Why Sing Secular When You’ve Got God’s Ear?

A conversation with award-winning Catholic singer-songwriter Gretchen Harris. By Anthony Flott.

Like many Catholics blessed with supple vocal cords, the talent to use them well, and the desire to compose and sing for the greater glory of God, Gretchen Harris is happy to perform at all sorts of venues. But, given her druthers, she would choose a Catholic church every time — “with the tabernacle right there. … It just works much better when you’re with God.”

The reigning female vocalist of the year, as awarded by the United Catholic Mission and Video Association, Harris is familiar to listeners of religious-format radio stations throughout the United States. She spoke from her home in Los Angeles with Register correspondent Anthony Flott.

Tell me a bit about your family background and how you got started in music.

I was born out of wedlock and adopted as an infant. I’ve always felt like the hand of God picked me up from a bad situation and placed me with his loving grace into the beautiful arms of my parents — holy, Catholic people who brought me up with a love and respect for the Catholic faith and respect for priests. We had a deeply Catholic upbringing. I’m grateful to God every day for that.

As far as singing, I started in my parish’s choir and ended up having to cantor. I was cantoring post-Communion meditations and people would come up to me afterward with tears in their eyes, saying how much they were touched by the song. That was when I first realized I had a gift of singing from deep in my soul to people and singing them to go deeper in their prayer life and in their relationship with God.

Do you have a set routine for writing songs?

I’m starting a project where, after Mass, I go into the Blessed Sacrament chapel in our church and I reflect on the Psalm. I’ve been writing songs about my reflections on the Psalms.

You mentioned Amy Grant, an evangelical Protestant, as your primary musical influence. What was it about her music that made an impression on you?

Her early stuff — the joyful songs were so happy. The songs about being a child of God, the songs about how much God is with you. The songs were very personal, yet you can feel them as personal in your own life. I’ve always wanted to write personal songs that are absolutely relatable to anyone — and have it all connected with faith and God’s grace so people can be more thankful for whatever is going on in their lives.

Musically, everything was so well produced. I remember listening to her album “Straight Ahead” with headphones on. I just couldn’t believe there were Christian lyrics with such great sounding music. Contemporary Christian music carried me through my ups and downs. I just remember thinking, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be great to have contemporary-sounding, great music with Catholic musicians singing about the Blessed Mother and the sacraments and the Eucharist and reconciliation? That’s what I want to do.”

What do you hope to accomplish with your music ministry?

I am deeply affected by the Sorrowful Mother, Our Lady of Sorrows, and what she went through in her early life and the apparitions that have happened. So many times she is crying, and I love her so much and I felt like I’ve known her for so much of my life that I don’t want to see her cry. What she asks for is prayer, and she wants people to pray the Rosary. So my whole point of ministry, and what I talk about when I’m in concert, everything I do is to get people to pray.

Do you have a favorite memory as a professional?

In Brazil we were singing for a huge youth festival outdoors. Kind of like Woodstock. There were roughly 50,000 young people in this open field, and the [crowd noise] was deafening yet very energizing. The great thing at the festival was when they processed the Blessed Sacrament from the back all the way to the stage. It took about 20 minutes for the procession to make it from one point to the other. The spotlight was shining on Jesus the whole way. It sounded like the Super Bowl.

Finally, when he was ascending the steps in the monstrance onto the stage, it was like a hundred touchdowns sounding. It was the most beautiful, inspiring thing. To see the enthusiasm from these youth who really have nothing — they really have nothing but their faith.

How would you describe the state of Catholic music when you first started in the industry?

I didn’t know it existed — that was the state. As I said, I thought it was a nice idea and I thought, “Why isn’t anyone doing that?” I was going to Christian bookstores and listening to Christian radio. I went to Catholic stores and I wasn’t hearing it. You had John Michael Talbot and Dana was there. The big Catholic music companies were only doing liturgical music.

Things have changed in the past 10 years. It seems that the Catholic publishing media, music companies, have all taken on non-liturgical music and they’ve been promoting it quite well. It’s been mostly geared toward the youth, which is a great target for Catholics today, especially in the United States. And they’ve really picked up some great people to listen to in the car. That, in itself, is really the biggest change. Albums are very well produced. More funds are going that way. The quality of contemporary Catholic music has definitely developed in a really nice way in recent years.

Anthony Flott writes from Papillion, Nebraska.