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Learning to Sing Collectively: An Interview with Sandra McCracken

In case you missed it, Sandra McCracken recently released a gorgeous live album called Steadfast Live. I had the pleasure of discussing this project with her a couple weeks ago. Below is the transcript of our conversation.

You can learn more about Steadfast Live here.

Drew: You’ve said before that this group of songs—Psalms, God’s Highway, Steadfast Live—is moving away from singer-songwriter music and towards gospel songs. To me, that sounds like moving from a subjective to a collective consciousness of what it means to sing together. I’d love to hear you talk about what it means to make that shift, as well as all the out-workings of singing collectively.

Sandra: That’s an interesting question for me because my answer is always evolving. For a while I was characterizing it this way: the singer-songwriter music I’ve written for the majority of my career is comprised of narrative-based songs, as opposed to gospel or worship songs. But lately I’ve realized that the songs I’ve written and adapted from Scripture, both from the psalms and from other places, are not any less narrative-based than my singer-songwriter music. They’re just somebody else’s narrative I’m embodying. So it’s still personal, it’s still emotional, but it’s someone else’s words. I think my latest evolution of wording around that would be that there are many different kinds of narrative songs.

The idea of a collective voice holds very true for me, though, that these songs are meant to be sung together, to bring people together around common themes of loss and restoration. That is such a shared human experience. Loss is not far from us at any time. So the practice of singing together is a balm and a comfort. That’s how we experience the comfort of God: by singing together. Which is unmistakably a weird thing to do.

So the idea of singing together pushes back against that individualism and says we are a community. Sandra McCracken

It seems countercultural right now in a more pronounced way than in other times of history. We’re in a time of such isolation. Even music is often experienced individually through ear buds in a private context. So the idea of singing together pushes back against that individualism and says we are a community. We’re not alone in this. It’s not bad to listen by yourself, but there’s a different kind of comfort when we walk together.

Drew: If your perspective on this individual-versus-collective dynamic has shifted over time, then what has that shift looked like from Psalms to God’s Highway, and then to Steadfast Live? In that process, have certain songs acted as key sites of that shift?

Sandra: Yeah, definitely. These past three albums have all occupied the same sort of age of my career. They hold together in vision and intention. Certain songs have become important threads: “Steadfast,” “We Will Feast In The House of Zion,” and “God’s Highway.” Those three are strong pillars that represent this time period for me. My hope is that these songs would ask the five hundred year-old questions. In turn, I think the songs that endure are the ones that ask questions we will still be asking in five hundred years.

So to flesh that out, I live in my subjective reality—how I’m feeling today, the circumstances of my life—but when I go back to the psalms and realize that David experienced the very same range of emotion, and that I can experience his subjective reality through his words, I realize my own reality is not just me; it’s all of us. It becomes collective then, whether I like it or not.

So my intention with these last three projects has been to follow that lead rather than falling for the notion that I can initiate some revolutionary new idea of my own. I’m not the first one to feel what I feel and there’s comfort in that. Hopefully these moments of historical connection will lead us to make art that is not disposable, but lasting.

Drew: Speaking of lasting art, you deal so much with Scripture in these songs. I would love to hear about how you engage with Scripture in songwriting. How has that practice developed for you and what role has it played in this age of your career?

Sandra: When I was fifteen, almost sixteen, I went on a six-day backpacking trip in Colorado. There was still a lot of snow; it was early June. So we were crossing rivers, sleeping out in the rain under a tent that leaks on your face, and so on. I remember on that trip having this slim Bible in my bag. I remember how hard the trip was physically, how I was pushed to my limitations. I feasted on the words and hung on them in a way that I never had before. I felt myself to be frail and in great need. It was all about the nourishment of the Scriptures to give me strength when I needed it.

So similarly, in the last four years as I have gone through some life challenges, I have gone back to the Scriptures. I don’t want to watch TV or numb out. I just want to survive whatever the challenge is—the same practice I learned as a kid on that backpacking trip.

