Veteran artist returns after seven-year hiatus with a feisty new album, Letting Go, while also revealing that she’s gay
Seven years ago, while at the top of her game, Jennifer Knapp announced what seemed to many a sudden decision: She was stepping away from Christian music, taking an indefinite hiatus. Rumors began to swirl—she was burned out, she needed a rest, she was upset about something, she was gay. Turns out that all the rumors were true, as Knapp reveals in this rambling, exclusive interview withChristianity Today. The one-time Grammy nominee ended her hiatus in late 2009with a few small shows, an updated website, and an announcement that she was writing new songs. Many of those songs will be featured on Letting Go, releasing May 11, her first album since 2001′s The Way I Am.
In one of her first extensive interviews since announcing her comeback, Knapp, 36, talks to CT about why she quit music in the first place, her lifestyle choice, her rekindled passion for songwriting, her faith, her new album, and more.
You announced your “hiatus” in 2003. Was that a sudden decision, or was it boiling for a while?
Jennifer Knapp: It was boiling for me. I think people thought I just fell into a hole and disappeared, but I had been trying to get out of being on the road 250 days a year. Lay It Down was a 2000 release, andThe Way I Am was 2001; those records were literally back to back, and I was touring while recording The Way I Am. I was telling people “Man, I can’t keep up the schedule. This is just a little bit crazy.” I didn’t have any space to just be a normal human being. I finally realized nobody was going to make that decision for me, so I just said, “I’m not kidding. I need a break, and it starts now.”
That decision came mid-2001, but my schedule didn’t allow me to stop until September 2002, when I did my last show; I basically still had about a year and a half worth of contracted concerts and other things before I could stop.
A lot of people hit burnout, but I don’t think many think, I’m going to take seven years off. What were you thinking?
Knapp: At the time, I literally thought I was quitting. I needed such a break, and I needed the silence to be deafening. But in the back of my mind I thought, Maybe in a couple of years I’ll come back and give this another go. It was a huge risk to say I may never do this again. It was a real heart wrenching decision.
Once you fulfilled your last obligation, was there a big sigh of relief? Or what?
Knapp: I was scared to death. You just don’t leave something that everyone else says is extremely successful. Some people close to me said I was doing something wrong—that [quitting] was a denial of the gifts I had. I was like, Whoa, hold on a second. I’m just asking for a little bit of time. That was a lot to deal with. It took two or three years to get over the rollercoaster ride of emotions. One day I’d be completely angry; the next day completely heartbroken and devastated; the next raging jealous because somebody’s out there doing something that I love doing and I can’t do it. And some days I was in complete denial. It was almost like a psychological profile of grief. [It took a while] to let the dust settle and figure out what kind of human being was left.
There were rumors that you left music because you were gay.
Knapp: That was a straw [in my decision], but there were many straws on the camel’s back at the time. I’m certainly in a same-sex relationship now, but when I suspended my work, that wasn’t even really a factor. I had some difficult decisions to make and what that meant for my life and deciding to invest in a same-sex relationship, but it would be completely unfair to say that’s why I left music.
Were you involved in a relationship at that time you left?
Knapp: Around 2002, I was starting to contend with this new-found “issue” in my life. But I’d already decided to leave music before I knew I was going to contend with that. I don’t want anyone to think that I ran out of town with my tail between my legs because I had something to hide.
Or that you were run out of town.
Knapp: Or that I was run out of town. Neither is true.
When you wrote The Way I Am, was that a veiled statement about being gay?
Knapp: That record means a lot more to me now than it did at the time. That whole record for me was an exercise in the carnal body of Christ manifested. One of the biggest decisions I was wrestling with then was, If I don’t do Christian music, am I not a believer anymore?
Why come back now? What has changed?
Knapp: At some point [last year] when I started to write again, I realized that the process was rather organic. I started playing at home, and my friends are going, “Oh wow, that’s pretty good. What are you going to do with that?” I said, “What do you mean, what am I going to do with it? Nothing!” The return has been a lot like the way I started music in the first place. We’re doing a four-day run of concerts right now, I’m in a van, I just spent half my afternoon driving, and if I’m lucky I get dinner before I play tonight. There’s something about that process you’ve got to love. I just think it took me a lot longer to figure out if that passion was a safe one for me.
