Some artists suffer from writer’s block and struggle with finding something meaningful to say when it comes time to deliver a new album, but that’s never been a problem with Tenth Avenue North’s prolific frontman Mike Donehey. Fans likely aren’t surprised that there’s both a new album, No Shame, and a new book, Finding God’s Life for My Will: His Presence is the Plan, releasing Aug. 2 and Aug. 6, respectively.
“I wished albums weren’t so far apart because it always feels like we’re waiting to release things,” Donehey tells Billboard. “I’ve got more to say. That’s why I wrote a book. I can’t fit everything I want to say into one album.”
Since the band made its major label debut on Reunion/Provident Label Group with Over and Underneath in 2008, Tenth Avenue North has populated Christian radio with such hits as “Hold My Heart,” “Healing Begins,” “Losing,” “Control (Somehow You Want Me)” and “By Your Side,” the latter of which won song of the year at the Dove Awards in 2010. The lead single from the band’s sixth studio album, “Greater Than All My Regrets,” is currently at No. 30 on Billboard’s Christian Airplay chart. The genesis for the song came from the band deciding two years ago to scale back.
“We decided to do about half the number of shows we were doing because touring was taking a huge toll on our family,” Donehey says. “Honestly, we didn’t know if we’d be able to make enough money to continue doing this as a career, so it was a really hard decision to go, ‘Okay here’s what I’ve been doing for 16 years and let’s just cut how many shows we’ve been doing in half, and if we can’t make enough money then we’ll have to go do something else.’ That’s terrifying!”
He needn’t have worried. Donehey, guitarist Jeff Owen and bassist Ruben Juarez have done just fine after cutting back, and the career shift inspired new songs. Donehey wrote “Control (Somehow You Want Me)” in the wake of that decision and, culled from the band’s 2016 album Followers, it became one of the band’s biggest hits. “That’s the way it goes. You let go of something and it’s almost like it can thrive when you’re not choking all the life out of it,” he says with a laugh.
Cutting back and continuing to do just as well led to the realization that they could have made the change sooner, inspiring Donehey to write “Greater Than All My Regrets,” which features guest vocals by his sister, The Lone Bellow’s Kanene Pipkin. “One of the things that happened the next year while we were doing half as many shows, and still paying our bills, is I was filled with regret. I could have made this decision a long time ago. I could have missed less birthday parties and less recitals,” the father of four daughters says. “I could have been there, and I was beating myself up. I really felt like I heard God just whisper in my ear, ‘Hey Mike, it’s okay. I’m greater than all your regrets.’ That song has been really helpful for me dealing with my own personal regrets.”
The album’s title track, “No Shame,” features The Young Escape, an electro-pop band from California that Donehey helped steer toward a deal with Capitol Records after they opened for Tenth Avenue North. “This band has so much talent, so much potential,” Donehey enthuses.
“No Shame” is an engaging pop song with an insinuating groove and a deep message. “Bitterness is the belief that God got it wrong and anxiety is the belief that God’s not going to get it right,” Donehey says. “And regret is the belief that what I’ve done or the mistakes I’ve made are so bad that God can’t make my life beautiful again. The record is called No Shame and it would be better entitled No Toxic Shame, but that just doesn’t have a good ring to it.”
The band is working on a video for the title track that will offer viewers a chance to choose their own ending. “It’s going to be a choose-your-own-adventure,” Donehey says. “We want to make things as fun and interactive as possible. The beautiful thing about music is people make it their own. So having a choose-your-own-adventure was really cool and reflects some of that. We know why we wrote the song, but at the end of the day, it’s your story. Hopefully we can be a part of your story as opposed as you being a part of ours.”
Tenth Avenue North has always been known for their meaty lyrics, and these days Donehey says they’ve been focused on making sure the music is just as intriguing. “We really tried on this record to make the music speak as much as the lyrics, and the tone of each song to make you feel like you’re not being preached at, but just agreeing with what is being said because the music is moving you,” he says. “Jeff, our guitarist, has been doing a lot of sync, commercial and TV writing. With that stuff, the lyrics don’t matter, so he’s been really honing in on memorable melodies and music. With our powers combined, it’s been good.”
In addition to the band’s new album, the always affable Donehey is excited about his new book, which is being published by WaterBrook & Multnomah, imprints of Penguin Random House. He says he wanted to try to answer one of the frequent questions he gets asked by artists.
“Young artists come up to me and say, ‘How did you know this was God’s will for your life?’ And the question behind the question is, ‘I want to do what you are doing. How can I get there?’ I always respond to that question — ‘How did you know this was God’s will for your life?’ — saying] ‘I don’t and I never did.’ Their face scrunches and they don’t like that answer,” he says. “We want to think God has an occupation for us because most of us view God as a means to some other end, a genie in a bottle and reward program.”
Donehey’s goal is to share what he’s learned in his relationship with God. “I don’t think God is impressed with my resumé,” Donehey admits. “He’s calling for my heart, not my career. So Finding God’s Life for My Will was the natural book to write to answer that question, to say, ‘You need to stop worrying about what God’s will for your life is. Stop asking God permission to go do what you love.’ … God doesn’t care if you are a banker as much as he cares as what kind of a banker are you. Do that in a way that actually blesses and serves and doesn’t manipulate people. It’s freeing them up to go, ‘Hey, do you love writing songs?’ Yup? Okay then go do it.’”
Donehey quotes American author/theologian Frederick Buechner — “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” “Most of us only ask one of those questions,” he says. “We either ask, ‘Where’s my deep gladness?’ and that’s all we concentrate on and then we just become narcissists, or we say, ‘What’s the world need?’ We go do that and we get burned out because we’re doing everything for everybody, but it’s not making us come alive.
“The real sweet spot that I found, when I really feel fulfilled, is when I’m asking, ‘What do I love to do? Where’s my deep gladness? Now how can I do that in a way that meets the world’s deep hunger?’ Think about how many musicians want to be a musician and then they get there and go, ‘What now?’ It’s because the music was only serving themselves, but when you make music that you believe serves other people, when you are doing what you love and you are helping people, that’s fulfillment!”