Addison Road's Jenny Simmons: This is Me Under Construction

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Jenny Simmons of Addison Road

The Jenny Chisolm Band no longer exists -- partly because Jenny Chisolm is now Jenny Simmons. Needing a new name, these college kids engaged in a battle of the sexes. Simmons suggested "Bloom," the title of her favorite Audio Adrenaline album, which was rejected as "too girly." Similarly, she vetoed all of the guys' "horrific" name suggestions. The debate took place backstage at a show, and happened to be overheard by one of the sound engineers, who volunteered that he didn't like any of their suggested names. He also volunteered that his wife had just had a baby boy, and that they had named him Addison. Since the band had already been circling around the themes of roads and journeys, the took one name and married it to the other, and Addison Road was born.

Since the formation of the band, Addison Road's road has been one potholed with disasters and distractions -- more than enough to turn your average group of kids away from any pipe dreams of being musical superstars. And it might have done the same to Addison Road, if that's the dream they had been following. We sat down for a conversation with lead singer Jenny Simmons to learn about what it is that drives the band, and just how they got through it all.

Why are you a Christian?

That's a good question. Actually, that makes me laugh, because yesterday I was in Half Price Books in the Religion section, just scouring the shelves, and the lady who worked there walked by and said, "Can I help you with something?" And I asked, "Which book has the answer?" And she and the people around me just started laughing.

I'm a Christian because I have faith in Jesus Christ. I have faith in God. I believe He's real, I believe that Jesus came. Sometimes I tell my husband I'm a skeptic -- I have so many doubts, I have so many questions -- and I feel the Lord has been really gracious to give me an extra dose of the Holy Spirit, because I've heard His voice so clearly. Ever since I was a little girl. I think He did that for me because He knew I was such a wondering little spirit.

But ever since I was little, God has been real to me; I mean he really speaks deeply into my heart and my soul. I've always kind of heard that whisper, so when I have questions, when I have doubts, when I'm angry at the church, when everything else fails, I'm a Christian because God is real to me. And I have to have faith in that, because there's a lot of things to have faith in. There's a million books on the bookshelves that'll give you a different religion for every day of the week. But when it comes down to it, I believe the words of scripture are true, and I'm either crazy and have had voices my whole life, or the Holy Spirit is alive and He's real. I choose to believe in that faith, and that He's alive and He's real.

I was prepared to ask you about your testimony, but you were brought up in a Christian home.

Yes. My parents were both ordained ministers. My dad's a chaplain in the military, and my parents kind of co-pastor a church. I was born and raised in a church. My mom was my youth minister.

I think my testimony, as boring as I always thought it was, it's sort of the heartbeat of everybody. No matter what you've been through, whether you're story's dramatic or not, it's that moment of "Will it be real or not?" Growing up in church, I think we're tempted to just go through the motions: it just got really easy to just sing a few worship songs and show up on Sunday. I was a good kid, and I could fake anybody out. To this day, if I wanted to, I could get up on stage and quote scripture and sing worship songs and do Christian music -- but that doesn't necessarily indicate what's going on inside of me, and my time I spend with God and the realness of my faith. So my testimony is that -- it's trying to break free of faking it and going through the motions and trying to genuinely follow Christ.

I think that's probably the struggle for every Christian. You get to the place where you move beyond the motions of it and the routine of it, and you actually fall in love with the Lord. I fell in love with the Lord in college, really. I mean, it was earlier than that, but that's when it really became real to me.

Speaking of breaking out of routines: For a professional singer in Contemporary Christian Music, after singing a song so many times in concerts and recording studios, do you ever have to struggle past the routine of it being "just a song" and back into it being an expression of praise and worship?

Yes, absolutely. And, honestly, sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. I can say, though, that the times when you fail, when you're singing it and your heart's not there, you're distracted -- those will eat you up inside. At least for us, we realized early on that when you're faking it, you can't make it very long doing what we do without feeling dirty. Does that make sense? I mean, just kind of like, "Ugh!"

There's something about the responsibility of leading worship, and genuinely leading people to Christ in an authentic way that, if you try to force it -- if you try to do it when your spirit is out of line with Christ -- it gets quite convicting quite fast.

