Eleven years have passed since Sara Groves’s first offering for the Christmas music canon, 2008’s O Holy Night, and while it’s uncommon for an artist to release more than one holiday-centered album, the rich layers of meaning around the nativity story offer plenty more for such a thoughtful artist to explore.
Joy of Every Longing Heart is Sara’s newest release, an album she says was blessed by being recorded in the middle of summer. Without the familiar trappings of parties and decorations—the hustle and bustle of the season—Sara says the story came to life in new ways. I think you’ll agree.
Here’s our conversation with Sara about the new album, her favorite holiday traditions, and projects on the horizon for 2020.
Matt Conner: The catalog of Christmas music is already quite large. How much did you wrestle with the actual making of another one?
Sara Groves: I really wrestled with it, because this is my second Christmas album, which feels really self-indulgent, but I really love Christmas music. I obviously love the story. I feel the story bears up under a number of retellings, so just like songwriting, you’re looking at love and loss and those things over and over again and there are songs and new ideas.
This time, I was much more excited. The first record, O Holy Night—Ben Shive produced that in ’08, so it’s a little over ten years old. We’d just started out with such a huge list of songs to begin with on the first record, and I’d kept them along with another growing list. A little picture began to emerge for the band. At Christmastime, we go out every year and we’re often going to the same communities. As we were being creative around that Advent time of year, it made sense to make more music.
Jesus entered a world much like our own: plural and stratified at every level, with leaders who are less than reliable.Sara Groves
We recorded Joy of Every Longing Heart the Art House this summer and it was lovely. This time I was looking at the other players involved. Most of the traditional sacred carols have a rhythm. You start with the angels and then the shepherds and the wise men and then you get to the creche. I was looking at this format of storytelling because it is how so many of these songs are set up—”O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” even “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” So we began to orient the project around the way the narrative unfolds that way—one, two, three, four, like that.
MC: Can you take us further into how you oriented the project around the way the narrative unfolds? And how did that unfold the Advent meaning for you in a new way?
SG: It wasn’t a hard and fast rule, but a lot of the songs ended up feeling like they were more in the pre-dawn, longing space than they were circled up around the creche. All of those songs capture the tension of the long wait, the advent. “Angels From the Realms of Glory” follows the familiar pattern of how the story usually unfolds: “Angels from the realms of glory, shepherds in your fields abiding, sages leave your contemplations.” The stage is set; everyone is ready.
When I went to add original songs, I kept thinking about how Jesus entered a world much like our own: plural and stratified at every level, with leaders who are less than reliable—Herod is insane! We are longing, too. After many macro-stories, I take one parting micro-look at this one shepherd. He is you, he is me, he is a witness to something extraordinary, and is left to bear that witness the rest of his life. In his uneducated best, all he can say is, “I was sleeping, and woke to angels telling me what I would find in Bethlehem. I ran to see it, and it was just like they said.” Even this moment is pre-dawn in the sense that no one could possibly know what it all meant. In our already-but-not-yet state, I think we still don’t fully know what it all means, but upon finding it just like they said, we are moved, and carry it with us—joy somehow, longing still.
The pre-dawn emphasis is what led Alec Gilbertson at Foreword to land on the cover design, drawn from an actual picture of modern-day Bethlehem in dawn colors with shepherds on the heights. Waiting.
MC: You mentioned recording this during the summer. Was it difficult to drum up the spirit, so to speak?
SG: It was actually a challenge. I kept feeling like I should be feeling a certain thing, a certain way. I wasn’t, not just because it wasn’t that time of year but also because there was some unique family stuff happening. But music never gets made in a vacuum. You always want to create in this perfect space to write or this perfect environment to record in. I have yet to find that. I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself. You think, “I do this vocationally. I should be able to carve out a window, a pure window, where I can do this and really bring my whole self.” Yet life is happening all around. That basically is my art-making reality as a mom of three. [Laughs]
MC: You can just say no if this is not applicable at all, but if I put myself in your shoes, I wonder if there’s a newfound perspective or even relevance to the meaning of Christmas when you’re mining this material and singing these songs six months before everyone else. It feels like maybe holding up some diamond in an entirely new light and angle.
SG: I love that question and think you’re onto something because that’s the challenge. Christmas and Advent season is so mired with baggage and tradition and layers and layers and years and years of your personal memories. Yet at the core is this story that did have first-time engagement. For me, on the song “Just Like They Said,” I’m trying to get back to one of the very first shepherds on the hill—just one of them—who bears witness to the divine and then he has to carry that witness the rest of his life. No one else has any context for it, not even his family. He alone had this unbelievable thing happen.
I think about how many of us have had this thing happen and then we have to sort of unpack that with people or try to say, “No, I’m not crazy. I felt something.” Or you might say, “I was lost but now I’m found.” Whatever language you might have for it. So it was interesting for me to be in the summertime and really think about this shepherd and these people who are experiencing this story for the first time.
All this is happening in a context much like our own. Jesus was born into a time that looks like a our time and here comes this light, this word of God into that faith. So trying to look at it outside of all the trappings of Christmastime was helpful.
MC: What sort of holiday traditions do you have this time of year?
SG: We have so many. [Laughs] My sisters and I make fun of my mom because her tradition is to introduce a new tradition every year, and I turned out to be very similar. I see something that sparks interest and I think, “We have to do that.” My kids laugh because I’ll say, “We have to do this every year!” then the next year, it’s some new idea. But it’s always around Advent.
I love and value making space. I think the cumulative effect of thinking about and longing for a day until it finally comes is very, very powerful. The years where we’ve set aside time every day leading up to that Advent process has been so life-giving. This one I get to back up to June, because I’ve been thinking about Advent since June. This should be a very powerful year. [Laughs] But it usually includes some storytelling, reading, poetry, Scripture, singing, candle lighting. The elements are usually the same.
Then of course, we have all kinds of goofy family traditions. Stocking people is probably our favorite. We pick names and that’s the person you think of through the year. If you’re on vacation and you’re at the gift shop, you get something for that person. The gifts are very kitschy and each person gets five to eight gifts. We open presents on Christmas Eve and then the stockings on Christmas morning and that’s everyone’s favorite.
MC: Do you have a favorite Christmas song?
SG: I’m terrible at favorites, but at Christmas, you always get asked about them. I always have about ten answers. “O Holy Night” is definitely a favorite. “Till he appeared and the soul felt it’s worth.” The idea that when Jesus appears, the soul feels its worth. I love that idea. That was on the first album. On this record, I’ve always loved “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” John Mark Nelson produced this record and created a retuned version that has this joy to it that’s very different from the original. I am loving it. I think it’s a beautiful arrangement.
“Winter Wonderland” was also fun to cover as well. I added two lines to orient that winter wonderland in St. Paul because that’s where we live. The winter struggle is real. [Laughs]
MC: Is there going to be an accompanying Christmas tour?
SG: I’m going out for a handful of dates, five or six lined up for December.
MC: And what else is happening for you creatively speaking?
SG: Moving into next year, I haven’t done a collection of original songs since Floodplain. I am working on that. I am assembling songs for a project in 2020 and the last two records have been this Christmas album and the record before that was a collection of hymns. I’ve been writing all along, but now with seriousness, so I’m excited to put together a collection of original songs.
Matt Conner is a former pastor and church planter turned writer and editor. He’s the founder of Analogue Media and lives in Indianapolis.