This interview was originally published on The Rabbit Room.
Recently I had the opportunity to talk to my friend Sara Groves about her beautiful new album, Floodplain (you can listen to clips and purchase the album here). My conversation with Sara took place on a Tuesday afternoon while our kids were in school. Our only challenge? Trying to get the online chat to work with two technologically challenged girls. I finally asked my husband Andy to come over and help me, and he patiently pointed out that my chat would not work because Sara and I were not officially Facebook “friends.” We quickly remedied that issue and got things rolling.
Jill Phillips: Phew! We got it. Are you getting my messages?
Sara Groves: Yes. I have never “friended” before! You are my first friend.
JP: That makes me happy. Thanks for putting up with all of this craziness.
(Insert lots of talk about each other’s pictures and children growing up here.)
I love this album, Sara. It is poignant and beautiful and deep and all of the things I love about your music. I know we’ve talked about process in the past and how hard it is to get going and get a project off the ground. Was this process unique in any way? The writing and/or the recording?
SG: Well, you know that Troy [Groves] had been my manager and percussionist for seventeen years. I wanted to stay home more, so he took a new job with International Justice Mission. It’s been good for us overall, but I had no idea how much stuff he was protecting me from. Partly from identity crisis, partly from major life change, partly from self-doubt—I was struggling with serious inertia. I could not see myself in the future. I talked about making a new record, but there was no action behind it, and I didn’t know how to start.
Steve Brewster (he played on several of my earlier records) came through the Twin Cities, and we all went to breakfast. I told him I wasn’t sure what I was doing. He called a few months later and said he had a free week of studio time—it had been given to him. He wondered if I wanted to do something like Band Camp. He said, “What if we just played? No production schedule, no labels, no album due.”
I think the cool thing about it was the nature of the invitation. It isn’t normal for a drummer to call an artist and say, “I’m going to play on your next album, and we are going to do it like this.” He and Matt Pierson (the gift of studio time was for the two of them) were very gentle and careful the way they went about it, and so I was able to get into a different place. What would I write if I wasn’t thinking about audience and due dates? I really wanted to lean into being a songwriter, taking the craft seriously. I wanted to write from a more intuitive place. Writing is never easy for me, but it did help to have this wide-open invitation to write whatever I wanted.
So Steve said, “Let’s go remember what we love about this. I’ll bring the drums, Matt will bring the bass, but we need someone to bring the songs.” It all felt so even-steven until we got out there and it was just these amazing players working really hard on my music!
JP: What a freeing prospect!
SG: Yeah, it’s not like I wanted to “cross over” or anything like that. I just wanted to grow as a writer, and not just in the ways of CCM. That is what I came up in, and I have so many thoughts that I wonder if they are even acceptable. I love “my people.” I don’t want to reject anything, but I need to talk about what I am feeling and experiencing. I have been feeling like Evangelicalism is a huge cruise ship, and I don’t feel comfortable on board anymore. I wanted to unpack that, the grief in it, the freedom in it, the questions, without feeling like I was letting my “team” down.
JP: I was just going to ask if that freedom and support made it safer to write about some of the issues you tackle on this new album—the concept of some hearts being built on the floodplain, making space for grief and brokenness and rejecting a gospel of prosperity.
SG: Yes, I think so. Now it doesn’t seem like such a big deal—it’s not earth shattering! But inside me, before I got it all out, it felt really big.
JP: I bet it did. I am always thinking about the listener, and I don’t want to let anyone down. That is good in some ways and terrible in others.
SG: Yes, and I genuinely love the people I live with and have gone through life with. I grew up in the Assemblies of God, and there are things I really love about that, but there are also things I struggle with. I spent a long time sorting it out, wondering what mattered and what I just needed to make peace with. Not just with the AOG, but with American Christianity. I think all of the language has been ruined for us to talk about things. It is so divisive. So, I guess like always, I was looking for some new poetry to express, a safe place to talk.
And those guys really gave me a gift in allowing me that space. I remember a moment when Scott Dente said, “Finger picking to a click . . . my worst nightmare.” I got on the talkback and said, “This is why we pay you the big bucks. This is why you are here!” I had a lump in my throat before I understood what I was feeling. Why was he here? Why was everyone here? It wasn’t really turning out to be Band Camp as much as an opportunity for me. I asked Steve—I know you have stressed that there are no strings, no expectations, but what is the secret hope here? Steve said, “Our secret hope is that at the end of the week we can give you a hard drive full of music you are proud of, and that it gives you a vision for yourself moving forward. We hope this is your next record.” Wow. Too much.
JP: That is so beautiful. I feel that exploration in this album and it resonates deeply with me. When I first listened to Floodplain it sounded like an album written by someone who has had years of living a long obedience in the same direction (I know we both love that Eugene Peterson book). The album’s questions and struggles and joys come from a place of walking out your faith, your marriage, parenting, being a friend over decades. Ronald Rolheiser has a book called Sacred Fire where he talks about the first half of life being about finding home and the second half of life being about learning to give your life away. This feels like a “giving your life away” record. It feels like the songs are born out of maturity in the best way.
SG: I hope so (about maturity). I feel like it’s important that mature people don’t shut down and stop sharing. I think it is hard to stay in the dialogue as you get older, because you feel pushed out—like you are shouting from the sidelines. You believe the culture that is so enamored with youth. Sometimes it just feels like so much work to communicate the complexity of what you’ve learned. It’s hard work! Sometimes I think, “I’ll just go away now.” But that is the adversary. When you are young, you are too young, and when you are old, you are too old.
JP: I have had the same feelings. But I really feel like we need the voices of people in every decade of life to accompany us on the journey.
SG: Yes, and thank God you are still making music!
