To Sing in Feast or Famine

Sandra McCracken’s In Feast or Fallow is the most-played album of my life thus far. It was produced by her husband, Derek Webb, who is fast becoming one of my favorite producers, adding breathtaking layers, textures, and sounds to Sandra’s hymns that sing like the good ole Anglican hymnal I use in Church every Sunday; heck, even our prayer book.

Truth be told, this record almost literally carried me through severe illness and recently, my first major surgery. It's been my go-to music on my iPod during nights when I needed lullabies to fall asleep. For the past three years, I've been harrowed health-wise with a famine of joy. When I first heard In Feast or Fallow, it struck an emotional nerve from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. Tears cornered my eyes as these new/old hymns implanted what is good, beautiful, and most of all, true, into my brain and upon my lips.

McCracken's new record rallies our thirsty culture to the Gospel with art so honest that whether folks are faithful or in disbelief, they are drawn to her songs and Webb's modern, intuitive production. My grandchildren will sing these timeless hymns, mark my words.

So it was my pleasure to talk with Sandra and Derek via audio iChat about In Feast or Fallow, a fascinating conversation that I hope you’ll eavesdrop upon and enjoy.

Photo: Sandra's Photo BoothJenni Simmons: Well, just when I thought Red Balloon was the best record you’d ever done, you come out with In Feast or Fallow — it’s amazing.

Sandra McCracken: Thank you so much.

J: “Can’t Help Myself” is an especially beautiful song that struck an emotional nerve as I dealt with chronic illness. And as friends and family downloaded the NoiseTrade sampler, they told me the song brought tears to their eyes. Are you surprised by this reaction? Did you have a similar reaction while writing it?

S: Yeah, it felt like a very emotionally charged song. It was one of those that came quickly when I wrote it, and that's always a sign of a strong emotion. It came out of several long conversations that Derek and I were having, and just some really thoughtful discussions that fueled it. 

It's always a real encouragement to hear something like that because I think the more vulnerable you are as a writer, the more deeply people will resonate with your writing — in all forms of art, really, but especially with music. It has a power that is kind of beyond me as a writer; there’s an element that’s always surprising when it happens.

J: That song is beautifully produced, I might add. Derek, when did you first realize that you were interested in production? Did you know that you had such a good ear for it, or was it just a fun experiment at first?

Derek Webb: I never imagined myself producing. I always felt like a one-trick pony in terms of what I can do or what I'm good at. I produced my records over the years in that I tend to have pretty specific ideas about what I like, but that's not really producing so much. The way that I’ve made records is that I'll get people around me who I think are really trustworthy and brilliant, and just tell them that when they're satisfied, I'm satisfied, and try to manage them, but that really doesn't take a lot of vision from a production standpoint, either.

But I've gotten a little more interested in production within the last few years, and Sandra and I have always collaborated on stuff like this. We collaborated on a couple of her records, on Ampersand, and we're always contributing to whatever the other one is doing. With In Feast or Fallow, the plan wasn't for me to produce it, though. We were just collaborating like we normally would, working the way we do around here — I'll come out to the studio and work a little bit, then she'll come out, and we don't have a lot of time when we can work together. So as a result, I wound up putting a lot of initial work into it. After awhile she just declared what was starting to happen in reality, which was that I was producing it, and then she  finally just lengthened the leash all the way and said, "You're producing this, so just go for it and let's call it what it is." I was really surprised by that — I didn't see it coming — but the result was my being able to try many different things, experiment, and learn a lot, so I was really blown away that she gave me a chance to do it.

S: A few years ago, I would have resisted totally handing it over that way. Our collaboration has taken a lot of different forms over the years; we've been married almost ten years. At first, we didn't write together at all — we were totally separate entities in terms of our creative space — but then we wrote together a little bit, then needed marriage counseling (laughs), and then, well, it's just funny how it’s taken a long time to speak the same language and be such different thinkers, writers, and musicians, and learn to communicate. It's certainly an area where your nerves are potentially exposed, and you're like, "What do you mean that's not a great idea?? I love that idea! That's exactly what I want." 

