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  • 1999 31 Mar
"Of course the up side is that we wouldn't really want things to be under our control anyway, or at least I wouldn't. We do want there to be a God who's bigger than us and is truly in control of things. But everything, at least everything in me, fights that, habitually."

Interviewed by Melissa Riddle for Music

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Carolyn Arends reaches her creative peak with her latest effort, ==This Much I Understand==

When {{Carolyn Arends}} landed on the Christian music scene back in 1995 with ==I Can Hear You==, audiences and critics alike were quite impressed with her Canadian folksy charm and her lyrical depth. Radio singles became radio hits. Two years later, ==Feel Free== packed a little rockier punch, if not quite redefining Arends' musical style, at least adding another layer to an already textured sound. With more radio hits and a lot of touring under her belt, Arends' musical career was off and running. Leave it to the hand of providence to shake it all up with new and startling revelation, ushering in a season of creativity like no other. With a new sense of the fragile and beautiful mystery that is life and a fresh nine-pound reality named Benjamin, Carolyn Arends is understanding more and less about everything in between. caught up with Carolyn Arends for a few deep thoughts on her latest creative ventures. This obviously has been a very pro-creative time for you... How do you think your personal evolution, the whole new mom thing, has affected your music?

Arends: On a really basic level, being pregnant with Benjamin and the time around having him is probably the most creative I've ever felt. I didn't know that it would be like that. As uncomfortable as pregnancy gets, I thought it might be a kind of an uninspiring place to be, but it really wasn't. Everybody knows pregnancy is a more emotional time, and I think I just felt more connected to that part of myself. It turned out to be a very inspiring thing to bring a life into the world. And it was funny, I didn't know how I would feel singing pregnant, and it's by far my favorite time singing, ever. Did it change sonically?

Arends: It did a little bit. Yeah. It was the least amount of effort I've ever had to sing. I wrote quite a bit of the album in the final months of my pregnancy and did a lot of the demos for it, when I was nine months pregnant. And it was certainly the easiest time cutting vocals I've ever done. You'd think it would shut things down kind of, or interfere with breathing or whatever. I don't know what it was, I have no explanation for it. When I was working on the album [after the birth], then it was a bit harder work getting back into that place. You've said this album is probably the most intimate most emotional album, and that you've said more about life and death here. What has this brought about this season in your life, what have these experiences taught you about yourself and what drives you?

Arends: Well that's a good question. I should probably answer that more in terms of what it taught me about what I thought I knew about life that I had to either re-learn or I didn't really know at all. Like it made me see how life is messier than I thought. But it's more beautiful, too. Having a baby and even losing a friend and learning to hold onto the hope of an eternal reconciliation.

Both of those things have shown me that life is even more beautiful than I thought, but also that it's messier and less-I have way less of a handle on it than I thought I did. Even though I thought I was in touch with the fact that God's bigger than us, and that He defies our understanding. I've gone deeper into that understanding and had to make myself try to learn to live with a lack of resolution a little bit more. Why do you think we have such a terrible time learning to embrace the beautiful mess that life is?

Arends: Well it's just part of the fall. I think we're so used to sinning and living outside of the glory of God that by our very nature we reduce things, and we try to make them things we can control. We keep building our little towers of Babel instead of embracing the things that really are huge. And so it's part of our nature.

I also think it's part of our culture's thinking, you know, starting with just kind of Western thinking. We're a couple of generations into self-help now, and the thinking that if you just find the right formula, even spiritually, even in our churches, if we just find the right packaging and the right formula, then we'll find spiritual vitality instead of knowing that God just won't be reduced to those kinds of formulas. I think, too, part of learning to embrace life... requires an act of vulnerability.

Arends: Absolutely. I think at first examination it's terrifying because it brings us face-to-face with how much is truly out of our control and how much, at least according to our little value system, that we hold on, how much can go wrong and how much we have to lose. Of course the up side of that is that we wouldn't really, in the final analysis, want things to be under our control anyway, or at least I wouldn't. I know my capacity for messing up. So in the final analysis, it is what we want. We do want there to be a God who's bigger than us and is truly in control of things. But everything, at least everything in me, fights that, habitually. Do you think it also goes back to the fact that we either lose sight of or we've never been given sight of how loved we are by God. You speak of looking at your son and seeing God's fingerprints, but a lot of people are never told to think of themselves in that way.

