Publication: One-to-One, Spring 2014
The legendary singer and producer talks about the amazing story behind his powerfully moving song “This Time”, and some of his experiences with the world’s leading musicians.
Recently, my wife, Susanne, and I had the chance to sit down and talk with John Elefante, one of the best-known voices in music over the past 30 years. John has been a songwriter, singer, musician, producer, label head, studio owner, and mentor, and is loved and respected by friends and fans worldwide. Many first came to know of John when he was tapped to be the lead vocalist for the mega-platinum band Kansas in 1982 for their album, VINYL CONFESSIONS. In the mid-1980s, John became a much sought-after producer for artists such as Petra, Barren Cross, Halo, Guardian, and the Sweet Comfort Band. He has recorded with an incredibly wide range of artists, from Vestal Goodman to Bono, and is the winner of Grammy and Dove Awards.
John was offered the lead vocalist role for the Grammy-winning band Toto, but instead, he continued producing prolifically and also leading the excellent and successful band Mastedon with his brother Dino. They formed Pakaderm Records, which was the label home for many leading Christian musicians, before John and his family moved to the Nashville area. John and Dino built the Sound Kitchen, which became the largest studio in the area where leading artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Alan Jackson recorded.
In addition to three brilliant albums so far with Mastedon, John has recorded four highly acclaimed solo albums, the most recent being ON MY WAY TO THE SUN in 2013. An exceptional mix of melodic hard rock and adventurous progressive rock, the album also features a stunning ballad that has captured the attention of hundreds of thousands of people. That song is entitled “This Time”, and it tells the story of an unmarried young girl who discovers she is pregnant, and decides to have an abortion. But, as she “sat cold in a waiting room, frightened and all alone,” something extraordinary happened: the Lord began to speak.
“This Time” is not a political or ”preachy” song. It’s actually based on the beautiful true story of how John’s daughter, Sami, was spared from being aborted, by the grace of God. Through a series of Divine appointments, God brought Sami to John and his wife, Michelle, who adopted her as an infant. Sami is now 20, and is an amazing young woman in her own right.
Sami’s story, through “This Time”, has reached around the world. In September of 2013, John created a special music video which quickly went viral via YouTube, John’s own website johnelefante.com, appearances on the Fox News show “Huckabee”, and other programs. Jay Sekulow, founder of the American Center for Law and Justice, has frequently highlighted the song and John’s music.
We met with John at his Nashville-area home to discuss “This Time” and some of the other highlights of his career so far. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
—Stephen Simpson, Editor
SS: Was “This Time” a song that you have been wanting to write for a long time?
JE: It’s a story that I’ve enjoyed telling for a long time, but I had never thought about writing a song about it. What had happened is that I was about 60% finished working through the album itself. And I started writing these two chords that were just kind of running through my mind. So I went downstairs and started embellishing that a little bit and started writing the music and started coming up with some ideas for the chorus, and I thought, man, this would be a great song for a story. Usually at that point, I will just shut my eyes, and I will go to the Lord and ask, “Please give me something.”
And, it just really hit me all of a sudden this might be the time to tell the story about my daughter. I started coming up with it like line by line. I remember coming with the first two lines, “She sat cold in a waiting room frightened and all alone.” So I grabbed the microphone and I sang those two lines and then it started unraveling. The memory started coming back how the birth mother told me the story of when she was in the clinic, and she came real close to aborting Sami, and decided not to. She called her mom from the clinic and told her that she was pregnant. Her mom did not know! The girl had been wearing baggy clothes. Of course, everything in the video itself is not exactly how it happened. I don’t know exactly how it happened; because I wasn’t there. But I do know that she was that close to aborting, and I do know that she called her mom. I do imagine what it would have been like that day. And the lines just started and “the Lord began to speak” and “you’re not taking this one”. I mean the lyric literally came together in an hour.
When I got to the second verse and I had to start coming up with lines about the abortion part of it, that was a little harder. I didn’t want to go too deep into that because I didn’t want to pull from the narrative. You know, I didn’t want to pull from the main story, because it really is a victorious song…her birth mother chose life! But I had to cover that topic, because that was a part of it, and she almost….she almost didn’t make it.
