By Wes Pickering, special to Backseat Writer I somehow managed to get the AM and PM reversed on my alarm clock again. So, when my phone rang at 10:23, I jolted awake with that sickly “I’m late!” feeling. I shook myself and answered the phone with my best I’ve-been-awake-for-hours-and-I’m-totally-professional voice.
“Hello, this is Wes.”
“Hi, Wes. This is Sara Groves.” And so started my first conversation with the writer whose impact on my own songwriting has been nothing short of profound.
When Groves’ new album Fireflies and Songs (INO) landed in my inbox a few weeks ago, I immediately listened through in its entirety. From the opening lyric, “Go on and ask me anything. What do you need to know?” I knew that this was going to be something special, a return to the kind of introspection and vulnerability that made her album All Right Here a staple in my car for the past seven years. Whether it’s the tenderness of “From This One Place,” the raw honesty of “It’s Me,” or the sweetness of a love song like “Twice As Good,” Fireflies and Songs showcases what Sara Groves does best, and that’s write about life. I talked with Sara about writing for Fireflies.
Did you approach the new record with a central theme in mind?
I didn’t on this one. I had some theme ideas, some pretty goofy theme ideas. I was going to write all these character sketches, and I had a song about a policeman and a boxer, all these things. I brought these ideas in to a couple friends, in particular to Jeff Mosley, our label president, and he just said, “I feel like it’s been a long time since we’ve heard from you. Just checking in, you know? You’re 37, a wife, a mom. Where are you? You haven’t written from your home in a while.”
With the first line being “Go on and ask me anything,” I think that it was a good clue that we’re in for a much more personal record this time.
I was kind of, at the beginning, a little, not reluctant, but just kind of felt tired at the thought of it. You know, it’s hard to do that, to write and press in and be even more confessional because I feel like I’m a pretty highly disclosing person, so to try to disclose more than that. And it ended up being very reflective because Troy and I went through this whole season in our marriage that I’ve never written about yet because I turned my sights to other things like social justice. So every single song as it came out, every single one at some point, I was crying like a baby over it because it was just helping me name something we had worked through and to recognize where we are now, which is a really amazing place, and where we were which was a really crappy place. The whole time, I just got to see the faithfulness of God, and so it was really deeply good to write it.
If you could get everybody in America to listen to three of the songs on the new record, which three would you want to make sure that everybody heard?
I’ll start with “Different Kinds of Happy” because that’s part of our sickness: that we’re pursuing this ultimate, personal comfort and happiness until you’ve suffered through something and get on the other side, and you realize that there’s different kinds of happy. There’s the happy of my wedding day, which is sort of what all the movies are about, the sweetness of standing up with my family looking on and all the beauty of that. And then there’s the happy of a day in the counselor’s office where we’ve just ripped our guts out and laid them on the table, and I’ve told him, “This is who I really am. Are you going to stick around?” and he just showed me, “This is who I really am. Are you going to stick around?” And we walked out of there with a joy; I can’t even explain the happy of that day. It’s just unspeakable. Our marriage now is the fruit of that better foundation being laid. That was like at Year Seven. Of all the marriages that I know, the best ones have just gone to hell and back. Not that you have to do that; I know some marriages where that having just disemboweled each other, but pretty much the best marriages I know are just beautiful because they’ve had to work it out. That’s what “Different Kinds of Happy is about.” I just love that message, for myself and for others.
Probably, “This Old House” just because that song feels right to me. I don’t know. Do you ever feel that way about a song?
Oh yeah, definitely.
I think everybody’s got that house. I was driving home, and a detour made me turn into my old neighborhood. I had my little girl in the car, my third, and she was growing so fast, so I wanted my mom to see her. I miss my mom and my dad; they live in Missouri and I don’t get to see them all the time. So, I drove by my old elementary school, and it was right when school was letting out, and I saw this little girl running down the street with stringy brown hair, just picturing myself. And again, all the sudden (and this whole record is kind of this way), it was an opportunity for all the lessons and struggles and the faithfulness of God to just go streaming, coursing through my body. It’s one of those moments where it’s a barometer reading, where all the sudden I remember how it was when I was that age. I remember the things that were difficult and great about that, and look at where I am now. There’s something about physically being there. You can think about your old elementary school, but it’s just not going to be the same until you’re standing on that ground.
