Catechist-Songwriter Aly Aleigha Finds That Songs Come From Prayer
Recent Franciscan grad will perform at AbbeyFest in Pennsylvania.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Aly Aleigha’s sister Jessica was the musically involved sibling, while Aly — who sang in choir but had no formal voice lessons — found even church musicianship intimidating.
But Aleigha’s songwriting blossomed during a freshman-year pilgrimage to the Holy Land while a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.
During her remaining college years, playing at Mass and singing at coffeehouses and “Festivals of Praise” in Austria, Aleigha found God “pulling [her] out of [her] comfort zone.”
Still, when her mother approached her about cutting an album, she initially balked at the prospect — even though her high-school guitar teacher, John Freylack, had suggested the idea years earlier.
Eventually, Aleigha decided that the album was “what the Lord wanted me to do, so I offered it to him. My prayer from that day has been, ‘Lord, let your will be done. If this ever becomes about me, please take it away.’ Instead, he has been blessing it so much more than I ever could have anticipated.”
As a largely self-taught musician, Aleigha creates music resembling indie-folk, with influences from The Oh Hellos, Josh Garrels and The Head and the Heart — and that it gaining notice.
The recent Franciscan graduate has a big event next weekend: On Sept. 24, AbbeyFest will honor her as its first “Emerging Artist of the Year.”
Since 2014, Paoli, Pennsylvania, has hosted the daylong “celebration of family, friends and contemporary Catholic/Christian music.”
Held at the Norbertine-staffed Daylesford Abbey near Philadelphia, this year’s AbbeyFest features Mass and confessions; keynote speaker Jeff Cavins; and music from Teresa Peterson, Stars Go Dim, Savio Boys Choir, the Josh Blakesley Band and Sidewalk Prophets, in addition to Aleigha.
Mark Christmyer, spokesman for AbbeyFest, explained that the festival organizers feel they have “a tremendous opportunity to not only introduce Christian contemporary music to Catholics who have not necessarily embraced this form of music, but also to alert Catholics to new Catholic artists. … We selected Aly Aleigha for not only her unique and wonderful voice, but her songwriting. Is there any artist in Christian music or anywhere on secular radio that you’ve ever heard that can rhyme the word ‘concupiscence’?”
The AbbeyFest performance will be the East Coast debut for Aleigha and her band — Peter Brown (piano), Justin Kostecka (lead guitar, vocals), Ericka McGovern (violin), Ben Ophoven-Baldwin (drums) and Matthew Tessier (upright and electric bass).
Aleigha says the festival provides an exciting opportunity to play “alongside so many talented musicians.”
Band member Brown feels that the music and lyrics of Aleigha’s new album, The Labyrinth, “really speak to the human experience”; and as fellow band member Kostecka said, “I think that the theme of the album is something we can all connect to at some point in our lives. The album is really about this journey, in a sense, and how we are fallen people, but we have a God who is leading us out of the caves, and labyrinths, and deserts that we find ourselves in. I think those concepts and ideas can be very attractive to listeners, especially because of the deeper, artistic way that Aly presented them in her lyrics.”
Indeed, the greatest spark to Aleigha’s imagination is her Catholic faith.
From the Holy Land pilgrimage and her college studies to her meditations on St. John’s Gospel, religious experience informs her lyrics.
Aleigha’s hope is that the truths her lyrics convey will be understood by fervent Catholics, while “those who are more unfamiliar [with the faith] might catch a hint of those truths and find themselves open to learning what this means for their own lives.”
Aleigha’s music typically germinates during prayer. “Sometimes I feel a song swelling up within me, and I don’t even know what form it will take, so I just pick up my guitar and see what happens. In those times … it’s even a surprise to me how it connects whatever is going on in the depths of my heart to a story in Scripture.
“For example, in Ransom Blood (a song on my new album, The Labyrinth), I started writing it because I was feeling introverted and overwhelmed. I felt the urge to put that emotion into song, so I let it flow out of me … and when I began writing the second verse I realized, ‘Oh! This is about St. Peter at Pentecost!’”
Aleigha advises other would-be Catholic artists to “do some soul-searching to make sure this is really the direction your life is supposed to head and then run headlong into it, with Christ leading you. He will bless you abundantly, beyond your wildest dreams, if you cooperate with his plan.”
She also advises kinship among artists: “The people God puts in your life are there so you can build one another up and use your gifts for the betterment of his kingdom.”
The young musician works at the cathedral-parish of Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary Duluth, Minnesota, and in the nearby university’s Newman Center, running retreats, ministering to college students and organizing music ministry.
She recalls that, before declaring her double major in theology and catechetics, she had to sign a waiver acknowledging that the degree was no ticket to a solid income. The same “missionary mindset” applies to being a Catholic artist, she has found. Like any young entrepreneur, Aleigha found she needed investors: Her band started a GoFundMe.com page to help cover the costs for their first album.
“It’s definitely a struggle,” said Aleigha, “learning to rely on the generosity of others who believe in your project. … Asking others for financial support kills pride and grows gratitude, in the recognition that I really can’t do this on my own.”
Nevertheless, Aleigha takes delight in the natural synergy between her day jobs and her music ventures. She enjoys teaching on the Mass, the Eucharist in the Old Testament and theology of the body, which informs her creative work —The Labyrinth “is very much inspired by my love for Genesis and these truths of what it means to be human.”
This deep integration of musical, professional and spiritual life coexists, for Aleigha, alongside certain boundaries. Although her musical experience began at Mass, she considers worship and performance to be quite different. Performing is “putting on a show, entertaining people,” whereas at Mass musicians are “vessels … [for] an authentic encounter with Our Lord.”
Aleigha knows that her style of worship isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. As the New Evangelization bears fruit, young Catholics have flocked to both praise-and-worship liturgies and the traditional Latin Mass, which embraces everything from chant and Renaissance polyphony to the music of Bruchner and Biebl. Connections between Catholics in the two liturgical camps, however, can be tenuous.
Aleigha said, “I think it’s a sign of spiritual maturity to recognize the beauty that both styles of prayer have to offer. From what I’ve gathered, it seems that the root of this division is a basic misunderstanding of the other. I don’t think we should be closed off to the possibility of incorporating both styles into our daily prayer, but embrace the goodness of both. … When I lead music at Mass, I like to combine the styles of prayer — I select music from among praise-and-worship songs as well as ancient hymns, and I like to incorporate chant when I can.”
This month the new album and preparing for AbbeyFest are keeping Aleigha busy, and songwriting is temporarily on hold.
It’s a demanding time, but she remains “grateful … that the Lord can use someone as small as me in ways I couldn’t have dreamed possible. He is never outdone in generosity and continues to blow me away with his goodness.”
Sophia Mason Feingold writes from Florida.
You can follow Aly Aleigha on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (@alyaleigha) and find her music through her website, iTunes or other online distributors. She would love to hear from anyone interested in the band’s project!
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