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Amy Grant: singing in two worlds

During a 1990s tour, pop and Christian music star Amy Grant spoke about her music journey and faith.

(RNS) —  Amy Grant is well acquainted with the contrast between the permanence of recorded songs and the changing nature of life.

“You write a song because you have a really strong feeling or conviction or experience, and you freeze that moment in time,” Grant said. “But the reality of life is, nothing stays the same.”

Over two decades, Grant’s music hasn’t stayed the same. Earnest acoustic anthems gave way to a sleek, synthesized brand of bubbly pop-lite. On her most recent CD, “Behind the Eyes,” Grant returned to a more acoustic, organic sound; some of the disc’s well-crafted, middle-of-the-road pop and rock would fit in on a Sheryl Crow album.

The lyrical content of Grant’s albums has undergone an even more radical transformation. Her early songs explored Christian themes. She became the first contemporary Christian artist to earn a gold album (for sales of more than 500,000) and has sold nearly 20 million albums to date, a remarkable number for any recording artist, Christian or otherwise.

But beginning with “Unguarded” in 1985 and continuing through “Behind the Eyes,” Grant’s lyrics have become increasingly secular. Where she once discussed her relationship with God, she now focuses on her relationships with other people — and herself.

On her current tour, Grant draws from all stages of her 20-year career. As she tells it, that career has been an organic progression, one that ushered her into the contemporary Christian music world and now, to a degree, has moved her away from it.

Grant fell in love with music as a child, and was soon picking out Carole King, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor songs on an acoustic guitar. In her early teens, she became involved with a free-form church on Nashville’s Music Row. This was the mid-’70s, at the tail end of the “Jesus movement,” the hippie-inspired informal campaign to forge a new kind of Christianity.

“We would show up in our blue jeans and bare feet,” Grant recalled during a recent interview. “I used to go to this coffee shop every Saturday night. There was a three-piece band, and we sat around with a wood-burning stove and sang. They did a country-gospel thing. I was so inspired that I started rounding out my James Taylor and Carole King repertoire with songs that I had written. They were songs about faith, just because that was the only thing nobody else was writing about.”

By 15, she had assembled a dozen original songs. Without her knowledge, a tape was given to a producer for Texas-based Word Music, a gospel label. The label was looking for fresh talent in the newly minted field of contemporary Christian music.

“So they called me up and offered me a record deal,” Grant said. “I had never owned a gospel record, I had never sung in a choir. From a cultural setting, I came from just loving music. I made my first recording, and they said, `We want you to just record your gospel songs.’ And I said, `OK.’

“And then suddenly I had this very descriptive label (`contemporary Christian musician’), which I never felt really one way or the other about. You hear music and you’re either moved by it or you’re not, so you buy it or you don’t buy it. It’s basically entertainment,” she said.

Even though Grant did not put much faith in the contemporary Christian label, she hoped her material would affect listeners spiritually.

“I know how powerful music is, because of how my life has been affected by songs about faith,” said Grant. “To say I never wanted my songs to have an effect on somebody, or that I wasn’t being evangelical … I can’t say that. I wanted my life to be changed, so sure, I wanted somebody else’s to be changed. Was I targeting people, saying, `I’m going to sneak in here and preach at ’em?’ No. But I have been so moved by this experience, and I’m writing about it, so of course, I’m thinking, `I hope someone else is moved also.”’

In 1985, Grant, by then the best-selling contemporary Christian artist in history, approached Word about her desire to record songs with secular themes. After receiving the label’s blessing, she delivered “Unguarded.”

Word Music and A&M Records struck a deal to release the album jointly— Word would continue to market Grant to the Christian audience, while A&M would court a mainstream pop audience.

The strategy worked, and Grant scored a string of pop hits, including “Baby, Baby” and “Every Heartbeat.”

Grant’s albums are still released and marketed by both labels, even though they contain very little overtly Christian music.

“This last time, (Word) was like, `Can you give us anything we can push to Christian radio? Anything? Throw us a bone!”’ Grant said, laughing. “It doesn’t really fit the (Christian) radio format, because the lyrics are not faith-emphasis enough.”

Does she now feel more freedom to address issues, especially matters of the heart, that might seem out of place on a Christian album?

“I don’t really look at it that way. When you’re first growing up, you really feel other people’s expectations, and you either do or don’t live up to them. After a certain amount of time, you feel like nobody is really looking anymore, so whatever integrity you hold on to comes from inside,” Grant said.

“That’s just the path of life; somehow that’s reflected in music. Do I feel a lot more freedom now? Whether I was a (performer) or not, by the time you’re 37, you ought to feel freedom in whatever you’re doing.

“The bottom line always is to be moved, whether it’s just in some cute, perky way or some deep way. In the grand scheme of eternity and the world that we cannot see, my guess is any song that deals with faith is probably of greater value than a song that deals with standing on some soapbox, full of angst. (But) there’s a place for both of them,” she concluded.