Smile Politely

Jennifer Knapp: Anything but typical

Jennifer Knapp has had an incredible year, both personally and professionally. After an eight year hiatus from an extraordinarily successful Christian music career, during which she moved to — and became a citizen of — Australia, Jennifer began writing a new album — a secular one…and then, this past April, she decided to come out.

Since then, Jennifer has been weathering the inevitable storm with dignity and grace, all while touring her new album, Letting Go. She’ll be performing in Champaign-Urbana this Tuesday, and agreed to an interview with Smile Politely. It is probably one of the most fun interviews I’ve ever given. Jennifer was extremely gracious, considering she was interviewing with someone who is not a believer, not familiar with her music, and curses like a sailor. The conversation was supposed to be for 20 minutes, but we ended up talking much longer than that. It’s hard for me to be succinct and laconic when I’m getting to know a smart, friendly, artistic person who also likes Jars of Clay.


SP: It’s been almost six months since you came out. How sick are you of this topic?

Knapp: It’s a pertinent topic. I think the fact that people want to discuss it shows the impact of religion and issues of faith on the LGBT community. I think that many Americans — myself included — have felt the impact of that. Obviously, me coming out in the Christian music industry makes it a worthwhile, or at the very least, entertaining topic [laughs]. If you’d asked me a year ago, or even six months ago, whether or not I would have understood the impact of coming out as much as I do now…After the dust has settled, having gotten beyond my story and to the larger story of what a lot of other people have been through, it’s a worthwhile conversation, and I’m extremely grateful to be a part of it.

SP: I read your coming out interviews in The Advocate and Christianity Today, and often while I was reading, I would think, ‘She doesn’t understand how brave she is. She doesn’t know the good that she’s doing.’ Hopefully you do now, especially these days, the last four weeks, the horror that we’ve been seeing and the feeling of helplessness…how can we help these kids? You’re going to save lives for having done what you’ve done. I’m sorry to start the interview with such a heavy topic, but it’s true.

Knapp: I think that part of the process is understanding that for the most part, life is a journey, especially for those who are sensitive to the topic of a spiritual pursuit. As we get older, all of us wish we had the bodies of when we were younger, but not the experience of high school or junior high. I think that growing up and discovering who you are is a very hard process. Complicate that with the hyper-awareness we have of our sexuality in that process, and I can definitely see the value of being able to have an open dialog that allows people the safety to experience who they are when it’s different from the majority. I can’t imagine having to go through the process that I’ve had to go through in the last year as a full-grown adult, having to go through that as a teenager. That is a devastating impact.

SP: So your family, friends…your personal life is right on track?

Knapp: I’m so proud of my family, on both sides — my partner’s family and my own. I think that if there’s any measure of success I’ve had as a person and feeling like a whole human being, it’s reflected in my family. I can’t give them enough credit for accepting me for who and what I am. What’s ironic is that, in the past, my public faith journey has been a difficult process for my family. It’s been far more difficult for them in that regard than it ever was for them to deal with me sharing my life with a woman and identifying as a gay person. Seeing and having a tangible experience with me and my partner — and also my friends who have accepted me — is a huge, positive role, and I can definitely understand the impact for some gay people of not having such a successful interaction with family. It’s a tragedy at any level, no matter what we experience in life, if others reject us in a manner that is asking us to sculpt ourselves into something we can’t be. I am very fortunate and cannot say enough about my family in this regard. After some of the public things that I’ve had to deal with, to be able to go home with my family and just be myself is one of the keys, even in me getting back to public life. A lot of that has to do with my family’s willingness to accept me as who I am, and my willingness to be vulnerable to my family.

SP: The comments on the Internet seem to be pretty even: half are self-righteously indignant, and half are supportive. And then, of course, you have the odd fan saying, ‘Just leave religion.’

Knapp: That goes to show the different experiences that we all have. I fully understood, as I expressed where I was at with my life sexually, that I was going to have people who weren’t going to enter into the musical journey with me in the future. And I also understood that there would be people who wouldn’t really care either way. They wanted to approach the music however they felt they could connect with it. And then there are other people who are willing to have that conversation centered around the faith and realizing the impact in the story that they relate to as well. I’m very humbled that I’m in a position to be able to carry on that conversation at any level.

