“So here I am on a stage, and I don’t know why. I’m deathly afraid of being in front of people. When I started playing my songs in front of people five years ago, my knees would shake because I was so freaked out. If I tried to talk I would start crying. So the only thing I could do was sing.”
“But God met me in the middle of my weakness and fear. He said, ‘This is the life I have for you, this is where you’re going,’ and I said, ‘Okay God, my life is Yours. Let’s go.’ So here I am.”
Six years could be a lifetime if you’re Sparrow Recording artist Shawn McDonald. Six years ago he hadn’t recorded his genre-bending soulish-folk debut, Simply Nothing. He hadn’t had labels like Columbia and Java Records knocking at his door. In fact, six years ago, Shawn McDonald didn’t even play a lick of guitar. He had never taken the stage in a club or a coffee house. He had yet to write his first song.
Truth is, six years ago Shawn McDonald was just a desperate, lost kid in Eugene, Oregon, who grew up too quickly without his parents in his life, and who was now full of rage, and staring down the barrel of nine felony charges for possessing, growing, manufacturing and dealing marijuana, LSD, crank and a host of other controlled substances.
Not that you’d ever guess.
“I can’t communicate how crazy I was,” Shawn says. “Who I was then and who I am now is like night and day. You name the drug and I was selling it and doing it. I was a confused kid, and my confusion boiled up into bitterness and anger. My life had become a hard, closed shell. I was extremely rebellious, miserable, and lost. What God has done in my life in the last six years is amazing.”
Shawn was once notorious for the trouble he caused. He was the kind of kid most people had written off as hopeless. Nowadays he’s recognized instead for his ingratiating and disarming transparency and for his sparse, eloquent, laid-back musical stylings. Shawn’s story is a moving testimony of abandonment, despair, hope and redemption. His songs are a sophisticated blend of organic instrumentation, such as nylon guitar, cello, violin, and harp, mixed with hip-hop sensibilities and a passionate flowing lyric.
Expressing his insatiable hunger and thirst for God, the lyrics on albums reveal a personal maturity of belief that prefers a hard truth over a feel-good lie. Shawn consistently refuses the easy way out in life, art, or theology. Instead, hope, redemption and worship are discovered in the context of real searching, struggling, questioning, and pain.
“Honesty is huge,” Shawn explains. “That’s what I think people connect with in my concerts. I get up there and I talk about my life and my struggles and my experiences, good and bad. I sing and talk about it all. I talk about the grime of life. I can’t understand a version of Christianity that would deny all that. How can we have a true picture of what grace is if we don’t admit our own sin and brokenness?”
“The theme that comes across the most in my songs is my need of God,” Shawn says. “The older I get the more I’m realizing how imperfect I am and how much I fall short. My songs just continually come back to this deep need of something more, which is God. I can’t get away from the fact that we need more than ourselves.”
The turning point in Shawn’s own life came after his second bust on drug-related charges. With nine felony counts hanging over his head, he knew that life was crashing down around him. He tried in vain to find spiritual answers in Rastafarianism, Hinduism, and meditation.
At the lowest point of his life, Shawn finally offered up a desperate prayer: “God, I don’t know who You are or where You are, but I need to find You. Whoever You are, show Yourself to me. Show me a sign.”
Pulling out an old Bible, Shawn stuck his finger in and began reading. As he read a passage from Matthew, he sensed that God was warning him to clean the drugs out of his life, and that the police could be coming back. Shawn immediately got rid of everything. One day later the police arrived with a search warrant. Shawn was convinced that God had indeed spoken to him. In thanks, he began to worship, and as he did so, Shawn had a personal encounter with the Spirit of God that permanently changed the direction of his heart and life.
“I did a 180 and started running in the other direction,” Shawn remembers. “For the next three years my hunger for God was out of control. I couldn’t get enough. I spent most of my time studying the Bible and reading every book about God I could get my hands on. In the midst of all that I started writing my own worship songs. People around me encouraged me, I started getting invitations to play different places, and it just grew from there. Music wasn’t something I ever dreamed of doing. But it was the plan God had for me.”
Perhaps it’s Shawn’s obvious lack of star struck pretensions that makes listeners so immediately comfortable during his live shows. Rather than viewing his concerts as performances, Shawn casts them in the context of relationship.
“When I share my songs and say things live,” he says, “I see it as a conversation that just happens to be taking place on a stage. You can’t plan a conversation, it just happens. There’s give and take on both sides. I don’t have a song list or a set of things I say every night. Each show is different. I play and say whatever comes into my head. I want it to be an experience, not a performance.”
The live experience Shawn facilitates has shown a surprising resonance with Believers and unbelievers alike. Despite the overt presence of worship and testimony in his concerts, the bulk of Shawn’s current audience is still a crowd who wouldn’t identify themselves as followers of Christ.
“I always tell my testimony,” Shawn explains. “I just put it out there. The crazy thing I’ve found is that if you’re willing to be really real and honest, people are willing to listen. So I can tell them about the drug lifestyle I came from and I can tell them about my redemption in Christ. The world can relate to me because I can relate to them. I’ve been there and done that. The church relates to me too, because I’ve met the God they’re serving and my life has been changed by Him. Paul said, ‘to the Jew I become a Jew and to the Gentile I become a Gentile.’ I think he was saying that he sought out ways to connect on a real level with people in different cultural contexts. I want to be like that. I want to listen to people so I can know where they’re coming from. I want to learn how to communicate in a way that connects with people, moves them, and changes them. “