Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Girls With Guitars

  • 1998 11 Nov
Girls With Guitars
by Bruce Adolph, courtesy of %%Christian Musician%%

There has always been something unique about a girl stepping out on stage with a guitar. Speaking from a male guitarist point of view, it is intriguing to see a woman accompany herself on guitar while performing. I like it. First of all, I find myself interested in the female artist presentation and secondly, I find myself drawn toward listening to the level of guitar playing ability. It's not one of those "she can play pretty good for a girl" attitudes. I just find it interesting to watch what and how they play (tunings, chord progressions, fills etc.). Okay, maybe it is a little bit of that "she plays pretty good for a girl" syndrome. I'm not sure. The one thing I'm sure of is that the combination of "girl-with-a-guitar" is compelling to more people than just me. Take a look at the recent Grammy award winners and nominees, you'll find all the proof you need.

In the Christian music market there is a current movement of very talented women of God who are using their skills of songwriting, singing and guitar playing to honestly present their music. It may be poetic, it may outline these artists hopes, struggles and fears, but you'll also find each of the four "girls with guitars" we interviewed to have something important to say. After spending sometime with each of them we found a common thread running through all of them: a desire to aspire to artistic quality and sincerely portray themselves and their faith. From the veteran {{Margaret Becker}} to the sophomore {{Sarah Masen}}, from the folksy Sarah Hart to the rookie-yet-prepared {{Jennifer Knapp}} we trust that you will learn something about their artistry and perhaps about your own.

Good riffing, er, I mean reading!

Margaret Becker

%%Christian Musician%%: What were your musical influences growing up, and how did you discover your gift in music and ministry?

{{Margaret Becker}}: Early musical influences were mostly singer/songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. From there, it grew into a love of jazz. I started working professionally when I was about 15 years old. For the most part, I'm a self-taught musician. I studied opera basically to protect my voice and make sure that what I was doing was correct. I started playing in clubs, and basically through that process came to a whole knowledge and a maturation process and discovered that my life's message was very much bound up in Christ. I realized that if I was going to do music, I would definitely have to alter it and make sure that it's an expression of that heartfelt passion.

%%Christian Musician%%: The course of your musical career has had some interesting changes. Give us some details, as far as your recorded product.

{{Margaret Becker}}: I'm a firm believer in not becoming stagnant. Because I write most of my music, I tend to experiment a lot. At different points in my career, I have chosen different musical styles; I call them musical colors. Early on, I chose musical colors which were probably more aggressive, more appropriate to that period of very aggressive guitar-oriented music. Toward the middle of the process, I chose softer colors. I became burned out with the 'dueling guitar' thing. It wasn't inspiring to me anymore. I actually felt like it had lost a lot of life. I went and bought a keyboard and taught myself keyboard and started to write all of my music on keyboards. It needed to have some different textures, so I went out and bought a couple of different synth modules to bring some organic sounds like ethnic instruments and percussion. I then began to write music based on whatever the inspiration was. If it was the sound of a drum, I would write it off the sound of a drum, or maybe it was the sound of an Irish flute. I spent a lot of time with those colors, probably my last three albums. After a while, those colors actually lost their sparkle too, so I've picked up the acoustic guitar and started working with that color and building around that. That's where I am right now.

%%Christian Musician%%: ==Falling Forward== is very raw. You play all of the guitars on the album, and you recorded the vocals while playing the guitar. That's very gutsy. Tell us about that.

{{Margaret Becker}}: I always do infinitely better live. I'm a very strong live performer, yet when I get in the studio, I tend to freeze up. I asked him how he felt about just miking me up and letting me go for it. He said that was exactly what he wanted to do, so they put me in a separate room and we went for it. Actually, it was brilliant. It was all live playing, and the band responded to me rather than me having to respond to them. Myself and my guitar were the lead, we were the top of the entire arrangement. Everybody sort of filled in the coloring down the scale to the bottom. For me, it was an incredible experience, because I sing much better live, I perform much better live, and I have a lot more passion live.