So I told Ruby, “Let’s drive by the house.” This house was built in 1898, and the stories go on and on. It was literally just falling apart. For my mom, it marked a really difficult season because it was not her favorite place to live, but for us it was sort of like an adventure. You know, there’s the good and the bad. But it was for sale, and all of the curtains were out of the windows; so I just got to walk around and look into the piano room where I started playing music when I was four and would play my own songs for all those years. So, I kept saying to Ruby the line from the Laura Story song, which is also line from the Bible, where Jesus says, “He’s withheld no good thing,” not because I’m financially well off but just because all five of us have gone different places now, and God has kept us through all of life, all the stuff.
From there, they’re all stories, but “Setting Up the Pins” is kind of fun. I don’t know if that should be in the top three, but it’s a song I wrote when I was washing the dishes. I think that’s also a theme of my life, something I think and meditate on a lot: it’s these small things. Everyone, in their life, is setting up some kind of pins that will be knocked down the next day. Even rich people who pay other people to set up their pins like laundry and stuff like that, they’re setting up other pins that will be knocked down. No one escapes it, and we can either enjoy it or we can always be angry about it. So, it’s kind of like a dish washing song….a bed-making, dinner-cooking song.
Now, this is something that I wanted to ask you for a long time. A lot of times you write about topics that get overlooked by other writers, especially in the Christian market, personal things like your marriage or doubt or friendship. How much of that is an intentional decision to write about things that aren’t being talked about, and how much of it is just writing what comes easy to you?
I think it’s definitely what comes out of me. I remember trying to write before I was doing music full time. I was just playing backup keyboards on the worship team, and I would turn myself way low because I was so self conscious. I was writing music, and I thought, “Well, I’ll write a worship song.” I have the hardest time writing just a basic, congregational, sing-along song. They always end up too wordy or too personal. That’s hard to do for me. So this is definitely just what comes out of me, and I been really grateful. I have lots of friends who have gone into general market or secular music. I have a friend who, years ago, we would have conversations; he was playing in the bars and was like, “This is where it’s at. This is where people need the music and need the gospel.” But I always felt really called to speak to the Church and called to preach to the choir because I don’t think the Church is free.
So, in that sense I feel more like Jeremiah… Okay, I won’t compare myself to Jeremiah because he’s my favorite prophet ever! But I feel like, in my small way, that’s my call, to say, “Hey church, what the heck?” or “What are we doing?” or “What am I doing?” I also try to use myself; I steer away from finger wagging. So, I’ve always felt comfortable. I mean, it took me a while because I would listen to other music and think, “Why doesn’t that come out of me?” But it doesn’t, and I feel like God’s made a space for me in this way. I had a friend ask me, “Do you wish, early on, that you had just gotten into a general market scene where you could write about anything?” I feel like if God had even opened that door, which he didn’t, then wouldn’t be free to write about faith as explicitly as I have. So, I do feel called to the space that I’m inhabiting. I feel like God made a space for Sara Groves.
It is different now because everything is going towards praise and worship, but I feel like we still need a Christian worldview. What I mean by that is there’s no such thing really as “Christian music.” Charlie Peacock always says, “God is the ocean, and we keep writing about a cup of water.” So, I always take that challenge up. I always think about that when I’m writing. You know, Jesus came to reconcile all things to himself, and I want to write about all things. I feel like I should be able to square off with any thought and any problem and any issue and write freely about it as a believer. My worldview, my faith in Christ, should be able to approach that.
With that in mind, have you ever written anything you wish you could take back?
You know, little things here and there, the way I thought when I was young. Some of the absolutes that I thought about faith: those things have changed a little bit in me. But no. I feel really grateful in that regard for the most part.
I won’t tell you what song, but there was one song that I wrote: it was a little bit contrived. I wrote it from a place – to have a song on radio or something, and that song bums me out. Because it actually did very well, and that kind of bums me out. I know, even though a lot of people love that song, and it did really well, I feel like that just personally, after that one time, I thought, “I’m not going to do that again.” I’m going to ask God, “What do you want me to write?” and write that, write what I feel like whatever he’s is putting on my heart and mind. So, it’s funny because the one song I regret is probably my most “Christian-y” song. Well, not regret. That’s a strong word.
