Shelby Lynne and Jennifer Knapp are two strong women who are not shy about sharing their feelings and convictions. This month, both artists return with new fiery albums--Lynne with Tears, Lies, And Alibis, her most personal release to date, and Knapp with Letting Go, a project that overtly bucks traditional Christian markets while maintaining her faith and honesty. The following are interviews with the two artists during which they discuss their recordings, and offer opinions on topics including the state of the music industry, taking a break from it, the creative process, our culture, and American Idol.
A Conversation With Shelby Lynne
Mike Ragogna: Let's talk about your new album Tears, Lies And Alibis. Did you record it with a plan?
Shelby Lynne: No, because I wrote a lot of songs for this record, and the end result was thinking about the present in some kind of way.
MR: From your perspective, which are the ones that came from the deepest place?
SL: They all come from such a raw, real, honest place, Michael, I don't know if I'm any closer to any particular one. They're all pretty special to me.
MR: The album flows pretty easily. When you sequenced Tears, Lies, And Alibis, were you conscious of linking the songs together in some way?
SL: The way I did it was music over content because the songs are all so different lyrically. The instrumentation and choosing the players, using the right licks here and there, and the instruments are mainly the glue because I had over twenty songs for it. My pet peeve is making a record that's too long. So, I had to really get down to brass tacks and make choices, and I definitely spent time alone trying to make the right choices. Then one day, it just went boom, boom, boom, boom--these are the ones. And I think it was the same day I came up with the title.
MR: Yeah, it's definitely got an attitude.
SL: Kind of an old country sound.
MR: Over the years, you've released quite a few records, and every single time, I can remember promotion departments and the press touted your records as, "The best Shelby Lynne you've ever heard!" What's it like having to live up to that hype every time you release a new album?
SL: Well, man, I'll tell you. The label thing had gotten to be such a drag with the last two or three albums. It just really got to be such a drag dealing with them every time I finish a record and I'm so proud of it. I get ready to put it out and go, "Oh no not again, here we go. I just got to find a solution here." It's just gotten to be too corporate-y and too business-y, and there's just not any art, no music, no caring about the artist, no nurturing the catalog. It's honestly the truth, it's gotten to be such a drag that I just couldn't do it anymore. It wasn't fun.
MR: With your new album, you seem to be trying to change the dynamic by controlling its fate. Returning to your earlier point, what kind of balance do you think exists in the music industry between art and its marketing?
SL: The music industry has gone to the dogs and it's in the toilet. They don't care about music. They don't care about the artist. They just don't care. You know, that's why artists don't have any long careers anymore. They sign the wrong people for the wrong reasons. It's all about money.
MR: There's also the back catalog to deal with. Do you think the labels are their best caretakers?
SL: It gets tougher to take our music back. You can't make a living on a major label. They take all the money. They make all the money because they have all those salaries to pay, and they don't give a damn if you're starving. I knew when I was getting ready to do the press on this record that they'd be asking me about the whole thing, and this is the way I feel about it. I'm not mad and I'm not bitter. I am free.
MR: And there's that wonderful 360 deal, probably the most offensive approach to an artist that labels have ever concocted. Basically, it takes control of every element of an artist's potential livelihood beyond records--name and likeness, photos, new non-musical product lines, concert revenues, t-shirts...
SL: That's wrong. That's why I tell this to anybody starting out who asks, "What do we do?" First off, if you think the major label thing is your answer, please don't do it. Just buy yourself a $3.00 calculator and you'll know why. It's ridiculous, and I feel bad for these little young cats that really want to have a label and stuff. You're really honestly better with CD's in the back of a Cadillac and doing your own damn record.
MR: Then there's a new business model and culture that's evolved out of American Idol.
SL: Well, American Idol is part of the problem.
MR: As much as it's blasphemous to say such things, I think you're right.
SL: It's so much a part of the problem because the standard is so f*****g low. That's why we're bombarded with too much crap. You have to keep your standards somewhat in a realm of taste. I'm sorry, I do not agree with that s**t.
MR: And there's the shock value Simon provides, verbally throwing many of these talented kids to the lions for its entertainment value, though I think he believes it's good for them in some way.
SL: It's not about any talent. I tell you what, when I was a kid, I would have done anything in my power to get on American Idol, if it had existed. But you know, now that I'm a 42-year-old woman, I'm going, "My God, if you want to find good music, you really, really either have to know where to look or you just stumble on it. You have to really, really search and search and dig to find it because we're so bombarded with American Idol level mediocrity that we've forgotten what it's about. It's about being 75-years-old and still being able to look at your catalog of work and go, "You know what? There's not a bad apple in the bunch!" I want to be that 75-year-old woman, still singing, still making records and going, "You know, I ain't done that bad." At least I can sleep at night, put my head on the pillow and go, "I never sold out."
