Any songwriter worth his stripes would admit that a “Best Of” collection is a downright scary proposition. To go back in time, to revisit the emotional landscape laid bare in dozens and dozens of songs, to line all your musical children up, from the scrawniest to the strongest to the most entertaining, and single them out as better than the rest is a heart-wrenching, seemingly impossible task. And there’s a certain amount of disbelief that comes with the distance. Wow…was that really me at that moment? Yes. Yes, it was.
For Nichole Nordeman, after 10 years, 9 Dove Awards—including two for “Female Vocalist of the Year”—rifling through the collection of songs she’s written since even before her 1998 signing with Sparrow Records was akin to rediscovering the pages of an old journal, many years removed from today.
“Looking back,” Nichole says, “it seems there was this little window of time about 10 years ago where suddenly the singer/songwriter just became incredibly accepted and welcomed with all of our struggles and questions. It was like a hand full of us—me, Chris Rice, Jennifer Knapp, Ginny Owens and several others—just showed up one day with music about our messy lives. And for whatever reason it seemed as though people were ready to embrace that kind of honesty. And so there was just a real opportunity, I think, to get to wrestle out loud with my salvation and with what God was teaching me in all of my questions and the angst that came with that.”
Stories, questions, mysteries, doubts, weakness, courage, sorrows, revelation and truth—haunting melodies, gorgeous hooks and Nichole’s lilting voice—this is the substance, the introspection and intelligence more than a decade in the making. This is the Recollection of a young woman working out her own salvation with fear and trembling. And somehow along the way, we’ve all become braver, stronger, and freer for having heard them.
The first singles, from 1998’s album Wide Eyed, " To Know You" and "Who You Are" broke new, honest ground in Christian radio, striking a vulnerable chord with listeners nationwide. Both songs were written while Nichole was working as a waitress in Los Angeles, long before a record deal was even a remote possibility in her mind.
“I was in a place where I was struggling to reconcile some things that I knew about the Lord with some things that were happening in my life. I was having some trouble lining them up,” Nichole recalls. “‘To Know You’ came out of this really personal moment in my little one bedroom apartment in LA, behind my cheap little keyboard. It was written, like so many of my songs, as kind of a journal entry. I felt like going back and looking at some of the people that walked with Christ—Thomas and Nicodemus. They were so open with their confessions about their doubt. Thomas said, ‘Prove it’ and Nicodemus said, ‘Explain it.’ And Jesus didn’t hesitate to. So as Christians, I feel as though we sometimes miss out on those raw and honest moments and ‘To Know You’ was really born out of that freedom I felt to really come to God and say, ‘I need some help with these issues in my life.’”
Like summer vacation photos and keepsake memorabilia, songs reveal growth and change in the life of the songwriter. "Holy", written in 2002 and appearing on Nichole’s third record, Woven and Spun, struck a chord with Christian music fans unlike any song she’d penned before. “Every artist has a song that they measure time by,” Nichole says. “For me "Holy"was that song. Many were suddenly referring to my music as either ‘pre-Holy’ or ‘post-Holy.’ Certainly up until that song, most of my writing had been pretty introspective. … When it was time to write for the third project, I discovered this wonderful thing as a songwriter that I hadn’t experienced yet, and that was to write something that was more universal, that would speak to everyone’s experience. It came from a personal place, but I knew even in writing it that a lot of people would connect with it on a much broader scale and be able to sing that as an anthem along with me. So that was a really great moment to step back and see that this songwriting thing just doesn’t have to be about me it can have some arms out there.”
Another song with infinitely wide arms is "Legacy". “The very word ‘legacy’ felt so tombstone-ish and heavy—almost overwhelming,” Nichole recalls. “It’s the word we use when people are gone. But I really wanted to shine the light on how people, who are alive and well are investing and making a difference in the here and now.”
So, she looked to her home church for inspiration that would become the song’s video. “The church I was attending, in the inner-city of Dallas, was such a wonderfully diverse gathering of people who were full of stories about how God was helping them connect the dots and make a difference in others lives,” she says. “There was an adoptive family that had just rescued this sweet boy from poverty in a third world country, and a single mother of four who was a breast cancer survivor, a recovering drug addict and an ex-convict involved in prison ministry. These are everyday life stories, but here they were with me in church every Sunday. So, shooting that video was such an incredible opportunity to step out of the spotlight and just say ‘This is what it looks like to leave a legacy.’”
Nichole’s legacy, above and beyond her music, took on a whole new shape in 2003, with the birth of her son, Charlie. And as with any songwriter, a song would naturally follow. For Nichole, that song was "Brave", a jaunty shot of courage with which to face a new day. “I think 'Brave' will be a song that I'll sing to Charlie, now and when he's 21,” the songwriter says. “I don't know if I'll ever stop feeling those surges of terror and courage all wrapped up in one. When I wrote this song, Charlie was still a baby, and I wasn't feeling brave. I was feeling like so many brand new parents, totally ill-equipped, with no idea what I was doing, pouring over all those books and website’s that weren’t answering the right questions. What was left was a real sense of vulnerability. But after I got over the feelings of being so overwhelmed, I really did feel a new sense of bravery and courage that I hadn't experienced before I was a parent. And it’s been cool to hear people talk about that song, people who don't even have children... and how it's meant something different to them, in terms of their relationship with God and feeling sort of a shot in the arm of bravery at different times in their faith.”