JP: Oh, man. Barely. Slow but steady, right?
SG: Your song “I Can See How It Happened”—that is the kind of song we need—I need. Empathy. Thank you.
Recognizing that we are all in the soup, all contributing to it. We can say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” But we don’t really think we are made of the same stuff these “other” people are made of. We are. If we start every conversation out with, “How dare you,” there is nowhere to go.
JP: Sandra McCracken and I have talked a lot about the phrase “both/and.” Living in the “both/and.” I think about it a lot. It seems like you are dealing with a lot of both/and in these songs. Embracing joy and grief. The desire to escape and the necessity of being present and drinking this cup that you describe as our beautiful reality. Having doubts and finding God is forgiving and His posture is merciful. Do you feel like this is something you think about often—the non-dualistic nature of faith and life?
SG: Yes. We talk about holding tensions, but actually doing that is very hard. The pull to be certain, to be right, to be vindicated is very strong. It is hard to be the uncertain one. But I am really wired to look at all sides of something, and I’m definitely driven to try to understand the intersection of faith and real life. God does not work in binary terms.
I am trying to say, “I am still struggling, but I also believe.” As my friend Dr. Laura Harbert says, “Jesus promises us abundant life, but I don’t think abundant life means only the good stuff.”
JP: When Andy first heard the song “My Dream,” he wept. Even with that kind of preparation, I listened in the car the other day and wept. The image of you pulling into the driveway and seeing Him and realizing His posture is not angry is so powerful. Especially after laying out your doubts and fears and struggles in the verses. I think I am just learning to believe in that kind of God.
SG: Yes, me too. There is a huge difference between the belief that we need to be good for Jesus, and the belief that Jesus is good in us. The contemplative Simone Weil said that the most effective part of our will is our consent, not our effort. The best “work” we can do is surrender, rest, trust. Our righteousness is truly like filthy rags. If we believe Jesus left us a license to guard the truth, or carefully endorse or not endorse people, ideas, etc., we will act very differently than if we believe Jesus left us with a license to radically love everyone we meet because they are made in the image of God. That sets me free! That takes away fear. That helps me believe God’s demeanor is even more generous to me.
JP: What kinds of things do you find in your everyday life that feed you as a person and as an artist?
SG: I am not always good at taking the high road in my life! I can often be found whining, worrying, or playing solitaire. Definitely taking a walk at a nature center, or around the lakes is a life-giving thing for me. I love nature, and feel like I can talk to God best when I am outside in the fresh air. This isn’t super-spiritual, but I like to do putsy things. There is something that happens to my brain when I am doing a puzzle or organizing a drawer that is really freeing. I also love to read, and that is a great source of inspiration and courage for me. I always have a web of ideas in my mind—a thought with a central theme and many branches. When I have a “hub” thought like that, it seems like everything relates to that idea. I collect all of the ideas that correlate, and it comes out in songs. That kind of connectivity is like electricity to me. I also get a lot of life from time with friends. I am a verbal processor, so I am often understanding something for the first time when I am explaining it to a friend.
JP: Are there any kinds of routines or rituals that you find helpful?
SG: I think it is important to read at night. I remember when you told me about “focal practices.” I really grabbed hold of that idea, and I try to make sure that I have focal practices in my life—non-tech things that ground me in real experiences. I believe in ritual and love planning rituals, but my follow-through is less than impressive. I think I live too much responding to things as they happen, and that is something I am always working on. I want to have more things “built-in,” but I also feel like I can quickly become a slave to “ought” and “should.” I’m tired of that. I want to kick “should” and “ought” to the curb. I want to be operating from a moral core, and not just reacting to a cultural sense of obligation. I think ritual helps with that.
JP: I am also wondering about the beauty you are finding in St. Paul after moving into the city with your family. What kinds of rhythms are you finding living there?
SG: I love St. Paul. It’s been a huge gift to me in many ways. I am in community with several people who make a living in the arts, and we often commiserate about the challenges and joys of that life. We’ve started to attend a church in our neighborhood (less than a block from our house), and that has been amazing. It’s a sweet community, and I feel less alone with my thoughts there. We downsized quite a bit when we moved into the city, but this small house is like a hug. I feel more at home here than I have felt anywhere. The Art House has been a huge learning curve as well. We bought an old church in St. Paul and a small house down the street. We were going to renovate the church and do cool stuff. But the money we set aside for that was absorbed in other life events, and we have had to rely heavily on volunteers. That has been a huge gift. The volunteers and friends that have taken ownership of the Art House North vision have been so incredible. The yoke is light. I don’t know how, but our goal of creative community for the common good is happening. It is bearing fruit in the community.
JP: If you ever decide to move south, will you come to Nashville and be my neighbor?
JP: Well, I’ve thrown down the gauntlet. It’s me versus St. Paul now, my friend. Thanks for making time to talk about life and music and everything in between. I’m so grateful for you.
Jill Phillips is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter and recording artist. Her ninth album, Mortar and Stone, released in 2014. Her guitar based folk-rock sound combines with rich, insightful lyrics that deal with age-old topics in new and fresh ways. Jill is a mother of three children and still makes time for a steady traveling schedule with concerts and events across the country. She considers this to be one of the greatest parts of being a musician because it allows her to share her songs personally and meet great people from across this country and abroad. Jill also loves to cook for friends and family, visit the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and watch Meet The Press.
Sara Groves is a mom, wife, singer/songwriter and recording artist with a passion for justice and a heart of mercy. She has joined forces with International Justice Mission to advocate for victims of human trafficking for the past 8 years. Sara, her husband Troy, and their 3 children reside in St. Paul where they cultivate an artist support community out of a 100 year old church called Art House North. Floodplain is Sara’s 13th album.