But the secret truth is, even if you don't feel it in the moment, by combining your energies, you can make a better, final, creative product. So learning to submit to that is almost an illustration or a parable for the larger relationship you're in.

It also gave me a lot of freedom on this project, because by having two small children, I don't have big blocks of time to work for an eight hour day. And so I get the best of both worlds. I get to spend time both nurturing the kids and the family in the house, and also come out to the studio and sing and be a part of this project, but not have the full burden of the responsibility. It's been a perfect partnership for In Feast or Fallow.

D: I also think that it wouldn't have worked even a few years ago because it's taken us awhile to be able to "impersonate" one another to some extent. I know what she likes to the point where I don't have to second guess what my instincts are while working on her music whereas a few years ago, I might have been doing something that I would have liked or thought was cool, and she might have vetoed half of it. But at this point, I feel like I'm in touch with what she does and what she reacts to, and so I have better instincts for that. Which is to say that I probably couldn't produce too many other people! 

J: Sandra, I watched you open for Waterdeep live on the Rutledge’s web site. While explaining Derek’s production on In Feast or Fallow, you said that you’d tell him something to the effect of, “I want these colors and textures on this song,” and Derek, the “mad scientist,” would make it happen. Was it difficult to describe to him what you wanted?

S: No, he and I relate. I'm a very abstract thinker, let's start with that. I think of things conceptually, a bird's eye-view — “How does this whole thing make you feel?” and how do I get that across? Then I work backward trying to work out the details after that main theme has been established. Because Derek and I love to talk and deliberate (we are both talkers and thinkers and love to dissect and analyze things ad nauseam), it works to our advantage because even if we don't have a lot of studio time, we'll be sitting with the kids over breakfast and talk about the way we hear songs. 

For example, when we were working on "Faith's Review & Expectation," we talked a lot about it before we actually started recording because it's a big, daunting task to record a song like "Amazing Grace" that's been done so many times, and it's a little overwhelming to try to reapproach it. 

We wanted it to sound like you'd never heard it before, and for it to have a singability and energy that would really make the lyric "pop." We talked about references, like other things that we love, such as Eef Barzelay’s song, "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The lyrics of that song are very dark and kind of hellfire really, and it was in a film that we saw a few years ago. So we were referencing things that we could pull from and say, "OK, let's cast our nets out here and see what we come up with.” We talked and deliberated even more before we even played anything, and then one afternoon, Derek came out to the studio and played the whole thing in a matter of hours. Then I came out and was like, "That's totally it!" I was freaking out, I sang it, and that was it. It came quickly because we had done so much preliminary discussion in abstracts. 

J: I assume y’all enjoy working together, but is it difficult at all, especially raising two kids?

S: In some ways I think we're more efficient, and we have to be. We wonder what we used to do all the time because we have so much going on right now, especially in the seasons where there are tours and records and just day-to-day life. There's quite a bit going on, but we have to make the most of every moment, and we've learned how to do that a little better than we used to.

D: We wonder, how did we feel so busy before? What were we doing all the time? But you do have to learn how to be hyper-efficient, and there's been something magical about the last season when we only have an hour, or two hours, and we come out to the studio and every minute we're getting something done. I don't feel like there’s been a wasted moment in the studio since we built it. So having those little ones around helps train you to be more efficient or you're just not going to get anything done. Also, when I'm out in the studio working for a little bit, I can't wait to see the kids and hang out, and it's fun to knock off the second half of the day and go do something fun. Then I can't wait to get back out to the studio; I mean, the two kind of feed each other.

J: Your kids feed the creativity, I assume.

D: Yeah, especially when you realize that it's all a creative work. Being around kids all day is hyper-creative work. You have to be constantly dreaming up things to occupy their little minds, and to teach them.

