The unmaking of Nichole Nordeman
Q&A | One of Christian music’s best-known voices emerges from a 10-year hiatus to sing about hope amid pain
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 9/29/15, 11:30 am
Fifteen years ago, Nichole Nordeman, then still in her 20s, was one of the biggest names in contemporary Christian music. Between 1998 and 2002, she produced three popular and critically acclaimed albums in quick succession. In 2003, Nordeman won four Dove Awards, including female vocalist of the year, song of the year, songwriter of the year, and pop contemporary recorded song of the year, all for her hit song, “Holy.” After releasing another critically acclaimed album in 2005, Brave, Nordeman took a 10-year hiatus to focus on her personal life. Now she’s back with a new extended play called The Unmaking. She’s taking a few concert dates, including one recently in Salisbury, N.C., where I sat down with her for this conversation.
You and I first chatted in an interview setting like this about 10 years ago after your third album came out. What have you been up to since then? I think it’s probably fair to say, in retrospect, that was at the height of things for me, career-wise. I had been working for many, many years to build up to that point. I was selling records pretty well, touring a lot, and really experiencing blessing and favor.
I felt at that time like I was really struggling with balance in my personal life, and I had been for some time. My marriage was in trouble. I was a new mom. I know so many artists and friends of mine who are able to make those two worlds live together in tandem. They bring nannies on the road and they homeschool on the tour bus. That just never felt like a fit for me, and so I was subsequently not being a great artist or a great mom.
I really felt like God said, “This is not even something I’m asking you to slow down. I’m asking you to stop,” just to hit the brakes, which was a really hard decision at that particular time in my career. It was very difficult just to say to all these people who’d been working so hard with me and for me that I’m going to take that hat off completely. I did that for almost a decade to stay home with my babies.
You wrote a song about that called “Slow Down” on the EP you just released. I wrote it for my son’s fifth-grade graduation. It was just going to be a little gift to him and to his class, but it’s really just about that universal expression and frustration and feeling that parents all feel at any point in their children’s lives, which is, “This is going by too fast. I want to make it stop. I want to make it slow down. I want to build a time machine and go back and rock you in a rocking chair just for one night.” It’s not a depressing song, by any means, but it’s an homage to the different ages and stages of children’s lives and how we wish we could just slow it all down.
You have a song on this EP called “The Unmaking,” which suggests crisis or disaster. What happened during your break from music stardom that caused you to write that song? I’m sad to say that my marriage did not survive, and that’s been part of the unmaking that God’s been working in my life. He’s been so kind to me in helping me understand that crisis and disaster and personal failure and sorrow do not have to be something to be ashamed of or be hidden. This is not a new idea. I’ve said this from stage for many, many years. I’ve just never had to live it out, the idea that we really want everybody to think that things are OK, at least from the curb, no matter how many piles of debris really exist in our lives. If we can just sweep it into manageable sections and pretend like it’s not awful, then somehow that’s more redeeming.
Truly I felt like God said to me over the past 10 years of a very broken marriage and 9 1/2 years of trying to resuscitate it every day, “It’s okay to sit in this rubble a little bit. Let’s not pretend because you are Nichole Nordeman that all is well if it’s not well because there is strength.” His strength is in our weakness. He’s very clear about that. The song is about that.
How did you know it was time to start recording and performing again? I don’t know that I could pinpoint a moment. I think God was so generous to continue to give me creative opportunities while I was home during that season where I wasn’t recording and I wasn’t touring, I wasn’t traveling. I was able to write a book. I was able to write songs for a project called The Story, 17 songs for a multiartist collaboration. I don’t feel like I ever stopped fully creating. I just didn’t have to get on a tour bus or an airplane to do it.
I don’t know that I can say I knew at the moment that it was time to make music again, music of my own. I think I just felt like it was time. My kids are older now. Charlie’s 12 and Pepper is 6, so they’re in school and not needing so much of me all day, every day at home. I think I have patched enough of my heart back together to be able to speak a little bit of wholeness and healing into other people’s lives through music. It just felt right.
For The Story, you recorded a duet with Amy Grant. Were you in the same room together? That’s often not the way music is done these days. We were, and you’re right. That never, ever happens. I’ve sung on plenty of duets. You’re not even in the same state half the time, much less the same room, but we were in the studio together. … I’ll never forget that. We were singing about Ruth and Naomi, and Amy had just lost her mom maybe three days before. The fact that she even kept the studio time when she certainly could have and probably should have canceled it—I was so humbled by that. She just brings such grace into every moment, I think. I will always have a really special memory of that time with her.
When you were going through those personal traumas, how was the Christian music community, and how was the church during that time for you? I didn’t really allow people to love me through that, which was a huge loss, I think. Finally, when I did start to share it, and I’m really still just starting to share that, I posted something on Facebook and held my breath and cried a lot and wrung my hands and was worried that now I’m “that artist” or “that girl” or “that story.” I can’t even describe to you the outpouring of support [not only] from fans but from friends, from industry friends, who weren’t surprised, but [said] nothing but, “We love you and we’ve got you and we’re for you.” It was so humbling, and it made me regret that I hadn’t been more open with my pain.
How do you balance the responsibility you have as a Christian artist to be self-disclosing with having a private life? It’s tricky. … It is a fine line … How much of this is not anyone’s business? It is my life, and it is my personal life. An element of that is the digital footprint that we leave every time we open our mouths or say something. It’s imprinted forever or online forever. I have two kids who can read, so I’m very careful not to air dirty laundry or stories or anything that would be painful for them to read down the road. I think that’s important.
The flipside of that is I do feel a responsibility to live transparently, especially as an artist. Time and time again over the years, people have said to me, “Thank you for the transparency in your music. Thank you for the honesty and the vulnerability.” I feel like I’ve got to really put my money where my mouth is at this point and just be honest that life is not perfect. I don’t think I ever pretended that it was, but especially now, to be really brave about sharing some of that pain and watch what God can do with that.
What do you do for fun? If you just had a day that you could do whatever you wanted, what would that be? I don’t know when I’ve had a day like that. I feel like I’m not quite in the get-to-have-a-hobby phase yet. In a lot of ways, this is what I love. Being a mom has been my full-time job for a decade now, so getting to make music again, getting to travel occasionally, sing, write with other people—that is kind of my hobby and love and my ministry and job. I get both of those rolled into one. My perfect afternoon, if I had one—I’m such an introvert, I would probably be by myself with a good stack of books or a new recipe to work out in my kitchen.
When people are remembering Nichole Nordeman, what do you want them to say about you? Music, especially Christian music, can at times feel inspiring but also a little deflating. For those of us who’ve been there, I can’t even get out of bed much less experience whatever the song is telling me I should be experiencing. That’s not to say anything negative about other artists, but I think that I really want people to feel from me … I want them to hear brokenness and hear joy, as well, but hear honesty in both of those moments and know it does not matter where you are on the path. Just be you and know that the more “you” you are, the more you’re opening yourself up to being whole and loved again.
Listen to Warren Smith’s full conversation with Nichole Nordeman on Listening In.