How does art and creativity work with our faith? It is an intriguing question – especially when posed to an artist. Today, in my continuing series on the subject of creativity, I asked my friend Staci Frenes to weigh in on the issues.
Staci Frenes is a singer/songwriter who has immersed herself in writing to uncover and make sense of the mysteries and chaos of life since the tender age of 12. And while being an independent artist is an all-guts, no-glory proposition, eight records in, this UC-Berkeley graduate and former English teacher has enjoyed successes she hadn’t dared to dream.
Her acoustic folk-pop songs have inspired not only audiences at her concerts all over the country, but millions of viewers on major network shows such as The Biggest Loser, America’s Next Top Model, One Life To Live, All My Children, Nashville and Summerland, as well as in nationally released feature films. Recently, she’s added seminar speaker to her resume, sharing at retreats and conferences on “Cultivating A Creative Life.” And, perhaps as rewarding as creating music, Staci’s role as a spokesperson for World Vision over the last several years has brought her great joy.
Everything You Love Comes Alive, her latest CD, is an great collection of songs exploring the depth and the simplicity of the ways love transforms, the imagination and creativity it brings with it, and the powerful way it shapes us into who we were meant to be.
So… now that you know her bio… let’s hear from her about the issues of creativity, art, and faith.
PN: You have been a songwriter for many years. When did it start? What triggered your desire to put words to music?
I wrote a lot as a kid: poems, stories, I always kept a diary. But it was probably around the age of 12 or 13 that I started hearing the words and phrases become melodies. My parents had bought an old antique piano, and I started plunking around on it—out of tune as it was. My mom played a little but no one had any musical training in my family. I was the only one who showed any interest.
I’m sure it also had to do with the fact that I also became a Christian during that same time–in junior high. It’s as though my spiritual life, newly born, needed expression, needed a language. Music just felt like the natural way to talk about what my heart was experiencing. All of the songs I wrote in those first few years were songs to God, or about God. So my beginnings as a songwriter are inextricably linked to my beginning as a believer. Songwriting has always felt like an essential way to work out what God was doing in my life. How I processed ideas, insights, revelations. And the doubts and darkness, too. I still don’t know a better way, really.
PN: As song writing is often a solitary journey, how do you know when something beautiful has been written?
That’s a great question. I have a feeling there are as many answers to that as there are artists! For me, I know from the ease of the flow with which the song comes. In the initial outpouring of the idea–not in the editing that comes later. If there’s an unimpeded flow, and it seems to almost follow its own course–melodically, especially–then it’s likely to be something I think is more beautiful than if it stops and pauses and gets sort of forced through the channel by sheer willpower or labor. Don’t get me wrong; I think technique and tools of the craft are crucial to great songwriting. But I tend to agree with those like Lewis Hyde and Madeline L’Engle, that the best art is that which is first received by the artist as revelation, or as a gift, in its purest form, without the artist messing that up too much. When I can stand outside of a thing I’ve written and honestly recognize it came from someplace deeper and better than I know how to access consciously, I know it’s beautiful.
And it seems like with every album there are just one or two that I’ll feel that way about. I may think a song is catchy, or particularly well-crafted, or has a killer chorus; but the ones that I care the most about, the ones that I feel are the most beautiful, are the ones that seem to have come to me as a gift I had little to do with. The song, Meteor Shower on my last record felt like that. On this new record, the title track, Everything You Love Comes Alive and That’s How You Woo Me both feel that way.
The song Everything You Love Comes Alive came at the tail end of a long, painful season of one hardship after another-financial, emotional, spiritual. I was numb, and had sort of given myself permission not to feel anymore. I’d been trying to write some pop stuff for a publisher in LA, but it wasn’t music I felt attached to or cared much about. It was just easier than digging deep for the real stuff that felt too raw to write about. But one day I picked up the guitar and tuned it to an alternate tuning which created a more haunting dissonant sound when I hit a chord, and something inside of me stirred at the sound of it. I heard a melody, and I heard the first line of the song : Your love is liquid/filling the hollow places with warmth and weight. And the rest sort of tumbled out, like it had been pent up and needed air. It felt like life was imitating art. The lyrics began to seep into the air-tight place I’d been keeping my heart, and I felt it start to come back to life. That song was a gift, pure and simple. All I had to do was get out of the way and let it arrive.
PN: In our modern culture, much of what we call art is expressed as music. What are some of the unnoticed ways that creativity can be expressed through the church and with our faith?
I’ve read somewhere that how you fill the empty spaces, what you see that others don’t, defines your creative identity. I love that because it allows for such diversity of expression. So you have these creatives that get a lot of sort of public airtime–musicians, painters, dancers, even teachers and evangelists–but there are countless others that never get seen by anyone but a small circle of friends or family.
Hospitality, for example is one of those under-the-radar gifts. I have friends whose homes and hearts are places of refuge for people whom others might see as drifting or lost, but they see as beautiful hurting souls. I’m blessed to have two close friends who are therapists, I’ve gone to them both at different times of emotional crisis in my life and I’m always amazed at the way they listen, ask questions and sort of guide my addled brain to a place of clarity and peace in the course of a conversation. It’s like they see it before I do–they see a shape and a form in what feels to me like emotional chaos. I think that’s what that whole creative identity thing is about. We each have this innate but uniquely fashioned ability to see things that aren’t as though they are. And I believe that’s what we’ve been given by God with which to better love and serve those around us.
PN: What is the role of discipline (or work ethic) when it comes to beauty and creativity?
I think creating beauty requires first that you pay attention. To what’s outside of you–the natural world, the lives of people around you; and to what’s inside of you–your own insights, perspective and to the source of your inspiration which I think is the Holy Spirit. Paying attention takes time, undistracted time to really look at anything more than on a surface level.
And let’s face it, creating anything of worth requires the self-discipline of getting down to it and doing it. Turning your verbs into nouns, I’ve heard someone call it. First starting, then working through the middle lull, and then giving it the last final push out of the gate. Neither of those three things comes with its own momentum–(no matter how much you wish for it) you have to generate it.
I’ve recorded eight independent CDs over the last several years. The scariest stage of each one is picking (and sticking to!) a release date. A date where you agree that the CD will be available for people to purchase. A date when you will tweak, edit and revise no more. You will be done, and you will either sit back and call it good or forever live with the mistakes you made because you didn’t give yourself enough time to fix them! The point is, once the initial rush of inspiration for an idea comes, it’s a misconception to think that rush will accompany the whole process of completing it. It comes down to hard work, time management, and a constant belief that what you are doing is good and will do good in the world.
You have to do the hard work of your own art long after it feels warm and fuzzy. It’s like love that way. 🙂
In part two of the interview, Staci will discuss if “creatives” exist, what theologians can learn from artists, and how the church can better engage the creative community in their city.