Arends: Yeah. I think so. It's interesting watching Ben. It's been really educational because he hasn't learned yet that some emotions or expressions of his feelings are culturally inappropriate. So he gives off this incredible energy because he doesn't have to put any energy into self-protection or into suppressing anything, you know? He's just who he is, and when he's happy you know about it, and when he's upset about something, you certainly know about that, too. He's just come to this world as this kind of open being, and I think a little closer to heaven than we are later in our lives when we learn to put on our masks and behave in certain ways, and we acquire all this stuff.

And so, yeah, I think he might be more in touch with how loved he is by God even on some precognitive level, than we are. And if there's anything I aspire to as a parent, it's helping him see himself that way, you know, all through his life. In light of the themes that you touch on in this new album ==This Much I Understand==, how much do we really have to understand about life to make a choice to be happy? Obviously we think there's a lot to understand before we could actually be happy.

Arends: Yeah, and I don't know if that's true. I think, first of all, it's like defining your terms. I had this conversation with a friend of mine the other day. I was like, "Okay, well what's 'happy?' Let's start there." What does happy mean? Does happy mean, like glibly unaware of the pain that's in this world? Does it mean ecstatic at all times? What does it mean? At least in the song I've called "Happy," it was talking about what in The Message, Eugene Peterson calls the happiness of the saints. And I was just reading something by him the other day where he was saying that one of the greatest shocks for a Christian is discovering that the happiness of the saints does not mean the absence of weeping. It's not what we think it is.

It is this abiding joy that comes from knowing there is a God, He is ultimately in control, and He loves us. And we're gonna be reconciled with Him. That's what happy is, that's what the happiness of the saints is. So I think if you can get that much, you can be happy in that deepest sense. And then how you feel from day-to-day is obviously gonna vary with your circumstances, but there is something deeper. It's the beginning of our understanding. And as it relates to that essence of joy and happiness, my guess is that it's pretty much a choice. We have the choice to accept that.

Arends: Yeah, I think so. Even that comes from God, even our ability to have faith starts with Him. But we certainly can choose to accept or reject that in our lives. Culturally, we sort of equate being happy, like genuinely taking joy in being alive, as being unintelligent or unaware of the true complexity of the human experience and all the suffering in the world. But that does us all a great disservice because I think our great sorrows and our great joys are so connected.

And it's all just about being alive and being able to see that life really is beautiful at the same time that it's messy and cruel. I don't think it necessarily means being simple. But it does come even before our understanding. Rich Mullins used to always quote G.K. Chesterton, who said, "People say they'll be obedient to the commands of God once they understand them, but understanding doesn't lead to obedience. Obedience leads to understanding." And with happiness, it's a similar thing. You've got to decide, "I will allow the joy of the Lord to be my strength, even if I don't get it all yet." This album seems to be a stylistic about-face from your last. Is that a deliberate thing?

Arends: No. It's funny because, first, I had no idea that ==Feel Free== was gonna hit people as being so different from the first album. To me, it's all about the songs, and it was like the same kind of songwriting as before. I just plugged some stuff in. There was some of that sort of deliberating with this new album, but I ended up just kind of tabling that discussion and just trying to write the songs and see what the songs wanted to be. And what came out is what came out. The second record was very much about trying to kick off any musical preconceptions I had for myself, to honestly feel free creatively.

And I think having done that and proven some things to myself, I just kind of relaxed into this, into what this new record is. It is more acoustic and more gentle. Honestly, another big factor is that there is a baby in my house, and so I was listening to a lot of really acoustic, gentle and nurturing music. So this is just where I landed. And really, however much I think about these things, I hope at the end of the day, the right songs come out and then we figure out the right way to record them. And I don't confuse the audience too much in the process. Hopefully it's just a natural progression that happens.

Natural indeed. The result is a renewed creative energy, an urgency rooted more in the journey than in the need to make music. But the music benefits all the same.