Amy Grant Talks About Her First New Music In A Decade
Viv: Six-time Grammy award winner Amy Grant became one of the first Christian music singers to cross over into mainstream pop with the success of her albums “Unguarded” and “Heart in Motion”, the latter of which yielded the number one single “Baby, Baby.”
John: Amy spoke with us about the release of “How Mercy Looks From Here”, her first album of all new music in over a decade.
Viv: It’s a great privilege and a great pleasure to be talking with Amy Grant for Art of the Song. Amy, thank you so much for joining us.
Amy: My pleasure.
Viv: Would you tell us a little bit about how you got started, your background? We like to talk about that ‘how’ in terms of the broadest spectrum possible. Really, it’s where you’re from musically, physically, and spiritually.
Amy: Ok. I have grown up my entire life in Nashville, Tennessee. Except for when I was on the road. I was born in Georgia when my dad was in the military. A large, extended family. I look back with great fondness. When I was in college, there were five generations of my family alive in Tennessee. When I grew up, we all went to church quite a bit. Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night. A lot of singing in church, but it was a church that didn’t have any instrumental music. My parents were very gracious, kind people and our house was always a hub of activity. I started performing music really just because everybody I knew could play or sing or write. That’s part of the creative energy in Nashville. I have three older sisters and so the records I fell in love with were the Beatles, Elvis, Carole King, James Taylor, early Elton John. Oh gosh, everything from Jethro Tull to Creedence Clearwater. Anyway, so my two older sisters had come back from their early college years in Boston and, while they were there, had gotten involved with a church that was sort of on the tail-end of the Jesus hippie movement that was happening in the late ’60s, early ’70’s. When they came back to Nashville, they found a church that had that same personality. Everybody showed up barefoot, long hair, blue jeans and, on special occasions, my mom and dad would let me go. I was thirteen, fourteen years old and at the time I had started playing guitar and playing Joni Mitchell and Carole King, James Taylor, just whatever I could cram into the four and a half chords I knew, and I was also going to a girls’ prep school, a day school in Nashville called “Harpeth Hall”. We had mandatory chapel there. I just was having this very broad experience surrounded by learning and seminar class, lots of discussion, and then my experience of the hippie church. All of the very structured religious training that I had gotten from my parents was sort of like a keg of dynamite being exposed to a flame, because I knew the Bible even as a child. Then, all of the sudden, this freedom and grace and, because of this hippie church, it was right on the edge of the projects in Nashville, and so people with extreme need were in this environment that was very spiritually alive. I’m sitting in chapel one day going, and I can’t remember who was speaking but it was one of the student’s fathers and I just remember thinking, “This feels more like a political discussion”, this probably would have been 1973 or ’74 and I just sort of offhandedly thought, “God, you could really do with some good PR because nobody wants to hear this. This isn’t alive.” So I went to the head of the school, I was a sophomore, and I said, “Could I do a chapel program?” And that’s how it started. And I grabbed another girl that I knew could sing and I just said, “Will you just harmonize with me?” We sang some Joni Mitchell, some Carole King, some James Taylor and then I wrote a couple of songs. And I thought if I could just whet somebody’s appetite to be open on some level to a conversation with God, I think it could be life-changing. That day I had so many upper classmen leave notes in my locker and pass me in the hall. I was just your average kid, I wasn’t the top of the heap socially, and I wasn’t an outcast. I was just somewhere in the middle. It’s a girl’s school. You don’t really have to bathe if you don’t want; you’re just in a uniform. I did hold the record for longest student to go without washing their hair. Twelve days. Maybe it was fourteen. And it was broken a generation later by my niece. I was so proud. That’s where it started. So I’ve always loved all kinds of music, but I always feel like there’s a supernatural thing, whether people know it or not, that music does to all of us. It doesn’t have to be a faith-based lyric, but just that ability to connect people to themselves or to each other. So that’s always been a component in the music I’ve made.
Amy Grant Part 2
John: It’s been ten years since your last record, why so long?
