Once Upon a Time in Christian Music

once upon a time in Christian music: Christine and Scott Dente pose in the early days as Out of the Grey.

Gatekeepers

Have you ever bumped up against a gatekeeper? You know, the person in charge of a thing who bars entrance to their domain? They’ll let you through only if you dutifully bow to their power, repeat their creed, or maybe pay the right price. It helps if you have a nice face.

Once upon a time in Christian music, there were gatekeepers who stood along the boundary walls, deciding whose music was fit for Christendom. Their job was to keep offbeat outsiders from entering the rarified realms of Contemporary Christian Music, aka CCM.

A short list of the guardians included:

  1. the record labels who signed–or passed on–new artists.
  2. the radio stations who played–or wouldn’t play– the songs.
  3. the retailers who sold–or refused to sell– the cassettes and CD’s in their stores and catalogs.

Unified in their goal of keeping the name of Christian music pure, they often worked against each other, pretending not to be in it for the money or defending the fact they were also in it for the money.

I should qualify that this was my experience as a CCM artist.

In the 1990s, my husband Scott and I, aka Out of the Grey, joined the Contemporary Christian Music scene. Our songs rode the waves of CCM radio and we played for CCM audiences all across the country. Privileged to have been a part of that world, I’ll share some stories from behind the scenes.

Strangers at the Gate

The record label that signed us had initially passed on Out of the Grey (then known only as Christine and Scott Dente). They didn’t dig our first demo tape which was a mix of other people’s songs and styles. We had compromised a bit to try to fit the CCM mold. Chastened by rejection, we returned to the studio of a friend who encouraged us to be authentic and showcase the sounds we wanted to make.

We did just that. The four songs we wrote and recorded were truly us. This time, the record label signed off on our musical style. We gratefully signed the dotted line for their risk-taking investment in our first official Out of the Grey album,first official Out of the Grey album, which would include the songs from our demo. We had taken our first steps through the outer walls into the world of CCM.

But back in 1991, that record would still be a stranger at other gates of the CCM industry, aka the mindustry. The people in charge understandably wanted to keep the status quo. They were wary of new music that diverged from what was current. So, though we had crossed a gauntlet, Scott and I soon came upon more hoops to jump through.

The Power of Labels

Our Christian record label had taken a chance in signing us but they also did their part in guarding the CCM fortress. They were careful to sign acts that fit the definition of Christian artistry:

  1. sing songs about Jesus.
  2. behave like Christians.
  3. clean up nicely with hair and makeup for a photo shoot.

Back then, Scott and I fit those descriptions. One exec even checked in with us: “You know, I only know how to sell music to Christians. You good with that?”

We were good with that. We were Christians making music!

However, we were not interested in making musical mush to be spoon-fed through the conduits of acceptable art. We wanted our artistry to reach a deeper level of beauty and mystery, combined with Christian truth. This proved to be an elusive target.

Religious Litmus Test

For example, for the first Out of the Grey record, we wrote a song called, “Time Will Tell.”

In the lyric, I lamented the tyranny of perfectionism and worry about the future. In the chorus, I sang about giving up the struggle and trusting in the help that comes in time. Through cliche and personification, I hoped to convey a universal human theme. I can’t say what the future holds but, Time, indeed, always tells.

However, before we had recorded the song, our record label insisted we modify my original lyric to fit the Christian bill. “To get Christian radio to play it, it needs to be a Christian song.” 

“What?” I was miffed, already suspicious of the word Christian being used as an adjective. Now it was a litmus test for artistic expression within a simple song? 

Why did I have to put a God-shaped bow on it? Especially since every other song on our record would pass the religious litmus test. Well, okay, maybe not “The Dance” or ”The Only Moment.” But those had no hope of being radio singles anyway.

Scott and I really wanted the song to stand as a portrait of human struggle without forcing a God-leaning lyric. Instead, we gave in to the pressure and I made a minor change in the second and third line in the chorus. 

Time Will Tell

The original lyric was:

And I give up on myself again,

help will come, I can’t say when,

but time will tell

And I hold on for a better day,

how long I’ll wait I cannot say,

but time will tell, I know time will tell 

I changed the first half to say:

And I give up on myself again,

help will come but only when 

it’s in Your time

By adding “but only when it’s in Your time,” I transformed the song to fit the shape of the record label gate.

Playing with Radio Heads

Yes, we and those guardians of the CCM galaxy had played our part in keeping radio programmers happy.

We prayed that that capital Y was our ticket to the ears of tuned-in Christians. The squeakiest listeners couldn’t complain that our music wasn’t safe for the whole family.

However, just after the release of “Time Will Tell,” Scott and I were spending a day at the label promoting the single to radio programmers.  From a padded cubicle, we were phoning radio stations, asking the programmers and DJ’s to add our song to their playlists.

Many were happy to add Out of the Grey to their rotations and thanked us for making the music. But Scott and I remember well the wall we hit during a call to a particular Contemporary Christian radio station in Alabama. We knew beforehand that they had refused to put our song on the air. 

“Why?” we asked the head programmer. He said, “not Christian enough.” Nope, not an overt Christian theme, even with the modified “in Your time.” Just an artistic look at a mundane conundrum. 

Anyway, that DJ’s refusal bruised our brains. I think Scott asked him, “Did you play Stephen Curtis Chapman’s huge hit ‘I will Be Here?’ That doesn’t say anything about Jesus.”

The guy hung up on us. Probably never rotated any Out of the Grey music after that. 

