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.
Talk a little bit about what happened after you left the United States.
After I left Christian music in 2002, I probably spent another six to eight months traveling around America just because I could. I just packed my bags and ran around for a long time. I ran around the States and went to Europe and basically just spent that time trying to figure out if I could find my own voice. And eventually I needed a place to put my head on a pillow and go to bed consistently and Australia ended up being that place for me.
So you would say it was 2002 when you 'left' Christian music, when you made that conscious choice?
Yes, absolutely. I think it was September 27, 2002 -- that was the last show that I played as a full-blown Christian artist.
Christianity was such a huge part of your life. Is it still?
It's a catch-22 really, because when you've been so wounded by something it's really hard to hold it as dearly and intimately as you did before. At the same time, it's still the framework with which I continue to go to back and see the best of the world and the best that I have to offer and the best of other people. So it's hard for me to just single-handedly throw it out the door. For as many years as I've built it up to be something that it may or may not be, I'm starting to relearn what that means -- in honest acceptance of who I am in that context I never had before.
That has to be a very difficult thing to do.
That's a huge challenge. I got a package last week from this girl who sent every single record of my Christian work that she'd bought back to me, which was actually the most hurtful thing that I've ever had anyone do. I can handle the rhetoric and the language and even people coming up to me and saying that they're disappointed in me. But when the very best gift that I had to offer the world, to other people -- and she summarily just sent it back and said 'I don't even want it in my house, I won't throw it away, I want you to have it, here -- I reject you.' I actually cried over that, which is a pretty big deal for me. I tried to be tough about it, but that's the amazing thing that you kind of have to go through. Knowing that you've given your best to somebody and then to have that rejected' it's pretty challenging to keep your chin up.
It's interesting you say that because in your interview with Larry King [where Knapp was forced to argue against Pastor Bob Botsford that spirituality and homosexuality are not mutually exclusive] you held it together really, really well --
I cried for a couple of hours after that.
So the interview was more difficult than it looked?
It was pretty hard. I do my best to respect the position that Pastor Botsford came from. We don't share the same position obviously. To be in the hot seat that much, to have your very person, your integrity, and your heart questioned -- the core of where you find identity. It's hard enough in the universe to be secure and confident in who you are. And then to be in that position in a very, very public setting and to have someone take a very important section of my life that I've taken very seriously, doing my very best to be good and accomplish that faith as best I could. To have someone come in' it was really hard and to be gracious at the same time and try to give him the same thing that I would expect in return. Yeah, it's really hard.
It's certainly not a comfortable situation.
At the end of the day, I can go home. This is a public life and I can go to private life. I've been very fortunate in my private life. I've had my family and my friends not even skip a beat in accept me all my days as whomever I've been and however I've come. I think Christianity's probably been the harder adoption in my life that my family's had to deal with far more so than my sexuality so that's kind of the irony there.
Because you found religion in college, right?
Yeah, the exposure to the evangelical side of adopting that whole tradition as a life-changing experience. Absolutely.
[At this point in the interview, a member of Knapp's team pokes her head in and mentions that some fans who came all the way from Florida would really like to say hello. 'They've said they'll wait all night.' Jennifer refuses to let that happen and excuses herself for a quick introduction. High-pitched screams erupt from down the hallway.]
You essentially didn't pick up your guitar for six years, what did it feel like when you picked it up to write again?
It was pretty strange at first. I knew how to do it, but I was so rusty. My calluses were practically nonexistent, I needed new strings, my vocal chords were unresponsive. In a way, the fact that I could focus on the physicality of it was probably a blessing. I set my mind to practicing, for a while, working on some covers' then, sweet joy, I started to write my own stuff again.
What has the reaction been from your former fans?
We took a seven-year break. Nobody does that. It's career suicide. And there's not a single person that I've ever met who said, hey that was a good decision [laughs]. So, I played a show in Hoboken and two here [in New York City] today and I'll still have someone next week come up and say, "I can't believe Jennifer Knapp is back." We're still trying to get the word out. So, there's that. And then there's the huge impact that it's made in having guys literally say, 'I'm not going to follow you anymore because you're gay and I'm Christian and you just can't be both.' It seems less of an issue that I'm not doing Christian music anymore. The guys that show up love the new record and love the music.
