There is nothing like life experience to provide a deeper, richer emotional palette for a songwriter to draw from when crafting new music. For Amy Grant, it's been 10 years since her last full studio album and it's been a decade marked by soul-shaking milestones. As she's always done, Grant has embraced both the triumphs and challenges, distilled them to their essence and poured the lessons learned into songs that ache with honesty and reverberate with gentle wisdom.
How Mercy Looks From Here is the soundtrack of a life well-lived. "A lot of major life changes happened during these past few years." Grant says. "So on this record, there's zero filler. Every song has a real story behind it."
In telling those stories, Grant recruited an impressive array of friends and heroes, including James Taylor, Carole King, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Eric Paslay, and Will Hoge. Working with producer Marshall Altman (Natasha Bedingfield, Matt Nathanson), Grant has delivered a vibrant collection of songs that are entertaining and substantive, and it wasn't by accident. Inspired by a conversation with her ailing mother, Grant approached this album as a woman on a mission.
"A conversation I had with my mother a couple of months before she died helped set the direction for this record," says Grant, whose mother passed away in April 2011. "Mom had a lifelong curiosity that kept her young at heart even when her mind was failing. One night, when I stopped by to visit her on my way to my bus to drive to a concert, she was surprised to discover that I was a singer ‘Oh you sing?' she asked. I said, ‘Yes ma'am. I sing,' She asked, ‘What kind of songs do you sing?' I was explaining what I sang to her and she asked if she could get on the bus and go with me. She was frail and clearly wearing out and I said, 'Not this time.' She said, ‘Well if I can't go, do me a favor. When you get on stage, sing something that matters.'"
That simple, profound bit of advice took root and became Grant's mantra for this new record. "My plan is to dedicate this record to my mom," she says. "And that's how I describe it, it's not all serious. It's not all silly. It's just things that matter."
Grant has built a long, successful career on music that matters. Ever since she burst on the scene as a fresh-faced teenager bringing contemporary Christian music to the forefront of American culture, the Nashville native gained a reputation for creating potent songs that examined life's complexities with an open heart and keen eye. She became the first artist in Christian music to have a platinum record and went on to become a crossover sensation, her musical gifts transcending genre boundaries to make her a household name. She's earned six Grammy Awards and numerous Gospel Music Association Dove Awards as well as three multi-platinum albums, six platinum albums and four gold albums. She's achieved 10 Top 40 pop singles and placed 17 hits on the Top 40 Adult Contemporary chart as well as scoring numerous hits on the contemporary Christian charts. A longtime and active Nashville resident, Grant is as well known for her philanthropy as her music. She and husband, Vince Gill, are tireless in their efforts to aid worthy causes.
On How Mercy Looks From Here, Grant delivers one of the most powerful albums of her distinguished career. The project opens with "If I Could See," a spirited up tempo number with an engaging melody and uplifting lyric kicking off the album with a sense of purpose and feeling of musical adventure. It imparts the feeling that an important journey is set to begin and Grant then proceeds to take the listener on an eventful ride.
Some of the tunes burst forth with a sense of anticipation and optimism while others lean into life most challenging moments. The tender ballad, "Shovel in Hand," began as a poem Grant penned after her son, Matt, lost a close friend when he was only 19. The song chronicles the emotion a mother feels seeing her child wrestle with tragedy. "His friend had a car wreck coming back home from college," recalls Grant. "He was a sophomore at then University of Alabama and it was Mother's Day weekend. It was his 20th birthday."
"Better Not to Know" also came from the deep well of personal experience. After her grandmother died in 1988, Grant took her inheritance money and planted 75 fruit trees on the Tennessee farm where she was living with her first husband and children. "I went through a divorce and left the farm," she says. "Ten years after I had left the farm, the people that owned the farm called a dear friend of mine and said, ‘I'm pretty sure Amy planted these fruit trees and they are covered in fruit.' There had not been one speck of fruit for years. I showed up with a ladder and baskets. There were pears, peaches and apples and it was unbelievable. I was up there eating the fruit and it was so good. It was the sweetest peach I'd ever had. It was really emotional at that first harvest. I started thinking, ‘If I had known twenty years earlier what life would bring, I don't know that I would have planted the trees. Sometimes it's better not to know."
"Don't Try So Hard" is a tender ballad about resting in God's grace that features James Taylor. "I've loved his voice forever," Grant says with a smile. "A couple of summers ago he invited Vince and me to come up and be a part of his 4th of July concert. We stayed at their home and their twins are the same age as our daughter Corrina, so that was really sweet. After Marshall and I had recorded ‘Don't Try So Hard,' I said, ‘I hear James Taylor on these lines and I'd love to ask him if he'd sing on this.' He worked from home and he really spent some time stylizing it. He sent me a really sweet email afterwards saying that he'd "spent the last several days with my voice in his head and hoped I was pleased."
Grant recruited Carole King to join her on the upbeat "Our Time Is Now." "I felt like that lyric applied to both of us, to Carol and myself. It's a special song," Grants says of the tune, which also features her children's voices and her father. Among the other guests vocalists on the album is Nashville-based singer/songwriter Will Hoge. "I'm such a Will Hoge fan, so having him sing on ‘Shovel In Hand' was really special," she says. "The raw, rough edges of his voice fit the tone of the song."
The only outside song on the album is "Deep As It Is Wide," written by new country artist Eric Paslay, whose writing credits include Jake Owens' "Barefoot Blue Jean Night" and the Eli Young Band's "Even if It Breaks Your Heart." Grant invited Paslay and Sheryl Crow to join her on "Deep As It is Wide," a gorgeous ballad about the depth and breadth of God's amazing love.
Framed by Altman's skilled production, Grant's voice has never sounded more compelling and each song feels like a personal story shared by a treasured friend. "I feel the most settled in life and creatively I feel like a kid again," Grant relates. "I'm watching my children launch. It's so exciting to sit back and cheer and it leaves me with a lot of free time to reinvest now in things that I've always loved, creativity being at the top of the list. If you want to be a healthy person hang out with healthy people. If you want to enjoy the outdoors, make friends who enjoy the outdoors because you can feel that camaraderie and encouragement. Our home environment is so conducive to creativity. Vince is always in the studio working on something. Jenny Gill is finishing her first record. Corrina loves to dance and sing.All of our styles are different, but I love that there is always music coming from one room or another."
The songs on How Mercy Looks From Here represent a season of growth, yet as personal as they are, they are also universal. Everyone can relate to love, loss and the passing of time. "At some point in life you realize that some things really matter and some things don't," Grants says. "Living matters. Celebrating life matters. Seeing the value in hard times matters. Relationships and people matter. Faith matters. I feel like that's where my head has been while writing and recording his project. I feel this is a very positive record. I hope it is life affirming. Life prepares us for the journey. You don't know what's ahead and that is one of the great things about getting older in a framework of faith. Faith is the one thing that stands the test of time."