Continuing the collaborative journey started on her last two studio albums, singer-songwriter-hymnist Sandra McCracken is releasing the next step in the process with her live CD/DVD Steadfast Live. In our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One, we talked with McCracken about how Steadfast Live is connected to her last two albums (Psalms and God’s Highway), the relevancy of hymns within our current cultural turmoil, her outlook on writing hymns, what direct fan involvement means to an artist, and much more.
Find out more about Steadfast Live (including ordering information) here: http://www.sandramccracken.com/
NoiseTrade: To start things off, tell us about your new project Steadfast Live and what inspired you to record a live album (and film it for a documentary) in front of an intimate audience of fans.
Sandra McCracken: It’s really been a natural progression that started with the recordings of my last two albums, Psalms and God’s Highway. Psalms was, as Ani DiFranco has said, a “record of people making music in a room.” As we took those songs and played them in churches, living rooms, and community spaces, we felt like it was really important to have that organic experience of people in the room together. It’s that dynamic between the audience and the band, even the interplay between the band members (Jay Foote, Spencer Cohen, and Kenny Meeks) because they never really play the same thing twice. There’s such an excitement for us and a nice element of surprise when we all four get to play together.
After a few years of playing and recording in a room together, the idea of making a live album was just the next progression in a very natural process. It’s a way of hopefully bringing more people in to that live performance experience. My favorite thing about that is that its not really about me and my most polished version of myself. This is about a connection between a lot of people and the collaborative aspect of music that brings me the most joy. I think you can really hear that on Steadfast Live.
NT: Your Noisetrade sampler also features a brand new song called “Continuously” that’s exclusive to Steadfast Live. Where did the bluesy, jazzy vibe for that song come from and did you hear a voice like Liz Vice singing the song with you as you were writing it?
McCracken: I’ve been writing more in the gospel music vein lately because it seems like that is the easiest way to get people to sing along. Historically, it’s a genre that invites people to join in by using simple melodies and call-and-response. Even the song “God’s Highway” kind of goes in that direction and “Continuously” just feels like the next step in that progression.
I reached out to Liz for the first time not too long after writing “Continuously.” We had some mutual friends but I had never met her before. When we first got on the phone, we struck up a quick friendship and had such a rich conversation. A couple days later, I was playing through “Continuously” again and I immediately could hear her voice and I felt like I should ask her to sing it with me. It all happened so quickly, like all within the same week or so. Sometimes friendship comes out of working side by side in something and that becomes a springboard for some really cool things. I was so thrilled that Liz agreed to be a part of it.
NT: In light of recent tumultuous world events like the violent white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, VA or the Barcelona van attack that killed 13 people, do you have any specific hymns that you go to for healing and processing during situations like these?
McCracken: That’s a great question. I would say that before any hymns, there is a great need for silence and the honoring of grief. There’s a moment to acknowledge that there aren’t any words. There’s humility in starting and ending with silence and giving some space around that. In my experience with grief and complex situations, whether it’s personally or communally, there’s a hopelessness when we don’t know what we can do about these things. In that place, we can lean on the ancient hymns and spirituals and other songs of the faith.
During those times, I tend to look for songs that start with just a few words. Like, going from silence to maybe just a few words like “have mercy” and phrases like that. Questioning songs are also really important at that first stage of singing. I think the next stage of singing would be hymns that have a richness of theology, especially about truth and beauty. Even though we experience war and violence and injustice, we know that truth and beauty will have the final word for us.
Once we’re ready to speak words, its important to speak words that affirm that kind of hope. It can be a slow process and its okay to not rush toward those dense theological songs. Actually, we need those before the moment of crisis, so that they’re holding us in that silence. After the silence, we can get to them eventually. We don’t have to swallow our feelings or pretend the injustice is not happening. We can take a deep breath and wait to talk about it or post on social media until after we’ve had some holy silence and can enter the conversation with hope and love.
NT: You’ve been at the forefront of the modern hymnwriting movement for quite some time. What are your earliest memories of singing hymns and what drove the decision to start writing them on your own?
