The 'Back Home' album by America born, Germany based singer ROBBIN CASEY merited a 10 square review in the last Cross Rhythms. Mike Rimmer spoke at length to the gifted vocalist.
I'll always remember the first time I heard Robbin Casey's voice. I'd slipped her CD 'Back Home' into the player and returned to working on the computer in my study. Halfway through the opening cut, I couldn't concentrate on the work because Robbin's voice captured my attention. One 10 square review for Cross Rhythms later and Admiral Cummings was on the blower giving me the order to carry out a full investigation.
American singer Robbin Casey has been living in Europe for 11 years. Originally she came over here with YWAM and worked for a while on their staff. She's also studied at a discipleship training school in Switzerland and now lives in Stuttgart, Germany. Following the admiral's orders, I made a late night phone call and began by asking Robbin how she currently makes her living. "I only do music," responded Robbin. "I do concerts most weekends, I give voice seminars and I teach private voice lessons at home. I do silly things like radio commercials and jingles where I earn enough money to pay the bills. I float through."
Robbin plays concerts at the invitation of churches and youth groups. She's been playing solo since the release of 'Back Home' so why no band now? "I had a band until recently, and God bless the Germans, but it's hard for them to play this stuff when they haven't really grown up with it so I'm mostly unplugged now with acoustic guitar or piano."
"This stuff" is a heady mixture of rootsy American southern sounds - a mix of blues, country and gospel with Robbin's impassioned vocals swooping over the top wringing every nuance of meaning from a selection of southern gospel hymns. But where did the idea come from? "It's something that's been on my heart for a long time," came the response down the phone line. "I grew up in Oklahoma in the Bible belt and these were really the songs I sang. My whole family sings, my dad was part of the Kingsmen quartet and my mom sang in a trio and my cousin Kirk Sullivan sings with 4Him and we all grew up singing those songs. I used to sit on the front row with my grandma and she'd just close her eyes and spit and holler and stomp and have a wonderful time." She laughed at the memory and continued, "So they remind me of days of innocence and I think the songs themselves carry a lot of power and a lot of authority because the people that wrote them were just broken before God. I think brokenness is a groovy thing! For me it's like sitting in the seat of mercy and you can do nothing but accept God's mercy and grace and love."
Although brought up in the church, Robbin didn't really become serious about God until she was in her 20s. She recalled, "At 13 I hit a rebellious phase with life in the fast lane and lots of drugs, then I started singing in night clubs when I was 17 and that didn't help matters much. I think I gave my heart as an adult in 1983."
Amazingly, when she became a Christian Robbin gave up music. "I felt like God gave me a voice to honour him," Robbin explained. "It was more than just a gift, he gave it to me with a responsibility. At the time I was burnt out and I was one big mass of compromise. I just said, 'God, I'll never sing again unless it be for your glory,' and then eight years went by before I ever really sang again. It amazes me still that he allows me to sing."
Listening to her story, it's clear that Robbin Casey is not simply a remarkable singer; she's a remarkable woman. She has had more than her fair share of pain and hardship. In the course of our conversation, Robbin chose to be willing and vulnerable to describe some of her experiences and the remarkable grace of God that healed her.
"I have made so many mistakes in my life," Robbin began. "From my childhood on I was a hurt little girl who took a long time to grow up. All I can say is that I am thrilled and thankful that God has never let go of me. Looking back on it all now I guess I could say it hurt but I am thankful. I was just as responsible for the pain as anyone else. I've done a lot of funky things. I had two abortions as a teenager and it took a long time for me to get to the point where I would let God deal with me on that issue. It was a real long painful process and now I have written a song to my two children who are with him now and I hope that God uses the song to call people to repentance."
The emotional trauma of the abortions stayed with Robbin in adulthood. She said honestly, "I couldn't stand to be in a room with a child because of the guilt and the pain until God started healing me." I asked her to describe that healing process. "God confronted me with the fact that if he knew me before he knit me together in my mother's womb then he knew my children which made me look at them as people instead of just little eggs or whatever you want to call them. I just spent days weeping, I had to get down on my knees and say, 'God forgive me for murdering my children.' I had to put it that bluntly because that is the truth. I felt an overwhelming love and forgiveness flood into my being. That doesn't mean that the pain went away automatically. It wasn't easy and it wasn't overnight but just to accept God's forgiveness and then have to forgive yourself is such a long process because you always doubt whether God can forgive you and then the enemy starts condemning you left and right and you fall into that hole again but God has been so faithful to pull me out again and again."
I wondered whether Robbin had any advice for a Cross Rhythms reader who had been through a similar experience. "You've got to know that God forgives you, loves you and accepts you," said Robbin. "He doesn't throw you out of his presence and you're not condemned for eternity. He knows the situation and I am not justifying anyone's decision to have an abortion. The miracle I have lived is that I love children now. I can enjoy children now and play with them and hug them. Before I wanted to line them all up and shoot them!"
