It was nine in the morning and I picked up my cell phone. After three rings Nashville based singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken picked up the phone. She had just returned home from the grocery store where she was picking up soup and other supplies for her sick daughter. How many of us have been there? As a woman who is pregnant with her first child I know that I’ll be able to sympathize soon enough.
We made small talk and chatted about logistics for her upcoming concert for a few minutes while she put groceries away and got settled. It was a great reminder that we’re all pretty much the same. We have our different callings and vocations, and while some might look more glamorous than others we all have our basic needs, duties and desires. I don’t think the word “desire” is a coincidence here. In fact it became a major theme in our conversation that morning, which left me both thoughtful and encouraged as I went about the rest of my day.
SCH: Could you tell us about your latest album “Desire Like Dynamite” and if there was a specific message your were trying to get across?
SM: This album does have a few themes that emerged as I started writing for it. Most of the time when I sit down to write my main source of inspiration is relationships. Just traditionally that’s where I feel most sparked to write songs. I think it’s the emotional charge that it gets, because this one is no exception. There’s a lot of relational stuff: family relationships, the relationship to my kids and to friends. Also watching a couple of really close friends and their marriages fall apart and walking through some of those seasons with people I’m in relationship with. So those were some of the themes that were coming out in the songs on this record.
Another layer or theme that has been stirring for me is the theme of conservation and creation care, which in some ways has always been…well, I really love being outside. My dad was a science teacher and taught me about all kinds of biology, just sitting around the dinner table or taking walks in the afternoon. So he taught me to really love and appreciate that. My mom did as well – always pointing out the sky or the stars wherever we were. That was very much a part of our childhood.
But I think in a lot of ways I felt for a lot of the years growing up that the idea of conservation was separate from faith or Christianity. It’s not something you could blame on any particular cause, but at the same time I look back and I think, “these really can be brought together.” Not that I set out to do that, but I felt like that was happening for me. It’s begun to deepen my experience of both the songs I write and the art that I’m making.
It feels like those things are spilling over into it in a way that’s not overt or propaganda…you know, it’s not quite Woody Guthrie, that’s not what my intention is, but it does come through I think on this album. These overtones of here are the things that we’ve lost and here are the things that I hope for when you look at the world around us, and really trying to have a hold on to each; that this record would talk about the tension between hope and lament. I think that’s where we live most of the time and we’re kind of afraid to go too far into one or the other.
SCH: Is there a song on that album you’re particularly proud of?
SM: I think that there are a lot of variations between the different songs. “Dynamite” kind of seems like it’s a thesis for the record. As that song emerged I now realize that the title “Desire like Dynamite” basically came out of ad libing while I was writing that song and then that sort of crystallized to become the theme or the hinge point of the record. Even in saying that, I feel like that’s the title track, that’s the thesis – that everything else hinges on our desire. That the things we want aren’t always bad and they’re not always noble but that we have to recognize that we are motivated and all of our actions and all of our relationships are hinging on our desires. With that song I think took a little while as I was writing because I really wanted it to talk about all the different layers of themes – whether it’s conservation or family or relationships in general. And I feel like that song has a little bit of each in there.
SCH: Do you have children? What are their names and ages?
SM: Yes, we have a son and a daughter. Our daughter just turned four and our son is five. Their names are Carter Marie and Rhodes…. you know like the keyboard.
SCH: Do either of them have any budding musical talent?
SM: I don’t know, I’m curious to see. I think they have some natural ability with singing or a general sense of music but I don’t know where they’ll go with that. Sometimes when it’s so predominant in our family I wonder if they will go in a completely different direction. Maybe if we give them lessons it would be healthy to have someone else giving them lessons so they don’t feel like it’s all attached to their mom and dad. But they seem receptive to it in some ways and in other ways they feel competitive for our attention with that.
So if I’m playing guitar in the house it’s just…So I remember hearing stories about Loretta Lynn and she would sit out in the fields and play songs and write songs for her kids. But my kids are not into letting me do that in our natural day-to-day life. They want to hang out and sometimes feel a little threatened by it when I pull out my guitar. So I try not to force it and then there are other moments that I can tell they’re paying attention or they’re interested. I want to see where that goes; I’m curious to see how it turns out. They’re both probably going to become financial advisors or something like that [laughs].