%%Christian Musician%%: That's great. You've fooled around with a few acoustic sounds. What's this about a screwdriver? What were you doing to your guitar?

{{Margaret Becker}}: {{Tedd T.}}, he's crazy. Tedd T. is the king of vintage, unethical expression. When we first started writing together about a year ago, he called up his friend, Charles Garrett, a vintage guitar enthusiast who used to play for {{Charlie Peacock}}. Charles Garrett scours the land for anything vintage, things that when you plug them in, they blow up. You never know if they're going to work, he just keeps buying them. He has probably about 30 serious vintage guitars, and he brought everything over to the studio. Pedals, guitars, amps, everything. We began making chains of certain sounds and on one chain, I had finished laying the guitar track down. I was playing an old, very rare Epiphone push-button guitar, the kind that goes for up to $20,000. I finished the chain with that guitar and {{Tedd T.}} brought in a screwdriver and said he wanted me to play slide. I said I didn't know how to play slide, and he told me I had a couple of hours to learn. He left me in the room with the engineer. On the song, "Crawl," there's a sound that sounds almost like seagulls. It's me playing slide guitar on an old Epiphone.

%%Christian Musician%%: How about lyrically? You say it's not for the meek, there's things about the life process and journey and the passionate discovery of Christ. Tell about the lyrical theme on ==Falling Forward==.

{{Margaret Becker}}: Our industry, especially when it has the light shown on it, tends to be "Spirituality 101." Not that there's not a place for that, but I think people are afraid to discover for themselves the passionate pursuit of Christ. In past albums, I've always been conscientious and sensitive to that and tried to include several songs that are "Christianity 101" for the people who are, quite frankly, not as mature. With this album, I have a sense of passing time, and I don't have the time to do that. I think I've done it well enough for the past six to eight albums that people should know that I am a Christian, that I do love God. This is about being a Christian for twenty or thirty years, walking in that Christianity and expressing that in your everyday living. It's about being a person who is old enough to have faced struggles and overcome them. This is not an album for people who are looking for a cheerleader, not an album for people who are looking for "Dogma 3:16" over and over. It's a very mature album. It's a picture of passionate pursuit of Christ. Passion, of course, comes with risk. That's the lyrical content.

%%Christian Musician%%: What is your current line-up of onstage gear? What guitar are you using?

{{Margaret Becker}}: Because I played a lot of electric in addition to acoustic on this album, I'm using a couple of different pieces. I have a brand new Epiphone hollow body with Bigsby tremolo on it. I use that a lot through a Fender tweed and Fender black face sometimes, too. Not a big one, though, it's too loud. I've also been using a Les Paul. Not in the way you would think, with the bombastic distortion overdrive, but actually for chunky clean parts. It sounds fantastic. I've been using my Takamine acoustic Santa Fe, my Takamine 12-string top of the line, and also the Takamine gutstring, which is actually coming in quite handy on certain arpeggiated songs.

%%Christian Musician%%: For fellow musicians, both signed artists and aspiring ones, do you have any words of encouragement or exhortation that you would like to give to them? You've been a veteran of this for about 11 years and you've seen the industry go through a lot of changes. Do you have any words of encouragement for or to the industry itself, or to our readers who are aspiring to getting into the music industry?

{{Margaret Becker}}: To the aspiring musicians, I would say that there is an absolute joy and treasure in local ministry. I know that's not what people want to hear, but there is something lost along the way when you get to the point where you're a national and international artist. The game changes, the players change, the stakes change and you are changed in the midst of them. It takes a lot not to be changed to the detriment. I think most people are, at some point, changed to the detriment. A few people can turn it around the keep the perspective. There is something to be said about taking your guitar, throwing it in the back of your broken-down Nova and driving 60 miles to play for nothing and being able to talk to people afterwards. There's a ministry there that is not elevated, that perhaps is not recognized, that will be greatly rewarded. Personally, I did that for seven years before I ever was a national and international artist, and I look back on those days with fondness.

