The Thick of Our Days: An Interview with Carolyn Arends

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If you attended Hutchmoot 2019, you’ll remember that our keynote speaker was Carolyn Arends: a down-to-earth, razor-sharp songwriter whose stories, songs, and insights wove the themes of the conference together. For Carolyn, 2020 gave rise to two new projects: a full-length album called Recognition and a hymns EP called In the Morning. I recently had the opportunity for an in-depth conversation with Carolyn about her childhood love of songwriting, the unfolding of her career, her work as Director of Education at Renovaré, and the wonder of parables. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

Drew: I know a lot of our audience is already familiar with your work, but for those of us who aren’t, could you provide the broad brushstrokes of how songwriting and your love of the gospel and spirituality have come together in your life, and what that’s looked like for you throughout your career?

Carolyn: Well, I was very shy growing up. And as a shy person, while I was very sensitive, I actually wasn’t very self-reflective. So songwriting allowed me to find a voice not only to share with other people, but also to find a window into myself. And very quickly I became hooked on songwriting.

And then, God bless them, I was at this small Baptist church and from about twelve years old and on, the pastor would tell me: “Hey, here’s what I’m preaching about this Sunday—could you write a song for me?” Which was amazing that this little church would tolerate a twelve-year-old’s songs! And that really called something out of me.

As a kid, I probably would have told you I wanted to be an author—I never conceived of a career in music, even though I was constantly writing. At university, I started in the sciences, and then about four years in, my boyfriend at the time (now my husband) sat me down and said, “You know, it’s kind of obvious to everyone—except you—that you should do something with your music.” And I was like, “Oh, really? Huh!” Truly didn’t see it coming.

I graduated with a degree in psychology, but right after graduating and getting married, I met someone from Nashville at Benson Music who invited me to become a staff songwriter. And I thought at the time, This is perfect, because I can write songs for other artists without having to perform them! I was directing a crisis pregnancy center at the time, so I balanced that and songwriting, driving into Nashville periodically.

In that journey, I eventually came across the work of Tom Jackson, a performance coach. About a year after I signed my publishing deal, I went to this music conference where Tom was doing a workshop about stage fright. So I snuck into the back of this workshop and heard him say, “You know, performers think that when people come to see them, they want to be impressed, but that’s not true. When someone attends your show, they’re coming for connection. They’re coming to feel loved. So if you find yourself on a stage somewhere, your actual job is to love people.” And so far, that sounded right to me. I remembered being at a U2 concert, feeling like Bono was singing to me.

But then he said—and this is what really got me—”Your job is to love, and the enemy of love is self-consciousness.” I realized that my self-consciousness was keeping me from loving people well. Like, you know that thing when you’re walking down the street and someone else is walking towards you, and you have to decide at what point you’re going to acknowledge them? Because if you do it too soon, then what do you do the rest of the time? Self-consciousness!

So after he said that, I went home and I played at this little writer’s night at a club in Vancouver. I was so nervous and self-conscious in the green room, and I just said a little prayer: “Help me not to be self-conscious, and help me to love the people in the audience well tonight.” And I went out on stage, and for the first time ever, I wasn’t worried that I would say something stupid or hit a bad note. I was just fascinated with the people in the room: Why are they here on a rainy Thursday night? And I just had a blast playing songs for them.

It’s very rare in life that a switch gets flipped like that so quickly, but I’ve loved playing music for people ever since. And that’s how it turned into a recording career, which became very consuming for me. I did four albums for a label in Nashville, and then I started to have kids and realized I couldn’t maintain the touring that was necessary. So I went independent and found a rhythm where two weeks out of every month, I would rent a van and go play a few shows on weekends and come back home.

God was gently, one step at a time, nudging me out into something more open and spacious and saturated with his grace.

Carolyn Arends

Alongside that, I was finding more and more opportunities for other kinds of writing. That started when my third album came out, and my label asked if I would write a piece of prose to go with it. That album was deeply influenced by both the death of Rich Mullins and the birth of my first child. And it turned out that almost as many people responded to my prose as responded to the album itself, which opened up doors to other kinds of writing as well. So I wrote a book called Living the Questions, Christianity Today asked me to become a columnist, and in that time—still doing music, also writing—God was doing this thing in me where I grew up in this kind of Christianity that, while beautiful, was rather walled in. So God was gently, one step at a time, nudging me out into something more open and spacious and saturated with his grace. So I started to sense an invitation to be a bit of a bridge for providing others with opportunities for that same kind of growth. I have artist friends who are iconoclasts and have this prophetic edge, and they want to burn it all down! That’s not who I am, but there has been this invitation in my life to help people take the next steps in their spiritual journey.

