GRAMMY and Dove Award-winning Recording Artist John Schlitt is taking on his first ever Christmas album thanks to his 420 backers on crowd-funding website Kickstarter. The project is one that Schlitt has wanted to do since he began singing with Christian rock band Petra. Now that he has established himself as solo artist, Schlitt feels this is the perfect time to complete the specialty album.
In a recent phone interview Schlitt shared his vision for the Christmas album, news about Petra’s 40th anniversary album and tour, plus what he learned about God’s redemptive power.
CP Blog: I noticed you used Kickerstarter to fund your last two projects. What have you learned from financing your last two projects with donations through Kickstarter?
Schlitt: Kickstarter is truly a blessing of God, I’m telling you. It’s really the only way to go for an artist who wants to do his own thing without being totally dominated by the powers that be and what they think should be happening at that moment. It’s amazing how artists actually do have visions of what their art is supposed to be and sometimes it just doesn’t gel with the money people who think they know it better. So it’s really nice to actually go to the fans directly – and I hate using that word – to my friends directly who like what I do and say “We want more of that. How can we help?” And basically, a lot of times it’s just that they’re buying the CD in advance with faith that I’m going to produce something they enjoy.
CP Blog: Your fans must be looking forward to the release of your Christmas album. I noticed that you are promising to cook for fans and bake for fans, make ornaments; that’s pretty cool.
Schlitt: You almost have to say to yourself, what makes you unique, what’s unique about this project and what can you offer that not everybody else will. In that case I think that sort of covers the Christmas ornaments. I’m a woodworker when I’m not on tour and I love doing that kind of stuff. So the fact that I can say listen I will personally build you an ornament that you can have for years to come and you can remember that yes you were part of this Christmas album that you can listen to year-after-year, I thought that would be cool.
The Christmas cookie thing is I have a wife who’s a ridiculous cook and although I’m not, she’s going to show me. You know, having a Christmas album I tried to think, OK, what’s special about the Christmas season and you’ll notice that one of my rewards is sort of the cookbook of what is our traditional meal of the day of Christmas – from the breakfast through supper. I haven’t even looked. I don’t know who bought what, or who’s who, who wanted what. I do know that I have about 40 dozen cookies to make – I do know that because that probably is the scariest thing about that I offered that I have to do. I don’t want to poison my friends, you know, and I don’t want them sending me back 40 dozen cookies saying this is the worst stuff I’ve ever eaten. But I did promise that I was going to do it myself. My wife and I are going to do it together. That we are going to do and we tried it out just recently and actually we can be in the same kitchen at the same time. I didn’t know if it could happen so that’s a praise God. Like I said every gift, I tried to make it unique to the project itself—the Christmas project—and unique of what can I offer that not everyone else can.
Then I had some offers from some good friends of mine who like John Elefante said “John, the 12 days of Christmas, you’ve got 12 days left. You should offer something new every day of the last 12 days like you know lets have lunch with somebody. Off to lunch with you and me together and they can ask anything they want.” And I say well John that’s nice man but we’ve only got 12 days left and I thought you know what [if] he’s willing to do that, we’re going to do it. So the last 12 days of this project, everyday has been something different that I wasn’t counting, planning on. So it’s been kind of a last minute thing which meant that my wife and I had to dive into our scrapbooks and boxes of souvenirs that we haven’t seen for years and you know we grabbed a couple things out of there. John and I have meals that we promised we will have with folks and people are picking up on it from all over the country.
CP Blog: Why did you want to make a Christmas album?
Schlitt: I’ve wanted to make a Christmas album for a long time. I wanted Petra to do one but Bob (Hartman) never did want to- never wanted to do a “rock” CD. I didn’t want to do a “rock-sy” Christmas CD either. Bob sees it as such and just never did want to be part of it. So I said, OK, that’s cool. I’ll do one as a solo artist one of these days. But really didn’t think I could do one until I had several CDs in coffer as a solo artist and finally, after four CDs, I felt like you know what, I think it’s time. Petra was thinking of possibly doing an anniversary rock CD for our 40th anniversary this year so it was a perfect time for me to not do another John Schlitt record but do a Christmas record which is considered a specialty record and then Petra could do its thing and I’d actually have my cake and eat it too. But especially last year, last Christmas season, I really felt like I should have been part of it a lot more and wasn’t. So when you consider all the circumstances that came together, this was the time to do it.