I would say to first of all consider your role. Be thankful for where you are, and be faithful where you are. Make yourself available. Make sure people know what you do and know that you will do it for free and that you will do it for anybody, whether it's a mission down in the inner city or whether it's the New Year's Eve service at your church. The most important thing is to be available, to be willing and to be humble and realize that God has His hand in the timing of everything, including your career where it stands, locally, nationally or internationally.

Above all, when you pick up a magazine, when you pick up CCM, when you turn on the TV or pick up an album, remember that everything is an eight by ten glossy with all of the blemishes brushed out. Nothing is as it appears. There is no hierarchy of blessing based on where you're performing or what level of audience you have. There's no hierarchy, there's no ladder. You don't have to go anywhere or climb anything; you just have to be faithful where you are and treat your musicianship and your expression of ministry with the utmost responsibility and care. If you are meant to do other things, it will be very plain. To struggle your whole life and wonder and be in angst because you see this perceived goal and think that's what your fate is would be a great waste of time and perhaps the highest insult to God, to cheapen your gift by always comparing it to something that, quite frankly, is not real.

Sarah Hart

%%Christian Musician%%: What are some of your early musical influences, and how did you discover your gift in the music in ministry part?

Sarah Hart: I think my early influences are people that my mom listened to. She listened to a lot of James Taylor and Joan Baez. I grew up listening to a lot of folk music.

%%Christian Musician%%: Sure, like Joni Mitchell?

Sarah Hart: Yes, although my love for Joni Mitchell has only really developed in the past five years as I've come to know her material and really got into it. But definitely in the past, I would say James Taylor, Joan Baez, Ian and Sylvia, a lot of people like that. You know, the old folkies. I'm also a fan of the old Bob Dylan stuff. That's what I grew up listening to. During my teenage years, I listened to what every teen listened to during the '80s: pop rock, so I have that influence mixed with the folk and it came out this way.

%%Christian Musician%%: When did you begin playing instruments?

Sarah Hart: I can't really remember how old I was when I started playing the piano. I was really young. I grew up playing by ear and just kind of took to it, so I can't really put a date on it. The same thing with the vocals. I have tapes of me singing with my mom when I was about 3 years old, so I've always grown up singing. My mom was a musician, so I just grew up singing. I started playing flute when I was in the fourth grade and studied that professionally. I have my college degree in that. Flute was my principal instrument. I have my degree in music theory and composition. I played guitar minimally; I knew just four chords when I was growing up, and that was about it. I never really played the guitar much. I picked it up about three years ago and have been playing seriously ever since. I play all my own stuff at my own shows now.

%%Christian Musician%%: I was going to ask you about that. You've got Scott Dente ({{Out Of The Grey}}) who I love a lot, playing on the project. He's a great guy.

Sarah Hart: You're right. The reason we did it that way was because when we made the record, I'd only been playing for about a year. While I had written all of the songs for guitar, I wasn't confident enough in my technique that I was ready to sit down and play guitar on a record. I think I'm more confident in that now, but Scott DentT was the most incredible player that I knew, and I really wanted him to play on the record, so it just worked out well for all of us.

%%Christian Musician%%: What are your current musical influences?

Sarah Hart: I absolutely adore Shawn Colvin. She's my idol. I listen to a lot of her stuff. I love Crowded House, David Wilcox, James Taylor, the list could go on and on. I like listening to people who are more singer/songwriters. They're really gifted songwriters more than anything else, and they're true artists. They play and sing their own stuff; they're self-embodied. I mostly listen to people like that.

%%Christian Musician%%: So that's what you would like to aspire to. Where did you graduate from college?

Sarah Hart: Ohio State University.

%%Christian Musician%%: How long ago?

Sarah Hart: I went from 1987 to 1991.

%%Christian Musician%%: When you go to folk festivals, onstage it's just you and your guitar, isn't it?

Sarah Hart: Yes.

%%Christian Musician%%: Are you using the old Gibson that's on the cover of your album?

Sarah Hart: Yes.

%%Christian Musician%%: Tell us about that guitar. What's the model?

