2020-10-01

Sara Groves pretty much single handedly changed my opinion about Christian music. When I turn on Christian radio I rarely hear authenticity, vulnerability and a passion for God. It often feels more like the artist is simply using Jesus to sell me their product, which happened to be Christian music. But I have never felt that way about Groves' music. She sings about her own insecurities, the intimacy of close relationships, and about Jesus but when she mentions his name it sounds like she knows him - like she just talked to him. Her new album, Invisible Empires, is no exception – the first track, “Miracle”, has the penetrating line “let’s feel what we cannot feel / know what we cannot know / heal where we cannot heal / it’s a miracle”, which sets the tone for another album full of vulnerability and sincerity.

Not only does Groves bare her soul in her music but she uses her influence to fight for the less fortunate as well. The concert that attended was put on by a non-profit organization called the 1040 Connection, who are attempting to prevent human trafficking in Nepal - something Groves' is very passionate about. "Hold On", her current single, is a direct lift from the lyrics of an old spiritual that was re-appropriated by the civil rights movements in the ‘60s and is meant to inspire those fighting for justice.

After she speaks engagingly with the fans that waited after the show we sat down for our interview. I soon found, as you will, that the sincerity of her music is really much more than that – it is who she is.

I really like the new album, from start to finish. What moments are you the most proud of?

I’m kind of close to it right now but my favorite moments, the ones that are the most ‘me’ or the most honest or the songs that are the most inside-my-heart are “Mystery”, “Obsolete” and “Finite”. “Obsolete” is my favorite song, favorite to play, favorite melody and favorite theme. There’s a lot that when into it and I like a song like that. I could tell you five stories and I could say this song is inspired by all five stories. It’s about the elderly, it's about feeling left out of a friendship, it's about the story of a homeless man who hadn't been looked at in so long he actually though the was invisible, it's about the internet and about how the internet makes you feel like you're never enough - that drives me crazy. I was trying to process my own feelings about technology - which stresses me out. It makes me feel like I’m not doing enough. In a way you're aware of what everyone is doing on their best day. Everyone is putting themselves out there, everyone is advertising, everyone is Madison Avenue for themselves. I have a hard time with that. I have a hard time doing it for myself - Troy does it for me. I’m not on Facebook. When it came out I felt a divine message - I very clearly felt the Lord say, "You're not going to get to do that. Right off the bat I’ll set you free.” Part of me wants to do it but there's a bigger part that feels relieved.

“Obsolete” is a reflection on "what are we doing?" Not to say that the internet is of the devil but I hear people say things like "I couldn't live without my phone or the internet". I don't want to demonize everything but I do believe that we worship the things that we made with our own hands. I’m reading a lot of Albert Borgmann, or I’m trying to read Albert Borgmann. He writes very academically and talks a lot about focal practice. Eugene Peterson talks about doing slower things, which are actually the way that your brain is made. I’ve been reading articles about the rapid-fire influx of information - that just the ding on your phone tells your brain that new information is coming and you literally lose your train of thought the moment that bell rings. Your brain is hungry for the new information but the way your brain works the creative process are interrupted. Creative processes are like stew; they have to come to a boil. It’d be like trying to cook something but turning the oven on and off. I’ve been feeling that recently - having difficulty writing and feeling peace. I feel frenetic. A lot of this record started with the idea of “Obsolete” and it's a very precious song to me - my favorite song on the record.

You seem very comfortable being personal. Maybe ‘comfortable’ isn't the right word - experienced being personal?

For my mother in law, who is an incredible lady, to disclose at a 3 is a big deal but I live at about an 8 - I’m a highly disclosing person. But there are things that people don't know about me in the 9 and 10 range, that only my close friends know. I hope I don't go around barfing on everybody but I feel that transparency is important in Christianity. The role that I play, I feel, is to be transparent - that's part of what I’m doing. Not to compare myself with the prophets but I’ve identified with them, like [the Lord saying] “here Hosea I’m going to let you live this out, this embarrassing thing - your wife is going to go sleep with all these guys and then you're going to have to take her back.” In that way I feel like the artist is similarly living stuff out and then airing it to the public so that you can see "oh that's sin" and "oh that's where God's redemption is, that was him working, that's where we're falling short, that's where he's meeting and reconciling us"

I’m impressed with the amount of inspiration that you take from people around you. Invisible Empires is based on chapter 9 of "A Long Obedience in the Same Direction" by Eugene Peterson and I was surprised the book title comes from a Nietzsche quote. What is your perspective on incorporating secular themes into your music?

