NPR

For Amy Grant, Beauty And Tragedy Give Way To 'Mercy'

Amy Grant's new album is called How Mercy Looks from Here. (Courtesy of the artist)

Amy Grant released her first album in 1977, when she was a teenager. Apart from a few secular mainstream hits in the 1990s, most of her work is unabashedly spiritual, and her name has become synonymous with contemporary Christian pop music. It doesn't bother the singer; for her, music has always represented a sacred place.

The Nashville, Tenn.-based Grant has a new record out this week, her first studio album in 10 years, called How Mercy Looks from Here. She says the inspiration for that title can be traced back to one week in the spring of 2010, when her family experienced an incredible series of highs and lows in rapid fire.

"Monday started with a record flood in Nashville; the waters crested the 500-year floodplain," Grant explains. "On Tuesday, I attended the funeral of Will Owsley, a musician-songwriter friend of mine who took his life the Friday before. And then on Thursday my cousin, Adam Spain, was killed in Afghanistan."

The stormy week, Grant says, ended with a ray of sunshine.

"On Friday, Saturday, we celebrated the most amazing wedding: The oldest of our blended family of five, Jenny, was married in the side yard," she says. "And all of that, from the depths of anguish to this ecstatic young woman. ... It's just, life is so crazy. It's the beauty and the tragedy, always all together."

Amy Grant spoke with Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin and performed live in NPR's studios. Click the audio link to hear more.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A desire for connection and collaboration - that is in some ways what has driven our next guest from the very beginning of her music career - and it's been a long one. Amy Grant released her first album back in 1977 when she was still in high school. She had a few secular mainstream hits in the 1990s. You may remember the song "Baby Baby."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY BABY")

AMY GRANT: (Singing) Baby, baby, my tender love will flow from, the blue sky to the deepest ocean. Stop for a minute, baby, I'm so glad you're mine...

MARTIN: Most of Amy Grant's work, though, is unabashedly spiritual. And her name has become synonymous with what's called contemporary Christian pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

GRANT: (Singing) El Shaddai, El Shaddai, Erkahmka na Adonai. We will praise and lift you high, El Shaddai...

MARTIN: Amy Grant visited us in our Washington studios last week to talk about her new album. It's called "How Mercy Looks from Here." It was a decade in the making. During that time, she was helping to look after both of her parents who suffered from dementia. Her mother passed away a couple of years ago. This album is dedicated to her.

GRANT: I mean, her mind kind of came and went. And we have laughed endlessly about the time her oldest granddaughter, my niece, Grace, showed up. And mom was just, you know, giddy. And Gracie had said: What is it, grando? And she said: I think I'm pregnant. And Gracie said: Dear God, I hope you're not. You're 79 years old. My mom said: I am? That's awful.

MARTIN: Let's listen to a song off the new album. This is a track called "Here." Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE")

GRANT: (Singing) What does all this beauty mean? It captures my attention and I'm speechless, sunset Tennessee. Colors burn across the sky, slowly fading golden rays greet the moon and kiss the day goodbye. And I, do I understand...

MARTIN: Where did this song come from?

GRANT: Well, specifically, about a sunset. And really I was listening to it when it was playing just then, and in a broad sense, you know, I love writing about all kinds of things. I've made records for 35 years. But probably underlying all of my intention about making music, because I grew up in a family surrounded by people of faith, I've always seen music as the - it seems like the easiest way for people to bypass their preconceived notions of God, religion - all those things - and it's deeply affected spiritually. And I think that's the one thing that all people on Earth have in common, is our spiritual life. Somehow, just always having that potential to say is it possible in the right song to say something that would make somebody pause and imagine where they fit in the epic plan of God?

MARTIN: You just talked about trying to tap into something universal, something that everyone can relate to, everyone can feel something a little bigger than themselves.

GRANT: Right.

MARTIN: That's not a religious message. That's bigger. That's - it seems like you're trying to reach a broader audience who may not resonate with language that may be more starkly religious.

GRANT: Religion in America is so polarized politically. For somebody that's just searching, it's fairly repulsive. You know, I don't blame every 18- to 30-something that says I don't want to walk into a church. I understand because I have children that range in age from 31 - my I-do daughter Jenny - down to 12. And, you know, in those early years of adulthood, you know, what you think of yourself and what other people think of you is just tantamount to how you feel in a given day.

MARTIN: Did you go through that kind of identity struggle? You seem to have been a person, even from a young age, who knew who you were - or at least that was the public perception.