SP: And you’re so eloquent when you do have those conversations too. I watched your interview with Larry King. In that interview, you said that you now consider yourself a musician who is a Christian, rather than a Christian musician. Am I repeating that correctly?

Knapp: [cautiously] That sounds alright.

SP: So I’m assuming that you also now consider yourself a musician who is a gay woman, rather than a “lesbian musician.”

Knapp: I think it’s really easy on, like, a quick, short attention span to write someone off by the big flag statements or banners that they might come under. While I’m gay, yes, and I’m a person of faith, yes, I’m also a woman, I’m also a daughter, I’m a partner, I’m a businesswoman. There are all these other things that I think are important. I really enjoy addressing and preserving the right for each of us to have our experience and our journey, and to pursue a wholeness in who we are and a willingness to accept these amazingly unique areas that we all get to come in contact with that create the whole human being.

SP: This reminds me of your interview with Christianity Today: there was this point that — to me — got kind of awkward where the interviewer said that your music is ‘angry’ now, and you said, ‘Angry? My music can be passionate,’ and I wondered if she interpreted your music that way because you’re a woman — a gay woman — and so if you’re assertive in a song, it translates as ‘angry.’ You seemed quite surprised that she was calling your new songs ‘angry.’

Knapp: I get that sometimes from people who are intimately aware of the Christian music that I’ve done in the past. There is a pressure, I think, when you’re writing music about your faith, to come out on a good side. You can go through a dark experience, but the idea is that at the end of the 3 1/2 minute song you get, ‘Oh, but it’s all good because God’s on our side.’

SP: Resolution.

Knapp: I’ve never really approached my music that way. I think there’s always a hope to any difficulty that I’ve ever expressed in a song. Even if there’s an irony within it, or a sadness within it, I’m always looking for the joy or the hope or the good that I can bring out of a challenging situation. I think that’s where I’d like to go in my life and as a person within the community, and even with the experience that I’ve had in the last year of sharing the transition I’ve had as an artist who’s coming out of Christian music and into mainstream music, and as an artist that’s been known in a relatively conservative environment, as all of a sudden being gay, which seems to be in-congruent with the faith experience that I’ve had a conversation with. It’s an interesting thing, but I think it’s still quite reasonable to enter into difficult situations and be earnest and honest and vulnerable about those difficult times, without having to reach down to the lowest common denominator. Anger is not necessarily always a bad thing, or frustration either. Just because you’re dark at the moment doesn’t mean that it’s not worth investigating how we got to that point and how we’ll get out of it.

SP: That’s actually the Christian music, or any spiritual music, that appeals to me the most. Those songs about doubt, those angsty, “what should I do?’ songs. Praise songs? Not so much. They don’t move me as much as those human songs. Now I’m way off-topic, but I love Jars of Clay, and…

Knapp: They’re great guys! They’re thinking men. They definitely headed toward their doubt with purpose and with hope. I’ve long been fans of their music. They inspire me spiritually when I listen to them.

SP: Me too, and I’m not even a believer. Mewithoutyou is another group that’s very talented, as well as spiritual. I love Kings X. I love Sixpence None the Richer. I like their eponymous album, which I consider secular, better than anything else they’ve done, though.

[Conversation continues off-topic for a long while, in which we talk about how fantastic Matt Slocum is and what Leigh Nash is up to, and ends with Jennifer recommending This Beautiful Mess to me because of its “great lyrical content.”]

Back to the interview!

Knapp: When I started doing Christian music, long before I ever knew really what it was, I was playing in a club that [Sixpence None the Richer] frequented a lot in Kansas City, and I remember those guys coming through, just what an impact they had, and they weren’t preaching; they were just sharing their thoughts and experiences, and that made a huge impact on me. I thought, ‘Oh! I can enter into this conversation.’ Guys like them and Jars of Clay are really great examples of the spiritual conversation, rather than the evangelical point of view trying to get everyone on board with the same frame of mind. Those bands are a great example of art intersecting with a faith or a spiritual conversion.

