Amy Grant squeezes in last-minute chat in advance of Thursday concert in Hagerstown
It’s been a long day for Amy Grant when she spoke by phone during a car ride Monday night from her Nashville, Tenn., hometown.
She has some more stops before she's set to perform Thursday, Nov. 8, at The Maryland Theatre in downtown Hagerstown.
With hits like “Baby Baby” and “That’s What Love is For,” the bestselling contemporary Christian act of all time also had substantial mainstream pop success in the ‘90s.
But she’s tired and apologizes for being foggy on career details. This very last-minute phone interview finds the weary singer-songwriter, who started making albums at age 16 in 1977 and turns 58 later this month, digging for something meaningful to offer.
WHAT'S NXT: You said in a recent interview that you’ve been writing “pages and pages of life” and that sharing your perspective at this age feels important. Were you referring to songs, journal entries — what?
AMY GRANT: Oh, you know what, I revisited that book that I think just celebrated its 25th anniversary “The Artist’s Way.” Have you ever heard of that book?
GRANT: Oh gosh, Joey. It’s a game changer. Yeah, it really encourages — your life work doesn’t have to be about creativity, but it just talks about writing every morning and I did it 25 years ago and just quit kinda early on ‘cause I had young kids but that’s where it started and it really is a game changer.
WN: We’ve heard so much over the years about the tape you made for your parents and how it led to you getting signed. How many songs on that tape would you say ended up on your first album and were they all your songs or had you done some covers too?
GRANT: On that tape were just my songs — the ones I recorded. There was another friend there with me and he did his songs. Let me see. I found a copy of that tape but I haven’t listened to it. It’s just in a box somewhere. I don’t know, maybe five, maybe six of ‘em were on the first record.
WN: You’ve talked about where your head was when (son) Matt was born and you were thinking about deeper stuff when you were making “Lead Me On” (1988), but considering “Find a Way” had crossed over and the duet with Peter Cetera (“Next Time I Fall”) had been a big hit in ’87, was there any thought of maybe doing a more straight-up pop album like “Heart in Motion” (1991) in ’88?
GRANT: Hmmmm, yeah. God Joey, this was all a long time ago. I can’t remember what I was thinking.
WN: I just thought maybe your team might have seen that success as a window into pop radio that was worth capitalizing on.
GRANT: Right, right, right. No, I think I just was too oblivious. I loved singing with Peter but I think I was just still trying to carve out my space, you know. And, you know, all along I never felt like I was the greatest singer in the world. I felt like what I had to offer was how I viewed life and you know, there are a million ways to live a life. That’s why I never made up songs about other people, it was always like, “Well, what if you looked at life from this perspective, what would that look like, what if it were a consistent perspective of one person’s journey?” And with “Lead Me On,” it was just a more serious time in life. I think I’d already struggled in my marriage, I know I had, by then and I just was I wasn’t interested in pursuing a pop career.
WN: What’s your outtake stash like? When you guys were doing those albums at Caribou or the Bennett House (in the ‘80s), did you have leftover songs? We hear so much about how much Prince had in the vaults.
GRANT: Ehhhh, maybe I have a dozen things that were really obscure recordings that landed somewhere but you know would never be heard, maybe I have a dozen things that didn’t make it onto records. I always think there’s kind of a reason. But yeah, I don’t have vaults and vaults and part of that is because I’ve always just had a lot of other interests besides music and so you know, I wasn’t somebody who was just constantly in the studio. I didn’t have a studio and so I really relied on the budget the record company gave me when it was time to make a record to go in and record. Even now, if I have a free day, my brain doesn’t work that way to further my music career. Sorry, this has been such a long day. I’ve had a lot going on today so I feel like I don’t have a whole lot of brain power.
WN: Did you write songs every year for the Loft (a youth group series Grant hosted) or were the songs on the album all from the first year?
GRANT: I think I wrote some other songs. We did the Loft in 1990, 1991, 1992 and yes, there were probably some songs that we sang back then that didn’t wind up on the Loft project that we did but I don’t remember them anymore. I would try to write every week, have a new song but then if we did 10 weeks in a row, it’s funny because the kids would want to go back and sing their favorite songs, so we just wound up putting the ones on there that were sort of the favorites.
WN: Did you ever demo the (Grant-penned Faith Hill song) “Who I Am” and was that a candidate for “Behind the Eyes”? The lyrics are in your book “Mosaic” and it’s so autobiographical, it seems like an odd choice to hand off to another artist.
