Sandra McCracken is a singer-songwriter-hymnist and unquestionably one of my most favorite artists. Her most recent album Psalms is a soul-stirring collection of songs that has been a constant sonic companion of mine since its release this past April. Currently, McCracken is offering Psalms in its entirety on NoiseTrade. Upping the ante, she has also included an additional nine songs to create an exclusive bonus edition of the album that surrounds that already brilliant release with even more nuance and context. Additionally, any and all tips will be given to the charitable work of A Rocha and will contribute to future songwriter retreats and recordings.
While Psalms: Bonus Edition will only be available on NoiseTrade for a short time, I decided to take the opportunity to interview McCracken about Psalms, the unique location and atmosphere in which it was recorded, and her involvement with the faith-based environmental group A Rocha. I also asked her to take us deeper into the album's creative corners with a revealing track-by-track look at the nine bonus songs.
While you have certainly been no stranger to the modern hymn movement, what sparked the idea to write an album based specifically around Psalms?
I was writing prolifically for a season last year, and when reviewing all the new songs with my friend and collaborator Isaac Wardell, he made the observation that it seemed like I was actually making two records side-by-side. I was spending a lot of time personally writing and singing Psalms, and without realizing it, there were narrative songs, and there were an album’s worth of Psalms forming naturally, right alongside. Even though I’ve worked with writing and re-writing old hymns over the years, after Isaac made that pronouncement out loud that he thought I was making a Psalms record, I then began writing more specifically within those more narrow perimeters. It’s helpful to have fences around creative work. Creativity flows more freely when you can give an idea specific limitations.
Did studying the psalms through a songwriter’s eye uncover anything new about them that you may not have previously noticed?
I’ve been pretty soaked in Bible texts since I was very young, but my experience with the Psalms around the time of this album was less cognitive and more expressive. After a time of great personal loss and displacement, I feel like I was able to really get inside the words more than I have before, even as the words were getting inside of me. I read them in my kitchen. I read them waking up in the middle of the night. I read them week after week in the liturgy at church. When I was reading, I felt convinced of my place in the world, and that people before me have felt what I feel. And sometimes I’d have to go back to reading just a few hours after I had last read just to re-center myself. I’ve said it before, but the Psalms give us permission to feel, and a context to move through our emotions and out into a solid, wide place. There’s a sacred tension between faith and doubt. But I think they both belong together, and they help us find our way along the journey of what it is to know God more honestly.
You recorded Psalms in a friend’s apartment in downtown Brooklyn instead of in a standard studio. Did you find that the environment shaped the record in any unique ways?
The recording environment really affects the sounds and the musical performances you hear on any given album. At the time, I knew it was important for me to get outside of Nashville for a bit, and outside of my home studio where I’ve made the last 5 or 6 projects. Playing some live shows with these musicians from Brooklyn over the past few years has brought me so much joy. Jay and Alex and the other guys have such a subtle, buoyant approach to the arrangements. I really enjoyed the opportunity to be in a relaxed, living-room setting to record these songs. Jay had sent me the address where he had arranged for us to record, and I took a cab there and didn’t realize until I stepped out of the elevator and into the apartment that we would have such an incredible view of the NY skyline and the East River while we were recording. It took me a few minutes before I could even speak. It was high enough above the street to actually be quite serene up there. Singing that first song lyric, “Horizon to horizon, creation to creation sings you home…” had found a new visual. Being in such an inspiring setting gave us an additional lift as we sat down to play the songs that day. I’ve been in a lot of really nice studios over the years, but this recording was something I’ll never forget.
All tips received from the NoiseTrade downloads of Psalms will go to A Rocha. What can you tell us about this faith-based, environmental organization and about what they do?
I have always had a deep love for nature. From the John Denver songs I loved as a child to my Dad’s biology teaching, my spirit feels most alive when I’m standing out on the beach or winding through trails in the woods. There’s something in our humanity that we can meet God (and ourselves) more readily when we unplug from our computers and live some moments of our life outside. When I met Peter and Miranda Harris, the founders of A Rocha a few years ago, I was thoroughly inspired to meet such kindred people, people who boundlessly love God AND creation. I think A Rocha was the first time I had encountered the connection between environmental science work and genuine, living hope, believing that we can take part in the renewal of the Earth (and all that’s in it), even when there’s so much around us that says otherwise.
Many of the extra songs on the bonus edition of Psalms were written during community songwriting events. What have you found to be some of the benefits to writing in a group setting versus crafting a song solely by yourself?