There's no method that we have to keep things real and fresh. It's just sort of a day-by-day journey of us trying to put our stuff aside so that God can get us up there and use us regardless of the song or the event. It can be the ten thousandth eighth grader you've seen right in front of your face and you're tired of seeing eighth graders, or whatever it is, and you just have to ask in that moment, "Okay, God, in this moment make it real. Help me to forget about my husband playing keyboard to the right of me who I'm in a fight with and I want to strangle him right now. Help me forget those things right now and come before You and lead people before You." That's kind of our prayer when we get up there, and sometimes it happens, and sometimes our human nature gets the best of us.

I had a pastor growing up who used to say, "If the devil's not throwing obstacles in your road, it might be because you're already walking the way he wants you to." This past year has certainly been one of obstacles for Addison Road.

It's been enough little things that just sort of sucked the life out of us. It was never one enormous thing, like somebody passing away from cancer. It was just little by little by little, blow by blow by blow, so that one morning you wake up and you think, "I can't do this anymore. I just can't wake up and have another blow." And that's what they were: parents ending up in the ICU, the fires, the vans being stolen, the midnight car wrecks, the broken windows, gout, shingles, broken legs, you name it. It was just one thing after another, to where we just thought, "Is it worth it?" That's a crazy place to get to as a follower of Christ, who really loves Him but to say, "God, is it really worth it to be doing ministry when all these things are happening, or would it be better just to go home and get jobs and have real paychecks and be able to pay the bills and to have a more normal life?"

The answer to all that, after a very long journey, is, "Yeah! It's absolutely worth it!" We've seen God's faithfulness, and we've how He's using our music to touch people's lives and the ministry that's happening there. And that's been enough to say, "Yeah, we can take another blow." Because this is God's story, and He's using us. No matter what happens, we're going to stay here, and we're going to keep doing it.

The new album, Stories, opens with the TobyMac written song, "Fight Another Day." That's typically a phrase that one thinks of as the latter half of the adage, "He who fights and runs away..." But it has a very different application here. How did this song make its way to Addison Road, and what did it mean to the band?

In retrospect, it's one of the craziest things that's ever happened, because we're all songwriters. We had plenty of songs for the album. And he had written a song, and recorded it, for his album already -- he'd already done all the work. And the way he told it to us was he just felt like it wasn't his song. He listened to it, felt like it wasn't his, and immediately thought of us. Looking at the whole thing, I really believe that God put that on his heart. That was a God thing -- it wasn't random, it wasn't a fluke. The Lord knew what we were going to go through, and put it on his heart. And Toby brought it and said, "I really feel like this sounds like an Addison Road song," and we kept saying, "No." (Laughs) "Thank you but no thank you."

It's a great song, but we write our own music. So it was a huge obstacle for us, because we didn't just readily say, "Oh my gosh! TobyMac just wrote us a song!" Our answer over and over again was "No, thank you. No, thank you." And one day I feel like we just kind of relented. We were like, "Maybe we should just trust everybody that this is our song," because the people in our lives who are important to us kept saying, "This does seem like your song."

Lo and behold, we record it, and then eight months later we have a fire. The song is about fighting another day, but not in the aspect of "Be strong, get up, do it yourself" like The Biggest Loser and all these reality shows that say, "You get up. You fight. You do it for your self. You make that change. You have that strength." Because, honestly, after this year -- the fire was like 30 minutes before a show -- I was face first in a nursery, in the dark, in Las Vegas, a thousand miles away from my house, with nothing to my name -- not a suitcase, not underwear, no clothes for my baby. We lost everything. And I'm bawling my eyes out, and there was no strength. Had somebody said to me, "Fight another day! Get up!" I would have just laughed and said, "Leave me alone. I'm not going to." And that, for me, is the point of the song. There are moments in life where we are so broken that we cannot get up and fight another day. And the point is, Jesus said we don't have to. The Bible has story after story, scripture after scripture, that says, "I will pick you up, and I will fight for you when you don't have that strength. I will take all these who are weary and broken, and I will you rest and give you strength." In Isaiah 43, it says, "Fear not, I'm the Lord your God. I've redeemed you. So when you walk through the waters, they won't sweep over you. When you go through the rivers, you won't drown. And when you go through the fires, they won't burn you. Because I carry you." Just like Psalms 23, you can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil, because He's with you.