Mom and Pop, God Love ‘Em

Still other would-be power players were the small (and large) Christian bookstores meting out their limited shelf space. With careful, sometimes persnickety, criteria, Mom and Pop (God love ’em) balked at the slightest whiff of worldliness or weirdness. They didn’t want their customers getting skittish. It was their business after all to decide which cassettes would sell as well as their Christian knick-knacks.

I remember the story of a best-selling artist (God love her) who revealed her face without make-up on the cover of her latest CD. Rumor had it, the photo made Christian retailers uncomfortable. They refused to display it in their stores. Too raw? Too real? Who knows? The CDs were recalled, their covers made-over to fit the look of a true Christian singer.

Who can blame the owners of those businesses? They had a living to make. Plus, the holiness of God was tied up in all they sold. As uncomfortable as many of us were, mixing business with ministry, we did have families to feed and a faith to uphold.

Now for Some Real Christian Music

One more story about gatekeepers. Out of the Grey bumped into a few shining Christian stars whose parameters for real Christian music were also quite narrow.

Once, after we performed a 4-song set at a CCM festival, the artist next in line took the stage and shouted into his microphone: “Hey y’all, I hope you don’t mind if I sing some songs about Jesus?”

I am complaining a little but mostly I am grateful. Out of the Grey got to make lots of music and work with top notch industry people along the way. And make a living! It’s just fun to look back and realize how silly were some of the games we played.

I’m not sure how it works nowadays. Back then, when Christians scanned the airways for orthodox art, they often got regurgitations of what worked before. Too much of it was predictable and boring.

I get it: powerful music can get past the brain’s gatekeepers and travel straight to the heart. When we’re driving in the car with our kids, we don’t want provocative ideas slipping in without warning. Yet, adults and kids alike tend to tune out an old cliche unless it’s expressed in a fresh way.

Time and Time Again

There’s always a rub when someone new comes to town. The elders have their doubts while the youngsters gather around the spectacle. Artists innovate to find their voice and gain an audience. Art asks the big questions, leaving room for listener interpretation and new ideas.

Who can say if we needed all of those gates. Christendom itself is a big word for a wide space.

Yes, Religion has its creeds and boundaries to keep the bad guys in disguise from breaching our truth structures. But squeaky clean can make for sterile living and weak immune systems. And change is always at the gates.

Can we find the balance, trusting God to guard our open minds and hearts?

I can’t say if, in time, the story of art finds the perfect fairy tale ending.

This time, I’ll let Time speak for itself.

God Hasn’t Changed, But I Have

young woman holds a pile of books and contemplates a banana

Bananas

As a one-year-old, my daughter, Chloe, ate a banana every day. I’d mash up that meal for her like cashing in a guarantee: she’d get a solid breakfast to help her grow, no matter what other foods she’d refuse throughout the day. 

By two she was peeling and eating the fruit as she toddled in the wake of her big brother and sister. Whatever the mood or the weather, Chloe’s days contained bananas. She loved them. 

Until she didn’t. 

One morning when she was three, she refused her staple food. Something inside her had changed. It was as if her body told her brain, “enough is enough.” It needed to take a break. So the bananas went away for awhile.

God Words

I can relate. When my kids were kids, I ate up Christian scripture like Chloe gobbled her bananas. Each day,  I took in the words of the Bible like nutrients for my soul, a daily dose for growth. I loved it.

Until I didn’t.

Unlike Chloe’s sudden loss of taste for bananas, my appetite for studying the Bible dwindled in the span of few years. For decades, I’d heard a sermon every Sunday, read a Bible devotional daily, and often listened to favorite verses on my Bible app. I took in a variety of good theology including books by R.C. Sproul, John Piper, and Tim Keller.

But I seemed to be digesting less and less. I was trying so hard to assimilate truth and see real changes, yet much of life wasn’t turning out the way the sermons promised.

Still, I kept holding out my cup, desperate for any drop of personal touch offered in the Word of God. 

Until that one Sunday sermon. 

The preacher was parsing a psalm. His three points couldn’t pierce my clogged ears. All I heard was, “blah blah bleh blah, bleh blah, bleh blah.” 

Uh oh.

The drone of his voice, the mincing of minutiae, the glut of information. I couldn’t take it in. The weight of the words made my head hurt. My throat was tight. I couldn’t swallow another bite.

It was as if my body told my brain, “enough is enough.” Something inside me had changed. I needed to take a break.

Trying

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Christian habit of sifting scripture for wisdom. 

My habits were the problem.

I had devoured the God-words, waited decades for certain prayers to be answered, for certain promises to have their impact. My striving had not yielded the results I asked for. My chronic pain remained. The peace that passes all understanding had not made its way to my heart.

All of my trying began suppressing my hunger. My efforts misled my expectations. All that remained unanswered had soured my search.

Is my faith too weak to work His healing power in me? Are my physical and spiritual disappointments just thorns I have to live with? Is my analytical grip too tight to transfer God’s words to the unconscious parts of me, the parts where the heart beats on its own and opens to joy without effort?

For years, I’ve been trying to answer these questions.

Take a Break

It’s hard to explain and I do not completely understand what was and is changing in me. Obviously the subject is bigger than this format allows. But it’s a start for uncovering what I have yet to discover.

My recent writing doesn’t contain many scripture references because too many God words auto-fill their definitions. For me, their overuse has drained their power, becoming jargon that crowds out the passageway to my heart.

Like many of the lyrics I’ve written, these paragraphs untangle my past to get my story straight. By refusing to use band-aids, I touch upon some unhealed wounds. 

Life is neither static nor settled. The unfinished story leaves room for doubt and discovery.