McCracken: I began playing the piano when I was eight years old and my earliest memories of that are of playing and singing together. It was a very creative process and I would make things up as I was learning. My mom took us to church and my dad loved loud rock and roll, so I was exposed to a lot of different music growing up. The church songs and the sacred music I experienced were pretty traditional evangelical hymns of all kinds.
Once I learned to read music, I would play from a hymnal and would occasionally feel like the melody or the arrangement didn’t communicate the emotion that I would feel when I read the words. By the time I was 16, I remember sitting at the piano with a hymn like “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go” and I tried to put a new melody to it because I thought the other one was too bombastic. Chris Minor wrote the version that I’ve done for the last 20 years or so, but I had started playing around with it back in high school because I wanted something a little more melancholy. I didn’t know the history of the hymn – that the writer, George Matheson, had written it during a very dark time in his life. I had just connected with it intuitively as a young person.
When I got to Nashville for school, I met some like-minded friends – especially Kevin Twit, who had a jazz degree from Berklee College of Music in Boston and a theological degree from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Kevin put another hymnal in my hands, Gadsby’s Hymnal, which didn’t have any melodies. He really encouraged me to write some music to them. At that point, it almost felt like an apprenticeship because there was more intentionality to it. I’m just so thankful to be in a community where this is a normal practice because it is somewhat of a niche thing. Luckily, it’s pretty commonplace here.
NT: In your opinion, what are some of the defining characteristic of hymns that separate them from other sacred songwriting forms?
McCracken: I don’t know if I’m qualified to give a historical answer on that, but I would say my observation is that hymns tell a narrative. They’ll often start with a thesis statement – “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness” – and then trace a story that will sometimes be answered in the chorus. Many of them are just composed of stanzas as well, no choruses. Like, eight verses that follow eight common human emotions. You can just see a narrative through it all.
Within a community, the hymns become foundational for us as we go through different life stages and we need words that are not our own. We need words and songs that we can hold onto and we have a hymnal for that.
NT: For the project’s PledgeMusic campaign, you’re almost at 150% of your funding goal for Steadfast Live. From an artist’s perspective, what does it mean to have such direct fan involvement throughout the recording, crowdfunding, and releasing phases?
McCracken: It’s been such an affirming experience. When I started out doing music, like around my very first album, I set up a separate account. I had a normal living one and then one set up just for music, so that it could be self-sustaining. I think art can and should always be made for self-expression, but if you’re going to do that as a vocational career, it’s important to not be too precious about it. If it doesn’t connect with people or isn’t received within an audience of some kind, then I might still do it but I probably shouldn’t spend a lot of money on it.
So the idea of asking my audience to join in with me to help make a project is humbling and scary, but to realize that they not only said “yes” but they went well beyond what I imagined and hoped they would do. There’s buoyancy in that that helps me to feel affirmed, but also even just physically and financially I am being supported by the people that listen to me my music and care about what I’m doing. I have so much gratitude for that and I love the experience of asking and hearing a “yes” like that from my audience. It’s a living, breathing experience that helps me make honest art.
NT: Finally, as a fellow collector of hymnals, do you have a favorite hymnal that you return to most often and is there any “holy grail of hymnals” out there that you’d love to own one day?
McCracken: I don’t have the temperament to be a collector, but I have friends that are and I’ve been able to be the beneficiary of that sometimes. While I don’t have a particular version, I absolutely love hymnals that have been worn and loved. The ones that you can tell have really been sung from and engaged with.
There is a companion book I love called Anne Steele and Her Spiritual Vision that’s a great one. Anne Steele is one of my favorite hymnwriters. Probably the one I’ve used the most is Gadsby’s Hymnal, which you can find most anywhere in several different versions. I have a couple older printings of hymnals that are most precious to me, partly because they haven’t just been on the shelf. They’ve been used for years and there’s something about that speaks to me about not only their truth and beauty, but their usefulness as well.