Audrey Assad (www.audreyassad.com) is a thirty-year-old singer, pianist, and songwriter who has steadily established herself in recent years as an exceptional musical artist with a gift for deeply spiritual lyrics and memorable melodies.
Assad was raised in a Protestant home in New Jersey, then moved with her family to Florida in her late teens where she began to study and learn more about Catholicism. She entered the Church in 2007. Her first album, The House You’re Building (2010), was recognized on Amazon.com as Christian Album of the Year and by iTunes as Christian Breakthrough Album of the Year. Her second album, Heart (2012), was critically acclaimed and reached #3 on the Billboard Christian Albums chart. The lyrics in those albums revealed the influence of St. Augustine, the Jesuit poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the poet Francis Thompson.
Her new, self-produced album, Fortunate Fall, was released this past August.
Assad recently answered some questions from Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about her music, her decision to become Catholic, the influence of Augustine on her writing, and why Catholic artists need to pursue beauty and truth, no matter the cost.
CWR: Your first two studio albums, The House You’re Building and Heart contained many songs oriented toward worship, but your new album, Fortunate Fall, is focused entirely on music to be used in personal devotion and public worship. What inspired you to pursue making such an album? How do you envision your music being used in liturgy and in private prayer?
Assad: After making my first two albums (and after a few years in the music business) I found myself at a personal crossroads: I asked myself what, as a Catholic, I should be doing in the world—and how I should be making music. In that period of discernment I came to the conclusion that there is no room in my artist’s heart for making “Christian pop” — less still for making what has come to be known as “Contemporary Christian music.” In these phrases, the word “Christian” is a modifier, not a noun—essentially, it’s become a marketing term. I don’t believe that’s how the word should be used. So going forward, I don’t make “Christian music”, even when it’s intended for the Church. I make Church music, and that’s what Fortunate Fall is.
As you stated, the music on Fortunate Fall is intended for personal devotion and public worship. I envision it being incorporated into anything from prayer time in the car on the way to work to Adoration and even, in some cases, Mass — based on the Church’s guidelines, we did our best to notate appropriate usages in the liner notes. Hopefully that’s helpful to those who pick up a physical copy!
CWR: The influence of St. Augustine is front and center, from the title of the album to the lyrics of many of the songs. When did you first discover Augustine and how has he affected you as a person and an artist?
Assad: I discovered St. Augustine as I was on my way into the Catholic Church—I was confirmed in 2007. In the two years of study I did before coming into the Church, St. Augustine was a steady and pulsing voice in my reading. Though he and C. S. Lewis are different, I think they share this similarity, and thus share a large amount of influence in my work: they both think like philosophers and write like poets. I can’t compare myself to either of them, but they inspire me in that way, and in that way I hope to be as like them as possible.
CWR: Three themes stand out upon repeated listens: the Incarnation, redemption, and abandonment to God’s will. What are some of the key connections you see among the three? What other themes were central to the writing and making of the album?
Assad: For me the themes of Fortunate Fall are connected most simply in that they all stemmed from my meditations on Augustine’s oft-quoted phrase, “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to never permit evil to exist.” As I thought on those words during the writing of this album, I found myself sort of trailing off into these various rabbit trails of meditation; and so I composed the record in three movements, underneath that overarching theme. The first movement is focused on the humility of Christ and the poverty of being human; the second, on Psalm 23; and the third, on the Holy Spirit. I found myself intoxicated somewhat by these ideas—that the Fall gave birth to the need for Christ’s Incarnation—that if Christ is truly the Good Shepherd, then abandonment to God’s will is not only logical, but wonderful. And so I made a record that explored those ideas.
CWR: What is the creative process—especially songwriting and being in the studio—like for you? What was it like to have so much control of the project, as you produced the album yourself and without being signed to a label?
Assad: My creative process is always evolving, but I can definitely list certain common occurrences based on my experience—I typically go through a long period of listless boredom, waiting around for inspiration to strike. This can take months. An idea finally sparks and catches fire, and I’m off like a shot, living, breathing, eating and sleeping the project. Eventually I’m spent and I move on in my head to the next period of waiting. It’s a lot of “hurry up and wait”, like most vocations. But there are these periods of flash and intensity that I must say I enjoy very much.