You spent about five of the last seven years in Australia, right?
Knapp: Yes. But I’ve been back in the States since September. During those seven years, I entertained myself for quite some time by traveling. I traveled all through Europe. I traveled through the U.S. for about a year. I was basically a transient for about four years.
Traveling alone or with your partner?
Knapp: With my partner.
Have you been with the same partner for a long time?
Knapp: About eight years, but I don’t want to get into that. For whatever reason the rumor mill [about me being gay] has persisted for so long, I wanted to acknowledge; I don’t want to come off as somebody who’s shirking the truth in my life. At the same time, I’m intensely private. Even if I were married to a man and had six children, it would be my personal choice to not get that kind of conversation rolling.
I understand. But I’m curious: Were you struggling with same-sex attraction when writing your first three albums? Those songs are so confessional, clearly coming from a place of a person who knows her need for grace and mercy.
Knapp: To be honest, it never occurred to me while writing those songs. I wasn’t seeking out a same-sex relationship during that time.
During my college years, I received some admonishment about some relationships I’d had with women. Some people said, “You might want to renegotiate that,” even though those relationships weren’t sexual. Hindsight being 20/20, I guess it makes sense. But if you remove the social problem that homosexuality brings to the church—and the debate as to whether or not it should be called a “struggle,” because there are proponents on both sides—you remove the notion that I am living my life with a great deal of joy. It never occurred to me that I was in something that should be labeled as a “struggle.” The struggle I’ve had has been with the church, acknowledging me as a human being, trying to live the spiritual life that I’ve been called to, in whatever ramshackled, broken, frustrated way that I’ve always approached my faith. I still consider my hope to be a whole human being, to be a person of love and grace. So it’s difficult for me to say that I’ve struggled within myself, because I haven’t. I’ve struggled with other people. I’ve struggled with what that means in my own faith. I have struggled with how that perception of me will affect the way I feel about myself.
Are you beyond those struggles?
Knapp: I don’t know. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. But now that I’m back in the U.S., I’m contending with the culture shock of moving back here. There’s some extremely volatile language and debate—on all sides—that just breaks my heart. Frankly, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t be making any kind of public statement at all. But there are people I care about within the church community who would seek to throw me out simply because of who I’ve chosen to spend my life with.
So why come out of the closet, so to speak?
Knapp: I’m in no way capable of leading a charge for some kind of activist movement. I’m just a normal human being who’s dealing with normal everyday life scenarios. As a Christian, I’m doing that as best as I can. The heartbreaking thing to me is that we’re all hopelessly deceived if we don’t think that there are people within our churches, within our communities, who want to hold on to the person they love, whatever sex that may be, and hold on to their faith. It’s a hard notion. It will be a struggle for those who are in a spot that they have to choose between one or the other. The struggle I’ve been through—and I don’t know if I will ever be fully out of it—is feeling like I have to justify my faith or the decisions that I’ve made to choose to love who I choose to love.
Have you ever felt like you had to choose between your faith or your gay feelings?
Knapp: Yes. Absolutely.
Because you felt they were incompatible?
Knapp: Well, everyone around me made it absolutely clear that this is not an option for me, to invest in this other person—and for me to choose to do so would be a denial of my faith.
What about what Scripture says on the topic?
Knapp: The Bible has literally saved my life. I find myself between a rock and a hard place—between the conservative evangelical who uses what most people refer to as the “clobber verses” to refer to this loving relationship as an abomination, while they’re eating shellfish and wearing clothes of five different fabrics, and various other Scriptures we could argue about. I’m not capable of getting into the theological argument as to whether or not we should or shouldn’t allow homosexuals within our church. There’s a spirit that overrides that for me, and what I’ve been gravitating to in Christ and why I became a Christian in the first place.
Some argue that the feelings of homosexuality are not sinful, but only the act. What would you say?
