Photo courtesy of Fairlight Hubbard and Amy M Phillips of EYE
Just 10 years ago Jennifer Knapp was the Christian music "it girl." In 2002, following her third successful album, she took a hiatus to Australia for personal reasons. She returned in 2009, shocking Christian music fans by coming out as a lesbian and shedding the Christian music label, all while maintaining her personal spirituality. Now over a year later Beliefnet caught up with her while on a break from tour stops including progressive Christian festivals. Jennifer openly discusses those shows, her new music, her sexuality, and her spirituality in this in depth interview.
Has not being a Christian Contemporary artist freed you creatively?
I think so. I always feel, as an artist, and this is just artistry, a bit handcuffed. I think one of my biggest challenges is when I’m in a room, alone, by myself, going, “Hey, now it’s time for you to be creative and awesome.” And if I think, “Oh my gosh, I’m terrible.” There’s that insecurity. So I think it’s opened up its new set of issues for me, I tend to get a little bit hypertensive sometimes, I start chasing the rabbit trail a little bit, in a spiritual context, inside of my music. And then I start thinking, “Oh my gosh, well, if I’m not writing music for the church anymore, then I need to be quiet, and I need to kind of appreciate it.” There’s kind of a different twist on that, that I wasn’t really expecting.
But, at the same time, I think there is a lot of joy. I don't necessarily feel like I’m having to sit into a dogma, which is, as an artist, I’ve never been interested in propagandizing with my music. I’ve just been more about interpersonal journeys and the psychological and just the spiritual nature that I think music has anyway; whether you’re talking about love or working in a truck yard. I just think that there’s so much more to be seen through life if you step back and really look from a wide angle. So I appreciate that now that I’m not necessarily writing for that, that I’m allowed to step back and another step further and kind of get some perspective and the freedom to be able to speak about this thing, to write about this thing, in a way that I wouldn’t be that apologetic. I had to really struggle before to get a song on a record; because [they would say] “You’re not specifically talking to Jesus on this song, so we can’t put it on a record.” Even though that song had an extremely spiritual starting point and path, it wouldn't make it because the lyrical content didn’t check off the boxes, so to speak.
Has this freedom changed the actual music itself in any way for you?
I really don’t think so. Others have argued that it has. I think I’m a little bit more relaxed now, in terms of if a song comes out and it’s a little bit on the more country side of it, which didn't really fly in the vain of what I was doing at CCM, if I had something that was kind of country, like a folk-related, I’d really try and push the top edge of it a little bit more than I might normally do, but I don't know. Now, I just kind of let the song be its own personality; because it’s not having to serve the beast, so to speak. It’s not having to -- Christian music is an interesting genre because it's the only genre that’s lyrically-based. You know what I mean?
So you can have rap and country and folk, praise and worship music, whatever, but it’s all about -- it doesn't matter how you deliver it; it just matters what the content is inside of it. And it’s a whole other world, when you step outside of that. That’s not a requirement. The requirement’s to write an extremely good song that means something lyrically, and then, you’d have to be joined by very good music or you won’t survive. Nobody’s going to hang out and buy a ticket of me at the local pub if I don't play good music. And I can nail the lyric all day long, but if I deliver it poorly and they don't like the style, then they’re not going to show up.
So who do you listen to?
That’s a good question. I’m actually not a big music listener, which is weird, apparently; or so I’m told. I really do tend to enjoy just about any artist who writes themselves; writes and performs their own music. And that’s anywhere from Eminem to Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman. But I listen to all kinds of stuff. Lately, I’ve been listening to the Sugarcubes and from the early nineties and -- I don't know. I was listening to a rock record the other day. I can't even remember what it was. That’s how bad of a condition I am in.
I totally understand.
It’s the way that I listen to music, I think, that varies from so many other people. Most of my friends have music on all the time. And I just don't listen that way. When I sit down and I listen to music, it’s an intense experience for me. So it’s not something that I take -- I can't have it as white noise. I get very -- I want to intensely pay attention to what’s going on. It’s a very personal experience for me. So if I don't have the time to sit down with a pair of headsets on, and just close my eyes and just get myself lost in it, I don’t -- that’s what I call listening to music. I don't get the time to do that very much.
