CMYK: A Conversation with Justin McRoberts

Justin McRoberts is a singer-songwriter, pastor, husband, father, and author. In layered like manner, his latest project — CMYK — is a combination of 3 EPs, a full-length album, and a book. And the book is comprised of letters, essays, song lyrics, and interviews with visual artists. Justin’s creative vision is ambitious and inspiring. It also reflects the very matter of life, which is centered on the One and the Many. Is CMYK one artistic project or a multi-media feast? Yes.

I had the immense pleasure of editing Justin’s book — CMYK: The Process of Life Together — so I was grateful for the opportunity to pick his brilliant mind about this artful, musical, truthful, literary project.

Photo by Gregory Madsen

Jenni Simmons: What is CMYK?

Justin McRoberts: In technical terms, CMYK denotes the four elements of the color print process: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key, or black. Just about every printed image we see is printed in CMYK. And in that process, every element has a necessary place. If I print an image without Cyan, the image loses much of its crispness and is dominated by Magenta. Without Magenta, an image loses most of its warmth. Without Yellow, an image lacks shine or glow . . . a kind of life feels missing. And then there’s black, the Key element. Without this darkest element in the process, an image lacks clarity and depth. In fact, my understanding is that when a printer is physically setting up his or her press, they line up the other places (C, M, and Y) with the black plate, “keying” the other plates on black.  

I am moved by the way that process provides language for the process of life, and have taken to borrowing its symbolism to speak into the lives and processes of loved ones.

JS: What was the genesis of your entire CMYK project?

JM: I suppose there are two stories here. One has to do with being a pastor and needing language for the particular culture of folks I’m given to in the East San Francisco Bay Area. Friends of mine were writing themselves out of the story of God because the language they were familiar with was either insufficient to describe their experience, or that same language simply disallowed certain expressions of faith they felt necessary. For many of those I help guide in faith, the older, well-worn religious vocabulary of their past seems to have run aground. My understanding of language is that it is actually born out of relationship as a way to navigate the strange, beautiful, wild, often mysterious, and always vital, experience of life as we share it together. When a word, or a set of words, ceases to help that navigation process, we can either try to breathe life back into those words or let new language grow naturally out of the soil our lives are actually planted in. Both are good practices, but this project is an effort toward the latter.

The other story has to do with a letter I received in the mail from a young man my wife and I sponsored through Compassion International. I had settled into an emotional space wherein I was comfortable about never being a father. What that young man’s letter did was unlock some old doors in me, behind which were things I had not dealt with regarding my own father. As it turned out, I hadn’t made the decision to be childless in freedom, but in a kind of bondage to fear and sadness. It took someone else’s words to unlock those doors. Recognizing that, I committed to playing a similar role in the lives of those to whom I am given as a friend, father, pastor, etc. And so I started the series of letters and songs that anchor this project.

JS: What inspired you to create an artistic project of this scope — a collection of music and lyrics, letters, personal reflections, visual art, and artist interviews?

JM: To be honest, I felt like I was along for the ride for large parts of the process, as the project grew somewhat naturally. Art director Gregory Madsen’s concept for the visual elements kept expanding beyond my expectations. Meanwhile, executive producer Dan Portnoy constantly prevented me from taking ideas off the table until we’d at least tried them.

Initially, I was going to simply release the fifteen songs and corresponding letters by way of three EPs and a very short book — maybe even just post the letters to my blog. But the writing process was far more life-giving than I expected. After I finished the letters, the personal reflections started taking shape in my mind and I started creating space to actually write them. Those reflections gave me a place to delve into the themes emerging in the letters (human sexuality, fatherhood, doubt and faith, and so on), allowing the letters to be more for people rather than just “issues.”

Then, as that second writing phase began, three visual artists started on pieces of their own in response to the original sets of songs. Macha Suzuki, Dylan Mortimer, and Laura VanDuren made brilliant, engaging visual pieces in response to the songs from C, M, and Y, respectively. At that point, we had a real monster on our hands, and lots of moving parts. At first, it seemed like quite a mess.

And it wasn’t really until all these elements were in motion that we caught just what we were on to: This project about “life together” was a truly collaborative work, coming from multiple angles with multiple perspectives, mostly held together by the choice we collectively made to see it through and make it work. So the CMYK project actually looked like life together.

JS: What were the challenges of keeping the different cords of this project tied together?