SS: You made this song personal rather than political?
JE: Oh, absolutely. The political part was the last thing on my mind. I’ve been pro-life for a long, long time, as long as I can remember; but no, this song is not political at all. When I talked to Mike Huckabee about that on the radio, I told him “This was not written as a political song, this was not written as an anti-abortion song, it was not written as a pro-life song.” Even though it is. But that wasn’t my mindset when I wrote it. I just wanted to tell our story.
SS: Somewhere along the line, you are realizing the significance of the song and it is really personal–at what time did you sit down with Sami and say, “Hey I’ve got this song…”
JE: I played it for her. “I got this idea to write this song about your story”. She listened to it and she cried. She was very touched by it, you know. She has never been ashamed to talk about it. She’s known she was adopted since eleven. I remember before we had told her about her adoption and the circumstances, I sought some counsel from the woman from an organization called House of Ruth, which is connected with Calvary Chapel in Downey, CA. This woman is unbelievable, I mean, she is so anointed in this field and otherwise. She talked about how Sami is chosen and special; that she was chosen to be with our family and that it was no coincidence. Well, Sami really got it when we first talked with her at 11. She understood it at such a young age. And, she is certainly fine with the song and video now.
SS: I was really impressed at the end of the video to see her with you. Did she take a pretty active role in the video in the creation of the video?
JE: No. She was too busy…. (Laughs) … oh, she wanted to be there! She said, “Dad we should go up there while they do the video.” I said, “Sam, you don’t understand the way the video is done. I mean they could shoot the last scene first. You know it’s standing around, hurrying up, and waiting. But when you see it done, it’s going to make sense to you.”
SS: I’m guessing, based on what you said, you didn’t start off thinking that this was going to be the big hit song on the album, or the main lead video…
JE: You know I started suspecting it, Stephen, when people heard the record and I started getting comments that people loved the album and everybody was referencing that specific song. “I love the record and that song about your daughter is awesome.”
SS: Well, that was definitely my response. And I love it. The whole album is brilliant, but that one stopped me in my tracks. I had to stop and listen to it again and the second time, it just broke me.
JE: Even before the video came out?
SS: Yes, absolutely, as soon as you released the album, I bought it, and I was listening and jamming, and everything sounded great and then, wow, this song came on and hit me between the eyes.
JE: Well you also have a personal connection to the issue.
SS: That’s right, adoption is very precious to our family and such a big part of who we are. What kind of feedback do you get from families and other people about this song?
JE: Mostly positive, but also some negative, such as online. The negative has been pretty harsh.
SS: Don’t you think that that’s sort of a visceral reaction for people who see it politically?
JE: Yes. But here is one thing that I find out. When it really gets down to it…and cut through the rhetoric and vitriol – a lot of the people attacking simply hate God.
SS: I believe you are right, and ultimately this is a spiritual issue.
JE: No doubt.
SS: And man, this song really captures the nature of the spiritual warfare here. The line that grabbed me was, “the Lord began to speak.” That is so strong. Plus the fact that this is a deeply personal song and story…ultimately people can’t argue with your actual experience.
JE: You know what is interesting, we made a conscious decision to have someone on the video shoot that had experience with abortion. This woman counseled women who had undergone abortions and she counseled women contemplating abortion. She’s well-schooled in the issue, she’s been to abortion clinics, and she’s had two herself. We wanted her there just as “checks-and-balance”. She thought we could have gone even further with the abortion theme. She said, “first of all make this place more filthy,” because that is the reality in most abortion clinics. But she was a big help in keeping it real.
SS: It was interesting to me that such a gritty subject could end up being such a beautiful video in so many ways. In your writing over the years, you haven’t shied away from dealing with really hardcore issues, such as suicide, abandonment, death, depression and all these different things. But you do it from a personal, human, and ultimately biblical perspective as a storyteller.
JE: I’ve never really gotten political with my lyrics…that is, I didn’t set out to do anything political. You know, I don’t feel like I have to. I don’t feel that politics is the ultimate answer.