J: Some of my favorite records are when you two work together — Ampersand, Red Balloon, and now, In Feast or Fallow. They seem to mark a new sound in your careers that I’ve yet to define. What inspired this shift in style, and how do you define it?

Photo: Geof F. MorrisD: My instinct is that, at least from my half of the creative input, you get more comfortable with certain tools and a certain way of working, and for me, that started to inform the style of what we do a little bit just in terms of my preference to be able to work alone out in the studio and program — to represent a lot of instruments with technology rather than having them physically represented in the room. 

I used to be a "Let's get a band live in the room" purist, but the last couple of years I've been really leaning into the technology and stretching my legs in terms of all the luxuries that it can afford. Stockholm Syndrome was really inorganic, but I think there's just as many organic and warm elements about In Feast or Fallow; we used all the same methods to make it. It just depends on what sounds you use and how you approach it, but something about finally coming into methods that I really enjoy has changed some of what we do. 

S: I would add that before that time period, we were always making records in a more conventional way, with a band in a room. We'd rent a studio, we'd go to this place, we'd do these things, and that was great. We're both really proud of the work that we’ve done before. But from Ampersand onward, we were in the house we're in now, with the same recording setup, and that was the first time we started making our own records with basically just us in a room, or one or the other of us, so that was a big change. That's when we really got off the ground in terms of producing this way, with these elements. There's a continuity from that point forward because you're getting a true sense of who we are as musicians; you're getting the whole idea from start to finish in our heads.

J: What are the musical and production influences on In Feast or Fallow?

S: There are a number of influences throughout this record. Derek, go.

D: OK. Well, definitely on "Justice Will Roll Down" — Arcade Fire. They've got this magic energy. I don't know how they do what they do; it's a total mystery to me. They’re an amazing band. I knew that as close as I might come to replicating their sound, which sounds so little like what they actually do, that it would probably be forgivable, if not mostly unrecognizable, because you can't really come close to a band like that. 

But there are more influences that were in spirit vs. literal influences to the sound and approach, and I will always name as my #1 Danger Mouse, who is half of Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells, and everything he touches is pretty much genius to me. He just has a way of working to where I love the end result of his method, and the way he makes records. I was listening to a lot of the Sparklehorse stuff that he did, the collaboration with David Lynch, and there were a few songs between that and a record that seemingly has nothing to do with Sparklehorse — the new Flaming Lips Embryonic, which is just a beautiful record. A lot of mornings when I’d come out and warm up the studio, I would put on either Sparklehorse or The Flaming Lips to kind of tune up my instincts before we would start working. Something about the approach of those records informed quite a bit of what I was trying to do on In Feast or Fallow.

J: The very way that “Justice Will Roll Down” is composed and produced makes it seem as if justice is possible, which of course with God it is, and it will be. Did you try to convey this emotion in the musicality?

S: I've never heard it put quite like that, but certainly there were a few moments when we were working on it, like the chorus and some of the melody lines, that Derek was intentionally talking about a patriotic, national anthem kind of song, almost drawing from that sort of harmonic structure, so it could really be anthemic and have that spirit about it.

D: Yeah, the chords and the melody kind of remind you of the songs that we sing when we march into battle; the songs that you sing when you're up against the odds and it's unlikely that you're going to succeed, and all you can do is sing that song on the battlefield. Between that and the production, too, just trying to make it really anthemic and just — I'm nodding my head right now — kind of persistent, it comes in and does that thing and just doesn't stop until the end.

J: The term “social justice” has been thrown around a lot lately - how do you both define that term?

S: It is a buzzword these days, both politically and in Evangelical circles. I say a buzzword, but there are definitely two camps on the whole issue. To me, the important thing is not just pity and reaching down, but a real sense of justice that we are brothers and sisters, that we are all in this together, and that there's not one of us better than the other because of advantages we have, or socio-economic groups, or the color of our skin, or our background, but that we're made equal. We are made to where caring for someone else is a matter of justice and equality, and it's not a matter of just giving aid and pity and compassion. So that's what it looks like to me, and that song in particular was inspired by International Justice Mission and some of their work; the stories are kind of woven into that larger narrative.

