From the moment Jeff Bates set out to record One Day Closer, his second album for Black River Entertainment, he knew exactly what direction he wanted the songs to go. The past three years had been emotional for the artist: he had lost both his father and his mother in close succession, and welcomed his baby daughter into the world. He found himself intensely drawn to the theme of life and rebirth, which can be heard throughout the EP's six songs.
"I wanted to sing about things that make me feel emotionally connected to life," Jeff says. "I wanted to include songs that were introspective yet would reflect my natural curiosity - and maybe everyone's curiosity - about what comes after this life."
The first step in the process was "One Day Closer", a song he wrote with Jason Matthews (writer of Billy Currington's "Must Be Doin' Somethin' Right"). "I didn't set out to make an inspirational album," Jeff says, "but after I lost my mom and dad, I started thinking that you can talk about death as being morbid or you can talk about it as being the end of one thing and the beginning of another. That's how I choose to look at it. Everything I sing about on this CD is something that my friends and I talk about all the time."
When Jeff started performing the song live with his band for fans, he realized it would make a perfect title track, as well as set the tone for the whole project. With that in mind, he began adding other songs around it. One of the first he selected was another Jason Matthews co-penned tune called "The Rapture".
"I wanted to include 'The Rapture' because it's just SO powerful and emotionally charged," Jeff explains. "I can't imagine waking up one morning and learning that my wife and child and everyone I know and love have been taken to be with the Lord, leaving me behind because of my disbelief. This song scares me!"
"Living Stones" was written by Jeff, two of his band mates, Robert Arthur and Mark Johnson, and his merchandise manager, Kirk Roth. The tune is based on a real-life individual they met at a gig in Mississippi. "While we were there, a man named Cecil Thurman took my whole band fishing one morning," says Jeff fondly. "He was a salt of the earth kind of guy, not one to quote a lot of Scripture to you or anything, but you could just tell he was a good man. I think sometimes we miss the godliness in people like Mr. Cecil, so we sat down and wrote this song, 'Living Stones', about people who are quiet and stay in the background, but if the world didn't have them, we'd lose so much of our strength." Jeff laughs and adds, "It was really fun watching Mr. Cecil's face the first time he heard us play and sing the song for him."
Two of the songs on the EP are traditional tunes ("Wayfaring Stranger" and "Life's Railway to Heaven") that he included as a tribute to his mama. "I grew up singing 'Wayfaring Stranger' with her as a child," he recalls. "I wanted to find a way to do it that was all my own. One night, I was sleeping and dreamed I was singing it just the way you hear it on the album. I woke up and didn't have anything to record it on. I actually woke my wife up singing the song arrangement into my phone. It just felt right musically, so that's how we did it."
The final cut on the CD is a song called "If You Could See Me Now", a song Jeff didn't intend to include at all. But as everything else fell into place, he realized it would create the perfect ending to the record. The song evolved out of a personal tragedy that befell Jeff's bass player, Mark Johnson.
"He lost his granddaughter, Ellison Marie, when she was just seven hours old," explains the singer. "Mark called me and said his daughter had asked us to write a song to help them deal with the pain. And I thought, 'Oh my God, how do you write a song like that and how do you write it without it being just heart-wrenchingly sad?' But I sat down with Mark and my guitar player, Robert who had an idea called 'If You Could See Me Now', and it just felt like what we needed to say. I thought, 'That's what we need to write about - not about the loss but about the gain - to show that everything we lose in THIS life is only temporary. The song is a lot deeper than it appears on the surface because it addresses things in a way to keep the sadness down." One of Jeff's favourite lines in the song is:
We're all having cake and ice cream
Ooops, I dropped some chocolate on my wings
Jeff was asked to sing the song at the baby's funeral to help bring the family peace and hope. "They put the song title on their baby's tombstone, and I consider it an honour to include the song on the CD as a tribute to her and her family," he adds quietly.
One Day Closer is Jeff's fourth studio album (counting two releases on RCA prior to joining Black River in 2008) and represents the first time he shares production credit, a fact he's very proud of. "I got to do some recording, editing, and mixing in my home studio, and it really opened my eyes to how far technology's come in the past few years," he says. "Jimmy [Nichols] would email me a song and I'd add some instrumentals or vocal parts to it at home."
Most importantly, the singer/songwriter believes this CD will open up fans and listeners to a fresh, unexpected side of his artistry. "People who come to my shows have already seen this side of me," he says, "But others who are only familiar with my CDs maybe haven't. I believe on some level everybody lives the words of these songs daily. So I didn't write or choose these songs with commercialism in mind; I chose them with US in mind - songs to give us comfort, make us think, give us hope in this life and the next. That's the whole point behind this album. If it does that, then it will have accomplished its purpose."