It's been more 30 years since I, as a relatively new Christian, was first introduced to the music of Amy Grant—a fellow teen at the time (and the object of much smitten-ness from my college buddies and me).
We've all lived a lot of life since then, most of us outside of the public spotlight. But not Grant, who went from Christian music's darling to being one of its first major "crossover" artists in the 1980s, and then to public scrutiny for her 1999 divorce from Gary Chapman (with whom she had three children) and her 2000 marriage to country music star Vince Gill (with whom she has a 9-year-old daughter).
These days, Grant says she's happier than ever, while also wrestling with "a lot of uncertainty within my extended family as we've experienced pain, loss, and joy"—including the recent death of a friend and the decline of her mother's health. It's been an emotional roller-coaster for the six-time Grammy winner, who turns 50 later this year. She chronicles that ride in her stellar new album, Somewhere Down the Road, which includes six new songs, two previously unreleased tracks, a new version of "Arms of Love," and three songs from earlier CDs. All were chosen to reflect Grant's own trek "down the road"—its highs and lows, joys and pain, and everything in between.
We recently caught up with Grant to talk about the album, her career, her family, and that often bumpy road of life.
Let's go back to your first albums—all that shiny, happy Christian music. Would you have ever thought, as an 18- or 20-year-old, that you'd be writing songs of pain and struggle like those that appear on this project?
I think I understood angst when I was young. I might not have known how to write about it, but … On my first record (1977) I had a song called "I Know Better Now." It started off, "Some people always know the right thing to say / I don't really think I was born that way / With the gift of charm they're well endowed / I love to watch them float right through a crowd." You know, that's no different than looking at an eight-year-old and saying, "Some day you will have the wherewithal and the stamina to clean this entire house, do all the laundry, and cook dinner for a family of six." They just look at you and go "Why would I want to? Who cares?"
And, "What's 'wherewithal' mean anyway?"
Yeah! (laughing) It's funny, watching my children as a grown woman—this is really going to make me sound like a weirdo …
Go for it!
All right. If the relationship with Christ to the church is most reflected in a relationship between a husband and a wife, then my early Christian music and my early relationship with God, and what that meant, was not unlike (9-year-old daughter) Corinna coming home from school and saying, "I think Will likes me. I have long hair, and he says it's beautiful." Her idea of love is just any attention at all. How do I explain to her that this little thing that makes her flutter will change? I can't say to her, "Some day you will flop down completely naked with a man and enjoy and perform the most earthy, reckless abandon, physical act that you can't even imagine, and eventually, because of that kind of interaction with a man, you will have a baby, and it's going to be a mess, and it involves pain and life and work and laughter and all of those things." Real relationship is gritty and earthy, the stuff that life is made of.
That's the physical version of what God says we are with him [as husband and wife]. So when you take a kid singing "Jesus Loves Me," they have no idea how raw and gritty this is going to get. They have no idea the depths of joy and the depths of vulnerability that will come. It would be ludicrous to try to explain that to me when I was at seventeen.
Really? Isn't that a conversation you could have with (17-year-old daughter) Sarah?
I think you have real conversations as life happens. At 17, no matter how much she's been in love, no matter how much she has or hasn't done with a young man, nothing in Sarah's brain right now is going to really understand what a committed relationship looks like. I just feel like, as life happens, it's less about telling somebody what's ahead as just being there when they go, "Oh my gosh, this is what is happening now," and you talk to them about it then. That's what my mom was like with me. You don't want to be sitting in a movie when somebody's telling you the plotline. It ruins it. Just let me watch the movie, and afterwards we'll go discuss it.
Speaking of Sarah, you recorded a song with her ("Overnight") on this album. Is that something you've wanted to do for a while?
I have wanted to do that from the first time I heard her sing, right before her sixteenth birthday. I thought, I love the timbre of her voice. She had met a friend through church who's a piano player, and he comes over and they sing and sing. About six months ago, I asked Sarah, "Would you be willing to sing a song with me?" And she said yeah.
Do you look at Sarah now at 17 and think Whoa, that's the age I was when I was getting ready to record my first album?