So my vocational life has turned out to be this huge, complicated, knotted ball of yarn where I get to be that bridge in multiple ways: through music, writing, teaching at universities, and in the last five years, my work at Renovaré as well.

Drew: Right. I’d love to hear about Renovaré and your work there. How did Renovaré come into the picture for you? Your role is Director of Education?

Carolyn: Yes! I should probably give some quick backstory on Renovaré. So it was founded by this guy named Richard Foster, who wrote Celebration of Discipline.

You know how you find your wells throughout your life—the resources of various sorts that seem to be part of the conversation God is having with you? Well I just had all these books on my bookshelf that had “Renovaré” on the spine, but I didn’t know they were even an organization. Richard Foster had been really helpful to me, as well as Dallas Willard. They have this collection called Devotional Classics, for example, and I remember being on a tour opening for Steven Curtis Chapman, and we were using that book as a band! So the threads of Renovaré go way back, even though I didn’t realize it.

About five years ago, I had gone back to school for a Masters in Theology at Regent College. I was on an alumni Facebook page and saw that Renovaré was looking for a Director of Education. I’d been free-lance my whole life, but when I read that posting, I felt like someone hit a tuning fork and put it on my chest, and I just began to buzz! I walked out to my husband and said, “I think I know what I’m supposed to do when I grow up!”

Recognition is an album about slowly getting better at recognizing the sound of God clearing his throat in everything going on around you.

Carolyn Arends

The job said it could be done from anywhere in America, so I sent them an email and said, “You know, Canada is just over the line—would you consider me?” So it turns out that after Richard wrote these books, there were so many church communities asking for help. His first book, Celebration of Discipline, was just saying, “Yeah, we’ve been saved by God’s grace, but there are so many ways we can cooperate with that grace in our lives, and people have been experimenting with just that—spiritual disciplines—for a couple thousand years.” So when he wrote that book, so many church communities asked if he could come help with these disciplines. And then he put this community together, Renovaré, and they’ve been inviting people into a more intentional, interactive, experiential life with God for a little over thirty years now.

It’s crazy how God works—this job brings all the threads of my life together: music, my experience in higher education, other forms of writing, and even indie artist skills like making budgets, promoting projects, and so on.

Drew: So cool. So about the new album, can we begin with the name, Recognition? I find it very intriguing. I have a couple theories: of course there’s the song “Almost Didn’t Recognize You,” which tips off the title a little bit, but I’m curious about other, subtler ways that you would explain how the title informs the whole record.

Carolyn: For sure, that song tips my hand. But underlying the whole thing is an idea I’ve been working on since my first album, actually, I Can Hear You. It’s a sort of thesis—everybody says you have one sermon that you essentially preach your whole life.

Drew: Fascinating! You know, he wouldn’t use the language of sermons, but I’ve heard Michael Pollan say a similar thing about writers. He believes every single writer in any medium only has one thesis, for their whole life, that they circle back around to over and over again.

Carolyn: That’s so true. And for me, I think because I’ve always been a little bit spacey, a little bit of a daydreamer, my thesis has been learning to attend, to pay attention, all the way back to I Can Hear You. There’s a line from Frederick Buechner that says, “God speaks to us in and out of the thick of our days.” And there’s another place where he says that God leaves little hints, little calling cards, all throughout our days. So, just learning to recognize him has been a huge theme of my life.

And since being at Renovaré, I’ve learned that that’s a really Jesuit idea. There’s a Jesuit strand of spirituality where you take a long, loving look at the real and you’re constantly listening for what God is saying to you through other people, through your response to art and nature, and through the stupid stuff that happens to you everyday.

So Recognition is an album about slowly getting better at recognizing the sound of God clearing his throat in everything going on around you.

Drew: I love that phrase, “God clearing his throat.”

I don’t want to use this word for you, but I kept thinking as I listened to your album, These songs are parables! And not in a didactic, top-down, imposing sort of way, but in a gentle, nudging, “consider this” sort of way. Would you use the word “parable” yourself?

Carolyn: I hadn’t thought of that word, but it delights me. I took a Eugene Peterson course called “Tell It Slant” about the parables of Jesus, and he argued that Jesus very intentionally left things open-ended, so that we would have to enter into the parables and work them out for ourselves. So if my songs could function that way, I’d be delighted.

