Carolyn Arends has been writing songs for a long time—professionally, for the better part of two decades. Always known for her insightful, intelligent lyrics, it's no surprise that Arends is also adept in other forms of writing—like her critically acclaimed book Wrestling With Angels (Harvest House/Conversant Life), her award-winning column in Christianity Today, and a bunch of well-written film reviews for CT (including last week's review of Where the Wild Things Are). It all adds up to what Arends sees as her role as a communicator, as she puts it, "about essential and ultimate things. … I'm just happy to be working with words and ideas and meaning." It's been a while since she last worked her lyrical magic on a new album—three and a half years, in fact. But it was worth the wait: The stellar Love Was Here First, Arends' 10th album, releases today. We talked to her about the album, the long delay between records, the somewhat "divinely inspired" songwriting process, and more.

Carolyn Arends

Carolyn Arends

This is the longest you've gone between records, almost 3½ years since Pollyanna's Attic. Why so long?

Carolyn Arends: The first two years after Pollyanna's Attic were filled vocationally with lots of creative endeavors—some touring, an increasing amount of speaking and freelance (non-musical) writing, chipping away slowly at a (still in-process) master's degree in Theology, teaching music at a local Bible school, and a few other projects. And of course my roles as wife and mom [she and husband Mark have two children]. By the summer of 2008, I realized that two years had already gone by since my last release, and I got that creative itch to get going on a new recording. I did the basic tracks for a whole batch of new songs in August of 2008, and thought I'd finish by late fall, last year. And then life went a bit sideways.

I'm really close to my parents, and they both got critically ill. Between caring for them personally and trying to help keep their busy restaurant open while they've been out of commission, I've been really stretched this past year. I could only work at the album in spurts, until I was finally able to give it my focus this summer and get it ready for release this fall.As much as it's an honor to help my folks, it's also been really great to get back to the music this last while.

Pollyanna's Attic was a collection of darker material, what you jokingly called some of your "grumpy songs." What's the tone of the record?

Arends: I have a pal who can go from elation to sorrow in two seconds flat; I call her my "four seasons in one day" friend. I'd say Love Was Here First is a "four seasons in one day" record—from the buoyancy and humor of playful tracks like "Be Still" and "Roll It," to the more somber introspection of songs like "Willing" and "Never Say Goodbye." I'm glad that emotional range is there, because my life certainly has that range of emotion and experience, and I assume a lot of other people are living the same spectrum.

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I think the thread that continues from Pollyanna's Attic is the desire to shoot straight from the hip. My co-producer says some of my "punchiest" lyrics ever are on this new record, and I think he's referring to my desire to explore quandaries (even theological ones) openly and honestly.

For example?

Arends: A song like "According to Plan" is controversial: It's my attempt to wrestle with issues of theodicy, and I know some of my listeners are going to strongly disagree with the conclusions I tentatively come to. [Lyrics include lines like "We say, 'There are no accidents' / But we can't account for all life's randomness / So maybe some things are not orchestrated." And the chorus: "I'm not sure that God moves everything / Like pawns in a chess game, or puppets on a string / And I can't determine just whether or not / He causes or troubles or He makes them stop."] But it was a song that literally wrestled me to the ground. I couldn't rest until I'd finished that one, and for reasons I can't even clearly articulate, I felt compelled to record it as well.

Arends says God's love permeates every song on the album

Arends says God's love permeates every song on the album

Is there a recurrent theme on this album, one particular thread/thought that holds it all together?

Arends: The title, Love Was Here First, comes from the song "The Last Word," and that song sums up the story I'm trying to tell right now—with my album and I hope with my life. I heard a theologian say that we tend to be dualists—we imagine God and Satan as virtually equal opponents in an epic battle—but that in reality Satan and all the power of evil wouldn't cover the head of a pin in comparison to the largeness of God's love and his power. I love that idea—that however messed up this world is, it was God's love that brought us into being, and there isn't any doubt that God's love is going to win in the end.

Pretty much everything else on this record is an exploration of different facets of that reality: If love wins, why pain—on "According to Plan" and "Nothing Can Separate." Learning to trust that love—on "Be Still," "Roll It," "Willing," and "Standing in the Need of Prayer." Learning to live like we really believe that God is working in us and around us and through us—on "Something Out of Us," "My Favorite Lie," and "I Am a Soul."