D: And it seems like every few years, and every few generations, words like that get redefined and get new connotations attached to them, but I think that at its core, it comes down to an issue of equality. If I really believe that I am equal to everyone else in the world, even the poorest in the world, and my poorest neighbors, but also the the small percentage of people who seem to control what's happening in the world all the time — if I really believe that all men are equal, then that's going to change the way I do everything. 

It's going to change the way I live, the way I spend my money, the way that I react when I see particular things in culture, and I think pursuing justice is not really a political idea. It doesn't have to have all that connotation attached to it. The whole problem is that everyone is not speaking the same language. You have somebody who will use that term and define it in a particular way but not tell you what that definition is, and then go crazy talking about it. Then anyone who would consider it an acceptable label therefore accepts that criticism. The point being that, on its face, it is always the right thing to pursue justice. If you seek justice in social, cultural, and economic ways, then it speaks to your ethic of equality. Was it Bob Dylan who said that being on the side of the poor is not a political position? I have to agree.

J: To me, justice is a Biblical thing, which fits perfectly with this record of hymns.

S: That is the undergirding principle of In Feast or Fallow, and in that song specifically, that there is no justice without Jesus, there is no justice without the cross, and there is no hope in this moment of suffering — whatever your suffering looks like — there is no hope if there is not a day coming when that will be made right. It makes a cultural buzzword like "social justice" into superficial small talk. We might as well be talking about the weather if we don't have this undergirding principle that Jesus' finished work is what makes it all make sense.

J: Sandra, I hope you take this as the compliment that it is, but it’s a little hard to tell which songs are old hymns, and which songs are your originals on this record. I’m guessing that’s because you are so steeped in the language and poetry of hymns; you’re very influenced by them. Am I right?

S: Thank you. I really am a student of old hymns. They have such beauty and value in the way they connect us to our history, and the people who have gone before us in faith, hardship, love, and endurance. All of these things have stood the test of time in these old hymns. And so, as much as I love that, I want to try to continue to write present-day stories in the same style and language, and hopefully a few of these new hymns will be as timeless as the old hymns. As I've studied the old hymns, it's humbling because there's so much to learn about what makes a good hymn.

D: I've said that to her through the whole process. Like when we were mixing, I was constantly asking, "OK, which hymns are the ones that you wrote, and which hymns are the old ones?" I've not been able to tell the difference through the whole process.

J: Which types of hymnals did you mine from?

S: I have some that I got from Kevin Twit, who has a wealth and collection of hymns. He had a few on CD-ROM that were literally these very old and obscure hymns. "I Glory in Christ" by Horatius Bonar was one of those. It was from texts that aren't even in print anymore. I have an Evangelical Lutheran hymnal; it's pretty old — it's copyright is 1899. I've got an old book where the hymns are just in text form. Then of course there’s William Gadsby — he had a great collection of hymns that I've drawn from for years, and our whole Indelible Grace community has drawn from that same batch, too. 

Another hymnal I have is a new printing of the Spurgeon Collection of Hymns, and I believe that one or two of the hymns by Ann Steele were copied in that book. You'll find hymns some other places, too, but that's where I found them this time. I pulled from those sources and with this record, I was much more intentional in comparison to The Builder and the Architect about the themes of the record. I really tried to supplement the themes that are relevant to our Church today, our Churches collectively, our communities, and our neighborhoods — trying to pull from themes that I felt like we should be singing, and trying to almost take a pulse of that; even talking to people, observing, reading, and doing a little bit of social research. I tried to pull in the question, “What are the things that we're afraid of as people, and how can we speak the Gospel into those fears with these songs?” So even with the old hymns that I chose, and the new ones that I wrote to supplement that material, they are all working toward some of these same themes that I hope will come across.