That's a great question. I actually grew up in the Assemblies of God and they put a lot of emphasis on the anointing of the Holy Spirit and that language. I wouldn’t say that I’m not Assemblies of God, but I call myself a mere Christian because I’ve seen too much. I’ve seen the body of Christ alive and well behind bars in prison. The way that I identify myself has morphed and changed over the years. I have appreciation for my heritage but one piece of baggage I carry from it is a great deal of fear. A verse that terrifies me says, "the Holy Spirit departed from Solomon and he knew it not." That is my worst nightmare - that the Holy Spirit would depart and I would not know it. I’ve asked, "Lord how could he not know it? Would I not know it?" Early on in my ministry I was very careful in my language to never call it a concert I would call it a ‘ministry opportunity’. I’ve moved away from that language because you don't invite your neighbor to a ministry opportunity, you invite him to a concert. My dad sings beautifully and could communicate the songs and you would feel every word. People would say to me "your dad is so anointed", and when I started doing it they would say the same thing to me. When I started struggling, when I was literally running from the Lord people were still saying that to me. I felt like it was true and that God was still working, so I began looking in the scripture for the way that the anointing works and found that it's a station, like a king. Paul says it’s for all believers. I went to an Assemblies of God college and the mantra was “integration of faith and learning - all truth is God's truth.” Even though we believe that we talk out of the both sides of our mouths. I would be up front singing, people would feel something and they would hold up anointing score cards. I believe that as a believer we resonate with the Holy Spirit - we are a resonating chamber. If there's any truth in what I’m saying we will resonate with a sense of the Holy Spirit. I’m anointed in my position but there's an anointing in every believer that responds to beauty and the truth of God. I could stand in front a painting painted by a womanizing scoundrel and that if something of God’s truth was captured in their painting I was anointed to respond to that. I resonate deeply with true things everywhere.

The song “Scientists in Japan” is about bioethics. You've also talked in other interviews about the anxiety that you've experienced in the past couple of years. How do you feel about medication? How does that factor into your thoughts on bioethics?

I’m for it. I’ve never thought of medication for depression as a bioethics issue. Some people would frame it in a theological issue or take issue with it as an affront to faith. My personal story is that one day I didn't have anxiety or panic attacks and one day I did. It came on so suddenly for me but it sneaks up on some people. They quit doing this, they quit doing that and before they know it they're afraid of everything. I 'm not one of those people who take issue with medication. When I had my first panic attack in the middle of a performance I felt like I was going to die - like my body was dumping bucket loads of adrenaline into my system. My mother has had this for years and I have given her no sympathy. I called my mother and said “I am very sorry.” This is very real, very physical. So I began to approach this on all fronts. For me to say this isn't spiritual would be ridiculous, for me to say this isn't physical would be ridiculous, for me to say this isn't emotional would be ridiculous. It’s a breakdown on all those levels. The first thing I did was to learn what was happening to me.

One of the things I learned that was encouraging is that it's the most treatable of all mental disorders. What a big word: mental disorders. It’s very physical - your brain is literally misfiring and telling you there's a bear in the room and there’s no bear in the room. It’s been a long road. I wanted to quit many times but I knew right away that I would not quit out of fear. I went and got medication; I take some if I need it before concerts. This year I’ve had a lot of victory but I’ve taken it a few times. I don't know if I’ll ever be out of it. It’s still my feather to fly I’m not sure if I’ll ever not have it in my purse. But this year I've taken it maybe five times where last year I was taking it every concert. It’s clear that my body is now moving in a different direction. I’ll feel a wave of something but the car won't turn over. I feel a wave and think "oh no" but it won't get momentum. Maybe I’m moving into a new season. There are also spiritual elements that were huge. Fear is spiritual. I learned a lot about the Lord.

After making ten albums would you say that there are any creative goals you have yet to achieve?

Yes, a big one right now is that I want to do soundtrack work. I’ve talked to Charlie Peacock about it and I have a friend that I’ve intersected with a couple of times as I’ve crossed the country who writes for TV and movies and he's helping me to create a reel or demo for it. I don't know exactly what it would look like but I’d like to partner with an independent filmmaker who is looking for more plaintive, piano-based music. I won't pretend to be something else, I’m not an orchestrator, but I have tons and tons of beautiful, emotive melodies. I would love the discipline of looking at a scene and figuring out what music would make you feel that. That’s kind of a goal or dream that I have for the future. I’ve been talking about it for a couple of years now but pieces keep getting added to it. I don't know if I’ll ever produce. I’ve always enjoyed the input of a producer but maybe I’ll produce my own record sometime. I’ve always felt that [each album] would probably be my last. I’ve had a fatalistic view of my longevity. “Really? I’m almost forty and people really want to hear a forty-year-old mom sing about whatever?” I’ve always wanted to be on my way before the big hook came - before people were embarrassed for me. Charlie Peacock has done a lot to convince me that I’m a life timer and that the crowd will come and go but this is who I am. Inside I hope that's the truth. I know that I’ll be writing music, whether or not people are listening is another story.

