One of the most successful indie releases this year on Noisetrade has been of Aryn Michelle (includes a song with Derek Webb). The Noisetrade sampler is a small glimpse of the full release entitled Depth. Aryn and I recently talked about being a PK, dealing with Christian cliche, and the new album!
Gabe: So I heard you grew up as a PK (preacher’s kid)?
Aryn: That is true! He’s actually been at the same church since 1974. He went there straight out of seminary as a music minister and associate pastor. And then he transitioned to being the head pastor about 20 years ago or so. So he’s very invested in that church and in that community. So I get a lot of people that I still run into that can say that they changed my diapers (laughs).
Gabe: What was your experience growing up with music in that environment?
Aryn: Well, when I was really young, my parents wanted us to listen to the Christian radio station or we were also allowed to listen to an oldies station… At the time, that was mostly like 60’s music (laughs). So that was a fun mix. I grew up listening to Michael W. Smith and Sandi Patty mixed in with the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and Motown stuff. That 60’s and 70’s music is still some of my favorite now! I still listen to it all the time! It drives my husband crazy! (laughs)
My parents did give us a lot of freedom and they definitely trusted us. So when I got to be a teenager, I listened to just about everything. Pop, rock, and everything in between. So yeah, I like a lot of different stuff! I did classical music when I was in college. I did some jazz in grad school. I like a little bit of everything!
Gabe: When you realized you had this gift of music, did you feel compelled to do Christian music? Or did you feel like you could do anything?
Aryn: In the beginning, just as a young teenager, I hadn’t explored very many options. In my mind, I just thought “I sing good and I’m a Christian so obviously I’m destined to be a famous Christian singer.” (laughs) When you’re 13 and 14, that’s the depth of your future plans. So yeah, I started out trying to do Christian music. And then I went to a competition when I was about 15 in Oklahoma City and I tried singing “Alabaster Box” by CeCe Winans. (laughs)
Gabe: Wow, that’s a wide range.
Aryn: I know! (laughs) So I did not do well in that competition! But that competition was great for me because I got to see the lady that won. She was probably 10 years older than I was and wrote her own music…and she accompanied herself on the piano. At that point, that opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me. I hadn’t even considered trying to learn an instrument or trying to write my own music. So that was really a tipping point for me.
So when I started writing my own music, I was writing faith-based music. And then I got to the college level, I kind of decided what I wanted my calling to be…to be a light in the darkness as a believer in the secular music industry. And so I did that for about 10 years. I guess I had this jaded perspective that Christian music could not be cool. So I wanted that to be my calling!
But 2 or 3 years ago, I started having these conversations with my dad, because my secular music career was kinda going nowhere. He said, “You know, I think you just need to take some time to think about who God has uniquely created you to be. And what you like thinking about and writing about.” And that was huge for me because I guess I hadn’t realized that I had been doing secular music not because I thought that it was God’s calling on my life but because it’s what I wanted God’s call on my life to be.
But like we talked about earlier, I’m a preacher’s kid. I’ve been a Christian since I was 8 years old. I’m really passionate about the church and building up the church and encouraging believers. That’s what I want to write about. I’ve been reading a lot of apologetics lately. So I thought “maybe this is what I want to talk about”. Maybe boyfriend songs are not my calling (laughs). I want to make it clear that I do think there are believers that are called to make music in the secular marketplace, to be that light in the darkness. But, I don’t think that was my calling. So now that I took the time to seek God, the path became a lot more clear!
Gabe: I can really tell how much you are into apologetics. Your music has so much theology in it! A lot of heavy questioning. I thought the title of the album Depth was really appropriate because there’s a depth to your lyrics that is rare in Christian music. How important is that for you to challenge the listener by using theology in your lyrics?
Aryn: I think it’s very important to me as a writer because that’s what I was struggling for and fighting against when it comes to doing faith-based music. I felt like I wouldn’t be able to ask hard questions…or I couldn’t leave things open-ended. It wouldn’t be accepted by the listener as “Christian music”. I got to the point where I just said “you know, I don’t need to care about people thinking this is not Christian enough” simply because it didn’t wrap everything up nice and neat in 3 minutes.
I think that’s why people are really responding to the project. It’s more honest! The first song on the record is called “Narrow Gate”. The songs with “It ain’t easy” and that’s it! I leave it at that! I don’t say “in the end, it’s gonna be alright.” And that’s not to say that I don’t want joyful faith-based music…I think we need it! I think it’s encouraging! I think we need joyful songs but I also think that in our creative artistic landscape we need to sometimes say that “You know what? This life is hard!” So that is important to me as a faith-based artist.
If I’m gonna put something out that is honest, I want to cover all the ranges of emotion…all the different things you can feel. I want to be honest about having doubts or else I would just be writing albums to make money. That’s not my motivation anymore. I think it was at one point in my life honestly. I tried writing music that people would like. I’m just too old for that (laughs). But yeah, when you’ve been writing music for 15 years, you get to the point where you have identify what your voice is. It’s just not worth your time to only write music that people will like. Instead, you focus more on what God has put on your heart.
Gabe: Do you think there’s a void of that in Christian music where people are afraid to be challenged in that way?
Aryn: I think from a listener’s perspective, no. I think people are hungry for that honesty. But on the flip side of that, it’s a difficult thing for an industry where you have beliefs in Christ and people with hearts that want to follow Christ slammed up against a business model where you have to make money. Especially with all the ways that music is shared on technology. I think we’re still trying to figure out “How do we do this?” How do we blend a belief in Jesus with art that also has to make money and sell concert tickets?
It’s a tricky line to walk! If you’re just talking about secular music, you mostly are just trying to make money. And that’s the end of it! It’s so much more complicated when you’re ultimate goal is to glorify God. I don’t ever want to the one to point fingers and say “We need to do a better job”. I just think it’s a hard line to walk! But I hope more people are willing to go there!
Gabe: I saw your sampler has been doing pretty good on Noisetrade so that is good to see. Do you have anything else you’d like to say about the record?
Aryn: I’m really just trying to give people an opportunity to think of Biblical characters in a deeper way. There’s a couple of songs on the project that are specifically about Moses and Noah…It’s just another example of why we called the album Depth. It’s why we are trying to take it to that deeper place. I want to hear more songs about these people in the Bible that make them feel like real people. Not that I think that there’s something wrong with Sunday school type songs…But I want to see Moses, Noah, and King David as real people with flaws and struggles and weariness.
So that’s one piece of it. Then there’s a couple songs on the project, Narrow Gate and Fight the Good Fight specifically, that deal with Christian cliche phrases. “Fight the Good Fight”…what does that mean? A lot of the lyrics in those songs deal specifically with the Scriptural context of where those verses are pulled from. So on Fight the Good Fight… When you look at the context of where that’s found in I Timothy it says, “Fight the good fight of faith.” And it talks about not putting all your hopes in money and possessions. So it’s more about that rather than punching the devil in the face (laughs).
So yeah, I’m just trying to take these Christian cliched things and get below the surface level. So I hope people will take the time to not just listen to the lyrics but to be challenged by them. That’s my heart and my hope!
Gabe: Thanks Aryn!
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