With ‘Blue Flower,’ The Gray Havens Put Sehnsucht to Song – Brett McCracken

Dave and Licia Radford have been making music as The Gray Havens for almost a decade, and they are no strangers to literary inspiration (their name is a Tolkien reference). With their latest album, Blue Flower (download for free via Bandcamp), The Gray Havens have taken their love for bookish, Inklings-inspired folk-pop to the next literary level. It’s a 12-song concept album inspired by C. S. Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised By Joy. That’s not to say the songs are straightforward retellings of episodes in Lewis’s life. No, they’re more inspired by the ideas that shaped Lewis—and led him from being an anti-Christian skeptic to one of Christianity’s most beloved and effective apologists.

The “joy” concepts Lewis explores in Surprised By Joy are profound and resonant for many readers—particularly that of sehnsucht. A German concept that situates joy within the ineffable realm of ache, longing, and nostalgia (often mysterious nostalgia for places you’ve never been), sehnsucht is an idea less understood than felt. It’s the feeling of encountering something so beautiful—a stirring symphony, scenic sunset, laughter and long conversation with friends—that your heart feels paradoxically full to the brim and reminded of its restlessness. It has less to do with logic than our loves. That’s why Lewis turned to literature, poetry, and imagery to explore sehnsucht. And it’s why The Gray Havens turned to song.

I asked Dave Radford of The Gray Havens about Lewis, joy, sehnsucht, and why the album inspired by Surprised By Joy is called Blue Flower.

When did you first read Surprised By Joy, and when did you first consider the idea of making a concept album inspired by the book?

I first read Surprised by Joy in the spring of 2019 as a sort of due-diligence read for a (different) Lewis-themed concept album I was working on. A few chapters in, I came across the following passage where Lewis describes his first experience with Joy, or sehnsucht, and makes an offhand reference to the Blue Flower. It captured my interest:

And every day there were what we called ‘the Green Hills’; that is, the low line of the Castlereagh Hills which we saw from the nursery windows. They were not very far off but they were, to children, quite unattainable. They taught me longing—sehnsucht; made me for good or ill, and before I was six years old, a votary of the Blue Flower.

The entire book is Lewis’s life story as told through the lens of his encounters with Joy and his search for its source, which he ultimately locates in Jesus. Being a massive Lewis fan, I loved the entire book, but the imagery of the Blue Flower stuck with me. I wasn’t familiar with the reference, so I looked it up. It turns out the Blue Flower was used in German Romantic literature as a symbol for sehnuscht, or Joy, during the 1700s.

I loved the book so much that my initial concept album plans changed, and I started writing for what eventually became our new album, Blue Flower.

How do the concepts and literary references of the album inform the musical styles of the songs?

In the end, it’s all about serving the song and giving it what it needs to “work.” Often what would seem to pair well with the lyric or literary reference is actually the furthest away from what’s needed. One of the album’s songs, “It’s Possible,” was inspired by Lewis’s first trip to Oxford. The original sketch was very classical in style in an attempt to capture something close to the source of inspiration. It was terrible. Partly because the song fundamentally wasn’t about Oxford or anything to do with it. It was all about what made Lewis say, “I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life.” We ended up ditching the song, only to revive months later a quirky-pop vibe (if that’s a thing). It doesn’t sound like Oxford, but it didn’t need to. Other times, the obvious answer is the right one. In the end, it’s all about what feels right, not what makes the most sense on paper.

How does Sehnsucht as an idea relate to beauty, art-making, and Christianity? How might artists generally, and Christian artists in particular, find the concept helpful in capturing what they do and why?

It’s something I’m unconsciously on the lookout for during the songwriting process. To some extent, experiencing sehnsucht at some stage in the writing process is a litmus test as to whether any of our songs make it to the recording stage. If I don’t feel it, I can’t expect the listener will either. I think a lot of artists are hoping to evoke sehnsucht through their art to one degree or the next, though they might not call it that. For a lot of our songs, our hope is that whatever sehnsucht is felt while listening to one of our songs ultimately leads to wonder and joy at who God is.

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