Christian Singer Ellie Holcomb Interview:
Her New Album “As Sure as the Sun”!
Ellie Holcomb — who started out as a band member in her husband’s band Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors — made a significant splash in the Christian music world when she released her first solo EPs Magnolia in 2011 and With You Now in 2013, both of which hit #1 on iTunes in the Christian/Gospel category. According to her website, after releasing both EPs, she “cried joy tears for about a week just dreaming about how God would encourage people through His word in the songs.”
Those dreams of hers are showing no signs of slowing down as she is fast approaching the release of her astonishing new album As Sure as the Sun, which will be released this Tuesday (2/18/14) (visit her website for more info, including pre-ordering it on iTunes). Her new album is exceptional — both musically and lyrically — as you will read more about in my review on Monday. I recently had the wonderful privilege of speaking with Ellie at length about the new album:
I’ve been immersing myself in your new album in preparation for the review I’m writing, and it has already had an impact on my walk with God. I’ve been going through a dry spell in my relationship with God, to be honest. I live in California and we’ve had a terrible drought here, and after awhile you start to crave the feeling of cold rain and to hear the sound of a storm washing the land and all that. And I’ve been hungering for God like that, quite honestly; even my best quiet times have felt dry. But as I was listening to your album, the Lord really drew near to my heart and there was just a sudden refreshing, kind of like a refreshing rain; and it was amazing and kind of a breakthrough, so first of all, thank you!
Well, now you’re making me cry, so…[laughs]
[laughs] Well, music that is filled with His Word tends to do that, to just connect us immediately with the Spirit; it’s an amazing thing. And my first question is: have you ever had that experience while you’re writing or recording your songs where maybe it’s been a dry season spiritually but then in the middle of recording or songwriting God is suddenly drenching you with His Spirit and encouraging you through your own music?
Yes. Wow, it’s a great question. First of all, let me just thank you for telling me that. That’s so encouraging. Honestly, it’s an answer to prayer. My prayer for these songs is that they would just refresh the hearts of the saints, so to hear you say that just feels like God is answering that prayer, so thank you. Most of these songs were written out of places where I needed to remind myself of the truth that I so often forget. Many of them are tied to walking either through seasons of drought or doubt in my own life or walking with dear friends of mine who have faced some unbelievably intense trials over the past few years. So I would say almost all of them are sort of like what David does in the psalms; he kind of bosses his soul around [laughs]. Be still my soul, awake my soul, remember who God is, remember what He’s done — that’s really the reason I started writing music was to remind myself of these truths that sometimes are really hard to believe, whether you’re facing a season of doubt or a season that just feels dry and where God’s voice feels silent. These are heart cries from me to hang on to the light in the midst of facing great darkness. So it’s so encouraging to hear that it somehow has resonated with you because that’s what I’m trying to do in just about every song that I write is kind of sit in God’s Word and say “help me believe that this is true, I think it is, it probably is, it doesn’t feel true right now. I believe, but help my unbelief,” [laughs] you know? So yes, to answer your question, a lot of the time that happens for me.
It’s interesting that what you were experiencing produced something in the listener — in this case, me — that was very similar to the spiritual season that surrounded the song’s creation. I think there’s a principle behind that — like what Watchman Nee wrote about with the breaking of the outer man and the release of the Holy Spirit [i.e. where God uses the most broken places in our lives as outlets for His Spirit to flow and help others who are going through similar seasons of brokenness] — where the thing that breaks you is the thing that ministers to other people. It’s interesting there’s a correlation there.
Oh man, absolutely. It’s a mystery. It’s a mysterious correlation.
So far my favorite song right now is a tie between “As Sure as the Sun” and “My Portion and My Strength.” The first one — with its piano and melody — is very haunting and really touched me right away, brought tears to my eyes and everything; and for “My Portion” I love the delicate melody and the way it floats across major 7ths in the guitar at certain points. It just makes the music soar. Also loving Songs of Deliverance. It’s hard to choose as a listener. [laughs] But I’m always curious about the artist’s perspective. Do you have any favorite songs or favorite themes on the new album at this point?
