Since childhood, singer/songwriter Aryn Michelle believed she had to record Christian music for two reasons: she had an unmistakable, powerful voice and she believed in Jesus. Isn’t that what a gifted Christian artist is supposed to do? Plus, as a pastor’s daughter she knew she wanted to stay in the family business.
It’s been quite a year – winning the Gospel Music Association’s IMMERSE competition last summer and now having your new album release. What has the journey been to the release of Depth? The journey of “Depth” has been a true labor of love. I started fundraising for the project in 2012, so it’s been a slow process, but well worth the time that it’s taken. I felt a need to do this project from somewhere deep inside, despite the fact that, because of my blossoming family life, creative projects had started to take a back seat. But I think when God places something in your heart that burns to be created, you can’t ignore that calling.
I selected my producer because he liked my music, but also specifically because he had some critical things to say of my older work. I wanted to work with someone who was going to push on me to grow artistically. (and that he did!) We spent a great deal of time in pre-production honing the specific vision for the project and then compiled together a group of excellent studio musicians. We didn’t give our session players much time with the music ahead of time because we wanted to create an honest, organic recording experience. We had almost all the players in the room at the same time, and set up dozens and dozens of microphones capturing everyone’s performances together in real time. We gave the players some stylistic references, but we let them create the parts that they thought were most appropriate for each song. We also recorded live-to-tape in the studio without a click track. When all of these elements came together, we were so excited to be able to walk away with a recording that moved and breathed. It was gritty and honest and showed some flaws and some humanity. And that’s really, truly what we wanted. We wanted music that captured the heart of the lyrical content.
After the production of the album was being completed, I began to ask God to use this record however He wanted to, whether that be taking it near or far. God has been blessing this project and opening doors and bringing alongside people who understand what this project is all about. Making connections through the GMA Immerse conference was a significant way that God orchestrated me finding the people who needed to be brought on to carry this project to places I could not go by myself. I hope that people who hear the project will feel the great amounts of time, love and perseverance that so many people have poured into it.
How did you get your start? I think the moment I can look back on and call my “start” was when I went to a talent competition a small Christian record label put on in Oklahoma City. I was 15 years old and very confident that I was going to be the “next big thing.” I went to the competition woefully unprepared for what they were looking for, sang a song that was too difficult for me, and was cut in the first round of the competition. The thing that was most significant for me about this experience was seeing the women who won the competition. She wrote her own original music AND accompanied herself on the piano as she sang. I had never considered trying to write my own music, or trying to learn an instrument well enough to accompany myself. This was the beginning of my deep passion for songwriting. This was where I started my long journey of finding my voice as an artist.
You went to Berklee to study music. Berklee is such a prestigious school – how was it being a person of faith studying there? Berklee was a fantastic experience. To be able to spend the majority of my time focusing on the craft of becoming a better performer and songwriter was such a challenging and precious time. I think the main challenge being a person of faith in an environment like that is to keep focused on bringing glory to God and not to yourself. It’s easy to be tempted to try to craft a song or a set or an image that will put YOU ahead, that will make YOU connections and will bring YOU fame and fortune. But as a follower of Christ you have to keep the focus on working creatively to follow where God wants to take you, and to being Him the ultimate glory and fame.
There was a wonderful group of believers at Berklee called the Christian Fellowshipand I was able to meet with them regularly for spiritual encouragement and fellowship. It was a great time for me to learn that God has a different plan and a different purpose for every believer who is a creative artist. No two paths and callings look alike.
What changed in your life to make you start wanting to write music for the church and for Christians? In the beginning as a songwriter, I had decided that my calling was to be a “light in the darkness.” I wanted God to use me as a Christ-follower who was making music in the “secular” marketplace because I thought this was the highest path of an artistic person who wanted to follow Jesus—but also didn’t want to make bad music. So I wrote and performed songs that hinted about Jesus and never ran against the message of the gospel, but I refused to come out and shout the truth from the rooftops.
I spent a decade trying to be what I hoped God wanted me to be. I realize now I didn’t take much time to lay my personal ambition down to evaluate how God might want to use me apart from my own dreams and agenda.
I was continually hitting roadblocks and couldn’t understand why. The costs in money, energy and time didn’t seem to be justifying the pursuit of a musical career. But, I just couldn’t let go, so I began to have conversations with my father about where to go next as an artist.
My dad asked me some very important questions that I hadn’t been considering:
What were the unique gifts that God had given me?
What was my personal history and story?
Where has God placed me in this life?
What kinds of people were consistently touched by my music? I realized that God had placed me to be raised by a pastor and family who had always faithfully followed Christ. I realized the people who always responded to my music where Christians (even when I was beating around the bush). I realized that God had provided an education for me that left me with a desire for intellectual pursuits in biblical and theological knowledge. So why was I fighting so hard against the history, giftedness and calling that God had built my life around?
Now I’m a writing and performing Christian music, not because I think I have to, but because I want to.
Your music stands out – how has it been received? How do you think it’s unique for this market? I think my music stands out sonically and lyrically because it’s a little bit more raw than what’s most popular right now in Christian music. I think positive, uplifting Christian music is profitable and necessary, but I feel like there’s still a lot being left unsaid about the day-to-day Christian experience. I didn’t want to write songs that were “a mile wide and an inch deep.” I wanted to write about scripture, biblical people and the Christian experience with theological depth. I wanted to ask hard questions and give people a work of art that they enjoyed because it not only encouraged them, but challenged them as well. If we as Christians have a desire to embrace art that speaks truth, then it’s going to get messy and complicated because life with Christ is messy and complicated.
I spent too long running from making “Christian music” and now I’m standing still in the calling that God has uniquely equipped me for. I hope others will stand firm with me and acknowledge that being a follower of Christ and a lover of good art do not have to be mutually exclusive.
How do you balance a growing career with a growing family? Are you ever tempted to just put your gifts to the side just because you’re busy? When God calls us to a task, He can equip us and enable us no matter what the world says. There are unique blessings and inherent challenges that come with being a musician (or any type of professional creative) and a mother. Both of these callings come with a beckoning for your best creative time and energy. Instantly gone were the days I could have hit the road and tried to perfect my craft one small club at a time. It is clear to me that my family is the priority when it comes to the two, but I also know that God has given me a gifting and a passion that he didn’t want me to kick to the curb because the juggling act seemed too hard.
Many nights I’m tempted to say the music is done. It demands too much time and energy I don’t have. But then I’m reminded that God is the ultimate creator. And He has placed the desire to create in me and in all of us. I can’t bury my “talent” in the ground. I realize the question should not be, “Do I want to use this gift and passion God has given me?” but rather, “How should I steward what God has given me?” Our God-given gifts are not ours to be used to serve ourselves, but each of us “should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10).
Being a mother and musician can be quite challenging. For those like me who are creatives and mothers, this time of life can be exhausting and abundantly rewarding. It can motivate us to throw up our hands and say, “I don’t know if I can do it!” It can propel us to seek to grow more like Christ and to lean on the Holy Spirit to give us strength, inspiration and peace.
Essentially, Aryn desires to do something that’s seldom blatant in today’s Christian music: to engage the mind as well as the heart so that the truth of scripture—and not just a catchy hook—is what resonates with the listener.