Before UTR Media (or Under The Radar) existed, there was a short list of artists that had national recognition but were drawing listeners on a deeper journey through honest, heartfelt lyrics and melodies that would ring in our hearts. These were the forerunners of what we would call “gourmet music.” One name at the top of that list was Sara Groves. She has now been plying her craft as a singer-songwriter for two full decades, and her new album Abide With Me (available at iTunes) is a new adventure for Sara… her first hymns record. Why this? Why now? We had a chance to interview Sara this week to get some answers. Here’s our conversation.
UTR: How far back to hymns go in your life?
Sara: I grew up Assemblies of God, so we had a combination of hymns and choruses in our Sunday services. The Jesus Movement had a big influence on our denomination, so there was a confluence of old and new. I remember reading through the hymnal though when I sat through church. Even then I remember tuning into the hymn rhythms of sharing the entire narrative arc of the Gospel. I didn’t name it until many years later, but I see that corporate worship time as a time of remembering. I’m drawn to songs that speak to the character of God, or remind me of who he is, and that he is not like man. Songs that tend to focus on what I’m doing, “I come, I worship” etc, are not helpful in that reorienting work of remembering.
UTR: Why did you feel that now was the right time for you to release a hymns record?
Sara: I am always writing songs, but I feel like I have run into a season here where language has been commandeered, and charged. It is hard to talk about almost anything without setting off landmines and triggering certain connotations. The extremes of language and labels at this point in time are painful for me. There is no room for dialogue, or nuance or tension. So, at some level, I felt like I needed to go back in order to go forward. We had been dreaming about this for some time as well, and it just seemed like the right time.
UTR: Why did you choose to call the album “Abide With Me”?
Sara: This song was a great comfort to me when I was struggling with depression, a season I documented in the album Floodplain. The theme of God’s friendship to us emerged as a primary thought on the album, and this song represented it best.
UTR: This is one of the coolest album covers we’ve seen this year. Is there a story behind it?
Sara: Thank you. 🙂 In 2011, Troy and I bought an old church to start a community art center of sorts – “Creative Community for the Common Good” is the tagline of our Art House North. A few months before recording the album someone posted this picture of the building of Art House North on a St. Paul historical website. People who know us drew our attention to it, and it was so incredible to see… I’ve spent so much time looking at this picture. We host all kinds of events, theater, and concerts at AHN, but this summer we converted it into a studio to record this album. It was amazing to record these old hymns in a building built for congregational singing. In the picture you see the building halfway built, and a group of people on the landing with hymnals in their hands. The congregation is gathered in the streets, and they are launching this place that has become so important to us. We feel tied to the people in that picture, and had to include it in the cover. I’m into fiber art right now, so we started down that path… the thread representing the stories that connect us, and we ended up here with a blue thread/yard running though all of the art work. The design company we worked with, Foreword Films, are longtime friends and live here in in St. Paul.
UTR: How did the making of Abide With Me differ from your other recent studio albums?
Sara: It was the most ‘green-light’ process I’ve ever experienced. From the first idea to the last note, everything moved very smoothly. I think when you are doing a hymns record you don’t have the angst of wondering, ‘are these good songs?’ That peace, and the joy of working in the Art House, and with good friends made the whole thing a pure joy.
UTR: In what ways do you hope this new record speaks to listeners?
Sara: There is so much anxiety and divisiveness everywhere right now. It is impacting families and congregations and communities. I hope this record is a comfort, but also a reminder that as God extends friendship to us, he invites us to extend friendship to our brother and sister.
Look at it this way, if these beautiful time-tested hymns were an agent of healing and encouragement for Sara, they might be something that would be good for your soul too. And these new arrangements are so beautiful. You can download it here on iTunes.