One of the most wonderful things about Catholic music is that it rises beyond genre to encompass any song faithfully written with Catholic themes and doctrine in mind. Even with so many styles contributing to the Catholic songbook, however, every once in a while a unique act comes along that makes us marvel at the extent of the Church’s inspirational reach.
Peter Johnston RVA is just such an act, one that melds devout Catholic texts with the tones of indie-rock. Drawing inspiration from 90s “slacker” indie rock, punk rock, and even some mid-20th-century classic rock and R&B, Peter D’Alema, lead singer/songwriter and driving artistic force behind the band, is producing religious music that could hold up to any of the most popular secular indie acts.
D’Alema has forged his exceptional talent through years of working in bands on the indie circuit, but this is the first project where he’s “set out to specifically focus exclusively on matters of human dignity and common good in society in the context of Catholic Christian imagery.” He has set upon this new mission with prolific intent, releasing two EPls in 2020 alone (Be Not Afraid and City of God) with a third, King of Kings, slated to release on November 22.
With lyrics deeply entrenched in the Catholic experience, wrapped up in an incredibly trendy aesthetic, Peter Johnston RVA’s music is striking to hear. We were especially impressed by the title track, “City of God,” for which D’Alema drew heavily from the work by St. Augustine of the same name. Driven by a really catchy bass hook, the tune brings to mind some of the most famous names in indie and punk music, like early U2 meets Fleet Foxes.
Recently, Peter was kind enough to have a conversation with Aleteia about his exciting new brand of Catholic music:
You have a unique product of Catholic music packaged in an indie-pop aesthetic. What inspired you to merge your faith with this style?
I started playing guitar and writing songs through college right around the same time that I started to more passionately embrace my Catholic faith. I was born and raised as a Catholic and always knew what I believed, but in my college years, I really started to focus on learning why the Catholic Church teaches what it does.
Before heading off to college, a priest friend of my family gave me the 1992 edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that Pope St. John Paul II was so instrumental in bringing to fruition; I always enjoyed opening to a random page, trusting that whatever section I came upon was what I needed to read or learn that day. The very straightforward and logical explanations for very complex philosophical and theological issues gave me a greater understanding for the pragmatism associated with Catholic thought.
The more I read, the more I appreciated the inherent beauty in the way that Catholicism cares for the whole person: mind, body, and spirit. I was also greatly inspired by St. Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists from 1999, where the pope encouraged Christians all over the world to start a new revolution in the arts that creates a “fruitful alliance between Gospel and art.”
At the April release of Be Not Afraid, you wrote (on Bandcamp), “The seven song EP sets out to prove that traditional Catholic thought and indie rock are not mutually exclusive.” Could you expand on this?
It’s no secret that most mainstream music, and a lot of indie rock music in particular, is typically very secular in nature; some of my favorite indie artists who started out as Christian-oriented songwriters have, over time, gone through ‘crises of faith’ that sadly saw them fall away from any belief in God at all.
This was so disheartening to me, as these artists seemed to simply be going through a period of spiritual aridity or simply hadn’t explored a particular question of faith in enough detail or in the proper context to realize that their faith was not incompatible with the issue that they were experiencing. So this made me set out to try and write music that appeals to and offers a counter-cultural Catholic Christian perspective to people that enjoy indie and punk influenced rock music that hopefully furthers the spiritual journey.
I also hope that other artists who stumble across this music will be encouraged to draw on their own Catholic / Christian perspectives and identity in creating music and art. In many ways, creating any kind of art is an attempt to grasp or gain a glimpse of the eternal, and so it seems that can be successfully done with guitar, bass, and drums with the right intentions and backed with the truth of the Church.
As a religious musician, you have the capacity to influence not just musical tastes, but the faith of your fans. What is the goal of your music and who would you most like to reach?
The primary goal for Peter Johnston RVA songs is to faithfully draw inspiration from Catholic Christian theology and tradition. The history, traditions, writings and art associated with the Catholic Church, particularly the early Church, are an infinite well of beauty that can and should inspire current artists.