More than just practical application, I’m looking for a real change. A change of heart. For that, for now, I need to take a break from trying to control my heart’s response. Perhaps I can leave that up to God.

Back to Bananas

 “The last thing any of us need is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God.”  (Barbara BrownTaylor in An Altar in the World)

My body knows how to digest my food, to absorb the nutrients I need to survive. Thus, I can trust it when it loses its taste for a certain meal.

Chloe eventually returned to eating her bananas. She’d had her break and could begin enjoying the food again. I’m not there yet with my one-time staple although I’ll probably get hungry for scripture soon enough.

One thing I know, God has not changed, no matter my thoughts or feelings. But the vicissitudes of life keep forcing changes in me. So, for now, looking for life in the bigger story includes taking a break.

Woke Yet? There’s Hope for Our Myopia

hope woke wokeness

In the Eyes of the Woke Beholder

I know some folks who believe that the earth is flat. Although others consider their views a joke, they consider themselves woke.

So, too, academy-awarded actors who proclaim their enlightenment from their platform. They clasp the golden man and parrot the current political narratives. They would say they’re woke.

As do the many politicians who prove their woke-ness by publishing their pronouns and making progressive promises. And the news anchors weighing in with their opinions while claiming to be without bias. Even some ball players play the game with their broadcasted slogans and postures of woke-ness.

In his book, Waking Up, Sam Harris teaches mindfulness and meditation as remedies for sleepwalking through life. He and other enlightened gurus might say, ‘we’re woke.’

I think I’m woke. From God to politics, my eyes are certainly wide open.

We all think we’re seeing things as they really are. So we preach it, share it, tweet, and retweet it. We blog our truths and post our outrage, signaling to skeptics and fellow-believers alike: we, too, are woke.

Awake in the Matrix: Are there elephants in the room?

Hope for our woke-ness myopia

But how can we all be so sure? Perhaps some of our woke is myopia.

An atheist may be seeing just the tip of an elephant’s trunk. A philosopher’s view may encompass only the animal’s flank. A scientist, Hindu, or Muslim merely touches the tail. A Christian believes she sees the entire beast. Until it stomps on her from a place she wasn’t looking.

Hope for our woke-ness myopia

Admitting I may be near-sighted stirs up fear in me. Cognitive dissonance is quite uncomfortable. Do I double my efforts to prove my truth? Or do I make room for a shift in my views?

In The Matrix movie, Neo chose the red pill and awakened to a shocking reality. At some level, we are also seeking reality when we hunger for woke-ness. Some of us are suspicious that we haven’t yet tasted or touched the truth in its fullness. How can I be sure that my flavorful steak isn’t a convenient illusion?

Living With Tensions, Not Without Questions

Competing ideas have been around forever. Some are more dangerous than others. There is a place for fighting for what we know. Without One True Truth, we risk being left with nothingness. Without certainty, truth can become relative and meaningless.

You can’t go on “seeing through” things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.                                                         C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

The Believer in Anything seeks to see through lies, abuses, and delusions to get to the truth. We’re certain that we’ve encountered the entire pachyderm when the shape of the thing makes sense to us. Believers in God and in a bigger story have found great solace and happiness in their assertions of ultimate truth.

But some people neglect nuance and think simplistically. Others latch onto ideologies that match their bent. Extreme ideas can tempt any of us. Like a parasite of the mind, a system of belief can take command of our rationality and run its own agenda through our bodies and emotions. Millions upon millions died in Stalin’s gulags, Hitler’s holocaust, and Mao’s cultural revolution because dangerous ideologies took root in ordinary humans. Let’s not forget the many who have died at the hands of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and other ideological zealots. Too many people have become mindless, spineless, and ferocious perpetrators of atrocity.

A Plea for Humility: Can we all keep talking, please?

Humans will always have disagreements. Unlike some postmoderns, I do believe in ultimate truth. I just can’t say I’ve touched every corner of the beast. Or cornered the market on what it means to be woke. The question is, what will we do with the conflict and the friction? Maybe we can humbly agree on these:

  • Each of us has biases and blindnesses. Can we acknowledge the weakness of our woke-isms?
  • Each of us can learn more about other perspectives. If the extent of our argument is an echo in our own head, we’ll never hear what others are saying — or seeing or feeling.
  • Each of us could hold our beliefs with a solid but relaxed grip. I haven’t the hubris to cancel your opinions. Nor would I try to silence the truths you hold dear. But I will risk asking you to listen. And ask you to reconsider.
  • Each of us should listen and learn from other points of view. When our arrivals appear to be black and white, remember the elephant — or whatever this thing is that we’re all arguing about — is gray.

Let’s continue the discussion, keep our eyes and ears wide open to the best in all of us. Then woke can be just another word for hope.

Read more about Finding Our Blind Spots.

 

A Parent’s Blessing: “Travel Well”

Dente family photo from 2009

Seasons End

parenting is a job that does not have to end
the Dente kids in 2009: Julian, Carina, Chloe
The seasons of parenting are gone like the summer. A sense of peace hovers in my memories of those decades. My husband, Scott, and I get a little teary-eyed when we talk about the days of raising our three children. Now that they’re adults, nostalgia for their childhoods sometimes seeps into our hearts. They all live near enough to keep us close but, after the long haul, parenting sometimes feels like a rip-off:
  1. The kids take your planned obsolescence and run with it—showing off how strong and solid they can be without you.
  2. You finally get older and wiser but you’ve already passed on some bad habits and ideas from your younger, dumber days.
  3. Those grown-ups that used to be kids have become great thinkers and conversationalists. But now you have to schedule those precious chats.
  4. The family dog becomes the spoiled kid, getting more treats and leeway than her 2-legged siblings did.

