- Jay Swartzendruber CCM Magazine
- 2005 5 May
Sabbatical. The word alone makes Christian music fans shudder. It’s ambiguous and dangerous — dangerous because it can sometimes be the first step to a permanent good-bye. If you’re fortunate enough to be a fan of Rebecca St. James, Steven Curtis Chapman or Margaret Becker, you know the joy of reconnecting. But if your artist of choice is Stacie Orrico, dc talk, Jennifer Knapp, or — heaven forbid — Steve Taylor, then you’re learning the virtue of patience — the hard way.
When it comes to artists dropping the “S” bomb, fans aren’t the only ones who squirm. Imagine yourself as an artist’s manager or the head of a record label. Picture your emerging star snagging seven Dove Awards in one night, including big birdies "Female Artist of the Year", "Songwriter of the Year" and "Song of the Year." So much for emerging — your artist is queen. And you? You’re in a state of bliss.
For about 12 hours, that is.
Literally the morning after she wins those Dove Awards, you’re enjoying breakfast with your singer/songwriter extraordinaire and her husband when she looks at you and says, “I know this is really bad timing, but we have to get off the merry-go-round for a year.”
After you spit-take your orange juice, you respond ...
Actually, you don’t respond. You simply stare at her in stunned silence.
Fortunately for Sparrow recording artist Nichole Nordeman, her manager and label president responded graciously when she actually dropped this news on them in April of 2003. Why? Because it was the right thing to do.
But wait — her seven fresh Dove Awards aside, Christian music’s reigning songwriter and female artist had spent five impressive years building this momentum. Since the 1998 release of her debut, "Wide Eyed," which had sold more than 130,000 copies, she had consistently landed hits at Christian pop radio, including three No. 1 singles. Her sophomore album, "This Mystery," notched her first high-profile Dove Award (2001’s Female Vocalist of the Year), and quickly increased her fan base to 170,000 strong. And her third album? 2002’s "Woven and Spun," was on its way to selling 300,000 copies.
To top it off, Nichole wasn’t just one of those artists who’s big with the fans — we’re talking an artist’s artist. Affirms MercyMe front man Bart Millard, “Nichole is one of the greatest songwriters ever ... period.” Mike Scheuchzer, MercyMe’s guitarist, is quick to agree and adds that for his family, it’s personal. “‘I Am’ from 'Woven and Spun' was playing in the hospital room as Abby and I were awaiting the birth of our son Benjamin.”
Extremely personal and increasingly popular. So ... sabbatical ... the right thing to do?
“My husband Errol and I didn’t decide that,” recalls Nichole during lunch at Dallas’ trendy Blue Mesa Grill. “Actually, God figured that one out — He surprised us with a baby. We were planning on having children later — like three or four years later. Total curve ball actually.
Stylishly dressed but still casual, she continues, “We had to sit down and look at what our first couple years of marriage had been like with my travel and the toll it had taken even on us, and we said, ‘No way are we bringing another life into this chaos. Something has to change.’ It was the kind of situation where you don’t just scale back. I was in so far, and my schedule was so crazy, and I’m such a ‘yes’ person and such a chronic people pleaser that I had a lot of trouble saying no to anything or anyone about any opportunity. It just had to be all or nothing … I just wanted to spend that whole year at home learning how to be a mom.”
While Nichole continued to perform well into the following June, her one-year sabbatical officially began with the arrival of their son Charlie in mid-July.
“I think for anyone, becoming a mom is such an unbelievable transformation,” she says. “I mean, emotionally, spiritually and physically, there’s stuff down there that you didn’t realize was accessible or that even existed in your spirit. And that was a huge shock for me because I forever have considered myself to be a pretty self-sufficient person. And I’ve probably been overly prideful about that part of my life and felt like I could pretty much handle anything decently. It was a huge, really difficult thing to experience — this ‘I have no idea what I’m doing.’”