SS: That gives you an open door to have fellowship with people who have different views politically. I would imagine a lot of people that you deal with personally have completely opposite political views from you. How have they responded to this song?
JE: Mostly positive, believe it or not. One reason I know that, is through Sami. She just graduated from Cosmetology school. And there are all walks a life in that field and she would sit them down with her laptop and say, “Check out the video. It’s about how I came into the world.” She didn’t ask them what they thought politically. She didn’t say “If you are pro-choice you are not going to like it.” She said, “Sit down and just watch it. It’s my story. I don’t care if you like it or not, you’re going to watch it.” I mean everybody she showed it to cried. And she never asked where they stood. You know, there are a lot of youth that haven’t thought too deep about this subject. I think they are starting to. You know amongst the youth now, the majority are pro-life. That’s a big turning point.
SS: Another aspect of what you do that I really appreciate is that you are very family-oriented. Can you tell me a little bit about your song “Pass the Flame” from the DEFYING GRAVITY album?
JE: When I wrote that, I was thinking about the big responsibility that we as parents have to pass the message of Christ on to our children, because they will with their families. That is a cool song! But, sadly, I can’t find the original video. That’s why the quality of the YouTube video is not good. But the original video is quite moving. It’s a special song that came after we adopted our first two children, Sami, and my son, Daniel, and our family is in the video.
SS: How did you come to adopt Sami and Daniel?
JE: My wife, Michelle, and I really wanted to get pregnant and we had already been married for about five years. Doctors told us no way, no how, no chance, forget about it. So we thought–let’s adopt. We did go in front of the congregation and about 300 people laid hands on us and prayed. So, about a year later, I was backstage after I did a Harvest Crusade with Pastor Greg Laurie. I was talking to somebody else about adoption, and a lady overheard me, and walked up to me and said, “My name is Karen Johnson, and I am from a ministry called House of Ruth. I hope you don’t mind but I overheard you talking about adoption.”
I told her about an adoption situation we were considering, but there was something that didn’t feel right in our spirit about it. And I started telling Karen this story, and Karen looked me right in my eye and said, “Stay clear—get out of that situation.” She’s done so many adoptions, and she said, “Something doesn’t sound right.” That situation later ended up being a terrible custody battle between the birth mother and biological father. We never would have been able to adopt that baby, so thank God for Karen’s advice.
Anyway, after I told Karen our story, she said, “Would you still like to adopt? How would you like a baby in five weeks? I know about a little girl.” It’s like I felt the hair on the back of neck standing up at that point! I called my wife over, and Karen was speaking to both of us and said, “Why don’t you guys pray about it and let me know if you decide you want to do it.” Karen put together a packet of information about us with a resume and pictures, and all about our lives and values. We prayed and agreed, and Karen set up a meeting with us and the birth mother and biological father, and they chose us right away for Sami.
SS: I was amazed about something I read about the birth father and your meeting with him. He said that he liked your shoes.
JE: I met the birth father, and I had a pair of Doc Martens on, and later, when he was asked by Karen, “why did you choose them?”, he said, “Well I liked their shoes.” God used a pair of shoes! Then, we were really blessed to be able to adopt our son, Daniel, through that same ministry just a couple of years later. Now, to go back to that time when the congregation laid hands on my wife to get pregnant … a few years after we adopted our first two children, my wife got pregnant and now we have an eleven-year-old son named JJ.
SS: I note these recurring threads over and over again of how close your family stays together. I was listening to you talk about the Sound Kitchen studio that you and your brother Dino owned, and the most interesting thing to me about all that wasn’t all of the various superstars that recorded there but it was the fact that you had this big actual working kitchen in the middle of the studio, where your parents, Danny and Nora, cooked these amazing meals for everybody. What made you decide to set it up that way?
JE: Oh yeah…family first! You know, it’s growing up in studios my whole life; studios are music and food! So when we built the Sound Kitchen here, we wanted to have a dining room and a full-blown kitchen right in the center of it. I wanted a spot where my folks could come in and be close, and they could fix meals for various stars and staff, and, I mean… it was…I can’t tell you how big of a hit that was.
