"On days when I can't get
through with a single positive thought or reminder of a scriptural principal
or truth in my life I know without a doubt there still will be grace to
catch me when I fall. That is one of the things that I have found in this
new album is that sense of mercy," said pop / rock artist Staci Frenes
while discussing the song "A Safe Place to Land" from her new CD Nothing
Short of Amazing. The San Francisco Bay area native ads, "We are going
to blow it and have really hard days when we just don't have any answers.
God's grace is big enough to catch us on those days." The album her fifth
release is distributed internationally by Go Global Entertainment.
"Amazing," the title for
both the album and title track, was inspired by a scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald's
classic novel The Great Gatsby. Frenes explained, "He (the novelist) has
this great passage where he talks about Jay Gatsby, the main character,
looking out over the dock where he sees his beloved Daisy's house. There
is this green light that represents Daisy for him. The closer he gets to
Daisy the closer he gets to this enchanted object which represents Daisy.
I think many times in the process of maturing and getting older that the
list of enchanted objects grows shorter and shorter. (With) God's presence
in our lives it becomes just the opposite of that. The more we know Him
and we dig into who God is the more amazing and awe inspiring he becomes.
That is where I got the concept for the song is He is never anything short
of simply amazing."
"Safe Place to Land" speaks
from Frenes' heart and from experience in the earlier years of her music
career. "I am my own worst critic. I think in my own self deprecation I
felt like a failure. I felt I would never become anything and never amount
to anything. I really have been my own worst enemy. I have found over and
over again in the midst of that kind of depression that God has been my
safe place and reminds me of whose I am. He lifts my head."
She is adept at using metaphors
and painting pastel images across our imaginations and hearts to describe
the awe she feels in God's presence. Hopes and dreams become brush strokes
across a canvass in the song "Amazing".
"I'd wish on every falling star
In my days of innocence
Then see them lose their shimmer one by one
'Til there were no mysteries left."
She continued to discuss
"Amazing." "First of all, that song really came out of a personal sense
of having different times in my life when I really hoped and wished for
things that never came to fruition. I put my hope in things that were certainly
empty and vapidthings that were not going to be fulfilling. I think
that so many people have experiences of putting all their eggs in baskets
that really can't hold those eggs. I honestly believe we are to have this
deep sense of wonder and awe in our lives and yet when we focus that wonder,
hope and desire in the wrong things we end up empty, feeling disillusioned
and a little bit bitter."
It should come as no surprise
that this former high school English teacher often pulls her inspiration
from a famed author such as Fitzgerald or an artist such as Picasso. "I
really have a love of the arts. I find God quite a bit, I find very profound
truth in art whether it be dance or walking through a gallery of sculpture
or paintings. I just find it incredibly insightful into the character
of God and who we are as human beings and how we experience and express
pain and joy. When those things manifest themselves in the arts they are
very inspiring for me," she says. In fact the artist Picasso went through
a down period of his life when he painted in various shades of blue and
it prompted Frenes to pen the song "Picasso Blues," which speaks to the
theme of God painting us in different hues so we can be different expressions
of his creation rather than painting us all the same or always moody.
While she was majoring in
English at U C Berkley, most students were probably wilting when handed
the syllabus containing a plethora of reading material but not Frenes.
She remembered thinking, "Wow I get to read all this. I have a voracious
love of reading." One of the authors who most inspire her is the work of
C.S. Lewis. "I am looking forward with great anticipation to the new Narnia
movie. I was a huge CS Lewis fan as a kid. In grade school I read The Chronicles
of Narnia and was just captivated. I got the analogy right away. I was
just in wonder that metaphor, analogy and fantasy can express such deep
profound truth. I think that C.S. Lewis is one of the figures that have
definitely been inspirational to me."
Frenes' music has been well
received by the television networks as well. During the past year her song
"Anything Is Possible" (co-written with Paul Buono) was featured on Warner
Brother's Summerland and "Believe You" aired on CBS's The Young and the
Restless. While more conservative and fundamentalist Christians might question
the integrity of Christian music being featured on (gasp!) more worldly
broadcasts such accusations only elicited positive responses from Frenes.
"I have to hearken back to our conversation about the arts. Does that mean
that a painting by a Christian painter only belongs in a gallery somewhere
with other painters who are not believers? When I write a song it is out
there and it is what it is. I think each person who listens to it is going
to have a different response. Ideally I would love each person to glean
from it their own truth. The fact that we have some songs playing on network
television is a huge indication to me that God does work in mysterious
ways. Sometimes when we go through the backdoor or the screen door we are
still there and the presence of God can still permeate those places albeit
they are much harder places to permeate but all the more reason why we
should be making inroads into those places. "
This gifted poetess has
been inspired by the various songwriters she has worked with over the years.
"I worked with Ginny Owens about a year ago and she and I wrote a song
called "Surprise Me" which is on my new CD. I brought in a core idea, the
chorus and then she and I worked on developing a great couple of verses.
