Songwriters usually pull on personal experiences for their best material. So it’s hard to blame up-and-coming Christian pop artist Austin French for having difficulty choosing songs for his debut album “Wide Open.” After all, even though just halfway through his 20s, French has lived through enough harrowing and dramatic experiences for multiple lifetimes.
SCENES Media co-managing editor Chad Bonham recently had a chance to sit down for a lengthy conversation with French who talked about his unique journey from small town Georgia to the national stage, how divorce rocked his world at a young age, why closed doors have actually been a good thing, and how adoption, addiction, a fateful encounter with an atheist, and even a ruptured appendix have all played a role in his crazy journey.
Austin French: I’m from Cordele, Georgia, a small little town in south Georgia.
SCENES: It’s a little different down in south Georgia. It’s not Atlanta.
Austin French: Oh no. It’s real South. The only snow we have is cotton. We call that south Georgia snow. Cordele is also the Watermelon Capital of the World. That’s where I grew up—just in that environment. My mom was a music teacher and my dad was a music pastor at a church.
SCENES: Double whammy.
Austin French: Double whammy. So I sang all the time. My mom was a music teacher at our house and so it was second nature for us to sing. The first time I sang at church it was “Nothing But The Blood of Jesus” when I was two years old. I wore a three-piece suit and stage dived after I got done and never looked back. I’ve been doing it ever since.
SCENES: How did growing up in church shape you as a person and as an artist?
Austin French: In a way, I didn’t want to be a Christian for a long time. I saw the ugly side of ministry. We were the perfect family with the kids who behaved in church but at home it felt like World War III. Things were not the same. We hid who we really were at church. At a very early age, I decided I didn’t want to be a part of that. I didn’t think it was right. I didn’t think that was being a Christian, and if it was, I didn’t want to be a Christian. Then my parents got a divorce when I was eight. It kind of rocked our church—especially in the South. Divorce wasn’t super common at that time, especially with ministry staff at a church. So the church kind of kicked us out and told us not to come back because it was a black eye for the church and the community. So as an eight- year old kid, I didn’t want to be a Christian because I saw the brokenness of people that hid it from everyone else and the church was embarrassed of me and my mess. Then my mom got a job at another church leading worship and I just played the part for a long time. I did it for my single mom. She was working two jobs and had three kids. She had it hard and so I decided I was going to make it easy for her and play the part.
SCENES: Where did your musical journey start to really take shape?
Austin French: When I was in eighth grade, my mom sent off to a music camp. I wanted to learn to play the guitar so bad and that’s where I learned to play. At the end of the camp, a speaker talked about hypocrisy and basically I felt like he was talking straight to me. “Hey you’ve been hurt by broken people. Broken people hurt broken people. But there’s a God who loves you. Jesus, His only Son, came to heal broken people.” And I needed healing. I was hurting pretty bad. So I gave my life to Jesus that night and that was a lot of the reason why I wanted to do Christian music. That night, I realized that I was broken and I was scared to death to tell people about what had happened to me. So I decided to just write songs about it. That night, I decided I wanted to write songs about Jesus and write songs for broken people so they could meet the healer. That’s the night I decided to become a Christian artist—the night I got saved. I went home and started writing rip-off versions of Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take The Wheel” for all my friends. It was funny, but that’s how it all started for me.
SCENES: So that was the absolute moment where you decided to become a performing artist?
Austin French: Oh yeah. Before that, I wanted to be a secular artist. John Mayer was the reason I wanted to get into music in the first place but then Jesus captured my heart and I realized there was a greater purpose than just for people to know who I was. God had given me a gift and I was going to stop at nothing to take that to people and write songs. I had to write songs. I just felt like they were coming out of me. I was always scared to talk to people but writing came easy for me. That’s how I communicated to my friends about Jesus and what he had done for me and what he could do for me. So yeah, in that moment, I realized it wasn’t about entertaining people. It was a mission and about sharing the gospel with people.
SCENES: What was the progression that took you from wide-eyed eighth grader with a dream to a young adult actually pursuing that dream and seeing it unfold into reality?