JM: The biggest challenge had to do with the essays, or personal reflections. I had to avoid interrupting a project for and about people with essays about people’s problems. My challenge was to write personal reflections that came alongside the letters in the same way I hope to come alongside people I love. I kept recalling Eugene Peterson’s book The Pastor, in which he draws a distinction between psychiatric care and pastoral care. If I recall correctly, Peterson suggests that a psychiatrist generally deals with a client through the filter of their issues. After all, it is the issue, or set of issues, that is the impetus for the relationship. On the other hand, a pastor’s relationship with someone they are discipling is occasioned by their common identity as whole persons — belonging first to God and then to one another. In the latter case, being whole meant carrying strengths and weaknesses, wounds and victories alike, none of which wholly define a person.  

JS: When did you first realize the importance and blessings of living in community?

JM: This has been a long process with a number of breakthrough moments along the way. I can immediately recall one such moment that happened in, of all places, Texas. I had been invited for a second or third time to play at a the same church and had, for a second or third time, really connected with the folks there. The church’s program director had become a friend and asked Amy and me — over wings and beer, of course — if we would move to Texas and take over as their primary song/worship leader. The invitation came with a significant annual salary and the offer to set me free for half the year to continue my pursuits as a touring singer-songwriter.  

We turned it down. Not because I’m afraid of Texas (though that is somewhat true) or because we had a better vocational plan. We turned it down because of an odd group of about 60 people in Concord, CA, to whom we felt a very strong sense of belonging. Not an obligation — belonging. It wasn’t that we had jobs we couldn’t quit or even that we that we had friendships with certain people — it was that we were a particular part of those particular people in that particular place with our particular shared history. We realized that what we had was hard won and rare, which made it not only irreplaceable but worth sacrificing for. To be clear, this wasn’t a moment in which my commitment to community shone through and I courageously chose people over success. Rather, it was a revelatory moment for both me and Amy. We didn’t know that value was so deeply rooted in us.

JS: In your CMYK book, was it difficult to publish such personal letters? How did the recipients of the letters react?

JM: In large part the letter recipients reacted similarly, seeing the letters as a kind of marker in our relational history — a way to say “this is where we have been up ‘til now.” Some folks wrote letters back which were deeply encouraging. One friend did feel the need to debate some of the finer points of my moral philosophy as it is communicated in the letter I wrote to him. That was fine, too, I suppose. Debate is part of the way he relates with friends. Some guys punch their friends in the arm to show affection. In similar fashion, he argues.

Sharing personal stories or more intimate aspects of my life publicly has never been all that uncomfortable for me. I don’t think I’m an over-sharer, per se. But I also don’t shy away from getting into my own story, even the weird or dark parts of it. Those are the kinds of stories I am drawn to as a reader and listener, so those are the kinds of stories I tend to tell as an artist.

JS: While editing your book, I thought one of the most powerful letters was “Letter to My Father.” Was it healing for you to put those emotions into both literary and musical forms?

JM: It really was. That letter was the most cathartic piece of the project for me. I released an album shortly after my father’s suicide consisting of songs about my journey and process, about my emotions, and even about my dad. But I’d never written anything to him. He left a note for me the night he ended his life, and it was a truly full-circle moment for me to write something back. That is the one letter, in fact, I would have been okay with never having published. Not because I have any concerns at all with people reading it, but because of the level of personal satisfaction I had in writing it at all. The same is true of the song. Most of the other letters and songs felt very much like pieces I wanted or needed other people to read and hear. Most of my art works that way. The encounter of listeners or readers is part of the fulfillment of the piece, as if it’s not finished until it has been listened to or read. But with the letter and song to my father, they were finished when I was done typing or strumming.

JS: What do you hope readers and listeners will glean from the CMYK project?

JM: I had an older gentleman approach me after a reading of the book in northern California. He pulled me aside and said something to the effect of, “My wife and I divorced a long time ago, and since then I haven’t been in touch with my daughter nearly enough. I’m going home to call her right now.” That, in a nutshell, is the kind of thing I hope for — that readers and listeners would embrace the essential part they play in the process of their loved ones’ lives. Nobody can play their part but them.

JS: Which physical space most inspires your writing? Do you have different creative workspaces for writing music and prose? Do you have different headspaces for both as well?

JM: This was super weird for me, mostly because I had never written anything this involved before. As a songwriter I know that I have to finish songs when I’m isolated, and normally late at night. Most of my music has been written and finished between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. 

But that didn’t work with writing the letters or personal reflections. Silence and isolation almost seemed too stifling. So I tried all kinds of places and spaces. Home worked off and on, but my son Asa was too distracting. I’m easily drawn away from the keyboard, especially in moments of frustration, and would rather roll on the ground with him. One thing that worked more consistently than other things was sitting in a crowded bar. I wrote about half the reflections in a bar nearby called 0L (pronounced ool, like eel, but with an oo sound). Something about the chaos of clanging dishes and the din of conversation made it easier to focus. Maybe having something to ignore made it easier to stay focused — like resistance training for the creative brain. I’m not sure, but I do know it worked well pretty often.

