MANKATO — Jason Gray has had some time to think about his latest album.
Several years ago, the singer/songrwriter approached his record label — the prominent, Nashville-based Centricity Music — about his idea to record original, Christmas-themed songs. They told him to wait and build more radio recognition.
So in the meantime, the Janesville native continued to write and record the brand of contemporary Christian music that had already turned him into a national commodity. His last two releases — 2009’s “Everything Sad is Coming Untrue” and 2011’s “A Way to See in the Dark” — were critical successes. The top single of the latter album, “Remind Me Who I Am,” became a top 10 hit on Christian radio and compelled the Star Tribune to recently call Gray “maybe our state’s most-played radio star of the moment.”
Gray approached Centricity again in November of 2011. This time they agreed.
Now, Gray is on his first-ever solo tour supporting the album — titled “Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy” — and he stops in Mankato today.
“The Christmas story has become so familiar,” Gray said, “that it can have an ethereal, fairytale-like quality to it. My hope is to humanize it and show how these stories actually happened to people a lot like you and me.”
Gray is no slouch as an armchair theologian.
His blog posts for The Rabbit Room — a vibrant online community of Christian artists — are thoughtful, researched and literate. His lyrics reflect a pastor’s eye for storytelling and his musings in interviews and on his website are sprinkled with both secular and religious insight.
So, it’s no surprise he approached his Christmas album with purpose and meaning.
Gray’s “Christmas Stories” features mostly original material with a handful of traditional favorites. The originals delve into the hearts of Christmas’ lesser-sung characters while the traditionals carry the momentum between stories. The result is a thoughtful approach to an all-too-often mechanical musical exercise.
“A lot of times,” Gray said, “when you listen to a Christmas record, there’s something that doesn’t feel like a real record. We wanted ours to feel like a real record.”
Gray’s idea was inspired by Frederick Buechner’s “Peculiar Treasures,” a book that retells the stories of central figures in the Christmas legend in more human terms.
For instance, Gray’s song “Rest (The Song of the Innkeeper)” explores the harried mind of the innkeeper on the night of Jesus Christ’s birth. As Gray sings “I need somebody to rescue me/ I need rest,” he links the need for relief with the need for salvation.
In “Forgiveness is a Miracle,” Gray explores the story of Joseph, a man whose faith is surely tested when he learns his fiancé is pregnant and the baby is not his: “Did you let her see you cry/ When she said the child was not your baby?”
Gray said he wanted to make a Christmas album that went beyond seasonal nostalgia.
“I think I made my record label a little nervous,” he said. “So much Christmas music is played in the background while you’re baking cookies or decorating the tree. And I have no contempt for that. I listen to Christmas music that way, too. But I wanted to tell stories that pushed the human elements to the forefront.”
Gray said his concert will include a full band as well as two of his sons making musical contributions. The first half will comprise songs from his previous albums; during the second half, Gray is playing the Christmas album in its entirety.