A few years ago, things were flying high for the artistic career of Nichole Nordeman: a smash hit radio single ("Holy"), a best-selling album, and a long line of Dove Awards. Then she and her new husband learned she was pregnant-a definite cause for celebration, but also a little ahead of their planned timetable. Suddenly, the acclaimed songwriter found herself rearranging her life to prepare for motherhood reinvesting in relationships with family and friends. Now she's making a highly anticipated return to the music scene. How has her perspective changed and how is it reflected in her songwriting today? Nordeman was all too happy to get together for lunch to talk about the whirlwind of change in her life the last two years, and how it led to the creation of her latest album, Brave.
The last time we saw you was at the 2003 Gospel Music Awards-several months pregnant and winning a slew of Doves. Was it always your plan to take this sabbatical?
Nichole Nordeman Yes, once I found out I was pregnant, which was a surprise in itself. My husband Errol and I always wanted to have kids eventually and we had our own little timeline planned. But I think the unexpected pregnancy was God's way of saying, "I know what a workaholic you are, and the only way parenthood is going to happen is if I surprise you!"
It was also a wake-up call to slow myself down. My personality is all or nothing-I can't do anything middle of the road. I knew there was no way to partially slow down after having a baby, and it would have been unfair to the child if I tried to live my life as if nothing had changed. So I just felt the need to put the brakes on and take a full year off without even thinking about anything musical. I even told my worship pastor, "Please don't ask me to sing, because I can't do this much." I basically became a stay-at-home mom for the last two years, and it was really amazing.
How hard was it to get back into songwriting when the time came? Did you file away songwriting ideas in the back of your head during your sabbatical?
Nordeman No, I never even touched my piano for most of that time. It wasn't a bad thing. I just wanted to be a mom and spent all my time trying to figure out how to do that, and what that meant. I just had to trust that when it was time to start writing again, I would have a lot to say and God would help me remember how to do that.
Hence the title of the new album and your willingness to walk away from your successful career to focus on starting a family.
Nordeman Yeah, I was actually thinking about calling the album Stupid or Crazy. (laughing)
What specifically inspired the title "Brave?"
Nordeman My [two-year-old] son, Charlie. I'd gotten to a place in life where I marked my path and plodded along, keeping everything ordered and organized. And then here comes this little wrecking ball named Charlie who completely dismantles my heart and my life. You sort of collect the pieces after that and realize that you want to do anything for this child.
But it's not necessarily a song from mother to child either. It's written to be about anyone in your life-your father, your best friend, or ultimately God. It's about that special someone that has the power to uplift us by cutting the bonds of fear and making us brave.
That song's about as close as you come to specifically writing about motherhood on the album. Seems like a lot of people would expect more of those "motherhood" songs.
Nordeman Right, I think most expect women to soften their artistry when they become mothers. There were some at the Women of Faith conferences who jokingly asked, "So when will you release your lullaby record? Where's your heart-wrenching ballad to your son?" I didn't have that experience when writing for this album. I felt the emotions, but I didn't feel the need to specifically write about them.
But I think becoming a parent has caused me to stop making myself the focus of everything. It's forced me to start writing beyond my life experiences and focus instead on what's happening in the lives of others. Parenting is sort of the ultimate wake-up call that it's not all about you anymore-not entirely anyway. There's a lot of me on Brave, for sure. But whereas my other records were about my experiences and my journey, this album represents an outward focus on the bigger picture.
How has that focus specifically affected your songwriting?
Nordeman It caused a real need for me to acknowledge my selfishness. Not that I was really a selfish person, but until God entrusts you with that little life, you don't realize how self-absorbed you really are. It takes the focus off of your own issues and needs. I feel like I'm a kinder person because of it-a better friend and a better wife.
I think it was Bono who once said in an interview that you don't really understand the word "vulnerability" until you have a child. Everything becomes scarier-the evening news, health issues. But the opposite is true too. When you see through the eyes of that child, everything is so much more amazing. It changes your whole perspective on life, so I think my songwriting has changed too because of that.
What was it like for you to transition back to normalcy during your sabbatical?
