Carolyn Arends is one of my favorite singers and songwriters. Here is our recent conversation. Please read her comments and purchase her latest music.
Chris Maxwell: Carolyn, thanks for taking time to talk. It is great to connect again. How are you?
Carolyn Arends: I’m in a good place, thanks. And very happy to be chatting with you again.
Chris: Let’s begin by discussing your new music project. Please tell us about it.
Carolyn: I’ve actually got two new projects out. The first one is called RECOGNITION and is a recording of 12 new originals, recorded in a rootsy folk-pop style. I had a rush of creativity last spring (in the early months of COVID)—after a long writing drought,all of a sudden I couldn’t stop writing songs. RECOGNITION is the result. The second one is called IN THE MORNING and is a collection of acoustic worship tunes. It was meant to be sort of a bonus for Kickstarter backers but grew into its own full-fledged project.
Chris: Take us deeper into a few of the songs. What inspired you to write them? What do you hope your audience receives from the songs?
Carolyn: Where to begin? Let me give you a whirlwind tour of the RECOGNITION project.
The first track, “Becoming Human,” explores the idea that being “only human” is not an excuse to be less than our best selves but rather a high and holy calling—to become fully human is the great project of our lives. It’s also the only song I’ve written that features both Pinocchio and King Lear as case studies!
“Without Music,” the second song on the album, unfolded just the way the lyrics suggest: I sat down to write a cynical protest song, but the song had a mind of its own and instead became a celebration of the gift of music. The fact that we still make music even—especially—during difficult times reveals what a powerful and necessary gift music really is. And the fact that Amy Grant sings a duet on this song is very special to me, as her artistry was so formative for me growing up and she’s the coolest.
The third song is “Memento Mori”—it’s a happy up-tempo tune about remembering that we all eventually die! My son says it’s the weirdest song I’ve ever written, but it might be my favorite song on the record. I’m convinced that one of the ways to figure out what you most want to do with your life is to write an aspirational obituary—the things you hope people will say about you when you’re gone—and then live to make those things true!
“Pool of Tears” is the fourth song. My friend Trevor is a pastor whose way of doing ministry has been shaped by remembering that every single person sits next to his or her own pool of tears. Everyone experiences loss—if we let it, our sorrow can be one of the things that really connects us. “Pool of Tears” tries to convey that truth with a series of vignettes that some people say remind them of my song “Seize the Day.”
“To Cry For You” is the most personal song on the record. I was incredibly close to my mom, and she passed away in October of 2018. I was not prepared for the grief that enveloped me. I kept thinking of other folks facing much more tragic circumstances and telling myself I should be doing better navigating my own loss. I had to finally learn to let myself grieve, and I discovered that grieving well is part of the job of becoming fully human. Several months after losing my mom, I sang at the funeral of another mom, and her young adult son gave the eulogy and said “If you’re wondering if I’m going to cry, of course I’m going to cry. It is my honor to cry for her.” That really reframed my own tears for me, and helped me realize that, as I sing in the song, “grief is the work that love must do.” I hope this song helps others navigating loss to realize that grieving well is an important part of loving well.
I don’t write a lot of straight-forward love songs, but the next song, “Gather Me,” is exactly that. I tend to get very scattered, and my husband Mark has a way of grounding me and gathering me back together in his arms (and in long, patient conversations!) I hope the song will remind listeners of someone in their own lives who helps gather them—be that a partner, friend, or even a beloved pet!
What’s next? Oh! “God’s Speed!” That one was inspired by Mark Buchanan’s great book, God Walk: Moving at the Speed of your Soul. It embraces this idea that God is much more patient than we are, and we could all stand to slow down a little! This one, along with “Becoming Human” features the wonderful McCrary Sisters on gospel-y vocals, and it’s got some great horns on it too. One reviewer said it reminded him a lot of Van Morrison, which made me happy. I hope this one will make listeners groove and smile and breathe a little deeper.
After that one comes “Maladjusted.” I have a colleague, Nate, who always says something like, “It’s no sign of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” That really spoke to me, because I have a tendency to want to fit in and go with the flow. Nate’s comments led me to Martin Luther King’s famous speech about being proud to be maladjusted, and this song is an exploration of that invitation.
The ninth song is “All Flame.” It comes from a wonderfully mysterious story about one monk inviting another to be entirely transformed by the fire of God’s love. I adore the string arrangement on this one (Nashville’s Love Sponge String Quartet) and the way it follows my duo partner Spencer Capier’s octave mandolin line.
Let’s see, what’s next. My friend Laura Funk is a hospital chaplain, and she sent me a poem articulating the sorts of things she finds herself saying and praying over the dying. I was so moved by her writing, and was grateful when she said I could turn it into a song, which became the next track on the album, “Let Love Lead You Home.”
The eleventh song is “Almost Didn’t Recognize You”—it’s the source of the album’s title. It explores the idea that God is moving and speaking all around us but we have to open our hearts and eyes to recognize him. I hope it helps folks stay a little more awake to the divine invitations in their own lives.
