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Audrey Assad

Audrey Assad is a singer/songwriter who has been spending her recent years in the indie music circle, making and distributing her music on her own. With the release of her ambitious new hymns album Inheritance, Audrey sat down with's Roger Gelwicks to talk about the new album, the industry and much more...
This interview took place on: February 9, 2016.

Click here for Audrey Assad's Artist Profile page.

  • JFH (Roger Gelwicks): Compare now and where you were in 2010. What's changed about how to make music and how you perform?

    Audrey Assad: Well, it's a lot of things. I really kind of fell into a record deal before I understood what that meant, or what it implied about my creative process, or the sound of my records, or how long it took to recoup an album. There was a lot I didn't know. I did two records, and then a live project, at Sparrow Records before I was actually let go. So since then, I think the biggest change is I now take more of a "CEO" approach. I really understand a lot of the mechanisms in my business and all the things it takes to make it successful. And I have my hand on all of it. I may not do everything, because I'm not good at everything, but at this point, I produce my own records. That means I understand the money side, as well as the creative side. And I delegate lots of stuff to people who know what they are doing. But I really do take an approach as the head of the business. And I didn't do that at the beginning. And that gives me a lot of creative freedom. It also is a lot more work, but I love doing it this way.

  • JFH (Roger): And I know there was a time where you decided you were not going to tour full-time…

    Audrey: Right, which I really am not doing, yeah.

  • JFH (Roger): So what's been your approach, then, to performing a [one-off] show like the one tonight?

    Audrey: So basically, I don't do big tours where I get on a bus and I'm gone for weeks and weekends on weekends on weekends. So it's a little different now. I have a consistent band, but they're not people that I can hire non-stop or on salary. So I get an offer, and I want to do it, and I have to email all of them and say, "are you available this day?" So it's a little bit different in that way. It also really is great because I really only do things that I actually want to do, and I don't just get on a bus and just go along for the ride anymore. It's a very different life, but I like being home. And I have a toddler now, and for me, I'm not the kind of artist who can just afford to bring my kids out on the road all the time and have enough space to do that. So I took a different approach and just decided to stop touring so much. And it's been really healthy. I think being gone for 200 days a year was fine for a few years, but right now, I don't think I could handle that.

  • JFH (Roger): And as you said, you've got full creative control now over how you want your show to be.

    Audrey: Exactly, and it's great. I love my band, and they have ideas, and we actually have a process. And they contribute and we edit things. So it feels very much like a band and like an organic, living kind of thing up on the stage. I love being a part of that. That's really nice.

  • JFH (Roger): So as a "CEO" now, where how you're producing your music, how you're releasing it, how you're touring... what have been the greatest joys and the greatest challenges?

    Audrey: That's a great question. Well, obviously, the greatest joy for me is the feeling that I'm living and dying by my own choices. I just was not the kind of person who thrived emotionally or creatively or financially in the label system at all. And so to have truly stepped into my full potential - I mean, I'm not there - but to start that step into saying "Ok, I'm capable of doing more than just being a product and giving what I have to benefit everyone else." That's how I felt for me at the label and now I have the great joy of just knowing what I am doing is what I'm doing. And the buck does stop with me, and that is actually is the greatest challenge which is that I cannot just wait around for someone else to do something or for an uncomfortable situation comes up - I actually have to deal with it. I am my own manager, even. I don't even have my own manager, anymore. And I think that whole model is going the way of the dinosaur… I think record labels are. And as I sort of develop this boutique team approach, it means that I have to like "man up" and do certain things and have certain conversations... or "woman up," I should say. And I do, and I have to. And I think that's the greatest joy and the greatest challenge of what I do now. I love it and it's also the hardest thing in the world for me, but I wouldn't want to change it.

  • JFH (Roger): And I think you're right about labels. So many artists are either going to PledgeMusic or Kickstarter...

    Audrey: Yeah. I've done both!

  • JFH (Roger): I remember Matt McDonald from The Classic Crime wrote this blog post about how he makes way more money, and is a lot more financially stable, being in an independent band than he ever was on a label.

