The plot twist…that moment in a story when an event or experience dramatically shifts the future direction of the storyline and all the characters involved. I’ve always found these moments fascinating in real life, and so I started this new, recurring series—called “The Twist”—where I talk to entrepreneurs and explore the plot twist that led them to start their businesses.
As a mom, wife, singer, songwriter, and recording artist, there are many paths I could choose to explore with Sara Groves. For the sake of this interview, I elected to focus on her role as contemporary Christian singer/songwriter, in which she’s been nominated for seven Dove Awards and produced a string of successful albums including her latest, Floodplain.
I’ve been following Sara’s career since 2002 when a friend showed me her Conversations album. At first listen, my ears immediately awoke. Being raised in the church and with its mostly stiff, untouchable music, her vulnerable storytelling was a breath of fresh air. Just what I needed to hear at that point in my life. And her evolving story continues to resonate with the morphing of my own.
I had the opportunity to briefly meet Sara at a recent show, benefiting the International Justice Mission that advocates for victims of human trafficking. And a few weeks later, I was grateful to consume 30 minutes of her time to discuss her shift from schoolteacher to singer, her songwriting process, and the legacy she hopes to leave behind as an artist.
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Joe: Could you, in about a minute, share a quick bio—who you are, where you grew up, any siblings, all the usual particulars.
Sara Groves: Yeah, I grew up in Springfield, Missouri. I’m the oldest of three girls, and my folks are both educators. My mom was an elementary school principal. My dad taught at a small Christian liberal arts college. I met my husband there, and we moved up to Minneapolis right after school. So I’ve been here in St. Paul now longer than I’ve been anywhere else. I’ve got three kids. And that’s my family bio, pretty much, in a minute.
Joe: Ah ha. So when did you first think, “Hey, I want to be a songwriter,” or, “I want to make music as my profession?”
Sara Groves: I didn’t think it should be my profession. It took me a long time for that coin to drop, but I was writing music from very young. It’s been my way of relating to the world since as long as I can remember. It’s that thing that my folks didn’t have to tell me to go play the piano. I was drawn to it. My mom was very musical and played piano—she was classically trained—and so we had used a bedroom just to play piano. Because of that designated space I think it allowed me to just spend hours in there writing.
It wasn’t until I married my husband, who is extremely entrepreneurial, that music as a profession became a possibility. I think he—and my father-in-law—just saw something that they felt was bigger than our living room. They’re really the engine behind going from teaching 10th grade history and english from 1995 to 1998 to music full time.
What happened was I had just finished an independent record in the summer of 1997. I remember eating dinner with the producer, the engineer, and my husband, Troy—just celebrating that we’d finished. The next day I was heading back to teach, and one of the producers asked me, “So what are you going to do with this? What do you see yourself doing with the record?” I was like, “I’m going to give it to friends and family and then go teach. And if I get an opportunity to sing, maybe I’ll use it then.” The engineer goes, “You know you could do this for a living.” And I was like, “What? That’s crazy!”
It had never even dawned on me. But I think Troy just needed to hear that to start thinking what it might look like. And that was the point when the coin dropped. It made sense that, even though we didn’t have an audience yet, that we could be more intentional about it.
Joe: It sounds like you jumped right into it then. Did it all happen faster than you thought it might?
Sara Groves: Yes and no. There were certain things that happened really fast. My very first concert, in fact, was my CD release concert. But also, I was a bit embarrassed. I mean, I was a teacher—a very respectable job. And so why, in my mid 20s, should I be embarking on this now? Am I taking a step backwards to start a band? I didn’t have this overwhelming sense of, I was born to do this. But at the same time, I did. I had a sense of calling, I did feel like I’m supposed to do this, even if I’m foolish in it.
Joe: Yeah, right.
Sara Groves: Yeah, it was fast in the sense that there was a label person at my first concert, which is so crazy because I don’t live in the circles at all. But he was just newly hired by this label, which is now defunct, called Pamplin Records. We found ourselves being flown first class to Nashville and then Portland.