J: In Feast or Fallow is much different than The Builder and the Architect. I think of this like a favorite author who writes a sequel - both books are amazing, but different. It seems right to be this way. Do you agree artistically?

S: So many people have responded to The Builder and the Architect over the years that for a long time I didn't imagine doing a follow-up. I never really thought about it, and then it just organically happened. There was a moment where I was like, "Oh, I'm ready to do this again." And so in doing that, I really wanted to honor what was special about the first record, and the things that people responded to, and try to improve on that. 

For me, some of it is just that I'm on the same journey that I was then, of really trying to learn what makes a good singable melody, what makes something that a congregation can sing, and I feel limited because I'm more stylized when I sing something. I don't think about a group singing it, I just kind of sing it. And that can be a real limitation if you're writing corporate worship songs. A good example of that is "Thy Mercy" from the first record. That was a song that meant a lot to me, but when I would get in front of a group of people to lead that song, it was more cumbersome. It was hard for people to know where the beats would fall, and how to follow it, so that's one aspect I've tried to improve on during this journey of learning what it is to write a hymn. I don't think I'm there yet, but I've made some improvements over these two albums.

D: Yeah, I would say that there was a lot of intention on her part to be aware of the meter, be aware of the structure of the melody, and make sure it was something that could adapt well to a congregation, which was something I don't think went into The Builder and the Architect necessarily. But I also think that the difference in style between the two records has a lot to do with where we were when we made The Builder, what our tools were, where we were in the process of DIY recording, and where we are with it now. 

Sandra, I'd also like to hear you talk a little bit about the season you're in with the hymns, and the revelation you came to about wanting to intentionally write some songs like this. I think it’s significant that you didn't just do a follow-up because people loved that first record.

S: I’ve been thinking about what it is to build a career, and to establish a certain niche for yourself — a certain expectation of "These are the kind of songs I write, this is the kind of music that I do," and for a long time I was protective of that being a certain singer/songwriter kind of thing. And then I made the first record of hymns, which was very personal, and very therapeutic for me in some of the struggles I was having at the time. It was very healing for me to make that album because it helped me to process some things and grieve some things and maybe that's some of what’s evident on that record, I don't know. 

After that record, I just kind of kept moving along and making a few more albums. This time, when I felt called to make a record, it felt like a combination of who I am as a person. It doesn't feel as much like a side project as it does like I'm most myself on this record in some ways. Red Balloon was a good launching point for that, but this one even more so is something that I feel uniquely positioned to draw from hymns, write hymns, and pour my own story into the hymns along the way. Something about those different things happening surrounding this record really feels like a homecoming, or like an a-ha moment of this is what I'm made to do. I'm not saying that this is all I'll do, but just at this moment in time I feel sort of a fullness to the things that I've been given, the resources that I have, and the experiences that I pull into it. It feels natural; it comes easily to do this kind of work. I feel really grateful. I don't want that to sound arrogant because everything about it is a gift — everything from the way that God makes good out of sin and sickness in my life, the way that God gives gifts, the way He gives His presence, and He gives all these things that make this what it is. And so, as quickly as I say that this feels like something that I was made to do, I have to also say that this is something that He's given me, from start to finish. I can probably say that in clearer terms, but I'm just kind of figuring it out as I go.

D: And I feel like that up until this season that culminated with making In Feast or Fallow, you were a little more guarded in terms of "This is what I do professionally." But then to make this second one as we've talked about it, I feel like it was a result of you losing whatever inhibition you might have had, or self-consciousness about wanting to categorize what you do or who you are as an artist. All of this is who you are, and as long as the work is of a certain quality, we'll just juxtapose it all together and all of it will be an expression of who you are, the work that you do, and the artist you are. 