Yeah, I do. There’s a reason I named the record “As Sure as the Sun” because I sat down to write that song during a time when my husband and I were hoping to start a family. And I was thinking about what I would want this little kid that we were dreaming of to know more than anything else, to know in the depths of their being. And as I sang, what I found was this is really the truth that I need to know in the depths of my being too! [laughs] And that song is inspired from Hosea 6:3: “let us acknowledge the Lord, let us press on to acknowledge Him, for as surely as the sun rises He will appear, He will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.” And man I struggle a lot with worry in my life. In fact, if I don’t have anything to worry about today, I borrow worry from another day! [laughs] But one thing I never fall asleep wondering about at night is whether the sun is going to come up the next morning. It’s a sure bet. And He says that’s how sure His presence and His love and His mercy are — as sure as the sun arises every morning. And yet I doubt His love and His faithfulness and the fact that He’s Emmanuel — God With Us — all the time. And so I love that He compares His mercy and His love to something as certain as the sun coming up every morning because it always does. And so singing that over my little girl now — we have a little girl, Emmylou, she is about one now — is so sweet because as I’m singing it to her I feel like I’m singing it just as much to my soul. It’s truth that I forget all the time, but it’s truth that I have to remember because it changes me when I remember it. And it’s truth that I pray that I’ll know and that she’ll know in the very depths of her being. So that song [“As Sure as the Sun”] is probably my favorite right now.
That’s awesome. I actually have a daughter and she’s approaching two. Has your daughter been engaging with your music or responding to it yet?
Yes! I was eight months pregnant when my husband and I recorded our most recent album, called Good Light, that we released with our band. Pretty much if she was ever upset — when she was a little baby she was on the road with us — and if you would play the record for her it would almost immediately calm her down. Pretty awesome but also pretty awkward sometimes: you’d pull up to a friend’s house and be jamming to your own record and you’re like, “This is for her, it’s not for us!” We had a couple embarrassing moments. [laughs]
Yeah like “hey guys we’re really into ourselves over here.” [laughs]
[laughs] “Yeah, we just love our music.” But she really does. We wake her up every afternoon with a song from the band called “The Meters.” Awesome band. Mainly instrumental band. She moves to music, she already feels it, which we love — it’s been really fun. There’s a folk record I was able to make with other moms called “Rain for Roots” — it’s just folk songs for kids, songs that are full of the truth about who Jesus is. I have that on in the car a lot because she loves it and she moves to it, and we taught her a few months ago and [asked her], “Emmylou, who made you?” and she raises her hand and goes “God!” She’ll hear those songs and raise her hands and go, “God!” I love it! I think you’re right. There’s something about music that stirs something in our souls, and it’s so fun to see that it’s happening with her at such a young age. Does your daughter enjoy music as well?
Oh yeah, she does. It’s a total delight to see a kid’s spirit respond even as their mind is still developing.
Yeah, it’s amazing!
Who are your musical influences?
Great question. I grew up on the Beatles. That was the main music that we listened to as kids in the car. And my dad has been in the Christian music business for a really long time, really since it started in the 70s. He’s done production for a lot of the artists, so I grew up listening to Amy Grant and wanted to be just like her — like every other girl did growing up in the 80s and 90s. I’ve loved her music. The Sarah Groves record “Add to the Beauty” has gotten me through some pretty intense seasons in my life. And then on the secular side of things I’ve loved what Sara Bareilles and Norah Jones have put out over the years, and then singer-songwriters like Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin as well — to name a few.
Have you heard Norah Jones latest album, “Little Broken Hearts”?
No, I haven’t. It’s on my list of records to buy!
It’s awesome, musically speaking. It’s produced by Danger Mouse, and he’s one of my favorite producers, so I thought I’d recommend that one, at least for its musical style.
It’s on my list. You know, it’s crazy when you’re creating your own music and getting ready to release an album it’s a little all-consuming. So I’ve got this list of records that I’m planning to purchase when we get through the thick of this new album release [laughs].
Speaking of secular artists, your vocal style — the timbres of your voice especially — remind me of Ellie Goulding. I don’t know if you know her.
Yes, I do. I love her music. Thank you!
It just struck me as I listened that this was the first Christian album I’ve heard with a similar feel to Ellie Goulding in the vocal style — which is cool because it’s a very unique sound. It’s also refreshing to hear an artist who is embedding Scripture in song lyrics. I know it’s a strong vision of yours for your music and ministry. It reminds me of how the Hebrews would cantilate and sing the Law to memorize it. Do you find that writing Scripture songs helps you remember certain verses more easily?
