Interview: Amy Grant: Notes of a Musical Icon
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For decades she has been the queen of contemporary Christian music and awed millions with her angelic sound and powerful lyrics. Her record of success is second to none, but it has been six years since her last album. In an an interview I learned about how music is her expression of personal joys and tragedies, and it's a journey her fans can take with her.
WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - When telling friends I was going to interview Amy Grant most of them said, "I love Amy Grant, my family listened to her music on road trips," or "Heart In Motion was my favorite album as a kid. I sang her songs all the time." Their reactions to Amy Grant resonate with me as I too grew up with her music playing in our family minivan, be it a five minute trip to the grocery store or across several states to visit family. Our collection of Amy Grant cassettes are probably still in our attic; somewhere.
For decades she has been the queen of contemporary Christian music and awed millions with her angelic sound and powerful lyrics. Her record of success is second to none with six Grammys, dozens of Dove Awards, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. While few are able to claim such success, she was the first woman to charge forward as a Christian who sang of life, love, and the Lord.
Amy has not had a typical American life. Her highly publicized 1999 divorce to Christian musician Gary Chapman had many in the Christian world outraged, with some radio stations refusing to play her songs. Her marriage to Vince Gill less than a year after her divorce was final also raised questions about her fidelity to her first marriage. And for Christians who were not convinced of the moral legitimacy of her divorce, they saw her stained and with little to offer Christianity even after 20 plus years of inspirational and heart-felt music.
In speaking with Amy I wanted to move past her stardom and the vulnerability of her image in the media, which was easy to do since she has the demeanor of a family friend, rather than a musical sensation. Her candidness is almost off-putting.
I wanted to unveil the story behind the struggling mom faced with incredible adversity, and yet still perseveres. In fact, what drew me to request an interview with her was a song on her new album Somewhere Down The Road, (her first album in six years) that epitomizes who she is. Better than a Hallelujah is one of the most successful songs on the album, and recently debuted in video. Perhaps by divine inspiration I played the song and was blown away by the reality of its message.
Amy Grant reacted the same way when she first heard it, since she didn't actually write the song. I asked, "In the first few lines you say, 'God loves a lullaby, in a mother's tears in the dead of night, are better than a hallelujah sometimes.' and I thought to myself, 'Wow, this is a bit strange-how does God hear crying as a lullaby?' It wasn't a happy-go-lucky song. It hit the truth of suffering both for the person and for God."
"I do write a lot of my material and I wish I had written that song. But I felt the same way. I was in the middle of so much angst and sadness when I heard that song. I remember when someone sent it to me in an email and I hit PLAY again and again and again," she said with an almost shy voice.
Since some of her struggles are still so real, the song is therapeutic for her-which it is for me as well. Going into the interview she knew that I am a two-time cancer survivor and struggled with faith and why God allows suffering. Because she opened the interview with a reference to my connection with the song, I knew she was interested in what I thought. She was eager to know that I was inspired by the music, if not changed by it.
The lyrics tell the message like a camera coming into focus. She tells the story and slowly refocuses the background so all of a sudden you see the whole picture. Some of the lyrics read, "the woman holding on to life, the dying man giving up the fight, are better than a hallelujah sometimes.we pour out our miseries, God just hears a melody. Beautiful the mess we are, the honest cries of breaking hearts, are better than a hallelujah."
I told her, "I hear those words and they hit so heavy. It is easy to understand, and yet it's so complex because we're talking about God's nature. When he hears us send up those honest cries, it's because we believe He can change our situation-and that He's good. If we didn't believe that there would be no reason to send up those honest cries." She interjected:
If I could add to that.Holding on with that last shred of hope, almost everybody has hope that He's in control. The reality is that He is in control and is taking care of us. still it is a weekly part of my life to look back and see that all along God was in control. He was never NOT in control. He was in control the morning I spent with Ruth the day that she died. He was in control then too. I have to believe that and take a deep breath and say 'oh my goodness, all things work together for good.'
