If you have never heard of Tenth Avenue North, be prepared to add a new favorite group to your playlist. The five-man Rock band has toured the world sharing their sound and style with a solid Christian message. After charting independently with their first three albums, they made their major label debut in late 2014 with Cathedrals via Reunion / Sony.
But the records they’ve sold and accolades they’ve earned over the years, including the Dove Awards ‘New Artist of the Year’ in 2009 and ‘Song of the Year’ in 2010, are just frosting on the cake of their collective journey. For Tenth Avenue North, it’s all about the fans and their ability to connect through positivity and faith.
As an example of their care for humanity, the band released their video “For Those Who Can’t Speak“, a track from Cathedrals, in honor of Human Trafficking Awareness Month in January. They are currently working on new tours for this year, and of course they are always creating music. But what do they like to do for fun?
In this edition of Movie Buff, we locked in some time with Tenth Avenue North’s lead vocalist Mike Donehey, a quiet-as-kept film geek, to find out some of the films and stories that have touched him the most in his life. We also find out how labels, stereotypes and the perceived cost of fame have affected his career moves, how he balances marriage and fatherhood with work, and more!
I saw on your social media that you are reading the book Unbroken. Are you one of those people who needs to read the book before seeing the movie?
Mike Donehey: No – in fact I don’t usually like to read the book before I see the movie, because if I read the book then I’ll just be mad the whole time I’m watching the movie. It really just came from a friend who said, “Dude, you can make five movies out of this guy’s life. You need to read the book.” He was right. I’m only a third of the way through, and there’s one little scene that takes two pages that could have been a whole movie right there. It’s unreal.
Can you give us some of your favorite movies of all time, and tell us why you like them?
MD: 1. Dead Poet’s Society
Directed by: Peter Weir
Starring: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles
“Carpe Diem!” That’s easy.
Directed by: Mel Gibson
Starring: Mel Gibson, Catherine McCormack
He truly lived. I was just a teenage boy when it came out so I thought it was awesome.
3. Big Fish
Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman
Because elaboration is often times closer than the truth.
4. Stranger Than Fiction
Directed by: Mike Forster
Starring: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal
It’s a recent film that I thought was fantastic starring Will Ferrell. There are few scripts in the world where every word is the right one, and that’s one of them. Not one wasted syllable in the whole movie.
5. Rocky IV
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Carl Weathers, Talia Shire
The line, “Because if I can change, you can change, everyone can change.”
6) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Year: 2001, 2002, 2003
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, Sean Bean, Kate Blanchett
It’s probably the greatest depiction of life as a Christian. Peter Jackson was a huge avid fan [of the books], which helped. Elijah Wood tried out for the film and wasn’t called back, and so he sent in a tape to Peter Jackson of him out in the field quoting lines from the book with a sword. And he got a callback. He just really wanted it and was a huge fan of the books.
7) The Muppet Movie
Directed by: James Frawley
Starring: Kermit The Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear
It’s the first movie I can remember watching as a family. We would call my dad at work and he would get on the phone as different Muppets because he could do all of their voices. So throughout my childhood I thought my dad actually worked with the Muppets.
With regard to religious tones in Lord of the Rings, have you ever gotten into the Chronicles of Narnia?
MD: Of course! I didn’t like the movies though. You know Lewis and Tolkien were friends. They met each other at a pub once a week and talked a lot. Tolkien was almost kind of like a mentor to C.S. Lewis. Tolkien, in stark opposition with Lewis, despised direct allegories. So where in Chronicles of Narnia the witch is the devil, Aslan is God and so forth. In Lord of the Rings you’ll find it’s much looser. It’s symbolic but it isn’t direct, and that was their two different approaches.
How do you feel being a Christian artist has affected your life in the music business?
