© Sasha Arutynova

About Josh Garrels

Josh Garrels has spent more than a decade crafting music that cuts clean through. With a voice that is sometimes beatific, sometimes brazen, Garrels’ songs explore themes of compassion, hope, longing, and liberation. Cultivating a genre-blending mix of folk and hip hop, Garrels’ music is intricately woven into his life story, fully coming into resolution in the context of the community surrounding his work—his family, faith, and roots.

Garrels makes his voice heard in a world where things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. Creating music that rests in the space between accessibility and honesty, Garrels wrestles with and celebrates the mystery of faith with authenticity and heart. Instead of alienating listeners, Garrels’ faith challenges and compels fans from all backgrounds. Garrels’ music continues to steadily grow and be shared through social media, touring, album sales, and old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

The singer’s earliest musical recollection occurred at age three. He remembers, “Singing through the whole song of “Pretty Little Bluebird” with my head inside of our family’s clothes dryer because I liked the sound of the acoustics. When I finished, I pulled my head out, and my mom stopped folding laundry and started smiling, clapping, and congratulating me for getting the words and melody right.” At age 13, Garrels started making “overdubs” with his family’s Singalodeon double tape deck Karaoke machine. “I would record a guitar part on one tape, and then play that tape while recording vocals over it on another tape, and keep layering the parts.” The next year, Garrels formed a punk band, playing guitar and lead vocals.

When he was 16, Garrels fractured his ankle while skateboarding just one week into his summer vacation and was on crutches for the entire summer. To pass the time, he says, “My dad bought me a four track tape recorder. I sat in the basement all summer learning to multi-track and make hip-hop beats. I think this was the beginning of my love of recording and production–and the end of my hopes of being a pro-skater.”

Many of the songs in Garrels’ catalogue evoke natural, visceral imagery, both from the Midwest where he was raised and attended college, and now from his home in Portland, Oregon. Garrels says, “I’ve always had a deep connection with the woods, fields, and lakes. They somehow make me feel free and timeless, yet also brave and purposeful. My dad was an avid walker, and would take my family on hikes in the woods. All through my life, when I’ve been in the midst of a personal crisis, hurt, or spiritual need, I’ve gone to nature to pray, think, and even scream and cry.”

At age 20, Garrels remembers listening to Neil Young in the summertime while driving through lush cornfields in Indiana. “It was the same moment I realized I wanted to get married, build a house, and have children,” he recalls. “It was a real instinctual coming of age moment that was highly connected to the land.”

From the start of his career, Garrels has chosen to self-record, mix, produce, and distribute records without industry management or label representation, beginning with the lo-fi bedroom recordings Stonetree (2002), Underquiet (2003) and Over Oceans (2006). In 2005, Garrels married his wife Michelle in Indianapolis, where the pair lived for almost three years before moving into in an old, wooden house in Eaton, Indiana, that once served as John Dillinger’s “get away” home.

The couple stayed in the house on the Mississinewa River, welcoming their first child, Heron Selah Garrels, during the recording of Jacaranda (2008). Senior Contributing editor for Paste Magazine Andy Whitman called Jacaranda, “complex, nuanced, and lovely.” Touring extensively in 2008, Garrels performed memorable shows including a sold out performance at the Triple Door in Seattle, Washington, with Trace Bundy, and on the main stage of the annual Cornerstone Festival in Illinois.

The following year, Garrels moved to North Carolina with his wife and daughter, finishing the EP Lost Animals, a collection of B-sides and singles. In 2009, the family relocated to Portland. Their son Shepherd Zuri Garrels was born mid-winter, 2010.

Garrels first collaborated with Brooklyn, New York-based collective Mason Jar Music in 2010, re-imagining the song “Words Remain” in a historic Episcopal church in Manhattan with orchestration including strings, handbells, and flute. Also in 2010, Garrels performed a solo concert at the Relevant Magazine studio in Orlando, Florida, in conjunction with World Vision’s ACT:S campaign to end malaria.

On June 15, 2011, Garrels released his latest effort, Love & War & the Sea In Between. Named the number one album of 2011 by Christianity Today, the magazine described the recording as, “prophetic, incisive, achingly human, and longingly spiritual.” Love & War & the Sea In Between was influenced by the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, which Garrels calls, “mysterious and ominous.” A stark contrast to the four seasons he experienced during his youth, Garrels says, “The evergreens, mist, rain, rocky coast, and stretches of uninhabited woods feel wild and untamed. I think the terrain also influences the area’s culture and spirituality. Living here has deeply affected me and my work.”

The making of Love & War & the Sea In Between was completely funded through the support of listeners and offered as a free download for one year, garnering 125,000 downloads in the first year after its release. To celebrate the album’s release, Garrels played to a full house at local Portland venue the Alberta Rose. Touring to support the record, Garrels performed on stages throughout the West Coast, including a solo set to a capacity crowd at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles and other sold out shows up the west coast.

Garrels has composed musical scores for several television shows and films, including the acclaimed Marc Havener short film And What Remains and the Fuel TV documentary Gum for my Boat. His song “Don’t Wait for Me” appeared in the CBS television series The Ghost Whisperer, with additional musical placements in Heart of a Soul Surfer (The Bethany Hamilton Story), surfing documentary Walking on Water, and CBS webisode Around the World For Free. In 2012, his song “Slip Away” appeared in the ESPN television show Outside the Lines.
Partnering with a number of not-for-profit organizations, Garrels has worked to raise awareness for HOPE International, a microfinance initiative working in developing countries; Invisible Children, confronting the LRA in Northern Uganda; and Light Gives Heat, empowering Africans through encouraging economic sustainability and creative endeavors.

Collaborating with Mason Jar Music for the second time in 2011, Garrels filmed the full-length, musical documentary The Sea in Between on Mayne Island, B.C. Currently in post-production, the film is slated for release in 2012. Garrels is presently composing original scores for film, as well as mentoring and producing music for other artists through his label Small Voice Records. In 2012, Garrels earned a regional Emmy nomination in Music Composition from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his contribution to the soundtrack for And What Remains. He plans to start work on his next album in 2012.

—Sara Billups