You’ve mentioned your own personal practice of singing the Psalms in the last couple years, and I’d love to start there. Can you define that practice? Is that within a faith community? On your own? What does that look like?
I have learned and practiced by using the Daily Office regularly over the past few years. The guide includes a morning and evening Psalm every day, and it has been amazing to see how the Psalms speak to my circumstances, bringing insights, corrections, and comfort. I would often grab my guitar when something had particular resonance, and as I began to write this album it was a practice of singing truth to myself by borrowing these words. There is so much space created in the Psalms, space to feel, to question, to lament, to celebrate, and to worship. As a songwriter they are instructive in this way. I would like to make art, to write songs, that have this kind of sacred, invitational space. In such a confinining, disorientating culture that squeezes us in from all sides, the Gospel invites us to open ourselves wider, to wait and rest in God’s vast fullness. Even when we don’t have answers to the things that trouble us, God meets us and gives us his presence.
Is it safe to assume you grew up with the Psalms? What was your relationship with them from before this process?
I remember memorizing Psalms when I was a little girl. Psalm 103, Psalm 51, Psalm 139, Psalm 23—they have become part of my being after all this time. We all have a mix of things we get from our mothers, but what a gift it was that my Mom guided me to memorize those poems from such a young age. I hope to offer that same nourishment to my own kids.
You said they taught you to be more honest. Is it the confessional style found there or even more than that?
I try to make a habit of being pretty honest about feelings and situations. I have a rather introspective personality, wanting to bring things out into the open. But I know enough to know I have a lot to learn about myself. I have learned recently that a major blind spot for me is idealism. On one hand, I have this significant capacity for empathy or seeing the best in situations, but on the other hand, I am often unwilling to call things what they are. I don’t like confrontation and I avoid change. Thankfully, God loves us too much to not confront us, but instead he pushes in toward us, rescuing us from our compulsive and habitual ways of being broken. He is not fooled by our best efforts of making everything look good on the outside. The Psalms are God’s tender invitation to be made more like who we are supposed to be, to be made holy before him. The Psalms give a backdrop of history and they support the law of God, but at the center, the Psalms are about our affections, giving voice to our deepest fears and hopes. He wants to call us out of our places of hiding, that in all things we would know him and be known by him. It is an invitation to intimacy—with the full range of correction, closeness, intentionality, and good timing. In the Psalms, God’s Spirit is faithful to purify our hearts with his pursuing love as we submit ourselves to regular exposure to his words.
Had you thought of a Psalms-specific project before or was it born from this process?
These songs were born out of personal loss, much like when the seed falls and dies and bears much fruit. This is what came out of that seed. I didn’t see it coming, really. At the time of working on this, I didn’t have the capacity for other songs. I could sing Psalms and take the Eucharist. That was just about my only currency of conversation with God for a while there. I needed to step out into something artistically that could contain the width and depth of my emotion and experience. In these songs, I am bearing witness to the provision of God—always and everywhere, I give him thanks and praise. As my friend Leslie said every night on this spring tour, “He is good. And I trust him.” This simple faith is hard won. And at the same time, it is freely given. We practice the words and we sing the melody until our hearts catch up to the reality of it.
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.