GRANT: I think that was on the drawing board for one of the records and I even returned to it I think after Vince and I were married and we might have worked on it in the studio. But it just didn’t, it kind of left us like, “Oh well.” For whatever reason. If you record 13 songs, 11 of ‘em make you ... you just wanna hear it again. I don’t know if it was just the way I sang it, I don’t know if it was the way the direction we took it in production.
WN: That’s just one I have always wanted to hear you sing.
GRANT: Oh really?
WN: Yeah, like I read the lyrics and I remember you saying what (former A&M exec) David Anderle said to you about putting more of yourself into your songs and just thinking that sounded like a really interesting song to hear you do.
GRANT: Hmmm, OK.
WN: What was your parents’ reaction the first time they heard “Unguarded”? Did they ever say they thought you were going too far?
GRANT: No. I think my parents’ experience with that project was similar to their experience with my first Christmas record and “Age to Age” and “Straight Ahead.” Those were all projects that I recorded up at Caribou Ranch so I think they just went, “Hey, this is fantastic, we’re all going on a family trip” and we would have a listening party at the end. You know I did most of the recording within two weeks, I guess maybe we did some overdubs when we got back, maybe backing vocals, but the first week was just the musicians with all of their family and then the second week I sang vocals and my family came out. Always my mom and dad, my sisters, my nieces and nephews, and my brothers-in-law. So that was the context in which they first heard those songs were up at Caribou and it was I guess our time together was more about having a big group experience. I mean I was working all day but we would have dinner at night and at the end of the week, we’d have a listening party. I don’t really remember them ever giving me their opinion about what I was doing which quite frankly has been a really great guide for having adult kids, just going, “Gosh Amy, hold your tongue, hold your tongue,” because I loved feeling like they were supportive but never feeling like they were trying to steer anything.
WN: There’s some interesting musical stuff on some of your records like the really long intro on “Fight,” the long outro on “Stay For Awhile” or the psychedelic breakdown on “Love Can Do.” Did that kind of stuff come from (producer) Brown Bannister or you guys together or what?
GRANT: Those arrangements were probably driven by the producers but we were all there when they were coming down and I guess I would just describe those as exploratory, especially the things — I can’t remember if any of those happened at Caribou — but we would just kinda take our time and somebody would come up with a guitar lick, “Oh yeah, let’s double that, oh that feels great.” But it always felt very much like exploration. I didn’t show up to a finished track. We were all in there going, “Oh, I like that, I like that, what about this.” We were rarely working from a completed song. I would go in the studio and the lyrics would be half done, we’d have a musical idea we liked and then you put it in the hands of the musicians and they would just run with it and I guess it could have gone any direction but we just didn’t try to overthink it.
WN: The big hits on “Age to Age” (1982) were “Sing Your Praise to the Lord” and “El Shaddai,” yet the video you made was for “Don’t Run Away.” Kind of the same thing on “Straight Ahead.” There were the singles, but “It’s Not a Song” was the video. Do you recall why videos were made for songs that weren’t even singles?
GRANT: I do not. Maybe they were more visual? I sort of laugh, I probably haven’t seen those videos in like ages.
WN: I kinda wondered if “Don’t Run Away” and “It’s Not a Song” were seen as having pop crossover potential and it just didn’t happen?
GRANT: That’s a strong possibility. We worked with a production company called Scene Three and Kitty Moon and Marc Ball, I remember conversations with them. Maybe they came and said, “Hey, we’ve got a storyboard for this song.” You’re asking me these specific questions and I’m like, “Was I in the room when this career was happening?” (laughs) I just kind of remember talking about the ideas. I don’t even know why we chose the songs we chose.
WN: I guess there probably wasn’t an outlet for Christian videos at the time.
GRANT: Yeah, I don’t think so. I don’t know that there was much of an outlet for anything. What year did MTV start?
WN: I think ’82 (turns out it was ’81)
GRANT: OK. Yeah, well I don’t any of my stuff ever got played on MTV. I wonder what I was doing those for. Hmmm, good question. (laughs)
WN: I know there’ve been huge changes in the industry and radio is very youth driven and it’s something all veteran artists face eventually but it’s been more than five years since (your last studio album) “How Mercy Looks From Here.” Would you like to eventually do a proper studio follow-up or does it just not seem worth the effort?
