A genuine CCM superstar, AMY GRANT has taken a long time to think and evaluate before recording her latest album 'Behind The Eyes'. She spoke to Mike Rimmer.
She is probably the biggest name in Christian music and the buzz that has surrounded the release of the long awaited 'Behind The Eyes' has only been magnified by the fact that the album's release date has been continually put back. Even America's CCM magazine set up an Amywatch column to keep an eye on the excuses and rumours surrounding the release until...there it was in the racks!
Even in Britain there was uncertainty. I spent ages begging a copy from colleagues at Word and finally got a fancily packaged pre-release that popped through my door with a scribbled note warning me not to play it on my UCB Cross Rhythms show, Rimmerama, until I had permission. Fearing a painful death at the hands of Premier's Angela Little, I complied! But I was chomping at the bit to play some of the excellent songs on the CD. It was actually Angela who precipitated my opportunity to interview Amy. I tell you this because it gives an insight into just how busy Ms Grant is when a new album is released. The search for an interview had been surrendered by Angela who gave up the chase when yet another phone call to America remained unreturned. Enter your fearless correspondent who went the rounds through Amy's management company and eventually managed to talk to the assistant of the woman co-ordinating Amy's schedule. Weeks and many phone calls pass by and I still don't get to talk to Amy's PR. The interview begins to take on Holy Grail status in the Rimmer household. I come close to quitting on a couple of occasions. In the interim, I manage to talk to her husband Gary Chapman.
Eventually, I call Amy's PR during the two hours that she's in the office and I get a date. No time, just a date and it begins to look possible. But then it's cancelled and rearranged and I wonder whether an interview with the world's best-known Christian singer will forever elude me and whether Angela Little had a better insight into the situation than foolish me!
So it was with a sense of achievement that after two months of trans-Atlantic communication I sit in the extremely small telephone interview studio in UCB and finally get to place a call to Amy sitting in an office in her Nashville management company. My polite persistence has been rewarded with a 30-minute window in her busy schedule.
To add to the sense of the surreal, the previous night I had been tracking a selection of "Amy is backslidden", "Amy is having an affair with Vince Gill", "Amy's new album isn't Christian" nonsense stories over the internet which were too ludicrous to waste my precious 1800 seconds specifically pursuing each rumour with the lady herself. It just struck me that it must be pretty difficult being Amy Grant.
She is, of course, best known this side of the pond for her hit "Baby Baby" which gave her the chance to appear on Top Of The Pops and number two chart placing with Mr Gallop and his statistics. At the time, she was trying to make music that would attract teenagers but with the new album it feels as though she has abandoned that market. I began by asking whether she had changed direction. "I felt like I really did it," she responds. "You know, making music that brought back that fresh, innocent, pop experience and I felt like I did what I wanted to do. So, having done that, and having enjoyed the unexpected success that "Baby Baby" brought about, it's kind of like, now what's the next thing? To try to recreate that again and again was going to become very contrived, and that's very unexciting from an artistic standpoint."
I try to point out that throughout her career, Amy has been a Christian music pioneer but she is quick to disagree with me when she says, "I don't see it that way. Certainly people have called me that, but I've never felt it." So I wondered whether it has just been a case of walking a step at a time? Amy responds, "Yeah, it's just doing what I have a real energy and excitement about doing. I think the creative world has to be that way. You've got to respond to the compulsions that you feel, trust that they're inspired for some reason."
That creativity has recently led Amy into some trouble with the release of her latest album. There has been a debate raging in the CCM industry as to whether it could be considered a "Christian" album. There have been many criticisms and I wondered what she had to say in response to those kinds of criticisms? Amy is forthright in her reply, "Well, honestly they have so little impact on me, because those are the kind of conversations that happen in circles of people I don't know. I feel that if a person walks into a record store, and is willing to lay down whatever it costs these days, which I'm sure is way too much, they're saying, 'I'm going to risk my 10, 15 pounds on a project this person has put a lot of thought, time and energy and heart into. I'm trusting that it's going to be worth my money, and on some level I'm going to be moved.' And that's what I have done - I've worked really hard and so beyond that point I think that arguments about how it's categorised, who should stock it, or what bin to put it in, that it's so far beyond my control, I kind of go, 'Oh well,' it doesn't really have any effect on what I do."
Over the past few months I have been involved in a Christian music discussion group, mostly with Americans, via the internet and I've been surprised at some of the stances that the group have taken concerning Amy's music. The attack on 'Behind The Eyes' surprised me even more because lyrically the album didn't seem that much different to its predecessor 'House Of Love' which hadn't courted any controversy.
I wondered whether Amy thought the new album was any less "Christian". She replies firmly, "I just don't see songs that way. I mean, is this a gospel record? No, it's not. But somebody will listen to this song 'Somewhere Down The Road' and say, 'This person obviously holds to a faith that is very important to them,' and I have recorded albums in my life that really say specifics about my faith in Jesus, and really direct things about how that impacts my life. This album is a lot subtler, and at the same time I think it has a great deal of integrity from the view of the human experience and it ends with a very strong profession of faith. So that's just my opinion about it. I think that people should buy whatever it is that moves them in the direction they want to go. I don't want to argue that point - if this is an album someone doesn't want to listen to, by all means save your money and go and buy something else."