    Audrey: Yeah! Oh, I absolutely have that experience. Not that I'm rolling in dough, by any stretch, but I was broke at labels. And I had to travel 200 days a year to stay afloat. And so now that I don't have to do that, it's so great to know that releasing content actually benefits me and keeps my bills paid and my kid fed. It's great.

  • JFH (Roger): Let's talk about the new record that comes out Friday. How did the recording process for Inheritance differ from previous records?

    Album Cover

    Audrey: Well, one difference was that I had a co-producer this time. His name was Dan James… is Dan James. He's still alive and with us, thank God. *laughter* He's in a band called Canon Blue, and he's a producer/artist. He co-produced Joy Williams' new record and he's worked on some records that I've just been a huge fan of, one being a record by Among Savages. So I brought him in because I was doing a hymns record - the challenge presented itself to me that artistically that I wanted to present these songs in a fresh way but not really mess with the structure of them. Because I didn't write the words and the melodies. So I was like, "Ok, how do I treat each song like a tiny short film?" and I'm writing a score rather than looking at it as getting a band together and saying, "Ok, play these chords," you know? So it really was more like film scoring, which I have also done, and it was resembled that very much. And so that was definitely different than anything I've ever done. It was really hard and it took longer and cost more money than anything I've ever worked on. But I'm really proud of it. So I'd say those are the biggest differences, you know... the cinematic approach and then the co-producer. So it was very new, and very challenging, and really fun.

  • JFH (Roger): When you say it felt like a film score, that reminds me of how Fortunate Fall is a "soundtrack to prayer." How would you say a hymns record is different than the way Fortunate Fall was organized?

    Audrey: I think it's the same. I look at it as another prayer cycle, the only difference obviously being that I didn't write a lot of the music. I did write some of it - I wrote a new tune to one song ["Ubi Caritas"] and I wrote two originals. It doesn't begin and end with the same sound the way Fortunate Fall did with the heartbeat. But it does begin and end with the same exact musical theme. I think I found an approach that works for me, which is what happens when you sit and listen to this all the way through and then repeat it. And I think that's very much in terms of the whole record in every song and how they relate to each other and how they cycle together. And so I think it has very similar character. But I will say I think there's more range, more big and small moments on this album.

  • JFH (Roger): My personal favorite on the album is "New Every Morning"...

    Audrey: Thank you! Glad you like that.

  • JFH (Roger): It definitely reminds me of something that came on Fortunate Fall; it's that same style, I think.

    Audrey: Yeah, it's one of the only "full band" ones.

  • JFH (Roger): What inspired that song?

    Audrey: Well, it's actually the oldest song on the record, in terms of the originals. I wrote it with Matt Maher in 2013, and we didn't put it out on Fortunate Fall... we were planning to, and decided not to. It just didn't feel like it fit in that family of songs, but it did feel like it fit here. And one of the reasons was it's a hymns record but I did want to include a couple originals, and "New Every Morning" is a song that takes one concept like "God mercies are new every morning" and looks at it from the perspective of all of history, and the beginning of the creation that God even spoke into being, and it says in the Scripture also "Christ was slain before the foundations of the earth." So there's this weird thing where God is entered time but he also transcends time, and I wanted to write something about mercy from that perspective that is essential to the existence of the world. And so it felt like it fit in with hymns not stylistically, but thematically. So that's why we included it.

  • JFH (Roger): I like how it connects Genesis 1:1 with John 1:1.

    Audrey: Yes, that's very intentional. And the other thing is that in the bridge, the lyrics come from a hymn I grew up singing "At the cross where I first saw the light." And so I kind of flipped the whole model of the record on its head for a minute. Which is, I decided I didn't want to write any choruses for any of the hymns, but in the song that I wrote, I wanted to draw some hymn lyrics into it somewhere. So that is where we did that.

  • JFH (Roger): I always like to talk about album artwork, because that's the kind of the person I am. I love album covers.

    Audrey: Awesome! I love that you care! *laughs*

  • JFH (Roger): Talk a little bit about the art direction for Inheritance.