“Charlie was a pretty unhealthy little baby for a while — he was born with severe gastroesophageal reflux disease (a.k.a. reflux),” Nichole explains. “The little flap that covered his esophagus — and kept food in his tummy—wasn’t quite done growing. Everything that went into his stomach came up about six minutes later — for about nine months. This made for a very unhappy baby, very anxious and delirious new parents and an overworked washing machine. This was never any kind of life-threatening condition, but one that threatened my sanity, nonetheless. At the time, and as a new mom, it felt overwhelming — insurmountable.”
To seek help — advice — Nichole did what so many other loving mothers do.
“I’m such an information junkie that I had these stacks and stacks of books, not to mention the hours that I would log online just trying to figure it out, and calling every mom I ever knew, looking for answers,” she explains. “And then one book would take me to another chapter and another book and another index — just trying to fill myself up with information about how to handle this.
“I remember Errol coming home from work one day when Charlie was about four weeks old, and I for sure had not slept or showered for days, and Errol just took my face in his hands and said, ‘Stop it. Stop reading, turn the computer off, unplug the phone. Stop it.’ He was so sweet, and he could have been ugly about it and just irritated, but he said, ‘You know God has given you every instinct you need to do this; you can do this. God built you to do this. Listen to what your heart is saying, to what your body is saying.’
“From that moment on, I was like, ‘OK. I really need a lot of help from the Lord, not a stack of books over here. And it was my first admission in years about my dependence on God — how much I needed Him just to get me through the next 30 minutes.”
Ultimately, Nichole found confidence in the realization that “If God trusts me with this, He must really think that I can handle this stuff.” This shift in perspective planted the initial seeds for what would become the title track on her new album, the song “Brave.” Written out of love for her son, it lyrically revels in the reality that while young Charlie makes her “want to be brave” and even “feel brave” at times, it’s Christ who “actually makes it so.”
“I was thinking about Philippians 4:13 and just how it had never been more real in my life with ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’” Nichole says. “I could sing ‘Brave’ to Charlie, or you could sing it to your wife or somebody could sing it to a best friend; it’s sort of that statement of, ‘You make me want to do something that I didn’t think I could do,’ and ultimately, God is Who we all sing that to, because He does give us courage in the middle of weakness.”
“My everydays are still so … digging Cheerios out of the carpet — that’s just the reality of being the mom of a toddler. There aren’t these big moments of feeling a rush of bravery; it’s just in the small things, and occasionally, yeah, you look at your child and just in a moment, you feel this sudden surge of love and terror, and everything just hits you at once. I think “Brave” is more retrospective than anything, just taking inventory of the last year-plus, and just saying, ‘I can’t believe I got through that,’ and ‘I can’t believe that you make me want to get through more of it.’”
How Long to Sing This Song?
As Nichole talks about other themes prevalent on "Brave," which released May 24, it starts to become clear that her sabbatical was a God-send in more ways than one. The album’s fourth track, “Real to Me,” may boast an addictive hook of a chorus, but it’s the song’s striking lyrics that linger, revealing insight into the period before Nichole’s sabbatical. She calls the song “a desperate prayer” asking God to “just be real” in a profound and immediate way.
Elaborating, Nichole says, “You know, sometimes I walk off the stage after a performance and am like, ‘What was that really? Was that really me?’ I can tell you that I felt that a lot more shortly before my sabbatical. I was just totally burned out on performing and singing, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced this in our industry — the just totally mailing it in.
“It’s different if it’s every once in awhile,” she continues candidly, “but for me it became so regular, like ‘I know what I need to sing, I know what I need to say.’ Anyone who has been doing this for any length of time figures out exactly how to manipulate your audience. Especially in a church setting — it’s just unbelievably easy to go, ‘This will get a laugh, this will get a cry, this will get an “Amen,” I’ll sell some CDs and be done with it.’ What a devastating place to be as someone who loves to create and loves to hopefully speak truth and life and life-giving words and life-affirming things.”
Even during interviews, Nichole often found herself “totally on auto-pilot. The other person, or my audience, had no idea, and that’s just a gross feeling,” she says. “It’s hard to look in the mirror after those days, getting on the bus and going, ‘That was nice, but I sure hope God showed up because I know I didn’t.’
