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Communiqué Interview: Sarah Masen
by Jason Boyett

The ideas play themselves out in quirky metaphor, bundles of words and images that read as stream-of-consciousness poetry loosed within a melody. But the ideas are there, plain to see, and carry with them an attitude that's often hard to find in the Christian music industry.

From her lyrics ("...and the stories in my pockets are the best I've ever lived / so what if they don't sell sell sell" -- from "stories in my pockets") to the liner notes in her last album, *Carry Us Through* ("Yelp. We get to live our lives out in front of each other -- breaks and all."), Sarah Masen doesn't always play it safe. Her music follows suit. Following the critical and commercial success of her self-titled debut album, she side-stepped that album's hooky, acoustic pop for a more eclectic mix of blues, gospel and rock.

Masen was plucked from relative obscurity when she was nineteen. Her older brother obtained the e-mail address of producer Charlie Peacock and asked whether he could send some of Masen's music. Soon after, she signed with re:think, Peacock's indie label, and everything started from there. In keeping with that tradition (and because the "real-life" interview was disrupted by a snowstorm), Communique conducted the entirety of this interview by e-mail, during which Masen wrote of the songwriting process, the nature of the industry, and the gospel according to Lauryn Hill.

 

CJ: You've been mentioned before by our readers as someone in the Christian music industry whose songs stand out from the rest in terms of lyrical content. They're more poetic, less cliched. Is there a conscious effort to do something different?

SM: it mustn't be a reaction against something--rather and simply an effort to DO something. and even that is...not quite it. we just write don't we? and try to see the incarnation in a lot of things. it pops up in the most peculiar places. even in "christian" music or propaganda or whatever one might call it--mind you it is not always in the form of affirmation--but god is using foolish things and making them interesting sometimes. and as far as "poetic or less cliched"--exploring the limits and power of language is a great and available gift for anyone to write or read or think about. i am for this. hopefully the songs stand out because they have connected deeply with someone-of course, i don't always want to hear how they have connected--it's like someone showing you what's under their band-aid, and i have a queasy stomach.

CJ: I'm interested in your use of the word "propaganda." It sort of suggests an underhanded approach to spreading the faith through the vehicle of music. Is that valid? Is there a place for such artists within "Christian" music?

SM: most people who listen to ccm are already convinced that they are "christian." there isn't much effective sharing (see philemon, v.6), more like affirmation. i would say there is a place for musicians to re-evaluate, educate, rebuke...ccm seems like a tiny little ant hill on the mountain of christian history. and it's maybe crazy to not always see that--crazy and funny--he has the whole world.... i suppose you live where you are--to state the obvious and think out loud. we need perspective; a perspective that is bigger than our own backyards, if you know what i mean. now to maybe answer your question: yes. i think there is a place to share faith within the "christian" music ant hill. it may need it the most. kind of like jesus telling the pharisees they had the religion thing wrong. by the way if you look up religion in the dictionary, it has some ties to the words, "binding" and "constraint"--a bit different from freedom. propaganda feels like it is trying too hard to convince us of something that Truth lives quite naturally and unapologetically.

CJ: Back to your writing... Have you ever been approached from the industry to write "more approachable" lyrics or to use less symbolism and imagery?

SM: yes.

CJ: Can you expand that a little? I've heard there were some problems with the inclusion of your last album under the umbrella of the Gospel Music Association, due to the lack of a clear Christian message (or was it the lack of specific "Jesus" references?). Are you at liberty to discuss that?

SM: i'm at liberty to not care very much. i write what i write. and many times people, friends, even strangers have some amazing advice. sometimes i am quiet enough to notice it, other times i'm a bat. most of the time, specific "jesus" references aren't specific enough or aren't about jesus at all. it is using our lord's name in vain so we can justify, as a friend once said "the personal relationship with the voice in your head." the gospel is the good news, isn't it? the greatest story? well the good stuff sticks around and the bologna gets moldy...i'm interested in the good stuff, wherever that takes us.

CJ: You were a literature major in college. How has that influenced your songwriting? Are there certain authors or works that have been influential?

SM: dante, shakespeare, dostoevsky, anna akmatova, solzhenitsyn, george macdonald, gk chesterton, cs lewis, annie dillard, jean vanier, toni morrison, madeleine l'engle, mary doria russell, dorothy day, lauryn hill, roald dahl...there are others. people say some very wonderful things sometimes, and when i am awake enough to catch it, it influences me greatly.

CJ: Speaking of Lauryn Hill... she's definitely become the new media and critics' darling, which is remarkable for a predominantly hip-hop artist (she's come a long way since "Sister Act 2," which I have to admit I've seen a couple of times). How do you interpret the nature of her sudden appeal? What do you think is behind it?

