For Sarah Masen, Erin O'Donnell, and newcomers Kelly Minter and Sara Groves, choreography consists not of baring your belly button and shaking your hips, but simply picking up a guitar or sitting down at a piano bench. Instead of showing off their abs, these women are intent on revealing what's inside, baring their souls through song, something each of them excels at in her own way.
A new marriage and a new baby have given Sarah Masen a broader perspective on life, while a new label has given her the freedom to express herself as she chooses. This has resulted in "The Dreamlife of Angels," a collection of deeply honest songs that focus on community and our need not just for God but each other. Masen's soft acoustic sound and breathy vocals make for a sincerity that allows her to pull off a song inspired by the British poet W.H. Auden, and the hesitant but optimistic "Hope."
Erin O'Donnell is also a new mom. Like Masen, motherhood has only expanded her view of the world and added urgency to her message of hope for those who are hurting. O'Donnell's tunes get added weight from her husband and co-writer, Brad, whom she met while they were studying jazz at the University of Miami. Two people as in tune as this pair make "No Place so Far" seem like you're getting more for your money.
Many of the 11 tracks on "No Place So Far" were penned in the period after O'Donnell's previous label shut its doors, just as she discovered she was pregnant. As the couple wondered how they'd manage, they began writing a collection of songs that tell the tale of their struggle to find God in the midst of uncertainty. When O'Donnell reminds listeners to remain hopeful even when life doesn't go according to plan, her credibility in saying so comes through in the songs.
Wanting to make a record that was filled, she says, "with songs that people can put their arms around," Minter aimed for easy-to-get tunes. That means you'll find nothing akin to Masen's cryptic poetry in these lyrics, but there's still plenty to sink your teeth into. Minter's upbeat, guitar-driven sound is balanced by lyrics that contemplate the confusion life can cause while finding comfort in faith and the little surprises each new day brings.
The last of the cadre, Sara Groves, didn't set out to make music her career. Though she wrote her first song at age 5 and plays piano, sax, and violin, Groves married after college and took a job teaching in the Minneapolis area. It wasn't until her grandfather died that she felt compelled to fill the void left by this beloved minister, who had started several successful churches and traveled in later life to preach where he was needed.
Possibly due to her grandfather's inspiration, or to her upbringing as a minister's daughter (her father serves as pastor at Evangel University, her alma mater), Groves' music is the most overtly religious of this bunch. None are shy about sharing their faith through their songs, but on "Conversations" Groves incorporates theology, Bible stories, even a tale of a small-town revival meeting, without sliding into preachiness. And while Christian performers are increasingly looking for opportunities to take their message to the masses via mainstream venues, smoky clubs aren't for Groves. She is content to find an audience mainly inside church walls. If she ever changes her mind, though, Groves' gift for telling stories will make her welcome anywhere.
Despite the appeal of these projects, don't expect to find any of these women chatting it up with Carson Daly anytime soon. The riskiness of their songs doesn't mesh with their pop peers, who present flawless images and a seemingly impenetrable self-confidence. Masen, O'Donnell, Minter, and Groves seem intent instead on sharing their struggles and insecurities while gently pointing listeners to the God they rely on to make it through. That attitude might not make them stars, but it sure makes for some heavenly music.