Audrey Assad: Heaven is Breaking Through

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If the only Christian music you've heard from a Catholic source has been Gregorian chants or the hopped-up version of "The Lord's Prayer" that got radio play a handful of decades back, Audrey Assad is a delightful and inspirational surprise. With a style that draws from several classic rock influences and a voice that evokes the softer works of Sarah McLachlan and Joan Baez, Assad is preparing to release her newest album, The House You're Building. We sat down with the artist for a few moments to explore her feelings on faith and music.
Why are you a Christian?
Why am I a Christian? Well, I think that answer has morphed over the years several times. When I was five, I was a Christian because my parents were -- and I think there was something slightly real to that. I accepted Jesus into my heart at five years old, and that was what they taught me, and I believed it to be true.
Over the years of my life, that initial openness to God has had its valleys, through different experiences. But time and time again God has reached out to me, and I've tasted and seen His goodness. You either have to deny that or accept it, and I've chosen to accept it because He's reached out to me -- He's really initiated that with His Holy Spirit and transformed my heart over and over.
You recently crossed over from the Protestant side of the fence to Catholicism. Has that change put any stress on your family and relationships?
Initially there was some trouble. My parents were just sort of confused by that, understandably. But, over the years, they've kind of come around and been part of that with me, and seen that it's been very fruitful and drawn me closer to the Lord -- very much so, in a lot of ways. So we've all reached a place of being happy and they're okay with it and very supportive. But other than that, not really anything. Just kind of at the beginning, a little confusion.
On the new album, The House You're Building, there are a lot of songs with a sort of seventies retro sound. Who are your musical influences?
Sarah McLachlan is one I get a lot -- I did listen to her, and still do quite a bit. But then, going further back, my mom raised me on The Carpenters, James Taylor, and all that seventies folk/rock kind of stuff. Joni Mitchell's been a more recent influence, but I do love her, and also Bob Dylan. You can't argue with the greats.
I didn't really have an introduction to Christian music until I was about eighteen years old. My parents -- they were Christians, but they didn't grow up listening to Christian rock, so we didn't listen to it. When I was older, I fell in love with it. So then there was the whole Nichole Nordeman, Cindy Morgan kind of installment into my life, but that came later. I think that sixties/seventies stuff were my earliest influences as a writer.
A majority of the songs on the album are almost prayer-like, in that they are sung to God, rather than about God. Is this something you do consciously?
I wish I could say it was on purpose, but it's just how it comes out for me. I have written songs on several occasions that are more third-person, but for whatever reason they didn't make it to the record this time around. I'd say about seventy-five percent of the songs I write are vertical. And I don't really write corporate worship so much, except for maybe "Restless." I think it's just part of -- I journal that way, and I guess I songwrite that way, too. It's sort of natural.
There are other Contemporary Christian Music artists, like Matt Maher, who are also Catholic, and their music is indistinguishable from other CCM artists. Does one's faith tradition or denomination matter in CCM?
I would say yes, insofar as it matters in human relationships. I think it matters in the way that someone's beliefs matter. I don't think that truth is relative, by any means, but I would say I don't think they're things to fall on a sword over, either. I think that there are tiers of mattering, and how much they matter. To me, the way that they kind of play into it is moreso on a level of influence on songwriting; obviously there are some theology differences between me and some of the other people that I'm working with, but I have great relationships with pretty much all of the CCM artists that I've ever done anything with at this point, and almost none of them are Catholic. But it's been a really good opportunity to discuss our differences and grow closer to Jesus together through that process
So I think they do matter -- I think they affect things, but I definitely don't think that they are a stumbling block to most of us. Hopefully the listeners and the people who buy these records are in the same boat. I guess we'll see.
So you feel it's possible for a Catholic to "make it" in CCM without having to put your faith in some sort of "stealth mode."
Yeah. You know what, there've been others before me that have done it in stealth mode, but then there have been those like John Michael Talbot who's sold millions of records as a monk -- he wore the habit and had the beard and he was on EMI for ten years, and he's still at it.
So I think that there are people who would put it in stealth mode, and that's their personal choice. But to me it's more of an opportunity than a problem. I really believe that if Jesus prayed in John 17 that we would be one as He and the Father are one, which really means inseparable, that we can live that out. There are some hardships that come with that. People receive it different ways, and some people aren't into it, you know? I respect it, that's them, but I feel for me that I'd like to open that up for the world, because I think we should. Otherwise I must be afraid of it, and I don't want to live life that way.
How much would you say your Catholic faith is revealed in your music? For example, in "For Love of You," you use the phrase "sacred heart," which is a predominantly Catholic devotion.
(laughs) You're one of the only people who's pointed that out so far, because it's so quick -- it happens so fast in the song. I would say it's minimal in the sense that there's minimal stuff in my lyrics that could be viewed as predominantly Catholic. Part of that is because I was raised in a Protestant church, and I don't repudiate everything I was taught by any means at all. So much of my evangelical upbringing is still part of my faith now. So I think that there are some slight things, like that reference, and like "Restless" which comes from Augustine -- whom we would call St. Augustine -- his Confessions, and one of the lines he wrote, which is "Our hearts are restless until they rest in you." To me, that's written by a Catholic but it's certainly true of all of us, I think.
So there are some references, but I think I have so much influence from how I was raised that there's a lot of the evangelical semantics in there as well. There's definitely some, but I wouldn't say it's overwhelming.
I'll admit to falling on stereotype upon reading of your Catholic background and trying to reconcile that to CCM. "Wait, can she sing that way?" Do you run into much of the, "Gee, you don't look Catholic, or sound Catholic?"
Oh yeah, all the time. And I think it's great, because there are all kinds -- there are all kinds -- in the church at large, and in the Catholic Church specifically there are really all kinds. I've seen all kinds of stuff: there's Matt Maher who's a worship leader in the vein of Chris Tomlin; and me who I guess you could compare more to a singer/songwriter, CCM artist; I have a great friend named Ike who's like another contemporary Christian rock musician, and he's doing this full time. It's definitely out there, but it's amazing it just hasn't been at the forefront of people's awareness. So it's kind of fun to surprise people in that way, and I'm usually met with nothing but welcome, so it's been a great experience coming from this point of view and just seeing that wall break down a little bit. I love it.
The album will be out very soon now. Where will people be able to find you touring?
I'm doing kind of a patchwork tour this fall -- no big tours until Christmas. But I will be on the road with Robbie Seay doing a west coast tour in October. Just kind of a bunch of different events and conferences also -- because it's, you know, worship conference season. I'll be doing some events with Matt Maher, and kind of just all around. And then at Christmas time I'm going to be doing a Christmas tour with Jars of Clay, so that'll be fun.