The songs from these last three projects came from finding my footing, my voice, what I wanted to sing. I was also writing other songs at that time, and at first I wasn’t sure what to do with all of it. There was a stream of songs that were David’s words, and then there was a stream of songs that were my words. They were both narrative songs that show the faithfulness of God, but in completely different artistic applications. At the time when I released Psalms, I wanted to plant my flag with those ancient words and not my own, not because I was embarrassed of my own, but because I wasn’t ready. I wanted to lead with proclaiming those five hundred year-old questions. And I think it’s been fruitful, not just in terms of provision for me, but in the lives of other people who have resonated and felt the comfort of God through these songs.

And now the stream of songs made up of my words has been compiled into another project called Songs from the Valley, which I will release in February.

Drew: And that’s the only true way in which your own words can emerge. You can’t really lead with your own words; you have to acknowledge the context of the ancient ones.

Sandra: It’s really an offering of first fruits. By leading with those ancient words, I was offering my work back to God.

Drew: It sounds like a sacrifice in the sense that your offering ensures the abundance of the entire crop, so to speak, including your own words. And that sheds light on the distinction between our words and the five hundred year-old ones, right? It’s a good question whether that distinction is even real.

Sandra: It’s an important question to ask. I think in our time, in Nashville, when considering what it means to make music, it’s a perpetual discussion. It kind of goes back to that Abraham Kuyper quote: the Lord says, “There’s not one square inch of this creation that isn’t mine.”

And yet we have choices about how we present a piece of work, whether you’re a painter or a sculptor or an educator. If you’re a teacher and you teach third grade math, there are so many ways you could teach third grade math, but you have to come up with some sort of system to get the kids from September to June.

In the same way, Psalms was one particular choice of how to walk through these songs. And hopefully making that choice is freedom. I believe the Holy Spirit motivates us through our desires. This is what I wanted to do. The Spirit was with me, leading me in the path I needed to follow. It brought me joy, too. Getting to go into that room with those musicians and record those songs brought me a lot of joy. All those things work in tandem in a mysterious way.

Drew: I’d love to follow that thread—vision and desire working themselves out in this series of choices you’ve made as you’ve cultivated these songs.

So is it true to say that your Vespers Tour and Steadfast Live came from the same vision and intent? How did the tour lead into Steadfast Live?

Sandra: After God’s Highway, I toured with All Sons & Daughters for a while. I had been through a season of lots of work—so much touring, so much work both with church and at home in Nashville, and on the road—and I was really tired. I got to the point where there was more than I could do.

So it made me aware of the question: what do I want to do? As I began reflecting on that, when I put pen to paper, the idea that came together was the Vespers Tour: to create an evening loosely inspired by evening prayer in the Anglican tradition. My original hope was that every night, no matter where we were, it would start at sunset, which was so impractical—you can’t put that on every poster! But I was going for the meeting point of day and night, using that to reflect on the day together as a metaphor for the bigger picture of life. The setlist for those shows was very similar to the arc of Steadfast Live. We edited it down for the recording a little bit and brought in some guests.

Another part of that journey for me was this book called Essentialism. We toured the Vespers Tour and then I came home and had three months off. The first of those three months was Advent. In our church tradition, it’s a time where you make space for Christmas coming, for Jesus’ birth. It’s similar to the time before Easter where you have to carve things out before you add things in, which is very different from the American way. But during that time, the emphasis on spaciousness and stillness really influenced the sound of the Vespers Tour and Steadfast Live. That book Essentialism was a big help. It reinforced that question: what is your unique contribution? Don’t just say yes to every offer. What are you uniquely made to do?

I think Steadfast Live is the answer to that question for me. It’s where my heart is. I want to make space for people to lament, a safe environment where they can come with their questions and find the comfort of God by joining their voices together.

Drew: With something like Steadfast Live, you are performing, but you’re inviting people into a different kind of experience at the same time. Is there any tension there while doing a show, since you want it to be worshipful? How do you navigate that? Something that keeps coming into my mind is just how many assumptions our culture brings to what it means to release an album and play a show. Every step of the way, you’re inviting people into a different perspective of what it means to share music. How does that happen when you’re moving from a congregation to an audience?

