Jennifer Knapp:
from contemporary Christian to Americana

Jennifer Knapp credits the fact that she discovered music early with getting her through a hard childhood in Chanut, Kansas. Playing and studying music in school got her into Pittsburgh State University on a music scholarship, and while she was a student there, Knapp underwent a conversion experience, becoming first a Christian and then a contemporary Christian musician.

From the beginning, though, the offerings on her musical plate differed from most contemporary Christian music. Instead of the simple praise songs that fill the genre, Knapp wrote songs that dealt with both the joy and hardships of a Christian life. From her own experience, Knapp recognized the difficulties inherent in living a religious life and made the exploration of those conflicting forces a centerpiece of her lyrics.

By her senior year in college, Knapp was working the church and coffeehouse circuit and, in an effort to extend her music, she recorded an indie CD called Wishing Well that drew attention from major Christian labels. In her autobiography, Facing the Music, she speaks of those labels and why she believes she could never get signed to one of them:

It didn't seem I was what the big labels were looking for. There were only a few guitar wielding chicks that I had ever heard of in CCM anyway and I didn't look or sound anything like them. I was used to playing in grungy little Christian coffee-houses for college students. When I heard artists like Amy Grant, Twila Paris, and Sandi Patti, I thought there was no way that CCM would consider me.

Her assessment was dead on; they didn't consider her. However, Toby McKeechan of the band DC Talk had started his own independent label, Gotee Records, and signed Knapp. McKeechan appreciated music that had strength, energy and conviction, and since that was what Knapp offered, he didn't interfere with her vision. Her songs, connected to hard-driving folk-rock, conveyed power and emotion. McKeechan wasn't the only one who responded; her first album, Kansas, went gold and her career appeared to be set.

The career, though, became as overpowering as a chain saw. As Knapp writes:

From 1999 until I called it quits in 2002, things would move so fast, I would work almost nonstop, that I would call them my 'Heroin years' as I found that trying to remember the specifics of those years so hazy. If I want to remember what I did in any given year, I search Google instead of relying in my own memory.

She had three well-received albums and three years of constant touring under her belt, and the result was that Knapp felt burned out, unable to continue. She packed it all in and went to Australia, where she lived for seven years. Conflicted, she saw her career as a part of a rapidly disappearing past until the day she consulted a plastic surgeon about some moles. He remembered her music and Knapp found herself explaining to him why she'd quit:

"I gave my all. I wrote about my faith and my experience as a Christian. But I had to walk away from it." I found myself lamenting. "I was getting to the point where I didn't feel I could be myself." Apparently my plastic surgeon was becoming my therapist as well. Again, scratching behind his ear with meditation. "If you've done your work to the best of your ability, then you have no reason to be ashamed." In that moment, he uncorked the years of torment I had attempted to bottle up inside.

Soon after, she returned to work. When she came back, she was writing and singing a more secular music, still powerful, painfully honest and still with a spiritual aspect to it, but not overtly religious. She had moved from religious music to spiritual music.

That's not an easy sentence to write or understand. Half of the Americana artists I've talked to have declared that they do spiritual music but not religious music. In fact, half of America describes itself as spiritual but not religious. When pressed to explain what they mean by those words, most people can't really explain them; the phrase has become a verbal shortcut that, like most shortcuts, doesn't lead anywhere.

When I asked Jennifer Knapp what she meant when she used the phrase, she said, "It took me 20 years to be able to answer that question and I can only answer it in terms of the music. To me, contemporary Christian music is music made by Christians for Christians with the intent of creating more Christians. Spiritual music aims to share with the audience a spiritual feeling." The difference can be summed up in a question: "Am I trying to share with you a spiritual experience or am I trying convince you to become a member of my religion?"

Bands like Creed walk that fine line between religious and spiritual music, she declares. And it is a line that she mostly walks herself. Even though she was fully committed to contemporary Christian music, she never felt fully comfortable in the genre. Her music was too dark. She wrote about the difficulties inherent in being a Christian as well as the joys. In her songs, the spirit was something to search for, a force to fight for that could be easily lost, instead of a constant source of delight.

She described the doubts every thinking person feels sometimes but that many members of churches can't admit to, even to themselves. When she discusses the deep and true feelings in her music, she says, "I have to take responsibility for that being true. I recognize there's a dark side too, and I wrote about the fight with the dark side. You always aim for truth in the writing. First you discover some empathy. I wrote a song about growing up in Kansas. My ignorance and youth made it true and made it fit in a marketplace." That song drove the sales of her debut album, winning her a gold record and a career in Christian music but the very truth in her music prevented her from continuing to mine that lode.