SM: i think miss hill is giving us her soul. she's living out loud the gospel of christ with lyrics like, "it's time to change the focus from the richest to the brokest." making the weak strong, reminding the poor they are rich in hope, and down but not forgotten--a voice for the people. she has succeeded in reminding us that we are alive and active in this world. that america is not heaven, and indeed there is work, good work to be done--we don't exist on our own here...time to change the focus. though it is becoming increasingly difficult with media and comfort and consumption, i tend to think that people know what's real--this is the mercy of God among the chaos.

CJ: Your husband, David Dark, is a writer. How does the "two-writer dynamic" work in your relationship? Are you able to feed off each other, influence each others' work?

SM: we enjoy the different ways we see and speak and listen to things. we keep each other awake, so we won't miss anything. we do still, but i feel like i catch more with another set of eyes looking. it's a different world david shows me...a beautiful more hopeful world than my own. he changes mine for the better and he says i do the same for him. all the Different gives us more words...i'd say we help each other. sometimes the help is simply his "being around."

CJ: Tell us about the songwriting process. Do you wait for inspiration to hit or do you try to work at it daily?

SM: faulkner said he only wrote when he was inspired...but that he was inspired every day. i'm working on that. it is a daily effort and gift and opportunity.

CJ: Why do you write songs? Why use that medium for artistic expression?

SM: it's what i want to do, i suppose. where the WANT comes from...i don't know. sometimes i think God--but then i write something crap and i can't blame him can i.

CJ: What is the role of a songwriter and musician in relation to the culture, especially for an artist who is a Christian? Is the primary goal to provide good music? Or is there always something deeper?

SM: i'm not sure i believe there is something deeper than "good," and i don't think that's what you are asking. still, the two can exist together. what is good i think IS christian. the goal is to tell a true and good story.

CJ: I think it was Justin Martyr, maybe, who said something to the effect of "everything that is excellent belongs to us Christians." Not so much an arrogant statement but one relating "truth" to "goodness." What's the benefit of hearing "a true and good story"? What do you hope your listeners gain from listening to your music?

SM: it prepares us for the kingdom. for the way the truth and the life. dylan said he who's not busy being born is busy dying.

CJ: A couple of years ago you were quoted as saying, "I haven't found any evidence that faith, art and life are separable." Explain the nature of that relationship.

SM: gerard manly hopkins wrote: "for Christ plays in ten thousand places /lovely in eyes, lovely in limbs not his to the father, / through the features of men's faces" --love salvation art is happening all over the place. they intersect in barnyards and cinemas and new streets and old streets. the inspiration, art, belief, disbelief, retreat is there, here, in the stew and in shakespeare.

CJ: You've also mentioned previously that someday you'd like to be a librarian. Is that still an interest? What attracts you to library science?

SM: books. people talking through books. helping people find what they are looking for, interested in, drawn to, required to learn. i figure i could learn a lot from folks who go to the library.

CJ: What's the last book you've read? What are you currently reading?

SM: last book i read was holy the firm, by annie dillard. i am reading is it a lost cause?...the church's children by marva dawn, jimmy webb's book on songwriting, at the back of the north wind, by george macdonald. plus some pregnancy books.

CJ: I'd heard there's a Masen/Dark baby on the way... congratulations. How's that going? What kind of effect will family responsibilities have on your music/touring/songwriting?

SM: things are going great. children are hope and more life. as far as how it will change family, writing, touring, whatever...it's just more joy. we shall see won't we? i look forward to all of it though.

CJ: What's coming up for you? Are you currently working on a new album or is that still in the future?

i am writing for another album...i enjoy this. not much touring. a show here and there.

CJ: "Carry Us Through" seemed less slick, production-wise, than your first big album ("Sarah Masen") I know Charlie Peacock produced both albums, so I'm wondering... Who was responsible for the move to a more organic/rootsy sound (with all the fun instruments)? Will your upcoming album continue with the style of "Carry Us Through," or will your music continue to evolve?

SM: carry us through was something that just happened. charlie responded to what i was writing. it was a little less than the last album, so we didn't put as much on it. i do not know where the next one will go. i hope it continues to change.

 

I really liked the interview with Sarah Masen. It gave me a peering window into her soul. The questions asked in the interview were deep, prying, and interesting. I would like to see more of these kinds of interviews with Christian music artists/lyricists. Thanks for your work!
-Rachel-

I've just plastered Sarah Masen-isms upon post-it after post-it note all across my office. Thank you for sharing her!

I know very little about the Christian faith and have just recently begun my own faith journey. The more I discover about people with a deep faith, the more appealing and nurturing it becomes -- you guys have really got something here!!

Keep up the good work!

-JJ

 

 

 


©1996-2003 Communiqué: A Quarterly Journal. All Rights Reserved.