A lot has happened with JJ Heller in the two years since we reviewed her last album, Painted Red. JJ and Dave’s daughter, Lucy, was born a couple months after the album released, and then around this time last year, a contestant on the hit TV show So You Think You Can Dance decided to use her song “Your Hands” as her audition music. Turns out having your song played on a show that has millions of viewers – 6.8 million that night – is a good way for more people to discover your music.
Because of the subsequent radio success of “Your Hands” – it spent 24 weeks on Billboard Magazine’s Christian Radio chart – they decided to delay the release of a new acoustic record they were planning on releasing and head back into the studio to flesh out some of those songs with more production, as well as adding a couple more songs. As with their last four albums, When I’m With You was engineered and produced here in Nashville by Mitch Dane, but this time around they asked Ben Shive to co-produce besides playing keys, bringing his great ear for melody and memorable hooks to the production, resulting in their best sounding album to date. Andy Osenga is back, joining Dave on acoustic and electric guitars, and Paul Eckberg returns to play drums, with Tony Lucido on bass.
JJ’s music has always been notable for her great melodies and the way her vocals seem to float effortlessly above the instrumentation, and this album is no exception. The title song, with a melody that is stuck in your head for days after you hear it, was written for their daughter and is a touching account of how the world looks different when you’re holding a child in your arms, someone looking to you for love and attention, completely dependent upon you: When I hold you in my arms, Love, / something changes / It’s the strangest feeling / The things that used to matter, / they don’t matter to me // When I see you, / and you’re smiling, / how my heart aches / So full it is about to break / You make me believe in love //
This album, more than JJ’s other releases, puts love songs front and center, with at least four of the songs on the topic, including Tell It Again, Boat Song, Love Can Make You New, and Until You Came Along. A couple of these, the ones I’m guessing are autobiographical, provide a nice contrast to the kind of love songs that one normally hears, songs that talk more about puppy love or first attraction – a good topic to write about, to be sure, but we need love songs that go deeper than that. These songs are the kind of love songs that could only be written after almost eight years of marriage, containing a maturity to them that is both a tribute to Dave and JJ’s marriage and a noteworthy example for younger couples.
Dave and JJ are good storytellers, and this time around, they spend some time sharing the stories of others. Olivianna tells the story of a little girl they heard about who died eleven minutes after being born, and Control describes the struggle of someone who turned to cutting themselves to deal with their pain (The cut is deep, but never deep enough for me / It doesn’t hurt enough to make me forget / One moment of relief is never long enough / to keep the voices in my head / from stealing my peace). No Fight Left continues on the same theme as Control with a realization that maybe admitting that you can’t make it on your own is the best place to be: There is no fight left on the inside / But maybe that’s where I should be / I’ve given up trying / I’m giving it all to you. //
Their new radio single, What Love Really Means, is an updated version of a song they wrote and first recorded five years ago. I think it is one of the best songs they’ve written, and it’s certainly one that has generated a lot of feedback from listeners who find much needed hope in the lyrics. Each verse tells the story of someone desperate for love, desperate for someone who will look past mistakes they have made and truly care about them: He cries in the corner where nobody sees / He’s the kid with the story / no one would believe / He prays every night, / “Dear God won’t you please, / could you send someone here / who will love me?” // Who will love me for me / Not for what I have done / or what I will become / Who will love me for me / ‘Cause nobody has shown me what love / What love really means // The song both points to the source of love and offers a reminder that we, you and me, are the hands and feet of Christ in the world, that the way Love is made tangible is in the way we care for the hurting.
Besides releasing What Love Really Means to radio, they also turned it into their first music video, shot here in Nashville recently. And after just three weeks on youtube, it has already been viewed more than 130,000 times.
When I’m With You releases this week, and you can buy it, and JJ’s other albums, at her website, www.jjheller.com, or on iTunes.