Sandra McCracken In Feast or Fallow

IN 2008, SANDRA McCracken’s Red Balloon came in at number five on Patrol‘s list of best faith-inspired albums of the year. The editors wrote that, thanks to that record, “people will now refer to Derek Webb as Sandra McCracken’s husband.” Throughout the bedlam of Derek’s independent release of Stockholm Syndrome release last year, Sandra quietly released a live recording of her own best-loved tunes, Live Under Lights and Wires. Since then, she’s started working on her new project—a collection of reworked traditional and self-written hymns, due in late spring.

Patrol: So it’s called In Feast or Fallow. Tell us a little bit about it. 

Sandra McCracken: I’m hoping the title sticks, because the lyrics have been eluding me a little bit, and everybody pulled the title from that, so now I’m committed to finishing that song. It’s like in farming, have you ever heard of the idea of crop rotation where you use the field for so many seasons and then you give it a rest just so the nutrients in the soil can renew itself and be ready for another harvest? It’s the idea of seasons and of rest and work and the natural, organic life cycles. The record is about the way that happens in our creativity and in the ebb and flow of our life. So that’s what the words mean, “in feast or fallow.” The fallow is when the land goes resting for a period of time.

Are these hymns intended to follow on The Builder and the Architect from 2005?

Very much so. When we recorded that album, it was a collection of really personal songs and a good time while we were [making it]. It was one of my side projects, but the response has been so overwhelming. People just kind of made that record their own, and it was such an enjoyable process the first time, so it just seemed time to do another one. I think I’ve been really careful over the years to establish myself as an artist who makes music about a lot of different subject matter, so I think I was four or five records in before I did that record of hymns because I didn’t want to come out of the gates with just church music, yet that’s very much apart of my story and is something that’s really important to me. So I love coming to do this batch of music with hymn texts and old language. I feel like it’s something that there just seems to be a good time and place for it. This is very much in the same spirit of The Builder and the Architect, just a different part of it. I feel like I’ve evolved since then, so it will have a fresh sound but it’s the same spirit.

previously on patrol

Sandra McCracken’s “Red Balloon” made Patrol’s 2008 best albums list. Timothy Zila interviewed her husband, Derek Webb, in 2007, and John Wofford followed up in 2009. David Sessions reviewed Webb’s latest album, “Stockholm Syndrome.” Webb himself wrote about the 2008 election. Nathan Martin interviewed David Bazan about how he uses music to wrestle with faith. Jake Dockter talked to Rob Bell about art and Christianity. Joe Weil told Micah Towery how he screams at God through his poetry. Slate editor David Plotz told Patrol about reading the entire Bible for the first time.

You said in one of your tweets that you were writing hymns. Are you taking old hymns and writing new melodies or write them in your own language, in that old language?

A little bit of both. I’ve looked through a lot of hymn texts—and I did this on “Awake My Soul” on Architect—and intended to make something that sounded like an old hymn but with modern elements. It has a chorus, it has similar structure of an old hymn but adapted for a modern folk song. I did a little more of that on this record. I think, for one, there are things I wanted to say—political things I wanted to say with my own voice but in the style something that just bears the stains of going through the different stages of both faith and story. So I’ve blended the two, both old hymns and new hymns that sound old. It’s an art form that I’ve actually had to learn a lot about because it’s something that takes a little bit of practice. 

You’ve also mentioned David Bazan on Twitter. How much is he an influence on you and your music?

Well, we have always been big supporters of of his art and kinda kept an eye on what he’s doing. I know he’s gone through some changes in terms of his profession of faith, and is actually not professing faith anymore. That was really something that caused us to step back and have a lot conversation about “how does this happen?” “What’s this journey going to be like?” I think it’s important to continue to ask questions of each other all the time.

I heard an Dan Allender speak last year, and I remember him saying that in our culture we have to continue to say to each other, “Do you believe in this? Do you believe in God today? If you do what does this mean? If you don’t what does this mean?” To not just rely on this old thing we always say, but to uproot and disrupt our perceptions and ask, ”Does my heart believes this and, if it doesn’t, what other questions do I need to ask and how do I get to a point of shifting sand to a solid rock?”

David Bazan is someone who, seeing his recent interviews, and his new album Curse Your Branches, I mean just such an artful, honest, heart-wrenching experience of asking those questions and coming up with answers—some answers that are a little bit unsettling. 