I was in the waiting room for the multiple times a loved one tried to take their life, when I asked, 'It's not going to end like this, right? This is not the end' and say 'All things.' A dear friend of mine that I've written songs with together for years killed himself at the end of April and I went to see his mom and dad. They were at his house, and when I was driving up I said, 'Ok, it's either all things, or it's not at all. Either it's hog-wash, or everything fits under his control.'"
I was surprised to hear that Amy's life has been impacted by more than just personal choices, negative media attention, and the reactions of fans (both current and former). She held her friend Ruth McGinnis the day he died of cancer. She wept in hospital waiting rooms after friends attempted, and sometimes succeeded, in committing suicide. I saw a side of Amy Grant that the public rarely if ever gets to see-a sufferer person that expresses her life through song. On the tail end of that rough, yet beautiful, ride is an audience eager to see that they have more in common with her than they might have realized.
I have been privileged to speak on multiple occasions about suffering. I've sat by the bed of children and grown men alike who asked me some of the questions Amy Grant addresses in her album Somewhere Down the Road. Why does God allow Christians to suffer? Why do years of dedicated ministry not protect you from attacks of the devil? The more Amy spoke, the more I realized the purpose and inspiration behind her music: experience. Her trying experiences not only serve as the inspiration behind her songs, but they are the reason as well.
I asked Grant about the purpose and reason for her music. It became apparent to me that she is not just an entertainer or a performer; but instead she is something else. She said:
I'm always trying to connect with people. I use the word "connect" a lot, but I want to connect people to each other, the things they believe in, the love of God, forgiveness, and things that are active and alive. I sing songs about regular life and people will say, "Oh that song reminds me of Spring Break" or "That song made me dance." And in the middle of those warm and fuzzies I'll sing a song that is really meant to speak to them. Like Better than a Hallelujah says, "God loves a lullaby and a mother's tears in the dead of night." I'm not trying to hit them while their guard is down-but I'm trying to create a familiar landscape and they often go 'that's me, that's me". And then when I sing a song that presents the Gospel they go "oh my goodness, that's me too."
To understand the purpose of her singing, I asked, "I know songwriters sometimes just write a song hoping that someone will sing it, but the more I listen to it and knowing some of your story it seems like you were supposed to sing this song. Do you feel that way?"
She explained, "Well I was just glad I heard it. It felt so familiar to me. As somebody who lives in a town [Nashville] where there are a lot of amazing songwriters, I hear great songs all the time. When I hear an amazing song, my first thought is 'please somebody get that out on the airwaves.'"
Her response offered a new thought about the purpose of her music. "How do you see yourself as a singer and performer? Do you see yourself as someone who is supposed to help 'get that song out there?'-as a messenger, if you will," I asked.
"For me, it's always about the music. In my experience music facilitates the experience of someone being able to articulate a certain experience, or maybe experience it for the first time. Music is like a flower that grows up through the cracks in a sidewalk and you say, 'No way! How did anything break through that wall?' It's an amazing instrument for connecting us," she said.
Better than a Hallelujah is a particularly unique song because it addresses tough questions in a peaceful melody with poetic fashion. Quite frankly, the song's character is almost identical to Grant herself. She is a stylish woman who has both a singing and speaking voice that draws audiences from every corner of the Christian and secular market. She does not just sing what I like to call "happy-clappy" songs that leave the audience as spiritually empty as they might have arrived. Better than a Hallelujah has the same qualities as Grant, and rivals the song for which the album is titled, Somewhere Down The Road. I would say that the new Amy Grant-six years since her last album and more hardships under her belt-has more to offer her audiences because she, more often than not, has been in their shoes.
Interviewing Amy Grant was as inspirational as it was endearing. Without a context of what she is like "behind-the-scenes" I worried that her enormous fame would make her impersonal and difficult to connect with. Her audience will be glad to know that she is as personable and kind as she seems to be. Our interview, which felt much more like a friendly conversation, was interrupted by her kids calling, dogs barking, and her husband leaving for work-which he didn't do without a kiss goodbye.
Billy Atwell contributes to Catholic Online and BreakPoint, and is a blogger for The Point. From the perspective of a two-time cancer survivor he encourages those afflicted with pain and struggling with faith. You can find all of his writings at For the Greater Glory
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