GRANT: I would love for there to be a studio followup but I’m not working on anything right now. Seems like when I go and perform, people want to hear the old stuff and this year coming up, I love live performance, but I don’t really see anytime in 2019 when I would get back in the studio and honestly it just is I enjoy just living life and not having a deadline. We have sort of other deadlines happening. I love making music. I’ve got a songwriter in my home right now staying while she’s writing in Nashville. We’re trying to find time to sit down and write. Chapin Hartford, one of the writers on that song “Better Than a Hallelujah” and anyway, I guess the way it feels right now, I don’t have an agenda with creating music but I think it’s just because sort of where my family is so much of my creative energy is going toward them and it’s fantastic.
WN: Did you and Michael W. Smith ever talk about doing a full album together? You’ve written and toured together so much, it seems like it would have been a no-brainer at some point.
GRANT: Seems like we would have. I think in the last few years stepping back into the touring at Christmas time, we’ve spent more time together because of the Christmas tours but I think if we were going to have that record, we probably would have made it earlier. I mean if I were going to make a full-blown record with anybody, it would probably make the most sense to make it with (husband) Vince (Gill), just ‘cause we’re around each other all the time. And I don’t know, time really, whew — it’s amazing how you’ll have an experience and suddenly like five years are gone. I think it really hits you at 50. On one hand, I’ll talk to somebody and they’ll say, “Please keep writing, I want to hear life, I just want to hear your perspective.” But then, I don’t know about you, but I wake up in a day and there are so many ways to spend energy and they all seem like they matter, they do matter. And I just have not figured out how to make it matter enough to me to create new music.
WN: Well, I’ve heard you say you hope your greatest songwriting days are ahead and every artist faces that conundrum of people wanting to mostly just hear hits. But that’s kind of been one cool thing about Vince. He’s facing probably the exact same issues, yet he’s put out new records every few years of late. He seems very disciplined about that.
GRANT: Right, he is. But I would say the difference for me is the quality of life that I want to experience and that I want the people around me to experience, it requires work. And when I disappear, it doesn’t happen. Like this past weekend, I’ve been talking for a year about oh my gosh, I wish we would have an experience where our whole family, like 50 of us, could enjoy each other’s company. It just feels like life keeps stretching everybody in such crazy directions and I was talking to one of my nieces, we just chose, we’re gonna spend a weekend at the farm and drop by when you can. People can camp or spend the night or not. People did show up and, but there’s work that’s involved too. And I guess through these years of my children being young adults and my last child launching, I don’t want to disappear to make music. I feel like all my answers are so downer but they’re actually really, I feel like I worked so long and so hard and I loved it, but I sacrificed so much time away from my family and I feel like right now going, “Nope, not yet, not yet.”
WN: You and Sandi Patty so thoroughly dominated the contemporary Christian music industry all through the ‘80s on the charts, at the Grammys and Dove Awards and so on. I know you’re friendly with her, but was there even a tiny little bit of friendly rivalry between your two camps back in those years?
GRANT: No. The first time I really spent time with her, we just came from different worlds. We had a couple of good friends in common, one in particular named Beverly and Bev was going, “Oh gosh, you girls should get together, you’d be crazy about each other,” and we did do a couple things but I never really felt like …
WN: Beverly Darnall?
GRANT: Yes. But no, I’m crazy about Sandi. I was with her one time and we were saying if you could have any career, what would you do, you know I’m thinking I always wanted to run some kind of a camp or open a restaurant. Which both sound awful to me right now, but anyway and she said if I could have my dream career, I would be an NFL quarterback. I went, “Oh my gosh, my husband would love you.” Yeah, she’s a blast.
WN: The leopard jacket — was it all the same jacket you wore on the (“Unguarded”) album, on the Grammys and on tour or did you have it copied once it became such an iconic look and you were wearing it everywhere?
GRANT: Well that original leopard jacket was a gift from a woman named Kay who owned a store in Memphis.
WN: And she was (your bass player) Mike Brignardello’s wife?
GRANT: Yes. Mike and I had worked together. She just went it to me and I loved it. I wore it on the Grammys, I wore it on the album jacket and then (former guitarist) Jerry’s McPherson’s wife Evy, she copied some but it was just for the tour that followed that record.
WN: Thank you.
GRANT: Thank you and I wish I had more vivid memories of 35 years ago. (laughs)
Top photo: Amy Grant performs at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., in 2014. The best-selling contemporary Christian act of all time performs Thursday, Nov. 8, at The Maryland Theatre in downtown Hagerstown. (Photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)