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I hear you had a real creative burst in the summer of 2008.

Arends: Yes. It had been two years since my last album, and I knew it was time for a new project, but I had almost no new songs. My creative energies had gone in other directions and I was getting nervous, wondering if I'd ever write another song again.I decided to book some studio time on the hope of "If you build it, they will come." I had a back-up plan: If I didn't write any songs, I would record some old spirituals and folks tunes I've always wanted to record. I was actually pretty into that plan.

But then, about 10 days before the first day of recording, some songs literally "showed up."I always caution people against saying God "gave" them songs—it's a much more collaborative process than direct divine dictation, and I'd hate for us to put our words in God's mouth—but there was something beyond me in that writing process. I wrote six songs in ten days—unprecedented for me, at least since about grade 8!I could hardly eat or sleep; I could only write. And it's funny, so many of the songs are things I can imagine I'd write while going through my mom's battle with cancer and my dad's struggle with Parkinson's—but they were all written about two weeks before my mom's diagnosis. Through all the craziness of the past year, I've been very grateful for those songs.

Tell me the story behind a couple of the songs.

Arends: One song that means a lot to me is "Be Still." The bridge says:

Oh how I need a vacation
'Cause it's so exhausting pretending I'm God
There would be much less frustration
If I would let you do your job

In his book on prayer, Philip Yancey notes that the Latin imperative for the phrase "be still" is "vacate." So when God tells us to "be still" in Psalm 46:10, he's literally asking us to take a vacation from being God for a while and let him do it. What I've been learning this past year is that as tiring as a demanding schedule can be, there is a "soul exhaustion" that goes way deeper—and it develops every time I think it's up to me to make everything turn out all right. When I've found myself "white-knuckling" life, that song has really helped.

The only song I wrote after my mom's diagnosis is "Never Say Goodbye." This Easter she had been in the hospital for four months straight with no end in sight, and she was so discouraged. She's always loved Easter services, and she was too ill to even get out of her bed, let alone go to church. She called me Easter Sunday morning, crying, and my heart sank at the sound of her choked-up voice. But it turned out to be happy tears. She had just heard a preacher on TV say, "Jesus said a lot of things while he was here, but remember, he never said goodbye." That to me was another reminder that death and sorrow and separation and loneliness do not get the last word. Love does, thanks to Jesus.

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You're doing some new things sonically here, especially with brass and with the background vocals, most notably the Sojourners. Talk about those new things.

In the studio with The Sojourners

In the studio with The Sojourners

Arends: This is my tenth project, and I definitely wanted to challenge myself and hopefully surprise (in a good way) my listeners! A few years ago I had a chance to perform my song "Getting Ready for Glory" with a gospel choir, and I still haven't quite lost the goosebumps.So I really wanted to incorporate some of that black gospel sound on this record, and I was thrilled when The Sojourners—a 3-man gospel group from here in Vancouver—agreed to loan their voices to some of the tunes.

I used a bit of trumpet on my last record, and this time, the trumpet player (Kent Wallace) said, "Why don't you let me bring in some more players and do some horn arrangements?" I'm so glad I said yes; the day we cut the horns was one of the funnest musical days of my life.

Overall, we tried to be more organic with this record, a quest I've been on increasingly through the last few projects—leaving imperfections if something had the right passion, recording things as naturally as possible, recording more musicians together at once rather than recording everything in isolation.

In the last few years, you've done other types of writing—movie reviews, a CT column, and more. What do you enjoy about these non-songwriting opportunities, and has it helped your songwriting in any way?

Arends: I feel pretty scattered sometimes (irons in lots of different fires), but I've come to terms with the fact that what I "do" is communication—hopefully communication about essential and ultimate things. So whether it's a song or a column or a retreat, I'm just happy to be working with words and ideas and meaning. Some of my non-musical writing has let me explore issues and ideas from different angles, and whatever I learn there sort of seeps its way back into the music.

The past couple of years two of the seminary courses I took—one on Genesis and one on the Beatitudes—became the basis of several articles and teaching retreats, and when I look at Love Was Here First as a whole, it shocks me to realize how much of what I learned from those studies became the soil for the songs to grow in.

Arends' new album, Love Was Here First, is available at and