American singer/songwriter NICHOLE NORDEMAN bravely shone the spotlight on her inner battles on her latest album. Clare Spencer reports.
A native of Colorado Springs with a degree in psychology, Nichole Nordeman arrived on the Christian music scene in 1998 almost by accident. She won a competition sponsored by the Academy Of Gospel Music. However, she almost never joined in on the contest because it was so expensive to enter. Even though she won, she was unaware of how much it would change her life: "I thought it would be a great opportunity to meet other writers and get some professional advice. I had no plans at all for it to expand in this way." In fact, the competition led to the 'Wide Eyed' album in 1998. But it was 'Woven & Spun', released in 2002, which catapulted Nichole into the major league, picking up a bevy of awards and touching thousands of lives with its intelligent lyric writing and husky yet ethereal vocals. After a stopgap live release 'Live At The Door' in 2003, Nichole took a lengthy sabbatical. She has now returned with another huge hit, 'Brave'.
Stylistically, the album is more organic than 'Woven & Spun'. Lyrically, she is inspired by her turn away from the bad points of life on the road, "My relationships were somewhat neglected and withered. For a while, I had forgotten how to be a friend, it seems. But this sabbatical afforded me the luxury of leaning into some people I love, walking with them through some tough stuff, and then writing about what God is doing in their lives."
Even before the sabbatical, Nichole felt cynical about this "glamorous" music industry. "For me it became so regular, like 'I know what I need to sing, I know what I need to say.' Anybody who has been doing this for any length of time figures out exactly how to manipulate your audience, especially in a church setting. It's unbelievably easy to go, 'this will get a laugh, this will get a cry, this will get an "Amen," I'll sell some CDs and be done with it.' What a devastating place to be as someone who loves to hopefully speak truth and life and life-giving words and life-affirming things," she told CCM magazine.
Nichole found the interview circuit just as monotonous, "It was hard to look in the mirror those days, getting on the bus and going, 'that was nice but I sure hope God showed up because I know I didn't.' I'm beginning to feel the temptation not to be honest again - just to say what is expected of me. I'm fully capable of going through the motions and making a darn good job of it, but pray to God that I won't lose that connection with people and the heart of Christ."
Nichole wrote the title track to 'Brave' for her son Charlie. "Having a child makes you want to do stuff you never imagined you could do. You find yourself stopping at nothing to ensure the safety, comfort or even giggles of your child. But more that that, the verse in Philippians ('I can do all things though Christ who gives me strength') took on new meaning for me this past year. I'm a pretty hard-headed, independent person, who craves self-sufficiency. I figured out recently the bravest word you could ever utter to Jesus is 'help.' I feel a new sense of courage now.the kind that comes only after immense fear."
Showbiz life, with all its pitfalls, came to a halt when her son Charlie fell ill. "Charlie was a pretty unhealthy little baby, for a while - he was born with severe gastroesophageal reflux disease. The little flap that covered his oesophagus and kept food in his tummy wasn't quite done growing. Everything that went in his stomach came up about six minutes later - for about nine months. This made for a very unhappy baby, very anxious and delirious new parents and an overworked washing machine. This was never life threatening, but threatened my sanity nonetheless. At the time, and as a new mom, it felt overwhelming - insurmountable," she told CCM magazine.
Like any mother, Nichole tried to fix her son herself. "I'm such an information junkie that I had stacks and stacks of books, not to mention the hours I would log onto the internet just trying to figure it out. "I remember Errol [Nichole's husband] coming home from work one day when Charlie was four weeks old, and I for sure had not slept or showered for days, and Errol just took my face in his hands and said, 'Stop it. Stop reading, turn the computer off, unplug the phone! Stop it.' He was so sweet, and he could have been ugly about it and just irritated, but he said, 'You know, God has given you every instinct you need to do this.' From that moment on, I was like, 'OK, I really need a lot of help from the Lord, not a stack of books.' It was my first admission in years about my dependence on God - how much I needed him just to get me through the next 30 minutes."
The beauty of the song is, although it's for Charlie, it's the kind of song that anyone could sing. Said Nichole, "It's a universal declaration that says, 'you inform and affect my life in a way that makes me feel like I could do anything.' Ultimately, we sing to our Creator. He is the ultimate source of our courage and willingness to step on the shakiest of branches."
As well as a sabbatical and an ill son, she also puts the new, more frank direction of the album down to a new producer, Jay Joyce, who has also worked with Shawn Mullins and Macy Gray among others. "He is insanely talented. But he insisted that I bravely speak into the direction of these songs from the ground up. I think that we covered some fresh musical ground without giving anybody whiplash. I grew up a lot. So did my songs. So did the production. From the ground up Jay basically sat me at a piano in a room and said, 'Let's build this song. What does the song want to say? Where does it want to go?' I had so much input that at first it was pretty intimidating; but once I found my feet, Jay couldn't shut me up. I don't know anyone who has the kind of instincts he does."
The most personal and private area that she couldn't be shut up on was the problems in her marriage in "We Build." The song is about the challenges of marriage. She is particularly adamant that just because we are Christian, doesn't mean we will have a perfect marriage, and it doesn't make us less of a Christian if we find problems. This nugget comes from personal experience - Nichole experienced her own parents' divorce when she was 18 and the subsequent negative reaction from her community. "It's a topic that people have a lot of trouble owning up to. And I include myself in that too. I can't even tell you how many people came up to me after I first sang this song live, one after another with tears streaming down their faces, saying 'thank you.' Not because I unlocked some deep, dark secret to the success of marriage, but because I simply admitted that some days love is a choice. A choice that means rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty and trusting God for the blueprints. Sometimes it just helps to hear 'me to.'"
It was Brad O'Donell, her friend and A&R guy, who inspired her to speak out. "He said 'Christians are somehow prone to talking more about where they've been instead of where they are. Very few people want to speak up while they are in the process. They'd rather wait until their junk is resolved, so they can give a "testimony" about a happy ending. As it relates to your writing, please don't feel the need to tie it up with a bow at the end.'"
However, Nichole stumbles when probed further about her marriage and what she describes as the deep and painful intense crisis period that she and Errol went through not too long ago - so bad that neither of them "felt like staying." "We're pretty private people," she told CCM magazine, "so it's not like we were flying the banners, but we did complain to some people who are really close to us and say more than, 'just pray for us - we're having a hard time.' We told the truth about some stuff we were dealing with and nobody had any magic answers, there wasn't any big mystery solution. It was just the act of telling the truth that really helped us, just to tell the truth to each other.
"And still, I'm so hesitant to wrap up the story with 'God rode in on the white horse, sunset, saved the day,' which he did, but I don't know where we'll be in six months. We could be dealing with the same junk or different junk. Maybe that's why we hesitate to talk about it, too, because there's never a period at the end in a marriage, there's always a coma or a hyphen. There's more to come.
"When we were going through that stuff, I made this ridiculous deal with God: 'If you get me through this, if you fix this, I will write a really great song.' But I felt like God was saying, "Don't write a song about how faithful I am later.I'm still faithful; write that song now."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.