In the fading light of dusk, 10-month-old Dorothy and I dance. She giggles as I push my cheek to hers and sing, “You should know, little baby, that I am the lucky one.”
My seven-year-old joins us, swaying on the tattered rug that’s become our dance floor. She smiles, knowing that she too is the recipient of the words I sing, “I get to be the one to hold your hand. I get to be the one. Through birthdays and broken bones, I’ll be there to watch you grow.”
“I Get to Be the One” is the opening track on singer, songwriter, and indie artist JJ Heller’s sixth project, Deeper. And it’s one of my favorites.
Since her debut in 2003, JJ’s acoustic style and simple, yet compelling storytelling has beautifully captured the dichotomies of life. In a whimsical, joyful manner, she sings of life, love, and parenting in songs such as “I Get to Be the One,” “The Boat Song,” and “Sunshine.” I can’t help but smile as I listen to these tracks. Yet, at the same time she speaks of the yearning and the pain that many of us experience. I relate to her cries in “Have Mercy on Me,” “Control,” and “Your Hands.” I can’t help but reflect on my struggles in light of God’s grace as I listen to these.
Her work stirs up in me both a deeper appreciation for the day-to-day, and a reminder that I’m not alone when the darkness overwhelms.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with JJ via email. Since we are both busy moms, email provided the perfect venue for our interview.
Tell me about your background. How did you decide to pursue a career in music?
Ironically, I didn’t listen to a lot of music growing up. I did take piano lessons for several years, and I was involved in choirs at school and at church, but my family was more focused on sports than music. In high school I played basketball, softball, and volleyball. I viewed myself as an athlete, and even played basketball my freshman year of college. That season was miserable and at the end of it, I decided it was time to say goodbye to my dream of playing collegiate sports. The following summer I went on a mission’s trip to Africa, and learned how to play the guitar. I wrote my first song with some friends on the trip, and I loved it! I started writing more and more and soon discovered that people enjoyed listening to my songs.
I never dreamed I would have a career in music, but here I am! I still feel like I’m fairly separate from the industry, since I’m not associated with a record label. From the very start, my husband and I have been basically running a small business in the form of our own record label. It has taken a whole lot of work and self-motivation, but it’s been so worth it!
Deeper is my favorite album of 2011. I listen to it so much even my kids know the songs. How would you describe the project to our readers who haven’t heard it yet?
First of all, thank you! I’m really excited to finally get this collection of songs out to our listeners! We went back to our simple, acoustic roots and used minimal production on the songs. The sound is very similar to what you might hear if you came to one of our concerts — it’s raw and vulnerable, and I pray that it communicates the way that God feels about us as human beings. There are several love songs, and songs about letting go. I try to write about what it means to be human, and where God is in the midst of our day to day joy and pain.
Who are your musical influences and how have they found their way into your work?
I’m notoriously bad at choosing favorites, but enjoy songs by Feist, Ray LaMontagne, Ingrid Michaelson, Patty Griffin, and Adele. There’s a newer artist named Gregory Alan Isakov who I really enjoy. Patty Griffin writes amazing story songs, and she finally made me realize that I could write a story song without making it sound country. I love how she makes ordinary life sound poetic.
You and your husband Dave work side-by-side on the albums. How did you two meet?
Dave and I met in college through Campus Crusade for Christ in California. He was the worship leader for the group, and I decided to join the worship team. I had just started to write songs at that point, so I shared a few with Dave and the worship band. Our relationship and our music grew until eventually we got married and started to pursue music as a career.
What’s your favorite part of working together?
Having a marriage relationship and a business relationship has always gone hand in hand for us, and for the most part, it works. Sometimes it gets sticky when my manager/husband pushes me to write songs or answer interview questions and I don’t especially feel like doing it at the time. It’s great though, because I need someone to push me. Dave is way more self-motivated than I am. My favorite part of working together is simply the opportunity to spend so much time with each other. We love being together.
In your music, you tap into issues many of us who have grown up in the church struggle with but are hesitant to openly admit. For example, in “Control” you speak of perfectionism. How do you hope your songs will encourage authenticity in the lives of your listeners?
I pray that my music communicates the way that God feels about us as human beings. He loves us so much that He gave up everything to be close to us. I also want people to be encouraged with the knowledge that sometimes life is hard, and sometimes life is wonderful, but either way, God is always right there in the midst of it holding our hand. We all experience failure and brokenness, and the more we are willing to admit that, I believe the more that God can use us to bless others.
In an interview, I heard you share that the song, “In Your Hands,” came from a season of severe anxiety and panic attacks. Can you share a bit about this?
It was so hard! There was a time in my life when almost every moment of every day was consumed with fear. I was experiencing severe anxiety and I couldn’t understand why God wouldn’t just take it away. A lot of my panic was associated with the fact that I was pregnant with my first child, and I felt overwhelmed and unprepared for parenthood.
Following a miscarriage, I found myself experiencing intense fear and panic attacks. What would you say to me and other women who are walking through this?
That must be so heartbreaking. I can understand why you would have an emotional and physical response to such a loss. When it comes to panic attacks, I would tell you that you’re not alone in this! My tendency as a Christian woman is to isolate myself when I struggle, because I feel pressure to appear perfect. When I try to hide my fear and pain, it just gains power. When I speak up and use my voice, it helps me get out of the mindset that I’m powerless and I can’t handle the hardships of life. The more I’ve shared about my experience with anxiety, the less I feel trapped by it.
In talking to a counselor, I realized that I was under the impression that I was doing something wrong… if I could just pray more, or if I was stronger, then I would get better. I discovered that even though God doesn’t like to see me suffer, He is still using my anxiety and panic attacks to remind me that He is in control… that I can’t do this on my own. It is by His grace that I can face each day, and know in my heart that He is good, and He’s going to take care of me.
At the start of this year, you tweeted: “I feel like God has given me a theme for this year: open heart.” Can you elaborate?
You’ve probably gathered by now that the future has always been a source of fear for me. My first response is to be scared of all of the awful things that could potentially happen, but the Lord is hard at work in my heart. He is giving me joy in the present and hope for the future. It reminds me of Proverbs 31 when Solomon says, “Strength and dignity are her clothing. And she smiles at the future.” God is showing me how to look forward to what’s to come.
What book or books are you currently reading?
I’m reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and Jesus, My Father, The CIA and Me: A Memoir of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron.
What’s your favorite way to unwind?
JJ and Dave Heller have generously provided three copies of her CD, Deeper, to give away. To enter for a chance to win one: One additional entry can be earned for each of these: Follow @ungrind on Twitter. Leave a comment to tell us you did. Follow @jjheller on Twitter. Leave a comment to tell us you did. Tweet about this interview. Leave a comment to tell us you did. Friend Ungrind on Facebook. Leave a comment to tell us you did. Use the box on the top of the sidebar on this page to subscribe to our email updates. Leave a comment to tell us you did. Grab our Ungrind button from our sidebar and add it to your blog. Leave a comment with a link to your blog so we can visit.
This contest closes on Monday, February 6th, 2012, at 12 a.m. Our apologies to our international readers, but it’s only open to those residing in the United States.