ARTIST: Sandra McCracken
Album release date: January 23, 2015
The Pencil in God’s Hand
Sometimes people assume that the best songwriting, painting, and story-telling happens as a result of personal genius: a lightning bolt of creative thought, hitherto unheard of or ventured into, now revealed to the world with breathtaking novelty and insight.
But the fact is, that isn’t true. There are no truly “original” artists – at least, not if you take “original” to mean “having the ability to confect something utterly new out of nothing.” That would be like saying that the midwife is the reason for the baby’s existence, merely because she was the one who happened to pull the little one out into the world; whereas in reality she is simply a mediator, a stepping stone, of a pre-existing reality that supersedes and informs her own contingency. A true artist, then, is more of a visionary or a prophet than a wizard: they are able to perceive an already existing truth about life and put it into words or images that are intelligible to others – words or images that are familiar, approachable, and encounterable. In responding to their vocational call they are simply shedding light on a mystery that becomes more obviously mysterious (and, paradoxically, more intimate) the closer you step to it.
Sandra McCracken’s latest release, Psalms, is an example of authentic artistry. It was recorded live over the course of two and a half days in a living room in Brooklyn, and was written, arranged, and produced by Sandra. This set of songs dives into the heart of mankind’s most ancient aches, yearnings, and joys, drawing heavily on the words of ancient Scripture while simultaneously offering a raw look into one woman’s experience of grief and consolation. McCracken writes, “These are sacred, borrowed words, with new melodies to help draw the longing and joy up out of our hearts and onto our lips, as we watch and wait to see his story come in it’s fullness.”
The Many Cuts of a Diamond
Sandra McCracken is a prolific song-writer and recording artist. Along with writing music for other bands and projects through the years (including Caedmon’s Call and former husband Derek Webb’s personal releases), she has released eight projects of her own, and is currently working on another album to be released at some point this year. Her career began in earnest after her graduation from Belmont Abbey in 1999, and upon signing one of her earliest albums to Shell Records in London, she garnered significant airplay and accolades across the British Isles. Her body of work is impressive not only for its sheer size, but for its variety and innovation. Melodic pop, funky Americana, Gospel, and revitalized folk have all added their particular shades of tone and emotion to the canvas of her creative genius, and she has proven herself to be adept in each role.
In Psalms, Sandra’s approach is subtly captivating. Textural, simple piano undergirds the project, and the supporting instruments – guitars, drums, bass, background vocals – surge around and beneath Sandra and her instrument without ever becoming distracting. Sandra’s voice is similar to that of Deb Talen (from the husband-wife duo band The Weepies): it is child-like, yet powerful; imperfect and fragile, compelling and peaceful. It is evident that her choice to record these intimate songs live was a deliberate decision – she is a believer in vulnerability, and this makes her music an encounter with healing.
Ancient words of praise and supplication seep into your mind and become part of your mental landscape long after the music has ended. It is joyous and triumphant in places (but never trite or sanctimonious); and at other times the aching sense of abandonment and anguish brought on by loss and suffering is palpable.
Abundant Life in the Face of Death
And Sandra has first-hand experience of anguish: last year she went through an ordeal that left her marriage devastated. While she has not commented publicly on this personal anguish (a tactful and charitable move), she describes in a recent interview the process of confronting interior pain by casting herself upon the psalms:
“I would often sit during these times and find that the Psalms gave particular voice to my emotion, my story, and my struggle. The Psalms gave me words when I didn’t have my own words. They have drawn me deeper into a life of gratitude, often by being willing to go deeper into honest sorrow. . . Our sorrow is a display of honor, of valuing the loss, of knowing that this is not how things are supposed to be. It is crying out against death and disappointment while declaring the God-given affections of our hearts. There is no resurrection without death. I’ve heard it said that psychologically, you cannot shut off one part of your unpleasant feelings (like sadness) without also shutting off the pleasurable feelings (like happiness). If Jesus comes to offer us abundant life, that means highs and lows, fullness, awake-ness. And awake-full-ness is hard-won. It takes courage and a steady supply of God’s tender mercy, not just to expose our wounds, but also to heal our wounds from the inside out.”
May our souls awake and sing and our hearts unfurl like flowers. Let’s take a cue from Sandra McCracken and allow the places of uncontrollability in our lives to be the point of entrance for the One who has gone before us in every pain, and can make a greater good come from an evil than if it had never happened. This is the audacious hope of a creative heart, and it is something each one of is is called to.