What's on the horizon?
It is an uphill battle right now. There's a lot of music out there. There's that uphill climb and then the fact that the fans I still have, we're trying to let them know. In response to the excitement we had from the fan base, I got out the record as fast as I could and now we're still trying to get people to recognize that we have the record out. We're making new fans every day. That's one of the most exciting parts. Seeing faces and names I actually recognize from travels before. And them bringing new people who wouldn't have even dared peel the wrapper off of one of my records because they just couldn't handle the fact that people called it a Christian record.
I'll be honest, I would have been in that boat.
And a lot of people are. It's a lot to get over if you're not comfortable with just having things delivered to you with one viewpoint in mind. And I think on the backside of that, I think my faith does expose itself in some of the things that I write, but I probably struggle more in trying to hide -- I try to keep it back. Not in a way that I'm embarrassed about it, but not everybody wants to hear about my old boring story so I want to write [songs that can be] inclusive of a lot more people. It shows up in subtle ways. I really struggle with [the question] "Do I keep that allusion in there?"
In a way, it's like you've come out with your sexuality, but you're almost going back in the closet with your spirituality.
It is an interesting paradigm. I got an email from a gal that went to a show a couple of days ago. She's an atheist and she's like, 'I came because I recognized what you've been through and wanted to be supportive and was really intrigued about the music.' A lot of fans that day were requesting the older, faith-based music. I acquiesced and I played. And then I get a letter from a gal saying, 'It was just enough but I was almost really uncomfortable.' And that's the last thing you want.
But -- in a way do you want to push that boundary?
It's a good boundary to push, I think. It's a good challenge to me, as well. I have no expectation that anyone's going to believe in the way that I view my god or my spiritual world. I'm over that bit. The challenge for me now is to begin to articulate that and to be a lot more inclusive when I didn't have to work that hard before. It's far more a new conversation now than it ever was.
It seems like this conversation about religion, spirituality, and sexuality may actually help open doors for members of the gay community who see religion as inaccessible.
The truth of the matter is, it's actually quite accessible. The impression I had in coming back to America just a year ago -- I thought there's no room for that. All you hear is the negative. All the monotheistic religions are really great at having the most conservative end of that spectrum negating the possibility of anyone coexisting [religiously] with their sexuality. The truth of the matter is that with Judaism, with Islam, with Christianity, there are places that understand the whole human being. There are churches and communities that are no longer willing to stand by and have their congregants kicked out summarily because of their sexuality.
We have to talk about the album.
Mostly the process of getting back was answering a lot of the voices in my head that were there before I even opened the door to coming back to be a public figure. Dealing with the issue of whether or not I sang about my faith, and if I was still a person of faith. It was complicated by my sexuality and then knowing that I was going to have to publicly deal with that. There were a lot of songs that started surfacing [about] that give and take. A lot of the songs take the format of a relationship -- it's very conversational. Sometimes those conversations go really well, they're really loving and really open. And sometimes they're kind of ironic. I've enjoyed the opportunity to be honest with the range of emotions that I've actually had in that experience. And I've somehow managed to come out on the other side not mad or angry or bitter but actually really hopeful. At the end of the day, that's what I hope people take. That as much as you might attach to an angrier portion, that you still find the peace and the comfort of having emoted that process and still respect that person sitting across from you as much as you can hopefully respect yourself.
And how would you describe its sound?
At the core, I'd describe it as a standard acoustic rock record. So much of it is built around the classic elements of a live rock show, but this record has a lot more keyboards on it than my last record. Cason Cooly [keys] did a lot to keep the balance between my folk tendencies and Paul Moak [guitars] fought back by adding some great electric tracks. It's a fun challenge, swimming somewhere between tasty pop sounds and purposed musicality.
Jennifer Knapp's new album Letting Go is available on iTunes and she continues to tour the U.S. through the end of October. Head to her official site for tour dates and tickets. And check out a live performance of the hit 'Dive In' from her new album Letting Go, which you can purchase on her site.
Letting Go is available now in stores and for download. For more on Jennifer Knapp, visit her official website.