How involved are you in the production of your records?
For me, I’m usually there every single minute of everyday. This last record, I wasn't at all interested in actually producing a record. Paul Moak, the producer of this record, he’s an extraordinarily creative guy; there’s so much energy and -- this guy in his studio it’s -- I don't even know how to describe it. It’s like watching a professional athlete just rule the field. He’s such a presence in his studio, yet so inclusive. He’s a really beautiful person to work with and very inspiring, creatively, and I think, for me, that was a great experience in the regard because I could then sit back and be just the caretaker of the music. I’m not overwhelmingly worried about the overall orchestration because Paul has that under control. So that gives me a lot of freedom underneath to go. I know that we said we want to have keys on this, but I’d like to see a organ in on this, or instead of going on the Johnny Cash style, let’s move more towards a Willie Nelson.
Photo courtesy of Fairlight Hubbard and Amy M Phillips of EYE
I’m just throwing things out, but I’ve never been in a position where my input hasn’t been absolutely respected; because I am the caretaker of the music. If I can’t go in and preserve the integrity of the music, then I’m not in the right place. I am the defender of it, in some kind of weird way. But, at the same time, one of the things I love most on the planet when I’m playing live music or I’m in the studio is that, one of the most amazing parts of the process of music is we're allowing people and their abilities to make up that band or that cohesive whole picture; the drummer, the bass player, the violinist, the cello player, the keyboardist. I always want each one of those individuals to just leave everything out there. And you have to give them the freedom to be able to do that. And I think, as an artist in that particular place, I’ve tend to want my producer who I feel safe in letting them do that.
I guess the short answer is I always feel like I produce my records. I don't always get the credit for it, and I’m not interested in the credit. I’m not interested in being the quarterback all the time. There are days that I need to just come in and -- I’ve already done the hard work. So we need to do the finishing touches and record the thing. But, yes. I can’t imagine not being there. I did the Way I Am record, when we did that, it was my third record on Go Deep, and I was so on the road. Maybe I did more than this, but I really don’t remember much about doing that record other than showing up and being the vocal tracks. And that was just -- I’d never want to have an experience like that again. Because, to me, it’s just so much of the thought that when those individual songs -- it’s the journey, growing up and becoming an adult song; that when you’re recording it, it’s a really intimate experience. And I love being involved in that process to know and I just can’t take just throw it in -- “I’ve written a song. Tell me when it’s my turn to sing, and I’ll go sing.” I’m just so not into that. Even when I do it everyday, even when I’m doing solo gigs and it’s just me and my case study, every time I sit down and play one of those songs, it’s a new time to play that song. And I want it to be special. I don't want it to just be some haphazard thing.
So are you writing new material for a new record or still living with this one?
I got some music. I can't start thinking about the studio right now. I don't really have the time to do it. But I’ve got some music that I’ve just played out and about, on the road, which is really fun. I’ve been playing a fair bit of new stuff. I have no clue when I’m actually going to go into the studio with it. I’d definitely like to do that next year. I think I’ll just try to be ready to do it. But I don't have a date set or anything like that. Right now, whatever writing I do is kind of catch to catch, but there are things popping up all the time, out on the road. And I’m enjoying just having the opportunity to play these stuff every once in a while.
When you went on hiatus, and in that time period, I really feel like that was a time when how music is distributed just completely changed. Was there any kind of culture shock for you when you came back to the industry?
Oh, huge culture shock. Yes. When I left, the idea was you make your record and you go out and tour the crap out of it; because that’s how you sell records. So you work really, really, really hard on the road and it paid dividends. And the funny thing about the road is it’s extremely expensive to do it. It's not very cost effective. But when you coupled it in with your record, you can make a very good living not selling a lot of records, but working really hard, when you put the two of those together. And on top of it, you, as a songwriter... touring and selling records and stuff, the publishing side of it helps a lot too. Well, culture shock. It’s totally different ten years later. Now, you don't have the supplementary income that you used to have because you’re not selling as many records. I think what they say now is, “Whatever you’ve sold in your records, you add a zero onto the end of it.” So if you sold 10,000 records, you sold a hundred thousand records ten years ago. That’s a 90% loss in income. 90%.
