Artist Spotlight: Molly Jenson
By cj casciotta
June 15, 2009
Look at Molly Jenson’s track record and you’ll realize that the young, talented singer/songwriter from San Diego has accomplished more before debuting one album than many achieve after two or three. Between touring with Jon Foreman, contributing tracks for numerous network television shows, and being crowned “one of the best new artists on MySpace” by Teen Vogue, Jenson, with the aid of producer friend Greg Laswell, debuted her first full-length album, Give it Time. Behind the female mainstream sensation, however, lies a difficult journey from artistic confinement to eventual freedom that began, perhaps not so surprisingly, within the walls of the church.
“I grew up singing at church forever,” Jenson says. “By the time I was 17 to about 25, at least once a week I was singing at church … I was thatgirl. Right around the time Greg called me and we started writing, I realized the stuff that was coming out of me wasn’t churchy stuff and I wanted to be true to that. I was singing in church for so long, I wanted to sing about something different. I wanted to write music that would touch people who don’t go to church and don’t believe in church. I wanted my music to be accessible to anyone.”
Jenson is no stranger to the west coast Christian music scene. She’s made her living for years playing in Christian bands like Everybody Duck and leading worship at various youth camps and conferences, but making a living or living out a passion was a choice for the young singer/songwriter. “The truth is you’re going to make a lot of money being a worship musician in a church,” Jenson admits. "I was making really good money working in the church, but I just didn’t feel like I was doing what I needed to be doing. I think there was definitely a time where it was where I needed to be, but I finally got to the point where I thought I could either keep doing this and make good money at it, or I could stop and not make much money at all but feel freedom and purpose.”
Jenson’s new songs mirror that sense of freedom with a candid vulnerability made that much more welcoming by her calming, liquid voice. “I think I can be more honest now with my writing," Jenson says. "I think there were a lot of things I couldn’t say without feeling judged, you know? Not everybody is going to love it, but I think it’s working.”
Not everyone loved Jenson’s decision to engage an audience beyond the pews. While no one would chastise a Christian businessman for working at a non-Christian organization, audiences who are used to categorizing media into two fields, Christian and non-, find it difficult to understand the role many Christ-following artists feel to engage the culture at large. “I’ve had people make it quite clear they’re disappointed in my directional musical choice, but luckily I’ve got people around me who are supporting me and are backing me," Jenson says.
Jenson is far from alone. She is joined by a growing list of musicians who have dabbled with Christian labels only to find true liberty in underground grassroots movements. From Derek Webb, to Jon Foreman, to Rosie Thomas, artists are creating ambitious and intentional alternative means to release their craft to those outside of traditional institutions. “A lot of my musician friends grew up in church, but are choosing not to go that route," Jenson says. "I also have a lot of friends in Nashville who started out in Christian music and are now moving away from that. The truth is there’s still a lot of money in the Christian music world, but I feel there’s a lot more truth on the other side.”
The choice of artists like Jenson to shift their focus to an unchurched demographic is more than a well-calculated marketing tactic. It’s a calling. There’s a culture that gathers outside sanctuaries, in bars, clubs and coffee shops, a congregation desperate for honesty, authenticity and relationship. Jenson and others beam these connecting fibers through picking patterns and rhyming anecdotes on a regular basis.
“Here’s the big thing with me: I believe that God gives each one of us a gift and it’s our job to do our best with whatever He gives us," Jenson says. "I feel I’m doing my best when I’m playing songs that everyone can listen to and anyone can relate to. I just don’t think it’s fair to write for only a specific group of people. My goal is to make people feel comfortable and not alone. My goal in music is to be honest and real.”
When Jenson traded her choir robes for jeans, a T-shirt and a nose ring, what she gained was much more significant—a new voice, a fresh pair of eyes, and a deeper understanding of purpose and integrity reminding us not all truth has to come from a pulpit.