The first song I ever heard from contemporary artist Ellie Holcomb was "The Broken Beautiful" from her debut album, As Sure As the Sun. I reconnected with her music last year when I heard she and her husband Drew Holcomb sing their song "Family" during a live stream, hosted by alternative band Switchfoot. I also heard Ellie and Drew sing on "Survival," a popular song by rock band NEEDTOBREATHE. She's an amazing vocalist and songwriter, and she has a heart fully committed to God.
When I heard that she was working on her third studio album, Canyon, I knew I wanted to talk to her about it. I caught up with her recently to talk about Canyon, as well as working with NEEDTOBREATHE, and finding God's love amid heartache.
You have a new album out called Canyon. What's the message behind the record?
I wrote the record in the wake of a tornado that tore through my neighborhood in Nashville. We woke up to our house shaking. It was the scariest night of my life. Then, a week later, the COVID-19 pandemic safer-at-home restrictions hit, which led to a year of loss and sorrow. The record's message acknowledges that there's a deeper sorrow, but also a higher hope.
I've learned to lament and grieve over the past couple of years. It started with my personal life, via a counseling journey and grieving the deepest wounds in my life. Through it, I encountered the presence, tenderness, and empathy of God. In the process of grieving and weeping was breathing in the beauty of companionship, even in the deepest sorrow.
Then, I received the opportunity to practice grieving globally during the past year. Being human is to be broken. We all know what it's like to have our hearts split wide open like a canyon. But there, in the deepest part of our pain and sorrow, there's a river running through. There's a current of God's love that will carry us even when it feels like we can't carry on any longer. It carries us back to a place of knowing that we belong to love.
The album feels triumphant, in a way, even though it was written amid so much pain. But I think there's joy in the discovery of knowing that even at our worst, we are held and we are beloved.
Recently, you released the music video for your song "I Don't Want to Miss It." What was it like to film that?
We had a great time. When someone says, "Hey, can you frolic through a field?" I'm in. It was a beautiful day. We blared the music and sang loudly.
There's a lot of noise right now with social media and cancel culture. So, my hope for "I Don't Want to Miss It" is that it turns up the volume of the song of love that God is singing over every single beating human heart. Knowing that we're beloved even in our most broken places changes the atmosphere and the way that we interact with everyone.
My hope for the whole record, but specifically for "I Don't Want to Miss It," is to turn up the song that creation is singing, day in and day out, about God's love and His faithfulness.
NEEDTOBREATHE's lead singer Bear Rinehart is featured on your new song, "Sweet Ever After." What was that collaboration like for you?
It was an amazing experience. Bear is a dear friend. I think the world of him, his songwriting and voice. My husband Drew and I have been on the road with NEEDTOBREATHE so much over the years. But we never had the chance to write a song together.
"Sweet Ever After" was very much a "COVID write." The day Bear and I were supposed to write the song, NEEDTOBREATHE was releasing their album, Out of Body. It was release day, and Bear's child was about to be born. So, I told him that he shouldn't come to the co-write that day and that he should stay home. He said, "I'll stay home, but can I send you the song ideas that I started?" So, we ended up writing this song through voice memos on our phones.
It all started with demos that he sent me. Then, I'd add some different lyrics through text messages, sing voice memos, and send them back to him. It was great when Bear finally came to the studio. We were socially distant, and the producer and I masked up while he was singing.
We recorded some of the music videos for Canyon in Big Bend National Park in Texas (We actually ended up being there on Election Day). That day, I kept singing the chorus of "Sweet Ever After": "A lot of bad days still coming our way, but it's sweet ever after."
My whole team of women who were shooting the photography and the videography for the record were asking what I was singing. I told them, "It's this chorus from a demo, but it's what I need to sing today." There's a beautiful hope that this world is not our home. I think we're all very aware of that right now. There's a day coming when every sad thing will come untrue, and we're going to be one, as Jesus is one with the Father.
It's been a few years since your last album was released. What has God been teaching you since your last album, Red Sea Road?
Red Sea Road was the story of how I saw God show up in my community as we were walking through a lot of loss and heartache with dear friends. Canyon tells the story of how God has shown up in my pain. My understanding of the gospel was like a raindrop. With Canyon, God showed me that it's a whole ocean. He's been teaching me that there are underground reservoirs of love, light, hope, and peace that are accessible for every single one of us.
There's a deeper sorrow that we know on this broken earth, but because of that, hope is higher. God's hope and His love run deeper than our deepest sorrows. That's the theme of Canyon, and it's what He's been teaching me.
If you can go to the most wounded places in your story and encounter God's love and empathy, you realize that the pain and your fears aren't going to kill you. There's a presence of love even there. When you're in the pit of a canyon and you realize you still have a reason to sing, the canyon echoes off all the broken pieces. I think Canyon is me learning to sing during sorrow.
During quarantine, you and your husband, Drew, invited fans virtually into your home with your online Kitchen Covers series, giving your own renditions of popular songs. How did this endeavor bring hope during the uncertainty of the pandemic?
Music has always been a balm for our souls. He said to me, "Music has always been medicine. Let's sing our way through this sad and strange season that we're in." It was such a joy for us to be in the kitchen, holding on to hope. What I love most about music is that it connects our stories. It helps us all feel less alone. And what was so beautiful about Kitchen Covers was that the songs were still connecting us, even though we couldn't be together to sing them. It brought a sense that we're alone together. We were all quarantined, but hope wasn't quarantined. We had the opportunity to let that out through songs every night, and it was powerful.
What's next for you? Are there any plans for a tour?
I've been reading author C.S. Lewis' famous book The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with my kids. And it feels like we're in the season where the main protagonist Aslan comes back from the dead and the eternal winter that's set in starts to melt. It's not overnight, but slowly life is coming back.
This autumn, I'll be on tour. And, my husband and I will tour together in February 2022. In fact, we just announced the lineup for our Moon River Music Festival, which is an outdoor festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee. We're so happy to be hosting a music gathering.
Finally, how can we be praying for you?
I need prayer that there will be a continued practice of being still as life picks up pace again. Life was moving too fast before the COVID-19 pandemic. I don't want to miss what happens in the margin with my family and my relationship with the Lord. So please pray for protection, provision, and margin.
Also, pray for safety as we venture into gathering back together. There's a lot of pressure. We want to do what God wants us to. We want to gather together, but we also want to make sure that we're protecting people and considering people's health. So pray for protection as we begin to participate in the community again.
Grace Chaves has been a fan of all things Christian music since 2016. She is NRT's news editor, and one of NRT's youngest writers. Homeschooled, Grace is an author, loves Jesus, concerts, and road trips.
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