Turning Water into Vinegar: A Chat with Great Value Jesus

By Izzy Braico

When I met with Noah Renken-Kapatos in a sound booth tucked in the basement of ISU’s Center for the Visual Arts, my first question was about his stage name: Great Value Jesus.

It had been the question at the forefront of my mind in the days leading up to our chat about his new album, Big Things Coming Soon. Where did the name come from? What did it mean? Was he comfortable comparing himself to one of history’s most famous religious figures? 

When he took his hair out of the bun on top of his head, though, I finally got it.

“With my hair down and my beard, I kind of look like what ‘white Jesus’ is depicted as,” he said.  “Obviously, I’m not as great as Jesus, but…I’m very empathetic, a lot of my friends know that I’m a very giving person…so I kind of thought, Walmart knock-off brand.” 

“I can’t turn water into wine,” he continued. “But I can probably turn it into vinegar.” 

Our conversation quickly turned from his hair to his t-shirt, where several pictures of Kendrick Lamar stared alternatingly at each other and back at me. Lightning bolts exploded in the background. 

“This year, I’ve really delved into [Kendrick Lamar’s] catalog. His lyricism– it’s second to none, at least for rap artists that I’m hearing release stuff today,” Renken-Kapatos said. “When I went to go see him, it felt like I was going to church.”

When Great Value Jesus describes something as a religious experience, you know it’s time to start paying attention. So, Kendrick Lamar easily stole the top spot on the list of Renken-Kapatos’s musical inspirations. Not necessarily shocking, considering the rap elements woven throughout Big Things Coming Soon, but at least a little unexpected. The rest of the list looks something like this:

The Red Hot Chili Peppers: “They’ve been a staple in my life for a long time,” Renken-Kapatos said. He even took his mom to one of their concerts this summer. 

Radiohead: “I love Thom Yorke’s solo work, too. But don’t count that as one.”

OutKast: Yes, the people who did “Hey Ya.”

Renken-Kapatos’s work is as varied as his musical inspirations. Big Things Coming Soon pulls from a variety of influences, including jazz, rock, classical, folk, and hip hop. 

“I like making all those different types of music, and there’s not a lot of representation in mainstream [music] of someone doing all of this at the same time,” Renken-Kapatos said. “I was like, what if I just make music that I like to hear?”

If you listen to Big Things Coming Soon, you’ll understand what he’s talking about. The album swings from songs that make you want to get up and dance (“Chillin”, “Heat”) to “sad boy indie” (“A Guy with Daddy Issues”) to a new wave remix of a 1974 clip of a reporter discussing the coming digital age (“This is a Computer”). Even as the piece bounces from genre to genre, though, it doesn’t lose its focus or its heart. 

“It’s about sharing vulnerable art, but using comedy to break up the segments of vulnerability,” Renken-Kapatos said. “A lot of people in our generation are really good at putting up a fake wall, especially with social media. So, I wanted the first two songs [“Slacker Song”, “Chillin”] to be like, ‘Don’t take me seriously!’ and then I can overshare. You try to use comedy to tell stories that aren’t easy to tell.” 

The title “Big Things Coming Soon,” is, itself, an example of comedy as a rhetorical tactic, attempting to disarm the listener. 

“It’s a tongue-in-cheek reference to local bands who form, and they’re like ‘Hell yeah, we’re gonna make awesome music, and we’re gonna blow up!’, and the next week they announce that they’re separating,” Renken-Kapatos said. 

For someone who had clearly put so much heart into his work, I was genuinely impressed by Renken-Kapatos’s ability to laugh at himself. Not all artists have that gift. And not only was he able to communicate that humility in conversation, but also in his work, which was especially impressive given some of the heavier topics that he tackled. 

The throughline of BTCS is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, following the various highs and lows of Renken-Kapatos’s complicated family dynamic growing up. Specifically, the story follows his coping with the repeated loss and reemergence of  his biological father, and the presence of a bullying step-father. Renken-Kapatos doesn’t shy away from the hairy details or the difficult emotions. 

Take track 15, “Reflections from the Back of a Train,” as an example. 

“It’s talking about my Amtrak rides to go visit my [biological] dad, who was briefly in my life from 14 to 16, and kind of reflecting on having two homes in that sense,” Renken-Kapatos said. “It still feels really fractured, but my connection with my mom I know is still really strong.” 

Track 3, “Trippy Tiptoe Tango,” deals with some similarly heavy themes. 

This song, according to Renken-Kapatos, describes his relationship with his step-father, and his experience, “growing up in a house where I felt like I was constantly walking on eggshells, like I was…tangoing around a horrible human being.” 

The lines in Trippy Tiptoe Tango “Look me in the eyes/ Tell me you love me more/ Love me more than your only son” describe a series of interactions in which Renken-Kapatos’s step-father demanded that his mother tell him that he was more important to her than her son. According to Renken-Kapatos, this ended up “really messing with [his] mom’s psyche.” 

“He was my biggest bully growing up,” Renken-Kapatos said. “And it’s important to share these kinds of stories, because you don’t want the bullies to win.”

Big Things Coming Soon wants to make you laugh, cry, and dance, sometimes all at once. More than anything else, though, it wants to share a story with you. And how does the story end?

For Renken-Kapatos, the answer is simple: “The resolution is acceptance– radical acceptance. It all happened, you know what I mean?” 

If you’re interested in listening to Great Value Jesus, check out their Spotify for more.

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