Austin French: I took my rip-off version of “Jesus Take The Wheel” and called every youth group in Georgia. Somehow, they let me do it. I performed with some bands early on. It started out with four of us from youth group. We became the missions team, the outreach team and the youth band. Somehow these churches would let us come play for love offerings. I played every weekend and played at different churches on Wednesday nights for different youth groups. The band members all graduated because they were older than me so I formed another band with some other friends. We started calling churches in other states and somehow they let us come. It always blew my mind that people would let us stand on their stage and sing for their church. So even through high school it was something I was doing. I was working on science and math from Monday through Friday but as soon as the bell rang on Friday I was in a van or in my buddy’s mom’s suburban driving us to the north Georgia or wherever we were going to sing for the weekend.
SCENES: Did you do like so many aspiring artists and move to Nashville after high school?
Austin French: No, I had hopes of moving to Nashville but I felt like I didn’t know anyone there. On the other hand, I had a lock on my region and I was playing at all of these churches. I wanted to be a part of the industry but I didn’t have any contacts. Casting Crowns was a big group for me. I wanted to be like them. They were in the industry but still connected to their church. That was a big inspiration for me and I thought if they could do it, I do it eventually, but it never did. Then, right before my senior year in high school, my mom surprised me and told me she’d signed me for some TV show called “The Voice.” She told me I could miss my first day of my senior year and go to Universal Studios for this tryout. My mom has always believed in me and she said, “Go! Do it!” So I went and ended up getting on the show. I was in LA for three months of my senior year to film the blind auditions. But no one turned around. I was like, “God, you sent me all the way out here. I missed three months of my senior year and no one turns around? You gave me an opportunity and the door was closed in my face. What’s going on?” This was my chance to get into the industry and do this for the rest of my life. It just stopped. But then two weeks later I got another TV show but I was disqualified because I was still dealing with legal paperwork from the other TV show. All these doors were closing in my face.
And then I auditioned for a college scholarship but they didn’t have a spot for me until the next year. We couldn’t afford it on our own, so all of these closed doors were keeping me in south Georgia. At that point, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how long I could keep touring in Georgia and make it. Then, a guy approached me and told me that God told him to pay for my college. So he paid for me to go to online college through Liberty University. I ended up leading worship at a college ministry one night and that’s where I met my wife. It’s a church I never would have visited except that one of my buddies dragged me there. I wouldn’t have been there if I’d been in Virginia. Instead, my future wife sat next to me and I said to myself, “I’m going to marry this girl.” I didn’t know her name, but I knew I was going to marry this girl. So I met my wife through all these doors closing. Then two months later, that same church offered me a fulltime job as the worship pastor. I was 18 years old and I decided to learn by trial and error. I was there for three years.
Then I got a phone call on April Fool’s Day from a casting producer from “The Voice” that was starting a new TV show called “Rising Star.” She gave me her spiel and I said, “Ha! This is hilarious! Good-bye!” And I hung up on her. I looked it up five minutes later and realized, “This is real!” I called me back and they let me be part of the show. We had planned to get married that summer and had a lot of things going. But this is how God has always worked with me—its through the things I didn’t see coming. God’s provision was there and led me to the right place I needed to be at the right time. So when the casting producer told me I’d made the show, I said no. I was getting married. The dates of the show were right in the middle of our plans. We had the venue set. The invitations had been sent out. And she said, “Hey you’re a Christian, right?” And I said, “Absolutely.” And she said, “Christians pray, right?” And I said, “Absolutely.” And she said, “Have you prayed about doing the TV show?” I was like wow. And she told me she an atheist and thought I was just saying a bunch of mumbo jumbo. So we prayed about it and the next day God gave us peace that we were supposed to do it. We had no idea how we were still going to get married or pay our bills. But were just like, “Let’s do it.”
So I ended up doing the TV show and ended finishing second in the competition. That casting producer set me up with a manager who had been praying for a Christian artist to work with for seven years. I walked in his office and he just cried. He called his one friend in the industry and asked him to write a song with me in Nashville.