When you listen to a writer for several years, you kind of get the feeling that you know them, especially a writer like you because you put so much of yourself in your music. But one of the things that you rarely get to see is somebody’s shortcomings. So, what is your biggest character flaw?
I have ridiculously high expectations, not just of people around me but of myself. It’s like poison to my family. So, that’s my current one that I’m working on: letting go of these unrealistic expectations. I’m not talking about good, healthy expectations. I just go crazy, and my husband is just so amazing and my kids are so amazing. So I have to temper that constant voice that I’m not arriving or never have achieved what I thought.
Donald Miller, in his new book – it’s so good! It’s really great. He has a chapter on expectations, and he says that the happiest place on earth is Denmark. And the reason is because they have low expectations. Just in general, culturally, they tend to have really low expectations. So, I’m trying to live more like a…Denmarkian? What would you call it?
A Dane! I’m trying to think like a Dane. That’s currently what God is purging in me.
That actually answers what I was going to ask you next. I was going to ask what you’ve been reading, but what have you been listening to lately?
Man, I feel like I’ve been kind of music-less. Oh! Well, I just ran a half-marathon. So, I’ve been listening to lots of good running music.
Okay, what’s on your running playlist?
Well, Coldplay, for sure, because you can’t run without listening to Coldplay. It’s such great running music. And I’ve got this old song, my favorite song; it’s called “Ninety-nine and a Half Won’t Do.” It’s an old civil rights song, and the chorus says, “Lord I’m runnin’ and I’ve got to make a hundred. Ninety nine and a half won’t do.” And the choir sings, “Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty five, thirty, thirty five, forty!” They just do this big build up, “Ninety one won’t do! Ninety two won’t do!” And the woman singing it is just killing it. So, that’s my favorite running song. That’s what song I want played at my funeral. Again, the high expectations! But ninety nine and a half won’t do.
If you could write with anybody, you’ve just got an open rolodex, who would you want to write with?
Man, there’s so many people. Mindy Smith. I mean, I wouldn’t want to mess up what she does though. So, when I say this, I mean, I’d just love to sit and watch them write. Patty Griffin, Mindy Smith, Pierce Pettis: that’s my favorite kind of music. Whoever’s writing for Alison Krauss. I love that. Soulful.
Well, let me take you briefly back to your record The Other Side of Something because on that record you have a song called “Esther.” I had that album playing the day I adopted my dog. The shelter had named her Doodles which I thought was ridiculous. So, I was going through names and she wasn’t responding to anything. And when that song came on, I said, “What about Esther?” And she perked up. Now my dog’s name is Esther because of your song. So, tell me about that song.
Aw! I love that! That’s a real Esther in my life, my Great Aunt Esther. The song is basically her bio. She was married to David. David had a degenerative brain disease, and they couldn’t have children. It was genetic and they risked passing it down to any kids that they might have, so they decided not to have children. She nursed him until she was in her fifties, and then he passed away. She was just so faithful to him and it was very, very difficult. She swore she’d never get married again. She hit the mission field, and she went to Romania, and when she finally landed in Africa, God captured her heart and Africa captured her heart.
She worked as a missionary there and, at 72, married a missionary. That happened after I wrote the song. She remarried, and she’s married now to a missionary who had lost his wife to cancer. I think they’re home now, and I think they came off the mission field just this last year. She’s 77 now. So, that’s a real Esther; she did AIDS education and mission work. It was a Christian organization so they always brought the Gospel but it was mostly education work, teaching communities to take care of their own so that people weren’t sent away.
So, do you still have Esther?
I do, she’s actually right here, lying at my feet.
I guess that brings me full-circle. I’m sitting at my desk writing with Esther lying at my feet again and Fireflies and Songs playing on my stereo. The biggest thing I take away from my conversation with Sara Groves is thankfulness: thankfulness that somebody I’ve looked up to for so long is a real person and that the ups and downs she writes about aren’t at all contrived but an honest reflection on where God’s path through life has led her and her family. All too often, when I’ve had the opportunity to meet someone who I’ve admired, that person turns out to be completely different from the persona they put forth, and it’s refreshing to know that Sara is as genuine as I hoped she would be. I’m also thankful for the many times over the past ten or so years that Sara’s music has gotten me through the stuff of life, and I’m thankful that she continues to write those kinds of songs.