When Sara Groves sings, you know she's about to speak truth—about life, faith, and herself. On her ninth album, Fireflies and Songs, the acclaimed songwriter further demonstrates what she calls "confessional living" in hopes that others will do the same. Groves talked to CT about her new album, her challenges, her courage to confess—and what her husband thinks about unveiling their marriage to the world.

You're well known for your songwriting, yet you've said Fireflies and Songs is "your songwriter's album." What's new this time?

I've been writing about justice, the Kingdom of God, observing external things for the last three albums. So what I meant by that is that this time, I'm writing about myself. I just turned the spotlight inward. [INO Records president] Jeff Moseley basically said, "It feels like a long time since we've heard what it's like to be you—a wife, friend, child of God at 37." I'd made a very conscious departure from talking about myself after All Right Here and a little bit after Other Side of Something because I felt like I was growing in that way, like it's not all about me and my introspective thoughts; it has to be about something bigger. I did write about bigger things, but I felt permission, I guess, to come back home.

I have to say that when I knew that's where I was headed, it made me tired (laughs). It's a lot easier to write about external things than to dig in the dirt again. And I wasn't sure how transparent I wanted to be. I decided to pretty much disclose a lot; I wanted it to sound very confessional. It felt like I was working out some muscles that I hadn't worked out in a while as a songwriter.

What gave you the courage to confess to the world in these songs?

I had a conversation once with a friend who had a very public moral failure. We were talking about confession and how it's hard to confess in the church; it's kind of the last place you want to confess. My friend said, "Yeah, someone's gotta go first." And that's been in my head as I'm writing these songs. At times it was like, I could write something less true, but at the end of the day, ah, no, I'd better just say what I mean.

Fireflies and Songs gives an even more personal look at your marriage. Do you and your husband Troy always agree on how much to share?

From the beginning, he's been [supportive]. It started with "Roll to the Middle" on my album Other Side of Something. It's about a couple in bed with their backs to each other after a massive fight—one of our biggest. And I wrote that 10 minutes after the fight. I was so angry, but he was leaving for Africa the next day, so I knew that reconciliation had to happen. So I went and wrote "Roll to the Middle" freshly out of that place. The album was already done, but Troy insisted that song be on the album. I tend to be the more confessional and talkative one, and Troy's more private and quiet. But he does not care what people think about him—and I give way too much time to what other people think. He's the one who championed the song "Love" on this album. It's very indicative of what our struggle was—both of us were kind of looking for love in all the wrong places, in our different ways. Year seven was our crisis year, and God did a miracle in our marriage. But it was rough, a close call.

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In the song "From This One Place," you confess a new battle with anxiety. How has that affected your life? 

I was not a member of the club until a year and a half ago, and I don't say that lightly. My mom has talked to me about her experiences with anxiety, and honestly, my thoughts back to her would be, Well, get over it. It's not true. When your thoughts go haywire and your body is having this fear response, just tell yourself it's not true. Until one day I was playing at a prayer breakfast—something very benign, not a big deal. My body had a full fear response to something that wasn't there. I was in the middle of a song, and it was as if a bear had walked in the room in the middle of my song. I called my best friend who is a counselor, and I said, "What just happened to me?" and she was like, "You just read the textbook for an anxiety attack."

It doesn't happen every time I get on stage, but it is limited to the stage. I feel like there's a spiritual, emotional, physical element to it, but it's definitely changed my emotional landscape the last year and a half. I'm still in it, but I'm making progress. I really, really believe that God wants me to be weak. He wants to be strong in my weakness. And he's teaching me that when I get on the other side of this, I'm going to be a stronger person. But it is not fun. It's not pleasant. It feels absolutely terrible.

You've said that you hope this album encourages people to live more confessionally. What does that look like in your own life?

Two things have been key for me. First, you have to find safe relationships, and second, you have to be a safe person. Be a person that someone can confess to. Then you find yourself in confessional relationships. I don't think we have to get up on Sunday and confess our sins and every bad thought we had that week to the whole church, but in my life I've had times where I felt God say, "You need to go confess to these three people." I had a season when I was really struggling with something, and I wanted so badly to do the right thing. I couldn't do it by myself, but I just had the hardest time talking about it. And God gave me really clearly three people that I would go to. The minute I started saying it out loud, it was like, such strength, because the whole thing lost its power.

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And I think that we're too easily surprised. We need to not be surprised that people are sinning and failing. When I was younger I would be shocked: "Oh my gosh, I can't believe it." Anymore, when people tell me something, I'll think, "Isn't that just the way it is? We all struggle." If you're able to respond to someone and not be surprised, they're gonna be so relieved to have told someone. They've been playing that in their mind a million times: "I'm having an affair," "I'm in pornography," "I think I'm gay … " And if you are that first responder, you say, "Man, I'm so sorry, I'm gonna be praying for you," not, "You did what?"

After your most candid record ever, what's next for you?

I would love to do more writing for other things, maybe writing music for indie films, more along the lines of scoring than just songwriting. That's sort of me chasing a little hobby. But as for my own music, I don't ever know. Troy gets frustrated with me because I've tried to end my career after each and every album. I've always wanted to bow out gracefully before the big hook came and dragged me off the stage. Charlie [Peacock] has helped me this year by saying, "You're a life-timer. You're a lifetime artist." And I'm about ready to believe him. Whether the audience hangs around for that long or not, I want to be writing songs when I'm 80, and I think they'll be the best songs of my life.