - from the ode to Garrels' daughter "Little Blue" to the melancholic "Slip Away" - seamlessly compliments the music with natural settings and spur-of-the-moment activity:

Some might be surprised to learn that Garrels is a passionate Christian - which says a lot about the lackluster "Christian music" circuit (or maybe even about certain trends in modern Christianity). Unlike most "Christian artists," he's unafraid to go to ambiguous or even dark places in his lyrics, places that speak to the universality of pain, joy, and desire. The songs are clearly not vehicles to proselytize, but honest expressions of, and invitations to, the very human experiences at play in a life oriented by faith.

So I wasn't surprised to see Franciscan Friars in the audience - but I also wouldn't be surprised to find agnostics and romantics of all stripes. In fact, the patron from British Columbia, Canada who funded the entire project on Mayne Island, did it not because he shared Garrels' faith (which he doesn't), but because he wanted to promote the joy on display in the music itself - what he describes as something like "humanity at its best."

The film does touch on Garrels' spiritual journey, which intertwines with the story of his wife and family - but this is just one part of its multi-layered, multi-storied structure: there is the story of the "deindustrialization of the music industry," of bringing music back to the basics of community, open air, and shared experience; the story of several classically trained artists, who along with Garrels are busy trying to make sense of the world and their place as career-oriented musicians within it; and the charming central story about a group of virtual strangers thrown into a mysterious week-long event, none of them quite sure why they are there or what to expect.

Within minutes of the film's ending, Garrels was up on stage with the young musicians from the documentary, all of them jumping back and forth between different instruments, giving a performance every bit as lively and moving as what's on the film. Garrels himself was tranquil, even stunned, repeatedly thanking the crowd just for being there with them. After a fantastic closer - a hand-clapping rendition of "Farther Along" - the crew came back on stage for an encore, an even rowdier rendition of a folk classic.

In an age of technological upheaval in the music industry, there is a lot of uncertainty about where music is going and what it's becoming. Everywhere you look the effects of the digital revolution are apparent: music is flattened and mass-produced as mere singles for target audiences; artists become disenchanted, wrestling against illegal downloads and minimal returns; and the attention-spans of fans are sapped by a sea of digital information and competing interests.

But Garrels and Mason Jar are living proof that - with a little bit of creativity and self-sacrifice - these very tools can be turned around; they can be used to connect fans and artists in a more meaningful way, and to restore a sense of immediacy, community, and - yes - transcendence to music.

And that, as the poet said, has made all the difference.

(Mason Jar announced at the show that you can pre-order a DVD-package of the film (available in January) on their website, complete with an accompanying soundtrack. Click here for a list of upcoming shows.)


  1. A cherished memory... a warm summer evening on a farm in Oregon, a small group of mostly strangers becoming united by Josh's music. Our souls hungry for integration and honesty in life's walk. Thank you for the gift of that evening, Josh. JS

    1. Beautiful how music takes you back to a certain place and time, isn't it? There are so many songs like that for me...and it's usually with music that, like Josh Garrels, taps into your spirit and transforms you.

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