 So it’s probably best to say that I can only partially answer the question. I’m still learning what works for me as a writer.

JS: What role does visual art play in your creative processes? How do you seek out the kind of visual art that inspires you?

JM: Visual art takes me outside of myself. I suppose that has to do with the fact that I suck at it. I can’t draw or paint or sculpt. I’m not even very good with my iPhone camera. I’ve got at least 20 images in my photo stream with a thumb or finger blocking part of the shot. So because it’s something I can’t do but I am deeply moved by, I’m inspired by visual art without the distraction of “shop talk” in my head. Like watching someone throw a 92–mph slider or watching someone hit one. It’s just inspiring. 

I got to stand in front of a huge Rothko painting last year on an art walk with Daniel Siedell, who was hosting a breakout session at the Q conference. I stood there for a full 20 minutes. I have the same piece, in miniature, on the wall in my office. The painting is orange and yellow (not even colors I like very much, to be honest) and I find it entirely overwhelming. I wouldn’t know the first thing about making something like that. But looking at it made me want to move and do something. I write when I’m inspired. I don’t have a steady discipline, as it were. I have to be moved. Being moved by art I can’t get my brain around often leads me to find expression within the art forms in which I am skillful — to take bigger risks and stretch myself.

A lot of the visual art I encounter comes by way of my wife and her tastes. She is an excellent visual artist and has a keen eye. I also browse a few design blogs, such as, pretty often. highlights a piece by an artist and then recommends other, similar artists or pieces.

JS: Which books are on your nightstand right now? What music is on your iPhone/turntable/CD player?

JM: I am currently (and probably more appropriately said, finally) reading Gilead. I have a feeling I will start reading it again immediately after finishing it. I’m also slowly reading James K.A. Smith’s Fall of Interpretation, Christopher Moore’s Fool, and a Batman novelization entitled Inferno.

The most recent music on my iPhone, in order of plays:

1. Josh Ritter’s The Beast in Its Tracks.
2. Sigur Ros’ latest, entitled Kveikur.
3. Eluvium’s Nightmare Ending.

I’ve also been on something of a Huey Lewis kick recently.

JS: What are you currently creating?

JM: Right now, I’m trying to create momentum and awareness for the CMYK project. Most of that has to do with creating a calendar and booking shows. Within that, I’m constantly working and reworking the CMYK performance and reading.

JS: Do you plan to write more books in the future?

JM: About a month ago, I would have said “I’m not sure,” but several good friends, and mostly my wife, have challenged me, once again, to stop taking ideas off the table before I’ve tried them. So I actually have plans for a few writing projects, including a collection of sermons and stories from my past few years of teaching.

JS: I recently read this quote by Teju Cole: “The basic question which no public event alters: how can I, myself, in my limited sphere of influence, be more just?” How would you answer that question? In the same vein, “How can I foster more truth, goodness, and beauty in the image of my Creator?”

JM: I really like that and particularly the emphasis on limitation. I think, when it comes to justice, limitation is the ballgame.

Gideon Strauss said, “Justice is when all God’s creatures receive what is due them and contribute, out of their uniqueness, to our common experience.” Part of what he is saying is that at the heart of justice is the question of identity. What is due to God’s creatures is not some cold, statistical end of an equation having to do with geography and base income. What is due to God’s creatures is due to them according to the love of their Creator. So, in order for me to think justly about my world, I have to know my world the way my Creator does — namely, that I belong to my world and it belongs to me. And I belong more immediately and vitally to my immediate surroundings. As it relates to people, justice is rooted in God’s desire for people. In my opinion, that desire is never general and statistical but always particular and personal. So if I am to live more justly and foster truth, goodness, and beauty, I must localize. I must know, personally and particularly, the place and the people to whom I’ve been given. Then I can begin to know what God wants for them (rather than what the State or the Church wants) and work, alongside them, toward that vision.

Justin McRoberts is a songwriter, storyteller, and author. Along with his recent book Justin has released ten full-length albums and a series of EPs. He is also one of the founding pastors at Shelter Covenant Church. He lives with his wife and son in the East San Francisco Bay Area.

Jenni Simmons is a freelance writer and editor, a drummer’s wife, and caretaker of two cats. She finds great joy in family and friends, her church, liturgy, coffee shops, used bookstores, mountains, live music, art museums, a cup of tea, a shot of whiskey, birdwatching, and long walks on her favorite wooded trails. Her writing can be found on the Art House America Blog, Comment Magazine, The Curator, Wunderkammer Magazine, and her personal blog, Dreams of Genevieve.

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