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Chris August has struck a balance in a beautiful tension. The soulful singer-songwriter who cites influences from Stevie Wonder to Boyz II Men accepts the call to speak the truth and pour every ounce of his being into his music, without taking himself too seriously. This equilibrium is evident on the award-winning artist’s new record, The Upside of Down.
At 3 p.m. on April 25, 2012, August woke up in a hospital bed with no idea where he was or how he had gotten there. A plastic band hugged his wrist, and an IV poked out from the skin on his arm. Utterly confused, August looked up to meet the eyes of a friend who told him he’d been in a serious skateboarding accident the day before.
“It’s the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had in my entire life,” says the easygoing musician, occasionally laughing in disbelief as he tries to describe what it’s like to forget an entire day of your life – and a frightfully eventful one at that.
August remembers looking at potential covers for his new album with friends on April 24th. What he doesn’t remember is hopping on his electric skateboard on a street he’d boarded hundreds of times, hitting a patch of gravel in an unmarked construction site, flying from his board, being knocked unconscious and later being rushed to the hospital for a bruised, bleeding and swelling brain injury.
After a CT scan, doctors told the 30-year-old that there was a 50 percent chance the swelling would continue, requiring a very serious surgery that sometimes leaves its patients relearning basic functions—like how to walk. Thankfully, though, the swelling went down, and August was able to return home a week later and recover.
Even in the wake of that trauma, August is good-natured and able to make light of certain moments along the way, especially the conversations he had in the hospital, which he now forgets – like trying to convince a friend to escape with him in the middle of the night.
August’s new record, The Upside of Down, is due out on August 21, less than four months after his accident. The record explores the beauty of God’s omnipresence and abiding love, and the lead single, “Center Of It,” points to God’s promise to be with His people in the midst of the highs and lows of our lives.
Joking that he should have prophesied something more optimistic, August describes “The Upside of Down,” written with his co-producer Ian Eskelin (Francesca Battistelli, Jason Castro), as revealing the truth that God is with us both in the beauty and the brokenness.
“It shows God’s character and His grace that He has for us,” August explains. “God loves us despite the mistakes we make. He’s there with us no matter what.”
And while the title track and “Center Of It” would seem to have emerged from the story of his recent incident, August penned both songs long before he ever thought of buying an electric skateboard. Both gained new significance, however, when he returned home from the hospital to begin the humbling healing process. Sitting down in his studio to listen through the most recent mixes of the record, August was inundated with poignant reminders of God’s faithfulness pouring out of his songs and reminding him that he wasn’t alone, even in his own highs and lows.
The Upside of Down isn’t August’s first break into the music industry by any means. His Fervent Records debut, 2010’s No Far Away, cemented his name in the Christian music world and earned the Texas native the coveted titles of “New Artist of the Year,” “Male Vocalist of the Year” and “Pop Contemporary Album of the Year” at the 42nd Annual GMA Dove Awards. That record also spawned the massively popular radio single “Starry Night,” which held the No.1 spot on Billboard’s Christian / AC chart for six consecutive weeks and was the first debut single to reach No.1 on that chart in more than three years.
When he was just 22, August cut his teeth in the mainstream industry working with names like Ryan Cabrera, Brian McKnight, Robin Thicke and Babyface and signing with Geffen Records while being managed by Jessica and Ashlee Simpson’s father, Joe Simpson. He toured with and opened for Ashlee, and it was on one of those tours that he finally decided to leave Los Angeles. He’d been living there for three years and felt it was time to head back to Texas and his Christian music roots by leading worship at his church.
Just months later, in January of 2009, August was sitting in his room writing “Starry Night,” an anthem to the God who had rekindled something now burning within him.
“It was really late at night, and was during the time when I had been getting back involved in church in Dallas,” he remembers. “I wrote the whole song that night and recorded it, produced it and put it on an independent record.”
When an A&R rep at Word Records heard that recording, August ended up with a deal and made the move to Nashville. He co-produced No Far Away with celebrated producer Ed Cash (Dave Barnes, Steven Curtis Chapman), exploring the depths of his love for writing and producing.
Now, the self-taught pianist and keyboardist is coming back to his rootsier side with The Upside of Down, letting some of his more soulful, R&B influences take the spotlight.
“Anytime I play live, I do these stylized versions of the songs on my record, and people are always saying, ‘Why don’t you sing like that on your album?’” he muses. “After hearing that suggestion multiple times, I started thinking, ‘Well, now that you say that, maybe I will.’”
An enthusiastic Stevie Wonder fan, August’s gospel music influences are especially clear on his record on songs like the groove-heavy “Amen.” With titles like “Restore,” “Let There Be Light,” “I Believe” and “A Little More Jesus,” the songs on The Upside of Down see August turning to traditional gospel themes, capturing their enduring truths with his pen while infusing them with the new energy of his pop-laden yet grippingly expressive sound.
When it came time to mix the project, August knew the exact patina he wanted, and he didn’t settle for anything less. Though it was a pipe dream at the time, he reached out to his favorite mix engineer – LA-based Neal Avron (Fall Out Boy, Sara Bareilles), who has been behind tons of pop records. Avron mixed the entire album, rounding out the songs just the way August had envisioned them when he was still in the writing room.
When it’s all said and done, the musically meticulous artist who sees each of his songs from the initial writing phase to the fully orchestrated, mixed and mastered track, says his primary hope as a songwriter is to write and produce songs that people relate to, songs that meet them where they are and offer something in that interaction.
“I’m not veering from that,” he insists. “At the end of the day, sure it’d be awesome if I could sell a lot of records and have some success just from the business side of it. That’d be great, but what good is all that if I’m not reaching people and encouraging them to live for something greater than themselves?”