The songs on Recollection: The Best Of Nichole Nordeman have found a special place in listeners’ hearts, but perhaps none has had more impact than "Every Season", a song written about a friends wedding day that all too soon was followed by the groom’s memorial service.
“It was so overwhelming to have these two really heavy life moments, one overflowing with joy and one unbelievably wrought with grief and to somehow still be able to believe…to really believe that God is not God only in a summer season. That God is not God only when our life is good. And it was so much more of a challenge to say to God, ‘You are still here and You are still in charge and You are still full of goodness and mercy’ in the middle of winter. ‘Every Season’ was my way of saying ‘I’m not going to let Gods’ sovereignty be ruled by my emotions or circumstances or I’ll be all over the map for the rest of my life,” she explains.
That same theme echoes softly through "I Am". “’I Am’ is similar to ‘Every Season’ in that the bottom-line message is God’s sovereignty throughout the passage of time and circumstance,” says Nichole. “And, you know, our lives change so much and who we need God to be changes on a dime and somehow, He continues to steadfastly say, “I Am. I Am. I Am.” and puts the period right there after those two small words. For me, that is still hard to sort of wrap my mind around, but I am incredibly grateful.”
For anyone who has ever struggled to openly share the hope of Jesus with a friend, Nichole offers “What If,” from 2005’s Brave. “I wrote 'What If' for a friend of mine who isn’t a Christian,” she explains. “I think it’s so important to have people in our lives who don’t speak our same faith language. And to dialogue about that without feeling the pressure to say the right thing, to point to the right book or to argue someone into the kingdom of God. At the end of the day, it has to be about love.”
“I’m just never going to be that person who has the script or the really organized outline of how to share my faith,” Nichole continues. “But, those little opportunities that God gives us to sit down and have a cup of coffee with someone or engage someone in a difficult conversation…it sharpens me…it sharpens my faith to have people around me who don’t speak that same language. It sends me back to the Bible. It sends me back to God with my own questions, making sure that I do know what I believe instead of just reciting what I’ve heard my whole life. So, 'What If' is a heavy song, because there’s a lot wrapped up in that, but it’s probably one of the more important songs, I think, that I’ve written to date.”
Recollection: The Best of Nichole Nordeman features two brand new songs, "Sunrise" and "Finally Free". "Sunrise" is a very personal reminder that has emerged from a ‘valley’ season in Nichole’s life. “If you’ve never been in a place of real hopelessness, the very simple idea of hope or even just relief can feel elusive,” she says. “That song came out of a period of pretty serious hopelessness for me, personally, and I needed to acknowledge that the sunrise was on the horizon, even though I wasn’t totally convinced at the time.”
"Finally Free", a song written to coincide with the Women of Faith 2007 conference theme, was never really intended for this or any recording. “Writing this song was very emotional for me, because I was just sitting at my piano closing my eyes and picturing these heavy, heavy stories of the things in women’s lives that imprison them—whether it’s addiction or a devastating choice or a crippling depression. You know, there are constant, countless stories. So, to be able to write a song about the possibility of finally being free from those chains was very important to me and has become an anthem for me personally, as well.”
But of all the incredible compositions she’s written over the years, if you ask Nichole to name the one that means the most to her, the answer might be surprising. She’ll take you all the way back to the beginning to "River God," a profoundly simple yet poetic picture of our relationship with God.
“I love ‘River God’ because it was such a simple song that really spoke to where I was at the time. Maybe that’s because it was sort of my first baby from that first record, or because the song is about learning to be patient and content in the process of becoming who God wants me to be, but I always go back to that song and remind myself what it’s like to be that little stone in a river. One that only becomes smooth after years and years of water rushing over it. Only then are the rough edges of our lives smoothed out. I think ‘River God’ is probably the life song for me.”
Coming from a songwriter as prolific as Nichole Nordeman, that is certainly no small statement. She’s more than willing to revisit, to recall, the life experiences that have brought these songs to life, but the impact of those songs—of her gift and calling—she’ll entrust to her Creator.
“To really think about God placing a calling on your life in any form…not just music,” she says, “comes with a genuine sense of unworthiness. And I know how ‘aw shucks’ that must sound. But, it really is true. When you watch music change someone’s life, when a song or a even just a certain line in a song helps them turn a corner that they couldn’t have turned otherwise, those are goose bump moments, because it is just absolute evidence that I am such a small part of God making that happen…that I just happened to be at the right place with the right song and God chose me for whatever reason in that moment to say what He wanted to say to someone. I liken it to somebody dropping a stone in the middle of a lake. The stone itself sinks to the bottom. But the rings it makes get bigger and bigger and bigger until they hit the shore. And, it’s the person on that shore who says, ‘Oh…thank you!’ I feel very much like that stone a lot…the initial splash that creates the wave…and then watching God move them to the right shores.”
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