Caleb and Erin Paxton make music… and babies. This June, they’ll have been married for eight years and making music together for nine. To twist an old song: all the magic’s in the music and the music’s in marriage…
“I’ve been singing since I was four,” said Erin, “and writing music since Jr. High.” That includes composing and songwriting. “Music major in college. Didn’t write a whole lot in college until we met, and ever since we met, we’ve been making music together.”
They both described their mutual songwriting experience as “really hard” because of conflicting musical tastes. “I was just a young… arrogant…” Caleb started.
“A young pup,” Erin said and laughed.
He smiled, “Musician. Not secure enough in what I knew how to play… or… wasn’t as dynamic or diverse as Erin, so by default we played the things I was comfortable playing, which frustrated Erin.”
They leveled eyes with one another as they would countless times during the interview, pupils dilating, micro-smiles harvested from their own little moment, of which I shared no part. I felt like I was staring at a picture of a wet puppy playing with two newborns or something. “Cute” describes the couple, I think, and this after so many years of marriage…
“We kind of liked to sing together,” Caleb said, “and then we started making music together. Getting easier all the time, we’re getting better. More fun to play together.” Caleb started playing guitar at seventeen. His sister taught him and he wrote songs immediately. Caleb says he used to be terrible, not to mention their conflicting musical tastes gave enough friction to stop any measure of momentum short.
Pretty much, Caleb’s the curry and Erin’s the curry spice. As a band they’ve reached a harmony where they can call the music “us.” They’re not two individuals jockeying for limelight. They’re a married couple with oneness, and that oneness shines through.
“We have this conversation,” Caleb said. “Erin does a lot of editing, ‘Oh I don’t like this. And this should do that. And you should sing this.’”
Erin giggled. Maniacally.
Caleb smiled. “She has lots of opinions. But I think that it’s… they’re our songs. Sometimes they’re mine, but usually they’re ours.” Our-ness liberates Caleb to get away with “a lot flowery-er things” and Erin to tweak all sorts of details. “There’s a song on the Mrs. Ahlgren album called Hereafter. It’s like super-duper…”
“Girly,” Erin said.
“Froofy,” Caleb said. “I would never ever play it on my own. ‘We’ll run into each others arms. Wake up naked and alone. Drink coffee.’ It’s really…”
After a moment, Erin picked up where he left off. “…but the music in it sets it over the top. Little bells and angel-flappy wings. Something only a true man could write.”
“It’s almost like…” Caleb said, “…because we’re Eine Blume it’s like… write what you want.”
Eine Blume, their band name, comes from the German for “a flower” or “one flower.” Formerly called The Lilies, they discovered a UK rock band called The Lilies, so Erin suggested a name change. That wasn’t their last run-in with European names.
For two-and-a-half years, Caleb and Erin lived in Norway. “We worked with YWAM. We did a discipleship training school on the west coast about midway up – about the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska. It was like a creative arts… it was called A Prophetic School for the Arts.” No, that’s not a Charles Xavier thing. They describe their first year as “amazing – great teaching.” Then they spent a couple of months in Armenia, returned to the States for a summer, and returned to Norway for a year and a half. “Rich” and “refreshing” experiences filled their Norway days – songwriting, jam sessions, and learning under fantastic teachers.
“It was great. I’m not sure I’ll unpack it all for the rest of my life, but I was really really sad while I was there,” Caleb said. “Didn’t have lots of friends. The second year we were there, we were connected with an artist group. We just wrote, played, recorded music. Led worship. Made dinner at the base once a week.” Every other guy there dove headlong into work with the school. Loneliness became Caleb’s close companion.
