All you squandered, all you spent... It mattered
In the early '00s, Nichole Nordeman was one of the top singer-songwriters in Christian music, twice winning the Dove Award for Female Vocalist of the Year and once for Songwriter of the Year.
In 2003 she became a mom, giving birth to her son, Charlie. Her daughter, Pepper, followed six years later. Instead of using a system of nannies and tutors, she put her career on hold after her 2005 album Brave, returning in 2015 with The Unmaking, the title a reference to the unraveling of her old life and dissolution of her marriage. A song from that EP, "Slow Down," became her franchise - her "I Hope You Dance." The simple yet profound message connected with parents who so often feel overwhelmed and underloved. The video, a home-movie masterpiece, racked up over 23 million views when she posted it on Facebook; on August 22 Slow Down, the book, will be released.
Nordeman's story of suffering and redemption is a familiar one in Christian music, but on her 2017 album Every Mile Mattered, she goes much deeper, exploring the pain and uncertainty and fear she found on her path without the rosy coating that all is now well. She has a lot to say on the subject, and she says it very well, often challenging the conventions of her genre along the way. (We've never heard her talk about "inspiring" people, although fellow Dove winner Francesca Battistelli told us, "She's still inspiring me. She's ridiculously talented with lyrics; she's always just gotten to me with her lyrics.")
In this interview, Nordeman rather eloquently takes us through some key tracks on Every Mile Mattered, and explains her somewhat unorthodox view on what it means to be a Christian artist.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): How do you typically write a song, and how has the process changed over the years?
Nichole Nordeman: This really depends on whether or not I'm writing by myself or with a co-writer. If I'm writing alone, the melody and lyric tend to come at the same time. If I'm writing with someone else, I am usually trying to find a lyric for a melody someone else has brought to the table.
The part of the process that is consistent in both scenarios is that I almost always have a blueprint in my mind for where the song will go lyrically. I may have been thinking about a title or a hook for weeks before I ever sit down to write. So I don't ever surprise myself with a direction a song takes lyrically. I'm pretty intentional about guiding it that way.
Songfacts: I'm sure there will be more insights in the book, but can you explain how the "slow down" concept relates to mindfullness and how if figures into your faith?
Nichole: Yes. Obviously the song is about lamenting how we are unable to slow down the process of how quickly our children grow up. But in the absence of time machines, I think our only real response as parents can be to slow ourselves down. Be more present. Less distracted. Treat the special moments with care and reverence and treat the everyday moments the very same way. Find ways to eliminate the things in our lives that are cumbersome and unnecessary and mostly obligatory, in order to create space for the stuff that counts. Easier said than done, I know.
Songfacts: Please tell us about making the video for "Slow Down." Wondering if the footage was shot for that specific purpose.
Nichole: I am really lucky to work with a phenomenal team at my record label. They had the idea of shooting this video and the way we'd approach it. It's essentially just personal video footage from industry friends and personal friends and their kids. We asked folks to send in footage of the moments they'd most like to slow down in their children's lives. I live in Tulsa, and my teenage son is really gifted behind a camera, so we went together to our friends' homes and he took footage of their kiddos. Every night when I play the video in a performance, I get to see the people I love most flash across the screen.
Songfacts: Listening to the song "Every Mile Mattered," it sounds like you've come to terms with some struggle. Please tell us about writing that song and why you chose it as the title track.
Nichole: There is this tendency in Christian music to write about difficult things only in terms of the goodness and beauty that came from it. I've written those songs too. We tend to sort of re-tell our story, when the redemptive ending is in view. ("Look what God did with my mess.")
Like most of us, I've travelled some roads I'd rather erase. But I wanted to write this song (and album) in light of the truth that all of those miles were important. They were a gift - pointing and prodding me on to where I am now - to the story God is still telling with my life. Erasing or diminishing the darker roads doesn't tell a true story, and can often times makes us feel alone and isolated when no one is saying the hard truth about the miles behind them. Not a single mile was wasted.
Songfacts: In "Sound Of Surviving" you take control of your life story. How close did you come to giving in to those voices trying to steal your hope and silence your soul?
Nichole: This song is really about someone in the middle of a fight and not on the other side of it. I think it's profoundly important to tell ourselves and God and each other, "I'm still here. I'm still fighting."
Sometimes the only voice trying to steal my hope and silencing my soul, is my own. I wanted this lyric to be defiant. To shake off the fear and the doubt and lean hard into how it sounds to be surviving something in real time. At the center of the battle.
Songfacts: There are some huge soundscapes on the Every Mile Mattered album. How were those created?
Nichole: I wish I could take even a tiny bit of credit for the absolutely stunning musical landscape of this record. I really can't. I'm a worker bee. I like to craft lyric and melody and I love to edit both of those offerings, endlessly. But I was really so unbelievably blessed to work with Tommee Profitt for the first time, who produced most of this record. He has such remarkable cinematic instincts. He knows his way so intuitively around all things ambient and ethereal but can still hit hard with pop sensibilities. I have heard so many comments about his production on this record and how special it is.