The last song is a bonus track called “After This,” which we actually recorded and released last May, about three months into the pandemic. It started as a beautiful fiddle tune written by Spencer, and became sort of a COVID anthem—one that invites us to keep hoping and to never take for granted the gift of being with one another in community.
Chris: I still remember the impact “Seize the Day” had on me personally. It developed into a life goal, and the song eventually became part of the story I would tell about my battle with epilepsy. There are many people who are struggling for various reasons. Can you give us advice on how we can, no matter what we are facing, seize the day?
Carolyn: I’ve always been so honored that “Seize the Day” became a part of your own amazing story, Chris. I’ve been learning as the years go on that seizing the day is as much about the little moments as the big ones—that it’s actually the quiet minutes and days of our lives that end up defining who we are, how we love, and what we contribute. So I’d encourage everyone to start each day with prayerful anticipation, and to stay awake to the divine invitations that might just look like coffee with a friend or refusing to take the easy way out on something.
Chris: You write and speak about spiritual formation. Prayer is one of my favorite topics and a way to survive life in this fallen world. I cherish honest conversations and silent times with God. Give us your thoughts on prayer and tell us ways music can help us in our spiritual development.
Carolyn: Prayer is such an expansive topic, isn’t it? It’s kind of a preposterous idea that the God of the universe is actually speaking to us and listening to us, but I really believe it’s true. And I believe that, while God can speak to us in a variety of ways, God most often speaks to us in the stirrings of our own hearts. Music can be a powerful ally in prayer because it sort of sneaks in the back door, past our cognition and past our defenses and helps us get in touch with our own souls and, sometimes, a bit more in tune with the voice of God.
Chris: I’m a poet wishing our churches found more ways to include the importance of poetry in biblical and church history context, and also as personal therapy in prayerful confessions. I love the Psalms. I love song lyrics. My poetic journal entries sometimes turn into poems for books, but they always help me release my hurts in healthy ways and find peace in God. Any suggestions on how followers of Christ and our churches can welcome creative arts like poetry?
Carolyn: Well, I couldn’t agree with you more that poetry and other creative arts can and should be a real gift to the church—one that is modeled in great detail in Scripture. I would encourage anyone who loves a creative art to find gentle ways to let your church “taste and see” that it is good. Whether that’s starting a poetry club for anyone who is interested or asking your worship pastor if he or she would be open to sharing a particular poem on a particular Sunday, get creative and see what happens! A book that has some great ideas for incorporating creative arts into church life is Gary Molander’s Pursuing Christ, Creating Art: Exploring Life at the Intersection of Faith and Creativity. And I’ve written about the arts as an ally in spiritual formation here.
The Jesuits invite us to “take a long, loving look at the real,” believing that to do so will inevitably lead to recognizing the movements of God in the world, in each other, and in our own hearts. The arts really help us train to look and listen more carefully, and they can thaw us out and stir up our hearts in really helpful ways.
Chris: It is so healthy for us to be honest with our Listener who already knows our thoughts and feelings.
Carolyn: Oh, yes! When you look at people in the Bible who had close relationships with God, they were usually not at all reluctant to tell God—in rather forceful terms!—when he seemed distant or wasn’t making sense to them. The point was that they stayed in an honest relationship with him rather than stuffing things down or faking that everything was OK. It is striking that most of Jesus’ teaching on prayer is about persistence—I think that’s because he knew that life would be hard for us on this side of the veil, but he didn’t want us to go silent with God. Nothing kills a relationship faster than the silent treatment.
Chris: As an example, give us a few lines from one of your new songs.
Carolyn: Well, I guess “To Cry for You” documents my journey to getting honest with myself and with God about how much loss hurts.
There’s a lump in my throat
There’s a knot in my chest
I am tired to the bone
But I cannot rest
But It’s only right to feel like I do
‘Cause it is my honor to cry for you
Or, more directly to God, in “All Flame” I admit:
I am for now only the tiniest of embers
I can but offer you an incomplete surrender
Still I do. I do.
Chris: How can we pray for you? How can people hear your music and pick up copies of your new album?
Carolyn: We are releasing a song at a time from these projects to streaming platforms, so you can hear the first single “Becoming Human” wherever you stream or download music. Or people can get both projects in their entirety (CDs or digital downloads) directly at carolynarends.com – I hope they will!
Thanks for asking how folks can pray. As you know, creating work in the world today involves promoting the work, and that can quickly tip over into an unhealthy need for “success” or particular kinds of affirmation. I’d love prayer to be able to steward this new music well while staying emotionally and spiritually healthy. And I always welcome prayer for my family—my husband, Mark, who is on the “front lines” of sorts as a high school counselor, and our young adult kids Ben and Beth, who are navigating university life in this strange COVID world.
Chris: Thank you for your time. And thanks again for your words, your voice, your music, and your spirit. You help many of us seize the day.
Carolyn: That means the world to me, Chris. I’m so grateful for all the ways you seize the day! Please don’t stop!