Jennifer Knapp: Layin' It Down

Tuesday 1st August 2000

JENNIFER KNAPP is one of America's finest new singer/songwriters. Tony Cummings investigates her absorbing musical journey.

Jennifer Knapp
Jennifer Knapp

Her music is earthy, passionate and honest. In an age of glinty-toothed, production line CCM, her gutsy folk rock brim full of spiritual insights but eschewing shallow sloganeering seems from another planet. Jennifer Knapp has brought creative integrity into the upper reaches of the American CCM chart and now the Kansas-born, 26-year-old singer/songwriter, having clocked up a string of radio hits with 1998's 'Kansas' and this year's lay It Down', is set to make her UK debut in August. Devotees of keenly-crafted adult rock will be there to see her.

Songwriting remains an intensely personal experience for Jennifer. "For me, it takes a lot of time alone. I work really hard to get to a point where I walk away from a conversation with God with something I can put in my pocket and keep. I have certain people around me who encourage me not to drop the ball. To go for something greater and go for something deeper. That's not to say that everything I write is a gem. I really don't believe that. But certainly with every passing song, it's kind of like trying to get to the heart of what God wants to teach. It's sometimes a very pained and tear-drawing process. There are moments that I won't let myself fall short of getting to the marrow of that moment in time and that intimacy with God. It takes patience, which I really don't have. But my relationship with God has to be forward-moving."

Jennifer and her twin, Lori, were born in the early 70s to parents who were just kids themselves. When she was three, her mother and father divorced and the girls went to live with their father. Coming from blue collar, rural roots didn't allow for extra expenses, like money for travel or long distance phone calls, making it difficult for Jennifer to keep in touch with her mother, who moved to Wyoming. "Most of that time growing up was just a nasty battle," Jennifer recently told CCM magazine. "The early divorce was not good. It was very divided and there was constant stress. My dad did the best he could. Sometimes adults just forget that kids are watching. So, it was very difficult. He remarried, and that wasn't easy for us either... I didn't grow up with a relationship with my mom. So, it's like I didn't really have a mom, even though she tried as much as she could."

As an adult, Jennifer's been able to pursue a renewed relationship with her mother, a woman she praises for being a true "picture of endurance." But she hasn't seen her father in years. "I moved out when I was 18. It was just really deceitful growing up, really abusive. I left because I wanted to live,- basically. So, I left, and left under the best terms I knew how. I'm like, 'I love you, this is where I'll be, please call me.' And you know, there wasn't a lot back in return, and I don't really know why. So, my dad is living his life. I hear about him and I know he hears about me. I just really hope for peace in his life."

Writing was her childhood escape and Jennifer lost herself first in a trilogy of fictional books she penned about a beagle puppy. Later, in her teens, Jennifer found poetry. But it was music that provided the most constant companion, though it wasn't her now well-known guitar skills that captivated early audiences. Instead, it was the trumpet. "Music gave a lot of value to my life. I had to create, I had to literally put my air into the horn. I would feel it and it would hurt my face, was very tangible to me."

Having left home, Knapp headed off to Pittsburgh State University in Pittsburgh, to study music education. Her personal history thus far had taken its toll on her emotionally and her atheistic beliefs and growing problems with alcohol were destroying whatever semblance of hope she had left, not to mention her odds for survival. But her freshman year in the fall of 1992 was about to change everything in her life. "I started to meet people who were Christians (in my dorm and in classes). I dealt with them the way I believed Christians should be dealt with and that was to tell them exactly where they should go."

Her new friends, however, didn't give up so easily, feeling drawn to share their beliefs. "I thought they were wasting their time. I was like, 'You're full of it.' Most of the people that were leading me to Christ had never seen anybody in their lives like me. They were not as broken as I was. I remember one time I was bound and determined I was going to stop drinking. I was basically going through withdrawal, and this girl stayed up with me. I'm shaking all night long for two or three nights in a row and she literally did not sleep. She prayed over me until I got through that."

