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Their background may have made it look easy—after all, Sidewalk Prophets toured with Jeremy Camp and Audio Adrenaline on the strength of independent albums, then rode the popularity of their first Word Records release, These Simple Truths, to a Dove Award for Best New Artist and a nomination for Pop/Contemporary Album of the Year. "The Words I Would Say" hit #3, "You Can Have Me" went Top 20, a Christmas single, "Hope Was Born This Night," hit the Top 10, and "You Love Me Anyway" went all the way to #1 on the Billboard Christian Singles chart. The band has toured with the Rock and Worship Roadshow with MercyMe and Francesca Battistelli, among others, and landed another Dove nomination for Group of the Year in 2011.
The reality, though, like that of the seemingly placid duck whose feet are pumping furiously underwater, is something else altogether.
"It's not easy for any of us to do what God has called us to do, to go make disciples of the world," says lead singer Dave Frey. He is referring in part to the rigors of the road, which can be extraordinarily demanding for a band as hard working as Sidewalk Prophets, but also to the challenges all vocal believers face.
"It's not a safe thing to try to live like Christ," he says. "You're going to have people criticize you and put you down. It says that in the book of James."
"But," he is quick to add, "when you think both of the sacrifice Jesus made and how off the charts that was but also of what that won for us, you realize that for those of us who persevere and follow him, it will be a good, and an amazing journey."
There is no doubting the dedication of the band, easily one of the hardest working in all of music. They are hands-on about everything, from overall career direction to the smallest details of stage set-up and merchandise. They meet with fans at each stop, including those without tickets to sold-out shows, sign autographs, do interviews, handle their own driving, immerse themselves in PR strategy and keep up a steady contact with fans through social media, including some of the cleverest and most off-the-wall road videos anywhere.
But ten years on, all that work has carried their music and their collective hearts for the Lord to the upper reaches of the charts and earned the affection and respect of a growing legion of fans. They have ministered to audiences that now total in the hundreds of thousands, from church camps to 20,000-seat arenas and the iconic Ryman Auditorium.
Now, with their latest album, the band, which also features lead guitarist Shaun Tomczak, rhythm guitarist Ben McDonald, bassist Cal Joslin and drummer Justin Nace, takes another step forward.
Live Like That, produced by Dove award-winner Ian Eskelin (Battistelli, Stellar Kart), who was also at the helm of These Simple Truths, more than fleshes out the meaning of its title track.
“There comes a point in our lives when we ask: what exactly is this life for?" says Dave, "It’s in those moments that I’m reminded of those who have impacted my life—my grandparents, parents, teachers and pastor—and whether they knew it or not, I saw Christ in them. This album is a reflection of our journey in music and our desire to live our lives in such a way that it is rooted in a deep passion and love that knows no bounds.”
That passion is evident in every note of "Live Like That," and in songs like "Love, Love, Love," with its hints of Motown soul, "Help Me Find It," with its sense of longing and its big pop sound, and "Keep Making Me," with its tight harmonies and its hope for the kind of brokenness that leads to spiritual breakthrough.
Both Dave and co-founder/co-writer/rhythm guitarist McDonald took advantage of the time they were able to set aside for the project, after a hurried recording process for These Simple Truths.
"It was a whole new feeling," says Dave. "We were able to set aside most of a month in the studio. It was the first time Justin, Cal, and Shawn had played on an album with us, and it was great to have time to get everything just the way everybody wanted it."
"With the first record," says Ben, "the label is more involved in honing the sound, and by your second record you start to take the reins a little more. We were a lot more comfortable in what we were doing. We were thankful as a band to be able to see the growth, from the sound to the lyrics, which have a little more depth this time around."
The record is also a shout-out to the band's dedicated fans. A contest brought some in for the chance to sing backup, and the band solicited photos of people their fans admire and want to be like for use on the cover.
"Without people like that in our lives," says Dave, "that cloud of witnesses, we'd be lost. God sent them for a reason, and that's what our album cover is about."
"It's about all of us wanting to live in such a way that people see that in us," adds Ben. "It's as simple as that."
The band is especially grateful for fans who teamed up to help ease one of the many challenges presented by 250 days a year on the road, with over 300 taking part in a fund-raiser to help the band abandon once and for all in its ramshackle old van and make a down payment on a tour bus.
"This is just one example of how much our amazing fans have given," says Dave, "and how much that support has made it possible to do what we do. And it's so nice to get eight hours of sleep a night on the road rather than three!"
The long journey that brought them to Live Like That began when Ben and Dave were attending Indiana's Anderson University. A demo they recorded was taken without their knowledge to a campus recording contest, which earned them a performance slot. That, in turn, led to radio program directors and record labels, and a chance encounter with Audio Adrenaline's Will McGinnis gave Dave the chance to sing in front of 20,000 screaming fans. Meeting with a major label exec led to an impromptu showcase at Lancaster Christian Academy in Smyrna, Tennessee, and a deal with Word Records.
The varied nature of the venues they play these days gives them any number of ways to communicate with fans and enjoy the process of musical ministry.
"With being in big arenas right now, it's overwhelming," says Dave. "All those thousands of people and so many of them come by the tables and you get to meet with them one-on-one. My favorite part of doing shows is the chance to say, 'What's going on in your life?' Then there are the smaller shows, and even some of the living room concerts we're doing as premiums for some of those who contributed to the bus campaign. These are people who become friends and almost family members. I don't ever want to lose that."
Whether it's those magic moments of connection or some of the more wearying parts of the road, Dave, Ben, and the rest of Sidewalk Prophets are treasuring life and ministry.
"We love seeing what God is up to and continues to be up to," says Dave. "Through the good, the bad, and the ugly, He's there and He's always going to be taking care of us so we can continue to do what He's called us to do.
"I have no idea what the next few years look like," adds Ben, "but I'll be faithful and trust Him. It really is a wonderful journey."