Nichole Nordeman has always enjoyed the stories of the heroes of the Bible, even sharing the Sunday school versions with her young children. But she never fully appreciated or understood those characters until she tried stepping into their shoes and literally giving them songs to sing.
That was her task in penning the lyrics, in first-person voice, for the 18 songs on (Music Inspired by) The Story, a new album chronicling Scripture's best-loved characters—from Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah, from Joshua to Job, from Mary to Jesus to the Apostle Paul. The CD—featuring Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, Natalie Grant, Bart Millard, Francesca Battistelli, Mac Powell, Natalie Grant, and more—is part of an ambitious project based on a series of books—The Story Bible from Zondervan, The Heart of the Story by Randy Frazee, and God's Story, Your Story by Max Lucado. There is also a music video DVD, and a December tour is planned.
Nordeman hadn't done much songwriting since 2005's Brave, her last studio album, opting to focus on motherhood and family instead. But when Norman Miller, the project's visionary and executive producer, approached Nordeman about the project, she was all in. She joined co-writer/producer Bernie Herms, Miller, and Frazee for a vision-casting meeting at Lucado's San Antonio home, and they were off and running.
CT caught up with Nordeman, 39, to talk about the new project, and what she's been doing in the six years that have elapsed since her last album.
What have you been up to since Brave?
I made a decision to stay at home with my kids and press pause on my life as an artist. At the time, my son Charlie was 3, and I was having a lot of trouble balancing my role as a mother with the demands of music and career. I decided (with lots of prayer) that I could always have music in my life at some level, but my kids were only going to learn how to somersault once. And I didn't want to miss a breath of it. [Charlie is now 8; Nordeman and husband Errol Ingram also have a daughter, Paige, now 2½.]
What has brought you the most joy, and what's been the hardest?
The "everydayness" of being a stay-at-home mom gets to me after a while. Any given day will likely be very similar, if not identical, to the day before and after. That starts to make me feel a little crazy sometimes. Being at home with young children can be a very isolating experience, a far cry from jetting through airports and meeting interesting people all over the country. I have to force myself to reach out—not my strength! But there is so much joy—and laughter. Paige stuffed scrambled eggs down her pajama pants the other morning, and hoped I wouldn't notice the breakfast trail behind her as she left the room. That doesn't happen much on arena stages.
The last time we heard from you was the now-famous CCM cover story in 2007, with the airbrushed you and the "real" you on the cover. What reactions did you get to that?
I was impressed that CCM took that risk, and let me "vent" about the topic of beauty and authenticity in our industry. The artists I interviewed took that generosity one step further, in their great honesty (painful at times) about the topic. The article was certainly not meant to "fix" anything in our industry any more than writing it would fix the struggle in me. I really just wanted to start the conversation.
Because the artists I spoke to were so transparent, I think it may have helped all us—writers, artists, readers, industry veterans—to take a harder look at the preoccupation we have with beauty and perfection, and how it "sells" our message. I still don't have any answers, but it helped me step back a bit and consider my own role in the whole thing.
How did you end up being a part of The Story?
Norman Miller, my manager of 13 years, was so supportive of my decision to be at home with my kids, but he also knew I was really missing a creative outlet. My first love has always been writing. I am very at home with just a pen and paper, and not always a microphone. He brought the project to me, at its inception, and I was already saying "Yes! Yes!" in my head before he could finish his pitch. I knew I could pour myself into these songs without compromising anything at home.
After I realized what a great personal fit the project was creatively, I began to really catch a vision for the incredible journey ahead. Sitting in Max Lucado's living room, dreaming aloud, about how we might help point people back to Scripture through these songs, but in a very new and arresting way, was really exciting to me.
Was it hard to get back into writing?
It was not hard to get back into writing. I had taken so much time off, my creative well had really had time to refill. I was very ready to pour into this. I wasn't tired or burnt out anymore. I wasn't panicked, for once, starting at the blank page. I was just ready.
The subject matter was so vast and daunting, and despite being too often relegated to Sunday school lessons, these characters were very complicated and complex. Max and Randy's writing gave Bernie and me such context and forward motion. Although I signed on to be the lyricist and Bernie to write music and produce, Bernie's perspective and insights often sharpened my writing. He is a brilliant thinker and communicator and would often lead me to water when I would start to wander and struggle. He would always set me back on the right path. Creative accountability is a rare and wonderful thing.
