Growing up as pretty much a ‘church kid,’ I was certainly exposed to more than my share of Christmas music around this time of year. When I found out that two of my favorite singer-songwriters, Jennifer Knapp and Margaret Becker, were collaborating on a new album celebrating the music of the season, it certainly excited me. The fact that they’d be taking their tour of the album to our area made me even more excited.
I was introduced to both of these artists during my freshmen year of college. Jennifer Knapp shared her music with me and my fellow Houghton College students while on tour with her debut award-winning album, Kansas, in 1998 and I was blown away by her raw talent. Following my exposure to Jennifer’s music, I sought out other music with a similar vibe and was introduced to Margaret Becker’s many albums. Since then, I’ve followed their careers closely as they’ve transcended music genres with their personal and meaningful lyrics, unique and soulful sound, and skilled musicianship. Garnering Grammy nominations for their solo work, both have made solid contributions to American music over their long and varied careers. On a personal note, their honest and introspective lyrics on their past and current albums certainly speak to me.
Both Jennifer and Margaret were kind enough to answer a few of my questions about their new album, their upcoming concert, and their music in general. I urge local audiences to check out Jennifer and Margaret’s concert at The Birchmere on Monday, December 17, 2012 where they will be performing selections from their new album The Hymns of Christmas as well as several others.
Jennifer: Both of you have long-established solo careers as singer-songwriters and have roots – whether past or present – in Contemporary Christian Music. What made you decide to record The Hymns of Christmas together and set out on a nationwide tour of that album?
Jennifer Knapp (JK): It should be no secret – I’m a big Margaret Becker fan. As we’ve become friends over the years we’ve always shared an interest in some kind of collaborative work. I give Margaret the credit for leading with the Christmas record idea. It’s really given us a chance to sing some amazing harmonies together. I would have sung the phone book if she’d asked, but this is much better!
Margaret Becker (MB): For me, I have always loved Jenn’s work. Over the years we’ve written together and appeared on a couple of projects together as well, but never a full body of work. The Hymns of Christmas started over a bottle of wine and some daydreaming one night at dinner. We kept looking for a way to work on something together. We arrived at a Christmas project, since neither of us had ever done a full record like that, in our styles. Once we started the process, we thought it’d be a fun tour idea and it kind of just grew from there.
How did you decide on which songs to include on The Hymns of Christmas album? Is there a specific musical or message-related theme, which guided your song selection?
JK: A couple of reasons really, but the main one is our shared vision for approaching holiday music with respect. I have personally avoided Christmas music for years because I just don’t do kitsch. To me, Christmas means carolers and Christmas Eve candlelight service…and these are the songs that narrate the way. I also wanted to throw in a couple of lesser known carols as well. They’re so forgotten by some, hopefully by playing them it will be like hearing something new.
MB: Honestly, (and I speak for myself here) we wanted some familiar favorites, just some we have loved over the years, but also some overlooked, lesser-known songs. We wanted to shine a light on songs like “The Coventry Carol.” We both brought favorites, and then scoured hymnals for a few days. We tried our ‘picks’ on for size and then narrowed it down by how much we could bend the structure of the songs to our arrangements.
What are your favorite songs on the new album to perform for live audiences?
JK: For me it’s “Lo How A Rose E’er Blooming.” I can’t believe it, but I’m getting another pop artist to perform it live with me. Better yet, Margaret’s harmony on this song is outrageously beautiful. It’s heaven.
MB: I love “Hark the Herald,” specifically because the arrangement is very unique, and the chord substitutions in verse three are simply sonically inspiring. That translates across to the audience. Another is “The Coventry Carol;” this is classic Jennifer Knapp meeting ‘Old English.’ It’s truly a unique turn in the set, reminding us all that beautiful expressions span centuries and remain vibrant through the journey.
Have either of you performed your music in the Washington, DC Metro Area before? More specifically, have you performed at The Birchmere? What excites you most about sharing your music with audiences in this area, especially at this intimate venue?
JK: I played The Birchmere in 2012 for the Letting Go Tour along with Derek Webb. It’s been a while, but I’m looking forward to being there again. I’ve hit up a few coffee shops and smaller venues in the area over the last couple of years as well, so it’s starting to feel like a regular tour stop for me.
MB: I’ve performed in DC more times than I can count over the past 20 years, but never at The Birchmere. I’ve always found the audiences to be ‘in step’ with whatever I was trying to do. That isn’t always present in other places.
The Birchmere concert will obviously feature songs from your new album of the same name, but do you also plan to share some music from your respective solo albums? If so, what kinds of selections from those albums should longtime fans like myself expect?
JK: I don’t want to give it all away, but we will each back the other for our respective solo work. We don’t have a lot of time to go all out, but I think there’ll be a surprise or two…
MB: We debated that and came out with a ‘yes’ on old songs. We were quite democratic about it, suggesting our favorites from each other’s work. You’ll hear some well-known songs and some hidden gems.
Will Birchmere audiences be treated to both of you playing the guitar? Acoustic, electric, or both?
JK: No electrics on this tour, but you never know what Margaret is going to pull out of her gig bag. Me, I’m bringing my Taylor 810 WMB out of retirement for a little play.
MB: We are traveling with about four guitars and we will both be playing. There is a variety of guitars and fun technique.
Tell us a little bit about how/why you got started in music.
JK: Christmas 2012 will be over before I tell you the whole story, but it’s been a long ride. I got serious about music in my teenage years, starting as a classical trumpet player. The songwriting and guitar playing didn’t come until later. Somehow all my teenage-angst poetry found its way into the conversation with a crappy old guitar I’d found and my life has never been the same since.
MB: I have always loved how music bypasses the ‘grid’ of control that keeps us from safely feeling. In any country, any language, music can bring laughter or tears, dance or thought. That magic is what drove me to become a musician.
Do you prefer writing songs, performing them, or both?
JK: It’s a package deal for me. The songwriting process can be other worldly. It can be one of the most amazing experiences to pluck something from the air like it had been there for centuries, but then it demands to be shared. The performance of a song is like breathing oxygen into a song’s lungs, giving it color and life. And what’s even more amazing is that about the time you think you’ve used the song all up, it can teach you something new years later.
MB: Both are forms of expression, and that is what I personally love, so both.
How would each of you define the kind of music you make, both in terms of the sound and purpose?
JK: I wouldn’t have said this years ago, but these days I describe what I do as ‘songwriter.” Sure, I’m a chick with a guitar, with flavors of pop, country, folk, rock, Americana…what do you call that? Music has become so cross-cultural in terms of style; I don’t feel pressured to have to cater to anything other than the song’s native voice. Was it Mae West who said, “Call me whatever you want, but just call me?”
MB: My music is an eclectic mixture of folkie jazz. As far as the purpose of it, I hope to take people on a journey, set them towards inspiration or rest.
Both of your careers have had interesting trajectories. What are your plans for the future and might we expect further musical collaboration?
JK: I’m hoping that after Margaret has survived touring with me that she will still want to sing a few tunes with me now and again. For now, I’m just beside myself at how much fun we’re having!
MB: I’d love to do another one, but nothing is in stone as of this moment. As far as what is ahead for me, more music, writing, producing projects for a few Indie artists and in between that, I speak from the content of a few books I’ve written.
Jennifer Knapp & Margaret Becker’s The Hymns of Christmas Tour will be stopping at The Birchmere – 3701 Mt. Vernon Avenue in Alexandria, VA – on Monday, December 17, 2012 at 7:30 PM. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, by calling 1-800-745-3000, or online through Ticketmaster. Tickets are $25 (plus applicable service charges). Look for a review of the concert on DC Theater Arts shortly after the event.