After years of behind-the-scenes dues paying suddenly America is paying court to Canadian singer/songwriter CAROLYN ARENDS. Mike Rimmer caught up with the gifted lady.
Carolyn Arends is not having an easy day. She's on tour with Rich Mullins and Ashley Cleveland. Travelling from Washington DC to North Carolina, the traffic has been slower than a tortoise on valium. She's late so she's talking to me from a payphone backstage after she's played her set. The distant sounds of Ashley Cleveland doing her stuff in the background filter down the transatlantic line as we talk. It's the first time she's toured so it must be exciting, eh? Carolyn explains, "I'm having a great time and I feel really fortunate to go out with two people whose music I've listened to a long time and been inspired by. But we've had plenty of broken down vehicles and sicknesses and things but it's all been worth it."
I describe Carolyn as being the up and coming artist on the tour and she laughs. "I certainly hope so! I am certainly the newest and yes, there's a certain distinction there I guess but they're all being very kind to me and it's going pretty good." But isn't it difficult with the audiences really coming to see the other performers? Again Carolyn laughs. "Before I went on tour I had visions of helping people find their seats through my set. But the crowds have been pretty good and because it's my first tour, I have nothing to compare it to."
It could be argued that Canadian songstress Carolyn Arends was born to be a songwriter since she started making up songs just after she gave up eating Farley's Rusks! Explains Carolyn: "My mom says as soon as I could talk I would sing myself to sleep and drive everybody crazy. It's just something I've always loved to do." These days her songwriting talents are definitely not in dispute, with a very fine debut album 'I Can Hear You' out on Reunion Records. Now is the best time to have a look at the events of the last decade that have helped Carolyn achieve "overnight" success.
Raised in a creative and supportive home, Carolyn's parents encouraged her creativity. Her first forays into songwriting started when she was nine when she wrote a song for Mother's Day. Carolyn was taking piano lessons but it was only when she learnt the guitar that songs just started pouring out. This would seem to be a logical enough start for a girl who dreamt of earning a living through writing and performing but it could easily have been a very different story. Carolyn's original plan was to study medicine and she enrolled on a pre-med course at University. Carolyn thinks back and tells the story: "All through high school I thought I was going to be a doctor but after one semester I was cured of that forever. I definitely have the physiology of a musician. I'd sleep until noon every day if I could and my biology class was at eight in the morning and my chemistry class was at nine and I suddenly felt God leading me into the liberal arts! They had afternoon classes and that was the end of my illustrious medical career!"
I suggest that perhaps she's just lazy. She laughs and agrees. "Pretty much. I've doctored up this born-musician ruse, if you'll forgive the pun, to hide the fact that I am essentially lazy." Changing her degree to psychology had three major benefits. Firstly, Carolyn could indulge in musician-style sleeping habits and stay in bed in the morning. Secondly, she met and subsequently married Mark Arends and thirdly Mark encouraged her to pursue her musical career.
A turning point came with a visit to the Christian Music Artist Seminar in Colorado when she was 19 years old. Carolyn describes the trip: "I went with my mom and didn't really know about the gospel music industry but I had a very rough demo tape of songs and I played it for a publisher's panel." Having impressed the panel, six months later she was signed to Benson as a staff writer.
A successful spell as a songwriter followed and her songs were recorded by many of Nashville's top artists including Susan Ashton, 4Him, Lisa Bevill and Michael James. The latter's version of "Love Will" won Carolyn this year's Dove Award for best country song. It's quite a leap to move from writing for other people to performing as a solo artist, I wondered how it had felt. "All the time I was writing for other people I was developing my own artistry and performing where I live. I think it's simply that I've gotten the opportunity to gradually grow and God has nurtured that in me. The greatest advantage now is that I can write the quirkiest songs and I can sing them. When I was writing songs for other people, to have any hope of being recorded, they had to be somewhat normal!" She laughs and then continues, "When I wrote This Is The Stuff' with my friend Connie Harrington, we demoed it and said there is no one who is going to record this so I thought I'm just going to have to start making records myself!"