I remember my dad walking into the control room where Julio Iglesias, this big international singing star, was recording. Here is my Italian father, who was not a respecter of persons whatsoever… he definitely was not a dis-respecter of persons…but he doesn’t care who you are. He walked into the control room … he had a towel on his arm, and he he kind of talked in that little bit of Italian thing…and he said to Julio, “Hey chief, the food is getting cold in here! Man, can you take a break and eat?” And Julio says, “Ahh I am sorry Mr. Elefante, we’ll be there in like five minutes I promise.” Sure enough he comes walking in with his entourage. Now, my mom was always a big fan of Julio Iglesias You know, he’s hugging her and telling her, “Look I’ve had Italian food all over the world and this is in the top five.” I grew up in a family that is very hospitable.
SS: It seems like you’ve made a priority of keeping your family nearby. And, of course you work often with your brother, who is a brilliant musician and producer in his own right.
JE: When we moved to Nashville, our parents were right behind us. They had their stuff in the same truck. I don’t think I ever lived more than a couple miles from my folks.
SS: Let me ask you about a couple of your songs, because you are such a strong storyteller. “One Day Down By the Lake” from the Mastedon album REVOLUTION OF MIND (2009) … is that your story?
JE: It’s reflective of me. Yes, some of it is autobiographical. The meaning behind that song really is that we are to be content where we are. A lot of people, they get older and they keep reminiscing about old times, you know, “I remember back in the good old days.” I don’t think God wants us to live in the past. He wants us to be content where we’re at in our life, no matter what our age is, and accept the gifts that He’s given to us. There’s that one line, “You are at peace with who you are, and here you’ll stay, it’s something that this world can’t take away…. Remember that one day down by the lake, where the Spirit made you sure of who you are.” My daughter was a basketball star in high school and she had a tournament in Memphis, so I wrote half the song on the way up to the tournament, and the other half on the way back.
SS: That’s a bit like one of your newer songs, “Where Have All the Old Days Gone” where the message isn’t really about looking back, but it’s about seizing the day.
JE: That’s right. It’s a major recurring theme on the whole ON MY WAY TO THE SUN album. I used to just drive down Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1 in California) all the time because Dino and I used to surf all the time. I remember this one spot that was really pretty as you were coming into Huntington Beach. So, as I was writing the title song, I just pictured some dude…you know … he’s got it all together, man. He’s driving along, thinks, ”I’m cool”, but deep down inside, he’s hurting and bleeding, and he knows it. He’s trying to play this whole “everything is okay” deal.
But the guy is saying to himself, “If it’s all right but everything’s wrong, then why can’t I seem to find my way home? The fields have all dried up so desperate for rain, no wonder why the harvest never came. A knock on my door this time I’m answering. I’ve waited too long to put a crown on my King.”
Now this guy driving his car has some kind of spirituality in his life. But he’s never crowned Jesus as King of his life. There’s a big difference. There’s a lot of people that have never crowned Jesus as King. Until you do that, and truly make Him Lord of your life you’re short-changing Him and yourself.
I don’t really have a theological background. I mean, I am in the Word but I haven’t studied the way a pastor has. Still, I never like to leave the listener walking around with a question, “What did he mean by that?” I guess that’s what I like singing about my personal experiences, because that is what I know best.
SS: You may not remember this, but back when Facebook and social media were fairly new, I was astounded by the notion that I could sit down at my computer and personally interact with people and music artists that I admired, and that they would be accessible. You were in the process then of working on the REVOLUTION OF MIND album, and you actually put a couple of song demos out there …
JE: Yes, I remember that.
SS: And you put “Lying” on there and you said “Well this is something that I am working on and it’s a work in progress. I’m probably going to change some things around but….”
JE: And somebody wrote me…it wasn’t you was it? Somebody wrote me privately and said…
SS: I said, “Please don’t change the words. They’re very raw and real.”
JE: Oh, well, that’s why i didn’t change the lyrics!