Sarah Hart: That guitar is the reason that I started playing. It's a 1962 J-45, and it's a pretty cool guitar. It has a long history. It belonged to a friend of the family who I was very close to. She was actually my aunt's college roommate, that's how she became such a good friend of the family. She died of breast cancer when I was about 11 years old. When she died, she left the guitar to my aunt. My aunt gave it to me as a wedding present. When I got married, it was there at the reception. I asked, "What's that?" and my aunt said, "It's your wedding present." I was just weeping. That guitar is the reason I started playing. As soon as I got it, I was psyched about it. I took it to Bellevue Guitar and said, "Fix it, make anything happen to it that you have to," because it needed a new bridge and it had crack and the back and needed a little bit of work done on it. I started taking lessons right away. I wanted to play because I had this incredible guitar, and you can bet I'm going to learn to play it.

%%Christian Musician%%: So the guitar is actually older than you are.

Sarah Hart: Yes, it's older than I am, and her name is Celeste.

%%Christian Musician%%: So you're using that onstage. Are you using any kind of pedals or effects, or just straight guitar?

Sarah Hart: No pedals, no effects. I have a Fishman transducer that I run. I had a plug put in it, but I didn't want a bunch of other crud done to it, so it's really simple. It doesn't have a lot of its own gain because it's so old, so I just bought a gain box for it and that's all I use.

%%Christian Musician%%: Are you using the flute? It's pretty hard to stop the guitar music and just pick up the flute, isn't it?

Sarah Hart: I don't. I can't play my flute in concert. When I was on the {{Wes King}} tour, though, it was great. It was just {{Scott Krippayne}} and {{Wes King}} and I, and the drummer, Ken Lewis, just the four of us onstage, and we all played for each other. We were onstage with each other the entire time, backing each other up vocally and musically. It was great. It was such an incredible tour. We really became a band, and it was great. I got to play my flute on that tour, which was a real treat for me, because I love the flute and I love classical music and being able to play my flute was a huge treat. That was the first time I was able to do it at a show. It was great.

%%Christian Musician%%: Describe your writing style. It's different than the typical Christian fare.

Sarah Hart: I guess I'm really into saying things poetically but still accessibly. When I first moved to Nashville, I came from a background of writing classical music. I wrote twelve tone music and modern classical in college, and I didn't have a clue how to write lyrics. So I moved to Nashville and tried my hand at writing lyrics and I showed them to a friend of mine. I was scared to death. You know, when you write lyrics you're really baring your heart and soul and you're laying it open for somebody to spit on, basically. So I said, "What do you think?" and he said, "I don't know. They're not that great." From that moment on I was determined to learn how to write songs. I started going to every songwriters circle and show and I bought every book of poetry I could get my hands on. I think the poetry is what really pushed me over the edge in terms of my writing. I was able to see how to say things that you've heard before but in a way that you've never heard before. Once I learned how to do that, it came very naturally.

%%Christian Musician%%: How about the song "Time After Time?"

Sarah Hart: I actually stumbled across that song when I was taking guitar lessons. A guy that I know showed me a tuning called Open D, and I started thinking, "Hmm, this sounds really good." I didn't know what I was playing, but it sounded good to my ear, and now I play and write almost everything in Open D. I was just fiddling around one day with chords, trying to find chords. I don't know why, but I heard the chord in "Time After Time" and started singing it and then I made this cool arrangement for it. I started playing it out and people really liked it. My producer said, "That song, the arrangement is so neat. You've just got to put it on the record." So we did.

%%Christian Musician%%: Are you going to put "Smoke On The Water" on your next album?

Sarah Hart: Let me think about that.

%%Christian Musician%%: How about your approach to your live performances? Psychologically, what do you do when you go out there, just you and your guitar?

Sarah Hart: I imagine that I'm standing and playing in my kitchen, because that's where I always practice. My house has a really big kitchen, and it has good acoustics, so I always practice there in my bare feet and pajamas. Basically, I just try to tell myself, "Okay Sarah, you're not really in front of these people, you are playing in your pj's in your kitchen." That's kind of how I psychologically get past being scared.