Yes. I was exactly her age, to the month, when my first record came out. But she's not pursuing music the way I did. I was absolutely glued to my guitar. Sarah loves rock climbing, running; I see her most often in a pair of sneakers with her hair in a ponytail. The idea of getting up on a stage and singing songs is not on her radar. She just happens to have a good voice. All I wanted to do is just capture how she sounds right now, and we had so much fun doing it together.
Several songs on the album were written in the mid-'90s when your life was in turmoil. Your marriage was failing, you had already met Vince, and you were an emotional mess.
Tell me more about choosing some of those songs for this record.
Well, they definitely fit the concept of a journey. I had not heard the [previously unrecorded] song "Come into My World" in ten years. But when I listened to it recently, I thought, Oh my goodness, that song captured in a very raw way probably what everybody feels at one time or another, when they are just having to put on a brave face on the outside and feeling like they're crumbling on the inside. I didn't want to release that song when it felt so indicative of my world, because it seemed too vulnerable. But like anything, you get distance on it and you realize that most experiences are common to everybody.
Yes, my marriage was crumbling [when I wrote it], but I would bet that every woman, even one happily married with children, feels that way at times, but does not have the freedom to say, "I am crumbling on the inside." Maybe it's just a feeling that lasts one day, maybe it lasts for a season.
What's the story behind "Third World Woman"?
The idea for "Third World Woman" began in Washington several years ago when I was at a meeting for the Red Cross. They were talking about what's needed—vaccines, food—and how important it is for women to carry the banner for the women on the other side of the world. Flash forward to summer of 2008; Chris Eaton and I are working on a song for my Christmas album, "I Need a Silent Night," which is about the craziness of shopping and all the merchandising. While writing, the television was on, showing footage of poverty overseas. I just sang out, "What if I were that mother staring from my TV?" Chris and I wrote the song just as a chant, but didn't finish it that day because we had a deadline for the Christmas song.
Your liner notes include a picture of a Ugandan woman named Damalie next to the lyrics for "Third World Woman." Who is she?
I met her in Uganda last summer on a trip with Compassion International. Just before that, Vince and I were invited to sing at a The Academy of Achievement Summit, a very magical gathering in Cape Town, South Africa. We sang and played at St. George's Cathedral, right before Desmond Tutu spoke. And we stayed at a couple of unbelievable hotels on this all-expenses paid trip. We took our first-class roundtrip tickets and traded them in for coach so we could get tickets for all of our children.
We routed our trip home through Uganda, because my daughter Sarah has sponsored a boy there through Compassion since she was in grade school. So we left behind the chichi beautiful existence we had experienced in South Africa, where my children saw the best side of Africa—brilliant minds, unbelievable teaching. They heard about the cultural revolution and apartheid. And then we went to Uganda and Damalie's home. She had a couple of children sponsored by Compassion. She had a tiny little front room. She told us about her family. Her husband, her brother-in-law, and several of her children had died from AIDS; we saw their graves outside. She was now raising the last of her children and some grandchildren. She told us that now through Compassion, she's never without food. They get clinical care. Her children go to school.
We asked, "How can we pray for you?" Damalie said, "Pray that I live long enough to see my children grown." That prayer request, compared to where all of us had been the day before, in the lap of luxury—I looked around and all of my kids were just bawling. It was unbelievable.
Tell me about the song "Unafraid," which is about your mother. What are the things about her that make her such a good mom?
Her childhood was not easy. Her parents divorced when she was two—and that was not happening in 1933. Her dad died when she was a little girl. And so with us, she always had a kind of vulnerability. But I always knew she loved me. She was very gracious and kind. My mom would say things to me when I was growing up like "Don't worry, Amy. A woman's most beautiful years are 35 to 45." Which really takes the heat off when you're looking at pimples in the mirror, or even when you cross the threshold of being 21: Woo-hoo, you can order a beer. But for her to have the wisdom to say when you're really going to feel beautiful, and that will translate to looking beautiful, is when you have life under your belt. I just love that. Totally took the heat off. Don't worry. Thirty-five, I'll be there.
Did it pan out that way for you?
It did. I was a bit tortured at 35, but it really made turning 46 a drag! It's all behind me now. I think about that Joni Mitchell song "Big Yellow Taxi," that I sing every night: "Don't it always seem to go / You don't know what you've got till it's gone." So true.
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