Nordeman As far as lifestyle, it was awesome! I loved putting my suitcase in the closet, knowing I wasn't going to have to look at it for 12 months-especially after 5 years of jumping from tour bus to tour bus and running through airports. There was amazing freedom in that.
But relationally, I had to start over. I didn't realize how I had let so many relationships fall by the wayside and wither away. My friends had gotten used to "crazy Nichole" on tour making 5-second phone calls between sound checks. It's just not a good way to foster a friendship, or a marriage for that matter. I had become so entrenched in the lifestyle of being an artist that I had forgotten how to be a good friend, investing in people's lives and serving them in that way.
Even socially in conversation. I had so perfectly honed my interview answers because when you do this long enough you learn how to manipulate a conversation. You say exactly what people want to hear and deliver the bullet points.
Like right now?
Nordeman Oh no, not right now! (laughing)
But you began to do that with your friends?
Nordeman I think some of that seeped in there a little bit. My really good friends smelled that from a mile away when I'd start giving "artist answers." I just wasn't being myself because I hadn't been myself for a while. And it's not meant to be some kind of bash on the industry or my record label. I just didn't protect my spirit as well as I should have.
This Mystery had "Every Season" and Woven & Spun had "I Am." What's the standout on this album for you?
Nordeman Probably "Hold On." When I was on tour with Steven Curtis Chapman on the Live Out Loud Tour, I met this girl hired to sell merchandise who was ironically the only other girl on the tour. From the beginning, she was clearly the kind of person that's hard to be around. She was rather needy and obnoxious, and she latched herself on to me. It was tough to love her because she was so desperate for attention-one of those people that makes you run the other way when you see them coming. And I often did exactly that, distancing myself and hiding around corners when I saw her coming my way. But the tour came to an end, and I was glad not to be sucked dry emotionally by this person anymore.
Then last year, I ran into a friend who had been on the same tour, and he told me that this girl had taken her own life. It was one of those defining I'm-going-to-be-sick moments that lasted for a long time. I felt in my heart that I had handled the relationship in a really ugly way. I didn't even take the time to know how deep those layers of pain were in her life. People are so fragile. I wish I had gotten over myself enough to sit down with her, take her face in my hands, and say what I needed to say.
This song is everything I wish I had said. It's for anyone who's hanging on by a thread, and how fiercely the love of God is pursuing us in all these places where we wouldn't normally expect him-the bottom of a bottle, a stranger's bed, etc. People think there's no way God will find them there, but he does.
You also have a seeker-friendly song on the album called "What If," which seems like it's trying to make the case for faith to non-believers. Do you find you're reaching listeners beyond the CCM subculture?
Nordeman For me, that particular song is more for the believer-a sort of wake-up call to stop arguing about God or stop feeling the pressure to present the gospel with a powerful presentation. It's just about my desire to be real and simple in communicating the love of Christ.
Most of my audience has been the church. I think as a songwriter I tend to write songs of faith for people of faith. But I'm always touched and surprised when seekers tell me that one of my songs affects them so deeply.
Still, this album seems less like Woven & Spun (2002) and more like Wide-Eyed (1998)-darker and responsive to the fears of the world.
Nordeman I think so too. Having so much time off allowed me to learn how to invest in other people's lives and stories again. There's a lot of songs on this record that are just about people I love and what they're walking through, with elements of what I'm walking through as well. It was nice not to sit and write twelve songs about my own journey this time.
You almost make it sound like the songwriting on your previous album was more contrived.
Nordeman Not so much contrived as pulling teeth. Creatively, while making Woven & Spun, I was pretty burned out. I felt like I was scraping the bottom of the well. Touring the album just confirmed to me that I was creatively empty when I wrote it. I was tired and had allowed my priorities to get really out of whack. That's what was so wonderful about this new record. I didn't experience writer's block at all. I was ready and I had stuff to say again, rather than, "Gosh, I need one more song to fill the album."
You've quickly earned a lot of respect as a songwriter, to the point where other songwriters I talk to say they want to write as well as you. Do you feel pressure now to live up to the role model you've become?
Nordeman It's just too weird to think someone would even say that, when I'm still such a fan of my own songwriting heroes. If I thought about it in those terms, that I have some songwriting reputation, then I'm not sure anything would get written!
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