I hope to reach anyone that enjoys listening to indie-rock, but particularly, I hope it may serve to give the listener, especially those in the college-aged demographic, confidence and courage to embrace and share their Catholic Christian faith through art and their daily interactions, knowing that they are not alone and have been preceded by a long line of Christian faithful that moved humanity forward with the same approach.
You had two big releases this year. How would you say your latest EP City of God relates to the larger work Be Not Afraid, which you released only a few months earlier.
Be Not Afraid was the first formal Peter Johnston RVA release that I wanted to use to set the tone, so to speak, for all of the records that will follow. The record opens with St. Pope John Paul II’s first public words uttered as pontiff in 1978, and because “be not afraid” are the words most repeated by Christ in the Gospel, it felt like the ideal theme for the first record as it is something that Christ wants us to remember as an overarching theme in our lives.
The title track, “Be Not Afraid,” was written as a reminder to Catholics that no matter what challenge or obstacle confronts the Church, the doctrine is solid and will not be overcome by this world. That record also set the Crux Fidelis lyrics to an acoustic, indie-folk arrangement. The record further endeavored to include a “wall of guitars” cover of the familiar hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” from the 1600s. The rest of the Be Not Afraid record explores themes of one’s vocation in life, reconciliation, and God’s unique ability to reel in the human soul over one’s life regardless of one’s human frailty and spiritual weakness.
The City of God EP was a natural follow-up that digs a little deeper into some of the themes established in the first record. If we are confident in Christ’s words urging us to be not afraid, then we can have the courage to start taking on the realities of the world in which we live, including death, sin, and the very critical day-to-day work of the Christian needed to build the City of God here on earth through service to and love of neighbor.
Is your EP City of God in reference to the book of the same title by St. Augustine? If so, to what extent did you draw influence from this work?
The latest EP was indeed influenced heavily by St. Augustine’s The City of God text. The words to the title track of the EP are direct excerpts from The CIty of God set to a distorted, bass-driven post-punk arrangement. I really loved the imagery associated with the two divergent cities in the text: a “heavenly city” in this world that is true to Christ versus an “earthly city” that focuses on the love of self, which ultimately leads to isolation and unhappiness.
The EP is rounded out by “Lover of Mankind” and “What Remains of the Day.” I was a parishioner at a Byzantine Catholic Church for two years in high school, and the first track, “Lover of Mankind,” is excerpted from a beautiful Byzantine Catholic requiem prayer that seeks mercy on the faithful departed through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “What Remains of the Day” is a track about the sacrament of reconciliation, which is a theme I like to revisit often since it is such an emotional encounter with Christ. The song speaks to the post-confession “euphoric high” after receiving absolution, which is balanced by the humble knowledge that as sinners, we will soon be in need of Christ’s grace and mercy again in the near future.
The song “City of God” has some of the most intensely Christian lyrics, which almost seem to be written in the format of the Psalms. From where did you draw inspiration for such vivid imagery and introspective phrases?
Well, the vivid imagery and introspective phrases are so good because they are St. Augustine’s words and not mine! The words are so hard hitting that the best thing that I could have hoped to do was set them to music that conveys the sense of urgency in the message. The lyrics, “we carry nothing into the world, and we carry nothing out,” is a reference from The City of God to Timothy, Chapter 6, which is such a sobering reminder of how we should approach our daily pursuits. It’s a reality check for sure.
Who would you say are your biggest musical and religious influences?
The biggest religious influences in my life have been my wonderful parents and family and all of the priests who have offered Masses, heard my confessions, or been around for me and my family in times of spiritual need and in friendship. Everyday priests and nuns are such a wonderful gift that can never be overstated — they are rock stars to me! St. Pope John Paul II is also one of the most important religious influences in my life. I was blessed to have been within feet of him in 2001 when visiting Rome, and it was a truly moving experience.
Musically, I’m a big fan Ray Davies and the Kinks, Neutral Milk Hotel, Damien Jurado, Luxury, Lee Bozeman’s solo work, Roy Orbison, Sam Cook, Patsy Cline, Wire, Johnny Cash, Burl Ives, the Clash, Built to Spill … the list could go on for quite a bit since I’m a big music nerd, so I should probably end it there!