Sometimes, engaging with an audience in worship as prayer looks like leading a musical interlude intended to hospitably bring them in. Sandra McCracken

Sandra: That’s another element that benefits from my asking the question, “What do I uniquely bring to this?” I have toured with some musicians who come from the school of thought that every lyric is up, every audience member is singing from the downbeat to the end of the show—it’s all very corporate singing-based. I can do that, but my forte is a little more nuanced. For example, I won’t put up lyrics for the verses of “Almighty God,” but then I’ll invite people to sing the word “hallelujah” in the chorus. In “Trinity Song,” they’ll pick up the melody, and the words are simple.

I had a talk with Leslie Jordan about this the other day: if someone is not singing, it does not mean they’re not worshiping. Sometimes, engaging with an audience in worship as prayer looks like leading a musical interlude intended to hospitably bring them in. I invite them to follow me through the lyrics, trusting that they’ll have a moment to jump in as well.

Drew: That sounds like a conversation.

Sandra: Yeah, so I try to do something that’s blended, where every once in a while I throw in a hymn and give the audience words so they can really dig in—so we’re singing “All Creatures Of Our God And King” or “Be Thou My Vision”—it just lifts them up. Do they like that song more? Well, it’s the interplay that’s magical. If you as an audience member were just singing for two hours it would be a different experience. But you’re carried along by the currents of collaboration.

Drew: And it seems to me that this is a microcosm of the five hundred year-old conversation you’re experiencing with David in the psalms. He’s taking the microphone for a moment, but then he asks you to sing with him.

Sandra: So true. One of the things—and I need to spend some more time writing about this—but one of the things about the psalms, speaking of what you just said, is that they change point of view so often. You wouldn’t find it in a literary text in the same way. You would have points taken off for writing that way in English class.

Drew: Right, because it’s confusing.

Sandra: Yeah, rule number one is to keep a consistent point of view. But my question is what if we don’t? What if we were made to constantly shift our perspective? I think it all holds together in the prayer to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Somewhere in the mystery of that, our point of view will have to shift. Leaving room for that and then letting it play out in our time of singing together is so important.

Drew: That is so rich. I’m reading a book right now by Norman Wirzba. Do you know him?

Sandra: Yes! Not personally, but he’s tremendous.

Drew: Have you read Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating?

Sandra: He’s been at Laity Lodge before. He’s at Duke Divinity, right?

Drew: Yes, he leads Theology & Agrarian Arts over there. Your thoughts are reminding me so much of what I’ve been learning in his book. Last night I read a chapter on sacrifice and the idea of offering your first fruits to God. He quotes somebody else, who says that sin can be defined as “the anxiety of membership.” In the face of realizing how ridiculously indebted we all are to each other, we are anxious about how much we owe. That has this huge conflict with our need for a consistent perspective.

You mentioned English class, asking, “Who is the narrator?” I wonder how much that springs up out of this anxiety of membership—the need to say I am here, you are there—rather than loving the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself. Imperative in that command, to me, is the confusing of those distinctions between me, my neighbor, and God. So Norman Wirzba talks about how eating, just eating, involves us in the lives and deaths of all creation. There is sacrifice, no matter what, in every piece of bread. There are so many little deaths leading up to that piece of bread.

So I’m curious if you have any thoughts off the top of your head about how this anxiety of membership plays out in music culture, in Nashville especially, and what it means to lead people in a different way. Have you bumped up against any funny moments there where you have to reset the tone and retrain listeners in a collective mentality?

Sandra: Working that out as we were developing the flow of The Vespers tour involved trying some things and realizing they didn’t work. So there was some discomfort. Sometimes there are nights when I really want everyone to sing and they just won’t, so maybe they’re more reflective or stoic as a group. In different parts of the country, some people are more reserved than others. So they might be with me, but I feel like I lost them, and then I end up turning inward and having a hard time staying with them myself. So that, to me, is the anxiety of membership. It’s awkward.

