Sarah Jahn is the mirror image of Jars of Clay. At first glance, there are a lot of similarities, but a mirror produces reverse images, not exact replicas, and so with Sarah Jahn. Both were Gospel Music Week Spotlight Competition winners, Jars of Clay in '94, Sarah Jahn in '95. Both attended Greenville College in Illinois. But after receiving her award, Sarah returned to school and completed her degree, while the members of Jars of Clay did not.
Sarah is a practical person. She planned on a career in physical therapy when she enrolled as a biology major at Greenville. Mid-sophomore year, when many of her contemporaries were bailing out of the CCM program for more realistic pursuits, Sarah finally yielded to the call of music and switched majors.
"For me, it wasn't the plan to go into music. The only reason I did it was because God called me to do it, and I thank God that He did because I love doing it. I didn't consider myself a good singer. I'd been in choirs and everything, but that was just a hobby. It was acting on a calling for me to go into music. But there are times when it gets so hard that, if it weren't for God, I wouldn't be doing this. "
"Before that, I was rebelling, 'No, no, it doesn't make sense, doesn't make sense!' I thought the whole CCM program was ridiculous; I made fun of people that did it. I thought, 'You're wasting all your time and money, you're not going to get a job out of this. What good is it going to do you?' But for me, I think that I needed to major in it because it requires you to take courses in a lot of different areas. You hit a little bit of music business, recording techniques in the studio, music theory, piano lessons, voice, performance experience. You get a little splattering of everything, and not only that; it was a small school, so I had more opportunities, more hands-on opportunities I didn't necessarily learn in the classroom."
Sarah took on the task of booking musical entertainment for the school. "They said, 'It's your job to spend the summer making all these phone calls and calling up all these booking agents and managers and book the shows for the year, and here's your budget, and there you go.' I negotiated the prices, coordinated the students' help, set them up into crews, hospitality, tickets, security, and everything. That's how I gained the confidence to talk to industry people. I did that before I started doing my own concerts, and it taught me how to book my shows."
"The CCM program at Greenville isn't going to get anybody into the Christian music industry. Teachers just aren't going to hand you knowledge on a platter. You have to put an effort into it, and you decide what you're going to get out of it. Some people don't get anything out of it. It's a big draw for students to come there, then they change into another major. But for me, I really needed that experience."
The similarities to Jars of Clay continue. Both have toured throughout the country and received secular radio airplay, but Sarah's country is Japan. Through her friendship with a Japanese student at Greenville, a six-week summer tour was arranged.
"They promoted me as a Christian singer and, between the songs, my friend would translate for me and explain the songs. I played in what they call "live houses"--a combination of coffeehouse/bar. I also played in a museum gallery, a fair or two, and got some television, newspaper, and local radio coverage. It's tricky because there's a lot of things lacking in the Japanese vocabulary to translate some of the ideas. They don't really talk much about emotional and spiritual things. While I was there, I really fell in love with Japan and Japanese culture and felt a real burden for them. Only about 2% of the people are Christians, and I feel really strongly that I'm going to have something to do with Japan in the future."
Like Jars of Clay, Sarah Jahn cut an independent record in order to shop her talent to record labels. Unlike Jars of Clay, Sarah's sold-out indie doesn't have a $500 asking price among collectors, but it was still an important step to gaining recognition. One of her compositions, "Crucible," was selected by St. Louis FM progressive rock station 105.7 for inclusion in their annual compilation of unsigned local bands.
Sarah also began to participate in the larger community of Christian music. Her cover of "Yahweh Love" on the Never Say Dinosaur Petra tribute album was a memorable introduction for many Christian listeners to her artistry. "I was still at school, and the guy from Star Song said, 'Hey, why don't you do this Petra song? We'll send you all the Petra CD's and you can pick what song you want.' The arrangement came from Matt Bonleewee, one of the original members of Jars of Clay."
