Songs In the Key of Eternal Life

Singer, pianist, and songwriter Audrey Assad reflects on the making and music of her new album, "Inheritance".

Inheritance, the new album by singer, songwriter, and pianist Audrey Assad [], releases today. A collection of hymns and original songs, the beautiful, contemplative album features Audrey’s crystalline vocals and tasteful piano in lush, cinematic-like settings, courtesy of co-producer Daniel James.

The singer, on her website, harkens back to her childhood in a Plymouth Brethren community (she entered the Catholic Church in 2007, as she discusses in my 2013 interview with her), saying, “I was raised in a church where we didn’t use any instruments on Sunday mornings … I learned to sing there, from the old hymnbooks, in four-part harmony, with my family and my neighbors. It was multi-generational, it was deep and rich and beautiful, and like most of my favorite worship music, it was steeped in community.” Inheritance pays full respect to a number of classic hymns—”Holy, Holy, Holy”, “Be Thou My Vision”, “It Is Well With My Soul”—while also drawing on Catholic liturgical music (“Ubi Caritas”) and seamlessly mixing in an original song inspired by modern Christian martyrs.

Audrey’s 2013 album Fortunate Fall revealed the influence of St. Augustine, the Jesuit poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the poet Francis Thompson; her 2014 EP Death, Be Not Proud took up themes of loss and suffering, including her husband’s fight against cancer. Last fall, she performed with Matt Maher, a frequent co-writer, at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

CWR recently corresponded with Audrey about the music and making of Inheritance.

CWR: The song choices on Inheritance are interesting on a number of levels, but is it accurate to say that a reoccurring theme is the greatness and grace of God in the face of evil and death? How did the choice of songs come about?

Audrey Assad: I was actually assisted in the selection process by fans on my PledgeMusic campaign for Inheritance last year. I did select the pool of hymns on which they voted, but a lot of these came out at the top in the little polls we ran—so, I suppose that was the trend in my fanbase, and I was very happy with how the voting went—I love all the songs we recorded.

CWR: On another level, the songs—as the album title indicates as well—suggest a joyful acknowledgement of various musical and spiritual streams that flow into who you are as a person and artist. What are some of those streams?

Audrey Assad: I was raised in the Plymouth Brethren tradition, where we sang a cappella on Sunday mornings in four-part harmony. I really and truly miss that so much, especially since at most parishes a singing culture is either long-dead or just not being encouraged. I did name it Inheritance to honor, re-visit, and pay homage to the wealth and treasury of songs that have actually lasted beyond their eras (and, of course, I pulled it from “Be Thou My Vision”) but also to introduce them to Catholics who may not have heard them.

You also hear the Ubi Caritas on this album, with a new tune that I wrote and some Middle Eastern drums underneath. So there you certainly can hear my Catholicism and my Syrian heritage (as well as my two years of Latin in high school, I hope).

CWR: What was different in your approach to the instrumentation and production of this album compared to previous ones?

Audrey Assad: Because I didn’t actually write most of the songs, we (my co-producer, Dan James, and myself) chose to take a ‘scoring’ approach—we almost treated each song like a tiny short film and tried to write a score to it. We strategized sonic directions for each song and made palettes of sonic references, colors, visuals, and even movie scenes. For example, for “How Can I Keep From Singing” I wanted to record something that felt like floating down a river in a big inner tube, trailing my finger in the water. And for “Be Thou My Vision,” I took what typically is the largest and most bombastic of the verses (the last one) and instead we took all the drums out and tried to evoke cresting a mountain in the dazzling sunlight, in order to highlight the words “May I reach heaven’s joys, o bright heaven’s sun.”

Overall I would say I took a much more of a cinematic approach than I have on my other records, but Inheritance still landed in the same sort of “prayer cycle” format as Fortunate Fall did.

CWR: What is the story behind your original song “Even Unto Death”?

Audrey Assad: I was watching a video released on February 15, 2015 by the Islamic State of their execution of the twenty-one Coptic Christians on a beach on the Mediterranean Coast. I remember being so grieved not only by their deaths, but also for the precious souls of the twenty-one men who executed them—it was as if the Lord gave me a bit of His own grief and love for all forty-two men standing on that beach.

I felt so unified with the martyrs in that moment…and I desired to adopt their prayers as my own prayer. And for some reason that brought to mind a hymn I grew up singing—”Jesus, the very thought of Thee with sweetness fills my breast—but greater far Thy face to see, and in Thy presence rest.” So the song was begun. Matt Maher helped me finish it. Incidentally Pope Tawadros II of the Egyptian Coptic Church did saint them and declare them martyrs. Their feast day is on the same day they celebrate the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.

CWR: How have the events in recent years in the Middle East affected you as a Christian and as someone of Syrian descent?

Audrey Assad: Well, speaking particularly of Syria for the moment (my father is from Damascus, and came here as a refugee in the 1970s) I could never entirely put words to how it feels to watch the implosion of Syria’s infrastructures and the horrid, shocking extent of the suffering of the Syrian people. I walk around every day with a heavy load, a burden on my heart I cannot articulate. I feel the Lord gave me a bit to carry, and I must say it’s overwhelming. I do weep quite a lot. I feel helpless some days—the problems are so enormous, complex, and beyond me. But over and over the Lord comforts me that I am climbing up onto the cross with Him, where I belong.

And my husband and I are praying about adopting Syrian children—hopefully several siblings—someday when they inevitably arrive on our shores. But until then I just keep trying to share my father’s story and my family’s story in order to humanize the concept of “Syrian refugee” in the minds of those who may not have ever met one. It goes without saying that the overwhelmingly fearful response to Syrian refugees in this country has been heartbreaking for me to watch—but I am encouraged every day by good stories I read, too. I am partnering with several organizations who are resettling refugees in the United States every day, and I hope to work with them both personally and professionally for many years to come.

(Photo: Audrey Assad)

About Carl E. Olson 1064 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.