(Photo courtesy of Co-Lab Management)
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS CONTENT FOR MATURE AUDIENCES ONLY
The Man Behind The Music
An Interview with Chris Cleveland of Stars Go Dim
By Sarah Komisky
If you don’t know Chris Cleveland, you’ve probably already met him. You just haven’t realized it yet. He was singing on the radio in your car on your way to work on that song you really liked and wished you knew who sang it. Yeah, you guessed it, he’s the person you’ve likely streamed on your phone. Yep, behind the moniker, he is the artist Stars Go Dim who has received tons of radio play. Simply put, his songs are contagious – in the best way possible. Either they make you want to sing really loud or dance like no one’s watching. But even more than that, they have the ability to leave you hopeful. From the no. 1 song, “You Are Loved,” to the recent singles, “Heaven on Earth” and “You Know Me Better” off the new album Better, Chris’s music has become somewhat of a household name for several good reasons. From their early days as a mainstream pop band to their transition into the Christian format, this band has possessed an unparalleled quality – an ability to meet people on a very human level, especially when it comes to mental health. Listen to Chris’s songs again and you’ll hear his heart stemming from his own personal story. That’s why we at Marked Ministry wanted to take the time to introduce you to the music (if you haven’t been already) but also the man behind it whose passion and dedication is to help others find their true identity through the platform he’s been given. Specifically, to help others who are facing mental health issues. This is what this interview is all about.
Sarah: In 2011 you had the song, “Like I Mean It” and that was dealing with the subject of depression. So talk about how the song sparked this desire to talk about mental health? Was it something you personally dealt with? Tell me a little bit about the background on that?
Chris: Yeah, it was really interesting. Even further back than that, my degree’s in psychology, so I’ve always kind of had a heart for this honestly because I grew up in a family that needed to address the issues that were happening. I watched all these things kind of play out and there was a really abusive situation from my mother’s dad to her kids, then grandkids, then that trickled down to us in different ways and then I watched it affect 5 families within my close family. Watching that firsthand and living it really opened my eyes to this mental health thing and mental health in the church because my mom’s dad was a pastor, so I basically grew up in a tiny little church that was pastored by that horrible human being and then trying to justify God and the action of these people. Then the response of those actions and seeing how faith and abuse and then all the fallout of all that was crazy to me. I was always as a kid, able to separate God and common sense [laughs].
Then, to get back to your question, “Like I Mean It” really was the first song I sang that had that undertone in it and in 2011, Joey Avalos wrote most of that song and it really was honestly before its time I think. I don’t think anyone before that time was really writing anything about that. We’re just now seeing songs that are coming out now that are really honest. Before then, we weren’t doing Christian music at that point––mainstream pop music––so that kind of was the first step in that direction and then I transitioned into Christian music. I’ve always been a worship leader in different churches and that stuff and then I put out a record with a song called “You Are Loved” on it in 2015. That song just blew up and I started getting daily emails and messages from people who were severely depressed, suicidal, and multiple messages of people who heard the song and said that it saved their lives and said that it kept them from killing themselves or it got them through certain situations. That was really the first time that I was exposed to the epidemic of mental health within the church and it really shocked me.
I still do receive those messages frequently to be honest more than you think you would and I’m always so gracious that those people would reach out and share their story. But I also as best as I can try to connect them with people that can help them professionally. I’m a firm believer that God has given people the skills and the knowledge and the power to help us through these situations and we should fully take advantage of those places. I was honestly worried about liability. I thought, “if someone actually attempts to hurt themselves, and I have their message, and I haven’t reported this somewhere…” So I started calling friends and people I knew, advocacy groups and just made sure if that happened, that I could not be liable––which sounds crazy. But it was this moment I said, “okay, there’s something happening that’s big, especially within the church, and we’re not addressing it at all.”
I’ve watched this generation, and I think it starts with mine. I’m 34 – and maybe it’s just that we can communicate it now, I’m not really sure what it is. But I don’t think prior generations 1) talked about it and 2) I’m fairly certain that numbers on depression and suicide have only gone up, which is telling. And I don’t think that number is any different within the church––it may even be slightly higher. So the heartbeat really became to say, “OK I’ve been given a platform of some sort and I want to speak truth into people’s lives.” That’s why the songs that you hear from me from that point out all deal with identity and value and worth. That’s really what I speak about and just try to meet people where they are and connect them to what they were made to be and who they really are.