I do love narrative and I love trying to tell a story, much more than “making a point,” so if my songs tell it slant, that would make me very happy.

Drew: As these little short-form stories, are the characters in these songs factual, made-up, or somewhere in between? I’d love to hear about a few songs, if you’d like to walk through the stories behind them.

Carolyn: Some are definitely characters. “Becoming Human” talks about Pinocchio and King Lear, for example.

Drew: So you haven’t met Pinocchio personally?

Carolyn: Well, I do know some Pinocchios, but not the one of early legend!

(laughter)

Drew: Not the OG wooden puppet guy. Got it. Continue!

Carolyn: So clearly some are fictional characters or composites, but “Memento Mori” for instance talks about a dream with a monk. And I’m not sure that was a full-on deep sleep dream, but I did have a dream like that, half-awake and half-asleep.

Drew: And what a dream it was.

Carolyn: Yes. So for some background, memento mori is a phrase that means “remember your death,” and monks of various kinds have long repeated it to each other as a way of putting their lives in perspective.

The song itself was tied to this spiritual practice I was invited to do of writing your own obituary, and paying attention to what you hope people will say about you. The author David Brooks has written about the distinction between eulogy virtues and resumé virtues, for instance.

Drew: Ouch.

Carolyn: Yes! Most of us are working for resumé virtues, right? But at funerals, the questions at play are much different: Were you kind? Did you make time for people? And so on.

So I had done this obituary exercise, and then I had this dream about a monk saying “memento mori” to me, so that’s pretty autobiographical!

“Pool of Tears” comes from the story of my friend Trevor Hudson, a lifelong pastor from South Africa who teaches at the Renovaré Institute. He did an internship at a church in Washington, D.C. and really admired the pastor at this church. When he was leaving to go back to South Africa, he asked if the pastor had a word for him, which is something that he has done several times before with other people. Which honestly sounds kind of scary to me.

And the pastor said, “Yeah, Trevor. Just never forget that every person sits next to their own pool of tears.”

Now Trevor is one of the most deeply compassionate people I’ve ever met, and I think it’s because he understands that. A lot of folks have compared “Pool of Tears” to another song I wrote called “Seize the Day,” both of which are composed of a few vignettes. In both cases, these songs are composites: I’m telling true things about people I know, but they’re essentially mash-ups, in which identities have been changed to protect the innocent!

When you grieve someone deeply, it's an embodiment of the fact that there was and is great, great love.

Carolyn Arends

And then there’s “To Cry for You.” I wrote that right before I came to Hutchmoot in 2019. That one is about how I lost my mom, in October of 2018. It was a seismic loss for me. Losing a parent is a huge thing, and my mom was my best friend. I told this story at Hutchmoot—that whole first year of grieving my mom, I just did a horrible job at grief. I don’t know if you can do a good job, but I didn’t understand that part of becoming human is learning to grieve well. And I just kept running from it and running from it, and thinking, Well, my mom was older, so while it’s sad that she’s gone, it’s not out of season. I mean, I’ve had friends who’ve lost children! But I had to learn that my grief is my grief, and I don’t get to sidestep or shortcut it. For me, part of that command to honor your mother and father includes after they’ve died.

So when I was running from grief, I got asked to sing at someone else’s funeral, a drummer friend of mine who lost his wife very suddenly. And her son Jordy got up to speak and said, “If you’re wondering if Jordy’s gonna cry, of course I’ll cry: it is my honor to cry for her.”

In that moment I realized that all the tears I’d been fighting, I didn’t have to fight them anymore. I could use them to honor her. I remember going to a grief counselor who told me that every day, I needed to set aside a half hour just to grieve. Which sounded awful at the time! But it really is part of becoming fully human. There’s a line in the song that goes, “grief is the work that love must do,” and there’s an author who says, “grief is the tax we pay on loving.” When you grieve someone deeply, it’s an embodiment of the fact that there was and is great, great love.

Two and a half years into that grieving process now, it still knocks me off my feet, but I’m beginning to see it as a reminder of my relationship with my mom and a really special love. And as people listen to this album, that’s the song that I’m hearing the most about from people—I guess because everybody’s sitting next to their own pool of tears.

Drew: Especially right now. As I was listening to “After This”—that song feels like it’s about 2020. Am I correct?