We had this really weird, big experience. We were, I don’t know, big. It’s all relative. But we were meeting with John Elefante, who was the lead singer of Kansas after Kerry Livgren. The whole thing is just like you see on TV. We were being treated super well, and so we were validated in that we had some label interest at the very beginning. But none of them were good for us, and so we didn’t sign—and remained independent—for three more years.
It was a little bit slower burn, but I really valued that time of hard work. Just Troy and I in a van, traveling all over the country and working hard for not a lot of pats on the back or a lot of money. We look back at that and value it. I think a lot of people want to do what we do, but I don’t think a lot of people see that part of it—the work of playing over people talking.
Joe: I was reading recently, or I might have seen an interview, where Bono was talking about the lack of realism or vulnerability in Christian music. I don’t know if you saw that, but I’ve always felt that your lyrics have always been very honest—talking vulnerably about what you’re working through. I was curious about your songwriting…do you tend to write more for yourself as you try to get some things out or work through them or are you picturing an audience as you write?
Sara Groves: Probably a little bit of both. I try not to picture an audience too much, because that tends to be negative for me, even though I have tons of positive feedback. But I have a singer-songwriter friend who told me years ago that he just had to clear the bleachers. And so in that way, I guess I am writing for myself.
I’ve struggled with my role as a songwriter/agitator. There are friends of mine, like Derek Webb and others through the years, who have really embraced that. I’ve realized, part way through, that that’s their personality.
And so what does honesty mean? Does it mean that you walk up to someone and go, “I think your sweater is ugly.” What is true transparency? Because people will say to me, “Your lyrics are so real in that song.” And I think, “But you still don’t exactly know what I went through.”
There are layers of vulnerability. I tend to be pretty highly disclosing at a certain level, but I think all of us edit that, right? It’s like at an interview when we’re asked to share our weaknesses and we’re like, “I care too much.”
Joe: Right, right.
Sara Groves: That whole conversation about what it looks like to be honest is really interesting to me because there are times when I feel like I’ve been a couple layers deep with honesty. But then it’s like, “Wow, if you were really honest, people might start walking away.” How do you find that balance? Because I do think that transparency begets transparency in other people, and it’s really important.
Actually, one of my guiding lights in that regard was the Indigo Girls. When I was in college, I would listen to them. I loved Emily Saliers, but did not love Amy Ray. Her music was just a little bit edgy or combative to me. You know, chip on your shoulder, and I’ve never been drawn to that. I’ve always been drawn to the wounded healer…the person that’s coming from this place, almost like a matron, motherly nurturer. As I’ve found my space, I’ve tried to lean into more of that type of voice.
So you would look through my records and you’d see very self-revealing records where I’m going inside, and that would be Conversations, Add to the Beauty, Floodplain, and Fireflies and Songs. Then you have records where I am looking out at the world and talk about something that bothers me. Tell Me What You Know is that record, and so is Invisible Empires. And some albums have a mix.
Joe: I most enjoy following those who are vulnerable in the midst of their learning and don’t speak from a place of “I’ve got this thing figured out, so go ahead and glean from all of my years of experience.” I think of writers like C. S. Lewis, who spoke in unresolved states.
Sara Groves: That’s what I loved about Emily Saliers. I said to myself in college, “I want to write music like this.” Because “History Of Us” and “Ghost,” I mean these are killer songs, and she’s such a great songwriter. But she’s just digging in the dirt. She’s a contemplative. She goes away and does the work. And I remembered thinking, “Wow, I want to do that, but from my own perspective.”
Charlie Peacock helped me find my role as a contemplative, because I felt like, “Do I need to go get a degree so I can do what I feel called to do and speak with this paper behind me?” I remember Charlie Peacock saying, “You’re not a theologian. You’re not a pastor. You’re not a counselor necessarily, but you are a contemplative. The role of the mystic.”
So I go away with these meta ideas and try to make sense of connections that other people aren’t maybe wired to make. They’re doing their part of the world, and I’m doing mine.
Joe: In that same vein about things that you’ve written while still processing them, are there songs or lyrics where you wish you could take them off your album or rewrite them altogether?
