Born to sing

In 2004, Jennifer Knapp announced that she was stepping away from her singing career, a sudden decision that sent a shock wave through the Christian music industry.

Even as she was releasing five successful albums and scoring a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Gospel album, Knapp struggled with her faith and sexuality. During much of her hiatus, she resided in Australia, far away from the spotlight that shined upon her for years here in the United States. Her decision to stop performing also allowed Knapp more time to spend with her partner of nine years, whose identity has so far remained private.

Knapp returned to the public eye in late 2009 with a series of small shows, and last May she issued her first album in nine years, Letting Go. The album release coincided with her coming out as a lesbian, a choice likely to alienate conservative fans who had flocked to her music. In an interview with Out & About Newspaper, Knapp describes how her life has changed since her big announcement.

Since your coming-out announcement, what has been the main reaction from fans?

It's actually been extremely positive. There's been so much joy in returning to music. I've had such an overwhelming response. It's all about doing what we're called to do and using the gifts we have. Most of the response has been so happy. Now I'm free to use the gifts I've got. There's definitely been the people that have said 'Listen, we can't go any further with you.'  But most of been supportive. That's mirrored in the music, and I've really appreciated the chance to have a conversation with people. There's one part of my story that's intriguing to some people, but it's not the whole story.

Has your fanbase changed much in the last year?

I've always had an extremely eclectic fanbase. I'd say 90% of shows were Christian-based fans, but not really rabid Christian music fans. People will come up to me and say, 'I know this is a Christian music record, but I like it anyway.' So there are these fringe people that were kind of marginalized before. I haven't had a conservative fanbase; it's always been a little more progressive. I think if anything what's been added is that people are a lot more inclined to be more honest about who they are. A lot of those happen to be in the LGBT community, and before they didn't want to offend me. They're more inclined to tell you about it now, so it's been a real celebration that means something to me. When you're going to that type of community event and you can honest about who we are and what we're going through, it's great.

I've been very fortunate to have an audience that inspires me to head in any direction. Just about the time that I think I know exactly who is in the audience, I'm surprised. You just can't judge a book by its cover. Every night has its own personality. Sometimes we talk more about  love and sometimes brokenness. When you open up the door to that community, the conversation says a lot. The fans that I've had through the years continue to inspire me. It's not a one-way street. I'm learning right along with them. It's definitely a pleasure to do that.

Your performance at Vanderbilt University was largely intended for the student communities of Nashville. Why do you feel it's so important to reach out to young people?

Well, I've always had an affinity for the college life. That's where I was first connected with my music. I think it's a place where I feel extremely comfortable, so I enjoy the dialogues that I have with students across the country. They have such an inquisitive nature at that age. It's such a pivotal moment in a young adult's life; you get to that point where you're figuring out who you want to be and you're asking hard questions and figuring out your approach to the world. I'm really honored to be in any kind of position to speak to them, especially an environment. I really applaud those who are facing the questions.

From your own life experience, what message is most meaningful when you're performing for them?

I definitely take the angle that we as individuals have strength and we can overcome the challenges we have in our lives. That's part of my personal journey, too, where we can talk about love and what that means. Several songs sound like love songs, but it's bigger than that. It's about how we begin to love ourselves and love others, and honestly look at what that means to change our own character. The hardest and most difficult joys of music is that it's easy to give the antagonists in your life power. They can kind of handicap you. I love the value of looking at those challenges. If you can listen to dissenters for a moment, you can gauge where you are in your life. If you just summarily disregard with those who disagree with us, then you don't learn.

Have you mapped out your musical future over the next few years?

Right now I'm generally just rebuilding. More fans are coming out of the woodworks now. But now I'm basically a new artist after taking a long break. I love what I do as a musician, so that's what I'm trying to do the most. I want to come out and make really good records and move beyond my old image. For artists in the Christian community, sometimes it's more about than the music they're doing. Sometimes it's a struggle to be viewed as a real musician. I have the freedom to be taking more opportunities now. For example, I did a songwriter's event in Florida with Emily Sayers and Mary Gauthier, and so I've been entrenched in the music side. I just want to enjoy and grow my craft. And with the conversations I get to have at Vanderbilt, it's such an honor to be able to do that.

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Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

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