Catching Up With Jennifer Knapp
By Joseph Hassan
With Grammy nods, two Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, sold-out concerts, and fervent fans, singer-songwriter Jennifer Knapp seemed to have it all. She was touring with acts like Jars of Clay and playing music festivals where the crowds swelled to 40,000. Yet, on September 27, 2002, the Christian music singer locked away her guitar, stopped making music and ran, traveling the U.S., then Europe and ultimately hanging her hat in Australia, a country she'd call home for seven years.
Earlier this year, Knapp, no longer considering herself a Christian recording artist, returned to the United States as a folk-rock musician -- and a lesbian. Most importantly, she started writing music again. Her riffs are catchy, her voice rich in timbre and spirit, and her lyrics -- no longer focused on religion -- are cerebral. The Christian music industry has shunned her and while many of her admirers stayed loyal and 'held vigil' (as she describes it), in August, a painful surprise came courtesy of the United States Postal Service: A fan summarily returned all of Knapp's albums directly to her.
Out sat down with Knapp after a recent show at New York City's Joe's Pub to catch up with the singer about dusting off her guitar after nearly a decade, her present-day views on religion, and her new album, Letting Go.
Out: First off, how does it feel to be back in the U.S. after a seven-year hiatus?
Jennifer Knapp: You really kind of take for granted what it takes to move to a different country and then move back -- but after the first six months of pretty hard-core culture shock, it's great to actually be back and doing something that I really love. The music part of that -- remembering the muscle memory of that and getting the knees to stop shaking, going back and running into fans and being kind of amazed at how many people have kind of held vigil while I was gone. I didn't really expect it, so all of those things kind of coming in as one big wave. It was a lot to handle for a while, but I'm really starting to get into the swing of things and really loving it.
The other day I was speaking with someone who had moved from the U.S. to Paris and he mentioned that the culture shock coming back to the U.S. was actually more difficult than moving away.
You don't really prepare for that. That's the funny thing. When you go to another country as a foreigner, you gird yourself a little bit and pay really close attention and watch the nuances so you can of learn to fit in as quickly as possible. When I got off the plane in L.A. -- the noise, SUVs everywhere, the smog, and people talking really loud, and mobile phones -- it was just so much. I thought, I'm going to go home, it's America. I just kind of took it for granted.
You forget that you have to reassimilate --
Even my own mother says 'You talk funny now.' And I say, 'No I don't, I still sound like I'm a Kansas girl.'
Tell me about the process of reconciling your spirituality and your sexuality.
One of the assets that I had was being in a really quiet place [in Australia]. I had a whole new set of friends and that just kind of helped. I'm sure that sounds very familiar to people who have run this gamut. You kind run away from the one place where everybody knows you to get away from all the crazy voices in your head and find your own voice somewhere in the middle of that. Being out in the country was a huge part of that for me. In fact, about six months before I knew I was coming back I had to catch up what was happening culturally. You know, Proposition 8, the fact that HRC was in full swing, ACLU getting on board with all the gay rights advocacy issues. I had no idea that was going on because I was living in a culture where those weren't really necessities so much. I could go to the far reaches of the Outback, where I'd think [someone] was going to hit me over the head with a baseball bat as soon as they figured out that my girlfriend and I were my girlfriend and me. And the most you ever got was somebody to kind of cock their head to the side and go, 'OK, man. That's cool.' And then on you go. It wasn't that big of an issue.
And so Australia was a place that helped you figure that out?
I didn't realize it at the time, but I had a really interesting place where I didn't have the overwhelming social pressure, like in the media every day talking about it, I just lived my life. I was probably with my partner five years before anybody ever called me a lesbian, and I was like, What? What are you talking about? What do you mean? It didn't occur to me. I just was.
What was it like preparing to come home?
I was terrified. Not just of having to come back and deal with the religious element, but leaving I heard these whispers' like, "You can't do that. You're betraying your faith. You can't be these two things." It was just literally a dividing line in just about every conversation that I had with anyone willing to confront me: "You must choose." You must choose whether you are going to be gay or you are going to be a person of faith, which is a really hard decision if that faith has impacted you in any emotional way in your life. My faith hasn't been invalidated -- or I don't recognize a disqualification -- because I still have that faith. And so you end up layering all of those on top of each other and it's very complicated and very hard to get to and I'm not sure I could have done that [in the U.S.], mostly because within that community I had no anonymity whatsoever. I was Jennifer the Christian and now I was Jennifer the former Christian who was gay. I was fortunate enough to be able to go to a place, an environment, where I could put all of those pressures out of my mind and just figure out who I was.
Because you weren't as familiar to everyone in Australia?
They were all new friends. They didn't have any expectation of who I was. So the very first time you shake hands, that first impression was then building on a relationship that, for like the first time, I was really having to be honest about who and what I was. And it was a real challenge for me.