Tony Cummings reports on New Jersey-born singer, songwriter and pianist AUDREY ASSAD
The career of singer, songwriter and pianist Audrey Assad demonstrates the turbulent ups-and-downs of today's recording artists. After starting in her teenage years singing in restaurants, weddings and organising worship concerts, she moved to Nashville in 2008 with enough money to record a demo/independent EP. In 2009 she was signed to EMI Gospel's Sparrow Christian music giant and the following year saw her debut full length album 'The House You're Building' named Christian Album Of 2010 by Amazon and Christian Breakthrough Album Of The Year by iTunes. In 2012 Audrey's 'Heart' album produced Cross Rhythms radio hits with "Won Me Over" and "No Turning Back" but airplay and critical acclaim didn't stop the New Jersey-born talent being dropped her label. Like hundreds of others in similar positions, Audrey sought financial backing directly from her fans to record an independent album and easily raised the $40,000 needed.
Audrey spoke to Christianity Today about the harsh financial realities of today's music scene. "[Sparrow] were really good to me while I was there. They gave me a lot of creative freedom for a label, and were supporting me artistically, but ultimately I think we had different ideas about what it meant to make records and market them. We parted on good terms. A lot of people don't know how the economics work for artists. On this record label I've sold over 100,000 records, which for a new artist today is pretty good. But the amount of work it's taken to sustain any kind of living has been massive, partially because my income is split in so many directions. Management, business management, the label, and the publisher all have to take a piece of that. I've sold what appears to be a healthy amount of records, but I didn't really make anyone a lot of money. The actual economics of what it takes for them to have a profitable investment in me is a lot more records than that. I'm coming out of this record in a modest financial position, which is fine, I've made a living. But I'm hoping that giving the fans a bigger role will mean the economics of the art will be better."
Audrey gave some more detail about her venture into Kickstarter
fan-funded territory. "My husband and I have always had a dream to
facilitate arts in the Church. We'd like to start a label that would
resource the Church with music for praise and worship, and mass and
liturgies, not only do that with my music, but also with other artists
who are in the mainstream but want to help the Church.
We're hoping the first album would be mine, and then in turn go to someone else, to people who might be doing pop music and want to do an album of hymns, for instance. But first we just aim to fund the first record."
Audrey Assad was born in Secaucus, New Jersey to a Virginian mother and a Syrian father on 1st July 1983 and was raised in a Plymouth Brethren household. She started to play the piano at age two and spent her youth moving around New Jersey before settling in Scotch Plains from ages seven to 18. She attended public school until middle school, where her experience there caused her to ask her mother to home school her, which she did. Assad spent her adolescence being home schooled, working at her father's businesses and attending church events.
She told newreleasetuesday, "Christian music just didn't get played in our house. It just wasn't part of my parents' culture. They didn't listen to it. They didn't know really what it was, I don't think. So, I never heard Christian music growing up and it's funny that that's what I'm doing now. When I was in high school, my friend loaned me his copy of 'Take Me To Your Leader' and I was like, 'What is this heavenly music?' I just loved it. I thought it was so cool that they were playing music that I liked, but the lyrics were worshipful. I really enjoyed that. I remember my dad made me give it back; he thought it was weird. I ended up buying it, and that was my first Christian record."
When Assad was 18 her family moved to Florida where she spent the next six years. At 19 she briefly attended college and supported herself with odd jobs while beginning her musical career, writing and composing songs for the first time. Assad spent the next five years playing at various venues performing original songs and covers. Venues ranged from restaurants, weddings and coffee shops to leading and organising worship concerts at church. Around 2003 Assad recorded a four-song demo with Drew Middleton, a member of the CCM band Tenth Avenue North at the time, with whom Assad toured occasionally. It was in Florida that Audrey's spiritual search led her to convert to Catholicism. It began when the family attended a liturgical-based Presbyterian Church.
Audrey was still a long way from gaining much of a foothold in the music industry and in 2008 the 24 year old singer/songwriter decided to take the big risk and relocate to the Christian music epicentre, Nashville, Tennessee. She raised $7,000 from friends and fans to support her move from Florida. In Nashville she worked with producers Paul Moak and Phillip LaRue and recorded a five-song EP, 'Firefly', with them not long after arriving. 'Firefly' was sold at shows and featured a handwritten cover made of a brown paper bag. Assad supported herself by working as a nanny before meeting fellow Catholic musician Matt Maher. Maher took Assad under his wing and brought her to various gigs, where she sang back-up vocals and played sets during his shows. Assad would later move to the Phoenix area, near Maher's home base, where she continued her music career.
