I’ve long been a fan of Sandra McCracken. Over the years she has developed a really specific voice, through writing songs, playing concerts, house shows and hymn sings, and being part of a grassroots movement to reintroduce and revive old hymn texts to a younger listeners and churches. I have heard her talk about growing up in a home with a dad that loved rock and a mom that loved church music, you can hear that marriage come through loud and clear. In my mind she is also one of the most respectful Christian musicians I know. By that I mean, respectful and aware, careful and caring, of the texts she approaches and the audiences she plays for. On April 14th, she releases her latest album, Psalms, a collection of original songs mostly inspired by the biblical Psalms, many geared towards and able to be sung by a congregation. (Like this one, which our small church plant recently sang on both Palm Sunday and Easter!)
I got the chance to meet Sandra almost two years ago in Philly for Bifrost Arts’ The Cry of the Poor conference where she first met most of band featured on this intimate and at times both triumphant and fragile bunch of songs that was recorded over a few days in a Brooklyn loft (band and loft featured in non-album track video below). Since the conference, she’s become the worship pastor for a new Anglican church plant in Nashville, TN, St. Mary of Bethany Parish. I go the chance to talk with her last month about this new album
Hopeful Realism: Tell me about how this new record came about.
Sandra McCracken: Vocationally I’m making a shift towards church music. I’ll still do the singer-songwriter stuff but I think my job is church music right now. I think that without the artist thing that I’ve been doing for the past 18 years, I wouldn’t be doing the same kind of church music if I didn’t have that. My church music is fueled and shaped by all of that, but right now there is a little bit of electricity around investing my resources into the church catalogue and pulling old hymns and theology from old hymns, the richness of all of that into something that is artistically accessible to people. There is a lot I don’t know about it, but that’s kind of thrilling to me too.
HR: What have you learned from doing retuned hymns stuff and playing with folks like Indelible Grace? What parts of that have informed your new calling as a congregational worship leader?
SM: The richness of the theology in those hymns has helped me be a human being. It helps you through life changes and gives a lot of structure and context for faith. They are singable and they’re still around for a reason: [songs like] It is Well with My Soul & Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Some of these songs and tunes really anchor us to what we believe in a profound way.
There are some new contemporary worship songs that are being written that may have the emotionally quality, which is really important, but they’re “concept-concept concept-concept.” All biblical concepts, that just aren’t linked in a narrative form. which is what the hymns do so well. It’s been interesting to observe that.
I’ve been touring with All Sons and Daughters this last month and really learning a lot from them about sing-ability. Initially I was really trying to find my way in. But I’ve been profoundly affected by singing their songs each night and by being drawn in to a very inviting worship style that is less wordy, but also still theologically rich. I’d like to learn from that, and do more of that. I’ve been trying to figure out, in a local context, “What are the songs that our people need to sing?” Sometimes that may translate to the larger Church as well, often it probably will. But it has to start locally, incarnationally.
HR: What has writing and performing kids music (Rain for Roots) taught you about being worship leader and writing songs for corporate worship?
SM: Kids are really honest critics and there is not any pretense about how they respond to something. Learning and understanding sing-ability by writing for children’s voices is one of the best schools I’ve been to for songwriting. You get to ask: “Can they sing it? Do they want to sing it? Is it fun to sing? Do they want to sing it again? Is it too high?” Kids tend to have higher voices but their ranges are similar to what would be in an old hymnal: C to E. It is very interesting how all those pieces fit together and inform other contexts. That work has been incredibly relevant to how my writing has changed in the last 3-5 years.
HR: I’ve noticed on All Your Works Are Good (Psalm 104), the beginning sounds like one of the Rain for Roots songs, kind of didactic and sing-song-y, profoundly simple, in a good way. That one really stands out to me because it’s surprising how simple it starts and then how it blooms into something really emotive and big. And I think the guitar and instrumentation does that as much as the vocals or lyrics.
HR: Tell me about a song from Psalms that particularly sticks out to you or that you’re most proud of.
SM: Each has a story and an approach. I’ve been pretty regularly been playing My Help, My God at these shows and talking about how the Psalms have been teaching me how to pray. I went through a season where I didn’t feel like singing, that was a valley of sorts, and when I came out of that the only things I wanted to sing were Anne Steele hymns, some of my favorites that felt safe and honest. And then I would sit with the Psalms open at the piano or kitchen table and start making up melodies and singing segments pretty spontaneously and not for an audience or for the sake of being recorded. But realizing that this practice was teaching me how to pray and have an honest conversation with God that has a width of the human experience and even the confusion of the both/and as the Psalms present life: “Why have you forsaken me?” and “How long is this going to be?” and “I put my trust in You.” So Psalm 42, which My Help, My God was written from, is a good example of that range.
Another example of how kids music has informed this music, is that the chorus is kind of high, my daughter would sit next to me at the piano and she would play those high notes and sing that with me. The song wound up be really shaped around her voice and the experience of sitting there singing together. Even the subtle little “T” sound in “trust”…there are so many ways to express your heart with the aid of music and the complexity of all those things coming together.
That was one of the first songs that we recorded in those two days in Brooklyn. In the performance, you can hear that my voice breaks up at the end. We just played it through and that’s how it landed. And then I left the room for a while. It’s intense to enter into these texts and to do that with a band I’ve never played with and to feel the energy of the band and vulnerability of saying those words out loud, even though they’re not my words, and maybe especially so. Because they feel like they’re resounding and enduring words, they give you a profound sense of intimacy with God and the feeling that you’re being seen and honored in whatever your experience is. Whatever you’re going through, there is a place for it within the story of Scripture and the Psalms. And that access point is an enormous gift to us.
HR: That resonates a lot with me, right now. I’m writing a Lenten sermon on Jesus reusing the psalmist’s words “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” from the cross for this Sunday. I came back to this one passage from Ellie Wiesel’s Night, where he’s headed for what he thinks will be his death and the Jewish burial prayer his dad pray’s “May His name be celebrated and sanctified” is on his lips even as he can’t conceive of God being there to hear. You wonder, “where is that coming from?” But the psalms somehow build us in with this language we don’t even know we have. They did that for Jesus and they do that for us.
SM: [The language of the Psalms] is spacious. There’s room for you to enter into it, stand up and walk around, it will hold us in those moments. I’m grateful for that.
HR: How has being the worship leader at an Anglican church interacted with these psalms and the liturgical song that closes the album?
SM: Working in that context and planning a liturgy every week since August has really helped my creativity, because you have a lot of structure around the liturgy. The passages are already chosen. It’s not like I’m planning a show, I’m trying weave the music into the liturgy and the worship experience in a way that it enhances, and is not a distraction, isn’t abrupt…I’ve learned quite a bit. I don’t have a liturgical background, it’s all really new to me, even the church calendar, there are layers of creativity that you can explore within that structure.
To purchase Psalms go to sandramccracken.bandcamp.com, iTunes, Amazon.