At first, this meant writing songs against sadness. His parents divorced while he was there – and some incredible songs came out of that time. “Our first year in Norway… that Christmas, my dad just walked out. There was a big fight and my father left at the end of thirty years of marriage. I called my mom on Christmas Day and she was like, ‘Oh yeah, your dad left.’ Real… no big deal. Went home that summer and it… was just… a mess. So freaking hard. I remember writing… there’s a song called ‘We Burn’ on our album. I remember sitting on my sister’s bed at my mom’s house and it felt like Mars. Mom had a live-in boyfriend at that point. I’m a grown man, but it’s still weird, man. I remember sitting, quietly writing that song so no one would hear. That song’s the one people always tell us, ‘Awch.’” He gripped his chest. “There’s something in the spirit of what you write. I don’t know how it works, but I was in this place when I wrote this and…”
“That spirit is staying with that song,” Erin said.
“That spirit lingers,” Caleb said. “Every time we play it, every time people hear it, they’re always like, ‘Awch.’ We’ve had people tell us when they hear it, just in the house with that song on, they started crying.”
I didn’t tell them, but I cry every time I hear it, and I don’t know why.
“And they didn’t know why,” Erin said, “but then they realized later… that was the song.” Songs are more than songs, to them. There’s something… deeper. “Music can heal people,” Erin said. “Or maybe not music, but the spirit in the music. It can also damage people. Caleb’s always written the really sad songs. Before we went to Norway and even during our first year, I think some of the teaching that we got…” She glanced at him. “It really inspired you.”
“He decided, ‘I don’t want to just write sad songs. I don’t want that to have to be my inspiration. I want it to be God.’ He writes with such honesty and he wanted more joy,” she said. “He always acted like if a song’s gonna be real and honest, it’s gotta be sad.”
In that second year – the “sad year” – Caleb woke up to this idea that songwriting didn’t have to go that way. The first year left him aimless, unsure of how to follow through on the ideal. The second year, they worked on their next album and those ideals flourished.
The summer between, they saw Sigur Rós in KC during the Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust tour. Sigur Rós’ music so moved Caleb and Erin, they both returned agreeing that they wanted to create that kind of sound. “We’re not nearly as good,” she said. “But we were just so inspired. It made Caleb trust me a little more musically. He let things some things go.” She started writing, editing, and singing more, adding whatever she could instead of merely playing Caleb’s songs. They added all sorts of new instrumentation like bells and an accordion. Together, they’d agreed on a destination, and it was something different than they had ever done before. Erin felt free.
At the time of the interview, Erin was pregnant. I asked her what it was like being married with kids.
“It’s amazing,” she said, and giggled.
I smiled. “In relation to music. Is it doable? Workable? Is it hard?”
“It’s hard,” they said in unison.
“We didn’t know how much we could have done without children,” Erin said, “until we had a child and you’re like, ‘Woah.’”
“Yeah,” Caleb said. “We took so much for granted.”
“But we weren’t really trying to go for it before we had a kid,” said Erin. “We have to… the road trips we want to take have to be… we went to Louisville a couple months ago. That’s like an eight- or nine-hour drive.”
“Louisville and almost to Chicago,” Caleb said. “Then back home.”
“We didn’t bring our daughter,” Erin said. “So it’s hard. We haven’t had a really long tour yet because we don’t know…”
Caleb added, “We’ve also, in the last year, played more music than we ever have before. It’s hard, but we think it’s doable.”
“We decided to play a lot more regionally,” Erin said, “at least for a couple of years. That’s really good for us.”
A young family doing full-time band work seems more feasible now than in Johnny Cash’s day – that era of 45 records sold on some wide-arcing Nashville circuit. Those tours still happen, but there’s a shift in the industry thanks to new media, a shift that makes space for people like Caleb and Erin to thrive. Not to mention that Joplin works like a west-of-the-river Nashville. We’re not known for our music quite yet, but we are known for our perfect centrality to Kansas City, St. Louis, Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Witchita, and the rest. Regional tours may work better now than at any point in history for bands like Eine Blume.
Thanks to a unique network, friends of The Paxtons have scattered all throughout the United States and the rest of the world, so if they needed a tour, they’d have dozens of willing babysitters to watch the kids. They’re not like Gwar or major pop bands, who need trucks for their gear, lights, and musical equipment. They’ve got a handful of instruments and two members – it keeps things simple, easy, and elegant.