In 2009 Assad signed with Sparrow Records, who had been talking to Assad after the release of her EP. For her first album, Assad then met and played for producer Marshall Altman, who would agree to produce her debut album. Altman and Assad recorded the project at the Galt Line Studio in Los Angeles. The title track of her album, 'The House You're Building', was written with well known songwriter Ben Glover. Remembered Audrey, "We wrote 'For Love Of You' and 'The House You're Building' together. 'The House You're Building' was the first song we wrote. I went to write and record with him, and we ended up writing this really slow, kind of emotional song. I couldn't even get to the chorus that first day. I tried to play it like six times and I started to cry every time. I don't know what it was about the line: 'I'm a broken stone, so lay me in the house that you're building'. It is so close to my heart. I think that's just how I feel. It's plain as day. That's how I feel and that's how I pray. I just love that song. It's probably my favourite on the record. I'm so excited that Ben and I didn't write the 'big hit' that day because I think we would have missed out on something really wonderful." The album reached number 12 on the Billboard Christian Albums chart.
It was while performing in 2008 with Maher at a Catholic conference for young people in Tucson, Arizona, that Assad met the man who would become her husband, William Gene Price III. The pair married in February 2011, but six months later her husband was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He spent several months in treatment before being given a clean bill of health. As a result of that experience, and as a way to raise funds for medical bills, Assad and a few other artists combined on an extended-play release known as 'The Cancer Year'. The album was sold at concerts to help pay medical bills. Of her husband's diagnosis and treatment Assad told cjonline.com: "It was a curveball for sure. But it taught me that every moment of life is sweeter and more beautiful than the one before it, and we have to enjoy it while we have it." Assad said she and her husband "are part of a young generation of evangelical Catholics who know what we believe" and that one of the major goals of young Catholics, such as herself and her husband, is "evangelising people in our own pews."
Audrey began working on her second album for Sparrow, 'Heart'. She admitted in numerous interviews that a major inspiration in her songwriting came from reading. She told cbnmusic.com, "When I was writing the album, I started reading Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI. I always read C S Lewis quite a bit; and so I'm sure I was working through one of his. I repeat-read The Great Divorce several times in the last couple of years; so I'm sure that's in there. As a Catholic who used to be Protestant, C S Lewis seems to me like a great meeting ground of the two. So when I'm thinking about matters of faith and trying to communicate them from what's going on in my heart, C S Lewis is a go-to for me. He seems to articulate things that I can't. He says things in a way that both Catholics and Protestants understand. So that's helpful for me. It's my two sides; they find their home in C S Lewis somehow. So I love him. He's really great."
One of Audrey's favourite songs on 'Heart' is "Lament". She said, "It starts out by saying, 'I'm Mary and I'm Martha all at the same time'. I sit at the feet of God like Mary did. She was being like a disciple of a rabbi. Martha was serving and bustling around and making sure things were arranged. I feel like I am those two things, like I can't usually find a way to be one or the other. I feel like I'm always both. It's like a mild source of frustration, because I have a hard time disconnecting from the things that have to be done in service of God or in service of other people in order to just take time to be silent and still, focused on just being with God the way that married people are supposed to do, too. Like sometimes you've got to take a break from the job of being married and just be in the sacrament together for a minute and be with each other, and I feel like that's something I struggle with. So I talk about that in 'Lament'. It ends with this big, wild chorus and I'm singing, 'How long until I'm home?/I'm so tired of running/How long till you come for me?/I look forward to the day when I won't battle that anymore/And I can just be free of time as long as there's time.' My best labour, my hardest labour, my best work will be just to be with God. I look forward to that day quite a bit."
Another standout on the project is "Blessed Are The Ones" Audrey wrote with renowned singer/songwriter Derek Webb and his wife Sandra. She recalled, "I was engaged to my husband at the time. And I wanted to write with Derek and Sandra; I've always loved the work they've done together on their little EPs that they put out. I felt like I wanted to write a song about what I thought about was coming with marriage. I felt writing it with a married couple would be a really good idea because they've actually been through some of that. They have kids, and they've got a few years under their belt. I think they've been married for like seven or eight years now. So we just started talking about what my ideas were about the seasons of marriage that I was predicting and then hearing their experience and just going from there."
Today Audrey feels that a key emphasis in her touring and recording is breaking down the divide between Catholic and Protestant believers. She said, "I feel that bridge-building is my mission. Some people are evangelists, and some people are preachers, and some people are other things. I've been built and called to build bridges between all branches of the Church, but particularly the ones that I've been part of, which is Protestant and Catholic; and that is really mostly done through relationships. It's a really amazing thing because my parent's generation saw a very different reality when it comes to relations between Protestants and Catholics."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.