We tweaked the chorus. Ginny Owens has a beautiful sense of melody. She
is a great melody writer. I consider myself a pretty good melodic writer
as well but she has a really neat twist to the way she will put things
into a melody form," said Frenes. Frenes acknowledges that she also appreciates
Owens' style that steers away from rutting it out in formula writing.
She went on to say, "I've
written with Margaret Becker and John Hartley. We wrote a really beautiful
worship song that Nichole Nordeman recorded. Working with those two was
really cool. Margaret has a lot of jazz background to her style and she
will come up with really great chords that I would never think of because
I have more of a folk / rock background. Margaret brought in these really
lush jazzy choruses and then John Hartley is just this big simple picture
kind of a guy. He had the whole picture of the song in mind before we even
got started. He had the hook. He drove that throughout the whole session."
Frenes is one of many singer/songwriters
who credit producer/songwriter/musician Nate Sabin with strengthening her
album. In particular she thinks his interpretation of the St Mary's track
were invaluable. "He played the song so beautifully on the piano that it
just took it to a whole new level. He brought a new sensibility and a very
beautiful chord structure to the bridge of that song. He really tied it
Staci Frenes' ability as
a songwriter are as legendary as her career as an artist. She has garnered
the respect of some of the top names in the music industry including Sheila
Walsh and Margaret Becker. Thinking that it must be somewhat bittersweet
for someone who doubles as a performer to write a song and then release
it to another artist I asked about her feelings on that subject. "At first
it is like letting your child go. The other artist may have a different
feel for how to turn your song around and a different sense of rhythm so
they phrase things differently. It feels very strange. You might ask yourself,
'what did they do to it? Why did they change it?' I think the more I listen
to it (the song) it becomes a different thing altogether. (Then) I let
it go and let it become what they need it to be for their artistry. I'm
learning to do that more and more. I have been writing diligently for a
couple of years now with a couple of writers and I am learning more how
to distance myself personally as an artist from the songs that I am writing
especially if I know they are songs that I am going to be letting go of."
The flip side of that discussion
for Frenes is hearing a song developed with similar interpretations to
her own. "The demo we recorded for Sheila Walsh of the song "Hope" had
some really cool Celtic elements--flute, ambient guitars, lushly layered
background vocals; and when we got the CD of her version, we were thrilled
that her producer used most of the same arrangements. It gave the three
of us (writers) goose bumps to hear it cut so true to the demo."
As a songwriter Frenes is
always growing, stretching and pushing the boundaries. She said, "It's
a classic case of the more you learn the less you know about it. I thought
I had certain things figured out early on about how to write a good song
and I started learning some formulas from people that I listened to. The
more I used those formulas the more trite they sounded so I tried to reinvent
some of those formulas only to find that didn't work. Honestly Joe it is
such a mystery to me how a great song gets written. I will run into writers
who will tell me that a song came to them in a twenty minute rush and then
another song might have taken those four or five years to complete yet
the general listener will have no idea how that song was birthed. For me
the writing process is so fluid. It is continually changing. It feels like
my knowledge of songwriting gets less and less every year and yet I think
I am getting better at it."
As a performer, Frenes has
often been compared to Sheryl Crow. Sometimes when two artists with similar
styles emerge at the same time it can be a bit of a handicap and I wondered
if she saw it in the same light. "You are certainly not the first person
to mention that (the comparison) and I think it is because Sheryl Crow
is such a popular artist that people are finding that is a good reference
point. I have a couple of her records and I think she is a really talented
writer and singer. I would say that is pretty accurate (the comparison).
Where we differ at least in some of the stuff I have been hearing her do
recently is she tends to lean more towards a country rock and some of the
stuff I lean toward more in my own personal styling is a little less country
rock and a little more into an eclectic ambient rock kind of sound."
Frenes came to life when
I suggested to her that I find her music more along the lines of Shawn
Colvin. "Okay you are in a good camp now. I adore Shawn Colvin. I have
really followed her since Shotgun Down the Avalanche, Diamond in the Rough
and Steady On. I think she is brilliant. I really love Shawn Colvin."
Whether she is toting her
Taylor guitar or her Takamine (guitar) Frenes said, "I feel most comfortable
in an environment where the people are very real and authentic. They may
not know yet what it means to live a Christian life but they are honest
about their questions and dialogue. My songs ask questions. I've noticed
that a lot of times the lyrics I write will have a happy endingthat
last chorus that brings it altogether or that ending that gives away the
answer. I am so okay with that and I am so okay with that being part of
the Christian culture and part of who we are as believers. It's really
dialoguing together about those things that break our hearts, the things
that confuse us, the things that don't seem fair to us, the injustices.
I guess the settings that I love are the ones where I get to be free and
open about my questions and struggles in my journey, where I am open to
share the kind of music that I write. I love environments where I am open
to share the kind of songs that are much more overtly Christian in their
lyrics and where I can do songs that are exhorting the Body of Christ.
There is a time and a place to be exhorting and there is also a time and
place to be asking questions and opening up dialogue. For me personally
I really like the settings where I can be both where I can be very honest
about what I have written."