“‘Real to Me’ does talk about a lot of that — just ‘God, where are You really? Where are you in the middle of that because I can’t read any more books, and I can’t have this conversation with one more person, and can You just please, for five seconds, pull back the curtain and let me see something?’ And then go, ‘I know this is all for something really real.’
“I’m just beginning to feel the pangs as I [return to the music scene], just the temptations to not be honest again, the temptations to say what is expected of me and to write what is expected of me, and knowing I’m fully capable of just going through the motions and doing a darn good job of it, but praying to God that I won’t lose that connection with people and the heart of Christ.”
Nichole’s eye contact, personal and consistent throughout the conversation, anchors these thought-provoking words — words that invite a moment, a pause, for reflection.
“The years of consecutive tours and the general ‘grind’ that a new artist — especially one who is already prone to workaholism — commits to, left me standing on a self-made island,” she explains. “I had completely lost touch with my need for people and friends. Having Charlie, and being a stay-at-home mom, really gave me a chance to tap into some relationships with several girls who are also new moms. This would have been interaction that I would have avoided in the past, as it requires vulnerability and the need to ‘need’ people. But these women — my friends — have taught me a lot this past year about leaning on the people that God gives you. This was a big part of my getting in touch with dependency on Jesus and the people He brings by for coffee.”
This Is the Way Love Is
This deepening dependency in Nichole’s life has already proved pivotal in reinforcing her most personal human relationship — her four-year-old marriage. As she begins to elaborate, she points out that people, “especially Christians,” are rarely vulnerable when it comes to discussing how tough marriage is — unless it’s in the past tense.
“It’s sort of like those litmus tests that if you have a strong marriage you must be a strong Christian,” says Nichole, who experienced her own parents’ divorce when she was 18 years old. “I don’t know where that started; I just know that even for the strongest Christian — strong meaning ‘deep roots, strong roots’ — it seems to be a topic people have a lot of trouble owning up to. And I include myself in that too.”
Reflecting on an intense crisis period that she and Errol went through “not too long ago,” she explains that the problems were “deep and painful” for each of them — deep and painful enough that neither of them “felt like staying.”
“We’re pretty private people,” Nichole says, “so it’s not like we were flying the banners, but we did complain to some people who are really close to us and say more than, “Just pray for us — we’re having a hard time.” We told the truth about some stuff we were dealing with, and nobody had any magic answers, really; there wasn’t any big mystery solution. It was just the act of telling the truth that really helped us, just to tell the truth to each other.
“And still, I’m so hesitant to wrap up the story with ‘God rode in on the white horse, sunset, saved the day,’ which He did, but I don’t know where we’ll be in six months. We could be dealing with the same junk or different junk. Maybe that’s why we hesitate to talk about it, too, because there’s never a period at the end in a marriage; there’s always a comma or a hyphen. There’s more to come.”
Later in the conversation she admits, “When we were going through that stuff, I made this ridiculous deal with God: ‘If you get me through this, if you fix this, I will write a really great song.’ But I felt like God was saying, “Don’t write a song about how faithful I am later … I’m still faithful; write that song right now.”
And write she did. The resulting track, “We Build,” voices profound commitment in the midst of dangerous hardship, taking her new album’s theme of bravery into yet more personal territory.
“I’m a leaver,” confesses Nichole. “I leave jobs I don’t like. I leave situations that make me uncomfortable. I do it with a lot of grace and, hopefully, not inappropriately, but I leave easily. Friendships, relationships … if it gets too hard, I want to get out of there. That’s not a character flaw you blow off easily in a marriage, so I had to confront leaving desires. Every time something would seem irreparably broken, I would want to head for the door. And the line in that song about ‘On any given day we could simply walk away and let someone else hold the pieces,’ that would be my son.”
Nichole’s eyes begin to well with emotion. “And it’s just not ever going to happen. I’m not ever going to let him hold those pieces because they’re not his. They’re my pieces; they’re Errol’s pieces.”
