Mumford & Sons flies high on wings of faith

Published: Friday, Feb. 15 2013 12:00 p.m. MST

Marcus Mumford, from left, Ben Lovett and Winston Marshall, of Mumford & Sons, perform at the 55th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 10.

John Shearer, AP

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Near the end of the 55th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday night, British songstress Adele stood alone on the stage at Staples Center to present Album of the Year — the evening’s final and most prestigious award. One of the five nominees was Mumford & Sons, a folk quartet from England with Christian roots and faith-based lyrics.

And if Mumford & Sons was going to win the final Grammy, they’d basically need a miracle comeback.

Indeed, the Mumford men had entered the evening as consensus favorites to take home hardware in several of the major Grammy categories — but the forecasted dominance never quite materialized. By the time Adele began to read aloud the Album of the Year nominees, Mumford & Sons had won only one of the five Grammys for which the group had been nominated.

Conversely, another Album of the Year nominee — the Black Keys — had more momentum than a runaway train. The garage-rock duo from Akron, Ohio, had already claimed four Grammys, including Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance — two categories in which the Black Keys had bested Mumford & Sons head-to-head.

But as Adele pried open the sealed envelope, the biggest award on music’s biggest night went to singers who are earnest about their faith and an album whose title is clearly a biblical allusion.

Making the band

When drummer Marcus Mumford and double bassist Ted Dwane got fired from the backing band of a London-based musician in 2007, the pair quickly caught on as supporting players for the up-and-coming folk singer Laura Marling. Mumford was already on close terms with another member of Marling’s band, banjo player Winston Marshall, dating back to a time when a younger Mumford and Marshall played together in a church worship band.

The Mumford-Dwane-Marshall trio added keyboardist/pianist Ben Lovett to their side project, and near the end of 2007 the four men founded Mumford & Sons. The band’s moniker started out as a tongue-in-cheek effect, but the name stuck in spite of the members not being blood relatives and the fact Marcus Mumford does not dictate to the three “Sons” in the vein of eponymous musicians such as Jon Bon Jovi or Eddie Van Halen, who always call the shots in the bands that bear their names.

All four members of Mumford & Sons are multi-instrumentalists, but a common lineup was on display Sunday when the band performed at the Grammys: Lovett played keyboard; Mumford sang lead vocals, strummed acoustic guitar and thumped a kick drum with his right foot; Marshall picked banjo; and Dwane plucked double bass. British newspaper The Independent recently described their sound as “a little country, a little spiritual, a little folky, (and) lots of things to lots of people.”

Rooted in faith

Several things about Mumford & Sons fuel speculation regarding the band’s proximity to Christianity. For starters, Marcus Mumford’s parents are leaders in the formidable evangelical Vineyard Church in England and, not coincidentally, religion played a big part in Marcus’ upbringing.

Second, many of the songs on both “Sigh No More” (the band’s 2009 debut) and “Babel” (released this past September) are laden with biblical allusions and religiously evocative language. For example, the track “Below My Feet” from “Babel” contains the lines, “And I was still, I was under your spell / When I was told by Jesus all was well.”

At the same time, some of the band's song lyrics also contain explicit language, including several instances of the f-word in “Little Lion Man” and “Broken Crown.”

“While Mumford & Sons wouldn't be categorized as a ‘Christian’ band — you won't find them in Christian bookstores or in the Gospel section at Best Buy — Christian themes nevertheless run throughout many of their songs,” Kevin P. Emmert wrote for Christianity Today in September.

Band members have been careful not to endorse any particular religion. Instead, they prefer to highlight in their music the prominent role faith plays in their lives.

Speaking to The Guardian in 2010 about the album “Sigh No More,” Marcus Mumford said its lyrics are “a deliberately spiritual thing but deliberately not a religious thing. I think faith is ­something beautiful, and something real, and something universal. … I think faith is something to be celebrated."

Two and a half years after that interview, The Independent asked the singer whether the album title “Babel” could be viewed as a statement about the importance of religion to the band. Mumford's response: “No, religion is not at all (important). Faith is. We each have individual beliefs. Our values are pretty shared otherwise we wouldn’t do well on the road. Faith is a more spiritual thing.”

Music critics like NPR's Ann Powers may consider Mumford & Sons a “non-sectarian spiritual rock band,” but the music may still appeal to Christian audiences.

“We need a voice to remind us that all will be well, that there is life beyond pain, restoration after brokenness,” Emmert reflected in his essay for Christianity Today. “Mumford & Sons give voice to that message. … We should approach Mumford & Sons' songs with discernment and sensitivity — appraising their lyrics fairly, while seeking to understand their emotions and circumstances. We will find points to criticize, others to dismiss. But in the end, we will find much to honor and celebrate.”

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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