I just marvel at the musicianship, and he’s always been a tell-it-like-it-is guy, the way he does his narratives and when it becomes these kind of songs. As an artist and as a person of faith, I appreciate his honesty. You have to start with that point of honesty with anybody, with any conversation. So I’m glad he’s making art while going through this process. I’m curious where it will end—I don’t think this is the end of the story.

Has there been any other influences on this particular record?

That’s a good question. I mean, definitely the hymn texts have been big; I’ve looked through these old hymns and tried to find things that jump out at me. I’m looking for poetry that is going to be a spark, the kind of just has a natural beauty by itself, that holds true over time. One of the things I’ve almost been researching, talking to my community, friends and people that I love about: What are we afraid of as people? And what are the things that we could be singing about in our small groups? Like when we get together and want to sing a song, sing something that can put words to what we’re afraid of and speak something true into that situation. So even though that’s not a musical influence, that’s almost the “research” I’ve been trying to dig up for this record.

As a country, over the last year with the economic changes and the political changes, I think that there are so many people on both sides of the spectrum that are just afraid. There is more and more polarization, more and more fear. Even though these are new sets of circumstances, there’s always something that you can be afraid of; for our parents generation it was communism and the bomb. As you read in Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, you see the things they were afraid of, and he’s the same ages as my dad. So you see these threads and see what are the things we’re going to be afraid of and how do we address that in our songs of faith. Fundamentally, that is what’s shaping how we find our faith; it’s how we speak into our doubt. 

When you released Red Balloon last summer, Paste magazine said: “Three years ago, Sandra McCracken released The Builder And the Architect, a collection of reworked traditional hymns that remains one of the strongest albums in her near-decade-long career. Her latest, Red Balloon, only sounds like a collection of hymns.” How do you respond to a statement like that, that can go so many ways?

I thought it was interesting that they mentioned the hymns record. That the writer of the review would mention that and draw the parallel to me is a high honor. The songs I wrote on Red Balloon were full of themes about having our first baby, dealing with a lot of personal situations, and narratives around people I really love. So that songs about everyday could be called spiritual, to me is an indicator that those things are starting to become integrated, that spiritual is becoming everyday life, and everyday life is becoming spiritual. I think that’s an important discipline of the journey of faith, that over the years they’re becoming less and less separate and more and more holistic. So I hope that that’s happening and for a general market, well I don’t know how to say that exactly, but I hope that these records, the hymn records will be embraced by people that have a different faith. I want to make music just for the sake of being beautiful, too.

So you’d like to get to a point like the art the church was making in the 1500s or 1400s that is still recognizable beauty to even us today?

Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s so much to be mindful of, there’s good and bad poetry from hundreds of years ago, just like there’s good and bad poetry today. So you kind of have to sift through it and see what rises to the surface as enduring. 

You joined your husband, Derek Webb, on his “Black Eye” tour. What was it like to play with a producer like Josh Moore?

It was great. I’ve known him for a long time; he and Derek are friends from like high school back in Houston. So I knew him from when I met the whole Caedmon’s [Call] family years ago. He’s was in our wedding and like family to us. At every life stage, he’s become and always been so incredibly talented. Seeing him come into his own as a producer, as a creative person, and musician is a real privilege, and to play music with him because you realize … I don’t know it’s like you grow up with somebody and all of a sudden there’s greatness standing next to you. You say, “When did that happen?” It takes you back a little bit. He was actually apart of the recording of Red Balloon. Getting to do that live was really fun because up until that point I hadn’t been able to play those songs with the fullness of production. Before it was just guitar and vocals up until this tour.

Now you’ve also gone on record saying you’ll buy Josh Moore a car. 

I think that must have been a Twitter message. Even on tour there was so much conversation through Twitter even though we were travelling in the same vehicle and hanging out in the same venues everyday. But he could probably hold me to that. But I’d have to have a hit single. At the end of the tour we had many laughs about how you could build a career and never have to have a hit single.

Do you enjoy playing live?

I do. I’ve always been pretty shy, and I think I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with it, especially in the last couple of years more and more. It’s an an expressive outlet for me. Maybe because I haven’t done it as much in the last few years, I think something about hitting 30 was a rite of passage where I maybe gained a new confidence in what I had to say. I love songwriting; it’s probably my favorite aspect of what I get to do, but performing is a close second.

 
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Charles Peters

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