%%Christian Musician%%: How would you describe your music when people ask you what kind of music you do? I know you don't want to be labeled, but how do you describe it?

Sarah Hart: I would say it's a cross between folk and pop music. It's sort of poetic prose. The music can be very folksy but it can also be kind of alternative or pop. It's a strange mix. There's not really a good term for it. A lot of people that I equate myself with just label it as folk-pop.

%%Christian Musician%%: I heard one of the girls from Heart being interviewed on a secular station here in Seattle. They're going by a new name now, the Lovemongers. She said she was at an interview and they called their music the new 'poptimism." I really liked that. For {{Jennifer Knapp}}, we did a review and we called it 'alterna-poptimism,' because we have the most optimistic message there is. That's what we have in the Lord. I coined a new phrase, let's see if it sticks.

Sarah Hart: That's absolutely right. I honestly, too, think in that light of being optimistic. In my writing, I don't use a lot of the words Jesus or God, but it's my hope that people can tell by my writing that everything in my life has to do with God. Everything has a base in God, whether or not I come out and say the words God or Jesus in a song. To me, that's sort of beside the point. A lot of times, it makes your experience trite to try to throw that word in there. I try to just keep it really honest and just bare my soul and say, "I'm just gonna write it how I feel it and whatever comes out that's what comes out and I'm not going to try and make it something that it's not." So, that's kind of how I approach that.

%%Christian Musician%%: What's your philosophy about music in general?

Sarah Hart: One word: honesty. Honesty is the key to it all. If you're going to do this and you're going to write songs and you're going to be an artist and be self-contained, what's the point if you're not going to be honest? What's the point if you're going to write a song about something that you haven't experienced or something that you don't think or really believe in your heart?

Jennifer Knapp

%%Christian Musician%%: What are some of your earlier musical influences, and how did you decide you were going to get into music, and also into ministry, as well?

{{Jennifer Knapp}}: I didn't really grow up a huge music fan, so it's kind of funny that I do what I do. I was largely influenced by secular music. I wasn't raised in the church. I listened to everything from early R.E.M., which was one of the cool bands that had an acoustic, southern sound, but were still on the edge of alternative at the time. Through them, I got roped into 10,000 Maniacs. I just fell in love with the artistry of Natalie Merchant and the way she does her vocals and uses them as an instrument. Also, the Indigo Girls, the way they drove the acoustic pop more into the forefront of acceptable music. As far as what I wanted to do getting into the music scene and the ministry, it was really an accident. I never had a dream of doing anything like that. I was going to be a music teacher for the rest of my life.

%%Christian Musician%%: Did you study music in school?

{{Jennifer Knapp}}: I started college and studied for two and a half years on a music scholarship. I got saved when I was 18 years old, and when I was 19 I started writing a few things just as a reflection of my faith and then I'd couple it with the guitar. They weren't really awesome songs or anything like that, but they were actually ministering to my friends who had seen where I'd come from before I was with Christ and actually saw the progress I'd made in such a short amount of time after falling in love with the Lord. The music really reflected that. So, that's kind of how I got started. My friends just wanted to hear me play. I started playing for campus organizations. The college kids went home and told everybody about it at their churches, so I started going out to the churches, and within a year, I was doing about 80 concerts a year. It was that way for about three years, until I got signed.

%%Christian Musician%%: Did you do some independent CD's of your own?

{{Jennifer Knapp}}: One of the first things I recorded was a five song demo. It was recorded at the home of a friend of mine and it worked like a really handy business card. I didn't think we'd sell even 100 of them, and we ended up selling about 2,000. After that, we went on to record five more songs. We had a better studio, and better time to do it in, and then we put those together for a full-length album. We sold about 4,000. While we were in the studio recording Wishing Well (the independent project), Toby McKeehan [Gotee Records/{{dcTalk}}] called. He had heard of me through somebody I was working for in Michigan at the time. He wanted to hear the project, and after he heard it, he offered us a contract. It's kind of a fantasy fairy tale.

