Ellie Holcomb on the beauty of brokenness
After starting a successful solo career, the singer-songwriter goes public with her imperfections
Ellie Holcomb’s first album, As Sure as the Sun, released last year to rave critical reviews as well as commercial success, hitting both Billboard’s Christian and secular music charts. Holcomb is the daughter of Christian music producer and industry executive, Brown Bannister. She has both an undergraduate and a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee. It was there that she met her husband, Drew Holcomb. She was a member of his band, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, for several years before deciding to spend more time at home with their new baby daughter and to focus on her solo songwriting career. I had this conversation with Holcomb at the National Religious Broadcasters Conference in Nashville, Tenn.
You kind of come by your musical chops honestly, right? Your dad is one of the pioneers of Christian music. He would say he accidentally fell into this industry. He was training to be a doctor, and the Lord had different plans for his life. He was in production from the early ’70s. He worked with Amy Grant. He had never produced a record, and she was in his youth group. He heard her sing a few songs and gave her cassette tape to this guy who played it for Word over the phone. They signed her sight-unseen and said, “Brown, produce the record.”He still says, even though he’s been doing this since the ’70s, “I’m just waiting for everybody to figure out that I don’t actually know what I’m doing.”
You were headed in a different direction. You were a teacher for a while. I got my master’s in education and swore that I would never marry a musician or do music for a living. As a little girl, I had no illusions about what the music industry entailed. I knew that if you did music, you had to be gone from home a lot. I watched that be really hard on families, and said, “I am not doing that.” I swore I’d never marry my best guy friend in college, and I swore to never marry a musician. And then I fell in love with my best friend, who was a musician.
You were in your husband’s band for a while. Can you talk about that experience? He convinced me to quit my teaching job. I joined him on the road, and it was such a beautiful thing. I think we thought it would be a yearlong diversion, and God just had really different plans because here we are 8 1/2 years later, still making music together. Honestly, it has been one of the most beautiful things for our marriage. I’m a conflict avoider, a recovering perfectionist, and so it served our marriage really well to spend that much time together. I think it would have taken 10 years to learn the things we did because we were just in a Volvo for years together.
You were also in a Volvo with other folks, right? How was that? Honestly, it was really, really good for me. I landed in intensive counseling three years into doing it, which was the best thing that has ever happened to me. What my counselor kept saying to me was, “Ellie, where there’s truth, there’s freedom.” I had to learn to be vulnerable and really broken in front of our band, in front of my husband, and it absolutely changed my faith, it changed everything.What we learned to do in the car was, if we started getting in a fight, my husband would text the rest of the band guys. He’d say, “Headphones, boys,” and they’d put their headphones on and then we’d be able to talk without them listening, which was really good.
Did they ever cheat and listen anyway? Probably so, yeah.
What made you decide you wanted to venture off and do something on your own? We had a little girl. She’s 2. We took her on the road with us the whole first year. By the time she was 6 months, she’d been to 32 states and Canada. I decided at the end of that first year I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. She was just not cool with being in a car seat for seven hours, as it turns out. … In that process, I had written all these songs working out my faith. My husband and my dad heard those and they said, “We really think you need to make a record.”I thought that I’d make a record, just put it out on iTunes, and release it. I never imagined that I’d be getting to do this as my job. I know the cost, again, of making music and being a touring artist, so I didn’t take that lightly. I tried to be a stay-at-home mom. I’m like, “OK, I think I’m done with music,” and again, the Lord had different plans. I don’t swear anymore because the Lord always has different plans, right? He just opened up the floodgates to make a way for me to get to tour and play these songs for other people.
What was that like for you to put the album out and then start to get really great feedback? Really humbling. It’s funny, I wrote the songs just for myself. I would sit in God’s Word and let music come out. Most of the songs were prayers saying, “Lord, I love this promise. Help me believe that it’s true.” … To have that somehow resonate and ring true with lots of other people has been such a delight and a surprise to me, because I’m like, “Oh, I just wrote what I needed to hear.” If this is good for anybody else, this is like icing on the cake, because I already love singing these songs. It’s been a gift for me to write them and to perform them all the time.
How did you get this first record made? We decided to do a Kickstarter campaign. That’s crowdsourced funding, inviting people who’ve listened to your music to be a part of making the record with you. Honestly, I did not want to do that because you set a goal, we set $40,000 in 50 days, and if you don’t hit that goal you just fail publicly in front of everybody—you don’t get any of the money. I literally felt like I was going to throw up before we started it.My husband said, “Do you believe in these songs?” They’re all interlaced with God’s Word, and I believe that God’s Word is powerful and it doesn’t come back void, so I said, “OK, yeah. I believe in these songs and I’d love for people to hear them.” We did a Kickstarter campaign and after about a day and a half, almost two days, we’d hit $40,000.