Robbin has also had to deal with the pain of divorce. She described the situation: "To be really honest about it, he was a Christian as well and I thought that God told me to marry him. All I know is that I completely ignored my own feelings and thought if that's what God wants then I'm going to be obedient, we'll get married and it was living hell from the first day. We stayed together seven years because we didn't just want to run away from the responsibility of the situation. We had given out word and we had a marriage of toleration. When I did the first album, I did interviews and they would ask about my marriage and I found myself answering how I thought they'd best want the question answered and the mask just got heavier and heavier and finally I went through this crisis where I couldn't sing. I stopped singing for a year because I was so miserable.
"It was tough and we went through counselling and I think God required a decision from me. I wrestled and it was intense and I had to die to myself the deepest death I know how to die and I just said, 'Okay God, I am staying, I'm not leaving. If this is where you want me, this is where I'll be.' I was dead. It took all the energy I had to get out of bed every morning. Every night I would go down to the cellar of the house where we lived and just weep and literally hold my heart out to him and say, 'God, I need a miracle. Please have mercy.' After weeks of this I really felt I heard the same voice that told me he was to be my husband say, 'I see your incapability and I release you from this.' I know I can't base that biblically. All I know is that I stand before a throne of grace and mercy and I think God is big enough and does speak today into our lives. I don't think God excused my failure, I just think he forgave me because he sent his Son to die for my sins."
In one sense it could be said that the album 'Back Home' was a result of the breakdown and subsequent divorce even though the songs themselves weren't written by Robbin. She describes the genesis of the album: "I had told my manager a long time ago that I wanted to record a collection of southern gospel hymns in a real raw, bluesy, emotional arrangement. I'd gone through divorce and I couldn't write songs because I didn't want to write songs until I'd got through the bitterness and hurt. One night he said, 'Why don't we just do this album now since you're not writing songs.' He called Buddy Miller the next day and told him about the idea and Buddy said, 'That's kinda weird but maybe it'll be good.'"
Buddy Miller's busy schedule only had two free weeks in an 18 month period and they coincided with the only two weeks Robbin had free to work on the album so she found herself on a plane to Nashville with a list of possible hymns to record. Arriving in Nashville, Buddy met her off the plane and that night they decided which songs to record. The next day recording commenced. The album was completed in 11 days, recording, mixing and mastering. Robbin describes the recording process: "I rode on a wave of grace. I'd spent a lot of time invested in tears on my knees before God. I was scared to death to go back to Nashville and sing these songs that everybody and their dog sing great."
The songs are very simple lyrically but also powerful and I wondered whether singing them had an affect on Robbin's spiritual life? She was adamant in her reply. "Absolutely," Robbin affirmed. "I consider myself more an evangelist than a singer. Music is more of a tool to get me out there to share about my Lord. The cross is the only reason we're doing what we're doing. Sometimes we think that the world has got too intellectual for the simple message of the cross? We've got to make it interesting somehow, using our experiences, but what we do is dilute the power of the simple gospel message. God really taught me a lot about that when I started singing these songs and saw the Spirit of God move in concerts like never before."
Listening again to the album I am struck by the pure passion of Robbin's vocal performance, pitched somewhere between Ashley Cleveland and Maria McKee. "I wanted to sing it from my guts," confessed Robbin, "and I wanted to make those songs my songs to my Lord and I wanted to sing it from my heart."
The album's raw sound is evidence of the simplicity and anointing of the recording process. Cut at speed with a reliance on the Spirit of God, there is a beauty captured in the "feel" of the album. I asked Robbin about the recording and she described the way they recorded "Rock Of Ages" as an example of how God blessed the sessions. "We couldn't get Al Perkins the same day that we recorded all the tracks," remembered Robbin. "So we just put a bass and drum track down and Al came in the next day and he asked if I minded going in the control room and singing with him so that he could know how I was going to do it so that he could respond to what I was doing. So I am standing in the control room with an old beat up microphone and I've got the lyric sheet in my hand. They count it off, I start singing, he starts playing and we just don't stop. I'd never really sung this song before and it was just Goosebump City, there was an anointing there. Al stands up at the end, walks into the control room and says, 'Well, I wouldn't touch that if I were you,' and that was it. That's the scratch vocal on the album!"
'Back Home' is one of the most passionate recordings this writer has ever heard and Robbin's voice is spine chillingly beautiful. As a spiritual experience there is a richness in these tunes that express the message of the cross, the grace of our Lord and the wonder of worshipping him. Perhaps the brokenness of the singer, the speed of the recording and the necessity to rely on the grace of God all add up to the creation of something special. It's been a tough journey but Robbin Casey's music passionately points firmly to the cross. She concluded, "When I think about my Lord hanging on the cross what can I be but really emotional about it, I just wanted to sing it to him. How can you not sing passionate vocals when you sing those words?"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.