Interview With the Monk Rocker
John Michael Talbot is Catholic music’s No. 1 recording artist, with almost 50 albums in circulation and sales of more than four million recordings worldwide. He counts among his most memorable performances playing for Pope John Paul II.
But fans of his acoustic musical style, which draws on his mastery of classical guitar and his ear for lush yet soft harmonics, may be apprehensive about his latest CD and the accompanying concert tour: He rocks a little.
From his home at Little Portion Hermitage in Eureka Springs, Ark., Talbot spoke with Register correspondent Clare Siobhan about Monk Rock.
How has your loyal fan base responded to your “going electric”?
The title Monk Rock does scare some people away. We noticed audience head counts of 100 to 200 less than expected, and eventually changed the tour billing from “The Monk Rock Tour” to “John Michael Talbot and Friends Performing Music From the New Monk Rock Album.”
Once they get there, though, most people really like it. It allows Catholic audiences to have a good time worshiping God together. We’ve been so demoralized in recent years, we need to have a little good, holy, wholesome fun. That’s what this album is all about.
That’s the first part of the concert. The second section is more meditative, the bread and butter of what I do — the quiet, meditative stuff.
The Monk Rock concert I attended struck me as extremely accessible as far as the potential for broad appeal. The music is the kind that even a non-religious person could enjoy. Did you specifically set out to reach a more mainstream audience or was that incidental?
The way the album turned out really was completely unintentional. I started off just helping my brother Terry with some electric guitar for a project he was doing for our old band, Mason Proffit, and I accidentally wrote a song, “Spread the Good News.” It was all downhill from there.
The concerts are for the whole family. From small children to teens to people in their 60s. At 51 years old, I’m on the young side of the 1960s generation. The 50- and 60-year-olds in the audience went through the rock ’n’ roll era, so they still like the style of music presented on this album.
What is life like on the road?
On tour, we’re plunged into the secular world of hotels and so on and there are so many distractions. We pray daily and everything, but it’s unstable. The Franciscan in me likes that — finding God in the midst of everything that’s going on — but I do miss the stability and familiar surroundings of the hermitage. On the road, sometimes, I’ll wake up and feel completely disoriented because I don’t know where I am, I don’t know where anything is, can’t find the bathroom and so on. At home, I know where I am.
I love the solitude of the hermitage — the environment of prayer, the regular prayer schedule, living and working around people for whom the Christian life is more intense and apparent. At the hermitage it’s easier to stay on point and go deeper.
Catholic talk radio is thriving in many parts of the country, but Catholic music radio doesn’t do as well as its evangelical-Protestant counterpart. Why do you think that is?
Catholics don’t seem to find a need for it the way Protestants do. We can find the sacred in the midst of the secular. We can appreciate the secular product and find that remnant of goodness that’s in just about every art form in the world.
The Catholic approach is more open, which is a good thing, mostly. For instance, indiscriminate listening to the Rolling Stones, or a steady diet of music like that, may be unhealthy in that you don’t want to immerse yourself so deeply into the secular that you get sucked into it, but it’s good to be open to the larger world.
The Catholic worldview is that we must be [cultured], but also counter-cultural.
You were recently inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame and named the 2005 recipient of the Mother Teresa Award of the St. Bernadette Institute of Sacred Art in Albuquerque, N.M. Tell about those awards.
They were both total surprises. When I found out about the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame, my first thought was, “What good could possibly have come out of Arkansas?” Then, when I got there for the ceremony, they showed a video presentation showing all the other inductees. I was stunned. Many of the inductees are household names: Johnny Cash, Glenn Campbell, Al Green, Alan Ladd, Billy Bob Thornton, Conway Twitty. What a jerk I was for saying that. I went from egoism to feeling totally outclassed. During the presentation I leaned over to my wife and muttered, “What am I doing here?”
I liked the way the Mother Teresa Award was presented. It’s always given to the recipients at their home churches with their congregations, with very little fanfare. I was just sitting there at Sunday Mass at our community chapel, and Father Bob Dombrowski stood up toward the end and commanded, “John Michael Talbot, come forward!”
I thought I was about to be excommunicated or something. Little did I know it was to receive another award in which previous recipients totally outclass me. This award means so much to me. I met Mother Teresa once and I’ll remember it until the day I die.
Tell me about your next album, especially the title cut, “Beautiful City.”
Hurricane Katrina hit the day we left home to start our tour of the upper Midwest. On the way to Omaha, I was just playing around with an electric guitar and wrote the song. I’m not a big fan of the opportunism of disaster — with all the TV specials and tribute songs — but this song just came out of nowhere.
We added it to the concert set and we get an interesting response. As we finish singing “She will rise again!” and it echoes away, the audiences kind of sit there, stunned, before bursting into applause because the song is so different and unexpected. They like it. And the band loves playing it.
On our website you can download “Beautiful City” for 99 cents and 100% of the proceeds from those downloads will go to Mercy Corps International. The download will be available until the full album comes out this summer.
Clare Siobhan writes from
John Michael Talbot
Little Portion Hermitage
Mercy Corps International
- April 9-15, 2006