Singer-songwriter Amy Grant

The multiple Grammy-winning Christian singer-songwriter-turned-pop crossover sensation explains why it took a decade to make her new CD.

With 30 million albums sold, six Grammy Awards, numerous GMA Dove Awards and induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, Amy Grant is the queen of Christian pop/rock. Her career spans more than 30 years, during which she became a crossover sensation and the first Christian music artist to have a platinum record. Raised in Nashville, TN, Grant made her debut as a teenager and is known for her philanthropy as much as her music. On her new CD—her first full studio album in a decade, "How Mercy Looks From Here"—she addresses her triumphs, as well as challenges, using as her mantra the input of her late mother, who advised, "…sing something that matters."

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: The power of music to inspire and heal is certainly at the heart of Amy Grant’s work; always has been. Called the queen of Christian pop by those who like easy labels, her Grammy-winning CDs have sold some 30 million copies worldwide and counting.

Many have used her music to soothe their hearts and minds during troubled times, so it is ironic that when Amy Grant herself was going through a difficult time caring for her elderly parents as they coped with dementia, she put her music on the back burner.

Now after the death of her beloved mother, she’s just released her first full studio album in a decade. It’s called – and I love this title – “How Mercy Looks from Here.”

Isn’t that amazing? “How Mercy Looks from Here.” Let’s take a look at a clip from the making of “How Mercy Looks from Here,” with a little help from Sheryl Crow and Carol King.

[Clip]

Tavis: Sheryl and Carole have both sat in that chair, and I’m glad to have you finally here now.

Amy Grant: Oh, well, I’m glad to be here too.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. How cool is that, hanging out with your sister friends in studio?

Grant: Fantastic.

Tavis: Yeah.

Grant: Yeah. It’s great. It’s great to have friends who have so many of the same life experiences. You go, “Remember that backstage in Austin? They’d just had a rodeo there and the bull was in the same room you were in.” (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s quite an experience – one that I hope to not have to endure.

Grant: Yeah, there you go.

Tavis: I said it already three times, and I’ll say it again – I love the record, first of all. I love the CD.

Grant: Oh, thanks.

Tavis: But love this title – “How Mercy Looks from Here.” How’d you come up with that?

Grant: Just popped into my head. Yeah, I hear so many people’s stories. That’s the crazy thing about a lifetime of music, is most times when you meet a new person you kind of have your game face on. But because I guess people have listened to my songs, they feel like they know me.

So they will just come up and say, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but,” and then just start the story of their lives. In all these stories there’s a beautiful component to everything in life, even tragic things.

One day I just thought I get to be on the front row of all these people’s stories, and just always see the different view of how mercy looks from here. That’s how it came.

Tavis: It has always been this way, I think, at least since I’ve been a fan, which has been many, many years ago, growing up in Indiana, so I think it’s always been this way, but was it planned this way?

That is this notion of your music having this sort of – it’s like a soothing, healing balm for people. The lyrical content, the style, the voice. Was that the intent from the very beginning, or it just kind of worked out that way?

Grant: Well, I just was doing the best I could with the tool kit that I have. (Laughter) I just saw Beyoncé two nights ago. Oh, what a gift she has. I was just so mesmerized.

But that’s her gift, and yours is unique and mine’s unique. So just trying to figure out okay, what do I do and what’s the best way to do it. I was just reading this book about how important slow, easy exercise is.

It’s actually called the healing exercise, because it’s when you grow capillaries. When you said “Your music is healing,” and I’m kind of a slow-moving, I thought hey, this is slow and easy.

Tavis: Yeah. I would have loved to have seen that concert, especially – did you get up and do the “oh oh oh oh oh.”

Grant: (Laughter) Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, I would love to see Amy Grant do that. (Laughter) That’s something to see. At the top of this conversation, I used a phrase that is – I’ve never personally used it before, but I used it because so many other people have referred to you as the queen of Christian pop, because we live in a world where people love labels.

Grant: I know.

Tavis: How do you wear that, or do you not like that garment?

Grant: I don’t even – I don’t know. If I’m sitting on an airplane and I strike up a conversation with the person next to me and they say, “What do you do?” I go, “I’m a songwriter. What do you do?”

There was a time that I was filling arenas and amphitheaters, and whew, that was a lot of work. (Laughter) But I just love – I think because I was one of the first contemporary Christian artists, I just call it faith music.