When -- here’s my math nerdiness. In terms of that, artists very rarely get more than 5% net. So to get a 90% hit on a very little amount of income as an artist, is devastating; it’s absolutely devastating; and then, as a songwriter as well, that same perspective kind of holds. So we’re -- one of the things that we do now to combat that is we’re pushing up film and television licensing a lot more than you used to. You see artists pushing placements a lot more. You’re hearing big artists on television. It used to be here, only the soundtrack of Grey's Anatomy used to be an artist you’ve never heard of; but now, every once in a while, Sheryl Crow will pop in there. Those are big name artists that show up on free-to-air television shows. So those kinds of things are happening. Of course, with the economy the way that it is, people just are really hesitant to go out to the live shows as much as they were. I was looking at U2's tour schedule and remembering the Zooropa tour, they went everywhere. And then I think some day it was like their show was $2 million a night. They just put on a show. And -- it makes you crazy, but they did that over 200 shows. This tour, they're doing less than a hundred, I think. And I think they’ll probably be in the blacks if they do it right -- in terms of actually just being a business and being cost effective, you have to be very, very smart. Ten years ago, you could be -- you could make a lot of mistakes, and you could still come out being able to pay your bills. Now, it’s a lot harder.
Do you have any wisdom for musicians who are kind of getting started in this particular climate?
Well, I think my advice from that core hasn’t ever changed, because -- that’s been -- if you want to play, you better play because you love it. What I did last weekend, I drove 18 hours and I had one hour and a half show. You’re not going to count the time that I spent in preparing the paperwork for that, as an independent artist. I did one and a half hours worth of the glory thing, being the rock and roll star, and I spent four or five other days doing something just to get to that point. So if you don't really love music and you want to do it as a job, then go do it as a job. But I think you really have to be in love with your music, and if you want to play, then just play. Who cares what people are going to pay you? It's not dreaming about getting a record deal. Everybody and their dog right now is recording it on their own computer, and checking it up on the Internet and sharing it.
I think some of the most inspiring artists right now that are being successful are those who are just creatively -- just love the whole process. Anywhere from the social networking to going out and playing live shows and figuring out new and creative ways so they can get their name out on the street; because their that inspired to go and work and play and write and share the music. If that’s not what you’re after, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. Have fun with it, no matter what. Because if you don't love it, there’s a lot of other stuff that -- like I said, in any 24-hour day of doing what I do, only one hour of that is on stage. The rest of it’s a lot of really hard work. And I love it, but if I didn't love that one-hour I got a day, it wouldn’t -- it’d make a very disproportionate ratio, I think. I’ve been there enough, [where] the ratio got disproportionate.
Do you enjoy doing Twitter?
Yes. I felt like an old lady. Like when I first got back around, it’s like, “You’ve got to get a Twitter account. You got to get Facebook. You got to do MySpace.” I’m like, “I got to do what?” It’s kind of fun. It actually turned out to be really kind of great, because I’ve actually made some really cool friends that way. You start to recognize certain personalities and they show up to shows. And it’s kind of -- it’s great. It’s kind of -- it’s nice if you’re like – you show up to some place and kind of have a home bay. You’re a thousand miles away from home so I kind of dig it. Other days, I’m like, “This is so dumb.” I sometimes -- if I haven’t Twittered for four or five days, then I’ve got 9,000 people coming back for me going, “Why am I attempting to sign up to your account if you don't say anything?” You don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything at all.
But it is kind of fun. And I really do appreciate that, and I think the one other thing I love about it most between, with Facebook and Twitter, is being able to actually share with the fans something you don't always get to share, which is the side of it, when you’re just totally riding the adrenaline high, it’s a really great night, and you’re just loving everybody that you have met. Sometimes, all I’ve ever been able to do is just go back to the bus or go back to the hotel room and then go, “Wow, that was a great night.” I have no place to put that. And now, it’s a really cool way of saying, “You guys really showed up tonight,” letting them know that the concert experience is just as fun for me; like I felt like I got to go to some place special and do something special. To able to give that back has been really fun. So I didn’t -- of all the reservations I had in doing it to begin with, that’s like one of the things that majorly makes up for it.
Look for part 2 soon, where Jennifer discusses spirituality, progressive Christianity, homosexuality, and her life outside of music.