During the late 1990s into the early 2000s, Mark Stuart was a certifiable rock star, riding high as the rambunctious front man of the Grammy Award-winning Christian band Audio Adrenaline.
With towering hit songs like “Ocean Floor”, “Hands and Feet”, and church youth group anthem “Big House”, Audio Adrenaline seemed to generate hit songs effortlessly … and often. But slowly, their run of success began to deteriorate as did the raspy croon of Stuart’s lead vocals. Eventually, the band that had gone from garage band to global success was forced to shut it down for good due to a debilitating disease affecting their lead singer’s voice.
With the band now but a memory fading from his rear view mirror, Stuart’s marriage eventually fell apart too, leaving him with nothing … or so he thought. It literally took an earthquake for him to realize that his life had a purpose far greater, to be a voice for the desperate, struggling people of Haiti.
I recently spoke to Mark about his new memoir, Losing My Voice to Find It, why he felt like an impostor for much of his time with Audio Adrenaline, and how his understanding of God’s love and redemption has completely changed over the years.
Simple question to start … what was the catalyst for writing Losing My Voice to Find It?
Roger Thompson, a buddy of mine actually co-wrote the book with me. We started doing a lot of life together and the more he heard the back story of my life he watched God kind of unveil himself through my story. He said you need to write your story. And I was a little bit leery of it because I didn’t think it was that interesting. He kept telling me that I need to tell others because it’s going to inspire people.
Then, at the same time, Tim Tebow, had a book called Shaken. He interviewed me to be a part of his book. He wanted to tell my story because it inspired him. So those two together really inspired me to kind of go through with this book and get it done. I’m really pumped to have people read it. Those two guys telling me that my story inspired them encouraged me to write it. It was the reason I really kind of jumped off the ledge and did it.
If you don’t mind let’s rewind the tape a bit. It’s the early to mid 2000s and Audio Adrenaline is clearly on top, one of the biggest Christian bands on the scene at the time. When did you first notice that something was wrong with your voice?
I started struggling with my voice as early as 1998. It would kind of come and go. When we were making the Underdog record, I just felt my voice get weaker. I couldn’t do the things that I wanted to do. I thought I just needed to take a break at the time, but we were under pressure to make record after record within a certain timeline. So, I couldn’t take a break. At that point, I asked Tyler (Burkum) our guitar player to sing different parts. My voice had a lot of grit to it, a lot of passion, and was almost like a brute force. His voice was more beautiful.
From there, my voice would come and go based on getting steroid shots from doctors and resting it. But when we started recording Worldwide, that’s when it really started bothering me. At that point, I had to really rely on Tyler, but even then I thought it could come back. I was still going to doctors and asking them to scope my vocal chords to see what was happening. But they couldn’t tell me what it was. That was the most frustrating part … the downward spiral of all of this while I was in Audio Adrenaline. I never knew what was happening. It wasn’t until afterwards that I was diagnosed with a spasmodic dysphonia that it all made sense to me. But it just got gradually, incrementally worse and worse. The last three to four years of it I realized that it wasn’t getting any better and was becoming more dramatic.
Ultimately, you chose to step aside as the lead singer of Audio Adrenaline. Was that the hardest decision you ever made?
You know, it really wasn’t. I was so frustrated with making records and trying to perform without a voice that I was so ready to be done. I couldn’t wait to get out, I guess. I didn’t really step aside. The band at that point said, we’re not going to go on without you so we actually just shut down. When we released Adios, it was the end of (the classic lineup) of Audio Adrenaline. At that point we decided to shut it completely down and everybody just went their separate ways. Audio Adrenaline was over. That was 2007. It wasn’t until five or six years later that they did a reboot with Kevin Max (dc Talk). I’m so glad they did because “Kings and Queens” came out of that. That song was amazing.
Digging into your book a little bit, a recurring theme that coming up, is that you felt like an impostor. For example, I’m going to quote something here that you said. “Audio Adrenaline was a hat trick and an ace up our sleeve for a game we didn’t know we were playing.” And then, “We rocked from a nothing to lose place of desperation and a fear that we would be discovered as the impostors we often felt we were.” Why did you feel this way?
