Time was you could find your Jennifer Knapp album just down the aisle from your study bibles and your icthus magnets. She was a big deal on the Christian music scene: her first album, 1998's Kansas, sold over 500,000 copies; follow-up records in 2000 and 2001 were nominated for Grammys and pushed her total career album sales to over 1 million. A 2010 CCM collection Wow #1s: 30 of the Greatest Christian Music Hits slots her biggest single, "Undo Me," right between tracks by Steven Curtis Chapman, Amy Grant and Jars of Clay.
So it was certainly news to the Christian music world when she quit music entirely in 2002, heading on sabbatical to Australia after finishing up touring commitments. And her return to the States was the stuff of mainstream news. Knapp came out publicly during a series of interviews conducted in April 2010, including talks with The Advocate and Christianity Today and Larry King Live. As Reuters put it at the time: "No other singer of Knapp's renown in the Christian music genre is openly gay."
One might quibble with that quote from Reuters because Knapp isn't really active in the Christian music genre, as such, these days. Her 2010 album, Letting Go, is a secular affair, a tense, emotionally-charged journey of self-discovery that's absent any of the capitalized Yous or references to faith that figured in her prior work. It's more a work aimed towards the folk or adult-contemporary scene than the CCM crowd; as Knapp put it to Reuters, "I just wouldn't find it respectful at all to say, 'Hey, this is something that you want in your store next to your Jesus statue.'"
But you will find Letting Go for sale in the acoustic-friendly confines at the Wheeler Arts Community, where she plays Saturday night, closing out a busy weekend that includes stops at a Pride festival in Nashville and a book signing in New York City for Raw, a collection of poetry addressing concerns of faith, race and sexual orientation to which Knapp contributed an introduction.
The following interview is, if you will, joined in progress; the following is a pretty exact transcript starting from about 10 minutes into my conversation with Knapp, because things get more exciting once we get to Australia.
NUVO: Could you take me back to the beginning of your life in Australia? How'd you end up there in first place? How'd you make ends meet? Did you find yourself with fresh insight because you were away from the States?
Knapp: I initially ended up there because that's where my partner's originally from and the other half of my family's there. I figured, why not? It was definitely a challenge to go live internationally. Basically, I didn't work until maybe two or three years into it, until I kind of felt comfortable enough culturally to even begin to assimilate. While it's an English-speaking country, it's still culturally different, and to even begin to feel comfortable to hang out with everyday people really took me a good deal of time.
And in terms of what that experience brought to me, I think you kind of hit the nail on the head: Taking myself out of my own comfortable environment and living somewhere else really challenged my perception on who I thought I was or how I fit in socially with other people. Being an American and being identified as an American every time I opened my mouth, what does that mean? With my drive to be like everyone else, what does that mean, given people's reaction to me? How do I assimilate and achieve my own individuality inside of that? How do I hold on to things in my past - being an American, being a Kansan, being a musician - and when I wasn't being a musician, how did that play out?
Something lovely about the Australian culture is that you have to give an account for yourself on a daily basis. You're accepted for who you are, no matter how you come. But you need to have a mindset in that culture, where it's not just about saying who you are but following through and being who you are, which I found incredible.
NUVO: Maybe Australia offered you a chance to walk the walk and gain confidence before coming back to the States, to get comfortable in your shell before coming back to a potentially hostile environment.
Knapp: In some ways, yeah. I had many friends and family there and I'd say to them, "I can't go back and do music because, if I go back to the State, people won't like my music because I'm gay." And the questions that come back to you are: What makes you say that? Why would you let that stop you? Some really hardcore searching questions. They are a culture that says, "If these are things you want to do and believe in doing, then making up excuses to not do them is really not a way to proceed forward."
Being in an environment with friends and family that asked me those hardcore questions was part of gaining the confidence to be able to come back and, literally after five or six years, to say, "Man, I really do miss my art. Why am I not playing? Why am I not writing? I don't have to be a public figure, but I can no longer sit here and say, well, I'm afraid of being a public figure and therefore I can't write. No, I should write and perform, whether or not that's publicly accepted, whether or not I'll go and be a rock star." That part of me was really important, and to hide that or not participate in that when it gave me a lot of joy, pleasure and, even, self-confidence, was no longer acceptable for me.
NUVO: How did your music change when you started writing again?
Knapp: I quit music in 2002 and, long story short, I really quit; I didn't want to play anymore. It wasn't until about 2007, 2008 where I missed it and the lightswitch came on and I said, "Why am I not writing?" That process was kind of a scary one for me because I didn't know what I was going to write. I didn't know if I wanted to write faith-based music - I was pretty confident I didn't, but I had a long history of forcing myself to think in terms of community and in terms of sharing faith. It's a hard habit to break, without knowing the balance of what made for an ecumenical conversation. After five years of not having released that animal, it was a little bit wild.