The title track, "Every Mile Mattered," was co-written and produced by Ben Glover and David Garcia. Both songwriting and production heavy hitters. The minute David found that piano hook, Ben and I immediately fell into something special with lyric and melody.
David Hodges co-wrote and produced "Lean." It's one of my personal favorites. David brings years of monstorous talent to the table, but somehow always manages to capture the essence of exactly what a song wants to be. It's such a rare gift to get to work with someone that intuitive.
Songfacts: In "Brave," what is the "vow of compromise" that you took?
Nichole: Ha! I wrote that song for my son Charlie when he was first born. I felt like up until that moment I lived a safe, ordered and predictable life. He "cut the strings."
My whole life had been a series of safe moves, and plenty of compromises. But once you love something infinitely more than you love yourself, everything else seems small and silly, by comparison. My son made me feel brave for the first time in my life.
Songfacts: Please tell us about reworking the U2 song "Beautiful Day" and what that song means to you.
Nichole: I covered this song for two reasons. One, the recording was a Christmas gift for someone very special to me. He is a rabid U2 fan, and this song has sustained him through many dark days. We saw U2 together at Madison Square Garden, and it's hard to describe what it feels like to sing this song of hope at the top of your lungs with thousands of people in that space. It was a sacred moment. The memory was very special to us and I knew that doing my version of it would be very meaningful to him.
But also, so much of the record's feeling is retrospective. There is so much looking back and so much reflection in a lot of these songs and "Beautiful Day" just cries out for what's ahead. What's next. The light peering over the hill. The dawn. The crack in the heavy drapes. Don't let it get away.
Songfacts: "No Longer" finds you at a turning point where you fight forward: your red sea and Jericho. What happened?
Nichole: Nothing "happened" really. This song is about risking risk. It's about abandoning the safe structures that have always defined my life. It's about pushing out past the careful and measured ways that I approach my life and my faith.
I always know where the emergency exits are located. I always take inventory and draft pro vs. con lists. I never run fast and wholeheartedly toward the beauty of God's love. I'm much more calculating than that. This song is who I want to be. Burning down the safety net. Running with my heart on my shirt, unafraid of risking pain in my pursuit of the dreams God has given me.
Songfacts: As a Christian artist, what responsibilities do you have that secular artists don't?
Nichole: Artists are supposed to tell the truth. Full stop. Good art does that and always has, historically. Christian artists are often confused with roles we are not qualified to take on, and shoes we shouldn't step into. We are not pastors or counselors. We are not theologians. We are not teachers. I even get a little nervous about the term "role models" because when our humanity betrays us and the curtain is pulled back, young people especially don't know what to do with onstage vs. offstage persona and failure.
When your favorite Christian accountant goes to rehab, you respond with grace and support. When your favorite Christian artist does, people unravel. I say that confessionally. There were years that I maintained persona at all costs. It's so dangerous.
The responsibility I feel as a Christian artist is the very same responsibility I feel as a Christian, period. I am trying not to differentiate these days. I want my life's work and my relationships and my worship and my service to point to Jesus, who saves us with his love, time and time again. I want to write songs that tell the truth about that, and the road to that, and sometimes even the road away from that. I want to sing loudly about the inclusivity of the table where Jesus invites us all to sit and feast. I hope my actual life sings this song, and not just my music. It would be deeply sad to me if someone pointed out that there was a marked difference.
Songfacts: In "Dear Me," you sing, "Remember when we thought there were a handful of some magic words to pray." What do you mean by that?
Nichole: The sinner's prayer. The prayer so many of us prayed in earnest when we were prompted to in church. The prayer that finally made us insiders. The words I repeated when I was 7 years old, without a clue as to what I was really saying, but certain that these magic words protected me from a fiery hell that a loving God would let me burn in forever if I didn't say them. The prayer that is not found in scripture, anywhere.
I could write pages on how deeply disturbed I am by how much damage is still done by fear-based salvation. How much unlearning a lot of us grown-ups are still doing.
Songfacts: "Slow Down" has reached many listeners in a very profound way. What song by another artist has moved you on this level?
Nichole: It's an entirely different kind of song, but I'd have to say "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell. It moves me endlessly and is the perfect portrait of what it means to understand love when you are young and hopeful and naive, and then again when you are wise and weathered. From both sides.
In rather beautiful irony, she recorded the original song in her 20s as a new artist and made it a hit, and then again in her 50s, when she had really lived the lyric. I like it better when older Joni sings it. Full of grit and nicotine and hard living, the regret and tenderness is what makes it more believable the second time around.
August 9, 2017.
More at nicholenordeman.com.