And all of a sudden, that's what "Fight Another Day" means. It's not that you and I are strong enough in the midst of the beatdowns of this world, but it's that when we're broken enough we can finally get to the place where we step back and allow God to do what He does, which is heal us and restore us, and put that energy and that fight in us when we don't have it ourselves. That's kind of been our heartbeat this year, the words to that song. We've just been amazed that God would be so gracious to give us a song like that, to know our needs before we ever even knew them ourselves.

From what I understand, you write songs although you don't really read music or play an instrument. With that in mind, the other bookend song to the new album, "My Story," carries quite a story of its own in how it came to be written.

It's the same thing as "Fight Another Day," really. We didn't need another song; we were in the final few days of recording. We were trying to change one word in a different song, so I was on my computer just typing out words, and I wrote out the phrase, "We are His story." I saw that, and I thought, "Oh my gosh." Something came over me, and I just thought "That's it! We are His story! We are God's story of redemption."

And I'm talking five minutes, tops, the song was written top to bottom, every word. We hardly changed a single word in the song. And then, I didn't want to say anything, because I thought, "They're going to hate me if I tell them there's a song that I think is supposed to be on this album!" But they all left for lunch, and I went to the next room over with the piano. I know like five notes on the piano. I just started pounding away, and the same thing happened -- literally five minutes and the melody, the harmony, the everything, it's like it just flowed out. And there was this song.

For me, the song is the heartbeat of the album; it's that song that I felt like I really needed to just get out the words that God gave me. In the midst of this year I wrote an email to my girlfriend, my women's pastor, and I said, "Does anybody have advice, because I'm about ready to quit. I don't know what I'm doing, and we are so tired, and this just doesn't make sense." And she wrote back and said, "You know, Jenny, it doesn't make sense. You're crazy. What you're doing -- a kid, and all the travel -- it makes no sense. It doesn't seem like the right thing to do. I don't have any answers for you, but I can tell you the one thing that I know for sure: I've seen you be a part of God's story this year, and He's used you to be a small part of what He's doing to redeem humanity, and to make all things new, and you get to be a part of that. To me, that means there's nothing else in this world you should be doing, you're in exactly the right place."

All of a sudden it made sense to me. It wasn't about my story or your story or my family's story; it's about us being part of God's story. And that line just played over and over in my head, that we are His story. That song, I believe, was birthed out of that email. We wrote it, we recorded it on piano right there on the spot, and the next thing you know, we're at lunch the next day and our record label is saying, "You know, we think this song is the heartbeat of the album." I was like, "Me too," and they said, "We think it's the title of the album." So that day, about four or five days before the project finished, we changed the entire theme of the album, and the songs all fit perfectly in place. It was definitely one of those moments where you know that God has moved.

One of the things I've really liked about Addison Road's albums is the lack of the 7-Eleven worship song (7 word chorus, repeat 11 times). Could you expound a little bit about the selection process for the songs that make the final cut?

We write a lot of songs for the album. I think coming into this one we had written -- I don't know, fifty or sixty? The first album we did like 130 songs. There's something about writing that many songs that just sort of... it gets "you" out of the way. You can have your songs that you write with whatever -- your feelings, your emotions, your bad days, your quirky artistic weird songs. So you get all that stuff out of the way in the midst of writing that many songs. I think the songs that... We spend a lot of time in prayer about it, honestly, because we ask that God would bring us songs that make the most sense. If we only wrote fifteen songs, we'd be pretty limited. But when you write a lot of songs over a long period of time, which is an amazing thing that our record label gives us the ability to do, you start getting this sort of picture of a story or a journey, and songs start rising to the top that link together, and you start seeing this pattern emerging, and you think, Oh, well these songs feel right in my heart, and when I share these words I connect with it. That's what I want say to people.

I heard Chris Martin from Coldplay say that once: "Your song is your one chance to tell the world anything you want to tell them. what do you want to tell them?" And I thought, dang, how convicting is that?

So it's not a lot of 7-Eleven worship songs. We wish we could write the killer Chris Tomlin worship song, because we would make a whole lot of money! And we're broke and we would love the money! We lead worship all the time, and we don't have our own worship song. But those songs, they should be hard to write. They should be these precious gifts from God, and you can't force it. Maybe one day we'll get one of those songs, but until then we take this really long process and we just pray that the best ones would come to the top -- the ones that would say something to the world on behalf of God and His glory. That shapes the album.