A fun story that no one’s ever heard about me and my first trip to Nashville. I was going to write with this guy who was taking a risk on me—a big time writer in the industry. I was stepping off the stage from leading worship at my church one Sunday morning and was hitting the road and heading to Nashville. I was going to go by myself and my stomach started to hurt. I got in the car and my drove so she could stay at her mom’s house. It was on the way. About 30 minutes down the road I was crying in pain. Something wasn’t right. We went to hospital and my appendix was rupturing and I had to have an emergency surgery instead of going to Nashville. I went into surgery that night and woke up the next morning and said, “Let’s go to Nashville.” I had my wife take me to Nashville, carry my guitar for me because I couldn’t carry anything over 10 pounds and I was super sore but I wrote five songs that week and that was my first time ever in Nashville. It was crazy.
SCENES: A big part of story involves adoption and your current church, which serves the needs of people dealing with addiction. How did those two very different things become a part of your life?
Austin French: They actually kind of go together. After the TV show was over, we felt like God was moving us into a different season. We decided to move to Del Ray Beach, Florida. It’s the recovery capital of the world. That’s the church that I wrote my single “Born Again” about. The night before we moved, my mother-in-law got a phone call that a little boy was being rescued from living out of a van. He was four months old and she picked him up about two hours before she came to tell us goodbye. We had our moving trucks set and ready to go. She opened the door and me my wife fell in love with this baby. We had a five-year plan to start having kids and we had been married a year and a half at the time. I just wanted to be this boy’s daddy more than I could express. I just fell in love with this little boy and I just met him. The next day we were driving to Florida and I called my wife who was in the car behind me and I said, “Babe, we’re his parents. We can’t leave him in Georgia. That’s our kid.” And she said, “I feel the same way.” It took as a year and half of fighting hard for him. It was messy. There were days that we just weren’t okay. We cried together. It was hard. And I couldn’t fix it. But a year and a half later he came home to be with us. And just last week (early August), we got the last signature to officially adopt him legally and completely. He’s a little over three years old now and his name is Coleman James Austin French and he’s amazing. But it was the hardest thing we’ve ever done but it’s the most rewarding thing I could ever be part of. You understand the heart of God so much though adoption. I’ve never felt so deeply. It’s a new thing—being a dad—and it made me understand more how God saw us.
So that’s the adoption story and we did move to Florida that night and fought for our little boy while living in Florida. But the church we were at was 80 percent recovery. It was really messy and it was full of addiction. But these people who have literally lost everything because of their addictions were some of the free people I’ve ever met because they weren’t hiding things in the closet. They weren’t hiding their baggage from people. They were there because they knew they needed help and couldn’t get it on their own. They couldn’t get it from a drug. They couldn’t get it from a high. They needed something deeper and they found Jesus. I grew up with this picture of Christian—that you’re perfect at church and at home that’s where you let all the cats out. That’s not the gospel. The gospel is bring all your baggage to Jesus. Let him heal you. Let him see all of you. Let everyone see all of you because that shows you how amazing the grace of God is. I wanted to write a song about it and I met these people that literally weren’t afraid to tell you their mess-ups and their mistakes and their addiction because it showed you how great God was. I realized that this is the gospel. These people get it. They’re living it. They need it. So I wrote this song called “Freedom Hymn” to give a voice to these guys that I was worshiping with at Celebrate Recovery on Monday nights at this church. And it really set me free.
SCENES: As you were writing music for your first album, how were you able to filter through all of these amazing stories and limit it to 12 songs when this is more like 60 songs worth of material that you’ve gone through?
Austin French: I wrote 150 songs for this project.
SCENES: I said 60. I was selling you short.
Austin French: You nailed it on the head. And so we picked the 12 songs that we felt expressed my journey the best. I have a song called “Why God.” I haven’t even told you the story behind that one. There are so many stories. Technically I’ve been writing for this record for three years. So there’s a lot that’s happened even in the past three years but I also had to fit in what happened before that too. Yeah, you can hear parts of our adoption story. I wrote about that in the song “Wide Open.” I wrote “Why God,” which was kind of about my parents’ divorce and also my dad was in a serious car accident and almost died. He was in a coma for six months. God did a miracle and saved his life, but in that moment I asked God the question, “Why?” for the very first time, and I learned so much about God’s character through that. And then through the process, every song has a place in my journey. There are victory songs but there are also songs that get real and share how I was feeling when I went through those hard times and how I met God there. So yeah, through the music, it’s a journey and it hits on everything. It feels like I’m telling my testimony through an album.