Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Nichole Nordeman: Wide Eyed Lyricist

  • 1999 29 Apr
Nichole Nordeman: Wide Eyed Lyricist
By Bruce Adolph, courtesy of %%Christian Musician%% Magazine

If you're looking for the face of the future of Christian music, you need look no further than {{Nichole Nordeman}}. She's young, artsy, and has a unique knack of writing eloquently about the difficult areas of life. But that's not all. What makes Nichole such a bright hope for the future of Christian music is her honesty. She has an honest approach to her music, the "business" and her relationship with the Lord. We found her totally refreshing - young and refreshing, what a concept! We appreciate what she's pursuing lyrically, and wanted to give her the opportunity to talk about where she's at in her young but promising musical career. You'll be able to catch her as part of what may become the tour of the year with {{Avalon}} and {{Anointed}} later in 1999.

CM: What were some of your musical influences growing up?

NN: As a young kid I listened to a lot of early Christian music: {{Dallas Holm}}, early {{Imperials}}. I was in love with harmonizing. I think I was probably doing that better than talking at some point. I just fell in love with harmony and so groups that helped me learn that, like the Imperials and some of those earlier groups, were great. And then I went through the {{Amy Grant}}, {{Michael W. Smith}} era, not that that era's over for me. I guess somewhere around 14, 15 years old I kind of lost interest in Christian music. I'm not sure why, but I started leaning toward what was happening mainstream. I've always been a real pop radio listener. Still am. So, I grew up listening to whatever everyone else was listening to on Top 40.

CM: So who are you listening to now that you like a lot?

NN: Oh man, so many people, I'm just all over the map. Jonathan Brooks kills me. Indigo Girls, James Taylor, Carole King - they're writers, strong, strong writers. At the same time, I can throw on Celine Dion or Mariah Carey and be completely happy for an hour or so. I'm really all over the place.

CM: How about the instruments you play? You grew up with piano?

NN: Yep, I grew up taking the traditional piano lessons from about age six on. I think I stopped taking lessons at about 16, 17 years old. That's when I really started to get the bug for creating and doing my own thing.

CM: Do you sight read?

NN: I've probably lost a lot of that, but I could probably sit down and stumble through something. I'm grateful for [the formal lessons]. I think it gave me a really strong foundation.

CM: How about as far as using any keyboards or synths?

NN: I've always been synth ignorant, and I have a great electric piano - I don't even know what model it is, that's how bad I am. I will forever push the grand piano key and nothing else (laughter). I'm just not very experimental like that. When I write, it helps me to just have the piano sound. That's me.

CM: Your lyrics are really interesting. I like how you pull different thoughts out. Can you tell us what your approach is?

NN: I think that for me, it comes in a couple of different ways. Sometimes, there's something I've been thinking about - an issue or a question or just something that I've been wrestling with for weeks or months - and finally it just comes spilling out because it has no other choice. Other times, something will just grab me - a headline, or a conversation I've had with someone, or maybe just a goofy observation that I've made - and that in itself will inspire an entire song. Really for me it's just about observing life, my own life, too, and trying to be introspective and thoughtful about my own growth. I guess it's a type of journaling experience.

CM: You utilize a lot of word pictures and have a poetic quality. How do you capture that and format it into a verse/chorus/verse/chorus context?

NN: (laughing) That's hard. That's really where Mark Hammond [her producer] comes in, to be totally honest. If I were left alone, there would be no chorus. It would be a 13 minute ballad, with 24 verses. It was funny, when I first signed with StarSong/Sparrow I had a very small body of work that I had written to that point. I just hadn't done much writing. And John Mayes, who was the A&R guy at Starsong, refers to some of my older music as movie soundtracks. They go on and on and on. They're good quality and good concepts, but the craft of writing a song was really foreign to me. So Mark stepped in and somehow - I don't know how - managed to protect what was good about it and what was most important to me about it - which was the lyric, obviously, and the heart of it - and keep that safe while somehow helping me to put it into a format that was somehow accessible to radio. So that people wouldn't get drawn into this big abyss (laughing).

CM: Have you learned to be able to do that on the next round of your own songs?

NN: I think so. At least I have a picture of what it means to write now. And I have a picture of what a good structure of a song is - why you need a bridge, why the chorus can't be this long - I probably will be able to do that a little better on my own, but I welcomed his inspiration so much that I don't know if I would want to do it entirely on my own.