SCH: I guess there is that element where you pull out your guitar and your kids think, “Oh mom’s going to work.”
SM: Yeah, it’s really different when it’s your livelihood too. So like if I go play a show, that’s my time away from them that they’re aware of, like I’m going to work. So there’s a real element that is the opposite of time spent together. Finding ways to bridge that…I could probably do a better job of being creative in playing music together in a way that it’s not work.
SCH: Your husband, Derek Webb, worked with you to produce this album. I know you have written and recorded together as well. What is your collaborative process like and how does it differ from your solo process?
SM: It’s evolved over the years. At first it was probably a pretty tenuous working dynamic because we both have very strong musical opinions – we’re both very opinionated about our ideas. So in our early years of marriage (we’ve been married twelve years )…it’s really been in recent years that it’s gotten to be so enjoyable. It’s something we’re really grateful for; it doesn’t feel like that’s a given.
I think we have to be more intentional and efficient with our time in some ways because there’s a lot more going on in family life and the rhythms. So we have to make the most of every moment. A lot of time our collaboration looks like trading places to run out and record something, talking about it in the kitchen with the family there, then, “okay you go out and work on that, you go play the bass part, I’ll come out and sing in an hour.”
You know, a lot of that passing the baton back and forth. Then there are other moments where we are able to sit and work together. I think biggest advantage is how well he knows and understands the things that I love sonically and melodically, and on every level he completely understands and knows me. So I don’t have to overstate a lot of things. I can be very subtle with how I’m saying, “you know I’m not sure about the direction of this song, what if it was more like this.”
Like if I give him a reference, whether it’s some motown reference or Roy Orbison or “I want this to be more throwback,” he knows what my influences are and what I mean when I say that like no one else would. So it really saves us a lot of work because we can get right to the point when we’re communicating about ideas and trying to collaborate for sounds.
But we have a ton of instincts too, but that can actually be great because the things we have conflict over or disagree on we have to meet in the middle and in most cases that ends up improving our original idea. I think that if we’re made for each other, to be in a collective and in a community, you want to be the truest version of yourself as you’re making a piece of art, but at the same time it wouldn’t be all it could be if it was just you in a vacuum. And nothing ever really is just you in a vacuum.
So that’s one of the great advantages of having it as part of that marriage/family relationship. We say a lot how that seems like a real gift that we didn’t earn or make for ourselves but we feel really grateful to have these years together to be able to do this together.
SCH: I know you are a lover of hymns. Can you tell us about your hymn projects and how those came about?
SM: Well I was part of a college ministry group, and we used to sit around and sing all these hymns that I grew up with. It was like eight verses of “How Firm a Foundation” or something. You’re singing these hymns that you know and sometimes you know the traditional melodies but sometimes when they are taken out of that formal church setting it was really freeing to realize how rich the texts were and how much they shape who we are and give us words through all kinds of life seasons when you just don’t know what else to say before God.
I think a lot of those tested and true texts are really… we just need them to be able to put our thoughts and our doubts and fears and laments into words. So I really fell in love with the hymns in a new way in my early 20s and late teens. In 2005, after some encouragement over the years from my friend Kevin (he does a lot of Indelible Grace music which is that college group I was telling you about), he kept saying, “You should do some of your own hymns, you should do your own record.” I was like, “I don’t know.”
I was in Nashville; I didn’t want to do Christian music [laughs]. I wasn’t sure where that was going to land for me. But that year it just became the right moment. It was a hard year and I felt like I needed to grieve some things, and process some things and pray some things and The Builder and the Architect kind of emerged out of that. At first I thought it was just a little side project and I didn’t have any ambition for it other than to just make it and put it out for people to hear if they wanted. And it has been so widely embraced, probably more than any of my other music.
