As a child, Mike Donehey didn’t take kindly to authority. But as the years added on, he has become one of the more introspective Christian rock artists today.
“I was rebellious as a child,” explains Donehey, lead vocalist for Tenth Avenue North. “When I was 4 years old, we went to Disney World and my mom had me on a leash so I wouldn’t get lost. Well, she looks around and sees a child who looks like me and is dressed like me. Well it was me. I took off the wrist band and put it on another kid. I went through life like that until I was in my 20s.”
And if not for a car accident, Donehey might still be fighting those authority figures. While recovering from a broken back, the then teenager asked his parents for a guitar and inspiration struck.
“It was the first time that I ever slowed down,” he says. “I always loved music and it seemed like a good thing.”
That good thing pointed Donehey, who says he “knew there was something else out there,” in a new direction and while a student at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, he and a group of buddies founded Tenth Avenue North. Since its inception more than 10 years ago, the band has seen several players come and go, but its message is still the same: Truth and Beauty.
“God wants us to seek him and to know him,” Donehey says. “There are three ways to know Him.
“As a savior: God wants us to know that you don’t have to save yourself. He’s already done that.
“As the Lord of our lives: We want to be in control of our lives, but the Lord says, ‘Look I made you, and I can show you the best way.’
“And as a treasure: Our hearts want to find what’s valuable. And value is in the creator. I found that God was actually beautiful, and I want that to be part of our ministry.”
Donehey and his bandmates have harvested rewards from that ministry. The band won a Dove Award in 2009 for best new artist, and last year Donehey took home the hardware for song of the year for “By Your Side,” a song he wrote with Philip LaRue and Jason Ingram.
“I kinda felt guilty for winning best new artist,” Donehey said. “We had been a band for 10.5 years, but I guess we were new to the record label.”
As far as songwriting, Donehey goes straight to the heart and the Gospel for inspiration.
“Truth without emotion is cruel, and emotion without truth is just sentimental,” he says. “When I write it’s a collision of what God says and what my heart feels. Our hearts are a deep reservoir of untapped resources. We should not be afraid to explore it, but at the same time the heart can be deceitful. You need a lantern to guide you, and we hope to be that guide. And I want to be that guide into my own heart too.
“When I write a song it’s because I feel something, but I do not necessary know what that is. … Have you ever heard a song and you’re like, ‘Wow that’s what I was thinking of or that’s how I feel?’ Well it’s the same way with a songwriter when you get done with a song. It’s a powerful thing.”
With his songs, Donehey and the band want to change people’s lives while also giving listeners a foot-tapping beat and melody they can easily sing.
“My passion is people. To let them understand that you don’t have to save yourself,” Donehey says. “We look for functional saviors – our job, our spouses, our homes, our wealth — for an identity. But we already have a savior in Christ. They don’t have to do it anything.
”I don’t get on stage to prove that I’m a great musician. I do it to show people truth and beauty. As a musician I don’t lose my sense of identity if I screw up. My identity is because of what God has done. My identity is never in danger of being lost because of God.”
And the band has never lost sight of its fans. On their current tour in support of their CD, “The Light Meets The Dark,” the band members are meeting with fans for question-and-answer sessions.
“We wanted to do something different. We didn’t want to have a VIP section just because you paid more.” Donehey explains. “It says in the book of James that you shall not show favor to the rich. Christ shared a table with the poor. Just because you have money, you should be given a seat of honor?
“We wanted to honor our fans who were the first to buy tickets. So at the venues we set up a question-and-answer period. It allows us to have a bit of dialogue with our fans. We’ve had 30 to 130 people. And the questions have ranged from, ‘What separates us from other bands? Do you believe in demons? to What’s your favorite color?’”
Well, you can color this band a fun-loving, contemporary alternative, pop-ish sort of band, but don’t label their sound Christian music.
“I don’t believe in Christian music. I don’t believe that music can be Christian, only people can.” Donehey says. “I can understand why bands don’t want to be labeled … be it hip-hop, country, hard rock. When you hear a label you have a very specific idea in your head what that music is suppose to sound like. What I look for is – is it true and is it beautiful? Does it teach people truth and beauty?”