Hope Remains

parenting is an ongoing occupation
Christine with daughters Chloe and Carina
Hope for our kids’ future sweeps in like a fresh breeze. Scott and I smile when we talk about the beauty our three are adding to the world. Like Julian’s love for his wife and son and the music they make together. Like Carina’s love for her husband and daughter and her courage in the roughest of places. Like Chloe’s love for her family and friends and her passion for bettering the world.
Parenting delivers a lot of pay-offs:
  1. You can rest your case and let them take up and examine the stuff you tried to teach them.
  2. You get to let their significant others care for them and carry some of your worry.
  3. You can recognize and receive the wisdom your adult kids have to offer.
  4. You can enjoy the turkey because all they expect from you is the gravy.

Life Moves On

parenting is an ongoing occupation
Scott with son Julian
Scott wrote the song, “Travel Well,” for our most recent Out of the Grey project, A Little Light Left.
He spent a lot of time honing in on what he wanted to say, playing those guitar chords over and over until he landed on the language he was seeking, the perfect way to send our kids off.
But parenting is never perfect. We can fill our kids’ suitcases with light or heavy loads. Or a little of both.

We never wanted to weigh our kids down with excess baggage but we certainly did. We talked a lot about discernment and thinking critically about our culture, but a little less analysis may have led to lighter hearts. Also, in our attempts to keep them safe in the chaotic world of touring and travel, we added worry and anxiety too often to the mix.

Travel Well

parenting is an ongoing occupation

The good news is we’re still on the journey with our kids as adults. Although arrivals are few, it’s never too late to be a better parent. Send-off’s are important whenever someone heads out:

  1. You can seek forgiveness for unnecessary burdens you bestowed.
  2. You can call to connect and keep the conversation going.
  3. You can keep your ears and hearts–like the door–always open.
  4. You can be honest and say, “I don’t always understand your Instagram but I’ll keep following you anyway.”
We talk with our three on the phone regularly. The home they grew up in is still their place to land from time to time.
Yes, the seasons of raising kids end. But the blessings don’t have to. As parents, we can always be improving the lives of our adult kids and their kids after them as we wish them peace, hope, and love. Because, at the end of the day:

A Letter From My Future Self

a message in a bottle from my future self

Dear Me,

Your life is NOW.

I know you try to be in it, to stay present, to be here as it is happening.

But I admonish you to try even harder. Not with sheer willpower, but with surrender.

Surrender as hard as you can. Surrender to life as it is. And trust. Trust in the good despite your experience.

As Jordan Peterson says,

Resentment and simmering anger, no matter how justified, are rough tools. You may use them to build a future but they will carve out an ugly hut for you to lie down in.

You, my dear, will not build that ugly hut. Instead, you drop your rough tools, open your chest and shoulders, throw your arms back. Lift your chin and declare yourself alive, hopeful, and the kind of person who lives in joy.

How? All I can tell you is that you get there. Here. And it’s worth it.       silhouette of a woman with lifted chin, arms and chest wide, head thrown back: a letter from my future self

Believe,

Me

 

A Mother Shares Her Daughter’s Suffering

A Mother Shares Her Daughter's Suffering

She was only 3 days old. We knew something was off: her breathing a little labored, her body a bit limp in her mother’s arms. But her vitals were within range and the experts on the phone said everything seemed all right. What could be wrong with my granddaughter?

The Wonder of What’s Coming

My daughter, Carina, gave birth to a baby girl last June. In the months before her baby was born, Carina would sit in her rocking chair beside the waiting cradle, filled with the wonder of being a mother. She was preparing for something as close as her own body, yet far from her experience. The parenting books she read as she rocked could not presage or prepare her for what was coming.

If the darkness of 2020 could not be redeemed, it could at least be brightened by the impending arrival of this precious child. A month before Callaway True arrived, I wrote an article titled: My Daughter Shares in the Wonder of Being a Mother.

Carina and I had planned for me to be in the birthing room, a scenario that enlivened us both. However, weeks before her due date, we learned that extra people would not be allowed in, thanks to the Covid-19 threat. This loss felt huge as I wanted to be there to help my daughter, share in her experience. But we adjusted to the fact that I would see her baby at home, a mask on my smiling face.

The Onset of a Mother’s Suffering

The first time I saw Callaway, day 2 in her life, she was a typical infant: sleepy and learning to nurse. Carina was also sleep-deprived and learning to nurse her baby girl. Visiting on day 3, I noticed our Callaway still seemed quite sleepy. Her mom was struggling to get her to eat. Typical newborn and new mother stuff, right?

Luke, Carina’s husband, was just learning the ropes too. He was excited and exhausted by his new role as a dad. None of us in the family who met Calla those first few days had an inkling of what was to come. But, by day 3 she just wasn’t looking right. Her chest heaved slightly and her limbs were getting droopier.

By mid-afternoon on that Saturday, it was obvious that Callaway needed some medical attention. The emergency room staff at Vanderbilt Hospital confirmed that our girl was in trouble. By evening, she was admitted to the Children’s Hospital with a suspected infection. After many tests and expert opinions, the doctors determined it was a genetic condition threatening baby Callaway’s life. Ammonia was flooding her body and brain.

She almost didn’t make it. Methylmalonic Acidemia (MMA) is a rare genetic disease in which the body can’t break down certain parts of proteins. This leads to a build-up of toxic substances and a metabolic crisis. Calla couldn’t safely digest her mother’s milk.

