Winter Jam 2020: A Conversation With Austin French

Christian music’s premiere annual tour-de-force, the Winter Jam Spectacular, is revving up once again, this time in preparation for a 42-city jaunt around the country in 2020, which will include a stop at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on Wednesday, Jan. 23 at 7 p.m.

Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Crowder leads a star-studded lineup that includes the likes of Hillsong Young & Free, Building 429, Louie Giglio, Red, NewSong, Andy Mineo and 25-year-old, up-and-coming contemporary artist Austin French, who just may be the biggest “performing fan” of this year’s slate.

“I’ve been a part of going to Winter Jam every year since I was in about sixth grade,” he said in a recent interview with ListenIowa. “I’ve been on the outside (of the arena), in the huge line wrapped around the building waiting to get in, freezing to death. I’ve done that part, for sure. (laughs) So it blows me away that I get to be one of the acts actually performing.”

ListenIowa spoke with French recently, touching on the tour, some “crossroads moments” of his career thus far, and the importance of staying true to the cause.

How surreal is it to go from fan to performer?
Very much so. I was at a Winter Jam in Greenville, South Carolina when I decided I wanted to be a Christian artist. It’s full circle. I’m kinda hoping there are other guys out there that feel like they don’t have a shot, or are dreaming of doing it like I am. Hopefully I can connect with them, and they can see that it can really happen.

What is enticing about Winter Jam to you?
I think it’s the amount of artists and the genre they represent. You can go to a worship show, or you can go to a really entertaining show, or to a hip-hop show, or a passion conference, but to have this tour that brings such a diversity of acts and sounds is all in one is great. There’s a crazy rock show, a little subdued stuff, and everything in between — for $15. Growing up, a lot of the times we couldn’t afford to go to the shows that were $25 per person. The price is great, and they hold nothing back in production. It’s a really cool environment.

You’ll be one of the early performers, and have a small window to play. How are you approaching that?
We have 12 minutes to fit in three to four songs. Our goal is to hit the parts of the songs that leave a mark on people. Now that we have bit of a radio following, you have to play those songs, and then you have to get creative with what you have so that people will recognize who you are, and also hear the songs that they came to hear. It can be a little daunting.

Do you watch other artists after your set?
Oh yeah. I call myself the “Fan Girl Artist.” (laughs) I’ve done that with every other artist I’ve toured with. I grew up a Christian music fan, going to every concert with my youth group. I lived in Georgia, and we would even travel to other states to hear artists. Now I’m sharing the stage with some of these incredible, legendary acts, so I’m going to be right there at the side of the stage. I’m a fan of everyone on this tour.

It’s been five years since you were on the “big stage,” that of being a contestant on the TV show, “Rising Star,” in which you were runner-up. What was that experience like?
It was the craziest experience of my life, performing on national television for millions of people every week. It’s not something that normal human beings are built for. (laughs) It was a crazy journey. I learned a lot. I had an opportunity to make a statement of my faith on a large platform, and it was interesting to have interviewers and people in social media ask me why I smiled so much. (laughs) It was because I had a hope that couldn’t be taken away from me, and His name is Jesus. Some people didn’t like that answer. Some people loved it. Some people were amazed, in a way, that I would even say that. It showed me, in a way, that whether people accept the Gospel or not, it’s whether or not you live it that makes the difference. I’d always wanted to do Christian music, but on the show you really weren’t allowed to do that. I was up on the stage to compete with people, but really it was because God had opened this door to share something bigger than me.

That was a BIG door.
Yes. Another thing that came from that was an atheist casting producer actually ended up setting me up with my manager. (laughs) She (the casting producer) was a fan of mine, but she hated what I stood for, and she let me know that often. My manager also loves Jesus and annoyed her when they were on the phone together because all he talks about is Jesus. I’m the same way, so she introduced us as, “Hey, you guys are both really annoying about what you believe, so maybe you should work together.” (laughs) Four years later, I was playing a festival in Alabama in the middle of nowhere and around the corner from my trailer comes this casting producer I hadn’t seen in four years. She had driven all the way from Los Angeles to Alabama to the show just to tell me she had accepted Jesus because of watching my story and listening to my record. She saw it was a real thing. Another full circle moment for me.

I read in your bio that you were adamant during the show that you were not going to cave in and present yourself as anything but what you were, a Christian.
I feel like people feel that they have to adapt to the situation they’re in and be whoever they’re around at the time. At least that’s the pressure our society puts on people sometimes, especially as a Christian. The Gospel is somewhat offensive to people. There were moments that this casting producer was really angry with me because she didn’t like the answers I was giving to her questions. But when you stick to what you believe, in a loving way, it goes a really long way. I’d encourage anyone to live their faith, even though someone may not like you.

Was it nerve-wracking performing for the likes of Brad Paisley, Ludacris and Kesha on a weekly basis?
Well, my mom was a music teacher in our house, and she was in a supporting chair offstage at the show. The judges were out front. As soon as the wall came up, I’d always look to her and my wife because they were the ones I trusted more than Brad, Luda and Kesha. They’re celebrities who have somewhat of an agenda on what they’re supposed to say, but my mom was always very honest and pointed. I knew if she was clapping and going crazy that is must have been OK. (laughs)

That was huge for you, obviously. Do you have any other crossroads moments on your journey thus far that, looking back, you can say, “I’m glad I went right instead of left at that moment.”
Absolutely. Before the TV show, I had applied to a couple of colleges and was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with my life. I felt like the Lord was just saying, “You just need to stay.” Now, I grew up in a small town in Georgia, and I was just ready to get out. I wanted to get away. Suddenly, all these doors of opportunity began to shut in my face, and I didn’t understand why. God used a doctor, who I didn’t really even know, who came up to me and said he wanted to pay for my college. He said God had told him to do it. And I was like, “You’re crazy.” (laughs) I couldn’t go to college because I didn’t want to take out student loans and get into a lot of debt, and our family was really broke. We grew up in a single-wide trailer and just didn’t have a lot of money. But this doctor wanted to pay for my college, and it blew me away. He also wanted me to lead worship at a church, so I started doing that for the youth program while I was doing an online school at Liberty University. I wasn’t bummed, but it definitely wasn’t what I had planned. I knew what I wanted to be doing, but I was there, and I trusted that it was where God wanted me to be. A couple of months later, I started leading worship at a college ministry where my buddy played drums. I ended meeting my wife there the first night, too. I became a worship pastor at that church. God gave me the opportunity.

It’s funny how life works sometimes.
Isn’t it? My wife, Jocelyn, and I, actually had our bags packed to move to Florida at one point. We had a U-Haul in our front yard, and my mother- and father-in-law came and knocked on the door. I thought they came to tell us goodbye. I opened the door, and she was holding a 4-month-old baby boy who had just been rescued from living in a van. The moment I saw this little boy, God whispered in my heart, “You’re his daddy.” I was like, “Nope, I didn’t hear that.” (laughs) But I couldn’t escape it. He kept saying it. So me and my wife moved to Florida the next day, but we felt like we were leaving our son back in Georgia. We couldn’t escape it. So we started fighting for him through foster care. A year ago, he became a French forever. It was one of those moments where I could have walked away and done something a little bit easier than adopting a kid. But I’m really glad we jumped in head first, because it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done in my life.

Winter Jam Tour Spectacular 2020
When: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 7 p.m.
Where: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines
Tickets: No tickets required, but a $15 freewill donation at the door is suggested