SS: Yes, as I listening to the demo, it just blew me away, and I was so personally convicted.
JE: When I got that message i thought to myself, “Okay, let me start thinking about this theory of lying.” I mean, you know, there are many times where you are telling half-truths in your life and you know it. So that song really comes out and just says it: “I’m lying just to cover my sin.” And, we lie to ourselves.
SS: It’s a tremendous message. It still convicts me. When the album came out I thought “Oh, I’ve got to hear this song.” And I love it. Thanks for writing it! You’ve written so many songs that have had a great impact. I heard that you wrote “This is What Love Is” from 1995‘s WINDOWS OF HEAVEN as a response to the number one rock hit song “I Want to Know What Love Is” by the band Foreigner. What is the story behind that?
JE: Well, it’s about 50/50 in terms of responding to that song and also just expressing my own experience. Some of it was an answer to “I Want to Know What Love Is”, because every time I would hear that song, I felt a little empty almost. Lou Gramm, the vocalist for Foreigner and the writer of the song, is crying out, “I want to know what love is, I want you to show me.” I am thinking, “I know what love is,” and talking about the life of Jesus. So, the lyrics just came out of that.
SS: Later, Lou Gramm became a Christian. What kind of feedback did you get from him about your song?
JE: He loved it. Later, I got to sing that song onstage right before Lou Gramm sang “Now I Know What Love Is”. And then, of course, Lou and I recorded “We Need Jesus” with Petra. That song became the theme song for Harvest Crusade for about eight years, and I got to sing it with Dino. “When will the world see that we need Jesus?” That question means more now than ever, doesn’t it?
SS: Let me ask couple of quick questions about the Kansas band. You had violinist David Ragsdale and guitarist Richard Williams play on your new album. And, you had guitarist Kerry Livgren play on the last Mastedon album. Do you have a good relationship with those guys?
JE: Yes, I do, and totally respect them. I also have stayed in touch with drummer Phil Ehart. All the guys in Kansas are great guys and amazing musicians. Steve Walsh is one of my heroes vocally. But let me say this about the two songs you’re mentioning: “One Day Down By the Lake” from the Mastedon album and “This is How the Story Goes” from ON MY WAY TO THE SUN…I don’t think either one of those songs would have made it on those albums if Kerry, Rich, and Rags had not been playing on them.
SS: Really? I’m really curious…why not?
JE: Because I think that their presence really validated the style of the song. Both songs are somewhat “Kansas- esque” kind of songs. And I think having them play on the songs really validated those songs and made them stronger.
SS: I read in Kerry Livgren’s book, SEEDS OF CHANGE, that when they auditioned you for Kansas, they didn’t know you were a Christian, and they just liked your voice; they thought you would be the right guy for the band and even picked you over eventual Van Halen vocalist Sammy Hagar. And then after you got the job, then you told Kerry, “Hey, I am a believer too!”
JE: Yes, that’s true…when I told Kerry that, he went totally silent. I actually thought for a second that he had hung up on me. And I said, “Kerry? Kerry?” Finally, he said, “Yeah..I’m just…I’m just bowled over by what you just told me, because me and David Hope (Kansas’ founding bassist) had been praying like crazy that the Lord would bring us a believer.” It just so happened that the guy they chose was a believer!
SS: Any new projects ahead?
JE: I am doing some writing, and I just finished producing another artist, as well as another band out of omaha called DeadNote. So, you know, doing some producing, but I’m always doing something in my studio, coming up with ideas for songs and stuff. I want to do another record but I am not sure stylistically where I want to go yet. John Schlitt of Petra and I will be doing a “Voices of Rock” Tour, and we stay in close contact. (For information: Sue Dempster, Nova Productions, (920) 980-7671, HYPERLINK “mailto:email@example.com” firstname.lastname@example.org.) Also, I toured recently with a band called World Classic Rockers, with guys like Aynsley Dunbar (Drummer for Journey, Santana, and Whitesnake), Fran Cosmo from Boston, and guys from Steppenwolf…it’s kind of an all- star band. Plus, I stay in touch with a lot of my other friends, like David Pack of Ambrosia.
