Nichole Nordeman grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in a well-to-do home, playing the piano in church, going to a Christian school. But when her parents divorced when Nichole was 18, things changed dramatically. She felt her family was at the receiving end of pointing fingers from those who hated the sin of divorce so much they couldn't see the desperate needs of a family being ripped apart.
Still, every Sunday morning, she was there, behind the piano, "stumbling through my spiritual questions." She'd lead the church in worship materials, then sing a few songs she'd written. "That was my only outlet, like reading a journal entry in front of 400 people." Consequently, her album -- if not everything about her life -- is "bare bones of Christianity, not the shiny, polished Christianity."
The minister of music at her Colorado church forwarded a brochure about a contest sponsored by the Gospel Music Association's Academy of Gospel Music Arts. She almost didn't enter because, as a waitress, the $200 weekend registration fee was steep. She borrowed the money and sent in her entry. She was selected to compete in the Los Angeles area contest, where the Vice President of Star Song records, John Mays first noticed her. She won that event and began talking with Star Song about a record deal. "I think John sensed my cautiousness. We both moved slowly and just began a dialogue.''
That's where producer Mark Hammond came in. Nichole wrote lyrics for all 10 songs and got co-writing help from Hammond on music for five of them. While many of her songs feature strong piano instrumentation -- her instrument of choice, Hammond's influence "encouraged her to explore other musical directions as well."
Frankly speaking, everything's different now. There is no going back. No changing your mind. No choice but to stand up straight, gather your courage and move toward the ledge.
For Nichole Nordeman â ” the two-time Dove Award-winning Female Vocalist of the Year and critically acclaimed songwriter who helped put the words "intelligent" and "introspective" back into the Christian music dictionary â ” the past 24 months as a new Mom have left her both dazed and amazed, with little time for thinking, much less writing. So when her sabbatical from all things professional came to an end, the woman known for unforgettable songs like "Holy," "Every Season" and "Legacy" began to reach deep into her songwriter's heart. What emerged was unlike anything she'd created before.
"Brave" reveals a bold, progressive leap for a very different Nichole Nordeman, an artist whose eyes and heart are open wider. A woman who has found the courage to take creative risks and, most of all, to speak the truth.
"Early in the process," Nichole says of her fourth album, "Brad [O'Donnell], my friend and A & R guy, said something that really inspired me. He said, â Christians are somehow prone to talking more about where they've been instead of where they are. Very few people want to speak up while they are in process… They'd rather wait until their junk is resolved, so they can give a "testimony" about the happy ending. As it relates to your writing, please don't feel the need to tie it up with a bow at the end.'"
And so that became Nichole's mission: to be as honest and truthful as three minutes would allow; to make every song count (read: no fillers just to round out the album); and most of all, to spread her wings and fly formula-free.
"I think there are some people who would say that after eight Dove Awards, to change producers and embrace a new musical direction is not brave at all. They might call the record Crazy, instead of Brave. Why fix it if it's not broken? But honestly," Nichole says, "there was no place else to go after Woven & Spun, other than someplace more organic, not unlike when I wrote the songs for my very first record, when I didn't know a thing about radio or marketing or any of the expectations. I simply wrote about life and faith as I knew it."
This time she drew not only from her own experience, but from the stories of those around her. "Life on the road had left my relationships somewhat neglected and withered. For a while, I had forgotten how to be a friend, it seems. But this sabbatical afforded me the luxury of leaning in to some people I love, walking with them through some tough stuff, and then writing about what God is doing in their lives."
Armed with what she calls an "education in excellence" from previous producers Mark Hammond, Charlie Peacock and others, Nichole enlisted the help of producer Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin, John Hiatt, Shawn Mullins, Wallflowers, Macy Gray) who came to Dallas for most of the recording process. It was, Nichole says, a nervous step in a new direction that gave her the opportunity to play a larger production role. "From the ground up Jay basically sat me at a piano in a room and said, â Let's build this song. What does the song want to say? Where does it want to go?' I had so much input that at first it was pretty intimidating; but once I found my feet, Jay couldn't shut me up. I don't know anyone who has the kind of instincts he does."
The production, the music, and most certainly the songs themselves, all seemed to congregate under the same umbrella: the theme of facing your fears, gathering courage enough to step out of the boxed familiar… and into a brave new world.
The most obvious example is the title track and first single, "Brave," a joyful, energetic song Nichole wrote primarily for her now 2-year-old son, Charlie.
So long, status quo / I think I just let go / You make me want to be brave
While it was written for Charlie, she says, "It's the kind of song that anyone could sing, a universal declaration that says, â You inform and affect my life in a way that make me feel like I could do anything.' Ultimately, we sing this to our Creator. He is the ultimate source of our courage and willingness to step out on the shakiest of branches. Philippians 4:13 was never more true for me than over the last couple years."
Other up-tempo songs like "Real To Me," and "Lay It Down (Song for a Prodigal)," may surprise listeners with their progressively modern sounds, but the lyrics here contain the same profound intuition and thoughtfulness we've all come to expect from Nichole.
And yet Nichole's fierce determination to raise the artistic bar doesn't, in any way, mean that "Brave" doesn't deliver the heart-bending ballads that have been the hallmark of her career. One need only listen to:
â ¢ "What If," a powerful song that dares to ask skeptical seekers to put their ideologies on hold long enough to consider that there's more to Jesus than what they've heard.
â ¢ "Hold On," with its ambient guitars and somber cadence, speaks the truth about the relentless love of God. "We talk about finding God, finding God, finding God," Nichole says of â Hold On,' "but the truth is God finds us. It can be at the bottom of a bottle; it can be in a stranger's bed. You cannot get away from the love of Christ. There's no place you can go that He won't find you."
â ¢ "We Build," a song about the challenges of marriage, is already leaving audiences in tears. "Anyone who's been married for more than a half an hour knows that it's really difficult," Nichole says, "but people, especially Christians, rarely talk about how hard it is. I can't even tell you how many people came up to me after I first sang this song live, one after another with tears streaming down their faces, saying â thank you.' Not because I unlocked some deep, dark secret to the success of marriage, but because I simply admitted that some days love is a choice. A choice that means rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty and trusting God for the blueprints. Sometimes it just helps to hear â me too.'"
One seriously unexpected part of the album that embodies the word "brave": Nichole's phenomenal, gutsy cover of Bob Dylan's 1979 classic Gotta Serve Somebody, perhaps the truest song ever sung in the history of popular music.
In every note, every syllable, of "Brave", it is clear that without courage, real living is simply not possible. Like no other season in her life â ” in exploring the meaning of marriage, motherhood, music and more â ” Nichole is finding out that she's stronger than she thought. On any given day, she's standing on the ledge of the unknown, daring to trust herself and her God enough to step off and try out her new fledgling wings. "Brave" is a glorious test flight, no doubt the first of many to come.
Artist Professional Life: 1998 – 2007