ZOEgirl: Making Every Breath Count
- David Jenison CCM Magazine
- 2005 29 Mar
When ZOEgirl released its self-titled debut in 2000, pop artists like *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears ruled the charts. Surely there was a need for a positive alternative, and ZOEgirl filled the void with catchy dance pop numbers and a slickly produced live show. Ironically, the group’s success didn’t lead the trio to do more of the same. Instead, Chrissy Conway, Alisa Girard and Kristin Swinford sought to show their fans something else — the real depth behind their catchy pop tunes.
Consider the changes over the past five years. When this trio began, it performed choreographed dance routines to what was essentially programmed pop music. Moreover, the girls were once coerced into doing an 82-city tour wearing what they describe as “spacesuits.” Evidently, because they had been designed by the guy who did *NSYNC’s outfits, someone thought they were trendy.
“I didn’t think they were cool, and I don’t know why we wore them,” laughs Girard. “But at least our fashion faux pas was coordinated!”
In the years since, the girls ditched the dance moves and NASA garb, assembled a live touring band and introduced more instrumentation into their music for a more organic pop sound.
As a result, three girls who barely knew each other when the group formed now find them-selves speaking in one voice as honest and transparent artists.
“I felt our last album, 'Different Kind of FREE,' was the first time I could actually say the album is 100 percent who we are,” admits Girard. “We weren’t worried about fitting into any mold, category or demographic. This is just who we are. Naturally, 'Room to Breathe' is an extension of that.”
“Instead of worrying about what’s happening in pop right now, we’ve been able to insert more of our personal styles into each album,” adds Swinford. “We all have different styles, and whatever we categorize ourselves as individually continues to mesh into what has become the ZOEgirl ‘sound.’”
While forging their ideas and influences together for most of the album, the three young women also expressed themselves as individuals with one solo track each. These songs stand out because they were written primarily as a reflection of the person and not the group. Contrary to the standard notions of empty pop, these songs read like pages from a private diary and give fans the best opportunity to scratch below the surface.
For example, on the song “Scream,” Girard utilized a rock sound to back a powerful message about sexual abuse and “cutting.” She explains, “I’m not talking about girls who look like they are hurting; I’m talking about girls who look like Hilary Duff and grow up in the church and look like they don’t have a care in the world. There are girls who are [literally] cutting themselves or who have eating disorders or hidden secrets about sexual abuse, and they don’t know what to do with all this pain. Unfortunately, I wish I could say the song was all based on what people tell me. I’ve never been one to cut myself, but I’ve been in a lot of pain. I hope this song will reach a lot of people in a deep way.”
Conway was equally direct with “Skin Deep,” a song about self-esteem issues. She explains, “Honestly, that is something I have continuously struggled with in my life. Our culture is so focused on skin, through sexuality that is perceived as power. I believe that we were created for something so much different.”
“Skin Deep” actually continues a discussion started with “Plain,” an earlier song about self-esteem that Conway wrote for ZOEgirl’s 2001 "Life" album. Remembering some people’s reactions to “Plain,” the singer worries that the message might be lost on people who think a popular stage performer can’t truly relate.
“I understand a lot of people look at us and see that we get to be onstage and do photo shoots,” she explains, “but they have no idea the things that have gone through my mind as I look in the mirror or contemplate the lengths I could go to lose weight. I felt we had to talk about it because so many young women are getting beaten to death by what they think they have to be or achieve to be loved or feel good about themselves.”
Adds Girard, “You can tell someone they are beautiful; you can tell them God made them. But when they look in the mirror, they are going to see what they are going to see. Truth is, there are a million girls prettier than us, and there are a million girls prettier than the girl who’s prettier than us. Everybody is looking at somebody else, and the answer is really to stop looking in the mirror. You are never going to be satisfied with what you see until you see Jesus inside of you.”
Along a similar vein, Swinford’s song “Not the One” offers up a message of empowerment for girls who think boyfriends complete them. “So many girls feel they always need a boyfriend,” she says, “and this song explains how that shouldn’t be the case.”
I know what it was like when everyone had a boyfriend and I didn’t, and I just found anyone I could, whether I liked him or not,” admits Swinford. “This song is about a girl who comes to the point in her life where she realizes that this guy isn’t the one for her. I wanted to encourage girls to walk the right road and to make the right decisions when it comes to this situation. When I look back, I honestly regret every boyfriend I had growing up — every one of them, big mistakes.”
Laughing, she adds, “If you’re reading this, sorry, guys.”
ZOEgirl might be larger than life on stage; but as these songs attest, the members’ hardships growing up weren’t different from most everybody else’s. In the same sense, the group can admire all they’ve accomplished; but as most artists know, success follows countless bouts of rejection. These girls are no exception.
Swinford, for example, spent considerable time in a trip-hop band before ZOEgirl. However, she seemed to be the only one that believed in the group, especially after doing a showcase where the band was roundly rejected by the industry. Conway, on the other hand, got a taste of success before it was suddenly whisked away. She previously signed a mainstream deal with another all-girl group that spent a million dollars making an album. However, the label decided to dissolve the group and make one of the singers, Pink, a solo artist. Still, it was Girard who experienced the most rejection. As part of a street ministry, she performed Sandi Patty songs on a karaoke machine in the streets of New York City. Girard laughs, “Talk about a tough crowd!”
Though the members of ZOEgirl faced some tough personal times, "Room to Breathe" is also a celebration of what they overcame and a symbol of hope for those blazing similar trails. The girls still acknowledge they face painful times, as everyone does, but their personal growth has made them more settled. As a result, "Room to Breathe" is an album of encouragement, hope, stability and even praise & worship. These are the qualities they hope to impart to their fans.
“Last spring on our ‘Different Kind Of FREE’ tour, we came to a point one night where we were feeling really burned out and not even sure that we wanted to keep going,” admits Conway. “The song ‘Good Girl’ came out of that discussion. It was really the beginning of the entire album and what confirmed to us that we needed to do this album. Being a ‘good girl’ is not an easy road, and it’s not about being perfect and never making mistakes. It’s about setting your sights higher, committing your life to God and hanging in there when you feel all alone in your values.”
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