CM: You entered the GMA Academy contest in LA. What was that like, competing with other musicians? And then you went on to Nashville and won the national GMA contest. Tell us about the experience.

NN: The whole GMA Academy concept is such a neat one. I really got a lot out of the workshops and seminars. I went not knowing anything about it, and not knowing what to expect, so I was delightfully surprised. However, I'm not competitive by nature at all. I've never played any sports, never liked the idea. I hated that in junior high basketball. Take that and then plug in the fact that it's your own art, that it's your own expression, that it's something so personal, and now it's me against you. My personal stuff against your personal stuff, and we're laying it out there for it to be scrutinized. It was torturous! It was very, very difficult. And for that reason, almost as difficult to win! I wanted to say, "Okay, thank you very much for this honor, but to the other writers, I'm sorry that I won, it's not about me being better. Thank you so much for expressing your art too." It was disgusting (laughing).

CM: And then you went to Nashville and it just got magnified?

NN: Totally magnified. Absolutely. If I thought about it long enough, it would give me the exact same butterflies as I had when I was there.

CM: We won't go there, then. You stated that you analyze everything until it's disfigured. How do you balance those tendencies?

NN: There are people in my life that help balance those tendencies for me. Musically again, Mark comes in and says, "Hey, you know what kiddo? This is great stuff but there's got to be a bright spot on this record. There's got to be a chance for people to breathe. Take some of that depth, but bring people into a joyful moment in your life." On the personal level, I don't think I'm as serious minded of a person as my music might suggest. Actually, I have a lot of fun and do a lot of stupid, goofy stuff with a lot of really stupid, goofy people. I have great friends and a great time. I think people, having heard my record, might imagine me to be this brooding, deep thinking, intellectual, melancholy person. But that's not me. I just think that the most serious moments that I have end up becoming songs. Kind of like journal entries, or something.

CM: Are the players on the album session musicians or part of your live band?

NN: I don't have a live band. They are incredibly gifted session musicians. Different people really added a lot of different things to the album.

CM: So what will you do for touring? Will you just go out with you and your piano, or will you do it with tracks? How are you going to pull it off live?

NN: Since the record released so late in the fall, it was impossible to get on a fall tour, which I think was a blessing because I'm not even remotely ready for that. So it will be churches for now, with just piano, and then they're mixing the piano out of the tracks so that I'll play along with the music. Which is really strange, because I've never done that before. Last time I used a track was singing "Father's Eyes" in fifth grade.

CM: So you could just lip sync the whole thing and move your hands around on the piano.

NN: (laughing) I could, but I don't think so.

CM: What are your impressions of working in the "industry" since you went from an aspiring musician to a signed artist, doing photo shoots, PR interview and the like?

NN: My answer might make me laugh when I look back in a couple of years, but I've had an incredible experience so far. I haven't bumped into any people who would make me feel awkward or jaded or anything like that. I think it's because the Lord has blessed me with an incredible company to be a part of. Everyone at EMI and Sparrow/Starsong and Chordant are so natural. It feels like I'm hanging out with friends. I haven't had to wrestle with any issues that would make me feel compromised. So far so good!

CM: How would you describe your music stylistically?

NN: That is such a tough question, and I never want to answer it. This is probably not a great definition, but I would say that it's piano-based thoughtful, edgy pop.

CM: Are you reading any books that inspire you?

NN: Yes, it's a book by the late Father Thomas Merton called Seeds of Contemplation. He was a monk for some time. The whole book is these little essays which are absolutely rich and incredibly dense. It's one of those books where you have to reread each paragraph three times. Essays on trying to be a true contemplative and what it really means to meditate on and contemplate the things of God. And it's so deep and so rich, I'm finding incredible nuggets in there that I hope will someday become songs.

CM: What are the main themes of this album?

NN: At this moment, what is most important to me is honesty. Trying to find ourselves in the Lord. I think it's paramount that we be honest and authentic with one another, and consequently with God. That's what I think this album is. It's me saying, "Here's what I think about. Here are the questions that I have. Here are some answers that I occasionally find." Maybe in sharing that with people it will liberate them and free them up to ask similar questions. Or maybe give them the courage to say, "Well, I don't have it all figured out either." I think that's a freedom that we need.

To read more about Nichole, check out our Artist Exclusive from November 1998 - Click Here