Having so much creative control this time around was a real ballast for me—in the past, making my previous records, I experienced a lot more negative emotions and feelings of guilt that I wasn’t doing the best work I could. This time I knew that, though I may be capable of better in the future, this was the best I was capable of at that moment in my life—and I slept much more peacefully because of that than I ever had while making my other records. It’s really nice not making creative decisions “by committee”, as you often must do when you are signed to a record label. My team grew much, much smaller, and I had most of the say—and that simplified the artistic process for me a lot. It also magnified the areas where I felt weakest, therefore allowing me to work on them with focus and intentionality.
CWR: Who are some of the major influences upon you as a musician? In addition to Augustine, who are some of your favorite authors?
Assad: I’m heavily influenced by several pop artists—perhaps mostly by Paul Simon. In addition, I definitely count Sarah McLachlan as an influence, especially her work in the 1990s and early 2000s. My favorite author is Leo Tolstoy—others include Jane Austen, Sigrid Undset, and C.S. Lewis.
CWR: You entered the Catholic Church in 2007, and in a 2011 interview you said you did so because, “I want to belong to a Church that knows what it is and it is what it is.” How has becoming Catholic affected you as an artist and person? And, In general, how have Evangelicals accepted your decision and your music since?
Assad: Being Catholic has affected me in more and bigger ways than I could possibly hope to communicate. The Sacraments have a way of changing people, and I can attest to that personally. As an artist specifically, though, I can say that it has given me freedom and permission to be bolder, braver, and better in my art. Not only has it permitted me to, but it has instructed me to do so, in both its teaching and in its long tradition of sacred and non-sacred art. Since coming into the Church I have split my career into different sections—one being Church music, in which Fortunate Fall is included, and one being pop music, which I am working on under another name (LEVV). Being Catholic has made these two things seamless and permissible, even beneficial; my Evangelical upbringing made it difficult for me to see how a song that didn’t say “Jesus” could be beautiful, good, or true. I now know that Beauty is not really about overtness or agenda—that is closer to propaganda than art. (Propaganda is not always a bad thing, by the way. But I am not a propagandist, I am an artist.)
I haven’t had much trouble feeling accepted by the Evangelical community, actually. Typically they’re very warm and welcoming, perhaps partially due to my past as a Protestant. We have a lot of common ground and experience. I find myself dialoguing a lot both on an individual level and on an overarching social level (thanks to Twitter and Facebook) about the Church, her structure, and her role in the world. I’m thankful to have the chance to participate in that discussion.
CWR: What can Catholics do better to invade (if you will) and influence today’s popular culture?
Assad: Well, my opinions are so biased, based on my experience in the “Christian music industry”: so you and your readers ought definitely to take them with a grain of salt. I think we Catholics can and should stop copying/participating in the current Christian subculture in both ministry and art. Specific to music, artists ought to either make Church/sacred music or just regular old music, or both separately, if they wish—and we ought to abandon the practice of making pop music “for Christians only.”
Making music that is not intended for Church use, but is intended only for Christian listeners, is not a Catholic approach to art and never has been, in my opinion. Let’s learn from the mistakes of Christian subculture in the West and seek to achieve something brighter, higher, and better—let’s be artists, makers, and creators out in the culture doing good work with the best of them, witnessing in our very pursuit of excellence and integrity to the Beauty that is most full in the Sacrament. Let’s not be followers, but leaders. And above all let’s not use “Christian” or “Catholic” as marketing terms, speaking only to our own, and “being combers of sheep”, as Pope Francis put it.* I think we would impact the culture at a much deeper level if we learned to be great at what we do and stopped sitting around combing each other’s hair—er, fleece. That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it!
(* Pope Francis in his address at the Annual Convention of the Diocese of Rome in June 2013: “The Lord wants pastors, not combers of sheep: pastors! And when a community is closed, aways among the same people who talk, this community is not a community that gives life.” I recognize that these remarks were addressed to priests/pastors, but I think artists can take a cue from them as well.)