%%Christian Musician%%: You mentioned that you attended college on a music scholarship. What was the scholarship for?

{{Jennifer Knapp}}: I was a trumpet player, actually.

%%Christian Musician%%: You don't mind admitting that in print, is that okay?

{{Jennifer Knapp}}: Oh yeah.

%%Christian Musician%%: And you've toured with a Ska band ({{Supertones}} on the {{Audio Adrenaline}} Zombie Tour).

{{Jennifer Knapp}}: Now maybe they'll take me seriously.

%%Christian Musician%%: How about some current musical influences?

{{Jennifer Knapp}}: Well, I've been trying to learn a lot more guitar-wise. I've never really been an extremely strong acoustic player, but I'm at the point now where I can start reading other people's music and playing it. I like the style of Shawn Colvin. She's a very percussist-type acoustic player, and I've been trying to learn some stuff from her and artists like Mary Chapin Carpenter, believe it or not. On the Christian side, Matt Slocum (of {{Sixpence None The Richer}}) just blows me away. To be able to push the artist's side of it yet be able to touch somebody with a ministry heart is really what I'm challenged to do. I look at those guys and it's definitely an inspiration for what I do.

%%Christian Musician%%: How would you describe your writing style?

{{Jennifer Knapp}}: I've been trying to push the poetic end of it in a lot of the recent stuff I've done. At the same time, I don't want to alienate anybody. Sometimes you can get out there and start saying things that have so many hidden meanings that nobody knows what you're talking about. So I've been trying to push the envelope to both sides of that, trying to push the pop music to a level of really poetic writing.

%%Christian Musician%%: So what is your on-stage gear? There's a Taylor guitar on the back of your album. Are you using a Taylor?

{{Jennifer Knapp}}: I actually have two Taylors right now. My main one for awhile had been an 814. Both of my guitars have got LR Baggs pickups in them and when I'm on doing a gig I have their paracoustic DI on the floor. LR Baggs has a great one. It gives a great punchy low end.

%%Christian Musician%%: Do you have an electric guitar now?

{{Jennifer Knapp}}: I have a Yamaha Pacifica. I picked it up for a couple hundred dollars when I bought one of my Taylors. I said, "Hey, can you give me a deal," so they gave me a bonus package and threw it in there when I bought the Taylor. But I've been working on that on the side. The hardest part is just squeezing it in and having free time to mess around.

%%Christian Musician%%: On the album, did you play all of the rhythm parts, all the guitar parts?

{{Jennifer Knapp}}: All of the acoustic parts. There are no other acoustic guitar players on the album. That's one of the things I'm most proud of about the album. I've never considered myself a strong acoustic player, and for anyone who's ever played in the studio, it's a different world playing in the studio to a click track than playing on the stage. You get away with a lot more with spread out time signatures and stuff like that. For me, to sit in the studio and keep all the acoustic tracks on there, I was impressed, because a lot of new artists don't get that opportunity, especially in the Christian world.

%%Christian Musician%%: On "Undo Me," when you're by yourself, do you sing the wah-wah electric guitar solo part?

{{Jennifer Knapp}}: (laughing) No, it's straight ahead, hard rhythm acoustic guitar. To me, I've never really seen anybody go out there and just hammer an acoustic guitar, just in your face. For me, it's just fun. For a long time, I thought it was really kind of boring to be able to do that and I never really understood why anyone would want to sit down and listen to an artist like me, but over the last three years, everybody's listened. I see the opportunity in that, to just be able to share my heart when people listen and to be able to share the gospel through that medium is really what makes it the most rewarding. I love the art side of it, and I love the musicianship side of it and I'm hoping to break a boundary or push the envelope a little bit but, in the end, what I'm trying to do is use that to create a platform where I can present the gospel and people will listen and respond. I put everything that I've got into it. There have been times when I feel like, "I don't care, I'm just gonna play guitar," and the audience deserves more than that. I think even the message that's in the heart of what I've written down in times away from performing that it deserves better.

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