Sarah: I think you hit something I really wanted to talk about for those in the church. Many of us have experienced a lot of the things you were talking about and I saw on a Facebook post where you brought up the subject of Christ followers not having enough faith if we struggle with depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, etc. So, share about how we as the church can begin to undo the lie that we’ve believed for so long?
Chris: I was just talking to a great friend of mine last week about this and he was on staff at a church that is doing these great things. He came to them and said, “I’m struggling with depression. I’ve had thoughts of suicide and all these things.” And somebody came to him and said, “your faith is not strong enough.” In that moment, of all the things to say to someone, that’s just not the right thing, nor is it correct. That really is how the church has approached this thing for many years, and I’m all for faith and I’m all for believing things, but I’m also for if it doesn’t make any sense, then I’m going to do a double take on it. I think that’s how we should all be around faith and we reconcile this with relationship, and with community. And I think a lot of us––when we go to church––that’s what we’re searching for on some level aside from the faith journey. We’re looking for people like us that we can connect with to share life with. And then, I think we need to be able to have honest conversations and not be afraid to not know the answers. Not be afraid to seek professional help. Not be afraid of people outside of the church to have influence on our thoughts and lives.
I think a lot of times we try to make pastors therapists, and they’re not therapists. The average church, if you have mental health issues, does not have a licensed clinical psychologist or a clinical counselor on staff. Some do – which is pretty awesome. I think that’s an incredible way to move the ball forward in this area and hopefully that will at some point be a fairly typical church position. But we’ve been afraid I think and maybe a little fearful of how shallow our faith is that we can’t handle the facts and opinions of qualified experts or scientists or psychologists and, again, that’s a big generality because there are some people that are really doing it well and really leading the way in these conversations.
But we have to have open conversation and have open dialogue and be able to connect that with our faith, with our prayer, and I don’t think those two things, when done correctly, ever rub. I think they go hand in hand. But doing a funeral of a kid who took their life or husband or wife who took their own lives, which I’ve done. Those are the hardest things that you’ll ever have to do and we have to talk about it. We have to figure this out and we have to meet people where they’re at, just like we would in any other program in the church.
Sarah: I’m so happy that you are having these conversations and that your doing it in love. You said something really key a little while ago about having community and being open with one another. And I think for many of us who are hurting, it’s scary because we’re afraid of the response. Although the church is called to be loving, we can fail on so many levels to do that. So maybe you can talk about why love is so needed right now.
Chris: Well, some of us are scared. We’re scared to say the wrong thing. We’re scared because maybe we have our own issues and we haven’t dealt with them. There’s a lot to that, that’s why I think I would want to speak to someone how I would want to be spoken to. And mental health is one of these things along with a bunch of other things going on in the church now, that we have to approach with love. We’ve got a culture right now that is saying, “hey we accept everybody. You’re welcome here and we love you as you are, as you come.” And, as a church, if we want to bring people in our doors, then we have to accept people as they come, where they are, and meet them with love. Because if they don’t find it walking into the doors of the church, they’re going to go find it somewhere else. So if we want to be relevant and we want the message of Christ, which is the message of love and come as you are essentially, then that’s who we have to be.
Sarah: I was looking at your Instagram and I saw on World Suicide Prevention Day that you released this live video of a song called “Surviving/Red Lights” and that was happening in our world. Then in the church, we grieved the loss of Pastor Jarrid Wilson that occurred at the same time. So what did that mean to you to release this song at that point in time?