Despite Jennifer's efforts to ridicule and disprove her friends' faith, something in her wouldn't let go. The experiences she was having in college brought back seeds planted much earlier, when she was 10 years old and sitting in a Methodist church back home. "I didn't really know about God," she recalled of her adolescence. "We're just there. It's Sunday, we go to church, that's what you do. I don't even remember what the sermon was about, (but) I started crying and I don't know why. But I remember sitting in church feeling that spirit of God or just at least drawing out, you know?... (In college) it was that same feeling and that had been like 10 years removed or more - and what 10 years brings in growing up the way that I did, just emotional abuse, the force of being yanked this way or that way, just all kinds of garbage. And I feel that again. But, I'm going, 'No, this isn't true.'"

Nevertheless, the girl known around campus for her foul-mouthed, partying ways started to sneak glimpses into a Bible at night, looking up Scripture references that were left on her music stand by a fellow trumpet player. "I would sit up on my bunk with a barely visible light on enwrapped in this huge secret. I was so ashamed to get caught for reading the Bible. I was very restless. The spirit of God was ushering me to a place of comfort and peace, but I was so afraid to do anything about it. I knew that I was either going to have despair and say no, or say yes and find joy. And I was so scared of joy."

Jennifer relates her feelings at the time to a mouse longing for a piece of cheese to satisfy a seemingly insatiable hunger. But in her experience, she had reached time and again for the reward only to feel the steel jaws of a trap rip into her skin. It seemed impossible to merely believe there could be a hope that was real and lasting. But her new friends were challenging her to have faith, to give life another shot, to take a chance that grace and unconditional love could exist. After two months of restlessness, Jennifer was confronted on 27th October, 1992, with her need to make a decision about Christianity. At 2.00am she and a friend went to a local fast food restaurant to discuss her questions. "I had to just talk to somebody. We're sitting at Hardee's and I'm swallowing down every last drop of coffee I can get. I knew that I had to make a decision. (I was) scared to death that I may never get another chance."

Jennifer Knapp
Jennifer Knapp

Around 3.00am, the girls jumped in a Dodge Shadow to continue their conversation. Finally, they pulled into an empty grocery store parking lot and Jennifer prayed to commit her life to Christ. "I couldn't even sleep. I was so excited the rest of the night. I was bouncing off the walls. I had a 7.30am theory class and I'm giddy and just blabbing on about how I've accepted Christ as my Saviour. And (my classmates) are looking at me like I've lost my mind."

Her fellow students weren't the only ones wondering about her sanity. Jennifer herself was sceptical about whether this was a change that would truly stick. "For me it definitely had to be something supernatural to change my life. It's kind of like a Saul to Paul kind of conversion. Every night I would pray, 'Please God be real. Please be real.' I was so afraid that my hope, the only last conceivable hope that I could possibly have in the whole world, was just a big hoax."

From that first night Jennifer was different. "There was a definite change in my heart. I had conviction that my life was not my own. And that there was value to it, because at that point in time I had no value to it. I hated it. I didn't care whether I lived or I died. I started to realise that my life wasn't mine to lose. I had to do some things with it." Recognising the value of her life was just the beginning. Jennifer's next steps involved finding a purpose, something that is in part being fulfilled by her vocation as a Christian artist, a career that was initiated the summer after her freshman year.

Because her music classes required her to know chord structures, Jennifer picked up a guitar to complement her trumpet playing. Eventually, her love for Cowboy Junkies tunes and her natural inclination as a writer resulted in friends encouraging her to try her hand at songwriting. Though at first she was hesitant to explore her spirituality in three-minute pop songs, her initial effort received positive feedback. "I wrote one song and it wasn't even that good. But my friends heard it and they knew exactly what it meant. They just broke down in tears. They were like, 'Come play this. Come share what God has done in your life.'"