SS: How can our readership and be praying for you, your family and your ministry?
JE: I really appreciate that. Just pray that God would continue to use me and that He will continue to give me lyrics and melodies that have the ability to get into somebody’s soul. When I get a note or message, that’s primarily what they say, is how much something touched them.
SS: I loved seeing you and your family on the Huckabee TV show recently, where you sang “Carry On Wayward Son” and discussed the video for “This Time”.
JE: Well, I think we got the point across. I had close to 600 messages and emails immediately afterward. A lot of people went to my website at johnelefante.com right there on my homepage and watched the video, and you know, we shot up 22,000 views in just three days. We’ve had more than 430,000 hits on the YouTube video alone. Recently, I was interviewed by author Ken Mansfield, who was the first U.S. Manager for the Beatles’ Apple Records. When I showed him the video for “This Time”, he went weak in the knees. He’s working on a new book, and one of the chapters features my life and music. Ken is a great writer and a strong believer in Jesus.
SS: I really want to just thank you so much for your music and testimony through the years.
JE: You’re welcome. I wish we could have gotten together sooner!
For more information about how you can save babies from abortion visit: onlineforlife.org
***** (Five Stars out of Five)
ON MY WAY TO THE SUN (Kingheir Music, 2013)
In a long and storied career thus far, John Elefante has released four solo albums, plus three with the band Mastedon. He has also produced or been featured on more than one hundred other albums with other artists. With ON MY WAY TO THE SUN, John may have made his boldest and strongest record yet, both artistically and lyrically.
He skillfully weaves intricate progressive rock, poignant balladry, crunchy hard rock, and even folky elements into a powerfully cohesive whole. At heart, John is a masterful storyteller, so every song carries potent imagery that leaves the listener with a lasting imprint on their heart. And yet, John is never heavy-handed in his messaging, preferring to let the characters and the stories themselves speak for themselves.
One over-arching theme is the preciousness of time, and encountering the Lord in every moment. The rocking “Where Have All The Old Days Gone” may seem at first glance like a nostalgic look back, but in actually, it’s a call to “bring back the sun and seize the day.” The opening track, “This is How the Story Goes” was inspired by a faith-filled friend facing a battle with cancer. This deeply moving song is a brilliantly played and arranged prog-rock epic, featuring master guitarist Richard Williams and violin virtuoso David Ragsdale from the legendary band Kansas.
The title track is a blast of California sunshine about a man who has “waited to long to put a crown on my King” and is finally ready to receive Christ’s Lordship in his life. “All I Have to Do”, “The Awakening”, and “Half the Way Home” are all vintage melodic rock songs with soaring harmonic choruses. John’s voice is in prime form, reminding listeners why he remains one of the highest-regarded vocalists in music today.
The tone shifts with the thoughtful acoustic meditation “We All Fall Short” which is graced with some tasty violin interplay, courtesy of Chris Carmichael. “Don’t Hide Away” is a return to a more intense sound that matches the challenging lyrics about spiritual warfare.
For me, the song that absolutely stopped me in my tracks is the gorgeous and heart-gripping “This Time” about a young girl facing a life and death decision (see preceding article). The song builds to an awe-inspiring crescendo, with strings and choir, and the year’s best guitar solo, which is played by Dave Cleveland. Total epicness, all the way around. Make sure you watch the thrilling video of “This Time” via YouTube or John’s website johnelefante.com.
The album closes with the beautifully worshipful “Confess” which tells the Good News of Jesus’ victory in just a few perfect words. Vocally, John kicks it up into another register in rapturous praise to God. ON MY WAY TO THE SUN is an album that will stay with you long after you’ve heard it, and you’ll want to hear it again and again. Check it out!
STEPHEN SIMPSON is the Editor of One-to-One Magazine and the Director of CSM Publishing. In addition to publishing ministry, Stephen has served in leadership for churches and ministries in Costa Rica, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, and Michigan, as well as being the Senior Pastor of Covenant Church of Mobile (2004-2013). He continues to travel in ministry across North America and in other nations.