Christian music was too constrictive, too narrowly focused, and Knapp's mind was too nimble and worked in too complicated a fashion for her to be thoroughly comfortable in that niche. She never felt she fully belonged there.

As she says, "I ran from a career in Christian music because I couldn't fit. I get thoughts like I don't want to hang out with God today, but I can't write that in contemporary Christian music."

Fortunately, it was about this time that an alternative appeared. Americana music was breaking big, and Knapp was a natural fit in that genre. "In Americana," she says, "you can say anything."

To understand where the freedom to say anything comes from, let's briefly take a look at the origins of Americana. In 1995, two radio executives, Rob Bleetstein and Jon Grimson, decided they'd had enough; something needed to be done about the trends that were driving their favorite artists off the radio, and if anything was going to happen, they'd have to take on the job themselves. Bleetstein and Grimson were aware that a few small independent stations, operating as an alternative to the sterile programming the corporations favored, had begun playing a wider range of music. These stations had been quietly gaining favor and developing an audience. Bleetstein named the music they'd been programming Americana and, together with a group of industry professionals who had been championing independent music, formed the Americana Music Association.

One of the first chores of the association was to define the new music: Americana, they declared, is "contemporary music that incorporates elements of various roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinct roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also uses a full electric band."

This definition fit the music Jennifer Knapp was writing. Still, just as it was with Christian music, she doesn't feel fully comfortable or at home with the label. "I think the definition of Americana has changed. I'm in Nashville and when I first heard the term 20 years ago I felt it was going to rescue country music. Country music is beautiful. It's honest and beautiful, the music of everyday people. That's what I loved about it. But there was a gap between what people were living and what country music was about. Americana filled that gap. I wasn't sure that where I was musically."

The first Americana music she had heard had blown her away. "When I was a teenager in Kansas and I heard Lyle Lovett, and Lucinda Williams, I was stunned. Here's Lyle Lovett, he wasn't pretty, but his music was amazing. His songs were wonderful and true and honest. So was Lucinda Williams. Think about K.D. Lang. Without the freedom Americana gives, she couldn't even have had a career. She's so many genres at once. Mary Chapin Carpenter was another one. They were between folk and country. It's evolved. When I got lumped in, I remember thinking if I'm going to be lumped in, why not with Mary Chapin Carpenter."

Her words reveal a conflicted attitude about belonging in the genre. "I think of Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. When I hear that record, I think she'd been rode hard and put away wet. The Americana category gave her permission to do that, to go there. So the category is a good thing and a bad thing. It's a neighborhood. With most genres, we find one thing we don't like and complain about it being in the category. Americana is unique. It sets its own rules and it is wide. I grew up on classical music. There are rules when you play Baroque music. You can't go from a one chord to an F minor 6. You can in Americana. You've got a lot more latitude in what you can do. So when people ask what I do, I say Americana."

Living in Nashville, the center of commercial country music, causes her to question her membership in Americana. "In Nashville, I never felt I was in my comfort zone. It's a little feeling, when you're not country but you don't go all the way over to Katie Perry. You're somewhere else from where everybody else is.

"When I'm home alone, writing songs, I try to be myself. I don't turn into anybody else. There's a place where I'm going to try to present music that people want to listen to. I'm always after a product people can buy." But, she emphasizes, the sale has to be on her terms and being an Americana artist helps her keep control of the transaction.

"Americana gives you confidence. It lets me be me. If I were pop, I'd have to dress like Taylor Swift or Madonna, lose 40 pounds, get all glammed up and sing like they do."

That's a compromise she is not willing to make. Americana does not make the same demands that pop does. "I don't get too much pressure. There's a sense of community in Americana. It's like a club and while I'm glad to be seen as a member I have to say I haven't experienced that social circle. I'm not that famous. I'm wildly famous to the people who know me but I'm unknown to all the others. I haven't been in the inner circles of that club. These are people who built the genre. I would distance myself from saying I had anything to do with that."

No, she didn't invent the genre and maybe she doesn't fit squarely within its round peghole, but Americana is the genre for people who don't fit in genres and the music Jennifer Knapp is making is able to live because of the freedom the category gives.

interview by
Michael Scott Cain

23 January 2016

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