The Suffering of Wondering

Stress and trauma filled the subsequent days. The suffering of this small family intensified with a long week in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. This led to 3 more weeks in the hospital. They endured their hospital experience without any friends and family allowed inside. We could only support them from afar and in brief visits outside.

On one of those first days in the PICU, Carina asked me to gather a few things from Calla’s nursery at home. As I entered the bedroom, I lamented to see the rocking chair beside the empty crib. I feared Carina would never again hold her daughter here.

Thankfully, after weeks of wondering and suffering, that little family did return home again. Those shell-shocked and exhausted parents began the long journey of caring for their daughter and living with MMA.

The Sharing of Suffering

a mother shares her daughter's suffering

For 7 months now, I’ve witnessed Carina’s suffering because of her daughter’s suffering. From the daily needle injected in her leg to the manufactured low-protein formula she must be fed, Calla puts up with a lot. The drugs, the physical therapy, the upset stomach, the feeding tube. Yet, she and her parents have risen to meet the obstacles. They press on through the hardest experiences of anyone I know.

Carina posted an update recently, describing how she’s learning to bow down, to accept their suffering:

So I’ve been doing a lot of bowing…. Trusting I don’t have the full picture. Gratefully and gradually releasing control, as it’s the only choice to make in this moment. I bow, and my chest loosens for a moment. I bow, and a joy in my (our) present suffering shows up. I bow and remember that this is Callaway’s story, Callaway’s life, not mine, and it’s my job to keep making the best decisions that exist for her until she gets to pick up her suffering and decide what she will do with it. I bow, and I get to keep living my own life with my hands as wide open as possible.

AND Carina’s arms hold Calla close as she rocks her to sleep these days. In the room with the crib we feared she’d never sleep in, I, too, have the pleasure of rocking and holding Calla. I am privileged to share, with my daughter and her daughter, all of our suffering and joy.

Visit CaringBridge for the latest update about sweet Callaway!

 

Cloudy Today? Get Out of the Grey!

out of the grey aka christine and scott dente walk across a dark lawn toward a bright future

Puff Piece: As It Is

Grey clouds have shrouded the better part of this year. Even a sunny summer can’t hide the insecurities of the season. In the past week, I have been working on an article about suffering and grief. My family has had its share lately. Yours, too, I imagine. We found out our new granddaughter has a difficult genetic condition. And we lost my lovely mother-in-law, Gloria when she died in a nursing home. The list could be longer….

But today, I decided to punt and write a puff piece, explore a topic as fluffy and light as a foam-filled pillow or a cotton-ball cloud. What does “Get Out of the Grey” mean? It’s is not about silver linings. Instead, it’s about finding life in a brighter story. Accepting existence as it is.

Out of the Grey: As It Was

Way back in the day, my husband Scott and I named our band Out of the Grey, under duress. We were signed to Sparrow Records, working on our first project, and had yet to make a name for ourselves.

Should we call our group The Dance? No, we don’t want to scare off non-dancing Contemporary Christian Music fans.

How about Denté with an accent over the e? Confusing ethnicity: are they Italian? French? Where’s the Inferno?

I suggested Christina and the Waves but that fell flat.

Somehow we settled on a song title Scott had scribbled in his notebook: “Out of the Grey.” Not gray with an a but an e to reflect what Tolkien might write of mysterious havens. We liked the way the phrase out of the grey hinted at an imminent and vibrant surprise. Uncertain then of what was coming, we are no wiser about our future now.

Blame it on the Grey

Grey is a trendy color these days. This morning I tossed my soft grey blanket across a couch cushion and nearly lost it in the blend. Their colors melded in the same way my cozy wool slippers disappear into our shaggy ash-colored rug.  Walls and pillows boast—no, suggest— shades of grey. My grandkids wear clothing in cool takes on the color. Some of their soft toys lie mute and missing on the non-descript floor.

Don’t get me wrong—I like the way grey looks most places. However, it has set the tone for this year, the perfect backdrop for the storm created by an invisible, invading virus. It started for us in the wintry March madness of cold social distancing. Led to the isolating overcast of self-quarantining… but, hey, I said I wasn’t going there.

What Does Out of the Grey Mean?

Thirty years ago, when I was 26, I believed in black and white. Answers to my myriad questions hovered on the horizon like geese headed north in the heat. I could live with a Winter Sun when summer was always coming.

Mixing fear of the future with theological certainty, I wrote tunes I hoped to whistle all the way home. The future was bright and I was wearing the right shades.

Our Out of the Grey songs reflected black and white truths in the midst of grey areas. I wanted to make solid statements in a world of swirling uncertainty, provide clear images for those of us who couldn’t see straight in the broad daylight.

To get out of the grey meant to trust that this tainted world would one day be saturated in the perfect Justice, Love, and Mercy for which we longed. Complex ideas wrapped up in three little words and three-minute songs.

A Whole New Meaning

The rain is falling this summer day and I’m okay with it. Our thirsty lawn needs the drink. My skin appreciates the break from the heat. Despite the overcast sky, my face is lifted. Of course, grey will always shadow our days. Embracing its nuance means taking life as it is. NOW is as good as it gets. And it is good.

I don’t always get the big picture but I am getting better at living in the present. Much of what clouds my vision is a concern for coming struggles.

Jesus asked:

“And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?”

Not me! My thoughts can’t capture or control a hazy future. NOW is where I exist and HERE is where I sit.