Why did you write all the lyrics from a first-person perspective?
Since the stories are so familiar, we felt strongly about looking deeper into the humanity of the characters themselves. We are quick to label them as the "heroes" of our faith—and they certainly are—but in writing these songs, I was more drawn their fragile and frail parts—the doubt, the fear, the second guessing, but also the trusting, the surrender, the bravery, the second chances. At the risk of casting them in too common a light, I wanted to relate to them somehow. To remind myself and the listener that God uses anyone—anyone—he chooses to. That didn't stop when the ink dried on our Bibles.
What song came most easily to you?
The one that was the most difficult in subject matter—the song of Job. I struggled with it initially; every attempt felt so inauthentic. I have not walked anything that resembles a "Job path," and felt like such a fraud trying to speak in his tortured voice. I set the song aside for awhile, and then a friend sent me Mary Beth Chapman's book, Choosing to See. Page after page, I read through a curtain of tears of the Chapman family's struggle to move and breathe through life after losing their beautiful daughter. More poignant still (as it related to Job), was how they were expected to try and model appropriate grief on such a public stage. Mary Beth wrote with a halting and brave pen, and after I finished the book (in a night), I lit a candle and prayed for their precious family, and the song poured out of me in a matter of minutes. It's called "Broken Praise."
What song was the most difficult to write?
The one where the character of Mary Magdalene goes with the women to find the empty tomb. It was the last song we wrote, and we were tired. The resurrection is so central to our faith story, and I was panicked that I had allowed creative exhaustion to creep in. And then there was the small matter of Natalie Grant singing it—not exactly an artist you want to hand "Kumbaya" to. In the end, I wrote six entire lyrics for this song, none of which were right. Again, Bernie with his razor sharp instincts, helped to unclutter the song and my mind by pointing me to the simple and breathless moment where Mary first encountered her risen Lord. The song is called "Alive."
Did you write the songs with specific artists in mind for each song?
We did start with a wish list of artists and ended up with almost every one of them; we were humbled as we watched God assemble this unparalleled cast. We had some strong ideas about who would best portray each character, but in the end, we had to stay true to what the songs wanted. As the project took shape, we were amazed how some of the artists seemed to resonate on a deep level with the character they were portraying. Obviously, we couldn't have planned that, but it was so neat to watch the detailed way the Spirit was piecing this together.
Why aren't you participating in the December tour?
As much as I would love to take the stage with these phenomenal artists, I still feel the tug to be home right now. I can't wait to see what breathtaking moments happen on the live production, but I feel like I'll know when and if God gives me the green light to go back on the road. And it's just not now.
This project is a call to bring people back to reading the Bible. Why do you think so many have left that behind?
My personal feeling is that the perceived problem is the relevance of Scripture. It becomes harder to bring the mess of our modern questions to the pages of such a holy and sacred text, and find relevant answers. We are tempted to look solely through a cultural or historical lens, taking Scripture and the stories within, at face value. We want sound bites and CliffsNotes. We want easy acronyms from our pastor to help us remember the "takeaway" from a certain passage. I just don't think Scripture can be read or absorbed like this.
I was humbled and embarrassed as I dug further into this project to realize how I had marginalized some of these characters over time. I think people often shrug and walk away from the study of Scripture (and maybe from churches) because at first glance we don't see the immediate connection between God's people then … and now. We don't see any connective tissue from our lives to theirs. And it's just too much work for most of us to dig deep enough and long enough to unearth the treasure that is buried a few miles down.
Ten years from now, how do you think you'll look back on this?
I don't have any perspective yet, but I do feel proud of my work on this project, not because it has been stamped as worthy or excellent by anyone, but because I know I couldn't have done any better. I don't think I've ever poured so much of myself into something creatively. And it's a good feeling to look in the mirror at the end of something and say (and actually mean), "I did the very best I could with the tools in my toolbox, and that's enough." I haven't always felt that in every creative moment of my career.
What do you hope the listener gets out of this?
My hope is that we are reminded that God does his greatest work in the most unlikely people. Time and time again in these stories, we watch God transform an individual, nation, or generation in the weakest and most unredeemable moments imaginable. We tend to study and treat these iconic men and women as though they were untouchably perfect. But when we recognize our own humanity in them, flawed and fearful, we can also recognize the dream God might be dreaming in and through us. We begin to embrace the possibilities on the pages of our own story.
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