Drew: It’s that clumsiness, right? And we’re so not into that as a culture. Anything to avoid the awkward moments.

Sandra: We want to put people at ease.

Drew: We’re not very well trained in that collaboration of efforts, so when we try to do that, there is palpable anxiety in the room.

Sandra: And I want people to feel at ease, yet even in our practice at our local church, being comfortable with awkwardness is a point of maturity in community that is very underrated. It’s what distinguishes me from being an entertainer—if I was called to be an entertainer, I would feel much more of an obligation to keep people at ease throughout the course of an entire evening. But my calling is different. It is to facilitate a prayerful, contemplative environment. That takes the pressure off. I might not be slick. I might say something weird or miss a cue or take a minute to tune my guitar. It might be quiet for a second; can you stay with me in that? And I need to practice knowing I’m loved even if no one likes it. That needs to be a regular part of my habit.

Drew: All those things are surprisingly hard.

Sandra: They are. Anxiety of membership, that term, I get it.

Drew: We’re always trying to smooth out the rough edges.

Sandra: That’s what’s so healing about a church community that truly takes heart in this humbling practice of reshaping our affections, reforming the habits of our hearts, but also says we come as we are. We come with the anxiety of that and membership is promised and sealed on our behalf. We’re free to be awkward in transitions. We need it every week, not because we’re slow to learn it, but because we’re so constantly bombarded with another ethic that would say, “you need to have it together.”

Drew: When you performed Steadfast Live that night, in the face of this entire struggle between those two ethics, was there any tension for you? You were performing this show that’s just the same as the others, except there are cameras. I imagine that would augment this whole struggle. You’re being filmed in your humanity. Did you feel pressure to smooth it out?

Sandra: For sure. The performance and time on the date when we recorded Steadfast Live was purposefully relaxed. The crew was so good at being invisible that it was easy to get used to their presence. We were already in that room for two days just getting set up and hanging out, which helped as well.

It was an unfamiliar experience, though. We did one performance during the day and the same one at night with a full audience. When we did editing, there were some moments when I was long-winded, so we got to edit that down. We tightened it up a little bit, and that’s part of making a record as well. You want it to sound right. We didn’t replay anything on this, but we had two performances of each song so that if we needed to pull something from the afternoon, we could. I think there were one or two songs where we preferred the afternoon performance. “Justice Will Roll Down” and “Love Will Bring You Home,” I believe. But there is an extent to which we have to smooth things out.

Drew: I’ll ask you one more question, and it’s a devotional question for people who want to develop a relationship with the psalms and Scripture in general that gets them started in the right direction of walking into this collective conversational relationship. What words of advice would you have for folks who want to do that themselves?

Sandra: My first thought would be to take the words with you and to read them early and often. To take that analogy from before, if you’re on a backpacking trip and you think you can’t carry one more thing, bring the psalms. Carry it, hold it, be nourished by it. For better and worse, it will become electrified when you need it. In suffering and loss, those words will resonate. In other emotions, too: when you’re angry or full of joy, wherever you are, you will find resonance in your life experience. I think we’re encouraged even within Psalm 119, to tuck those words into our hearts, to draw from them, that the Spirit would draw from them in the course of our day. Sometimes I read a scripture in the morning and it doesn’t have much of an immediate effect on me. But then during the day, something will come up and there will be a word that resonates at 11:00, and then there will be something else at 2:00, and by the time evening comes and I’m reflecting on the day, I’ll realize that Scripture has come alive to me because I submitted myself to it in simple practice. The Spirit will cause those words to take root and turn into little green sprouts in our hearts. They will bear fruit.

Drew: So just put it in the context of your life and let the day unfold.

Sandra: Right. And it’s not something we have to do for ourselves. He does the work of that. Let him do the work.

Drew: Take the pressure off.

Sandra: Yes! Just rest. I led a catechism last night on prayer in relation to worship, and one of the questions we talked about was, “What is prayer?” Prayer is responding to God in thoughts and deeds, with or without words. I think that takes some pressure off. We can relax and live our lives knowing that he is with us.


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