It was one of those things where the Lord asks you to follow Him, you take a step, you feel like you’re stepping off of a cliff, and then the ground comes underneath your feet to meet you. It’s been such a beautiful thing to make music in the context of community and inviting other people into that process with you. It’s been one of the most humbling, beautiful things I’ve ever experienced.
What would be that one song you’d want everybody to hear? Probably “As Sure as the Sun.” It’s the title track, and it comes out of the promise in Hosea 6:3 that says, “Let us acknowledge the Lord, let us press on to acknowledge Him, for as surely as the sun rises, He will appear.” It’s just a promise that I love. I love that it isn’t, “As sure as the sun rises everything will go like you think it will,” or, “Everything will be easy.” It’s His promise of Emmanuel, God with us, and it’s one that I keep coming back to. It’s a song that rings the truest with me, that I need to be reminded of the most.
You mentioned that during that period of time when you were on the road and did counseling, you learned a lot about yourself and your faith. Do you mind sharing some of those lessons? Not at all. They’re my favorite stories to tell, actually. I always say I’m a recovering perfectionist, praise the Lord. I grew up in a church. I knew that Jesus loved me. No one said this from the pulpit, my parents didn’t say it, no one said it in Sunday school, but somehow I gathered that following Jesus was all about me being good enough, about me really loving God and loving other people. And I know that that’s part of it, but that’s not really the heart of the gospel.
What I learned was the gospel is literally God’s goodness to us when we’re running hard and fast in the other direction. There’s this invitation from Jesus to be both fully known and fully accepted and adored because of what He did on the cross. What I’ve learned is Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good, He came to make dead people alive, and that’s what He’s done in my life, and so I cannot speak enough.
Almost every show I talk about how I’ve been in counseling. There are days that I say, “Just kidding. It’s my friend, she went to counseling and it was really good for her,” because it’s a vulnerable thing to say. Here’s the deal, I have no qualms about being broken and being a mess. I am a mess. I’m a wreck without Jesus. It’s been a beautiful thing to basically go and sing songs and be really imperfect in front of people that I don’t know, and to say, “I really don’t have it all together but Jesus, but Jesus, but Jesus.” It’s been a really beautiful process for me.
You were performing with your husband in a band, and a lot of the stuff you do now is more stripped down, just you and a guitar in some cases. Talk about that process. It’s way more terrifying. In the band, I used to be a utility musician player. I would play mandolin, keys, guitar, but I was never carrying anything on my own. When we did this Kickstarter project, we sold, I think, 25 house concerts. I had never really played a concert by myself. That was terrifying. I love it because it’s kind of like VH1’s Storytellers, where I get to tell the story behind the song and then sing it. But playing the guitar and performing the song where I’m carrying it all alone has been one of the most terrifying things ever.
I would put my little girl down, and I’d go up into my bathroom, which is the farthest room away, and I would play guitar until about 1 or 2 in the morning every day to get to where I could carry it. Over this year of playing shows, it’s been really fun because it switched from terrifying every time I played to being a little bit more fun. I’m a little bit more proficient than I used to be.
What have you learned over the course of playing these solo shows? I learned that hope is what most people need and want. One of the things that I hear the most at the end of my shows is, “Thank you for being real.” For whatever reason, in the church it’s just hard to be vulnerable sometimes. We want to be like, “God’s made me whole, God’s made me whole,” and so that aspect of struggling is really hard. I have learned that when we walk in the light, as He’s in the light, we have fellowship with one another.
When someone else says, “Me too,” you know you’re not alone. I get to say, “Hey, come with me as I stumble and trip on the way to the cross, and let’s go to Him together.” That invitation to be real, that is a powerful thing and that’s where real community begins. I’ve been able to see the power of the truth and the freedom that comes in saying, “I don’t have it all together, but let’s go with all of our broken pieces to Jesus.”
Is there a song on the album that encapsulates those ideas the most? Absolutely. It would be called “The Broken Beautiful,” and it sort of tells my story. If there’s anything I’ve seen God do in my story, He’s taken the parts of my life that have been the most broken, the most messed up, the darkest, and He has shown up in those very places that I never even expected Him to ever be. He’s breathed healing and life and hope in the places that were dead and barren and deserted. I’ve seen Him do that in the lives of my friends, too. … You’re in the middle of this mess, but every time I see Him show up in the middle of brokenness. If there’s anything that I’ve learned, it’s that He’s the best person that we can know in the middle of suffering and in the middle of brokenness because He suffered and was broken for us so we don’t have to be defined by that brokenness. We can be defined by His love and His healing.