I write about everything, but I just – how faith filters through all that and colors your opinion of other people and life and all that. Just basic things, like not to be all preacher woman here -

Tavis: No, please.

Grant: – there’s a verse in the Bible that says don’t think of yourself more highly than other people. So even if you don’t say that in a song, it’s like – I can hear my great-grandmother, my grandmother. It’s all just generational.

So all that, like, queen, pop, all that I just sort of go, “Hm. I’m just –”

Tavis: Because there’s so much distance now in the rear-view mirror, I wonder what your reflections are about this period of your life back when. We were talking on the set before you walked out, and there are three of us in this conversation, all happen to be African Americans.

So one of the persons in the group said, “Yeah, I remember some of the saints got a little upset with Amy back in the day,” some of the saints.

Grant: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Such a phrase, I love that. Some of the saints got upset back in the day when she was making that transition from Christian to secular. I hear your point that you just call it faith music, and your lyrical content, to your credit, the lyrical content has never changed.

As you look back on that period so many eons ago now, how do you process from this distance what that phase was like for you?

Grant: Oh, well, honestly, I never – I just, I understand that everybody has an opportunity, and so I didn’t ever go oh my gosh, I’m not getting the support from people.

I just went, “Mm, wow. Well, I’m just doing what occurs to me.” I love that music; I was a mother of young kids. “Baby, Baby” was absolutely inspired by my child.

Tavis: Big hit, and I love it still.

Grant: I’ll tell you, during those days – I hadn’t thought about it until you asked me. I’m sort of hemming and hawing. But I think in pictures, and I remember picturing an artist and how important it is for an artist to just look at the canvas and study that and go, “Am I pulling out what I’m trying to do,” and how weird would it be if there was an audience back there going, “Do you like that color? What do you think about that shade?”

It would just be like – if you’re not doing creatively what’s coming from the inside, what are you doing? Hey, anybody could do that.

Tavis: But I think your “Christian audience,” end quote, felt like they owned you. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. They felt like Amy Grant is ours, and to those persons who might have felt small “B” betrayed when you started doing the secular stuff, how do you?

Grant: Oh, I didn’t – that, I just don’t understand that line of thinking.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Grant: Because I was – it’s just the same head and heart going through different phases of life, trying new things. I just always saw those as creative decisions, and I love, I love music. I love pop music.

I have love for music for a few years, but when I met Katy Perry and she said – anyway, “Oh, I listened to you growing up,” and I said, “I saw that movie that you made, and clearly you were not allowed to listen to very much.” (Laughter)

There was so much good music, I’m sorry you missed it.” You know what I mean? There’s so much out there. I was the youngest kid in my family, and we had all kinds of music.

I just – so, but music is healing. You can just take a beautiful instrumental, and people, they just remember to breathe. They just remember to breathe. That’s a good thing.

Tavis: I mentioned at the top for that for your fan base, myself included, you’ve been absent for a bit, and by absent, obviously, you don’t put your guitar down. It’s not like you just abandoned music.

But for 10 years you had other priorities; namely, your parents. How does the artist, how does Amy Grant in this case navigate that decade? Ten years, that’s a nice chunk of time. How do you navigate a decade where you’re not out front as you used to be, doing what you do, and your parents and their health, or any other issue for that matter, or important matter, has your attention?

Grant: Well, I didn’t realize that I was not going to really do a large creative work for a decade. It’s just that other more important things kept coming up. And I would still, I’d go out and sing, but I didn’t launch a big tour. I’d record a few songs here, a few songs there; stick them on a best of.

But I was newly married in 2000 for a second time, then had a baby, and this sounds so weird, but I know what it’s like to be married the first time and work so hard that your life peels away from the other person. I don’t want to do that again.

With my fourth child that I had when I was 40, do you know I did not potty train my three older children? The one woman that’s helped me raise my kids did it, and I thought, well, I’m not having a baby at 50. I’m going to potty train this one.

Just things like – it was like this is my last chance for this for life, and that’s what you write about is life. Now I have three kids in their twenties, but three kids in their teens. They would love for me to be gone full-time, so they could just be on their own.

But the real brakes came on Christmas of 2008, because I came back from a bit of a tour and saw what was happening with my mom and dad. It’s been quite a journey. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but it’s been beautiful too.

Tavis: What’s been the beautiful part? I can imagine – my grandmother went this way, so I don’t, not just imagine; I know the other side, the dark side, the night side.

Grant: Yeah.

Tavis: But when you say it’s been beautiful too, what’s the beautiful side?