Stylistically, the album moves into new territory with a mellower reflective feel. I wondered whether there were specific musical influences that had led Amy down this path. What had she been listening to in the period of time before she recorded? "I always love my old standards - Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Rait, Shaun Colvin - actually when her new one came out I went out and bought all her old stuff; and I listen to the radio quite a bit. I'll tell you what I have enjoyed listening to. I went back and bought a lot of old stuff - I had Tower Records order a whole lot of old stuff -like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong. I found myself buying a lot more blues, from the current stuff to the older stuff, like Taj Mahal, Robert Cray, Robert Johnson. I don't know whether it's just being in my mid 30s, but that was the music that spoke to my soul the way I wanted to be spoken to right now, and I think that had an impact on what I did on this record. Maybe not stylistically, musically, but certainly not being afraid to say, 'Hey, there's some sadness here, well, it is what it is.'"
Consequently, 'Behind The Eyes' has a certain melancholy feel in places. Amy breaks in and adds, "I call it melancholy, but hopeful. It's not melancholy, like 'Hand me a razor, I want to slit my wrists.'" Recording the album began for Amy in April 1995 and was completed in May 1997. Although there are 12 tunes on the album, Amy recorded a massive 31 songs!
Amy describes some of the process: "I worked mostly with players I already knew. I loved every minute of it. I think it is such an awe inspiring process, to have a simple song idea in your mind and you kind of hammer it out on the guitar, figure out where you want chords to go and what you want to say, and then the record company pays for hiring a studio and having really extraordinary players come along and add all of their creative genius to your idea. I feel like I'm still 15 years old, completely dumbstruck at my first recording, you know. 'How did I get here?' Honestly, yes there are late hours and there's the pressure - you're trying to do your best and the question at the back of your mind is, 'Is my best good enough?' But overall, I still feel like I'm 36 years old and I'm still getting to do my childhood hobby. And I wouldn't trade very much for that feeling - it's pretty good."
'Behind The Eyes' contains some of the best songs of Amy's career. She's always had the pick of songs from other writers and the opening cut on this album is the stunning "Nobody Home". I asked Amy to explain what attracted her to the song. "Well, one thing is that it's just got the hookiest chorus I've heard in a long time," she laughs! "I'll be honest. When I first got this song, I passed on it and the reason I passed on it was because I wanted to write the whole record myself, and then, the month before we delivered the final project to A&M Records, my manager said, 'Oh Amy, before we put this thing to bed, let's think about all the songs we've recorded' because I'd recorded 31 songs, and all the songs we'd listened to that people had sent in, and he said, I'll tell you the song that keeps coming back to me is that Glen Ballard tune.' He just mentioned Glen's name and I was just singing it. I hadn't heard that tape in a year and I was still haunted by the song. We called the publishing company and thankfully no one had cut the song yet so I had it once, gave it up, and then had it back in. I'm crazy about the song -1 wish I could have written it, but I didn't."
While we were on the subject of songs from the album, I wanted to ask about "Turn This World Around" because it contains the lyrics from which the album is titled. It turns out that the song was born from a specific episode in Amy's life. She explains, "I had an experience. I met a man, sitting on a park bench in Santa Monica, overlooking the beach, overlooking the sea. A homeless man came up to me and asked me if I'd look after his bags whilst he went and looked for a toilet, and I said I would, and when he came back and sat down, we wound up talking for the entire afternoon. It was a Sunday afternoon and I'd gone to Los Angeles to work, and I wasn't supposed to start working till the next day. I think because we didn't know each other, when I asked him a question about his life, he really told me, and it wasn't any kind of posturing, or trying to put your best foot forward. He asked me questions about my life, not as many as I asked him, but he asked me some, and I told him what my experience had been, what had really been good, and what I thought was going to be good, and turned out to be awful, what I thought was going to be awful and turned out to be good."
She continues remembering the afternoon, "I was really impacted by that conversation. For one thing, I think I was always kind of mystified, like how does somebody end up on the street? He was a very real person, and when I got up and left the bench, he said, 'Don't forget me,' and I said, 'I won't.' When I got back into my hotel room, I got a piece of paper and wrote down 'the shelter of | each other' because I truly enjoyed his companionship that afternoon. (Then) when it came down to writing that song Turn This World Around', it wasn't supposed to be a kind of airhead naive, 'Hey, let's get in there and save the planet', it was more the idea that as we respect ourselves and we're not afraid to embrace what's there, we are changed, one relationship at a time, and that's basically the song in a nutshell."
In the time since her last album, many things have changed for Amy Grant.
Back then, she and her husband were involved in the Loft Project making friends and reaching out to local teenagers through music, drama and spontaneous devotion times. I wondered what had happened to the event? "We did it in 1990, '91, '92, '93 and then all of a sudden it was like a page turned - the 18 or 20 adults who corralled this group, everybody suddenly started having children - you know like five or six pregnancies at one time, and honestly no one could keep all the balls juggled in the air. I'd had a third child, and several other people got married, and we just felt like it was a great thing for a certain amount of time, and then it was time to go on to something else."
There are other changes too. Amy's husband Gary Chapman has broadened his career from making music to radio and television work to become a TV star. Amy explains, "He's just celebrated the one year anniversary of having a TV show." I wondered whether this might lead to the situation where she would be walking down the street and he gets recognised more than she does? Amy confirms it's true, "He does, yeah. But Nashville is a town that we've lived in for so long and there's so many people here whose jobs put them in a high profile situation, that I don't really feel the impact of it. I'm sure he does, and my guess is that it's probably a relief to him, instead of being known as 'her husband', to being known as 'Oh he's got a TV show', it's all come at a really good time."
And talking of time, our 30 minutes are coming to an end and although I manage to cajole Amy to give me five more minutes to record a slot for Rimmerama, she's off to a business meeting and yet another round of promotional duties for 'Behind The Eyes'. A busy woman with a humble unassuming attitude.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.