February 2nd, 2015
“Have you ever done this before?” my new friend asked. “No,” I lied. Well, really it wasn’t a lie. Truthfully, I had never played the open mic at Velour. I had never played at Velour at all. This was most certainly my first time. But I think by “this” he meant to ask me if I had ever played at an open mic, ever. I told him I had attended shows at Velour, but that I hadn’t ever played at the open mic. “Well, let me tell you. It’s different being on the other side. Being the one on stage. But don’t be afraid. It will be fun.” I smiled at him and thanked him for his encouragement. I told him he’d do great, too. We were sitting on the sidewalk in a long line outside that iconic Provo club on University Avenue. It was hot. I could tell that a lot of the other people in line were trying to put on a cool act. By the way some of them were tugging at their clothes and straightening their thick glasses, it seemed like a few people might have been wearing hipster garb for the very first time. How did I get there? Well, in a Toyota Camry, after lovingly pointing out the leftovers in the fridge to my family and peeling off a few crying children as I walked out the door. But I’ll have to go back farther than that to explain.
I have to go back to 2001. I had just released my third album. It was my first album with a record label, and it was my first album of religious music, after two independent albums of contemporary folk. My previous albums had taken me to some thrilling adventures at songwriting festivals in Texas, and even the new writer’s nights at The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. And tiny coffee shops in Utah, California, and Arizona for two or three listeners at a time. I was just getting started. And now I had a brand new record deal. My record company was flying me to stores all over the U.S. to do signings and play for shoppers. They were stores that primarily sold religious music, books, and gifts. I walked into a store in Dallas with my guitar. “Are you Cherie?” a worker asked. “Yes,” I replied. “Glad you’re here,” he said. “I like the new album. We carried your other two, and I have to say, I’m really glad you finally figured out how to make better music,” he said. “Better?” I asked. “Yes. Your other music had romantic songs, songs that were really inappropriate for our shoppers here. It’s like you didn’t even realize that some people come here right after worshipping in the temple,” he said. “Oh, well, I’m glad you like the new album,” I said, trying to stay positive. It was the first time I had heard anyone suggest that my earlier music was “inappropriate”. Had I been making Devil music??? To be fair, this guy wasn’t really a typical representation of the store workers at any of the other religious bookstores where I went. He was pretty zealous. But not completely unlike some of the shoppers at those stores.
Becoming an artist of inspirational music was something I kind of fell into by accident. I had a lot of really wonderful opportunities to write inspirational music that I couldn’t pass up, that came to me while I was on a different musical path. And I originally thought I could take both paths, but I’m human. Without knowing what was happening at first, I ended up changing course. I do not regret that journey. I spent about a decade very actively writing, recording, performing, and promoting my religious music in the LDS (Mormon) music industry. I was blessed by this in many ways. The most obvious blessing was that my husband and I fell in love when he was the sound guy on a musical tour for the LDS boy band called Jericho Road. I was the opening act. I went on to play some pretty big events in LDS music. The gig I’ll truly never forget, was getting to play at the LDS Missionary Training Center on Christmas night for thousands of missionaries. It was a really sacred and thrilling experience.
In my songwriting I tackled some topics that I truly wrote to heal and uplift myself, and I found that the songs were able to also bless others. I treasure the kind messages sent to me from people who loved and needed those songs. I still get messages like that sometimes, and they mean as much to me now as they ever have. It always makes my day. I think writing a song with a message is a hard thing to do well. I think it helped me become a better songwriter in general.
In a genre of music that is often lofty and every now and then in a little danger of being “holier than thou”, maybe I wasn’t holy enough. I wrote from my own perspective, which was far from Heaven, but still facing there, looking up at it, and letting it help me make sense of my earthly life. The guitar was the sonic foundation. Some people liked that. Others had too difficult of a time categorizing such a thing into their lives, especially the way LDS music was ten or fifteen years ago. Every now and then a really honest shopper would confess to me that they didn’t know what to do with my music. They liked it, but the drums and electric guitars and plain lyrics made it too casual for what they wanted to hear on Sunday, and not poppy enough for every day, when they would prefer to listen to Top 40. I ended up just having kind of a cult following for a few years. It was a relatively successful cult following. It makes me happy to think that maybe I reached a few people who hadn’t been reached before with that kind of music. I recorded several inspirational albums on two different labels, but in the end my sales numbers weren’t ever quite cosmic enough to be considered an undeniable success by a record label’s standards. And so this market that had originally overwhelmingly pulled me in, kind of naturally let me go.