It was so interesting because I felt like maybe because it was part of that year for me and it was a catalyst for me to process some of my theology and my personal feeling of loss, I think there were a lot of other people that could resonate with that. So that was in 2005. Then between that and now I feel like God has really knit together my love for him and my love for writing songs about all kinds of things to where they’ve blended more and more into the middle.
So now it seems like I could play a hymn and then I could play a song about being outside and I could play a song about a break up or a song about having a child, and to feel like they can all live and exist in the same space and in the same person. It’s been kind of a slow process that I feel like has happened to me over those years. So when I look back I think at first I was protective of the labels.
Like if I’m making music for the church does that fundamentally change something, or are people going to market me a different way or whatever and I was resistant to that. Then I thought, you know, you just have to be who you are and not try to attach something to that before the art becomes what it is. I could maybe say that in a more clear way, but it’s been a beautiful thing to watch him and all the other music kind of meet in the middle.
SCH: How do you find these texts? You mentioned some were familiar. Were they all familiar? Did you seek them out? Start scouring hymn books?
SM: Some of each of those. Some of them I tried to write modeled after the old text. Others I pulled from hymnals that are Gatsby hymns and Spurgeon hymns. These books don’t have any music in them, they’re just text, they’re just the poetry. But because they’re already in metered form it’s a great resource both for devotional use and also if you’re musically inclined and you want to pick up the text it’s such a natural way to start singing a new melody.
For the history of hymns, often they had multiple melodies that would pull out different inflections and meaning in the text. So they would say, “This week we’re going to do this hymn to the tune of such-and-such” and they would have a name for the tune and the name for the text and they would bring those two together and that’s what you would sing for that particular Sunday. So it’s kind of the old tradition of writing new melodies.
So myself and the community of Indelible Grace have been doing it in a different way because we’re all singer/songwriter, stylized writers. So in some ways there are some drawbacks to that because corporate melodies have…you want something that’s going to be easy for people to sing and it doesn’t sound like a solo.
That’s been a challenge for me because I don’t have a lot of background in writing for a congregation. But I’m learning and I feel like it’s important and something I want to do more of. So there’s a whole range. Some of them are that way, some of them I wrote and intended for them to sound like old hymns and some were adaptations of prayers, like a Puritan prayer which is the song “Grace Upon Grace.”
That original prayer was a poem but not in metered form where you could use it, so I tried to pull the actual content and intent of what was being said in that prayer and put it into the song with a new poem. So some of them are co-writes in that sense when something has already been written.
SCH: I’ve noticed that the ideas and writings of C.S. Lewis have worked their way into many of your songs. Do you have a particular favorite writing of his?
SM: At this stage I am pretty enamored with his fiction. I’m just now getting around to reading his science fiction trilogy. But I do love Narnia and I just read it to my five year old. To read it again as an adult you realize how powerful fiction is for our whole being and how we experience truth. Not it a didactic way, but because it’s just refreshing to read something that’s so well written.
So we’re actually reading, for the second time this year, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I think his non-fiction has had such an impact on me. I couldn’t really say one particular book I don’t think. I think the ones that the titles and the ideas that stick with me the most are probably the narratives.
SCH: What do you have in store for us in Santa Rosa on March 8?
SM: Well, I’ll be coming ready for some conversation. Hopefully it will be an intimate enough setting where we can dialogue a little bit – have some Q&A and requests. Probably do a mix of hymns and some stuff from the new record and tell some of the back-story about those songs. These shows that I have been doing recently have been so nice because when I come by myself there is so much flexibility, which means they’re all a little different. So I’ll prepare a set list of music, but then a lot of times I’m really surprised by how it goes and what changes as we go through it. So I’m looking forward to seeing what the chemistry brings out.
SCH: Well we’re looking forward to it too!
Don’t Miss Sandra McCracken’s intimate performance at The Cove in Santa Rosa on Friday, March 8th at 7pm.
Writer Krystle Jeffers lives and works in Santa Rosa as a worship director and music teacher. She and her husband are expecting their first child this June. In her spare time she likes to garden, play with their ridiculous cat, and work out Sandra’s songs on the guitar.