The Cynical Side of Sara Groves

Sara Groves is the kind of singer/songwriter that you grow to love more and more with time. Her songs don’t necessarily wrestle you to the ground at first listen. But if patient, the depth of her poetry, the raw, delicate nature of her instrumentation and the passion of her soft alto eventually get to you.

Since her first album Conversations released in 2001, music critics have treated her like the class pet who can’t do wrong. Add to the Beauty, her latest effort produced by Christian music veteran Brown Bannister (Amy Grant, Natalie Grant), begins right where The Other Side of Me left off. While Other focused on fighting one’s way through hard times, Beauty is about healing, peace and wholeness. Groves’ art-filled spiritual proclamations and her serious writing chops continue to reveal, not only her growth as an artist, but also as a follower of God.

Groves’ ability to make worshipful music without seemingly trying sets her apart from other artists and bands making Christian music. Her songs, although filled with intelligent theology, points of view on life and true stories, are still often worshipful in nature. They’re just not praise songs. But that’s the kind of songwriter most people can appreciate, one who focuses on all the painful and beautiful things in life, but then somehow it all ends up revealing more about the Savior of the world.

Currently, Mrs. Groves is out on the road with Jars of Clay, Chris Rice and Donald Miller. In addition to making good music, she’s also a wife and mother. I caught up with Groves recently to chat with her about the new tour, songwriting and her constant battle to not be cynical.

Matthew Paul Turner: How has having an author/speaker on the tour changed the dynamic of the evening?

Sara Groves: It’s going so well. When I hear Donald speak, I keep thinking about songs that I could write about his stories. Donald has been a good fit. People have responded well to his words. We’ve experienced some controversy toward what he says, a few people not taking it the right way. But not too much of that has happened, but it’s there.

MPT: What’s the songwriting process like for you? When it’s time for you to make a new album do you simply think to yourself, “I need to write 11 or 12 good songs,” and then simply begin writing or are you constantly in a mindset of songwriting?

SG: Well, I’m constantly writing whenever I am in that place of writing. If I’m not there, then I’m not writing. Some people ask me, “How do I recover from the process of making albums?” And I don’t feel like I ever have to recover from that; the “making albums part of what I do” is the lifeblood of me getting to be a singer and songwriter. Now, I do have to recover from touring. That’s a whole other story. (Laughs)

MPT: Sara, do feel like this new album is a continuation or the conclusion of The Other Side of Something?

SG: Absolutely. I don’t think I was finished with the themes of that last album. In a way, I feel like my last four albums could be put together in a box set and together they create a story.

MPT: I can see that; the themes and thoughts on those albums do seem to come full circle. They present a pretty clear picture of the journey.

SG: Exactly. I feel like this album has the least amount of church clichés or "Christian" language, yet it’s probably my clearest declaration of faith. I’ve been trying to do that on an album for a long time, and I think this one feels that way for me. It’s my least religious album and the clearest picture of my faith.

MPT: One thing I’ve noticed about your songwriting is that you’re honest; you put yourself into a song. But you don’t seem to be honest to a fault. It always seems to have a point. Is that intentional?

SG: Well, one thing to consider is that the song is not always me. Of course, I’m in every single song. There is no way for me to extract myself from the song, because obviously I am telling the story and it’s through my personal lens. But I think that’s the job of an artist, to get something out of a person’s story and retell it.

So, a lot of my songs are compilations of myself and other people. It’s a lot of people’s stories. Most are stories about my friends and me. I meet with my best friends on a regular basis. We hang out a lot. And each of us has experienced unique challenges in our marriages and families and lives.

MPT: This is a weird question, Sara. But work with me here. This new record seems a little more natural and comfortable to me, more you than your previous records. Do you feel comfortable in life, and that place is spilling over into your art?