Frenes doesn't shy away
from reading her reviews despite the fact many of her contemporaries do.
Frenes said, "I am a sucker for it (reading her reviews). With the last
album (a few writers) have been making comparisons and I have begun to
see the same names coming up. The one thing you are hoping as an artist
is you have a unique voice and a unique niche but people by their very
nature want to pigeon hole you and compare you with someone they are familiar
with. It is a double edged sword. It really is because on the one hand
it is a compliment that they are comparing you to a very accomplished and
established artist but on the other hand you would like them to say wow
this is brilliant. It is nothing like anything I have ever heard." (Ooops!
I wish you had told me that before the Sheryl Crow and Shawn Colvin questions)
Okay it's time to get the
dirt on Staci so I baited her and asked about her pet peeves. She replied
without hesitation, "Here's my pet peeve, I am a real communications addict.
I am very good about returning calls and emails and so I have such little
patience for people who can't seem to return a phone call within a reasonable
amount of time or they don't call or email you."
Since her last answer left
little in the way of ambiguity I decided to move to a more mellow discussion
of her family home near the ocean. "I am still a native Californian. I
live about an hour east of San Francisco. We can at a moment's notice pack
up the car and our yellow lab dog, Jazz. We drive to the beach in an hour
and we have done so several times this year. There is something so majestic
about standing in front of an ocean. It is a metaphor for the vastness
of God. It hearkens to the scripture (paraphrased) 'Who am I that you are
mindful of me' (Psalm 8). I just love being at the ocean for that
very reason, just basking in the vastness of nature and creation."
Frenes said if she had a
magic wand or ultimate wish list she would love to jam or perform with
Charlie Peacock. "I adore Charlie Peacock. I think having him anywhere
on stage or anywhere near me would be one of my dreams because I think
he is so brilliant and wonderful. That would be in the Christian realm.
I am also a big fan of David Crowder and Delirious ? I think those guys
are really brilliant. I think the David Crowder Band is carving some amazing
ground in the worship movement. I would love to do a gig with them. I have
this huge admiration and love for Annie Lennox. I think that she is one
of my all time favorite singers. I love the sound of her voice. I love
where she goes with her writing. I love the textures that she creates with
her voice. I went and saw her last year. She was on tour with Sting. Annie
Lennox was doing the material from her recent album and had a live band
with her. I was just riveted. She was just rocking. She looks gorgeous.
She sounded beautiful. She had tons of energy and charisma. It was very
spontaneous and felt in the moment."
The schedule for a touring
artist can be demanding but Staci and hubby Abe have made a concentrated
effort to maintain a well balanced home life for their twelve year old
daughter Abby and fifteen year old son Zachary. "One of the choices
we have made is to do a normal work week here at home. We make our
kids lunches, we car pool we do football, we do all of that Monday to Friday.
We try to carve out the tour dates so that they are extended weekends and
we try not to make them fall mid week. We have made a very concerted
effort to put our family first. One of the cool things about our situation
is my folks live five minutes from my home and they have been the home
away from home for my children since we first got started in (music). They
really have not had to schlep around on the road with us too much. They
go to grandma and grandpa's house on the weekend. They are fine with that
and my parents are fine with that. It works for us."
She said her children have
adapted well, "My kids have been around music since they were born. They
have grown up around it. They think it is cool when stuff happens that
is kind of high profile such as if I do a TV show, if I am in a newspaper
or magazine. Then by all means they want to claim it and show it off to
their friends but when we are doing our day to day thing they just kind
of go with the flow and take it in stride. They don't seem to have an opinion
about it one way or the other. I think they take it for granted this is
what mom and dad do. When they were young it was like, 'Doesn't everyone's
mom and dad pack up their car with gear and go and do gigs?"
The fondness for music has
obviously been passed down to Staci and Abe's children. "My son plays drums
and my daughter plays guitar." Responding to my teasing her about incorporating
them into the band some day she says, "We threaten them with buying a big
yellow buss like the Partridge Family, putting our names on the side of
it and hauling them around."
Staci Frenes has many colors
to her character and personality. She can be fun, serious, introspective
and imaginative. She is passionate about what she believes and wise enough
to know she still has a lot life can teach her. The way she sees the world
and sees people can best be described with this excerpt from her song "Picasso
blues we all paint in different hues
Coloring creation in
a splendid variation
We are mosaic proof that
God will always use
More than just Picasso’s
A hazy grey a brilliant
Some painted boldly while
others barely seen
Some question why some
We only find our strength
resting in the Master’s hand
And each of us on this
Reflects a different
stroke of the Artist’s touch
Like Picasso’s blues
we all paint in different hues
Coloring creation in
a splendid variation
We are mosaic proof that
God will always use
More than just Picasso’s
We are His workmanship
Created for His glory
And when we worship Him
We reflect His beauty"
By Joe Montague, exclusive
Joe Montague is an internationally
published journalist / photographer. His ministry is dedicated to the memory
of his late son Kent David Montague who went to heaven at the age of 18.
All copyright and distribution rights remain the property of Joe Montague.