When music is from the heart, it's hard not to love
The most common criticism I hear of contemporary Christian music is that it lacks depth and substance. Those winds are now changing - at least in one instance. In a short time Audrey Assad has developed a loyal following in the Christian music world. They adore her powerful, deep lyrics that go where most contemporary music is unable to go. She gets right to the heart.
WASHINGTON DC (Catholic Online) - Having already worked with some of the music industry's top stars, Audrey Assad is not what you usually think of when you hear the phrase "contemporary Christian music." Now in her late 20's, Assad graduated from high school in New York City. Soon after graduating, her parents relocated to Florida and it was during that time that she felt her spiritual life progress and her musical talents shine through.
Pursuing her passion for music, she spent a short while working and recording in Nashville, and later found a home in Phoenix, AZ. She attends mass and occasionally, when not on the road performing, sings with the worship team at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in nearby Tempe, AZ.
Assad is described as individualistic, nontraditional, a free spirit and an incredible talent. A convert to the Catholic faith, I would also describe her as one of those who represents a change in the winds of Christian music.
The most common criticism I hear of contemporary Christian music is that it lacks depth and substance. I tend to agree. What a shame, too. Music has the potential to reach the soul and lift our hearts closer to God. St. Augustine is attributed with saying that singing is like praying two-fold. We are oriented towards beauty as a result of being oriented towards God. Sin fogs the lens with which we see that beauty, but music has a way of piercing through the fog and reaching right to our hearts - even to our souls.
In fact, God is the author of creativity and beauty, both of which are found in music. So to have music without the depth and substance that draws us closer to God is a missed opportunity.
There are no missed opportunities with Audrey Assad's music. The personal nature of her lyrics reflects spiritual growth and personal experience. In watching a video of her singing "For Love of You," a popular song from her album, on K-LOVE radio, it's plain to see that with eyes closed she is offering her music up as an offering--a prayer, if you will--and the audience is free to join her.
In a short time she has developed a loyal following in the Christian music world. They adore her powerful, deep lyrics that go where most contemporary music is unable to go. She gets right to the heart.
Defying Shallow Tendencies
Audrey Assad defies the shallow tendencies of so much of contemporary Christian music by working on building a strong and thorough vocabulary. In a phone interview with her, she expressed to me the deep desire she has to steward language.
"I feel a great responsibility to steward language like I would money or time. It disheartens me to hear music, Christian or otherwise, that has abandoned that mission of making language something special. Music has become utilitarian and uses slang more than the heart," said Assad.
One reason that most contemporary artists do not engage the challenges of living a genuine Christian faith is because the issues are complex. Contemporary Christian music is often effective in creating an emotional experience, but does so with watered-down messages and shallow theology. Rarely do they make us think and grow in our understanding of God and our relationship with Him. Assad is not afraid to make her audience think - in fact, she wants them to.
"I spend a lot of time on my lyrics picking at each word to make sure I'm saying something meaningful. I want my words to be worth of the subject I'm talking about," said Assad.
The subjects her music covers include redemptive suffering, repentance, forgiveness, spiritual growth, and feeling out of place. In "For Love of You," she even mentions Christ's Sacred Heart. With strikingly Catholic imagery such as this I had little choice but to ask how her Catholic faith inspires her music, and if her Catholic faith gives it such depth.
"The specific imagery definitely comes from my Catholic faith, especially ideas like the Sacred Heart. I became Catholic 3 years ago, so I feel like I am playing catch up. This whole new world was opened up to me - these treasures of authors, thinkers, and believers. I'm reading these people that lived centuries ago and my philosophy, my underlying look at life, is being formed and reformed. Some of the ways I think are changing, so that is definitely influencing the way I write music. The way that I see the world has been radically changed. I can't emphasize enough how the Sacramental union with God in the Eucharist has totally changed the way I see the world," she said.
A humble soul
As our discussion continued, I wanted to know more about Audrey Assad as a person, aside from the musician. In other interviews she expressed a deep sense of feeling out of place in the world and a longing for completeness as a child. One of her songs is even titled "Restless," which feeds off St. Augustine's famous quote, "You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."
I asked her whether or not coming into union with the Catholic Church gave her a sense of completeness or if she still felt a longing for something more.
"Yes and no," she said. "There is a sense in which I feel at rest in a new way that will never change. I feel rooted in the Church, which I never felt before, not to this extent, and not in this way. I feel absorbed into something older, smarter, and bigger than myself. But then on the other hand, the human condition will not be erased even by something as beautiful as the Catholic Church. I have a heart, I'm human, I'm prone to wander just like I always was. My restlessness isn't gone, but I feel anchored. I'll feel restless till I die. It's a part of humanity and it's even a part of the Church - the Church is a pilgrim just like we are."
Drawing on past wisdom
With music so deep and so patently Catholic, I was curious, as a writer, how she became inspired by some of the things that turned into songs on her album. "What does an inspirational moment look like to you?" I asked.
"I do a lot of reading. A lot of my inspiration - I'd say 50 to 60% of my songs - comes from a moment when I'm sitting and reading. So I try and take in a lot of good literature, spiritual writing, and Scripture. I need the raw materials - the colors - that become part of my painting. I need ideas to work with. I feel C.S. Lewis, for instance, has a lot to say for today's generation. I want to put his ideas into songs. Songs have a way of preserving ideas and I love doing that," Assad said.
After citing C.S. Lewis, she spoke about how she is currently working on reading every book he ever wrote. The current titles under her belt are Letters to Children, the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Great Divorce, and Until We Have Faces. She is particularly interested in taking the ideas he expressed through both fiction and non-fiction alike, and making them applicable and palatable for the current, younger generation.
She spoke about how C.S. Lewis never converted to Catholicism. Though she wished he had come into full union with the Catholic Church, and enjoyed the anchoring she now feels, she is grateful that he serves as a great bridge between Protestants and Catholics.
While she is openly Catholic and has a large Catholic fan base, she still acts as a messenger to her Protestant fan base. The response to her music from Protestants is just as positive as it is from Catholics, she said.
"Radio has certainly influenced and grown my Protestant fan base. My fan base used to be more Catholic, but now it's about half-and-half," she said.
She's writing the material for her next album, which is likely to come out early next year. Her current album "The House You're Building" conquers more than just finding a catchy tune or finding success in sales-it reaches a place within the souls of her audience. Her music is not communal in the sense that you feel as though you are singing with her. Rather, her songs are like a personal prayer that the audience is listening in on.
I was speaking about this with friend and fellow Catholic Online writer, Jennifer Hartline, recently. She said it better than I: "It's [Assad's music] like being granted access to her heart, her intimate thoughts and struggles. If not for her opening the door, it would be like glimpsing something sacred without permission."
Hartline made a couple other points worth noting: "Most Protestants think that Catholics don't have a personal relationship with Jesus, yet Audrey's music is so very personal and intimate, honest and solid. She's shattering that misconception. It's very exciting that a Catholic convert is showing that traditional Catholic faith is still relevant and contemporary."
What I understand from interviewing her and watching a series of videos on YouTube that describe "the story behind" many of her songs is that she's a woman trying to live out her faith, humbly. Through music she finds that her personal expression of her walk with God is intriguing to others. Music is both her outlet and her ministry. People are drawn to the substance of her music, and as a result find themselves drawn to her as well.
If you are interested in listening to her music, I suggest you get a taste of it on YouTube by searching her name or going to her website AudreyAssad.com. If you're active in social media like I am, you can follow her on Twitter or Facebook and help get this excellent, substantive music in the hands of your friends and family. Her album "The House You're Building" is available on iTunes and Amazon.