The bright red pillow on my heather-gray couch matches the flashing red coffee cup in Scott’s hand. Our story accents the fact that stuff happens and yet, here we are. Fluff the cushions, toss the throws, and forget the clouds today. Just for the moment, get out of the grey!

3 Creative Ways to Move Toward Emotional Health

3 pug dogs move toward emotional and mental health

Get Out of Your Head and Into Emotional Health: 3 Ideas

If you are like me, you get stuck in your head and need help moving toward emotional and mental health.

Do you have a secret sadness or a shapeless grief that keeps you down? Do you lean toward despondency, especially in colder seasons?

What if some unique and creative activities could alleviate melancholy for people like us?

I have found 3 creative ways to keep despondency at bay. I’m not suggesting changing anything your doctor has prescribed — just bringing a little color to the palette.

1.  TELL YOUR STORY

In my early twenties, I had an eating disorder called bulimia. Looking back, I realize I was using food to stuff down parts of my story I could not face. Fresh out of childhood, my feelings were trying to surface, but I didn’t have an escape hatch for them. The disorder distracted me from dealing with my history.

Then I met Scott, who later became my husband. I took a risk and told him about the bingeing and purging. A tiny shaft of light broke into my cellar. My worst secret was safe with him. Other hard truths emerged. From there, he helped me look honestly at my experiences and bring hidden suffering to the surface. Slowly, I let go of coping with food and moved toward mental and emotional health. My book Lifelines is a continuation of this work of a lifetime.

There are many ways to tell your story:

  • Talk to a friend, spiritual advisor, or counselor to pop the lid on bottled up emotions. Our negative emotions have a way of dissipating when they decompress and spread their weight across other shoulders.
  • Journal. Pen on paper helps disentangle the jumble of thoughts and feelings in our minds and bodies.
  • Pray. Our creator knows our weaknesses and fears. He listens well and won’t be surprised by anything we have to say.
  • Form a fictional tale from your experiences or current turmoil. You don’t have to be a writer to create a character that acts as a mirror. Can you create a short story to represent what’s stirring deep in your soul?

2.  WRITE A SONGemotional mental health

I am the kind of person who spins and spins inside my head until I make myself dizzy and sick. Songwriting has helped me work out a lot of sadness, confusion, and anger in my life. In the process, I found a lot of hope and healing.

Years ago, I wrote a song called “Tell Your Story.” As a recording artist, I had the luxury of writing and recording my kind of crazy. Call it music therapy.

Writing a song can be tricky but it’s not as hard as you think. You’ve listened to countless songs in your life and even followed the lyrics on a page as you listened to a favorite artist. What if you grabbed one of those song lyrics you love and used it as a model, a template for writing your own lyrics?

  • Try to write and sing your lyrics to the same rhythm and melody as the song you are using as a framework. You’re not trying to plagiarize and publish here.
  • Connect to the emotion of the song you love and write your own words and music.
  • Build on snippets from your journal or a poem that connects to your soul.
  • Create a tiny soundtrack with your own melody. Go with the flow of emotion that comes from listening to a favorite song.

See if songwriting is therapy for your soul. If you want to go deeper, here are 10 more unusual tips for songwriting.

3.  SING OUT YOUR SADNESSemotional mental health

As a teenager, I belted out a lot of Linda Ronstadt ballads. Singing along with her soulful voice, I found a connection to my own soul. These days, I don’t sing much around the house or even in the car. I stay in my head and must remind myself to sing out loud.

  • So sing in your shower, house, or car.
  • Join a band or choral group which can be especially healthful and uplifting.
  • Worship with friends on a Sunday.

Time Magazine explained the reasons why singing can lift the spirits:

“The elation may come from endorphins, a hormone released by singing, which is associated with feelings of pleasure. Or it might be from oxytocin, another hormone released during singing, which has been found to alleviate anxiety and stress. Oxytocin also enhances feelings of trust and bonding, which may explain why still more studies have found that singing lessens feelings of depression and loneliness.”*

I let go of the bulimia when I learned to find words for my feelings.

Can you bring your hidden insides out to help lift the weight of heavy emotions?

When I find myself wearing winter blues or spinning inside my head too much, I get to work on one of these 3 ideas. Let me know how it goes for you!

If you want to hear the song I wrote and recorded with my husband as Out of the Grey, check it out here: “Tell Your Story.” (lyrics here)

If you want to learn more about songwriting and singing, my handbook/workbook, The Singer and The Songwriter can help.

10 Songwriting Tips for Better Songwriting

Scott Dente writes a song on his acoustic guitar

We songwriters can all use new songwriting tips. Even tried and true songwriters can do better from time to time.

Inspiration can come from unlikely places. For example, whenever I hear the intro to Steely Dan’s song Ajajoy wells up in my chest. 

I was studying songwriting at Berklee College of Music in Boston when Steely Dan became a favorite band. Their perfect mix of pop and jazz captures me to this day.

In one songwriting class, my teacher Pat Pattison drew attention to the lyric from another song of theirs titled, “Deacon Blues”:

Learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel

To us young wanna-be songwriters in that classroom, that ambiguous line about dying behind the wheel was a puzzle and a revelation. Does the singer mean literally dying because he’s drinking and driving? Or is it metaphorical for being in control all the way to the day he dies? Or both?

Steely Dan’s lyrical and harmonic complexities sparked my desire to write songs with depth. Yes, I wanted my audience to discover a new layer with every listen. For those like me who are still students of songwriting, I offer these ideas:

1) Listen before you write.

