Audrey Assad, a 27-year-old Phoenix-based singer-songwriter, isn’t afraid to lay bare her soul in music and in her relationship with God. It’s from that point of vulnerability that her success as a Catholic/Christian musician was born. Assad’s love of literature, the works of Catholic intellectual writers and poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Francis Thompson, and feelings even today of “not quite fitting in” form the basis for her surprise hit CD, The House You’re Building, released last July by Sparrow Records. The standout track “Restless” comes from St. Augustine’s Confessions and addresses her own restlessness and that of a generation whose “relationships have increased in numbers and decreased in depth.”
What was your experience of God and faith as a youth?
I grew up in a small town in New Jersey in a multicultural household. My father is from the Damascus area, and my mother is from the South. We were definitely devout evangelicals. All of my friends growing up were Catholic. Most of them didn’t go to Mass very often. I remember as young as 7, asking them, “How do you think you’re going to get to heaven?” They would tell me, “By being a good person,” and I would say, “No, the answer is Jesus, and if you don’t know him, you’re not going to go there.”
I went to a couple of confirmations, first Communions and things like that. I remember thinking it was so foreign, and I didn’t understand what they were doing. I just figured the Catholic Church was for people who wanted some kind of good feeling about being religious.
I believe my love for God was real even at a young age, but I went through my different phases. When I was in high school, I was very outwardly committed to God, but my heart was just not right. I judged people. I was uptight. I had major problems. It got pretty crazy there for a while.
You had what you call a “second conversion,” which sparked a deeper pursuit of God and your songwriting career. What happened at that time?
I have always been a musician since I can remember, but it was pretty much a hobby for me until I turned 19. I tried to write songs a few times, but it just didn’t work for me. I had a second conversion in my bedroom one day, and it was as if I was hearing God’s voice for the first time ever, so loud and clear, telling me what I was gifted to do. It was almost instantaneous. I started writing and singing, and from there, it snowballed slowly. That was almost nine years ago.
At the time it felt like God was breathing down my neck. I felt as if he was just pounding at my door: “I am the King of your life.” Now, I look back and I think that it had been a slow process of him following me around, pursuing me. I had a very strong intellectual vision of God from the time I was 5, but I never understood that it was not just about believing in God, but belonging to God, so I had a lot of areas in my heart and mind where he was not welcome. For whatever reason, he chose that night to break through to me. I was in a place where I was looking for direction: What do you want me to do with my life? I never could figure it out. The reason I couldn’t hear is because there were these major blocks in my life, and that night I gave them up.
Where did you go from there?
I had moved to Florida with my parents when I was 18. I lived there for six years. Then I went to Nashville because people kept telling me that’s where I had to go if I wanted to write Christian music. I quit my job, packed my car and drove there to live with a friend. I worked different jobs and started connecting with people at EMI and Sparrow Records. After a year and a half, I signed a record deal (with Sparrow Records).
I toured with Matt Maher [who is also Catholic], and that led me to move to Phoenix, where I live now. I’ve also toured with Tenth Avenue North, Chris Tomlin and Jars of Clay.
You converted to Catholicism in 2007 and were inspired by the works of some deep thinkers, including C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine. What drew you to these writers?
When I was thinking about becoming Catholic, that’s who I went to. Catholics usually didn’t know too much about their Church, at least not those that I grew up with, so I thought, I’ll just go above their heads. Of course, it humbled me. It showed me that Catholics had many gifts, not the least of which is a comfort level with the Church that I didn’t understand. I read and read and read. Lewis isn’t Catholic, but he still helped me become Catholic; [also] Chesterton, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God; Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence (by Jesuit Father J.P. de Caussade). When I was converting, I read all kinds of books by Protestants and Catholics, and the weight of the Catholic intellectual tradition tipped the scale in that area for me.
Where does this desire to dig deep into your spiritual self come from?
Necessity; it’s the mother of invention. When you suffer you’re looking for reasons why you’re suffering. I don’t think it’s because I’m really holy. When you have pain in your life, you’re always wondering why. Is this from God? It’s kind of what your heart naturally does. I hope that God has changed my life to the point to convince me that he’s good no matter what and in any trial. His goodness is apparent and clear to me, and I hope it’ll always be there for me.
How does this transfer to your music?
My first CD — The House You’re Building — came out in July 2010. I’m proud of that record, but I have been humbled and honored by the amount of attention it’s received. The best I can tell is that it’s reaching people, and that’s because the songs are written from a place of vulnerability. It’s not easy to be honest with people you’ve never met. The songs are more mature just in terms of skill. The suffering of my recent years with my parents’ divorce brought out an element of depth that wasn’t there in my relationship with God, and the songs reveal that; they’re deeper. The more you live and the more you experience, if you’re walking with God, you know yourself much better and you know him better, and that’s very evident in this album.
Has your conversion to Catholicism changed how other Christian artists view you?
Not really. It’s been surprisingly easy. The only times it’s ever affected me with music is sometimes the fans get confused. I’ve tried my best to maintain my online presence with my fans. I do notice that a lot of my musical contemporaries tend to be questioning the form of the church, whether they’re Protestant or whatever. They’re looking for something older and deeper, so there’s been a tidal wave of people turning to Anglicanism and Episcopalianism, which are closer to Catholicism. I’m the token Catholic that they can ask questions of, so they’ve been pretty open.
What is next on your agenda?
I’ll be on nationwide tour with Jars of Clay in the spring and recording in June, so we’ll hopefully have the second CD coming out in the fall of 2011.
Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.