Knapp: I’m not capable of fully debating that well. But I’ve always struggled as a Christian with various forms of external evidence that we are obligated to show that we are Christians. I’ve found no law that commands me in any way other than to love my neighbor as myself, and that love is the greatest commandment. At a certain point I find myself so handcuffed in my own faith by trying to get it right—to try and look like a Christian, to try to do the things that Christians should do, to be all of these things externally—to fake it until I get myself all handcuffed and tied up in knots as to what I was supposed to be doing there in the first place.
If God expects me, in order to be a Christian, to be able to theologically justify every move that I make, I’m sorry. I’m going to be a miserable failure.
You’re living in Nashville. Are you in a church these days?
The Christian music industry can be fickle. Fans, radio, and retail were angry at Amy Grant for her divorce, at Michael English and Sandi Patty for adultery. But eventually, they were “welcomed” back. How do you think your fans and radio and Christian stores will react to the news that you’re gay? Or do you care?
Knapp: I do have a soul! (laughs) I care deeply. It’s a very heart-wrenching decision to come into a room knowing that there are many people who just won’t come with me. The Christian bookstore thing is probably not going to happen; this isn’t a Christian record, and it’s not going to be marketed to Christian radio.
K-LOVE won’t pick this one up?
Knapp: I doubt it, but there’s no reason they can’t play it. To me, my faith is fairly evident in what I’m writing, but it’s not a record for the sanctuary. That in itself is a huge risk for me—to be able to write without feeling like I’ve got to manufacture something that’s not entirely genuine, to take a song and feel like I have to make an obvious biblical reference. That’s not there anymore. I’ve actually buried it; for me, it’s an exercise in liberty. In a spiritual context, will God still be evident in me when I write songs? I sort of nervously wring my hands together and go, Please don’t leave me.
You’re saying Please don’t leave me to God, or fans, or whom?
Knapp: To me, and the divine experience of being a musician—that private world of where I integrate that into my life and where it comes out on a public level, as a song. I have a lot of fans who live in real-life scenarios, not just live within the walls of their church. They aren’t surrounded by Christians all day long; they don’t just listen to Christian music. I have a lot of critically thinking fans who are trying to sort out their lives as Christians as best they know how. I think as a result of that, a lot of them have been marginalized; they’re still seeking to be Christians but not always measuring up to the marketed idea of who they should be.
You’re playing live shows again …
Knapp: Yes. My concerts right now include the ultra-conservative hand raisers that are going to make this bar their worship zone. And there’s a guy over on the left having one too many, and there’s a gay couple over on the right. That’s my dream scenario. I love each and every one of them. At the end of the day, it’s music.
Are you still playing your old songs in concert?
Knapp: A bit, yeah.
Knapp: “Martyrs and Thieves” I’ll probably always play off of Kansas. “Fall Down” off of The Way I Am. The songs still have to speak to me. I had to go back and learn my old songs, but that’s been part of my process too—feeling like because I was gay that I couldn’t sing those songs anymore. I even said, “Don’t give me a [live] set longer than what I can play with this new music, because I just can’t play the old music.” I just flat out said I wouldn’t do it.
But you’re already rethinking that?
Knapp: I’m enjoying what I’m playing now. It’s been organic. Amy Courts, a gal who’s joined me on this tour, said she wanted to sing some of the old songs with me. I was like, Man, I don’t know. I swore I’d never play that song again. But we start playing it, and it just hits me right in my heart. It’s like somebody else wrote it. I realized that it comes from a very honest, genuine place. I’ve started to make those connections between the old songs and what I’m doing now. It was an extraordinarily helpful connect, because for a long time I thought it was old life vs. new life. But it’s not. It was a real comfort to me to realize I’m still the same person, that the baggage or new scenarios we pick up along the way are part of the long-term story.
The new record is called Letting Go. Is that a statement?
Knapp: Oh, I love record titles! (laughs) I suppose. There’s a song called “Letting Go,” and it’s basically just a struggle to hold onto the things that have been valuable to me. That was one of the last song I wrote going into this, when I started to have a panic attack going I can’t do this. People are going to chew me up and spit me out and tell me that I’m worthless. I think the process of writing that song was really helpful to realize that I really enjoy what I’m doing, and I’m not going to let go of my faith and I’m not going to let go of the passion to do music the way I want, in case there are other people telling me I can do neither because of personal decisions I’ve made.
