They say the first album is always about loss. Whether midstream or shortly thereafter, an artist’s first album is typically about loss of some kind—love lost, dreams shattered, expectations unmet. After interviewing well over 1,000 artists and reviewing God knows how many releases, the maxim is true that some sort of grief is the central subject for most songwriters when first starting out.
The reason should be obvious, since songwriting, as with any creative endeavor, often begins as a cathartic exercise. There’s a working out, a processing that happens when I write, when painters paint, when sculptors mold and shape. As I write, I’m figuring out who I am both before, during, and after the event that drew me to my desk. We naturally gravitate to our own outlet to work through the situations we find ourselves in, both good and bad.
After the first album, other subjects arise. In my experience, the progression begins at the heart and moves outward from there. I often find artists moving through their past, family trauma, or other more joyful experiences in their second or third albums. Many veteran artists eventually move to topics outside of themselves, topics they are passionate about regarding politics or the state of the world. After several releases, many veteran artists will begin to sing solely about the world as they see it and speak to grander themes of love, violence, beauty, and what it means to be human.
I love this last stage, but it’s rare to see a songwriter arrive outside of him/herself. It’s no secret that making a living as a songwriter and performing artist is a tough gig, and only the strong survive. I don’t have any concrete figures, but the run for most artists has to be an album or two at most for the average length of a recording career. What that means is that the music we most commonly come in contact with is likely closer to ground zero in content—dealing, once again, with issues of the heart.
Then there are artists like Jill Phillips. I was two-years-old when I first heard “Steel Bars” (not really, but there’s no need to admit I’m nearing 40) and it blew me away. Caedmon’s Call was on tour somewhere outside of Columbus, Ohio, and I convinced a few friends to drive the distance with me. Jill opened the show with a simple five-or-so songs and I was hooked. I bought everything that rhymed with Jill on the merch table and headed home to listen to the songs on that debut record. We still play that album from time to time and remember it fondly.
Through the first few albums, there are many songs from Jill that follow the expected progression—songs that speak from the heart about the highs and lows of faith. They are songs that wrestle with sin-nature, destructive thoughts and habits, hope lost and found. They’re often personal songs that resonate so powerfully because of the vulnerability on display–songs like “Wrecking Ball” or “Last Time” or “Dry Town” that have spoken to me at key moments when I was processing my own story.
Enter Mortar & Stone. It’s a different sort of release, one which Jill describes as an album of encouragement for the community around her. The songs are songs about the struggles and sorrows of her neighbors, her friends, her family. They are songs that originate in the stories outside of her own. She has become an artistic observer.
This is what Richard Rohr refers to as eldership in Falling Upward, perhaps the most affecting book I’ve read in the last several years. It’s a short work on Christian aging in which Rohr illuminates the passage available to all of us to move from knowledge to wisdom, from our young, reactionary selves into something more stable, more present, more compassionate. Those willing to engage in the difficult, counter-cultural work of true life transformation, not religious exercises, will become the elders from which we glean true wisdom. They have worked out their own stories and can speak truthfully, gracefully to the stories of others.
I believe this is the beauty of Jill’s music. As a mother, wife and artist, we have been privy to her own transformation over the course of several albums, and now, on Mortar and Stone, we can begin to enjoy new pearls of wisdom from someone who has done the hard work. It’s a rare gift to find a songwriter at this stage, several albums into her career, and we’re blessed to have several such artists present in the Rabbit Room community.
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.