Amy Grant’s new album, Behind the Eyes, finds Nashville’s best-known pop singer returning to the contemplative songwriting that made her contemporary Christian music’s biggest star. After two albums of bubbly pop music, 1991’s Hearts in Motion and 1994’s House of Love, Grant is returning to a simpler, more acoustic format. In the process, she’s seeking to regain the critical respect that has slipped from her grasp since the breezy pop of “Baby Baby” and “Lucky One” put her on top of the charts.
She has succeeded too: Behind the Eyes, which comes out Sept. 9, features the best work of Grant’s career. By no means is it a drastic departure: The singer still delivers glossy, rhythmic pop music that shimmers with effervescent accessibility. Many will find escapist pleasure in the buoyant, upbeat melodies and sprightly arrangements. But with the help of longtime collaborators Keith Thomas and Wayne Kirkpatrick, Grant has toned down the instrumental density of her other ’90s efforts, balancing the collection with a handful of intimate songs. These quieter tunes are hardly stark or raw, but they do represent state-of-the-art pop with a mature slantand on those terms, they’re completely commendable.
The surprises come in how boldly Grant bares her tribulations. Displaying a brave honesty, she reveals how heartache, disappointments, and self-doubts have led to some tortured soul searching. The songs suggest she has confronted the kind of painful losses and frustrations common to many adults, no matter how fortunate or well-off they may be. But throughout, Grant is relentlessly positive; even the down-hearted tunes end in optimistic or open-hearted conclusions. In the end, she comes across as a deeply religious woman who draws strength from her beliefs and who strives to act as an encouraging friend, an honest lover, and a positive influence on her community and the world at large.
For Grant, the album represents her commitment to becoming a musician once again. While her early albums pictured her with an acoustic guitar, she gave up playing it in the late ’80s. “Once I could pay somebody else to play guitar, I did,” she admits with an easy laugh. “Every once in a while, I would learn a song to play live. But, honestly, it mostly was just a prop. Nobody was depending on me to follow through with the music. Part of that was a good choice, because I was never very good. But, over the long haul, it was a really bad choice, because I painted myself out of the picture musically.”
A couple of incidents prodded her to pick up her guitar once more. After covering Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” on her last album, she wanted to be able to perform it live. And during on-air radio interviews, she would occasionally be asked to perform “Baby Baby” or “I Will Remember You” or some other hit. “Even though those were songs I’d written, I couldn’t do it,” she says. “I had lost all of my tools.” This loss coincided with other hard realizations about herself. They all piled up into a mess of insecurities that began to take their toll. “I started feeling more and more like a hood ornament,” she says, “and not like the real deal.”
When she started writing the songs for Behind the Eyes, Grant became determined to improve her perception of herself. The process began on a day off during her 1995 concert tour, when she paid a visit to Caribou Ranch in Colorado, a resort and studio space where she recorded many of her best-known songs of the ’80s. “I felt like I went back there and dealt with some of my old ghosts at a time when I was starting to lose my footing,” she says. “I spent the night in this cabin I had stayed in many, many times. There was a full moon, it was freezing cold, and there was snow on the ground. I built a fire, and the first thing I wrote was the chorus of ‘It Takes a Little Time.’ I stayed in the cabin most of the next day and wrote the beginnings of six songs. It was so emotional for me. I got to the show that night just in time to go onstage and sing.”
As she finished writing the songs, Grant started to see a pattern emerge. “I was baffled by how much sadness I had inside,” she says. “It wasn’t the kind of sadness that would make me want to walk out on the ledge and jump. It was sadness at the beauty of some of the things I felt.” In other words, she felt herself confronting emotions she had stored away for a while.
To illustrate those feelings, Grant tells a story about her daughter Millie. Earlier this year, the 7-year-old went away to a 13-day summer camp. When Grant picked her up on the last day, she could tell how attached her daughter had become to her cabin-mates and her counselors. On the return flight home, Grant awoke from a nap to find her daughter staring into the distance with a melancholy expression. “I said, ‘Are you OK?’ Her chin started quivering, and I pulled her into my lap. She said, ‘Mama, it will never be the same again, will it?’ I said, ‘You mean that cabin, those counselors, those moments? No, baby, it will never be the same. It might be better. It might be different. But that moment was what it was.’ That’s like a microcosm of what I was feeling at the time. It’s that kind of sadness that’s on the record.... It’s saying, ‘Gosh, even sweet things are sad when they’re over.’ ”
Grant’s other major epiphany in the making of the album came when producer Keith Thomas said he wanted to write a song with her based on the chorus phrase, “turn this world around.” Initially, Grant balked; already, she had begun to feel that, as a songwriter, she simply took the ideas of her collaborators and “connected the dots,” as she puts it. “I wind up writing the song, but it’s not about me,” she says.
Grant decided she would write the song only if she could determine a way to make it mean something to her. Just such an opportunity happened during a chance encounter in Santa Monica, Ca., while she was putting the finishing touches on her album. The day she arrived, she took a walk in a park overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Shortly after she sat down on a park bench, a middle-aged homeless man asked her if she’d watch his bags while he looked for a bathroom. When he returned, he asked if he could sit down.
They struck up a conversation. Grant explained that she was in Los Angeles on work. As he pulled a wrinkled newspaper from his bag, the man said he was looking for work. Grant leaned over to look at the paper, asking, ‘Oh, what are you looking for?’ She didn’t realize until then that he was holding what she calls “a porno paper,” most likely a promotional tabloid packed with ads for massage parlors and prostitutes. The man, who had identified himself as Johnny Gillespie, intimated that he was going to find work pleasuring a woman. Grant laughed and told him, “Johnny, I can’t imagine a woman really having to pay for sex.”
The two spent the next hour or two telling their life stories. Among other things, Gillespie talked about his drug problems, his participation in a 12-step program, and his struggles living without shelter. They talked about their families, their relationships, and their musical preferences. Grant says some of his stories probably should have frightened her, especially since no one else knew where she was. (Besides that, every once in a while, Johnny would inject, “I wouldn’t come up to your room unless you asked me to.”) But Grant stayed, listening and sharing. At one point, he asked her for money, and she gave him $20 of the $36 she was carrying. Just before they parted, some teens came up, selling knickknacks. Grant started to buy some unusual-looking candles, but the homeless man interrupted, insisting she let him buy them for her. “He said, ‘Every time you light those candles, you think of Johnny Gillespie,’ ” she recalls.
Back in her hotel room, Grant wrote down several lines that formed the nucleus of “Turn This World Around.” It begins with the verses, “We are all the same it seems/Behind the eyes/Broken promises and dreams/In good disguise/All we’re really looking for is somewhere safe and warm/The shelter of each other in the storm.” After her park encounter, Grant felt she had finally turned the songwhich she cowrote with Keith Thomas and Beverly Darnallinto something that had meaning for her. Now, every time she lights into the song, she’ll think of Johnny Gillespie.
In all, Grant recorded 31 songs before choosing 12 for the album. She worried that the mood of the collection was too somber, but when she played the album for friends, they told her that it was filled with honesty and hope. “I kind of backed away and thought, ‘What a weird combination, sad and hopeful.’ But you know what? That’s how a lot of my life feels to me.”
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