Yes. That’s really honestly why I started writing Scripture into song. I started memorizing Scripture with a friend of mine who struggled with depression a couple years back. I was just listening to her talk and there were so many lies she was believing, and I just got really frustrated because all of a sudden I realized I’m probably believing a ton of lies too. And it’s not enough to just say “these are lies, these are lies.” So I wondered what would happen if we would really hang on to what is true? God calls His Word a sword. So I just got ticked off one day and said, “Okay, we’re going to start memorizing these together. These are going to be our fighting words — the swords we use to fight and kick back at the darkness.” I was sick of it [the darkness], honestly. So it was amazing what happened as we began memorizing Scripture together. It gets in your head and all of a sudden I started believing that these Words were true as I would meditate on them and run them over and over again. It started shifting things around in our souls. I thought, “Man, when God says His Word is alive and powerful, I think He means it!” [laughs] Though it was very hard to memorize verses; it still is. We’re still memorizing Scripture together now, and it’s a worthwhile endeavor — but it’s difficult. This is nothing new under the sun, of course, but I can remember a thousand songs with no problem; so, I thought, what if I started to try to write His Word into song? So, yes, song and melody really does help me carry His Words a little bit easier. It’s been such a joy and one of the favorite things I’ve ever done: just sit in God’s Word and let music fall out of that. It’s a lot harder to write His Scripture verbatim word-for-word, but I thought if I could at least grab phrases and ask Him to help me know the heart behind His psalms, the heart behind His promises — if I could kind of weave some of His Word mixed with some of my own words — that could help me remember what’s true. And pressing in to do that is a worthwhile endeavor. That’s exactly why I started writing these.
I think it works. Taking the kernel of an idea of a verse and putting it in the flow of your lyrics — however your song can fit it — really works. For example as I was listening to your album, certain phrases would come up and prompt verses to pop up in my mind. I kept thinking, “Oh hey this part reminds me of that verse and that verse” — like quick little prompts to verses, little seeds of Scripture, even though it’s not verbatim.
And, you know, some of them are. My previous two EPs are more stripped down in production stylistically, but some of them are verbatim, which I love. But it’s hard work to fashion a melody sometimes like that. David did it all the time, but it’s a lot of effort to do that in a way that feels singable and memorable. I try to do that whenever possible, but when I can’t, I resort to just saying, “Well, maybe this will point people back to God’s Word.” If I can encourage my soul with these Scriptural reminders and also play a part in pointing others to God’s Word, then praises be!
Have you ever thought of doing a concept album just based on a book of the Bible, say the book of Romans for example, that would take the listener on a journey through that one book? Has an idea like that crossed your mind?
Yes, it has, it has. It has crossed my mind more so when I’m studying at a Bible Study and walking through those truths with a group of women at church. We’re in this amazing study with these dear young moms and older women — I mean it’s an amazing group of women. Together we press in to the Truth together, which I love, and encourage each other in prayer at my church in Nashville. I was actually just thinking about this, wanting to ask if maybe we could hone in on and circle around one book of the Bible. It’s a daunting task but a worthwhile one. Generally whatever I’m walking through, whatever I’m learning, whatever the Lord is teaching me is what is coming out in song. It’s a cathartic process for me in a way. It helps solidify what I’m learning and seeing to be true in my life and in the people around me and in my community. That’s a great question that will hopefully inspire something that I could write in the future!
I’m a total sucker for concept albums so my mind naturally went in that direction, but either way I just love the Scripture emphasis in your music and ministry; it’s great. So will you begin touring soon to support your new album?
We did a Kickstarter campaign to raise support to pay for the album to be made. My manager said it would be great if we could take this to radio. So we did a campaign to raise $40,000 in 50 days and it ended up raising $108,000, which kinda blew my mind! One of the rewards we offered in that Kickstarter campaign were house shows, so that’s what my Spring is going to look like: going to different houses of people who said, “Hey, we believe in you and we believe in this music, come play in our living room and we’ll donate $2,000 to your record and to help get your music out there on the radio.” So that’s what a lot of the Spring will look like, which is amazing; I can’t think of anything more fun than just to thank the people for sowing into this project, and then getting to share the songs that they’re helping to support and get out there to the world. Pretty amazing. That will be this Spring, and then a bunch of festivals this summer that are just starting to come in — which I’m so thrilled about. Then we just started talking to different artists about the Fall, and I’m going out with David Crowder for about six days in the Fall to fill in some dates that All Sons and Daughters couldn’t do. I’m thrilled about that and looking forward to other offers that are coming in.
Wow, that’s a very exciting year!
It is. It’s going to be a blast!
You know the living room thing, that’s becoming an interesting trend. Grant-Lee Phillips, he’s a fairly well-known secular artist — he’s actually doing living room concerts too. So I’m hearing of it more often. It’s a very cool development in music in general — that up close connection with the artist. I wish you the best with all the shows and the living room tours. I really hope your album does well because it’s just flowing with God’ love. I am praying that it will transform a lot of lives in your shows. I really believe it will.
Thank you so much for saying that; I really appreciate it and that’s my prayer too!