Your music is very personal and conversational. You do a lot of soul baring. What artists challenge you to do that more?

The first was Emily Saliers from the Indigo Girls when I was in college. I had some Christian music but I loved Peter Gabriel, Sting and the piano players like Billy Joel [who] I would try to mimic them musically but lyrically the Indigo Girls. The Indigo Girls are made up of Emily Saliers and Amy Ray and Amy is very angry and bitter. I don't resonate with her songs. But Emily just opens up her heart and writes songs like "History of Us" "Ghost" and I thought, "I want to write music like that but from a Christian world view." She was really the first one. Now Patti Griffin just takes my face off. I still have to grow in that way. I still have a lot of cultural conventions that keep me from saying this or that. Not in a negative way, like moralism, because I myself am unorthodox but I always feel like there is more to say and more to do.

If you could do a duet with someone who is stylistically left field of your own music who would it be?

I already know this: Toby Mac. There’s a part of me that loves words and I’ve written a few songs with rapid-fire words and I thoroughly appreciate hip-hop and rap music - the ability to fit that many words and ideas in. I told Brown that [I wanted to work with Toby] when we were working on Add to the Beauty or Tell Me What You Know and asked, "do you ever see me doing a duet with Toby?" And he said, "Honestly? No." [laughing] But I can really see it!

I would buy it.

I would be a total nerd. I would be an idiot but it would fun.

Are you listening to anything interesting or exciting right now?

Josh Garrels - really enjoyed him lately. Crystal Wells - I love her. We’re touring with Audrey assay, who I also love. A brand new couple Jenny and Tyler - excited to get to know those guys. I love Johnny Lang, been a fan of his for a long time.

I saw that you got to interview him a while back.

I did! It was good. It’s hard to meet someone as an interviewer sometimes. I felt like he was treating me like an interviewer instead of a fellow artist. But I think his conversion was so amazing. I loved his music long before he was saved - he was in so much anguish. I remember we saw him on David letterman and Troy and I both said, "What happened to him? Something happened to him." The very next day, because he's from our part of the world, on the front page of the lifestyle section it said "born again" and there was a big picture of Johnny Lang and we both thought "wow." We knew it, before we knew it.

Your mission statement is "challenging people to see the next step in their walk with God". What do you feel like your next step is and are there any artists that challenge you to do that?

First question, my next step with God - there are so many steps. I need a lot of work. I need to trust more and definitely still have a lot of fear.

My next step in a personal way is just - that's what that mission statement is about. The atheist will wake up and say "maybe I’m agnostic?" The 90-year-old woman who has served in church all of her life, who has a sweet relationship with Jesus, always has a next place, a next step. There will never be an end to that. CS Lewis says “higher up, further in.” The next step for us is in a practical way is launching the Art House North in St Paul. We have been really influenced by the Art House in Nashville and that’s been a big part of our community, even though we don't live in Nashville. We’ve missed out somewhat on artist community because we don't live in Nashville - though the benefits have been stellar. We’re by family; we're plugged into our church. We’re not in Nashville, which has its benefits like - I don't respond well to competition and I feel like it’s set me free and I’m able to be myself. When we go there we have great friends there like Charlie and Andi, Charlie peacock and his wife Andi Ashworth - who have spoken into our lives a great deal. A lot of what you've seen us do with our marriage, the holistic way we tour and do everything, was inspired by a vision we caught at the Art House in 2002. They’re basically providing community for artists. They live in a 100-year-old church and when I was first there I just got it and was inspired by it. It’s been on our hearts for about four years. We jokingly said to Charlie, "there's a church for sale, how about Art House North?" He got real serious and said "I would do that in a heartbeat. I would do that in a heartbeat." So Troy and I looked at each other and knew immediately that, if he was open to branching out as the Art House, we would love to do something like that. They ended up branching out to Dallas first. We’ve bought a 100-year-old church in St Paul and will be renovating it over the next year. The goal is to provide support for artists in our community who often work in isolation, a reason to gather, lots of food and collaboration will hopefully be born out of that. We’re really excited about it. We'll [also] provide events for the community along the lines of art/and faith - that's our next step. We’re investing everything we are in that. We’re selling everything we have to do this Art House. This is where we’re headed. It’s what we'll be doing for the next haul.

That's a big investment.

Yeah, but the confirmation has been raining down. [There was] a stretch with the anxiety where the heavens were brass and the breadcrumbs were few and far between but now it's loaves of bread every day. Every few days something happens and we have no doubt we're moving in the right direction. That doesn't mean it won't be hard but we're up for it!

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