CP Blog: Will the Christmas album feature a mix of traditional songs that you remixed or will you write some unique Christmas songs as well?
Schlitt: Well, I know that we’re going to write at least one original. But we already have more traditional that we really like already. The hardest part is going to be which ones we’re not going to use. But we do want to do at least one original but that leaves another nine and right now I think we have more than that that we want to choose from at the moment- you know even before we sit down and really try to formulate what we’re doing.
CP Blog: Do you have a favorite Christmas song that will definitely make it onto the album?
Schlitt: Yep, O Holy Night.
CP Blog: I love O Holy Night.
Schlitt: I do too. And from the requests of our Kickstarter members, we’re going to be doing Drummer Boy, which is not necessarily my favorite song but I’ll tell you what if they want it, they deserve it, we’re going to do and apparently my producer already has a version of it that he’s super excited. So he’s designed, I think, a battle plan for it. When he’s excited, I’m excited.
CP Blog: Petra is celebrating 40 years as band this year, as you mentioned. What new tracks are on the 40th anniversary compilation recording?
Schlitt: There [are] several different CDs that are coming out. One is off of Capital. It’s going to be a best of, 40th anniversary compilation rock best of and that’s going to be all of the traditional rock stuff that you’ve heard of Petra in the last 40 years selected by them with Bob’s help. And I think—now we’re right in the middle of negotiations right now –I think we have a new praise and worship song that’s actually is going to be on that album as a bonus. But see, that song was also an inspiration for us to probably do a new Petra record. But I would say yes, we’re doing it but it’s still in negotiations.
So it’s possible that there will be two records coming out of Petra this year, one will be the best of, I think they call [it] 40th Anniversary Rock Anthem or something or Petra Rock Anthem or something like that and the new Petra album will be all new original stuff.
CP Blog: Wow
Schlitt: And it will be Petra. It will be two or three praise and worship songs that we hope the church can use in a mighty way but also have the traditional rock, you know the aggressive rock anthems that hopefully say a lot in the name of Christ.
CP Blog: The style of music that music fans enjoy has changed. Do you have any concerns about the new Petra CD?
Schlitt: No, I think we’ve tried for a long time to gear our music towards what was happening at the time and it worked. It worked well, like I said, for almost three generations but it gets to a point where it strays so far from your core that no matter what you do, it gets to a point where people are going, ‘that doesn’t sound like Petra’ or ‘that does sound like rock I listen to now’ so you almost have to make a decision [and] say you know what, we’re going to do what we’re known for. We’re going to be traditional to what we are best at. And so it’s just going to be Petra. Take it or leave it.
CP Blog: Do you keep in touch with the older Petra band members?
Schlitt: Oh yea. I have lunch with Johnnie. Actually Johnnie Lawry’s wife and mine work together in a toy store as part-time employees so I get to know exactly what’s happening with Johnnie all the time and we have lunch every once in a while and the others they live in different parts of the country and I don’t get a chance to see them that often. Johnnie lives about, oh about 15 minutes away from me so I get a chance to see him more often than anybody else. But they were very important parts of my life so when possible, I love seeing them.
CP Blog: Are any of them involved in a worship team at their local church?
Schlitt: Yes, I know that Ronnie Cates is in Florida and he’s a song pastor, I think. He leads praise and worship in a big church in Florida. I think that Greg Volz is actually a pastor at a church or part-time pastor or something like that. Louie’s actually on the road more. He actually can’t do too much in church because he’s actually still on the road doing other stuff. He’s the road warrior. He’s still on the road doing other things besides just playing drums so I think Louie (Weaver) will always be on the road. Because of that you don’t get a chance to do a lot of church contribution. Bob, Bob on the other hand, he’s a song leader for his church. I mean, absolutely in charge of, I guess you can call him a song pastor. It surprises me that he gets a chance to work with Petra. So there’s a lot of the Petra clan that are in that situation.