Before, it felt kind of relegated. It felt peripheral, and now it feels primary. It feels like this is your next record that you put out. It's the next thing that you have to say and hopefully if we've done our job, the people in your community, the people who follow your music, the people who appreciate what you've done up to this point — there won't be a belief prerequisite for them to enjoy this record. Hopefully, in the tradition of other people we're fans of — people like Sufjan Stevens or the folks at Bifrost — if the art is of a certain quality, it doesn't require that you believe the way the artists believe to justify listening to it. Whereas a lot of "spiritual" music is like that, sometimes resting upon its belief, and other people who have that same belief forgive how crappy it is, so they listen to it. Good records are good records and I think people would probably like this record who don't agree with half of the spirituality on it. And that's when music becomes really powerful because it finds a permanent place in somebody's life despite even the content.

J: From musical interludes (“A Narrow Cradle” and “Bands of Angels”) to the album artwork depicting wheat, In Feast or Fallow is a seamless piece of art. Was this intentional? 

S: Yeah, it was, I think both from the intentionality of the themes on the record, the songwriting, and the musical interludes, and wanting to connect one song to the next, almost as if it's intended to be seamless. And the artwork is a big part of that, and the emotion that it evokes, wanting that to be continuous with the spirit of the record, what was already happening. Jordan Brooke Hamlin did the artwork as watercolor painting, and even something about that has a literal fingerprint.

J: Did you tell Jordan what you wanted for the artwork, or did you just give her a concept and let her go?

Album artwork by Jordan Brooke HamlinS: We had talked for a long time about it, even before the record was underway, because I had the title of the record before I had any of the songs. So we had been dialoging about it for some time, and she is also familiar with Wendell Berry and some of his concepts. We both really connect with those, so we had talked about the agricultural imagery, the idea of crop rotation, and the idea of giving the soil time to rest between planting so that it can replenish itself. Like, take a whole year just to allow the grasses to grow and for there be a temporary ground cover that actually nourishes the soil for the next time so that it's more productive and sustaining. It's a very old practice, and one that is not really popular today. It's becoming more so with organic farming, some of that thanks to Wendell Berry himself. We talked about those ideas, then we talked more specifically, and then she pretty much just came up with the visuals to go along with it on her own. 

J: Were there any books you were reading, in particular of Berry's, that fed this album?

S: That's a good question. My first point of reference was Jayber Crow. It's kind of a slow pace in its narrative, and it's about a small town and the people in it, and then several of Berry’s other novels are linked to that same place, which is almost a picture of his own town in Kentucky — there's some parallels for sure. But as he writes fiction, he is also teaching some very concrete ideology, so it's like the Trojan Horse. That's the first thing that really pulled me into his writings. And I love his essays and poetry as well. He has some poetry on just the Sabbath, and they’re very restful and calming beauty. There are other writings he has that are very direct and are very topical. But that would be a good place to start.

J: With a wealth of talented friends in Nashville, how did you select the guest vocalists for those particular songs?

Photo: Jordan Brooke HamlinS: I had wanted Thad Cockrell on this record since its conception because I love his Gospel record, To Be Loved, so much, and that song, “In Feast or Fallow,” was just the perfect place for him. And then Lori Chaffer — I'm a huge fan of hers, she's a dear friend, and I've always wanted to her to sing on one of my projects. The Chaffers lived in Kansas City until this last year, so now that they lived here I was like, "Oh my gosh, we can actually call her and she's here!" I almost flew her in for Red Balloon because I really wanted to have her, but we just could never make it work. So it was really amazing to have her come in. Chelsea Scott is the other one. She was actually living with us for a lot of the time we were working on In Feast or Fallow, and she and I collaborated on some hymns, and I loved having her voice on there as well. Those were some really special moments. And of course Derek Webb and his songbird voice; it's just such a bonus that I get to have him sing on these records at no extra charge!

J: “Bands of Angels” is such an interesting interlude — it’s cheerful. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

S: "This is the Christ" is so sophisticated, and definitely the largest moment on the record just in terms of orchestration, and so "Hidden Place" is the opposite — it's the most sparse and intimate entrance to that song. And so it needed something there that would kind of cleanse the palate. So that seemed appropriate.