You can write a better song if you hear a great one first. Find some inspiring music. For example, I like to set the bar high and get my creativity pumping with some Billy Joel or Joni Mitchell. Maybe a song from my teenage days that connects on a hidden plane.

Joe Walsh’s “Indian Summer” gets me every time. I find myself back on our family boat, cruising the Susquehanna River near Pequea, Pennsylvania. It’s September and I’m 13 years old. The longing and loss of innocence and freedom wash over me like the wake of a waterskiing fall. I’m ready to write that song now.

2) Write every day.

Yes, schedule your muse and expect her to show up. She might be groggy. Feed her some coffee and get to work.

Release your jewels and your drivel in the privacy of your writing room. You are practicing a habit. Later, you can pick and choose which ideas get to go outside and play. The rest can remain your sad and sappy little secrets.

Consider it your job to produce Quantity. Quality will emerge in spits and spurts. Sometimes pieces of one song actually belong to pieces of another song. Puzzle it together.

3) Spill your guts.

Pour your heart out and let emotions lead the way. Trust me, if your heart and gut are connected to your song subject, you’ll be able to go with the flow for a long time. Stay slippery and don’t let the inspiration dry up before you’ve caught and landed all of your choicest ideas. I have a few exercises for doing just that in my Singer/Songwriter Handbook.

4) Start with a title.

Have you written some pithy lines and ideas in a notebook somewhere?

Do you have a few titles that make you want to sing?

Start with one of these and see where they lead.

“He is Not Silent” is one of my lyrics inspired by a book titled, He Is There and He Is Not Silent by Francis Schaeffer. I got all fired up while reading so I sat at my piano, pencil in hand. Borrowing ideas like “we are not quiet, we are not listening,” I came up with the chorus first. My creative burst followed closely on the heels of an inspiring title. Catch any thread you can and don’t let go!

5) Tell the truth.

Honesty is appealing, like the song with that title by Billy Joel. We’re all human and we love vulnerability in others (even though we hate to reveal it in ourselves). Show some brokenness, a chink in your armor. The Chainsmokers have a cool song called “Honest.” They sing the truth about life on the road and on the radio. Their candor draws me into their artistry.

Read my short blog here about vulnerability in songwriting and recording new music.

6) Play with plagiarism.

What am I saying? Plagiarism is a dirty word. Don’t do it! But, hey, we are all imitators. None of us comes up with a completely new song idea.

All creativity is derivative except the original Creator’s stuff. Everybody copies His work. So celebrate your influences.

Borrow—don’t steal—a few ideas from a good song. Next, get to work crafting it as your own. Be certain there’s no direct copying. You know what happens when you infringe on a copyright, right? Write!

7) Be relatable and relevant.

No one gets a pass in this life. Hard is part of living.

If you’re like me and you struggle with faith in God every day, then say so.

Do you want to write a song about living with pain? Go for it, but I might beat you to it.

Want to sing about how staying in love is not easy? Then write that song. I did just that in “To Keep Love Alive.”

Teens love Taylor Swift because her music is relatable and relevant to their lives, like in the song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

8) Run with scissors.

Take some risks. But only if you’ve got a point.

Controversy for the sake of drawing attention and outrage is not legitimate artistic expression.

However, there will always be blurred lines. From Randy Newman’s “Short People” to Madonna’s “Papa, Don’t Preach,”artists often try to shine a light on an important topic. Certainly, we write at our own risk. Everyone in the crowd won’t be jumping up and down. But some may be getting the message for a change.

9) Make every word count.

Should I use “the” or “and” in this line? It is a solid question when writing a pop song. The nuance of such little words affects the song’s meaning.

Also, pop music doesn’t give you time to spread your ideas out. They’ve got to be short, sweet, and carry a lot of meaning. Like poetry, each word can have a well of eloquence beneath it if you take the time to dig in.

10) Hunt and Kill your throwaway lines.

Admit it, you’ve held on for dear life to some crappy lyrics.

You wrote them on the fly and they fit.

  • They came so easy.
  • They made a great rhyme.
  • They’re so clever you can’t bear to snuff them out.

But they’re so predictable, so done already. Get more creative!

Much of modern worship music, for example, has lots of cliche´and little imagination. Many mainstream pop songs, too. Boring.

They can be placeholders but eventually erase you must. Hire someone or cover your eyes and take a stab.

Kill those darlings because you know they’re just no good.

11) Bonus Tip: Be an Expanding HuMan.

Learn to work in a new way, try something you’ve never done in your songwriting.

  • Sit at the piano instead of with a guitar. 
  • Find a co-writer.
  • Learn a few new chords, would ya?

You are not gazing through the glass anymore.You’ve bought the dream.

Remember, songwriting is the privilege of sharing the things we know and love with those of our kind.

PS If you want more Tips and Tricks and Techniques and lots of exercises to improve your songwriting (and singing), check out my book: The Singer and the Songwriter Handbook and Workbook on Amazon.

PPS If you want other posts like these, sign up for my newsletter on the right side of this page and I’ll let you know when my next blog posts. CHEERS!

The Art of Compromise or The Compromise of Art

art of compromise

Gravity and Relativity

Out of the Grey lite. That’s what my husband Scott and I call Gravity, our fourth record. Actually, a fan came up to our CD table after a concert one night in 1995 and bestowed that description.

“I love all of your albums up to this point but this new one is more like Out of the Grey lite.”

Yikes! He was right.

Before recording Gravity, we’d written our ten songs and were ready to head into the studio. Monday morning, 10 AM downbeat. However, the Thursday before our scheduled session, the record label decided we didn’t have enough ‘radio-friendly’ songs.