SP: There are groups that don’t classify themselves as Christian. They’re Christians, but they don’t sing Christian music and to me sometimes their songs are much more spiritually meaningful than music that is supposed to dictate to me what to do and how to live. Another group, Manchester Orchestra, is a good example of spiritual music that isn’t dogmatically religious.

Knapp: I think their faith comes out very much in their music, the undercurrent of what they hope to accomplish. But there’s no requirement for everyone to have to agree or take that same perspective, and I think you still come out with a lot on the other side of it, having entered into that meaningful conversation.

SP: Well… let me get us back on topic.

Knapp: [resigned] Alriiight…

SP: I know! This is better than my actual questions, but I want to talk about your music in this interview too. I do have one more question, though, about your interview with Larry King. You showed so much class and dignity in the presence of some infuriating smugness and condescension by the other guests. I don’t know if you want to speak to that. Have you experienced more of that from other religious leaders? It was, to me, quite ironic that Ted Haggard was more respectful to you than the ‘good’ minister that was sitting next to you.

Knapp: I don’t know Ted personally. I’m aware of what he’s gone through in the last few years. I was out of the county and it still made its way down to Australia, it was such a huge story.

For gay people, there’s been a huge demonizing process in the public arena, particularly by conservative Christians, to demonize anyone who is not in a sexual majority. And they do this without having ever met anyone who is gay. There are thousands upon thousands of people who are gay, gay people of faith, gay people in leadership, gay people in churches, pastors that are profoundly effective, amazingly humble, and brilliant people of faith. And to disregard them on any level — just because they’ve recognized and engaged their own sexual truth — without ever having met them, to disregard them as spiritual and whole human beings is, I believe, a grievous mistake.

SP: I do too, and I hope…You know, little by little, we’ll make these inroads.

Knapp: The truth of the matter is that more people than not are willing to understand. I’ve never had an experience yet where someone has, in any way, inappropriately responded to me. It isn’t a big deal to say something over the internet, away from somebody that you don’t have to contend with, but it is a big difference when it comes home and you actually have to recognize that a human being is a human being: black, white, male, female, straight, gay, transgendered, or whatever. We all are human beings who deserve the right to pursue the best of our potential, as well as our spiritual lives.

SP: And now you have a new album.

Knapp: [laughing] On top of all of that, I happen to be a musician!

SP: [laughing] Tell us about Letting Go. This is not a Christian album; is this your first secular album?

Knapp: Yes, this is.

SP: I’ve seen it classified as alternative country and folk.

Knapp: I wouldn’t call it alternative country. I think the label that gets slapped on it most consistently is acoustic folk rock. The folk side of it comes from that country feel. There’s definitely some country influence on it. It pushes the rock vibe pretty well, but it encompasses a lot of things. You have to be expecting the rock to come with the little bit of the folk side as well.

SP: How long did it take you to write this album?

Knapp: I’m always writing or thinking about writing. But, I took a big long break before I came back. I really sat down in 2008, and started thinking about engaging that part of my creativity again. I think after a couple of months of messing around at home and in my own studio with a couple of songs that I hadn’t played in years…I’d written a couple of songs on the record — “On Love” is one of them and “Mr. Gray” — there are three songs on there that I’d written years and years ago that never made a record because they didn’t carry my faith enough to be on a Christian label. So they just never really made the cut. So I sat down and started recording those, and as that process went on I started to write other songs, and when I went into the studio, I pulled a couple of songs that I thought I was going to record, and put in the new songs that I’d just finished. So I basically started writing for about a year and a half, and haven’t really stopped. When I have five minutes to myself, I’m writing. It’s never like I just sit down and start writing a record. It’s pretty evolutionary.

SP: Is Letting Go autobiographical? About the past eight years? Or anything that you’ve gone through?