Grant: Well, I have three sisters, and we have always loved each other, but we have a kind of honest, functioning kind of interaction that whenever would have had.

We’ve had to be, in the way that we work with my mom and dad, and now just my dad. But all those relationships, my children – my mom was staying with us for a while toward the end of her life, and my daughter Sarah, who’s 20 now, would, like, skirt the edge of just the room, the hallway.

It’s messy. Bodies do weird things towards the end. I came in one time and we had a baby monitor, so my mom was in – so that we could hear. I’m hearing this voice and I’m thinking, oh, I wonder if – we didn’t lock our house for a few weeks. People would come all through the night.

I hear a voice and I think it’s my niece, who’s a nurse, saying, “It’s okay, just – here, I’ll help you get that. Just – it’s okay.” I’m listening and listening, and I went, “Oh my gosh, it’s Sarah.” She just – watching her cousins and watching her mom and her aunts care for her grandmother, it’s like little by little she was less afraid, until she’s in there, “Stick out your tongue, let me clean you up.”

That, oh my gosh, you just can’t learn that on a computer screen. You have to be in the mess of it.

Tavis: Back to this title, “How Mercy Looks from Here,” we know that grace and mercy are unmerited favors. There’s nothing we can do to rain it down on us.

Grant: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: It’s just extended to you. So when you say “How Mercy Looks from Here,” what mercies – and I’m using that in a plural sense, assuming there’s more than one answer – but what mercy or mercies are you most thankful for?

Grant: Oh, the gift of every day. I’ll tell you something I’ve only just told a handful of people, but I was going to walk two days, three days ago, and so I walked out the back and I was just going to walk up and down the street.

I said out loud, “I wonder what adventure today holds.” My sister is staying with us, she and her husband, because they had lived in my parents’ house, which just sold. She said, “Can I walk with you?” and I said, “Yeah.”

She said, “Well, I have a confession to make. I got an idea about a year ago that I finally have an answer to.” Anyway, she said, “I want to show you a letter.” She had written a letter to the chancellor of the university that I dropped out of after working hard for four years.

Because I was recording, and I stopped 19 hours short. She said, “I asked the school if they would see what it would take for you to graduate.” I mean, I never would have done that.

Well, as she’s talking to me – I have several kids in college right now. All my sisters graduated. I feel this surge of emotion. My sister had no way of knowing that the only promise my dad ever asked of me, when I dropped out of school he said, “Promise me you’ll finish,” because he had paid for four years of college.

I’m 52. She’d been working on this for a year. I’m not sure when I’ll go back, but at least the door’s open. To me, that was merciful. I can ride around with my dad, he doesn’t know my name, I don’t know if he even knows I’m in the car with him, (laughter) but I made that man a promise, a younger version of that man.

So I’m still – just the fact that my sister loved me and unknowingly is helping me fulfill a promise to my dad, I’m in awe. That’s (unintelligible) today.

Tavis: When I get a project like this that comes across my desk, a new CD, I’m old school. I take it and I look at the front, I look at the back, I open it up, I read the liner notes. If there’s lyrical content, I want to read the lyrics.

But the first thing that always grabs me are titles. Your top and your bottom are fascinating for me. “If I Could See What the Angels See” is at the top, and I love this last track, track 14, just the name of it – “Threaten Me with Heaven.”

Grant: Yeah.

Tavis: “Threaten Me with Heaven.”

Grant: Yeah. There’s a story behind that.

Tavis: Yeah.

Grant: Yeah. My older kid’s grandfather was toward the end of his life, and he’d been an Assembly of God preacher. He was with his daughter, Sherri, and they were in a waiting room at a doctor’s office. He’d had one bad report after another.

She reached over and held his hand and said, “Daddy, are you going to be okay whatever they say?” Here’s an old man who has stood in the pulpit for decades, and he said, “Baby, what’s the worst thing they can do – threaten me with heaven?”

Tavis: Yeah.

Grant: (Laughter) I thought that’s so him, I love that. It’s a fun song.

Tavis: Yeah. So this is the first full-scale project, as we said, in a decade. How’d it feel? How is it feeling being back on the road, doing the interview circuit again? So you’re back in the full swing of it. How are you feeling at this stage, doing this again?

Grant: It feels fantastic. It feels different, and I think because it’s just so pleasant being in my fifties. It feels like I want to share this project because somewhere embedded in those songs are attitudes toward life, and it’s not, “Mi, mi, mi – piano player, what’s that note again – mi.”

