The Anticipation of Mystery: An Interview with Leslie Jordan
We’ve been so glad to call Leslie Jordan a friend of the Rabbit Room in recent years because we so admire the gracious spirit and communal heart that accompanies her music—whether as a part of the duo All Sons & Daughters, her work with Integrity Music, or her solo releases. No matter the outlet, Leslie has always made sure that a meaningful connection was at the heart of the creative work.
With a new EP just released entitled You Are With Me, comprised of five songs she’d originally written for other artists, Leslie has now put her own spin on songs that remain important to her for myriad reasons. We recently had the chance to sit with her and talk about the new EP, why the songwriting process is still magical, and how some ideas just fall out of the sky. You’ve written so many songs in so many scenarios—in co-writing rooms, songwriting retreats, personal practice—that it makes me curious about your relationship with the muse. How magical does it feel? Is it more workmanlike than that?
No, it’s still magic for me. If somebody says they have the steps to writing a great song, they’re probably lying to you. Nobody really knows. It is a mystery and I love that about songwriting. One day I will feel like I’m a great songwriter and the next I’ll feel like I should quit and work at Starbucks and never write another song again. There’s something really humbling about that.
I think if I were to ever get to either extreme, to ever really feel like quitting, or that I’d peaked, then I will have lost the magic and mystery and excitement of it. But some days it’s there and some days it’s not. The key is to not get too discouraged.
I compared it once before to surfing. I learned how to surf back in 2015 with some friends out in California and we spent a long time just sitting on the board and waiting for the wave. Maybe we caught one or two but we didn’t go home and think, ‘Oh, what a waste of a day.’ It’s about the act of getting in the water, paddling out, sitting and waiting, anticipating, understanding what a good wave feels like, and learning how to hold on and let go.
Also, the shore is never the point, which is also key in songwriting. If the emphasis is on getting a song… like I’ve been in a room where it’s like, “All right, we gotta write this up-tempo song to finish the record.” A lot of times you’re trying to squeeze the magic into the room and I think there’s resistance when that happens. You just can’t control it. You can be a good student of craft and you can practice and put your butt in the chair every morning and work on generating content.
All of those things are good and important for songwriters, but for me, the act of sitting and waiting and anticipating the mystery to show up is the point nine times out of ten. Then when you get the song, when you ride the wave in, that’s when the excitement comes. But you don’t quit when you don’t catch a wave. The surfers are out there doing it the next day all over again.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I’m trying to remember. [Pause] I wrote a lot of really silly melodies and lyrics but the first songs I ever finished were likely all about how my life was falling apart. My parents went through a divorce when I was in sixth grade and I’d just learned how to play guitar in fifth grade. I was just a really sad teenager. [Laughs] I really used music as a tool for processing grief and asking questions. That’s pretty serendipitous to have learned that just prior and to then have that as a vehicle… For sure. My first instrument was the violin and I don’t think that would have been as helpful. [Laughs] Nobody wants to hear a sad violinist.
We’d love to walk through the new EP with you and get the origin story of each, starting with “You Are With Me.”
Yeah, that’s the oldest song on the record and I wrote it with Sandra McCracken in 2017. My husband and I were adopting and waiting for our son to come home. He’d been born and we were just waiting. I remember that as a pretty dark period in my life and wrote that verse, chorus, and bridge. I took it to Sandra [McCracken] and needed her help to finish it. I didn’t have an outlet for it at that point, but she put it on her record and I love that version. I also loved the chance to put it in my own voice for this project.
I also love the production on this from Jess [Ray]. I sent her the stems for the vocal and piano and a few other things and she built a lot of that instrumentation around it. The first time she sent it back to me, I just wept. I felt like it transported me back to that moment. So sonically, I think that song does what it says. I feel a presence in that song when I listen to it.
Love that. “A Thousand Shores”?
I wrote “A Thousand Shores” with Zach Bolen [Citizens]. That was the first chorus I’d written by myself in probably years. A lot of times I don’t come into a co-write with an idea, since I like to let the artist dictate where the song goes if I’m writing specifically for their record. But I came in that day with that chorus and said, “I think I have an idea but it may not fit with Citizens.” He was so encouraging and wanted to write that song and the rest of it spilled out. I love that song and their version of it. I was driving through my little town while listening to that bridge and was going 50 in a 30 because it gets me so pumped up. [Laughs]
[Laughs] What about “You Hold It All”?
That was written on a Porter’s Gate retreat with three authors, actually. What I love about Porter’s Gate is that they’ll bring in authors, theologians, pastors, songwriters, and thought leaders together to talk about a subject and then we write a song about it. We were writing songs for a new record that came out last year called Worship for Workers and were talking about how we live in a very over-achieving society. We can forget to put all of that longing and striving in the Lord’s hands. So that was fun for me because those authors had never been in a co-write before and they were like, “Wow, I wrote a song!” It was so fun to see their expression and be proud of the work we did together.
What’s the story behind “Let It Be Lovely”?
That was written with Hannah Hobbs for her project, Sundown. We wrote on Zoom two years ago and she was trying to round out her record. She did something similar where she’s written so many songs we’ve sung in the church. She’s been a part of Hillsong for many years, and we met back in 2016. So she was just looking for a few original non-church songs, and her publisher hooked us up. I bought in that first verse and said, “I had this lullaby in mind.” We both have kids the same age and talked about singing the truths of scripture to our kids, so she started singing that chorus. It’s another song that kind of fell out, which is awesome.
The last song on the new EP is “Good To Me”.
It’s funny. It’s not out yet in its original form. It was recorded for a Porter’s Gate record called Sanctuary Songs and that whole album won’t come out until September but we recorded it back in February. Back in October 2022, we had a retreat for that record talking about mental health and the importance of creating resources for the church to use around this idea of being equipped to help those with mental challenges. I was struggling to write songs because I thought this topic is one the church doesn’t do a great job addressing it.
We were at Keats Island in British Columbia and there was a blackberry bush that lined the road. I reached in to grab a blackberry and pull one out and in the process, I raked my finger on a thorn. Immediately this lyric came to me: “I can taste the sweetness of our mercy / But I feel the sting of grief still in my chest / Not sure I’ve known the one without the other / So I’ll cling to the belief I know the best / You have been, you will be, you are so good to me.”
The things I’ve walked through in the last years of my life have been about the “both/and”. It’s not one or the other. It’s not the high or the low but the high and the low. A lot of times we don’t get to pick and choose whether it’s grief or joy. A lot of times those things come hand-in-hand, so that song is special to me as well.
Matt Conner is a former pastor and church planter turned writer and editor. He’s the founder of Analogue Media and lives in Indianapolis.