    Audrey: Yeah, so Ben Fehrman-Lee, who did the art direction… well, he did the design for Fortunate Fall - my husband art directed it... Ben is a designer that we met in California. I was actually at a church one day just going to mass, and he approached us and said, "Hi, my name is Ben, I know your music, I love it, I'm a designer and I'd like to talk to you guys." To my husband sat down with him at this hotel we were staying at, and it turned out his work was incredible. When we gave him the idea for Fortunate Fall - if anyone who has an album remembers, there's a crane made of flower petals and leaves. All we really told him was the color palette and that we wanted it to be in homage to stained glass. And he went outside and arranged those petals and he took a picture and that was the first thing he sent us. And we were sort of like "What!? We never thought of that!"

  • JFH (Roger): It's like you don't know how good it can be until you see it.

    Audrey: Yeah, it's amazing. So this time around, we were thinking about brighter colors… It has a very different character than the first record. Originally we were talking about using some marble sculpture statue. Then as we did that, it never took on the look we wanted, so it evolved into this fabric, which looks like fabric you see draped in marble sculptures. And I think the idea was looking for an homage to old religious art. But I really love Rococo art, which is characterized by a lot of bright colors. But it's an old style painting, and so we really wanted to do a modern take on that on Rococo art . I think he nailed it. So the single covers and the record cover all have different iterations of this piece of fabric, which he photographed and then edited. And I like to do things without my face on them - I don't necessarily make that a rule, but I prefer it. And it's nice when you can do something that conveys the record but doesn't have the artist on the front.

  • JFH (Roger): So then what's next after this? I heard something about an Advent-themed record. Could you elaborate on that?

    Audrey: Yeah, I'm planning to track that in May, and it'll come out this year. As of right now, all that I know is that I think it will be about mercy. The Catholic Church has a Jubilee year of mercy going on right now, so that theme is very fresh on my mind… to the incarnation as the mercy of God is what I think I'm going to be writing about. And I will be writing most of it. There will be some traditional songs on it - definitely not "Jingle Bells" traditional, but more Christmas hymns. And I'm really excited about it. I've wanted to do one for so long, and I've never found it an easy thing to accomplish, because you have to do it in the middle of the year. This year I thought, "Well, we're just going to make it happen." It's kind of insane to do that so soon - I'm insanely busy - but I felt like well it's now or never. I might as well, I'm excited to do it, and we'll see how it shakes out.

  • JFH (Roger): So you and Matt Maher [are both Catholic, but] write worship music for both Protestant and Catholic audiences. And you're here at a Baptist university for a night of worship. Could you talk a bit about your feelings on how that works?

    Audrey: Like industry-wise, or spiritually, or...?

  • JFH (Roger): I guess either! Wherever you'd like to go with that.

    Audrey: Ecumism, true actual dialogue between different branches of Christianity, is absolutely one of my greatest passions, and so music is a great way to accomplish that. Christians of many different stripes can come together to sing worship songs with each other. It's a good way to open up the potential of dialogue… about the differences that exist in the divides that exist. Because really, ecuminism is not pretending they don't exist. It's talking about them face to face and having actual relationship. So for me, that looks like doing things like this [show]. I was at One Thing conference in Kansas City recently, and they actually had us teaching at breakouts and leading worship on their main stage. That was an amazing time because it never had happened there for Catholics to be in that type of role. And we were very honored. And so I just think music is disarming. I think it paves the way for people to put down their weapons for a minute. So I hope I always stay in this place of in-between. I don't want to be on a side, and I don't think God would have me do that. So I'm just very intentional about making sure we remain in a conversation going to all different kinds of places.

  • JFH (Roger): I like how you say "music is disarming." That's a good way of saying that. So what's God been teaching you lately in this season of life?