MR: Where do you find the music you like these days?
SL: Well, I'm lucky, I have KCRW. I listen to that a lot. Those guys have good taste and have turned me on to a lot of things. Certain magazines that are a little obscure. Man, there are so few magazines left anymore. But it's definitely not the Rolling Stone. Those times are gone. It's over with. Rolling Stone might as well be on the American Idol rack.
MR: What about any websites?
SL: You know, I'm not much of a computer person. I'm not one to sit around and dig around the computer all the time. I have a lot of friends who like the weird, kooky stuff and we help each other out. "Hey, check this out" or "Dig on this!"
MR: This is a weird time for music. Despite many people liking this or that, it's so hard to know where artists and their music are heading.
SL: I don't know what's going to happen either, Michael, until the artists start saying, "You know what, f**k you and your record deal. I'm going to go do it the old-fashioned way and have my pride."
MR: So, touring is in your immediate future, what will that be like?
SL: Well, I'll just take a couple of guys out. We're not doing drums. It's going to be a low-key show. And I'll just incorporate my other work into it, you know
MR: So you're going to mainly be covering this new record, but will you also be performing some of your older hits?
SL: Oh sure, yeah.
MR: Where are you heading?
SL: California, all the way to the East Coast, and then back to California. Then we'll take a break and do it again this summer.
MR: Are you going to take any opening acts on the road with you?
SL: I've got this guy, Findlay Brown, who's got a pretty good little record out. He's going to go out acoustic and open for us. I haven't met him yet, but I sure like his records.
A Conversation With Jennifer Knapp
Mike Ragogna: So, you have a new record. What's it been, like an eight-year hiatus?
Jennifer Knapp: I think I did my last show late 2002, I think in Virginia somewhere. I haven't played a note since. I pretty much walked off the stage, and that was it for a good long while. I didn't play even at home or privately for about five years. I was that burned-out.
MR: What was going through your mind on that last night in Virginia?
JK: I was pretty relieved, actually. You go through stages of grief. I basically spent the year knowing that show, in particular, was going to be my last show. What I didn't know was whether it was going to be the last for all time, or if I was just taking a break. I suppose in our fast-paced world, you kind of have to take a break. At the time, everyone was telling me that the second you say you don't want to do this anymore, everyone's going to forget about you and the music you have to offer. I think it's a bit of a gauntlet to have to run through, but there are plenty of artists that I've listened to over the years that really do take massive time between releases, taking time to write and work on songs before they expose them to the public. I think Natalie Merchant is a really great example of this with her long career that she's had from her early days in 10,000 Maniacs to this new release that she just put out in April--it's been quite a long time since she last put out a record. So, I think there are a lot of artists that really do take a long time to get to the core of things, and I think art comes from a very intimate place for most people.
The big issue for me was that I just wasn't getting that time to find out what I really wanted to write and why music was really important to me. I think stepping off the stage at that point was a little bit of a leap of faith. I didn't know for sure if I just needed to have this time to try and find new inspiration, or if it would ever even come back--perhaps I lost my mojo, and that was the end of it. But just getting back into the process of this new record, I felt refreshed, and I felt I had a couple of things that I really wanted to write about. It was actually a whole other process of figuring out if I was legitimate in coming back to my music, and I was a little bit scared. Was I going to burn out again if I shared this with other people? But it was just a really great process in the discovery of my own art, and what it means to me as a person regardless of whether or not I share that publicly. I think it's really important for an artist to have time in those quiet places to figure out what it is that's trying to break free.
MR: Was there a significant moment when you knew you wanted to start creating music again?
JK: A little bit. I've been traveling a lot over the last few years, keeping myself quite occupied with going places and building relationships with just normal people and seeing the world. I don't know. That started to die down, and I was sitting at home, starting to get a little bit depressed, thinking, 'What am I going to do next? Do I go get a job? Do I go to school? What is it that I do?"...knowing in the back of my mind--being afraid actually--that if I sat down and wrote music, maybe it would be a complete and utter failure, so why would I want to do that? I think for me, it was a little bit picking up my guitar. It was a matter of going through that process, and realizing how much music has been an integral part of my life, and in how I participate in my community and in my own self and self-discovery. I think it was about 2008 when I said to myself, "Man, what are you waiting for? Just write. Don't worry about everybody else. Don't worry about thinking that this music is ever going to be heard by anyone else. Just remember that music used to be a really important thing to you and maybe it still is. Why don't you sit down and start trying to write something? Don't worry about what it sounds like. Don't worry about whether the lyrics are going to offend anyone. Just write for yourself."
