“I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.”
― Billy Joel
Perhaps now, more than ever before, we need the “explosive expression of humanity” that is music. Yet amid a fragile economy and needed safety precautions, singer-songwriters are among those hurting the most. Without the ability to tour, these artists are missing out on valuable income, as well as the chance to provide healing and beauty in a world that’s rarely needed it more.
In the Q&A below, we asked a few Christian artists—Melanie Penn, The Gray Havens, Sandra McCracken, Poor Bishop Hooper, Joy Ike, and Wilder Adkins—to share their experiences of being an artist in the midst of COVID-19, what it’s like to create music in quarantine, and how we can best support them in this challenging season.
How have you spent your time as an artist in the midst of COVID-19? What has it looked like, what have you tried, what’s worked, and so on?
Melanie Penn: The quarantine created the most disruption for me because it immediately displaced me from my home in Manhattan. My father has cancer. When Mayor de Blasio issued the shelter-in-place order, I was visiting my dad for what was supposed to be two nights! After shelter-in-place, I realized I couldn’t go back to NYC if I wanted to see my father again during the pandemic.
Taking walks in Virginia (where I’m quarantined) saved me in the midst of the information onslaught, sense of dislocation, and a bit of chaos. My parents live in a country neighborhood with horses and spacious roads. So I take long walks, think, and pray. From these walks I’ve been able to start a lot of songs. I keep it simple! Take a walk in the morning, let an idea settle into my imagination, and then finish the idea when I come home.
Sandra McCracken: It’s been a circus, most of the time. Our church had an outbreak of COVID-19 in early March, so we went into lockdown almost overnight. It’s been disorienting at times, but with surprising joys interspersed. We’ve bonded as a family, and we’ve each had at least one outburst of frustration at the challenges of adapting to this new pace of life. My husband and I have both been working from home with two middle-schoolers and a baby in a small space. The spring weather and the backyard have been like a sanctuary. And I’ve been jogging a lot. That does wonders for my headspace.
The Gray Havens: My wife, Licia, and I started releasing music together about seven years ago as The Gray Havens. Since then, it’s been a bit of a nonstop rollercoaster. The forced break has actually been nice. We’ve been telling each other for a while that our goal is to be home a lot more often and spend a lot more time writing and recording new music. This has certainly made that dream a reality and is now putting us in a position where we have to start figuring out how to make that work.
Poor Bishop Hooper: Though it’s certainly been a unique season, we are grateful to God for his perfect timing. In January we began a project called EveryPsalm that releases a weekly song each Wednesday (“A Song for Every Psalm, Released Weekly for 150 Weeks”). We started with Psalm 1 and, Lord willing, we will end with Psalm 150 three-ish years from now. The music itself has been a gift, both to us and also to other listeners in these troubled times. From deep laments of “How long, O Lord?” to reassurances of his faithfulness, it is so good to be continually meditating on his unfailing Word. The project is primarily shared digitally, so our day-to-day hasn’t changed that much. Though we perform many of our other projects and albums live, we’re excited about spending even more time writing songs based on Scripture and sharing them with an ever-growing online audience.
Have you made new music during quarantine? What’s the creative process like when you’re isolated?
Wilder Adkins: I recorded and released two songs during this time. I think I recorded them on the same day, actually. A rendition of the old Gospel song “Leave It There (Take Your Burden to the Lord)” and also an original tune called “Mother.” Because I couldn’t get out to a studio, I reverted to my old ways of recording. I used a Zoom recorder to capture my guitar and plugged in an extra mic to record vocals. What was fun was that I reached out to other musicians to help me add parts, and the stuff they sent back was great, even though I wasn’t there to add direction.
The Gray Havens: The thing about a touring lifestyle is that you’re never quite able to get in a rhythm or any kind of routine either at home or on the road. This has especially affected my writing in the past. It’s been great recently with nowhere to go, to be able to write daily.
Joy Ike: I have been working on new music during quarantine. Believe it or not, making music in quarantine is like making music any other time (performing is a different story). Artists and singer-songwriters typically create in isolation. We write by ourselves, paint by ourselves, but come out of hiding to perform and display our pieces. So I do miss getting to share isolated creations in public spaces. But I enjoy the chance to really focus on my creativity without the distraction of presenting it, driving from one city to the next, loading in, loading out, tour-planning, figuring out where I’m going to sleep in each city, and so on.
Poor Bishop Hooper: We’ve been writing like crazy. EveryPsalm has held us to that process, having committed to weekly releases. Creatively, as we experience and hear the cries of our community, we’ve been connecting more with the psalms of lament. So those songs seem easier to sing nowadays than some others.
Creatively, as we experience and hear the cries of our community, we’ve been connecting more with the psalms of lament. So those songs seem easier to sing nowadays than some others.
Penn: I’ve written a lot of songs and am headed to Nashville to record them with my longtime producer, Ben Shive. The most difficult part of the creative process was calming down my body and my mind. I tend to write from a sense of peace and wonder. But with a pandemic, caring for a sick parent, rioting in my city, and a moment of national reckoning after George Floyd’s death, my mind has not been at peace! I’ve found comfort in the prophets and psalmists who also didn’t write from a sense of peace—yet their works of poetry endure.
How can people support you best in this unusual season?
Ike: Typical answers include asking for donations and for fans to buy merchandise. But I’m also asking people to revisit and listen to my songs with new ears. I believe context changes everything. I also believe music goes straight to the heart in ways social media wars never will. As I’m performing songs from my latest album during livestreams, I have come to understand the missional nature of performing in a new way. This is a time when people need encouragement, love, and hope. I want people to listen to my songs and feel an overwhelming sense of hope, to believe that the future is bright, to fight for their joy in the midst of this very dark time.
I believe music goes straight to the heart in ways social media wars never will.
Adkins: I’ve gotten great messages from people during this time and a lot of people purchasing music on Bandcamp, which always helps. I’d like to start doing some livestream hymn concerts too. I know a lot of people need a respite from the weariness of the world these days, and hymns can be restorative for the soul.
McCracken: In times of distress or disruption throughout history, some of the most important art has emerged. But it’s a struggle in stressful times to see it through. I’d ask for prayer for myself, and for the other artists and musicians in our community, that we would have the resources and tenacity to help translate and give voice to these shared experiences. When we look back in 100 years, I’d hope we would create songs, paintings, words, and other artifacts of grace to remember God’s presence with us in this challenging time.