Knapp: When I sat down to write the music, I certainly had to face the fear that…I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to be writing specific to Christianity anymore. So I really had to contend with: if I wasn’t going to write Christian music, was I an artist at all. It was a strange and fearful experience for me, and I really suspected this wasn’t going to be a Christian record. I had some issues that I had to flesh out as an artist and put that into my art. So I thought, ‘I’m not going sit down and write a record; I’m just going to write, because I miss it.’ But in the back of my mind all these fears started coming: ‘If I write these songs, I’m probably going to want to put them on a record, and if I want to do that, I’m probably going to want to share them, and do shows, and what are people going to say? People are going to figure out that I’m gay. People are going to figure out that I’m not writing a Christian record.’ Just all of these fears about that. I think that a lot of those thoughts found their way into the narrative of the record. At the same time, I didn’t necessarily write a record in fear of answering my critics before they appeared. I think it’s part of the natural process — you sit down and you write your life, and you write what you’re going through at the moment. And for me, some of those fears showed up. At the same time, the joy of getting back to writing is expressed through songs like “Dive In” and “Inside.” I was so happy to be back playing them, so nothing’s going to stop me from doing something that I’ve always done my whole life, which is participate in music, and a lot of that shows up on the record.

SP: I can’t imagine what it’s like living a public life and knowing you have these expectations from all of these people, and you’re responsible for their feelings about you. I can’t imagine what that’s like. The emotional strength it must take to deal with that.

Knapp: I really love what I do, but the public life of it is a harder decision to make. It’s one of the first thresholds I have to pass in order to proceed with what I really enjoy doing, as far as the art and craft. So if I can’t get through that door, it makes it really difficult to get through the other one. It’s a real challenge. I’m a reluctant public figure and I’m very private and shy and nobody believes that [laughing]. I have a very public life in some accounts, but left to my own I like to be a hermit, locked away somewhere, and occasionally travel and sing for my friends. But it’s an honor and privilege to be able to go outside of that. If it was easy it wouldn’t be as much fun and as challenging, and I don’t think I’d learn as much. It’s a great character building exercise.

SP: I’m so glad you got to travel and live your hermit life for eight years and then come back and do this. It’s fantastic.

Knapp: [laughing] I really did enjoy several years of my hermit life.

SP: When I heard “Fallen,” I thought, ‘Oh, this has got to be about what’s going on with her.’

Knapp: [laughs]

SP: You sing about ‘them’ saying you’re fallen, but you don’t care; you’d do it again just to be with the person you love. Am I reading too much into that? Am I doing what a lot of people are going to do, which is apply your orientation and coming out to everything you sing now?

Knapp: No, I think that song’s a pivotal moment. When I finished that song and I knew that I’d want to play that song and share that song with other people, that was pretty much the moment I knew I’d have to publicly answer whether or not the rumors about me were true. I thought, ‘People are going to see right through me.’ There’s no question that this song is about me contending with my faith and the years and years of my experience telling me that I couldn’t be a person of faith and gay. That was a personal journey that I had to go through for many years to get to the point of being comfortable writing that song. I really questioned for a long time after I wrote it…I wanted to share it, but I was afraid to. But I thought, you know what, this is part of the journey. This is the important part of when you get to write something: to share that moment. Even in terms of the relationships that I had in my private life: other people will say that I’m invalidated or the love and caring concern that I give out to anyone, it’s criticized, whether it’s for my partner or whether it’s for a friend, or any member in my community. I will stand by that love and that compassion. It’s not about sex and it’s not about gender; it’s about the relationships that we are willing to invest in other people once we’re criticized, whether we willing to follow through to the end of that love with the same amount of passion with which we entered into it. And I don’t think it should be entered into lightly; I think that it should be entered into with a great deal of respect toward the people we have care and concern for. To be able to handle that honorably. And I hope that’s what the song expresses, not a defiance to the church or the fear response that I had in sharing this truth about my life. But it’s hopefully a hopeful courage and a positive response to…I’m not attempting to do something foolish; I’m attempting to love, which is one of the hardest things to do.

