In the beginning, the angry emails came fast and furious.
What, they asked, were two nice Catholic boys like Alex and Danylo Fedoryka — the founding members of Scythian — doing playing secular music in bars and clubs? Were they afraid of people knowing about their Catholicism? Were they hiding their faith under the proverbial bushel basket?
“Definitely not,” was the band’s response. They just felt called to do something different with their music.
“With music, there is truth contained in beauty and goodness,” Danylo explained. “Even if you’re not explicitly talking about Christ, you can still preach Christ.”
After 1,200 shows and eight albums — their ninth, “Jump at the Sun,” will be released in August — the angry emails have mostly stopped. Playing for Pope Benedict XVI on the main stage at World Youth Day has a way of silencing even the most entrenched critics.
It’s not just Scythian’s success, however, that has made the Catholic musicians’ foray into secular music more palatable. It’s also that such forays have become increasingly common.
Over the past several years, numerous bands with either openly Christian members or explicitly Christian lyrics have been enjoying varying degrees of commercial success in the secular marketplace.
At the top of that list are groups with strong Protestant roots such as the Avett Brothers, who played on stage with Bob Dylan at the 2011 Grammys; the husband and wife duo of Karen Berquist and Lindford Detweiler, known as Over The Rhine, whose 2013 release “Meet Me at the Edge of the World” came in near the top of most critics’ album rankings for the year; and, most notably, the British band Mumford & Sons, whose 2012 album “Babel” soared to No. 1 on the Billboard charts within days of its release.
While Protestants have been out ahead in this new musical moment, several Catholics bands and artists are coming up on their heels.
There is, for example, the already-mentioned Scythian. Their high-energy performances on banjo, fiddle and accordion — yes, accordion — of Celtic/Eastern European tinged folk-rock have made the band one of the most popular between Washington, D.C., and New York.
Then there is Mike Mangione & the Union, a Milwaukee-based indie-folk rock band that is almost constantly on tour, as well as the up-and-coming singer-songwriter Kevin Heider, whose third album, “The Spark,” came out last year.
Show, don’t tell
Although Heider, Mangione and the members of Scythian — Josef Cosby, Ben-David Warner and Tim Hepburn are the band’s other members — all play at least the occasional Catholic event, none of their music fits easily into the category of Christian music. They don’t write praise and worship songs, nor does their work receive much, if any, airplay on Christian radio.
With Mangione, his faith comes through in both the themes and lyrics of his songs.
“In some way, I’m always trying to express the reality of our brokenness and our ability to find redemption,” Mangione said. “Most people wouldn’t classify it as ‘Catholic music’ but in the sense that it deals with these very universal questions of the human heart, it’s very Catholic.”
Heider’s work is at times more explicitly Catholic. His 2012 single, “The Great Flood,” focused on the graces of baptism and the Eucharist.
“I don’t ever sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a Christian song today,’” Heider explained. “I write about what I’ve been thinking or feeling, and because my faith inspires my entire worldview, it inevitably comes out in my music.”
When it comes to Scythian, the band members’ Catholic Faith comes through more in how they play then in what they play.
“From the beginning, our desire has been to bring a lightness into the darkly charged environment you find in most clubs and bars,” Danylo Fedoryka said. “Our goal is to change that feeling of darkness into a feeling of joy.
“What we bring to the table as musicians is that we love everybody because they’re God’s children,” he added. “Recognizing the dignity of the people in our audiences requires us to give them the best show we can give no matter what.”
‘Starved for quality’
That attitude makes a difference. So too does the quality of the artists’ work. The maturity and depth of Heider and Mangione’s songwriting increasingly rivals the depth of industry veterans like Over the Rhine, while Crosby and the Fedoryka brothers’ mastery of their instruments reflects their years of classical training.
Nevertheless, the popular success these Catholics are enjoying is still remarkable. For that matter, so is the success of the Avett Brothers, with their Bible-soaked tunes, and Mumford & Sons, whose songs are peppered with the words of G.K. Chesterton and St. Julian of Norwich.
What might account for that success?
“I think people are starved for quality music,” Danylo Fedoryka said. “There’s been a lot of bad music for a long time, and they’re tired of the overproduced offerings from the music industry. Then, along comes the Avetts and Marcus Mumford, and they’re writing songs with substance, songs that are about more than the latest hookup or partying. They’re talking about things that are real, and people respond to that.”
Presenting the truth
“A lot of it goes back to what John Paul II said about everyone having an ache in their heart for God that can’t be silenced,” added Mangione. “People long to hear about these things, but they’ll write off any music that has the Christian label attached to it. When you work these themes into songs in more subtle ways, though, they listen.”
Which is why these artists do what they do. They use art as a way of presenting truth and beauty to the world at large.
“Before you can enter into a deeper relationship with someone, you have to get to know them,” Heider said. “The Eucharist is the source and summit, but not everybody understands the Eucharist, and they’re not going to understand the Eucharist until they understand who we are as people. Just writing church songs doesn’t always help with that. There’s more to us than that. So, I look at my music as a way of entering into a conversation with people, telling them about who I am and inviting them to do the same.”
In effect, what these artists do is the work of the New Evangelization.
“Our culture is filled with incredible people with incredible potential,” Mangione said. “But they’re constantly bombarded by so many negative messages. That’s why we’re called to go out into the streets and present a different message. That’s our job. Not to be on the outskirts shouting, but to be on the inside showing.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.