    Audrey: Well, I think it's really easy to point it out right now; it wouldn't have been if you had asked me the eight months ago. Mercy: I have to go back to that. I grew up in a denomination that could definitely be classified as fundamentalist. I somehow absorbed the erroneous idea that God is my angry judge and my angry dad who can't hold it together around me and Jesus has to convince him that I'm worth loving and saving, and all that. Somehow, through religious legalism, or whatever it might have been, I'm still kind of sorting that out. I somehow absorbed that idea and clinged to it even beneath an intellectual change in my later years. I rejected that, but my heart, I didn't know how to let it go. So in the last few years, specifically in the last six months, I feel like God has been doing actual heart surgery in that area. To a point that I actually almost walked away from the faith about a year ago. I wasn't talking about it at the time because it scared me to death... Because I was just in such deep spiritual quicksand that I didn't understand what was going on. And I thought, "Well, obviously, there's nothing here anymore, I'm a shell of a person, so what am I going to do? I have a child." Someone said to me in the conversation we were having about it that sometimes when you have a long dark night of the soul like that, it's because you need a healing somewhere very deep, and you're blinded by your own pain, you know? It rang true for me in a way that I knew was right. And so at that point, I started to seek healing and wise counsel and go back to therapy and all that stuff. And eventually it led me to this realization that I had a very warped understanding of the nature of God the Father and his love and mercy and his affection for me. And so that's what God's been teaching me is that Jesus doesn't have to convince God that I'm lovable. He made me and loved me first. Jesus is God, and I forget that. I know that's true intellectually, that the Trinity is real, and that all the persons of the Trinity are God. But gosh, in practical life, I don't think that's as easy for me to grasp in prayer as I wish it was. One level of the Trinity can't hate me and one love me… that doesn't work.

  • JFH (Roger): It's the craziness of God the Father and Jesus and the Spirit are all one, but at the same time, with their personalities...

    Audrey: Right! And I think at the end of the day, we just project what we know of love onto God. (Roger: That's very true.) And it's clear to me that until I'm made whole, and in union with God, I will continue to do that. But I pray that I do it less and less. And I think now what I'm just learning is that the glory of God is the mercy of God. You see that at the cross, you see that at the Ark of the Covenant, at the mercy seat where he dwelt most potently, at the tabernacle. The Holy of Holies was on the mercy seat. We ascribe glory to God as if it's not his mercy, as if it's separate from His merciful love. So that's what I'm learning, and it's actually a very painful lesson. Because it involves stirring up deep wells of pain. But it's well worth it. I'm going to be a more whole person after learning some of this stuff.

  • JFH (Roger): Is there anything we haven't talked about that you'd like to include on the record before this interview is over?

    Audrey: I would just add that this record, for me, is impossible to divorce from my love for and grief for the refugee crisis in the Middle East. I wrote "Even Unto Death" as an adoption of the prayer of the 21 Coptic martyrs from February 2015. Several of the songs [on this album] were written by people in extreme poverty And one of the songs, "It Is Well With My Soul," was written by a man who lost his wife and daughters in a shipwreck. And I read these reports of refugee boats sinking, and for me, even though none of these hymns were written by those people, the record has really taken on a character of solidarity with all Christians, and actually with all people - with martyrs and refugees in general. I don't hear that preached in pulpits enough. And I don't hear artists talking about it at all. I actually feel quite alone in that on social media and on the platform. I'm an advocate, and I feel very alone in that job. I'm proud to talk about it because I don't want to ever reach the end of the day or at the end of my life and feel like I didn't fight for the poor. And this record is sort of a quiet protest of everything that is oppressing the poor and the outcasts today. So I do want to mention that. I'd be remissed if I didn't mention it, because it was such a big part of making this record even though it's not obvious.

  • JFH (Roger): I like what you said, too, that these hymns are written by people who've have crap happen in their lives...

    Audrey: Oh yeah! Most of them are written out of deep suffering. That's why they've lasted the longest. I think that's why they've lasted. If you think about it, my therapist said this to me, and I thought it was very wise: you can't be comforted out of anger. But if you can go beneath the anger, to find the grief, then you will find the meaning of "blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." I think when so many of us go out of our way to avoid grief and pain and suffering, we miss the opportunity to understand what it means to be comforted by the mercy and love of God." And so I think a lot of these hymns have lasted, specifically because they come from that well of human pain. It brings the mercy of God almost into incarnation. Like using those words with other believers and you, in some way… I don't know how to put it. Mercy presents itself to you, and I think it's life changing. So it makes a lot of sense to me that the greatest hymns are written by those who have suffered a lot of things.

    Audrey Assad's latest album, Inheritance is available now where most music is sold!

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