MD: I really didn’t wanna go into CCM, didn’t want to do it. Just cause I didn’t really listen to it growing up and because to a lot of people in the mainstream, if you make Christian music you just don’t even exist. It’s like “I don’t even know what that is nor do I care to know.” I have great respect for bands that are Christian and in the mainstream. My sister, in fact, is in a band like that. She is an Americana band called The Lone Bellow. I guess it’s unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it.
When I open my mouth to write, the thing that came the most naturally was “Out of the overflow the heart, the mouth speaks” and I just couldn’t not talk directly about Jesus when I was trying to write songs about my faith. So I just said I’m gonna go with it and we actually resisted getting signed for several years. We had talked with some labels, but were just independent.
When we finally got into it, I was greatly surprised that there were actually very wonderful people in the industry. I guess you figure everyone’s a terrible human and all they want is money, but that wasn’t the case at all. It’s still a struggle.
I can look at it in two ways. One would be if I was in the mainstream, maybe more people would be able to hear this message that I’m talking about, because certain doors are still shut in your face as soon as you say “I’m a Christian record label”.
But on the flip side, I think the right way to approach art and music, especially in today’s day and age, I’m absolutely blown away that anyone listens to us or has heard of us or anyone takes any time at all to give us any attention. There’s so much music and so many great songs, that I’m more than blown away that anybody cares at all.
You have a wife and young children. How old are they now?
MD: I’ve got three girls. One of them is at school, she’s five. I have one who’s about to turn four and one who’s one-and-a-half.
How do you balance having very young children in a marriage and having a band that tours?
MD: I think a mark of maturity is understanding that you’re always going to make someone angry. Someone is always going to feel like you don’t give them enough time. It’s just setting up “Who do I want to be the least angry at me?” [laughs]. It’s God first, then my wife and my kids, and then my band. I try to keep things in that order. And you flip it around and say “Who do I need to love the most? Who do I need to give the most time to?” and it’s the same order.
A big thing is whenever you’re saying yes to one thing, you’re saying no to something else. And when you’re saying no to one thing, you’re saying yes to something else. When you have a wife and kids and a career in music, there’s always something you could be doing. I could be out schmoozing every single day, but I’m home. But realizing saying no to that is saying yes to my family, so that’s a worthy exchange.
Who were some of the bands that influenced you the most when you were coming up?
MD: Well, Jars of Clay was a huge deal for me. That was the first time I heard music that could be about faith that was good. Obviously Switchfoot was huge for me. One of my all time favorite records is Counting Crows August and Everything After. You had Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I think I was in seventh grade when they were in their heyday.
As a songwriter, I was first influenced by a guy named David Wilcox – singer, songwriter – and Derek Webb from Caedmon’s Call. He was the first person to show me that you could write about things that you don’t understand in your faith. Also Shane & Shane.
If you were going to do a movie about your life, who would you cast as you?
MD: Probably Brad Pitt because he’s the alpha male, and he’s my favorite actor. And I’d have him talk like he does in Inglorious Bastards.
What is it that you want people to know most about you as a man and about the band as a whole?
MD: I hope when our career is done, that we love music but love people more. I think a lot of times when you talk about artists, you don’t also use the word ‘servant’ because usually people getting onstage are all about letting people serve them. That’s why they want to be on stage. The echo in my heart is the Son of God didn’t come to be served but to serve. There’s a band called MeWithoutYou that had a song [“January 1979”] that said “If I become the servant of all, no lower place to fall” and that’s always been a lyric that has stuck with me as I’ve done this band thing.
I think the music we make is coming from what we’re dealing with. We’re not trying to be the soundtrack for anything except what we’re personally struggling through. There’s a verse in Psalm 49 where David said “I listened to wisdom, and with the music of the lyre I will solve my riddle.” In other words the songs that David wrote were just a result of unriddling his heart and that’s all we’re trying to do. We find that when we do that it seems to connect with more people because there’s people going through the same struggles, the same riddles.
Watch “For Those Who Can’t Speak” ft. Derek Minor & KB