The songs on Carolyn's debut album have a down to earth honesty which makes compelling listening. Arends has the ability to shine the light of understanding into the most mundane of life's activities and make spiritual sense of it all. Her album is littered with every day references and her songs impact the listener very powerfully because of that. When she and producer Brown Bannister were choosing the songs for the album, it was clear that there were some things that Arends passionately wanted to communicate. She describes what she feels, "I think it's simply what God has been teaching me in the last few years which is that God is in every moment. Every detail of our lives is very precious and very sacred because God is making himself known to us in those moments. There's a quote that I love from Malcolm Muggeridge that says, 'Every happening great or small is a parable whereby God speaks to us and the art of life is to get the message.' That's where the 'I Can Hear You' title came from."
One of those life-affirming songs which is typical of Carolyn's approach to life is "Seize The Day" which encourages the listener to make the most of every second of life. As Carolyn says, "If every moment is precious and God is in these details of my life, we really need to seize every moment and live every moment for him. That's pretty much what the whole record is about." Carolyn's songwriting takes these lofty ideas and plants them firmly in the day to day. On "Seize The Day" she sings, "One thing I've noticed wherever I wander/Everyone has a dream you can follow or squander/You can do what you will with the days you are given/I'm trying to spend mine on the business of living."
I was suspicious that maybe she'd just been inspired by Robin Williams' school teacher character who first inspired his screen students to seize the day in the film Dead Poets Society. Carolyn explains, "That did have something to do with it! I originally heard the Carpe Deum concept in an English literature class at high school and then I saw Dead Poets Society on my honeymoon and I loved the movie and I thought it was very beautifully done but there was something about it that nagged at me and it was that the original Carpe Deum concept is great in that it encourages people to make the most of the time that they have on earth but it's very, very fatalistic. Eat, drink and be merry because once you die that's it, food for worms! As believers who believe that we have eternity with Jesus, we should be the ones who can seize the day because we know that what we do today counts in God's economy."
One of the things that makes 'I Can Hear You' such a special album is the eclectic musical styles which Arends has managed to combine together. Folk, country and pop all mix together. There are acoustic instruments like accordion, fiddle, dulcimer and mandolin but there are also urban rhythms thrown into the mix. Producer Brown Bannister and a selection of the best session players have certainly mapped out a unique sound that thrusts Arends' voice into the ears and heart of the listener. But it is impossible to escape the fact that it's Carolyn's fresh approach to songwriting that reflects Arends' inspiring approach to life itself.
So what inspires her? Carolyn answers simply, "Pretty much everything. In the past I've been the kind of person who lives for the next big event. When I was in school, it was for my graduation. Then it was my wedding, then the chance to make a record. I've gradually learnt that those events are important but they're not nearly as defining as these little moments. The conversation that you and I are having right now and all the thousand other things that happen to us every day so from that perspective certainly great books and all that can be very inspiring but there's always the chance that there'll be something inspiring about brushing your teeth." She breaks off and laughs at what she's just said.
This is all well and good but surely there must be some things that she wouldn't write about. She ponders this and decides to throw the question back at me for an example so that she could say whether she'd write a song about the topic of my choice. Panicking as I find myself moving from interviewer to interviewee, I venture that perhaps writing a song about going to the toilet might be something to be avoided. She laughs, "I might use that metaphorically." I challenge her to write a song about that as a first for Christian music. "If I ever do I promise to give you some kind of dedication. It will be a great day!"
Although clearly blessed with a wacky sense of humour, Carolyn's sensitive approach to living comes through in her songs. Her time managing a pregnancy crisis centre has meant that she has already served God in a "ministry" before God moved her full time into music. Now that ministry continues as she reaches out to people through her songs and performances. I wondered what she had learnt from her time working at the centre. "On a practical level it helped me to be very people-focussed and very oriented towards helping people, communicating with people and making connections with them. On a more foundational level, it was this centre that had been operating for 14 years on no money or just enough money coming in to keep it going. It was a real lesson that God does as he pleases through whom he pleases and any good we can do down here is because of and through him. I think that was a foundational thing discovering that."
Listening to 'I Can Hear You' it's clear that God is choosing to use Carolyn to encourage and challenge those who hear her music. In these days where the term "artist" is perhaps bandied about to describe anyone who chooses to pick up a guitar, Arends stands out as a woman deserving the label. 'I Can Hear You' contains songs that could help to inspire a generation of sleeping Christians to wake up and joyfully grab each day that their Father has given them. Taking hold of these simple truths can only have a dynamic effect, as Carolyn says, "The idea that we really can change the world if we put his priorities first is something I feel really passionate about."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.