When Phil Shober sets out to do something, he usually does it.
It happened just over a decade ago, in 2012, when Shober and his wife, Gerri, opened the first Grace House sober house in Denver. It happened again two years ago, when he retired at age 60 from a life of banking to become a pastor at UCC St. Paul’s Church in Bowmansville. This year Shober set off with a group of musicians – each of different skill levels, as well as family and friends – to record an album of original songs that combine the ideas of religion and redemption.
He did that too.
“I had a few ideas initially,” says Shober. “The first song we did on the album was ‘Sweet King’, and I had this idea and I was almost embarrassed about it. I didn’t even know how to write a song. I had this idea of piece and I got the words and wrote it down. I started talking to Bri (O’Connell), the singer and said I had an idea, but I didn’t know how to She said, ‘Well, why don’t you play it, sing it for me?’ It was embarrassing because I’m not a singer, but I had to tell him.
While Shober started playing guitar as a child, “Sweet King” was the first song he ever wrote. Now, he’s featured along with nine other original tracks on “Turn the Page,” an album that captures the triumph of recovery in song. The album was released at the end of August and can be found on streaming services such as Spotify and Amazon Music.
Grace House began after the Shobers reached a breaking point with their daughter Grace, who was battling a heroin addiction in the early 2010s. After trying a few houses with no success, the Shobers opened their own, specially for women coming out of rehab who needed a place to reorganize their lives. In 2016, the Shobers began noticing a lack of spiritual presence in their recovery pattern, so they started a miniature church service at the Denver Grace House on the first Sunday of every month called “Grace House Blessings.” Eventually, the service moved to St. Paul’s, where it has been for a few years.
It was at these services that musicians, such as Anna Fortuna and O’Connell began to appear and plant the seed in Shober’s head.
Another musician is Aaron Rucker, a Chicago native, son of a preacher who at one point struggled with an opiate addiction. Through friends of Alcoholics Anonymous, he learned of Grace House Blessings and began attending services, eventually rising to the occasional guitar and vocals on Shober songs.
“With church musicians, sometimes you can have people who should be making six figures a year playing music, and sometimes you have people who are pretty new and just picking up an instrument for the first time” , said Rucker. “It was great to collaborate across skills and get sound that doesn’t interfere with a creator’s worship environment, where the music doesn’t get in the way and can serve as a conduit for people to worship.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, musician Dana Cullen returned to her native Berks County after several years playing French horn with the San Antonio Symphony and as an understudy with the Dallas Symphony. Cullen, wanting to reconnect with a faith she never felt fully connected to, found St. Paul’s services to her liking. A lifelong professional musician, it didn’t take many services to turn the wheels in her head.
“The church setting is a really safe space to do whatever you want, because people are going to love it,” Cullen says. “What I really appreciated was that I was in such a high level and stressful musical performance, so to be able to come here and people appreciate all that I have to give, it’s really special to me.”
Over the course of two years, Shober primarily collaborated with Fortuna and O’Connell to flesh out his songs, first promising to stop at three, then four, before finally compiling 10 songs for the album.
The songs are often driven by strumming acoustic guitar, accented by vocals, piano and drums. Songs such as opener “The Chains of Our Making” and “Every Means Every” are odes to the power of love as a tool of recovery. Outside of a few songs, like “Sweet Jesus, Amen,” the songs’ messages are general enough that a listener can glean the redemptive passage they need without necessarily being in recovery or overtly religious.
For example, the closing song, “When All Things Fade Away”, features these lyrics in the bridge: “Never turn away, count the wrongs I’ve done, I know I’ve found the way the moment I found love / Guess I can’t move, I know I found love the moment I found you”
“It occurred to me late in the process that – and I’m a Christian, I love Jesus, all of that – none of the songs mention the name of Jesus, and yet they were all about Jesus in my mind, in a way,” says Shober. “And then I had this dream that led to the song ‘Sweet Jesus Amen,’ and then boom, that fixed it.”
Most of the album was recorded in two long sessions, one in March and another in June, at producer John LeVasseur’s sound design studios in Manor Township. Due to scheduling difficulties, some of the songs were finalized in the studio. Shober managed to get two of his children, Ross and Grace, involved in the project along the way.
“Our son, Ross, is a major and an Air Force pilot stationed in Florida,” says Shober. “He was going to be home for our other daughter’s wedding in June. He is a drummer but had not played for a decade. He was excited about the project, so he wanted to be the drummer.
And, of course, it couldn’t be “Grace House Blessings” without the titular Grace making an appearance.
“I wanted to involve Grace, so a little later in June we brought in Grace to do backing vocals,” Shober said. “I wanted her to be on the record and to be a part of it. I always say, ‘You’re Grace! You have to be a part of it!’
Spread the sound
With the album now complete and in hand, the Shobers are looking for ways to distribute the music beyond mandatory uploading to music streaming services. Most of the band members who recorded the album are at mass on Sunday mornings, playing a medley of Shober originals and other related songs. Everyone who was interviewed said they were happy to continue the music.
“An opportunity to participate in something that’s recovery-based, I find it hard to say no because of where I’ve been,” Rucker says. “Music is a phenomenal way to reach people who may be hard-hearted, who wouldn’t necessarily be touched by someone else’s experience. It is a language that you do not need to have spoken before to understand.
For Shober, it’s all about the “kids,” as he calls them — not just his own children, but the musicians who helped bring the songs to life and who continue to spark new musical ideas to this day.
“We count our blessings, and that’s what it’s all about — Grace House blessings, it really is,” says Shober. “And believe me, our church is not – I’m not shouting at these ladies like, ‘You have to accept Jesus Christ!’ “We’re laid back, we love people coming to church and we want them to be loved. We want people to feel the love, and that’s it. And I hope that comes through in the songs.”