GRANT: Well, I'm going to tell you. I have lived a really curious life. I have done things I never dreamed I would do. Personally, career-wise, privately - good and bad - I have an insane curiosity that has driven me to experience amazing things and gotten me in all kinds of trouble. But I never, I just never doubted that God was. I felt found. And that's my prayer for my kids: God, find them the way you found me. And so I was attracted to things. You know, I loved old church hymns. And, I mean, the first picture my mom ever has of me with a book, I think I'm seven years old, and I have on my PJs and I have an old hymnal opened up. And the spiritual realm is wild and endless and purposeful. That's why in songs I will always include messages that I hope compel someone in a quiet moment to say who are you and do I matter? And beyond that, I trust that people will be found the same way I was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREET THE DAY")

GRANT: (Singing) Leaning through to ones I need and to the one whose needing me, I won't assume the worst is true, and do the best that I can do. A word kindness I believe, it turns around eternity. Hey, hey. This is how I greet the day, I greet the day...

MARTIN: When you were young, did you intentionally seek out a career as a Christian pop singer?

GRANT: No. I started playing guitar in high school. Around that time, I started going to what I affectionately call a hippie church. The preacher was brilliant. He was fluent in Hebrew and he could, you know, read Greek. He was a professor at a university in town. He was so fun. And my sister started going there. And people would go blue jeans, barefoot, flowers in their hair. It was packed out, they would sit in the windowsills. And it was so exciting. And sometimes my mother would let me go. And the kids were so different there. You know, they - and these kids, a lot of them lived - this church was right beside the projects in Nashville, the Ed Shell community. And so the kids that showed up were from a totally different world.

And I was so - this is the first time all of that Bible teaching that I got as a kid connected in a totally different environment. And I remember standing in the back of a church one time and this woman - 'cause there was a bar catty-corner from the church - and she came and said, preacher, I take my clothes off for a living, can I go to church here? And he said you're welcome to go to church here. You just give your heart to God. He'll tell you what you can and can't do. That's not my place.

The reason I say all that is because I started writing songs. I was already singing Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carole King, but none of them were singing about some of the really adventuresome things that I was experiencing at this hippie church. So, I started writing songs about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOUNTAIN TOP")

GRANT: (Singing) I go to the temple. I just want to stay to hide from the hustle of the world and its weight. And I'd love to live on a mountaintop, fellowshipping with the Lord. I'd love to stand on a mountaintop, 'cause I love to feel my spirit soar...

MARTIN: Let's get back into the new album. And you have a song on here that is more than symbolically about your family. Your family is actually on the song. It's called "Our Time is Now."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR TIME IS NOW")

GRANT: (Singing) January, February, March, the days are marching forward...

MARTIN: Your dad's on this song and your kid's on this song. How did that come to be?

GRANT: Music has always played such an important part in our family. From the time I was a young kid, I remember my dad going around the house, like conducting and singing. He has a beautiful voice. We all grew up singing church hymns. When my parents, when their dementia started taking away more and more of their communication and their memories, always the songs they could sing. But the (humming) going into the chorus, my dad is one of those voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR TIME IS NOW")

GRANT: (Singing) Time is an illusion, time is a curse...

I never could have taught him that but because it's the same melody as "Frere Jacques," we just got the right key and set up a microphone just in a seating area. I would just sing "Frere Jacques" and my dad, you know, (humming) and I'd - but it took two trips to the studio to get that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR TIME IS NOW")

GRANT: (Singing) ...time run out. I want to see these before our time runs, runs out.

MARTIN: I wonder what song on this new album most closely tells the story of where you are now in your professional career.

GRANT: In the last few years, just through different circumstances, I've learned some really amazing tools in life. The biggest thing is framing difficult circumstances in a way that helps you see the value can change everything. And the first time that I really was stopped in my tracks with that experience was when I was really having a throw-down fit one night with a trusted friend of mine. It was late one night. We were outside. This was a few years ago. My mom and dad both needed 'round-the-clock care, and I'm frustrated and angry and they didn't deserve this. And my friend, who had already buried both of her parents, she just looked at me and said: Take a deep breath. She said: Don't you see, this is the last great lesson your parents will teach you?

MARTIN: Amy Grant joined us here in our studios in Washington. Her new album is called "How Mercy Looks from Here." It is out this week. Thank you so much for being here, Amy.

GRANT: Such a pleasure. Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: You're going to play a track for us off the new album. This is a song called "Don't Try So Hard."

GRANT: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T TRY SO HARD")

GRANT: (Singing) Another Monday comes and I just want to breathe. 'Cause it's a long, long week for someone wired to please. I keep taking my aim, pushing it higher. Want to shine bright, even brighter now...

MARTIN: That's Amy Grant playing in our studio. You can hear full performances of the songs "Don't Try So Hard" and "How Mercy Looks from Here" at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And to all the moms out there, Happy Mother's Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T TRY SO HARD")

GRANT: (Singing) ...don't think that you're not worth it, because you are... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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