Tender conviction. She exudes it. And you can’t help but be struck by such a deeply genuine approach to both songwriting and the interview process. But how does Errol feel about having such a personal song of perseverance through marital hardship go public?
“I think Errol trusts me enough that I can talk all day long about that season for us and the story of being honest,” says Nichole. “But he trusts me enough to know that I’m not going to sit over coffee and tell you what we were dealing with. So there’s that trust that’s built in. And interestingly enough, he’s probably more of a private person than I am, if that’s possible. As it relates to any struggle that I’ve had as a Christian artist — whether it’s the grueling travel schedule, or the toll it takes on your relationship — he’s always been saying to me, ‘Why doesn’t anyone tell you about this? Don’t people talk about this? Are you the only one feeling this way?’ So he’s sort of been that voice of ‘People just need to tell the truth about this. I hope you tell the truth about this, Nichole.’ So I’m like, ‘Well, here’s your shot, buddy.’”
The Big Picture
Based on Nichole’s comments concerning the songs “Brave,” “Real to Me” and now “We Build,” one might too quickly assume the new album is generally introspective in nature. If so, one should think again.
“I believe the best way to describe the record as a whole — and I didn’t write it with any kind of agenda — would be to say that it’s probably not a lot about me. Every single thing I had written prior had been about my struggle, my journey, just this pretty introspective view, "Woven and Spun" a little less so, maybe. But I think one of the gifts that this time off afforded me was to get out of myself a little bit — to be home enough to watch the world happening around me and walk through some dark places with some friends and pay more attention to relationships that I had let suffer and really jump into people’s joy and their pain and tell stories about that. And I’m woven in there a lot, but I’m not the starring attraction.
“It feels so great to be talking about those songs live already and getting to tell stories about the evidence of God’s mercy and love in people’s lives, including my own …, but this record feels so liberating to me because it’s just not all about me.”
Thematically, "Brave" is indeed diverse — diverse, but no less potent when it comes to substance. And whether Nichole’s offering probing questions of faith to listeners who don’t believe (“What If”), connecting with those in the deepest throes of despair as she sings, “Between two thieves in the darkness, love must believe you are worth it” (“Hold On”), or composing a song inspired by Donald Miller’s "Searching for God Knows What" (“Crimson”), this self-described introvert is taking the relational approach.
“I hope 'Brave' has an honest depth, but that people who hear these songs don’t have to work quite as hard to dig around for the hidden meanings,” says Nichole. “I look back at 'This Mystery,' for instance, which is some of my favorite writing personally, and it’s a hard record to listen to. It requires work. I think that if that record was a textbook, maybe this record is a journal.”
More Than Fine
Musically "Brave" certainly lends itself to such lyrical intentions. Following the lead of Brad O’Donnell, EMI CMG Label Group’s Vice President of A&R, Nichole partnered with producer Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin, Abra Moore), and together the pair created her most adventurous, sonically-inviting album to date.
“The cool thing about making this record was that we didn’t have a real clear idea what it was going to be,” recalls Joyce. “We just started experimenting, and Nichole was fearless every step of the way, open-minded and giving anything a try, just to see what might stick. If a song needed another verse, she would go into the other room and come back with something brilliant. She’s the real deal — a true artist.”
Explains Nichole, “I probably wrote seven more songs than we needed, which I have never done in my life, because there was so much to say about where I was. Everything felt risky — every part of this. And one thing I had never experienced was the evolution of the songs. I begged Jay for that in the beginning. I said, ‘You have to be hard on these songs because I cannot stomach a record that is just good enough — like, “Yeah, that’ll work.” And he was. A couple songs we butted heads on because I was pretty sure they were keepers, and in the end, it was so right to just go, ‘Let’s keep trying a different angle.’”
Risky situations. Moving ahead. Trying new angles. There’s that word again — brave. But what does it mean? And does meeting Nichole in this chapter of her life give it an even deeper meaning? If so, we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, there’s nothing like seeing a working model in action.
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