In the lyrics to that song, who is the you when you sing, “Holding onto you is a menace to my soul”?
Knapp: It changes nightly. It seriously does. And it can change three or four times while I’m singing it. Some days it’s my faith. Some days I’m singing to God, like You’re a menace, man. It’s hard to keep my faith. Sometimes it’s music, and sometimes it’s being on the road. It’s a lot of those scenarios. That song is a bit of a chameleon, because it’s all of those fearful moments that want to handicap me from not moving forward, when I’d rather move forward with grace and as much kindness as I can—and make my mistakes and hope that grace will follow me.
So it turns out to be the title of the record. I think a lot of folks around this process have been excited about what it’s taken for me to get to this point—to be able to pull a trigger, to be able to go, Okay, really I want to play. A few years back, people were offering me five and six figures to come out and just do one show. I’m like, No, you cannot pay me enough. So that idea of letting go, and just the celebration that this record has felt like—finding music again, finding the passion to face up to a really challenging career but one that’s extraordinarily rewarding, that when you lay your head on the pillow at the end of the night you go, Man, I’m bone tired, but that was good. For me, that’s what it means.
I’m tired of spending hours and hours thinking about what if scenarios—what if nobody wants it, what if everybody is mad, what if I’m a complete disappointment. Now it’s, Here it is. I’ve got to let it go. That’s one of the frustrating parts of my Christian walk, the scenario that if I don’t get it right, that I’ve somehow failed God and failed my faith.
There are a few songs here that I would call angry songs. Is that fair?
Knapp: Which ones do you call angry songs?
Well, there’s “If It Made a Difference,” where you sing, “Sorry I ever gave a damn / Sorry I even tried to waste all the better parts of me / On not just anyone who came to mind.” And “Inside,” where you sing, “I know they’ll bury me before they hear the whole story … / Who the hell do you think you are?” Sounds angry to me!
Knapp: Okay. I’m okay if you call them angry. I prefer to think of them as, well …
Knapp: I’m just really enjoying the opportunity as a writer to be able to put a kinetic energy into what’s been welling up inside of me. It’s great to be able to not feel like I’ve got to turn that frustration into a happy, cheery …
But you’ve never been like that, Jennifer. I don’t listen to your old albums and think Oh, this is all happy, shiny music. I hate happy, shiny music!
Knapp: I think “angry” is probably … I’m not really an angry person. I’m passionate, and I’ve certainly been known to raise my voice and pound my fists, but in the heart of me it’s not a destructive thing. It’s more the type of energy of what it takes when a person’s being thwarted. I wrote “Inside” in complete and utter fear to voices in my head that told me that I couldn’t be a person of faith.
In the song’s third line, you sing, “God forbid they give me grace.” Do you really believe that no believers will show you grace?
Knapp: It’s a much larger picture than that. I don’t want anyone to think the song is targeted at the church, or at the ways we find judgment cast upon us. It’s a challenge to break free of that and to own who you really are. That’s my heart’s cry for anyone I’ve ever met. It’s not on my agenda to convert the world to a religion, but to convert the world to compassion and grace. I’ve experienced that in my life through Christianity.
“Inside” isn’t about the church. It’s about me, and how I struggle to be myself daily—honest and truthful to who I really am. It would break my heart if people got through this [album], especially the Christian audience, and found themselves with another artist that was just angry at the church. That’s not where I’m at. If there’s any anger or frustration on this record, it’s the desperation to hold onto what is honest and true, and let the rest of it just burn.
I would be really sad if people thought this was a sword trying to cut up something I’ve been deeply moved by. Christian music has been a great surprise for me, but I didn’t aspire to be a Christian music artist. I aspired to be a Christian in my private life, and I think it’s a wonderful side effect that can happen with music—that you can get a lot of people to share in that specific experience. So it would be a tragedy if people couldn’t see the forest for the trees, to see the connectivity between Kansasand Letting Go. It’s there for me, gratefully, with a big, huge, massive sigh of relief. It’s not like I left Christian music because Christian music was bad, or that I’m not participating in church because the church is evil. It’s none of those things. For me, it’s the journey that I’m on, trying to figure things about as best I can.