Well, there’s a couple of reasons why. First of all, musically we were not as prolific as the peers that we were making records with at the same time. Other bands could sing better and other artists could play better. That’s one part of it. That’s where the songs like Underdog and that album came out of this with songs like “Never Gonna Be as Big as Jesus.” We almost felt thrust into success without the goods to back it up sometimes. How in the world did we end up here? We felt inadequate because we were relying on ourselves and not God. And then on the spiritual side, and I can’t speak as much for the other guys, but for me personally, a lot of my early years was really performance-based Christianity.
Living in a place of, ‘Hey, if they really knew what I struggle with or knew my heart, they certainly would not be listening to me. I would be cast out or whatever. In complete transparency, that’s where a lot of the best music came from. That’s why people connected to us because we had this underlying sense of, man, we shouldn’t even be here. I think people related to that. Musically and spiritually I felt like we were always on the edge of being discovered. It wasn’t until the back half of my life that I realized the front half of my life was based more on me and being in control, me being good enough to be worthy to be on stage. None of us ever are and nobody is. And so the back half of my life, I’ve just let that go. I’ve gained a lot of wisdom. When you lose everything, you understand that you were never in control in the first place. God’s ways are bigger than then you gave Him credit for on the rise up.
That’s a very easy thing to say, but a harder thing to do. How did you learn to let that go?
It’s not something that I learned; it was forced upon me. I came to a place of desperation where the band was over and my marriage was over. I had to learn to submit because I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. I was almost forced to because we have a jealous God. He had to get my attention in a way. And that’s what happened. I lost everything to gain awareness that God’s bigger than I ever thought He was. So, as an impostor, I was relying on myself to be good enough musically and to be holy enough spiritually. And because I was relying on myself listening to the enemy, I was always felt like a fraud.
Right in the middle of all of this, the horrible earthquake in Haiti happened. You and your former bandmates already had a ministry going there, the Hands and Feet Project. It was an awful event for sure, but in some ways it gave you a new purpose. Can you talk about what happened in Haiti?
The entire earthquake took about 40 seconds and then it was over. I thought that was it. No one got hurt. And I was like, wow, that was wild. And then all of a sudden, we started to get phone calls from people that worked with us. Haitian staff and our leadership team started to say things like, ‘The hospital just fell down. The school just fell down.’ It was then that we realized this was much bigger than just our buildings swaying back and forth. We were in the midst of a major catastrophe.
I started getting phone calls from people that wanted to interview me. So, I was doing interviews and I could barely talk at this point. I have had to relearn how to talk around my vocal disorder. But at that point I could barely speak. I was doing interviews with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, the BBC and news channels all over the world because I was one of the only people that had a cell phone that was working. It was crazy. I was kind of ready to disappear. I wasn’t sad but I wasn’t really feeling like God had anything big for me to do until that moment. I needed to help people who needed help. And in that, when I started to focus less on myself and what I had lost and started focusing on people around me that were in need. I felt a lot of burden, bitterness and jadedness fall away. I think that was the inception of starting to become a voice for others.
In tying some of these pieces together, the book Losing My Voice to Find It is definitely a story of redemption and beauty from ashes. How has your understanding of God’s love and redemption changed over the years for you?
I have learned to love dramatically. I would always speak of God’s redemptive power for other people. I would always sing about it, but there were moments in my life where I was so broken. At the lowest of my lows, I felt I never lost faith in God, but with full disclosure, I felt like He’s certainly not that good … or good for me.
I know what I’ve been through. And it wasn’t a nice. It didn’t make sense to me that a good Father would take my voice or allow me to walk through a divorce and lose everything. And I just really felt like I was either being punished or I finally found out that I was an impostor. But I eventually realized that God was just moving me closer to Him. We have a jealous God and He will use the end of a band, a ministry, or a marriage to get our attention. And that’s what happened to me.
After people have read, Losing My Voice to Find It, as an author, what is the one thing you would like your readers to take away from the experience? What is your greatest hope for the book?
I wanted it to feel like an Audio Adrenaline concert. I want people to have fun reading it because it’s a fun ride. They are going to laugh. They are going to cry. They’re going to go through the ups and downs of this emotional, powerful, rock and roll journey. But at the end of it, I want them to realize that God is good. He’s big and has good things in store for them. And to just to walk away, saying, ‘Hey, my Dad runs the universe and because of that He’s my Daddy, and I can go through life without fear and be completely involved in love.