Amy: Well, I’ve made music all along and I’ve toured, but the music came in spurts. A ‘best of’ with two new songs, or a Christmas compilation with four new songs. Several things happened simultaneously. One is that I put together a tour in 2008 of a band that I had worked with twenty years before. Through a strange set of circumstances, I heard some live recordings from two decades earlier. I went, “Oh my gosh, we used to be pretty good,” I was just taken by hearing an earlier version of all of this cast of characters and of myself. So I had been through a divorce, I had remarried, I’d had another child, my fourth child at forty, but I had never really gotten the wind back in my sails creatively until I heard that old recording. I went into my manager’s and I said, “I’ve contacted all the musicians except the one that had died.” There were ten of us. I said, “They’ve all agreed to go out. Let’s do a twenty city tour for twenty years, let’s not sing anything that’s more recent than 1988.” They said, “I don’t know if we can find a promoter interested. Who are you?” Because I guess I had just not been that engaged musically. So we went and did this tour, played tiny places, and I felt my engine, my creative engine, rumbling, rumbling, rumbling, trying to start back. I came off that tour and because it was very time consuming, and I went to visit my mother and father and saw that my mother was in a health landslide. So I cancelled everything for 2009. Everything. I watched as my mother declined, and we did so many fun things and just trying to make memories. Two months before she passed away, in February of 2011, I went to see her one night. Of course, she was the first person I ever sang a song for. I was visiting her late in the evening because that’s when we board the tour bus, because we sleep while the driver takes us to whatever city we’re going to be playing in the next day. We just had a short visit. I said, “It’s time for me to go get on the bus, I’ve got a show tomorrow night.” She said, “A show?” I said, “Yes, Mom, a concert.” “You sing?” I thought, “Oh it’s one of those days, ok.” I said, “I do. I sing.” She asked me what kind of songs I sing and would I sing something for her. I thought, “Well, let me try to swallow the lump in my throat that feels like a pair of socks.” And I did. I sang an old hymn that I knew she would know every word. About halfway through I said, “You recognize this, don’t you?” She said, “No, but I love it. Keep going.” Then I sang the rest of that then it really was time to go. Then I said, “Mom, I have to leave now” and I gave her a kiss. I’m walking out the door and she said, “Hey, would you do me a favor?” And I said, “What? Anything.” And she said, “When you walk out on that stage, sing something that matters.” And two months later she was gone.
Amy: I know. Just the timing of it. After the very necessary grieving, really a year that left me lethargic, all of the sudden I felt like this rocket ship had been attached to my creativity. I loved it. I loved writing. I dedicated the record to my mom. Every day I’d come home, and, of course, my husband Vince Gill is a musician, and always making music, and I’ve walk in the back door, and down the long hallway and I’d say, “I’m levitating. I know I’m walking three feet off the ground.” I thought all those creative days were behind me because I enjoyed such a fun run, the early ’90’s. To me, I’m so grateful for an interested record company and the fact that I still love doing what I was doing when I was a kid. That’s really all that creative energy is what made this record.
Amy Grant Part 3
Viv: There’s a song on your new CD with James Taylor singing backups. You’ve brought up some of your heroes to play on “What Mercy Looks Like.” There’s one song that really brought me to my knees. I was driving, it was awkward. It’s “Don’t Try So Hard.” Can you tell us a little about how that song came about?
Amy: Yes. “Don’t Try So Hard”, the song was pitched to me. As a writer, I went back and said, “Can we please re-write this? This could be really incredible, but I have to sing this to myself. I can’t sing it to somebody else.” The best thing about getting older is all the very subtle life lessons that you absorb, you don’t even know it. Then suddenly, they’re a part of your tool kit. I’ve had so many amazing things happen in my life because of music. You asked me about how it started. When I was fifteen, I made a tape of songs for my mom and dad, my original songs, and a record company heard it and they were trying to launch a Gospel record label of contemporary music. The quote from that of the company was, “She’s not very good, but I can tell she’s sincere. Give her a contract.” But he was right. I had to learn a lot, and I got better with time. As I improved, and my music improved, so many doors opened up for me, which has just always made me realize that every circle that we walk into, that we gain access to in life, comes because of our performance. Even people go, “Oh my high school friends”. The reason you have high school friends is because you accomplish the work of first grade and then did the work of second grade and so on all the way through high school and then you have friends. Or a job promotion. Or even when I’m sitting here talking to you is because I did something creative that I love but you thought it was good enough for us to discuss it. Totally contrary to that is the love of God, which nobody has to do anything to deserve, but we’re all so hard-wired to perform that even though it’s free we go, “No no no, well see, I’m going to deserve this,” which is impossible. So that’s where that song came from. Just trying to turn off the day-to-day survival kit of performance and just receive.
Viv: There’s so much that I’m treasuring from this conversation that we’re having. The view, as you grow older, and the depth of your spirituality shifts and deepens and life experience takes you in such an incredible direction. That, looking back, it’s not within a nostalgic way of what used to be but it’s to look for the juice and be rejuvenated. I love that line that the men said to you, “She’s not very good, but she’s sincere. I can tell she’s sincere.” And your mom, of course, it’s just profound, saying something important, saying something that matters. I think those are great words to pass on to people who are coming up and that’s, of course, one of the things that we try to do with Art of the Song is encourage people who are looking for their creative voice. Could you talk a little bit about that, what you might offer to people?