What?

Scott and I dug in our heels for a short minute then went with the pressure to play the game. Over that weekend, we scrambled to write a few new songs with more pop appeal. Our producer, Charlie Peacock, helped us win approval by co-writing the songs, “When Love Comes to Life” and “Hope In Sight.”

Half of the songs and a lot of the production came out lacking what we thought of as Out of the Grey artistry. We did get some radio play, though.

At the end of the day, did we practice the art of compromise or did we compromise our art?

A Play on a Play

art of compromiseHave you seen the film, Bullets Over Broadway?

You could call it a play on a play. The story examines artistic integrity and how far an artist will go to protect and defend it—or lose it. It poses a question about the sometimes-dirty word compromise, asking if it has its place or if it is always reprehensible.

At the beginning of this 1994 release, David, a young playwright, tries to gather funds and cast members to perform his beloved work of art. Time constraints, human foibles, and money woes assail his stance on artistic integrity. At first, David stands his ground, refusing to give up control over his writing and his role as director. Nevertheless, when an underworld thug with the funds for production materializes and seems a godsend, David compromises. The catch of the money deal is that the gangster’s talentless girlfriend must play a small part.

After David softens his stance regarding talent and economics, taking the production money plus the girl, his agent leads him into other small compromises. As the play unfolds and rehearsals progress, David’s artistic integrity slips so far that he rewrites dialog at the behest of the manipulative lead actress. However, the playwright’s climactic sin is letting the goon who babysits the talentless young actress make changes in lines, scenes, and the plot. David recognizes that this mobster hitman is more talented than he. In the end, David is not an artist who is willing to stand by his original work.

This play about a play never reveals what the playwright’s play was actually about. We get the gist, though, that more drama, sex scandals, and realism are what the people want. Are the characters speaking our language? Does the plot mirror our own struggles? Have we left off the lofty and abstract so that the crowd can get the message point blank? Bullets fly at movie’s end when the story descends into an action-filled thriller.

Popular Art

The population at large loves what it can enjoy and comprehend without extra effort. As a pop music snob, I pooh-pooh much of the stuff that seems all fluff. I prefer a more complicated theme than, say, “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.” Having said that, I’m aware that other types of music-lovers wouldn’t call pop music ‘art’ at all.

To be sure, inside a fine art gallery, I might lift my eyebrows at the abstract and inaccessible. Impatient and ignorant, I don’t take the time to find the deeper meaning, moving further along the wall in search of served-up messages. When it comes to Art, I dig in my heels in relative places, drawing my own particular lines in the sand.

For example, I have written some artistically obscure songs like, “Becoming,” not caring whether anyone heard them or at least not worried that some might miss its message. However, I have certainly written songs with radio play in mind. Economic forces drove my compromise in the form of pressure from the record company and the mortgage company. One argument for concession goes something like this: if some of my art compromises its beauty for popularity sake, it will expose my more artistic pieces to a wider audience.

Mass Appeal

Many an Out of the Grey fan found us first on the radio. Before Gravity, our popularity had been growing. A lot of people told us they liked our fresh, left-of-center sound. Record sales were adding up and we wanted to capitalize on the momentum. It’s an old story.

art of compromise

The pressure to compromise can sideline even the best of intentions. When something good gets more popular, getting more becomes the modus operandi. For example, in the 1990s, Starbucks was just a cool cafe on the west coast. Scott and I had to mail-order their exotic blends and dark roasts. Nowadays, there’s a Starbucks on every corner, the McDonald’s of coffee some say. Compromising quality for quantity some complain.

However, mass-appeal has its appeal. It allows me to find a cheap knock-off of the expensive version of something or other I could otherwise not afford to purchase. As Meryl Streep schools Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada about the origin of the color of her cheap cerulean blue sweater, so I should take a lesson and remember that design is a gift with a steep price.

Mob Mentality

I am an artistic snob when I care to be and part of the mob when I don’t. If I don’t sink my toes into certain artistic fields of expression, I am tempted to pass by quickly with a quick judgment. I may think you are crazy if you only buy a carefully curated olive oil while you may drop your jaw at me for spending so much time choosing between “a” or “the” in a song lyric. You may secretly judge my mall clothes as fashion mongrels while I am arguing internally that you can’t possibly enjoy the ‘music’ of Florida Georgia Line.

art of compromise

From Nicholas Sparks and J.K. Rowling to Feodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens, with so many in between, who decides what is good art or bad, high quality or low? Certainly, mass appeal isn’t a consistent measuring stick because watered-down art proliferates even as the cream rises to the top.

Relative Obscurity

Positively speaking, compromise is a humbled move toward peace. It need not always be an act of artistic cowardice.

What’s my point? Humility, I guess. If pride in my fine taste stiffens my stance in one corner of the rug, someone will surely pull it out from under my feet with revelations of what I am missing. More than likely, what appeals to you has merits I haven’t investigated. Maybe you love every song and sound on Gravity. I’m glad if you do!

In keeping my knees unlocked and soft, I can walk your way and experience the view from your side of the room. You can show me what I’ve missed in Picasso and I can point out the genius of Sting. We can meet at Starbucks, maybe stop to shop at the mall, and go from there.

Out of the Grey’s fan base fell off sharply after the release of Gravity. Our follow-up, See Inside, never found the listeners we thought it deserved. Scott and I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we’d held our ground on how we wanted to shape our sound. The question will remain: does gravity suck or is it just a natural force that no artist can escape? The answer lies in the ears of the beholder. The rest is left to relative obscurity.