Chris: You know, it was crazy. I’ve had that song or versions of it for years. I honestly wrote a lot of that song at the end of 2017, early 2018 when I was struggling with a high degree of depression and anxiety. It was just kind of an honest moment for me to put into the song how I was feeling. I haven’t really played it for anyone ever because I thought “there’s just no room for this in Christian music honestly [laughs].” That morning I saw it was World Suicide Prevention Day and I thought, “you know what, I have everything to do this. I’m just gonna play the song and put it out there. I don’t care. Maybe somebody needs to hear this.” So I just set it up and recorded it in one take and later found out about the loss of Jarrid Wilson, which is just heartbreaking. For me, that song, I just wanted to be honest and say, “hey listen, there’s a lot of us that have these thoughts, and there’s a lot of us that been through these moments of depression or these moments that we can’t see out of what’s right in front of our face or what’s right inside our head. And you know, some of those lyrics of literally feeling like you’re stuck in your mind and not being able to get out, I’ve been in those places, and it’s not like you want to be there.
I didn’t know Jarrid personally, but I had a lot of friends that did, which honestly I was surprised that I hadn’t met him because so many of my friends had personal stories of him and he was apparently an amazing guy that really felt passionately about this issue because of what he dealt with. I think it goes to show how serious a disease this is and there are moments and the depth of those places where you just can’t get out of it and I don’t think for anyone who thinks that mental illness is a choice or something that someone could just have faith and or pray their way out of. It is really ignorant to say that and a little short sighted because it’s such a real phenomenon and it’s so powerful that we just have to shine light on it. Then I think that opens up the whole thought about offering pastors and people administrating, a safe place to get the help that they need as well. I think those conversations are just beginning to happen.
People like me who are on the road all the time, who make their income off of going out and playing at churches or faith-based events, this is speaking really frankly––If I’m not in a good place, it’s not in my best interest to not take a gig or to not do something because I still have to provide for my family. Even the best of companies out there may not have some sort of resource for musicians. When you’re self-employed or you’re at a church who’s not necessarily having these conversations, there’s not safe spaces that you can go to get the help you need. I think we need to start shining a light on that and opening up those avenues for ministers and people who are leading us to get assistance they need as well because after being in the church for as long as I’ve been, seeing so many people go through this and battle with these things, it’s more prevalent than you think. It’s not easy to in those positions of leadership, especially because I see this because I’m friends with more of them, especially with young people leading the church.
Sarah: I wanted to go into some of the music that you do. I l love “You Know Me Better.” Share the story behind that one.
Chris: This whole record I released is called Better. I released it [“You Know Me Better”] over the summer and it’s just the songs of the journey of the last couple years. I was a worship leader at a megachurch in Oklahoma. One of the largest Methodist congregations in the country. I was the director over all their modern music for 10 years–– I was also traveling and doing Stars Go Dim full-time during those 10 years. I’ve got a wife who’s great, three great children, and I was basically working myself to death on the road like crazy and not around my family at all. Long story short, we made this huge transition. I stepped out of the ministry where I was at the church. We moved from Oklahoma to Tennessee, and then I took six months off of work completely. So I went from touring full-time, working full-time and traveling, to moving and not doing anything [laughs]. I was going miles and miles of hours for years and years and years to zero.
When we moved to Tennessee, we sought a really great resource for touring musicians called Porter’s Call, which is a counseling service. Costs us [him and his wife] $5 bucks and we can go in and it’s been great. My wife and I started going, and I jumped in it and I talked to a counselor there and they said, “listen you’ve been going so crazy for years, that this is really going to hit you hard,” and to stop. Really I was trying to do it honestly to restore the relationship with my wife and my kids, but what I found was that I had so much stuff that I needed to deal with, and it sure did hit me. I kind of went into a deep depression during that time and it was hard.
We had written this song over the summer (I’d written it with a couple friends). For some reason, one day I played it and I was driving in the car and it just killed me. It was God speaking straight to me through the song that we had written. When we wrote it, we were trying to write it from two perspectives. From God knowing us better than we know ourselves, which I think is an obvious and easy to grasp thing, but the mind blowing flip to that is Him knowing us as better people than we can know ourselves to be. When we really think about that, it starts becoming wild. And I think a lot of times when we see ourselves, we see the pain, and we see the scars, and we see the hurt and all baggage that comes with it. And in its simplest way, when Christ sees us, He sees a reflection of Himself. And in those moments, I just felt God saying, “listen Chris, you’re a good Dad and your worthy of this life and love and all these things.” I’m a 3 Enneagram Achiever and so a lot of times, if I’m not making you think I’m the greatest person in the world, then I feel like a complete failure and an impostor. So in those moments, it’s, “listen, you’re good, I made you this way, don’t freak out, I’ve got you.” And I think, just having a perspective of God not being this judgmental far away person, but someone who cares enough and knows us enough and really has an interest in who we are individually and in our well being, is really an important thing for us to know. So that’s really what a lot of that song is about, just trying to speak that identity, value, and worth into people as they awaken to who they really are in Christ.