CP Blog: Before Petra you were in the secular rock group Head East. Do you keep in contact with any of your former band mates in Head East and have you shared your testimony of overcoming drugs?
Schlitt: It’s funny you mention that because within the last couple of years I have seen them or talked to them more than I have in the last 25 years and part of it is because that band is also on its 40th anniversary. They’ve been inducted to a couple of hall of fames and because of that they got a hold of me and said would you be interested in being a part of these. I said yea.
It was a great chance to get together again and at least one of our members, the bass player died from abuse—drug and alcohol abuse. That’s a story I really don’t want to get into right now but I really miss him and I wish that he would have listened to me on the phone a little bit more. That was our bass player Dan Birney. He died.
Mike Somerville has, our guitar player and wrote several of the hits, he’s sorta is a loner and I haven’t seen him, well, I haven’t seen him since I left the band. But I’ve seen Roger (Boyd) the keyboard player and Steve (Huston) the drummer who were basically, we were the singers—the major singers—and because of that we’ve actually got together a couple of times and sang on a couple of social events and it’s been nice.
Now they have been keeping close tabs on me for the last 25, 30 years so they know exactly what I do. I’m on their newsletter all the time sort of letting the Head East band know what I’m doing and it’s cool because I get a lot people from the Head East area coming to me. In fact I just sent out a package from my Schlitt job to a Head East fan who said he just heard me on the ACLJ (American Center for Law and Justice) program and was excited to see how he could get a hold of me and wanted some stuff from my Christian side. So it’s that kind of witness. I believe that being a Christian Singer is an 24-hour witness and you have to take advantage of every chance that you get. That’s why CDs are so important because they’re a witness in themselves and they can be heard over and over and over even though I’m not around. So those three CDs are going to go to him and he’s going to hear what I have to say on 30 different songs. I’m pretty excited about it.
CP Blog: It’s great that as Christians we realize that even when we are recovering from sin it is not the end of our testimony. We can still turn around and be a witness to others.
Schlitt: Absolutely. Let me make a quote that God said to me one time while I was in my pity party or when I thought I knew God’s plan and I didn’t. I was two or three years in the Lord and as far as I was concerned I was too dirty to be part of God’s plan again. I was forgiven, I knew that but I would never be able to sing again for all that garbage I’d done as a secular artist. And one day God said to me, I feel, not necessarily in an audible voice but it was like a thought and it said “What sin was it that was greater than the blood of my son that you did?” It freaked me out. From then on I realized God is bigger than anything we will ever be able to understand, the blood of Christ is of course greater than any sin we will ever do and it’s not just for the past or the present but for the future. And so we are never going to be too dirty to do God’s plan as long as we put Him first, ask forgiveness and go forward. And the enemy can’t use our weakness any more.
CP Blog: Amen. Last question, Petra has a unique opportunity to take its message to secular audiences by performing in The Classic Rock Tour. How will these concerts compare to previous shows for primarily a Christian audience?
Schlitt: That tour, I won’t say it’s on hold, it’s in the fruition of the plans. I just haven’t seen any fruits of it. When you have secular, the secular side of things like ELO (Klassik) and Asia and bands like that say—especially in Europe—that yea, Petra is a draw there. We’re all classic [rock] they can represent the classic side of Christian Rock, let’s do it. Well, saying let’s do it and finding people that want to hire us are two different things, you know because it’s not a cheap tour and the industry right now in overseas and here in this country is fighting for every dollar. So we’re available, we’re ready, it’s been negotiated, we’re talking to different management so right now nothing’s happened but we’re ready. So if it does happen, as far as I’m concerned, I think it would be a great testimony to actually go against the norm of what everybody thinks is supposed to be Christian – “Oh well this is supposed to be Christian; it’s not supposed to be any different” Well, once again we get a chance to open the doors and say, “No we’re willing to go out and play to listening ears with no compromise” and we’ll move forward, you know. It’s just another opportunity to see what God has in store.