SP: This isn’t the first time you’ve said this; I’ve read this in other interviews too. And it’s a shame that you have to explain that, because there are so many songs from Christian artists who talk about their doubt, and they talk about fear, and they sing about being angry, and they shake their fists at God and ask, ‘What do you want from me and why is this happening?’ Do they have give interviews that explain, ‘This isn’t about me spitting on the church’? I wish you didn’t have to do that. The double standard isn’t fair. This song, “Fallen,” yes, I saw your personal experiences in it, but it’s a good song because it’s universal.

Knapp: That’s what I hope. Anytime any of us share a story, we can take an opportunity to share the story of our experience, and the reason we do it is because we want to have that other person engaged and connected with us from where we started. Five minutes ago you and I were talking about music and bands we like, and suddenly we’re totally off-topic because having shared one story in our experiences through mutual understanding leads us to another place that’s related. I think that’s the point that I really love about any of my music. People are going back and reading into music that I wrote ten years ago, and saying, ‘See, she’s gay; I knew it.’ And I didn’t even know it at the time. But the principles that are about me and my personality and about my faith experience are still in the story, and I’m really happy to see that consistent line between the things that I wrote fifteen years ago and today.

SP: Eventually, it’s all gonna go away, and it will come down to: does she sing well? does she write well? And you do. Your voice is stunning. It’s only been six months and I’m sure you know, and have been told 100 times, probably by other gay musicians, that it’ll fade away. And the twenty-year-olds? They probably don’t even care.

Knapp: One of the anecdotes that I have about that is, my partner and I have been together for over five years, and I’ve been out to my family. I’ve been a lesbian for five years, but nobody ever referred to me as one, because it wasn’t a big deal; I was just me. Everywhere I went, whatever I did, it wasn’t like, ‘This is the gay thing that I’m doing today’ or ‘this is a lesbian thing I’m doing.’ I’m just Jenn. One day somebody said, ‘Oh, you’re such a lesbian,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, What?!’ It didn’t occur to me. I felt like I’d been denuded in some way [laughing]. I have to say, it made me really nervous, but I realized, I was really happy at that moment. I am just me. You can call me whatever you want to call me. I felt at that moment a sense of healing that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I tend to think that labels are for other people to help them describe and identify you.

SP: They’re important at first, when you’re figuring yourself out, but then once that happens, love is love.

Knapp: And I haven’t been around for awhile, so we’ll build up a new conversation about the music and the songs. And as that evolves, it’ll be a real blessing to be able to have that. We’ll talk less about the minutia and more about the commonalities we have together. And for me, that’s the real goal and it’s a real honor to be able to see that even today, only six months later. It’s not at all what I talk about onstage. The conversation is about the night, and wherever the conversation goes it’s usually really incredible. I get to know the audience and the audience gets to know me. And we become a personality of our own in that moment. It’s a really beautiful thing.

SP: So the tour is going well? Do you have positive energy from the crowds? Speaking of that, you said something beautiful in one of your interviews, and that’s that you want everyone at your shows: you want the evangelicals holding their palms up, and you want the drunk in the corner yelling, “Free Bird,” and you want the gay couple holding hands and enjoying the music. Is that what you’re experiencing? Any negativity?

Knapp: I think most people thus far, if they’ve got anything to say, they’ve been saying it from afar. But once we show up and get the concert going, it’s so great. It’s so fun to be back. There are so many people there who have hung out and waited for me for so long. It’s been such a celebration really, and it’s been a celebration of, to me, what music really does in creating community, what the fine arts can do (I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say what I do is a fine art). Whether it’s music or painting or dance or whatever ways that we creatively express ourselves, the testimony to what it means to be able to be vulnerable, to enter into a conversation and find the commonality between us, and then to share it and sing it together, no matter how different we are. And we learn something in the process, not just about others, but ourselves and what we can accomplish together. It’s fun to do music, but it’s even more of a blessing to have the opportunity to do something that’s a little bit bigger than yourself.

Jennifer performs at the Canopy Club on Tuesday, Oct. 12, at 6:00 p.m.
Special guest: Mike Ingram
$15.00, 18+

**The interviewer has changed this article’s original title to one less off-putting (and that MuteMath fans will appreciate)**

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