J: Sandra, in the song-by-song document you sent, I was very touched reading about “Hidden Place/Eighty-Eight.” You could’ve just left it as a lovely song about your daughter, but you empathized with those on the opposite side of the emotional spectrum. Is this just in your nature, or did it come more from recognizing that honest joy and honest grief are both recorded in the prayers of God’s people throughout Church history,” as you said?

S: Absolutely. I think it's both from my own experience, and my theology that says that both of those things are true, my relationships say that those things are true, and my own experience says that that's true. There are extremes of both joy and sorrow as part of who we are, what makes us who we are, and what shapes our faith and our doubt and our ultimate redemption. 

Personally, having been on both sides of that spectrum — in having a baby, wanting to have a baby, and losing a baby, I've been in each one of those situations, and so if I hadn't been in some painful places, I don't think I would have had quite the same perspective on how important that is. But having been in a place where that was really painful, and for somebody to talk about having a child, or to just kind of flippantly be like, "Well, we're planning to have our family this way and at this time," and it is nothing that we have any control over. It is not something that can be calculated or measured or paid for or bought. It is something that God ultimately gives, and He uses other means to give it. 

But even in writing "Eighty-Eight," it wasn't just that theme, although I was really aware of that. It's also just stories in my own life where my joy was juxtaposed with someone that I love so much; some of my sweetest moments were juxtaposed with someone else's moments of tragedy. How do you reconcile those things in relationships? How do you love well and listen well, and find the grace to weep with someone who weeps, and to rejoice with someone who rejoices when that can be very painful? It's against our nature to do that because we're so self-absorbed if left to our own devices. And so I think it's part of the experience of letting the Gospel turn things inside out and upside down. It's just one way that that happens.

J: Sandra, why did you change the title to what is usually known as “Amazing Grace”?

S: When Newton wrote it as a New Year's hymn, it accompanied his sermon for a New Year's Day service, and that was the original title. Kevin Twit taught me some of that history. Actually, last year Derek and I were leading some songs at our Church, and that was one of the songs that we did. We did a super-simple version of it with those original lyrics, and I was so moved by how fresh that sounded, and by how beautiful that song is, and I know it's almost cliché, but we made a mental note at that moment and thought, "I wonder if we could record this in a way that would bring a new experience of it so that you are hearing it like you've heard it for the first time?” 

And you know, that's such a picture of what faith is anyway, that you keep hearing these things and you think, "How could I have forgotten that? It's like I've never heard that before." And no matter how long you have been a follower of Jesus, or pursued, or studied, or how old you are, or where you've been, you can always find yourself in that story. One of the things that came to life for me in the recording of it was somewhere in the process, I was thinking about mortality and almost a little bit afraid in a way that I had never been before regarding what happens when you die, and what do we really know about heaven? Sometimes reading Scripture can be more frightening than comforting if you're reading certain passages about what might happen, and what it's going to be like, and there's just so much to that that is sobering, as well it should be. And so that hymn among other texts within the record really spoke to me as we were working on them. 

J: What is the overarching story of In Feast or Fallow?

S: I think that the story is an old story, and it's a new story — it's the enduring experience of where human fear meets a God Who sometimes answers in the way we expect and sometimes is silent, and sometimes pours out more than we had asked for or imagined. But always, our fears are met with an answer in Jesus, in that one Person. So in a simpler way to say it, it's an attempt to ask the question, "What are we afraid of?" and to answer it in every song from every angle I can think of at this moment, which is not exhaustive by any means. But it's a slice of what that looks like from my eyes right now, in this year, in this moment, in this life.


Jenni Simmons is the editor of the Art House America Blog, a drummer's wife, caretaker of three cats (Harley, Milo, and Lily Belle), writer, coffee/tea/wine-drinker, bookworm, music fanatic, and a bird-watcher.

Creating Shelter

Hope in Haiti