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Crafting Companionship: An interview with Jess Ray

The last few years have found Jess Ray wrestling on several fronts—with her calling, her music, her spirituality. She’s not the only one. A global pandemic shook the trees for a lot of us, a forced reconsideration of most aspects of life as routines were interrupted and institutions were weakened.

What has made Jess’s music so compelling is how her lays bare such struggles and questions in ways that invite us in. She gives us permission to wonder (or wander) and makes us feel less alone on the journey. It’s found in the beauty of albums like Born Again or even her work with Taylor Leonhardt in Mission House.

We recently asked Jess to update us on what she’s doing musically these days and what to expect at this week’s special edition of The Local Show.

I’d love to start with a musical update from you on all fronts, just to keep readers informed as to what you’re doing.

Well, I put out a record called Born Again last year. It came out like September or October and I worked all year long on that. I just loved making that album. I loved every bit of it. In some ways, I’m a little sad it’s over, I think, because I’d started a podcast related to it and was hosting conversation around what I was getting at with that album. It was all different themes that will probably be relatable to a lot of people, everything from deconstruction and the reconstruction of my faith to being at a mega church at the beginning of the pandemic and then left that. I really went through about a year-and-a-half of sabbatical and the time of healing after that was just a challenging season.

So that album is full of songs that were related to a lot of things going on personally in my life and in the world over the past few years. Getting to share the songs and then the podcast and the conversation around that has been a really meaningful thing to do the past year or so. I think I want to keep doing that.

I’m sure anyone else who’s creating music these days feels the same, but it just seems really consumable. People on Friday will kind of check out your song or album or whatever, and by the next week, they’re kind of moved on to the next thing. So there’s some frustration, I think, being an artist these days. I think we want our music to last longer. We want people to care about full albums and stuff like that, but the systems don’t really lend toward that.

So I would say, I am probably going to finish up the podcast. I don’t know that I’m going to do a second season, but I’m leaning more towards that than not at this point. And then I’ll just continue to release songs related to a lot of the same content that should feel really compatible with my album born again. That is probably what I’ll do for the next year.

I want to continue to host conversation both in song form and podcast form, specifically aimed at people who find themselves in an interesting spot given this moment of crisis we feel both in our nation and in church. So I’m trying to continue to offer resources and companionship for people who find themselves in that spot.

How does all of this fit with Mission House? Because you have this whole other project we’ve not even mentioned, right?

Yeah. With Mission House, Taylor [Leonhardt] and I writing worship songs for the church. It started in 2018 or 2019 after we had realized we had kind of this pile of worship music, and then we got signed to Integrity [Music]. Then a pandemic happened as we were starting a band. So I would say there are numerous things that really knocked the wind out of us as a band. We were literally writing songs for church gatherings, and then everyone stopped gathering for church.

I believe if God means to continue to work through Mission House, I’m sure he will, but yeah, it’s been a bumpy road keeping the thing going. At the same time, we didn’t go looking for it, it wasn’t something that Taylor and I wanted to do. Doors were just opening and it was something we felt more called towards than necessarily something we’d dreamed of.

So it’s been a really good and meaningful couple of years, even with the challenges. But we’ve just turned a corner. This year, I have an even clearer vision of what we’re going to do, at least for about a year or two, for Mission House. We are hosting these live recordings where we’ll pick locations in the U.S. We’ve sent out practice tracks for people to actually learn alto, tenor and soprano parts for the songs. So we’re actually turning our crowd into a choir, and they can really feel involved in a special way. Our hope is that we write good songs that are easy for people to sing.

We were literally writing songs for church gatherings, and then everyone stopped gathering for church. Jess Ray

We just did one in Dallas, and it was beautiful. It was so fun. We know we’re going to do three of those potentially this year. If they go well, that is probably what we’ll do for now with Mission House—a mix of a touring experience and recording albums at the same time. It would just be a running list of what we’re calling family nights, with these albums that come from those recordings. With how it went so well in Dallas, I can’t help but imagine us doing this kind of for the next couple of years.

And then, yes, I’m still trying to produce produce my own music, and I produce a lot of Mission House stuff and then trying to have at least an artist or two each year that I’m working with to produce their music as well. It’s mainly those three things that go around.

You said people were responding to Born Again, but is there one song in particular that you hear about again and again?

It’s not one. I have little stories from a number of them, but one would be “Place to Land”. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on that. I think the number of people who just feel the frenzy of the days we’re living in… this era is just forcing us to live an inhuman pace of life. It shows our desperate need for Sabbath and rest and to disconnect from things. So I get a lot of feedback about that song.

“At Your Mercy” is another one that people talk about. I call that song “my trust fall back into God.” I wasn’t ever fully walking away from God, but this past season has brought me to rededicate my life to Christ, to come face-to-face with the stuff that are hang-ups for me and work through those. It’s not that they’re all completely sorted at this point, but it’s me coming to that decision again saying, ‘Into your hands, I commit my spirit. I can’t understand this. But I am giving myself completely to this again.’ And I think there are so many of listeners who have been in that same moment, coming kind of to the end of themselves and then giving themselves again to God.

I love to hear that! You’ll get to play some of these songs at The Local Show coming up. Any special plans there?

Oh, they’ve let me pick all the people which was so cool. My friends, The River Indigo, a husband and wife, will be there. Cecily Hennigan, an incredible singer-songwriter, has the coolest voice ever and will be there. And then Paul Demer writes beautiful acoustic folk and has a wonderful voice.

I’m so excited because I haven’t really collaborated with any of them before, but I like all of them. So that’s gonna be really cool. And in that kind of setting, it’s cool because it makes you strip back all of your songs to just a guitar or piano. That’ll be really fun, especially these new songs that are so pop-driven. It’s fun to get to kind of present those in a very stripped back way, but it’s also a little bit vulnerable. Because the songs have so much built up on the tracks, it’s a fun challenge to say, ‘All right, is this a good song? When you just play piano or guitar, does it still work?’

I love The Local Show. I mean, I credit it for numerous opportunities that I’ve received since the first time I did that. So I’m very grateful for it and I’m excited to be back.


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