People say that it’s a deeply personal record, but it’s personal, I think, in that it’s everyone’s story. So hopefully it’s got some good tools in there, and maybe laughter and tears and all the things that make life worth living.

Tavis: Two or three times now in this conversation you have referenced, if not with specificity, you’ve just sort of made note of your advancing age. You still look amazing, number one. Lucky Vince.

You still look amazing, but you are 52 now. I wonder – you said a moment ago that you’re enjoying being in your fifties. When you watch your parents go through what your mother went through, what your father is going through now, how does that shift or shape your view about aging?

Grant: Well, every time I can’t my car keys I think, “Oh, God.”

Tavis: Yeah, “It’s happening to me too,” huh? (Laughter) It’s setting in early, huh?

Grant: Yeah, I know. I think what I mostly realize is just that life is unpredictable. So don’t be afraid, but just enjoy the day you’re in. Really make the most of it.

People are going to come into your life that need you, and being there for them makes the day worth living. People are going to come into your life that you need, and that’s the really crazy thing.

But it all is just part of the journey, and seeing that we’re not in control but still amazing participants, it’s a great way to live life. If the same thing happens to me that happened to my mother, I pray to God that my children (laughter) can laugh every time there’s an opportunity to laugh, and cry when they have to, and we’re going to make it.

Tavis: Yeah. As I mentioned, I grew up in Indiana and enjoyed then – Amy’s not that much older than me, just a couple years, but I just grew up in Indiana listening to Amy, and went down to Bloomington to go to Indiana University listening to Amy.

Grant: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: Came to California and brought Amy with me, never having any idea all those years ago that I’d be on TV one night and get a chance to actually talk to Amy Grant. So this has been a great, great delight for me, to have you on this stage.

Grant: Oh, thank you.

Tavis: The new project from Amy Grant is called “How Mercy Looks from Here.” She’s been kind enough to bring her stick with her.

Grant: Oh, yeah, I’ve got it.

Tavis: So I’m going to ask her in the two minutes I have left to decide what she wants to play us out with.

Grant: Sure, yeah.

Tavis: Let me tell you once again as she tunes up here that again, the new project is called “How Mercy Looks from Here.” Amy Grant thank you for coming on.

Grant: Oh, thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thank you for joining us, and as always, keep the faith.

[Begin live musical performance.]

Grant: Yeah. (Singing) January, February, March, the days are marching forward. April, May, June, and July, they fly like a hummingbird. Oh, August, September, October, the year is almost over. November, December arrive; another year come and gone.

Time is illusion. Time is a curse. Time is all these things and worse, but our time is now. Yeah, yeah, yeah, our time is now. Oh, oh, oh, oh, I want to sing before my time runs out.

(Speaking) I sleep with a great guitar player, but I am not one.

Tavis: It’s good to me. (Laughter)

[Live musical performance]

Tavis: Woohoo. [Cheers, applause]

Grant: Thank you.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • sandy maples

    Your show with Amy Grant inspired me. I have been in radio a few moons lol so I love her. It made me feel good to see how much you seemed to enjoy the interview with her. Keep up the good work.

    A fellow south Mississippian.

  • Matt Bohart

    I’m not a “believer,” but that was one hell of a song at the end of the interview. Brought tears to my cheeks. Thank you Mrs. Amy Grant.

  • Lori

    I’ve been a fan of Amy’s since 1988 and while I wish more people were aware of her, I am so glad that she just keeps on trucking along. She is so talented and down to Earth.

  • Jackie Huber

    Class acts, all around

  • Cheri

    Well, I have watched every interview with this amazing lady that I could find over the last 30 years or so and I have to say, this was perhaps the best one yet. Great questions, meaningful answers and it is such a great honor to be a fan! Thanks to both of you!

  • gigs

    Tavis, I have never seen your show. You seem as sweet as Amy. Please remember to extend grace in your life to people who don’t politically agree with you…we have the same goals, but just a different way of thinking about the ways to accomplish them in our country.

  • Lisa Hartmann

    Wow……I am a huge Amy fan and have watched many, many interviews, but I have to say I Travis Smiley is my new favorite interviewer. He asked such thoughtful questions and really seems interested in “talking” with Amy . I heard things I’ve never heard before and really got a new perspective on her album. I love Amy’s music, kind heart and attitude towards life. Travis thank you for your talent……wonderful interview!

Last modified: July 18, 2013 at 11:27 pm