I felt a little lost for a while. Along with my talents, was I given a calling from God that I wasn’t able to properly fulfill? I did a lot of soul searching and I’ll spare you most of the boring details of that. I can’t speak for everyone in the market of making inspirational music, but I think it’s easy for strange things to happen to your psyche when you make art that details your personal beliefs about God and salvation and grace and religion. You run into the danger of feeling like the measure of whether or not all those pieces of your heart are good enough is all based on how many people will literally buy it with money. It can add scary emotions to things that are normally more emotionally inanimate, like sales. But there are people who need inspirational music. I can think of times in my life when I’ve needed it a lot. It’s good for it to be made, it needs to be made, and somebody has to make it. But maybe I got to a place where I personally needed to at the very least take a break from so actively making it and selling it, and the universe provided one for me.
Taking a break from being a songwriter would have been impossible. It would have been like taking a break from being human. So I started writing the Homeless Songs. Non religious songs written just for the joy of songwriting. It was so refreshing. After some of the first performances, people came to me and told me they really loved the songs. One night I tried to figure out why I was so thrilled by comments like that after all this time. Suddenly I realized that it had actually been a very long time since someone had really complimented me on the sheer craft of my writing. When you write religious music, people compliment you by telling you that you must be very spiritual. And you either start letting it go to your head, or you know in your heart that you are no more spiritual than they are; you just put it into words and music in a way they hadn’t considered before. And you can’t fully accept the compliment. It still means something, and you still appreciate it in a different way. But none of that is exactly about songwriting. So, as worldly as it sounds, my heart leaped a little with joy when I heard people giving me actual, direct compliments about my writing.
I have to admit I’m still making my way. I’m trying to pick up where I left off before I switched paths, But the original path has changed a bit. It is all sort of like being a veteran and a beginner all at the same time. Sometimes that is scary, sometimes it’s a lot of fun, and most of the time it’s a little of each. As I was trying to figure it all out one night, my husband suggested, “if you really want to come closer to continuing what you started on in the beginning, maybe you need to actually make a specific effort to do the kinds of things you were doing 15 years ago.” That really made a lightbulb turn on over my head. It made a whole lot of sense. So, here I go. I’m entering songwriting competitions. I’m playing house concerts. I’m playing shows in the park where hardly anyone is listening sometimes. A few months ago, my husband and I put on an amazing show in the back of his equipment truck! (More about that in a future post!) I’m playing music for the sheer joy of it. And that’s how I ended up at open mic at Velour.
A lot of people in Utah recognize my name, but not many people can pick me out in a crowd. I change my hair all the time and I’ve been pregnant four times and I’m always a different weight. This made it pretty easy to kind of be anonymous to my fellow open mic pals that night. I just wanted to be taken seriously with no preconceived notions, no worries from others that I might feel entitled to any extra kindness or praise in a place they might not have even thought I belonged. I just wanted to be like everyone else. But Corey Fox recognized me immediately as I walked in. He smiled and said, “Hey, it’s been a long time!” I had played at some of the other venues he managed many years ago. It had been at least a decade since we had interacted in any way though, I’m fairly sure. His kindness put me more at ease. He stamped my hand and I signed the list.
I still had some butterflies but as I looked around at the nervous people, I noticed that some people were really tense, wondering if this performance could be their big break. Maybe they’d get booked there for a real show. Maybe they’d eventually play at the Provo Rooftop, if only they could do a good enough job. As I witnessed all the anxiety, my own jitters left me. Even though I was about 20 years older than everyone there, and not cool enough to be wearing hipster clothing. I felt comfortable in my own skin and I wanted to just cheer everyone on. It was a fantastic open mic. I have to say, Provo, Utah is crazy talented. I felt honored to play there at Velour and when it was my turn, I had a great time. I played with no thought of the next gig. I just did it for love. I’ll probably do it again.
I’m trying to figure out why I was walking on air as I went back out to my car and headed home. Maybe because I felt at home in a place where I wasn’t sure I’d be accepted before that night. Maybe because it just made sense and felt good. When I got home and got into the light of my living room, I glanced down at my hand and realized that the hand stamp was a cartoon character of a devil. It made me smile. As a lifelong Mormon I have heard all the sermons about how important it is to avoid evil music. To not listen to music with profanity and explicit lyrics. And I still think that’s important. But right now, to me, the most evil Devil music is when he whispers in my ear that I can’t do something. That I’m done. That something I always treasured about myself isn’t real or good enough. Devil music is the silence that happens when you hide your true gifts.
I can’t say that I’ve turned my back on writing and recording religious music. I don’t think I’m done writing it and I’m not necessarily done performing it. I wouldn’t want to apologize for my religious albums any more than I would have wanted to apologize to that first store worker about my two folk albums. It has all come from the same real place in my heart. But I’m starting to realize that I’ve never believed that being a religious artist it is the only worthy or blessed use of talent. I believe that whether I have written songs with big messages, or songs that are just about yellow moons, magic carpets and karaoke bars, the making of it all is always a spiritual experience. The songs don’t have to change the world or even be heard by the entire world in order to be valuable. So I keep writing them. I don’t really know what the future holds. I’m just doing what I have always done. I’m trying to drown out the devil, one song at a time.