Sara Groves: Yeah. I feel really grateful that I don’t have more. I made a decision after my sophomore release, All Right Here, to only write songs I could be proud of in the end. In making that record, I didn’t have a good radio song. And I wrote “First Song That I Sing,” by thinking “What would Christian radio want?” It felt very contrived. I played it live one time, and I just said, “I can’t play that again.”
I made a decision then that I wanted to wake up in my 50s and 60s and be proud of what I had written and what I had done was much more important to me than trying to somehow win at some kind of game that I wasn’t even sure how to play. I mean, every songwriter wants to be heard, and you people to hear the music. You’re hoping that you’ll write something that resonates with people, but I made that decision.
I feel like I’m really proud of what I’ve been writing all these years. Like a book, I’ve been writing these different sentences and working very hard to put them together carefully. And I feel grateful for the freedom that my label has given me to be myself.
But I do have songs where the message is a bit different now. Like the song “Generations” from Conversations…a lot of people love that song, but I feel like it’s used in an indicting way. I think it’s a place that I used to be. But I think now, the message would be more that the curse is for several generations but the blessing is for 1,000. The goodness of God so overpowers any damage that we can do. So I think that song has changed for me.
And in “Painting Pictures of Egypt,” I sing the line:
“It’s not about losing faith
It’s not about trust
It’s all about comfortable
When you move so much”
I think I’d look back and say, “No, it’s all about trust. It is all about faith.” It’s different than the faith I was trying to have at that time. At that time, my faith was more like trying to levitate a table with my thoughts—the same type of energy. That was the way I was like, “Ooh, if I just believed enough, I could live in this power in this way.”
Anyway, those are some of the things that I, I do feel grateful that I can sing a lot of those songs and that I don’t have more embarrassing things.
Joe: You and your husband have partnered with International Justice Mission (IJM) for several years now. What pulled you to that group? Was there a personal experience that led you there?
Sara Groves: Yeah, I was in a faith crisis in my late 20s. I was on the road so much and was pretty threadbare. I just was asking these Job questions, which I think everybody should do at some point in life. Go to the mat and ask why do bad things happen to good people, or why do some people have inordinate amounts of suffering while others don’t seem to have that? How does that work and how do I think about God in light of that?
I had a season of about a year and a half where I was out. I was playing the songs I could play…the ones I could sing. And the ones I couldn’t, I wasn’t singing them. I was bringing some of the questions to the stage. I also recognized that I was looking for something. My heart was just hard. I was tired.
I felt like I was just done doing all this stuff to groom myself. But why? What am I doing? What is the point of all this, and to what end, if I’ve done all this internal work and pruning and perfecting?
And it was during this really pivotal time that I came across IJM and learned about all they do against human trafficking. It was like my heart was ringing like a bell. I couldn’t sleep for weeks.
For me, it was such a pivotal moment in my spiritual life, in my growth as a human being. I realized that this life can’t just be my ticket to ride. There has to be more to it than that. It changed my politics. It changed my theology. It changed everything. I felt like I had been made.
Joe: Last question…it’s a little morbid maybe, but I was just thinking about the big artists that have passed away this last year: David Bowie and Prince. And I was wondering, how would you want people to describe you or talk about you in your passing? How would you want to be defined or described, I guess, long after you’re gone?
Sara Groves: I guess I feel like I have tried to do the work, like to be faithful to what I’m here to do and here to say. I guess my main hope is that people would maybe listen and tune in. I mean I’m nowhere close to the people you just named. And Prince, obviously up here in Minnesota, he’s exceedingly above and beyond creative and one of the best musicians to ever live.
Joe: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Sara Groves: I heard the other day, someone said, “I believe the good news is good news. I think that it’s not about minimum requirements to get to heaven. I think that the message is that the requirements have been met, and now God is reclaiming things. He’s renewing all things.” And I get to participate in that as much as I can and be His girl in the world.
Without double speak, though, because what drives me crazy about the church sometimes is all the double talk. I just, I want to be the same person whether I’m talking to someone who thinks like me or does not think like me. I hope the music still stands in that space.
That’s a big honking question, but I guess you hope some people will listen. Maybe they’d go, “Oh, what was going on there?” And they might take a minute and listen to something they didn’t think would be interesting to them. That I’d keep writing and people would keep reading my life’s book.