You started out as a middle school and high school English teacher, and you’ve talked about letting what you read inform your songwriting. What are you reading now? I’m reading two [books] that I love. One is called The Warmth of Other Sunsand then one is All the Light We Cannot See. … Those are both amazing. The book that is kind of undoing me right now is by a lady named Brené Brown. She is a doctor who has studied the concept of shame and the effects of that in our lives. It has been one of the most beautiful things to read her stories of this idea of coming into the light.
When you do have a few moments of spare time, other than read, what do you do? I see the people that I love. My little girl, I love her. Her name’s Emmylou. She’s 2. It is never boring. We call her “Joy Tornado.” I’m getting to spend time with her and my husband. We have a really vibrant community here in Nashville, at our church, and in our neighborhood. I think that’s the hardest part about being gone from home. When home is such a wonderful place and you love so many people here, you just want to dig in every time that you’re here.
What church do you go to? It’s City Church of East Nashville. It’s a plant of Christ Community and it’s Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), although we don’t talk about the fact that we’re PCA that much. It’s a parish model. I didn’t know what that was in the beginning, but they say, “Hey, let’s move into this specific neighborhood and love our neighbors and pray for the gospel to change this neighborhood, these streets, and this specific area.” The beauty of that is we live within walking distance of 20 of our dearest friends. It has been a really sweet thing to flesh out, what does it look like to love? To actually love our neighbors as we love ourselves? It has not been easy. It’s been a very humbling but beautiful process to have a vision for a little Judea right around you.
What are your long-term goals with your music? Do you want to make a career at this? I want to do whatever Jesus is telling me to do, and at this point, the songs are still coming. I’m just continuing to sit in His Word and write what I need to hear. I have open hands with it, which it’s not really probably a great thing for the music industry. You need ambition. But I just feel like the Lord knows exactly what He wants us to do. I want to say “yes” to whatever that is.
I’m guessing because you said you were a recovering perfectionist that this is a real issue for you. Truly it is. When you put a perfectionist, people-pleasing type in a career where it’s literally your job to perform, you have a person who’s in need of pretty intensive counseling in 2.5 to 3 years. I feel like what the Lord asks me to do when I go play shows is to just be really imperfect in front of a lot of people and to allow that vulnerability to shine through. I don’t want to pretend to be anything I’m not. My natural tendency is to want to be like, “I’m fine and OK,” but it’s been a really beautiful calling to have to say, “I don’t have it together, and even though I want to, there’s no power in perfection.” It’s a false and a very prideful thing to chase after because the only one who was perfect was Jesus, right? I love the accountability that I have in playing these songs every night because it really is for me. I don’t want to fake it anymore because I spent most of my life doing that. So this is a good line of work for me to be in now.
I want to ask you about some of your musical influences, both growing up and now. Growing up, Amy Grant. I’m a child of the ’80s and ’90s, so I feel like every little girl wanted to be Amy Grant then. She’s such a gracious, beautiful soul, and so she’s been a huge influence on me. Sara Groves has a record called Add to the Beauty that she made with my dad. That has carried me through some sorrowful times in my life and continues to speak to me today. Any stuff by Jon Foreman. The Limbs and Branches and the seasons EPs have been amazing. Audrey Assad, and then there’s this new artist named Steffany Gretzinger with a record called The Undoing that is literally undoing me right now and singing truth over me on nights that it’s hard to believe the truth. So those are a few of the influences and people that I’m loving right now.
Talk to me about your songwriting process. Usually it comes with Jesus first. … I was doing a bunch of co-writes for this record. I had no idea how to do that. I’d only written with my family and my husband. When I was asking the Lord, “How do you want me to do this?” I felt like He said, “Just start with me. Just wake up and spend time with me and in my Word and out of that let the music come.” It usually starts with prayers and His Word. Then a lot of times in the car on my way to write, a melody will come. Then whatever I’m reading or whatever promise it is that I’m loving and wanting to really hold onto and hang onto and believe, and I sit in that passage and the words come from that. Melody first, usually with an iPhone on my voice memo. It doesn’t start with a guitar usually. It usually starts with an iPhone.
Listen to Warren Smith’s full interview with Ellie Holcomb on Listening In.
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