Amy: Sure. Well, I’m asked by songwriters all the time, “What advice can you give?” Two things come to mind. If you’re not moved, how can you expect somebody else to be? When you’re being creative, you really have to be willing to be moved, and not settle until you are. It’s great to work with people who you know are much better than you are because they’ll drag you along and inspire you. The other thing is, we’re all so unique. The details of our lives are individual and specific to our own circumstances, but the human experience has so many common, shared chapters. Being honest, whether it’s in ecstatic joy or sadness or the need to strut or heartbreak, just whatever it is, be clear and honest about the experience that you want to articulate. The hardest song is the one where you don’t have any idea of what you want to say. I would say go out and live until you think, “This is what I want to write about.” I had an experience of a lyric that I had written many years ago and it became the song, “If I Could See What the Angels See”. I had put music to the song, but there’s a line that says, “If I could know what the angels know”. My original lyric was that “Death is just a swinging door, and spirits come and spirits go.” And it goes on. I just finished this record and I was working with this producer, Marshall Altman, who I have such great respect for, and I sang him that song and he said, “I just want to ask you if we could reconfigure that song, change the music.” He said, “It just feels a little more folk than I think it should sound.” I said, “Well, I have been sleeping with a country singer the last thirteen years, so.” So we changed the music and so some of the terms that were more colloquial didn’t fit as well and every time I would sing, “If I could know what the angels know, that death is just a swinging door.” And Marshall said, “You could sing that all you want here. It’s not going on the record.” I said, “I wrote it, and that’s what I want.” He said, “I understand that but it doesn’t feel like an ah-hah. What does that mean, ‘Death is a swinging door?’ Some people don’t even know what a swinging door is.” So weeks go by, and I’m in the vocal booth, and he’s said, “Just sing anything, but not ‘Death is a swinging door’. I don’t want to hear that any more. It’s not going on the record.” So every time I would go in and I would warm up or I would sing something and, one day, I just happened to sing (I’m glad that the tape was rolling because I didn’t remember it), I sang “If I could know what the angels know, that death’s goodbye is love’s hello, and spirits come…” He hit the talk button and he said, “That’s it! That’s the lyric!” And I said, “What? I’m not sure what I sang!” And he said, “Well I recorded it, so just do a better performance, but we’ve got it.” Weeks go by, we finish the song, and I’m now on the promo trail. I get a couple texts from Marshall, “So much happening here. I know you’re in a whirlwind. Call when you have a minute.” And the minute never came. I didn’t see him until the album release party. We’re taking a lot of pictures. We both talked on a microphone to the gathered crowd. And he comes up to me an hour into the party and says, “I’ve got somebody waiting on me. Sorry I have to run out super fast, but so great to be here.” I worked in his studio. I know how many artists are coming and going and I thought, “Well, of course, he’s got somebody else that’s making a record. And lucky them to get to work with him.” That night I got a text from him and he said, “My father passed away tonight. And everything is changed. So glad that it happened right now. Death’s goodbye is love’s hello.” I couldn’t believe it. And I went, “I’m so glad that lyric wasn’t ‘death is just a swinging door.’ There’s no comfort in that.” Life reflects art. Art reflects life. It’s an ongoing experience and it should always reflect things that are real. Now I can’t hear that line and that song without going, “Thank you Marhsall for pushing me. It mattered.”
Viv: And having somebody who can just keep very gently, or not so gently, saying, “There’s more.” That is was being pushed for him as well. That he was, in some way, what I’m hearing is that there was a seeking from his side that he wasn’t even aware of.
Amy: Sure. Yeah. Of course, later, I get the whole story. He said, “I was at my father’s bedside.” He said, “I’ve been singing to him.” He said he hadn’t opened his eyes in a couple days. He said, “I knew he was at the end. And I just whispered, ‘I have to go somewhere for an hour and fifteen minutes. It’s very important to me. Do not die while I’m gone.'” And it was fifteen minutes later. Life is so crazy, but we’re all going through the same things, and hopefully through music we can connect in a way that makes everybody have a decent language to articulate their experience. I’ve just loved working on this record. I hope the people that need to hear it, find it.
Viv: We’re going to make sure they do.
Viv: We’re going to throw our little piece of it into the mix and hopefully turn on as many people as possible. It really is a deeply meaningful record, and this conversation means the world to us. We thank you so much for being on Art of the Song with us today.
Amy: Thank you.