After graduating from Greenville College in December, 1995, Sarah moved to Nashville and began to pursue her calling in earnest. Nothing has come easily, but she has even profited from her set backs: "I've been without management for some big periods of time, and that was pretty stressful. I didn't have anybody else asking a lot of questions or getting contacts. I learned a whole lot more since I didn't have that as a crutch. I think it's a little bit dangerous for new artists to get a manager right away because they're kind of crippled if it doesn't work out. Also, if all they have to go on are the things that go through the manager, they don't really get a taste of reality; they aren't able to judge for themselves what's going on. It was really tough, but I think not having a manager helped me a lot."
She finally signed an agreement with Warner Alliance and began developing her first major release, Sparkle. Like Jars of Clay, Sarah chose a producer who wasn't from Nashville or Christian music, Glenn Rosenstein. He'd done three Ziggy Marley albums, Joe Saville, and Michelle Shocked. "I felt it would be a good match. It was really cool because we didn't get the "Nashville sound." Except for some small percussion stuff, there are no session players on the CD; the band that I played with did the recording." Unlike Jars of Clay's secular producer, Adrien Belew, who only produced two songs, Rosenstein produced the entire project.
"My sound is continually evolving. On the independent CD, it was more guitar-based, guitar-driven, and now it's more groove-based. Guitar is still a very important part, but it's not as acoustic; it's more electric with colorings along with the keyboard. "Drinking Water" is the peppiest one on there, my peppy limit. I've always wanted an emotionally intense factor to my music that people can relate to. Even if they can't catch all the lyrics, they can get the idea, the feeling of the song.
She played Cornerstone festival in 1996. "I was so nervous. I have so much respect for Cornerstone--all the acts that play there and the people that go. It's different than other festivals. People who are really, really into music go to Cornerstone. Other festivals are more like a family thing, especially the ones at amusement parks where they're there for a day, primarily to ride the rides. I wasn't as comfortable back then on stage as I am now. I'm not saying I'm totally comfortable now, but back then I was a wreck!"
Much of Sarah's support and inspiration come from her family. "I was the oldest child. As the oldest child, you don't have things handed to you. I had more independence as an older child and a tighter grasp on the fact that I have an amount of control over what happens to me. You need to be able to take that responsibility and say, 'Well, if I don't do this, this is going to happen to me.'
"I have a really strong family unit as well. It's a nuclear family, something that's not very common nowadays. I get a lot of support from my parents, my mom especially. She has really been there for me for prayer support. She's always telling me, 'Sarah, you're not doing this by yourself. There's your family, there are your friends that are praying for you. You're the one that has your name on the cover, your face is on the picture, but there's actually a whole team of people in this ministry that are praying and supporting you, keeping you accountable.'"
"Chronic" was written about her mother's debilitating illness, chronic fatigue syndrome. "She realized that she doesn't have control of the syndrome, and she doesn't have control over her own body. The thing that she does have control over is her attitude each day. My family definitely believes in healing because my brother was healed of leukemia when he was three years old. It wasn't remission; it was total healing. My mother's illness has been a real test of faith. It's embarrassing. Doctors are embarrassed that they don't know what to do with it. There's that side to the song, but I think it parallels our simple human nature. If we're living on a surface level, everything seems to be OK. There are some little problems we can fix, that we can deal with. But once in a while, it seeps down. People are afraid to search out that low and hit that, and say, 'Wow. I'm alone. I can't hold on to anybody, and there isn't anything that can help me with this.' There are just some things that we carry with us, that we can't do anything about.
"Even when we're growing in faith, there are some things we can't figure out, that we don't have the answers to. We can get really caught up in our doubts, but we have to rest in the fact that although we don't really know what this is, we have to keep going with our faith. You have to get to the point where it's OK to say, 'I don't know.'"
For Sarah's mirrored resemblance to Jars of Clay to continue, she knows this prolonged start-up period must give way to the momentum of popular success, a crescendo of sales in mainstream markets that causes the general church-going public to take notice. "My goal is to be in both markets. I've wanted from the very beginning to be able to market it everywhere. It's only in the Christian markets right now, but the thing with Japan is exciting. I've found out that Sparkle is going to be released in Japan which is very exciting for Warner. This is the first time that a Christian album from Warner-Alliance has gone straight over to Japan. If there's enough spots for the album on radio, then they'll bring me over for a tour. We're going to try to get the attention of a secular label to pick it up and put it out in the mainstream here."