I think getting past that hurdle, for me, was pretty significant, and then, as soon as I started to relax a little bit, I started really gravitating back to the community that music creates. These songs were really fun for me to play at home, and I started to get a little fire in my belly, just going, "Man, this is silly to sit here and play this song in your room by yourself. You're chicken. Go out and see if people are going to respond to this."
I don't know. I think music is meant to share. I played it for my friends, and it's that same original, organic process which led me to recording for the public in the first place. There's something we can all find in ourselves that we can share with others. I suppose the question is whether or not we're going to allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough for other people to be able share in it. That process for me was a huge watershed moment in coming back.
MR: So, apparently, all this new creativity also has turned you into quite the "Tweeter."
JK: (laughs) It's certainly entertaining and fun to do that. It's actually really cool for me, kind of a reconnecting with the public. That's a big part of it, at least. Twitter is a comforting tool...meeting people and chatting and seeing what's going on with others and kind of coming out of my shell a little bit. It's entertained me, but it's also kind of therapeutic.
MR: Katy Perry is your Twitter fan.
JK: Yeah, we have a bit of a history. It's been a long time since I've seen Katy. We've shared a few conversations over the years, and it's kind of funny that she remembers me. It's kind of funny how everyone goes, "You'll forget me when you're famous."
MR: Do you have anything on this new record that's particularly close to your heart?
JK: I'm kind of weird because I don't listen to the record much, so my experience of it is in the performance of it. Right now, I'm enjoying "Dive In." It's really energetic. I usually start my shows off with it. The song reminds me to kind of step up to the ledge and just jump off. Then I think on the other end of it, there's another song called "Better Off." I think that song kind of gives me a sense of peace about the journey I find myself on sometimes, conflicted between trying to please others and please myself. I think that song, in particular, is speaking volumes to me right now. But I'm rather fluid and tend to change, so it might be different tomorrow.
MR: You've had a lot of success in the Christian market. Was there a conscious effort to stay a little more Christian in the past than you do on this new record?
JK: I think there's a couple of ways to look at. Kansas is the first record that I wrote. All the songs on the record were songs that I had written as an anonymous person struggling with their faith. I had just come into Christianity and was using music to kind of wander through that journey in this new kind of framework that I'd found my life in. I had hesitated a long time about signing with a Christian music label, but ended up signing with Gotee. Obviously, that record made an impact far more than I ever thought it would, and I definitely became known as an artist within the Christian music industry.
With a second record, I think you kind of have to move on to a little different brand. You have to step back and look at the broader picture. I was signed with a Christian music company who distributed their records through Christian retailers, Christian bookstores. It's largely with an eye on creating music for the church, although, I don't think that's the case, entirely. I ended up having records sold at Borders, Walmart, Target, major retailers across the planet, too. But from a marketing standpoint, the expectation of the artist within that type of system is that we are people who are sharing our specific faith about Christianity.
I did purposely write this next record without regard to trying or not trying to fit into that marketplace, but rather, just to write a record in and of itself. It's not for use in a sanctuary in that respect. It's not trying to necessarily continue on the same conversation with the community of people that share my faith, but it's a record that moves on--not in the sense of moving away, but more in expanding where and how we talk. Sometimes, I think faith intersects, at least for me, in some of the music. But it's not particularly branded in the dialogue that was expected of me as a "Christian" artist.
MR: All the expectations people can have once they put you in that category must be maddening too.
JK: It's understandable. It's an honorable thing to have an understanding of the conversation that's required of you in the room and the place that you're in. That's something that I always deeply respect, no matter where I'm at. I found myself at one time totally working in a Christian music industry, but also getting opportunities to go and then play places that weren't necessarily familiar with that same kind of conversation. A lot of state fairs are a really great example of, you know--it's not a church. The people that are coming there want to come and listen to music. They don't want to hear you try to convince them of your faith. If it intersects with your art, that's fine, but this isn't church, so let's understand where we're at. That process is a little frustrating. It's just interesting because I don't think everyone lives their entire lives within the walls of their church. They go out, they move places, they go to work, they have jobs. There are all these places that we find ourselves, and faith does intersect in those things, but we don't always define them that way.