It is the latest song I put to radio and I firmly believe––and I may differ theologically with some people especially with our Americanized Christianity in some ways––but, I fully believe that God made us good. Sometimes we can’t see that within ourselves but I fully believe that we were made in His image and that means we’re awesome and we just have to realize it. I was literally in a church two weeks ago where a pastor got on stage, all kinds of people in their seats, little kids, I mean, crazy, and he got up and said, and I quote, “you are worthless. There’s nothing good inside of you without Jesus.” And I almost just walked off the stage because I felt complicit in this message.
So later I got on stage and I said, “don’t ever let anyone tell you that you are worthless or unworthy because your made in the image of Christ.” I think as a church we’ve led so much with shame and guilt as a way to convince us to escape hell. It hasn’t been about the goodness of God and it hasn’t been about what God created us to be, but has been so much of “you’re bad, you’re going to go burn in hell if you don’t accept Jesus,” instead of, this gracious God cared enough to make you in His image. He cared enough about you to send His son Jesus to die for your sins. And I think we’ve just distorted this gospel message so much that even when we’re coming into the church as broken people, they’re not helping us feel well, they’re reinforcing our own insecurities and leading with shame. And that’s a really broad generality but we’ve seen over the years in churches and I see it in a a lot of places that I go because I’ve traveled all over the world and see these types of messages.
Sarah: I was listening to “For Worse or For Better” and I was like, wow, it just got real in this song [laughs]. Just the pain and the hurt of relationships and marriage that I think is so needed to talk about. Share about that song.
Chris: Yeah, I mean isn’t that the deepest song in a nice little pop tune? I tried to wrap it up in something pretty. You know honestly, a little bit what I was talking about just a second ago, when I was working at the church full-time, traveling full-time, I would be gone eight months out of a year and when I was home, I was working all the time. So at some point, my wife came to me––and this is the G rated version––and said, “listen, I’m a single mom raising 3 kids and you’re on the road, and this isn’t working out and we’ve gotta figure this out.” There was a lot to it and that was really kind of a song that came out of that moment that said, “OK, listen, I’m in. Let’s figure this out and really dive into fixing us.” Maybe I’m just not very good at being a Christian music person, but I just want to talk about real stuff in my songs and not just be all fluff. So that’s what that song is. I love it as a pop song, and I wanted to write something for my wife as well. So that’s just some real life coming at ya.
Sarah: I wanted to talk about “Invisible.” What has this song meant to you?
Chris: I wrote that song with my friend Jeff Pardo who I wrote “Heaven on Earth” with and a bunch of other songs actually. But we wrote that for our wives again when I had all my kids and he has two kids now. Motherhood, especially initially, you see the Instagram versions and it’s never what you think it is and a lot of times it’s isolating. I know I’ve had to let my wife tell her own story. But after our first was born, she really struggled with postpartum depression and I didn’t do very well I think in response to that. I think at the time, I didn’t have the tools or the self-awareness to know what was going on to help her. And, because I was out trying to make a living and do all this other stuff, that I was just ignorant to it. That song was really a song saying, “listen, I I know you’re struggling. I know there’s times in life that are hard. There are times when you feel like no one sees you. When you’re just all alone and no one can understand and sometimes, we don’t understand. But your not how you feel and you’re not invisible” in its most simplest way. It’s been a song that people just connected to in an incredible way as well for the same reasons. I think we all want to be seen. We all want to be known and loved as we are. As we look at that within the framework of mental health, we have to see people and we have to get to know them and we have to get to love them as they are so that we can begin to have real conversations as we face this epidemic.
For more on Chris and Stars Go Dim visit starsgodim.com