One day, they hope to take their family on the road, but plan on tackling that obstacle when it arrives, pointing to Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken as a great model for a healthy husband/wife songwriting team. Erin spoke up. “We went to their concert and they were like, ‘We’re gonna go home to our kids tonight. They’re at grandma and grandpa’s.”
Their daughter’s named Aisling after the genre of Irish poetry. From Wikipedia:
“In the aisling, Ireland appears to the poet in a vision in the form of a woman, sometimes young and beautiful, sometimes old and haggard. This female figure is generally referred to in the poems as a Spéirbhean (heavenly woman; pronounced ‘spare van’). She laments the current state of the Irish people and predicts an imminent revival of their fortunes.”
I suppose that sums up Eine Blume’s sound and feel – sorrow over current brokenness and hope for a future reversal of fortunes.
The writing process for Caleb feels less systematic, but still frequent. “If its been awhile since I’ve written something, I kind of get antsy. Even if it’s garble and I throw it away.” His output correlates directly to the experiences filling his soul’s tank – if he’s experienced little, he’s little to work with. However, writing comes easy with Aisling in the house. They get less sleep, but “there’s so much fodder for writing.” Some of his favorite songs sprouted out of having their daughter around.
Starting with their last recording, he started reading tons of poetry. “Some Dickenson. Lots of Walt Whitman.” One of their songs is called Song for Walt. “It’s not a knockoff, but when I read my lyrics in his poem, I see the layover. It’s my favorite song of ours.”
“We have a picture of him framed on our piano,” Erin said. “We don’t have pictures of anyone in our house except for Walt Whitman.”
“Yeah,” Caleb said. “Leaves of Grass. I can’t do his long ones like Song of Myself, these five page poems. He loses me. He has one called Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice. It’ll getcha. It’s a good one. There’s a guy named Wendell Berry. He’s a farmer-poet. Walter Brueggemann. I love Elizabeth Alexander. Gwendolyn Brooks. Modern poets.”
Erin gave Caleb a journal when they first got married for moments of inspiration just like this. “Please, just use it,” she said. She had something specific in mind, but Caleb had a bigger vision for the journal.
He wrote furiously, constantly. “I was dysfunctional,” Caleb said. “It was bad.”
“It was bad! He communicates so much better now. Journaling was huge in opening up songwriting and hearing God’s voice. It was really really good.”
“It was a turning point,” Caleb said.
“The beginning of massive amounts of songwriting,” Erin said. “When we were in Norway, people were disgusted with how much he was writing. Every day, almost. We had writing assignments…”
“Every other week or something,” Caleb said.
“But Caleb and this other guy… it was constant,” Erin said. “A constant stream of songs and they were really good.”
Caleb nodded. “We came to write songs. This was a creative school and we’re gonna freakin’ write some songs. I have a year where I don’t have to work. I’m gonna just write, write, write.” Songwriting for him is both regularity and need. Without it, Caleb couldn’t process life. “I think really slow, make decisions really slowly. I have a hard time knowing how to unpack stuff. I’ve always hated songwriting as sentiment, you know? Eww. Stop talking about your feelings. But those are the kinds of songs that I write – not philosophical or theological. They’re genuine, so I can stomach them. It’s cathartic.”
Catharsis – that moment where we release these strong, even repressed emotions to find relief. That’s the writing process for Caleb, but it’s also a bit of a metaphor for all music. When you have a songwriter who takes time to process these intense emotions, who packs them deep into a song, the song itself is a release – the spirit in the song will prepare the way for us to unpack our own hearts, even as we listen.
Which is why every time I hear “We Burn,” I heal a little more over my own parents’ divorce and the divorces of my friends’ parents. There’s space there, space opened wide in our hearts like a pressure valve through first pinprick of music. Space prepared by the spirit in the song.
Space to grieve and through the grieving, heal.
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