MR: Do you feel that the Christian market is opening up a little more at this point and might it become more embracing and accepting of different themes in the music?
JK: I haven't participated as a performer in the Christian music industry for quite some time. I'm playing largely pubs and clubs and theaters and such. I think, from an audience standpoint, the people that come to my shows have related to the music about my faith, but are also just as willing to move on with things that aren't necessarily specifically about my faith. From what I've seen and experienced in conversations with people on the street who have long gotten their music from Christian music bookstores, I suppose people are just trying to figure out how to integrate their faith into their lives. Obviously, the revelations that I've expressed caused quite a bit of controversy and disappointment.
At the same time, there's been an outpouring from just regular people who are finding themselves identifying with my journey and are having to contend with that. There are plenty of people who listen to Christian music that don't necessarily try to define their lives solely by their faith. Music tends to be a reflection of who we are and what we want and what we question. It would only seem logical to me that it begins to express itself more openly.
As far as the attitude from the people who are actually participating in that community, defining the rules and social standards for people they want to be getting their music from--that's up to them. So, your question is the same question I have. I wonder what's going to happen. I wonder how people are going to respond. I wonder if people are going to include me just as much at the end of the day. I realize that the record that I made isn't one that's going to be sold at Christian bookstores. I knew that going into it. It's a real question whether or not people who bought the other records are capable of being in those environments. I'm really curious.
MR: Based on what you said, what do you advise kids who are getting into music right now and interested in the Christian market, in particular?
JK: That's a good question. People are always asking, "How do I make it?" My answer is relatively stock, and it hasn't changed throughout the course of my experience with music, either within the church or outside of it. I think, as an artist, you have to find the things that you want to communicate and then be excellent at that craft. To me, art is a sacred place. I think there's a lot of vulnerability when we begin to speak about the secrets of ourselves, and what music does is reveal that secret. That's pretty much the end of it, really. I think that whatever you do as an artist, you should be participating in your craft, and try to be as honest to that craft as you possibly can. And if that leads you to the church, then so be it. Be faithful to that particular avenue that you aspire to. I really hesitate to ever lock anyone into a particular box of how or where they should pursue their heart's craft. At the end of the day, most of the people I ever meet that play are anonymous...people that have never been heard. I got half-a-dozen records from my show last night given to me by people that I've never heard of. They're just guys that need to play, want to play, want to express themselves, and I think that's one of the most beautiful things on the planet. Where and when you do that, you'll find your audience if you continue.
SINGER SONGWRITER JENNIFER KNAPP'S NEW ALBUM, LETTING GO, DEBUTS ON BILLBOARD TOP 200 ALBUM CHART AT #73
Knapp Returns From Seven Year Hiatus with an hour interview on CNN's Larry King Live
Singer songwriter Jennifer Knapp's latest album, Letting Go, debuts at #73 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart. The Grammy nominated, Dove Award winning artist returns from a seven year hiatus with several high profile interviews including an hour on CNN's Larry King Live. Knapp, labeled a Christian musician, recently shocked fans and the world with news of her sexuality as she announced she was a lesbian.
Knapp continues to tour and will also perform on this summer's Lilith Fair Tour. Recorded in Nashville, Letting Go is produced by Paul Moak (Mat Kearney, Martha Wainwright, Amy Grant) and features ten intimate folk, country tinged rock songs showcasing her astonishing straightforwardness and spirituality.
Knapp's impressive history includes selling over one million albums with her previous releases Kansas (debut 1998), Lay It Down (2000), and The Way I Am (2001). The Kansas-born musician toured the globe with artists such as Jars of Clay and was featured on 1999's Lilith Fair tour. She received critical acclaim with The Los Angeles Times calling her "a rising star" and People Magazine describing her as "an uncommonly literate songwriter." Jennifer went on to win her first Dove Award in 1999 for Best New Artist, scored a Grammy nod in 2002 and another Dove nomination in 2003. With a considerable fan base, critical and commercial successes, Knapp walked away from it all at the height of her career. After seven years of soul searching and time spent in Australia, Knapp comes full circle with Letting Go.
Jennifer Knapp tour dates:
May 22 Charlottsville, VA The Southern
May 23 Richmond, VA Canal Club
June 3 Charleston, SC The Windjammer
June 4 Orlando, FL The Social
June 6 Jacksonville, FL Jack Rabbits
July 15 Kansas City, MO Capitol Federal Park @ Sandstone Lilith Fair
July16 St Louis, MO Verizon Wireless Amphitheater Lilith Fair