Over the next two years, Knapp's coffeehouse performances gradually escalated to the point where she was being asked to do 80 to 90 concerts a year. She quit college her senior year to pursue her music full time. And in early 1996 one of her 'Wishing Well' independent CDs landed in the hands of Toby McKeehan, a founder of dc Talk and Gotee Records. "I'm a song person and I always have been," said McKeehan. "Jennifer's songs drew me to her. In our first few meetings it was just like pure joy. This is a woman of integrity, a woman about a mission and a woman who feels deeply and passionately."

Her first album for Gotee was released in December 1997 to critical acclaim and commercial success, landing the young artist five American Top 10 radio singles and two Dove Awards in 1999. But for Knapp, that first CD symbolizes far more than good tidings for a great career - rather, it's more like personal therapy, therapy that for better or worse she ended up sharing with the world. "I was really amazed when people referred to the first record as worshipful," she explained, "not that I didn't find qualities and attributes in that, because I did. But I know that when I'm singing those songs, I'm thinking about specific things that I'm still kind of working to get out of.

"I'm willing to admit that first record is a process of recovery and just going, 'Man I've just got to spill this out' Honestly, that's all I ever thought it was. I didn't think that it was going to be splattered in front of everybody and I didn't really think about the consequences of it either."

Sharing so much the first time around certainly influenced her songwriting on lay It Down'. Though lyrically it's a little more vague and a little less personal, the project retains all of the emotional passion and spiritual candour of its predecessor. It also shows a young woman who is growing not only as an artist, but as an individual. Mark Stuart, the frontman of Audio Adrenaline and the producer for 'Kansas', was by her side in the production booth to help guide the way into uncharted territory. "Going into this record," Jennifer explained, "we felt like we were painting pictures from one song to the next. And a painting is not just about the colours but how the paint sits on the canvas and the expression of the face in the painting. It's so many different elements. We wanted people to be able to savour that... And I wanted to have a record that was a little bit more aggressive. I like extremes. I like being able in the course of the concert to go all the way from an a cappella song to just rockin' out. There's something about just expressing myself with all the breath that I have in my lungs at that moment... There are moments in my relationship with God that all I know how to do is grab onto the edges of the table and just scream. The other side is to completely collapse and just be still and know that he is God. I think they're both valuable."

Jennifer also recognises there are dangers to both as well. In fact, it's safe to say achieving balance in the midst of a life of extremes is a major theme to lay It Down', accepting the reality of who she is and the grace of God to cover her past. "I know that I've received Christ as my Saviour," Jennifer explained, "but I have a difficult time saying I'm a righteous person or taking the things that God offers freely. I wanted to be able to explore that for this record. I wanted to be able to capture less articulation of my struggle and more toward the specifics of who God is and what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. Ephesians chapter one talks about how God knew that we were going to screw up and fail. But, with all wisdom and understanding, God lavished his riches of grace on us... I want to lay claim to those things in my life. 'You Remain' is the song on the album that most represents that. I talk about power and strength and the righteousness of God. I'm trying to lose myself into those things and learn those things. And those are battles. I think that I have to work for it or somehow erase something (rather than) take the things that are deserved because God values you so much that he gave his only son. It seems so cliche to say that, but I forget sometimes that act in itself was the greatest thing that could have ever been done. How could I not believe that the riches that he's lavished on me because of that? I don't have to feel guilty or be ashamed.

"I'm building a career out of being able to communicate a few basic things that God has taught me in life. And music is a really great example of how we can take something, pour ourselves into it, do it with excellence and make an emotional connection. That's the way you evangelise. To me that's the way that you convince somebody that Christ is real: by being real and making that emotional connection." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


Reader Comments

Posted by Ginny in Alabama @ 13:58 on Feb 24 2013

I was so sad to learn of Jennifer's admission of her gay lifestyle. However, I have gone back and read many articles about her and also written by her that make me happy to know that God is in her life and He hasn't stopped working even though she has walked away from some things, it is apparent that God has His hand on her. Her conversion was genuine and her faith is genuine but just as her entry into Christian music was a surprise, so was her eventual falling into the ditch she is in. God is able to pull her up and out!.Hallelujah! He will "usher her down". She will experience those intimate times again.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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