SG: I’ve never defined it as comfortable, but it’s true. I’ve spent a few years being cynical. Sometimes I’ll go back and read a couple of interviews that I have done in the past and I just sound so dramatic. And I hate sounding dramatic. (Laughs) But honestly, I probably am dramatic sometimes. But perhaps in an effort to not sound dramatic, I took on this very cynical, heavy heart. And whenever I would look at myself or see myself in that light, I’d always think, “that’s not who I want to be.” I don’t ever want to be looking around and thinking that I am the only one who is doing this life right.

But that’s the hard thing with spiritual growth. Sometimes when you’re moving away from being judgmental or something old, you just end up embracing a new type of judgment. In an effort to do something new or different, you get to a place where you look at everything else that other people are doing as stupid or pointless or old. So, you just end up being critical and cynical. And that’s where I was for a long time. And it bothered me.

I feel like I have finally resigned that, and it’s been so refreshing to not be cynical, to actually have faith again. I feel like I am in a real season of contentment. It’s almost embarrassing for me to admit. Of course, I still want to be active and passionate. But I do feel comfortable. I feel comfortable in my own skin—spiritually and musically and relationally.

So if that’s coming across in my music, than it’s true; I’m there. Of course, I think a part of that is just being thirty-three and not twenty-eight.

MPT: But don’t you think that many of us in Christian culture have ended up in this place of cynicism?

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SG: Definitely. I think it’s a growing pain, Matthew. At least, that’s what I feel like I went through or am going through.

About two years ago or so, when I was in the middle of that pain, I was looking for God to move or break through or just do something. I was talking to a friend about what I was going through, and I looked at a him and said, “I am going to be so bummed-out when they actually come up with a name to express what I am experiencing at this moment, when they actually categorize what I am going through.” And he looked at me and said, “They already have named it; they’re calling it the emerging church.” And I was like, “No! Don’t name it!”

It’s such a bummer that it’s in our nature to name things like this. Because Matthew, in naming it, it’s like we’re making it something exclusive that no one else gets. Too often when we create something new, everything else seemingly becomes dumb or wrong or silly. But everything we doing or have learned is not dumb. Our grandparents are not dumb. They have a lot to offer us. And our parents are not dumb. They have a lot that they can teach us on this journey

I hear a lot of people who call for grace for people who are in process, grace for people who are not ready to make a statement about faith or are not showing immediate signs of whatever it is we Christians want to see. And Matthew, we do need grace, for crying out loud we need lots of grace for those people. And I have certainly lacked this in the past. But I’ve come to realize that I have not had any grace for the people who are in process inside the church. And that’s all of us; we’re all in process. And I have learned or am learning that I need to have grace for those people, too. Even when I don’t agree, I need to have grace. We all do.

But you’re right; we are so often cynical, and I’m fighting that in my own heart. But I am grateful that Jesus is beginning to give me back some of the joy of my salvation. And I don’t want to go around preaching that to everyone, because believe me, I feel like I am most often the last one to be informed on things like this. (Sighs)

MPT: Sara, you recently went to the Gulf region to help out the victims of Hurricane Katrina. What did you learn from that experience?

SG: When I was watching what I happened, I was sitting on my couch and I looked at Troy and said, “This is what ‘adding to the beauty’ is all about. We have to go there and do something.” Troy was thinking, “Shouldn’t we just give money or something?” But I didn’t want to do that. Even though I know that going there and helping out for a few days is a very small thing. But Mother Theresa said, “You can’t do great things, only small things with great love.” And when we went down there, I saw hundreds and hundreds of people doing very small things, but with great love. And it added up to an enormous amount of blessing to a lot of people. I have never felt like more of a small meaningless cog in a God-built machine of people than on that trip. We were just one small part, but when we got there, God let us see how our part helped out with the other parts. I’m not sure I had ever felt that before. It was amazing.

I think that week just encouraged me to continue pursuing small things with great love.

Find more information about Groves and her music at www.saragroves.com

NOTE: Each week Matthew Paul Turner will be bringing a new conversation to RELEVANTmagazine.com. If you have a suggestion of whom he should talk to, e-mail him at [email protected]

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