By working as an independent singer and songwriter for the past 15 years, I have discovered that there is no such thing as a solo career in music. We aren’t actually made to live out on our own and we need other people for life to flourish and for us to better understand what it means to belong somewhere, to have a place in the world. Nashville is a city with many amazing people, so community was here already, but these songwriting retreats have been a rallying point that have helped to cultivate relationships and to provoke new questions around the care and wonder of Creation. The retreats have produced some beautiful songs, good fruit, as it were. We are shaped by what we sing, and it is my hope that these A Rocha songs would help shape the affections of many people beyond the boundaries of politics and more deeply into what it means to take better care of our world and our neighbors.
Psalms: Bonus Edition (Track-by-Track)
“The Night Sky”
"The Night Sky" is one of my favorite performances from the songs that have come out of the A Rocha retreats these past few years. I feel like Sarah’s voice captures the sense of wonder and being known that only happens when you are out under the open, starry sky. As somebody who lives in the city, I find those connection moments to be very healing. The vastness of the sky gives me a sense of being small. It's true humility. The bridge of the song captures me every time, the personal, in-the-moment-ness that she captures with the word "here."
“This is My Father’s World”
This old hymn has been one of the most shaping hymns for me in my formation as a songwriter and as a person. The lines “He shines in all that's fair" are to me, a license to explore all of life as good. This frame of seeing all things as good helps me to not make distinctions between sacred and secular, especially as it relates to the natural world. Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper talked a lot about this as did John Calvin, Francis Schaeffer and many others who have promoted this idea that everything belongs to God. The truth of it has the potential to change everything about how we relate to each other, to our place and to the creatures that share our place with us.
“From Smallest Seed”
"From Smallest Seed" is the title track of our first EP of songs from the songwriter retreats. This collaboration was Kenny Meeks, Sarah Masen, and Lori Chaffer of Waterdeep. I think this song is like an old folk song or hymn in the way that it sounds like it's always existed. The hook of the song is such a beautiful affirmation: "the sun returns, the earth reborn.” That line pretty much sums up the hope of these songs and of the work of A Rocha. This one is like our theme song.
“Psalm 121” (featuring Rain for Roots)
Psalm 121 is from a group of songs called the Psalms of Ascent that the Israelites would sing on their way up the mountain each year to make annual sacrifices for their sins. Even though we don't practice this anymore, the text is a reminder of how we look to God for help and deliverance in our lives. I love the word "defender" in the chorus of that song. As we learn from pioneers like Brene Brown about how to experience our vulnerability, we have to realize that it is only safe to be vulnerable if you have a strong defender. The kids voices (from Rain For Roots) on this one are a good reminder of trust and vulnerability and our interdependencies in family and community.
“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” (featuring Julie Lee)
We took some liberties on this version of the traditional Beethoven hymn melody. I co-produced it with Greg LaFollette, who really brought a lot of creativity to this A Rocha album. It's one I could listen to on repeat. Julie Lee's voice is pure and angelic, and the background vocals at the end of the song are so haunting. I appreciate the juxtaposition of those complex harmonies with the word "joyful." I feel like that's truth telling through the process of arranging the music.
“Together in the Harvest”
"Together in the Harvest" is a song that I wrote with Kellie Haddock and Tiffany Thompson. As I was looking back over some of the recordings we did this year, I am grateful for songs like this one that remind me of the shared experiences, the planting, the harvesting of gardens and experiences and all the practices that hold us together in a community. Even when there are relational conflicts, still we are together in the harvest, side-by-side, pulling up weeds, gathering the fruit of our work and feasting around one table.
“All Ye Refugees” (featuring Chelsey Scott)
"All Ye Refugees" was written by Chelsey Scott (she sings lead here on this version), Kellie Haddock, and Flo Paris at the first writers retreat. It has taken on new meaning and I used to soundcheck with this often. Gradually, it became a song that felt like it was part of me. It was actually the first song we recorded for the Psalms record, too. The idea of "home" or "place" or "belonging" is an important emphasis in this text. I like how this A Rocha version ends with all the group voices. Seems fitting to join in that chorus all together.
“All Your Works Are Good” (featuring Julie Lee)
I wrote this one with Julie Lee (singing lead here on this version) and my long-time friend Jill Phillips. We did this song last week at my home church for the first time, actually. Many of the lyrics are from Psalm 104 and it has this quiet declaration of how God tells the ocean where to stop, the winds to be still, and we can find our place here within the rhythms of life and all the changing seasons.
“We Will All” (featuring Sarah Masen)
This one was written by a bigger group of songwriters: Sarah Masen, Jordan Brooke Hamlin, Latifah Phillips (of PageCXVI), Greg LaFollette, and Jill Phillips. At the end of this particular writing day, we all sat in my living room playing our new songs, along with some old ones too. I remember asking for an encore of this one. It is such a soul-lift when you learn to lament with honesty, because then you can enter into joy that is as wide as the sorrow. This song, to me, captures both at once.