Carolyn: 100%, you nailed it!

“After This” is kind of the one that got the ball rolling on this album. In April of 2020, my duo partner Spencer Capier was just recording bits of music for friends’ podcasts, and he recorded this violin melody that he called “After This.” So there we were, two months into Covid, all like Have you ever seen anything like this?? Surely it will be over soon! We were all so traumatized by this new reality!

Drew: And eleven months later…here we are.

Carolyn: Here we are indeed. So anyway, he sent me this violin melody called “After This,” and I thought it was just beautiful. So I asked, “Would I just totally wreck this if I tried to put words to it?” And he said, “No, please give it a try!” And so we did that, and it was the first thing I’d written and released in ages. We put out a video made up of listeners’ videos and images about their experience with Covid. So that got me all inspired, and I started writing a bunch. I wasn’t even going to put “After This” on the album because it had already been released, but we ended up deciding that it worked great as a sort of afterward to all the other songs.

Drew: Plus it’s just begging to be an album closer. It was born for this! Put me in, coach!

Carolyn: Yes! That was its destiny.

Drew: I did want to mention, too, just how gorgeous the strings are, throughout the whole record. And it wasn’t just the emotional parts like on “After This”—even in “All Flame” for example, there’s this wonderful bluegrassy line that’s initially played by something more picky, like a mandolin. And then when those strings come in and double it—so good.

Carolyn: On most of the record, when you hear strings, it’s Spencer. But on “To Cry For You” and “All Flame,” it’s the Love Sponge Strings from Nashville. They’re these four Nashville Symphony strings players who can work with basic lead charts just as well as sheet music.

What’s cool about “All Flame” is that Spencer played that main riff on an octave mandolin that he had just bought and was really excited about.

Drew: I love that instrument. I want one.

Carolyn: It’s really so great. So I sent that riff to the arranger for Love Sponge, and she just said, “Well, let’s play what Spencer’s playing!” They were doing the session in Nashville, and they let me join in via Zoom to watch and shout out ideas. So I’m watching, calling Spencer, and I remember telling him, “You’re not gonna believe the power you have! There’s this incredible string quartet, and they’re just playing whatever you play!” And he just loved it, of course.

Drew: And they were so right about that decision! I feel like it’s a testament to the power of different musical voices doing the same thing—when that melody is voiced on an octave mandolin, you expect it. But then when a string quartet plays it, there’s this power infused into it that kicks it up to the next gear.

Before we wrap up, I was thinking it would be a good idea to mention your hymns EP as well. We’ve been focusing more on Recognition, but the hymns EP is called In the Morning, and it’s also wonderful.

So what do you want Rabbit Room readers to know about In the Morning, where it came from, and what your hopes are for this collection of hymns?

Carolyn: Yeah! Thank you—poor In the Morning is getting neglected, only because it’s hard to promote two projects at once. But I’m quite excited about it. I’m not a traditional worship leader, but I’m often in situations where I’m called on to help people voice their worship in song, and over the years, I’ve found some go-to songs that I especially love.

So there are seven songs on this album: some are well-loved hymns and others I’ve discovered along the way or have been written by friends of mine. The goal was originally for it to be just me and Spencer with our arrangements, but our Kickstarter went really well, so we added acoustic bass and drums. But it’s still super organic, really rootsy, songs that we feel are just gifts, that have unlocked a place of worship in my heart, and I hope they can do the same for people who listen.

Drew: It’s interesting how the role of hymns and worship in our lives has shifted as a result of the pandemic, when we can’t gather together and sing. We’re having to ask, how do we enter the space of worship in new and creative ways? So I love that you’re putting new hymns out, throwing people a line, so that we can enter into a space that maybe we’ve been alienated from over this past year.

Carolyn: I would love that so much. And I would also love if it kept the hunger alive to sing together after this, you know? There are two invitations here: one is to realize that there’s nothing insurmountable to God, and we don’t have to worship in a certain way for it to be worship, but I think there is also an invitation to cultivate a holy longing to worship together and not take it for granted when we do meet together again.

Drew: It’s been a long year not to get to sing with other people.

Carolyn: It sure has. And I love that for all our technology, we really can’t replicate this sense of being in the same room, pushing air together. May the day come soon.

Click here to view Recognition in the Rabbit Room Store, and here to view In the Morning in the Rabbit Room Store.

Click here to learn more about Carolyn Arends at her website, and here to learn more about Renovaré.


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