But in terms of creativity, I think as an artist sometimes you have to challenge yourself to jump in the deep end and not worry about the end product. Once I started getting the process going, I was writing songs and finishing them. Once those started to get completed, then I started to think about what those individual songs pieced together might look like shared out in a live concert setting or shared out on CD.
NUVO: Some songs on your new album seem to mirror the songwriting process - "Dive In," which might be about jumping into songwriting, and "Inside," which captures a darker interior monologue and a voice saying quite the opposite, something like, "Don't dive in."
Knapp: Yeah, there are some songs on this record that mirror my internal struggle. Some people like to put them in a category, saying they're about a reconciliation process between my faith and my sexuality, and that's not necessarily the case. "Inside," for example, is definitely a song written to the voices in my head about my fears - of being public, of being known as this Christian songwriter of faith, of what people will say. But as an artist, it's about being able to jump into those things and finish a song, without regard to what people will think about the simple fact that you expressed it is part of the process.
When I start confronting my fears in those quiet places and start talking back to those voices in my head, they actually start to be pretty positive experiences for me, in terms of uncovering whatever it is rattling about my head and piecing those things together. It's an interesting journey for me, and it's later on down the track that there's the question of how much of this will I share out loud with other people. For me that initial journey was so profoundly impacting for me, sitting in that little studio at home and wrestling with those issues over whether or not I was going to participate in the creative life ever again.
NUVO: Is there a throughline to your past, pre-2002, work? You're still addressing issues of faith on the new record, but are you doing so in the same way?
Knapp: I was really concerned with the connectivity to my past work. Part of that was time and geography; there was just so much space in between that, having that much space between projects, I definitely was doubting my ability to have an continuity at all, or even curious as to whether or not there was even supposed to be any continuity - I'm not sure there have to be any hard and fast rules. When I sat down to write this past project, I wasn't concerned with the continuity; I just wanted to get it out. Later on down the track, as this record got out and there were a lot of requests during live shows for me to play some of that older music, on the egotistical side, you're like, "Man, I've been playing this music for fifteen years; I don't want to play that song anymore."
To be re-engaged with other people and to, in some ways, step outside of myself and come at the music fresh, I started to see that connectivity with what I was writing then and what I'm writing now in really positive ways. I think, intrinsically, I'm really a person who likes to doubt, who gets energy and enthusiasm from whittling things down to their most vulnerable place and heading at it. I'm pessimistic at worst; I always work out the worst case scenario to make sure I can survive the worst case scenario. I think my writing is a lot like that. And where that intersects with me as a person? I think my faith issues do come into it, but at this point, I think I'm trying to be less of a harbinger of a specific spiritual bent. In the Christian marketplace the conversation was only about Christianity, and I'm less interested in being a poster child for a particular religion and more interested in people allowing themselves to engage their spiritual nature. I'm trying not to be as afraid of going there because I think I need to control the end result.
That's another part of the creative process: you write a song for yourself in your own journey and then you have to let it go. You have to allow people to let that music find a way into their heart, and you can't always dictate what that's going to mean to them. That's been a real challenge in terms of this music and it's been a real joy as well, to be surprised at where or when people connect with a particular song or the whole body of work.
NUVO: You're having to market your work differently now, in what we might call the indie-folk scene rather than CCM. What struggles and successes have come with that transition?
Knapp: I'll start with the negatives first. If there are any pitfalls, they're the typical pitfalls of trying to be a musician. It's really hard work, and for every 24 hours that you spend traveling, you might have an hour of doing a concert and being a rock star and having everyone think you're so great. And it's a hard economy to be doing it in as well; there are musicians everywhere. You have to do it because you love it, and that's just pretty much the end of it. I can't imagine having to do this if I got up every day, as exhausted as I feel some days, if there wasn't something I loved about it at the core. At the same time I'm challenged to bring on the legacy of the conversation I've had in the Christian music industry - and that's frustrating because I'm not doing sacred music anymore, it's not meant for the church. Balance that out with people who think that, if you're not doing sacred music anymore, it's not something holy. Then balance that out with going into pubs and clubs and people who aren't familiar with me - in a lot of ways, I'm a new artist - who are thinking, ohmigosh, religion's coming to town, and that's not it at all. It's fun to be able to navigate that; I've always enjoyed surprising people's expectations...It's been really fun; I'm making new fans every day and meeting old fans every day as well, who are just jumping on board.