While she’s probably the most content she’s ever been both personally and professionally, Joy Williams doesn’t smile nearly as much as she used to. And it’s not because of some secret, underlying unhappiness. Or a futile attempt to front some fake angst in search of edgy street cred and a new fan base. Instead, it’s the result of life experience, namely the four-year difference between being 18 and 22.

It’s something that Britney Spears was forced to do after “Baby One More Time.” Ditto for Christina Aguilera on “Genie in a Bottle” and Jessica Simpson after “Sweet Kisses.” Even Christian music’s own Rachael Lampa and Stacie Orrico had to undergo the occasionally awkward transformation process of growing up stylistically after a successful start as a teen artist. And that particular challenge was something Joy took very seriously as she contemplated the artistic statement she hoped to make with the release of her third album. 

But even more pressing than what direction she’d aim for sonically — although the soundtrack has also progressed in conjunction with her evolved musical tastes — it was what she was saying that was far more important to her. Instead of relying on a pool of talented songwriters who’d craft something she’d relate to enough to sing with conviction, it was her desire to dig deep and get personal that paved the way for "Genesis" (Reunion), not to mention a new resolve with which she approaches life and ministry.
 
No More Plastic Smiles

Early in her career as she promoted her self-titled debut, one couldn’t help but notice Joy’s smile, something that almost served as the California native’s trademark — much like Julia Roberts’ toothy grin. “I’ve definitely been that person with plastic smiles, like the first time you and I ever met for an interview,” Joy recalls. “I was so scared of not being liked that I just grinned and grinned and grinned. It wasn’t like I was even scared of you; I was just scared that someone wouldn’t like me.”

And in the music business, a business where being liked fuels your very livelihood, Joy also found herself insecure and questioning if she even really had anything to share with an audience.

“I’d been so afraid to go out and really take some leaps and let myself get out there,” she offers. “But when I was reading the Gospels, I was really transfixed by how Christ engaged people — just the fact that He sat down with people and didn’t necessarily put a burning iron there and twist it to get the pain out. People were drawn to Him and felt comfortable to ask questions. In writing an album, I wanted to do that. I wanted to ask the questions. I didn’t want to write it necessarily from an overtly evangelical perspective; I also didn’t want to have songs with the complete answers in them.”
 
A Messy Kind of Existence

When putting her fingerprints on the songwriting of "Genesis," Joy claims she didn’t purposely set out to write in any particular way. What she did know, however, is that the project would focus on matters of the heart, something inspired by her own questioning moments.

“I wrote about being frustrated about not hearing from God while I was praying and just being like ‘What have I done? Why are my prayers ricocheting off the wall?’” Joy says. “And my 26-year-old sister has just had a brain aneurism and just got re-diagnosed, possibly with a brain tumor. And my grandma is in the hospital. I’ve had one friend who told me that she’s getting a divorce, and there is just so much in life that isn’t formulaic. And it’s painful; life is messy, but that’s what makes it meaningful. And I think I’ve seen God use the messier parts of me and stretch me in those places when I thought I had it all together.

“I wanted to convey the messy aspect of living life with Christ because it’s not always infused with happiness. It’s not always the highs. It’s walking with Christ when you don’t necessarily feel His presence. It’s trusting in God when your sister possibly won’t make it through the night and giving God your anger when you’re stressed out about making a deadline — things like that. I wanted to write that way.”

But while she readily acknowledges life’s messy moments, she’s also quick to acknowledge the most recent instances where God has shown her something special in the chaos, something Joy refers to as “eye kisses.”

“Seeing a baby giggle is new to me these days and hearing my sister on the phone. I don’t take things like that for granted anymore, and that probably wouldn’t be the case if I’d not seen the other side of things.”

Saying Hello to Dating

Another something — or should we say someone — that has radically shaped Joy’s perspective and lyrical approach is her husband, Nate, whom she married in June of 2004. As Joy relaxes in her overstuffed couch in the cozy Franklin, Tenn., home they share, she laughs as she recalls what circumstances led to the couple’s unexpected meeting, particularly her one-year, self-imposed sabbatical from dating.

“Before I met Nate, I felt this insatiable need to go out and discover the world. A year before we met, I traveled to Europe and hung out in New York City by myself. I felt like this was a great adventure that God and I were having for the first time in my life. And I was feeling very okay with it just being God and me,” Joy muses. “I think everyone goes through an über-zealous thing of ‘I don’t need anybody; it’s just God and me!’ And for a season, it was cool that way. But obviously you have to come back to the middle. I found that my desire for just God and me was a self-protection mechanism. It was very easy to stand behind the name of Jesus and just say that I was spending time alone with Him because I wanted to spend time with Him, when really I was so scared of connecting with anybody ever again because it hurt so bad when it didn’t work out before.”

As Joy continued to “kiss dating goodbye,” several of her friends randomly called her over the course of the next few months to let her know that they’d met her “Mr. Right” while eating at Carrabba’s, an Italian restaurant in Franklin where he waited tables. One friend in particular told her, “Ok, I know that you’re all about Jesus right now, but when you want to branch out and actually get relational with people again, I think you need to meet this guy named Nate. He just really reminds me of you.”

After repeatedly hearing similar sentiments, Joy says she finally was willing to consider something romantic after her year without dating had passed. “By this time, I was like … okay, maybe … I’m a blonde by bottle, but maybe there is some merit to this. So if he’s around when my year is up, I’ll have to see.”

After Joy returned from working on music in Holland and Germany, her friends surprised her by taking her to dinner at Carrabba’s. “I had an inkling that they were going to take me there,” Joy recalls. “When we pulled up, I was like, ‘We are so not friends anymore!’ As we walked in the restaurant, my heart was beating, and no one had given me — nor had I asked for — a physical description of him. But when we got in, all the waiters were in the back with white shirts, black ties and white aprons, and I pointed at someone and was like ‘That’s Nate, isn’t it?’ And it was him, standing in the back. And he waited on our table that night, ever so conveniently.

“He very respectfully sat down with me for about 10 minutes. There were no heavenly angels or bells or soft lighting in any way. It wasn’t flirty. We were just talking, and we realized we had similar backgrounds and friends that we didn’t even know about. He looked me in the eye the whole time, and I thought that was rare. It really impressed me.”

And as they say in "Casablanca," it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. “Neither of us were ready to jump headlong into love, but God really just wove it together in the most intriguing way. And I just giggle about it now. I journaled from the first day I met him and haven’t stopped since. People say that life is a story, and I’m just grateful for the pages that we’ve had thus far, and I look forward to lots more.”

So now that they’re about to celebrate their first anniversary, what’s been the most surprising insight she’s learned from being a newlywed?

“My dad said something when he married us during the ceremony that has stuck with me in a lot of ways,” Joy says. “He said, ‘Love each other as you need and not as you deserve.’ It takes away the love based on performance which is so easy to get wrapped up in. When I first got married I was like, ‘Ok, I’m going to keep the house clean, cook every day, beds are going to be made, I’m going to look great all the time.’ Then nine months go by, and the dishes pile up, but we do them together. The socks are in the middle of the hallway, but yet we’ve talked for two hours. I’d rather have life be sticky and adventurous than plastic and shallow.”


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