To be an established and acclaimed artist by the age of 30 is more than most musicians can hope for. But for Audrey Assad, music is more than a career; it’s a means of evangelisation. And it’s the search for truth, not record sales, that drives her.
“Beauty is the last bastion of evangelisation in our culture, and part of that is because it is one of the only things people are idolising any more,” she tells me. “It was Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II who really cemented in my mind that beauty was something worth pursuing, that it still has a place in people’s lives, and if we strive for it then we can turn them on to truth and goodness as well. Being the three great transcendentals, they’re all connected – they’re all qualities of God.”
The daughter of a Syrian Christian who left Damascus for the US when he was 18, and a Virginian mother, Assad was raised in a Plymouth Brethren household in New Jersey. She developed her talent for music in a liturgical tradition of “robust and beautiful” hymns where a capella singing formed the backbone of worship. “Singing was the only way songs would get done,” she explains. “I didn’t hear of praise and worship music until I was in high school, but when I had I had already grown up in such a way that singing was essential.”
Music was never meant to become her life’s work, however.
“I wanted to get married at 18 and have 10 kids. That didn’t happen, and suddenly I was all ‘OK, what do I do with my life while I’m waiting for this?’ So I started [writing songs] at 19, just playing and enjoying myself.” But a burgeoning interest in worship music, coupled with the decision to convert to Catholicism in her early 20s, set a process of questioning and discernment in motion. “I didn’t know what this meant for my job, I didn’t know if it meant I could still be involved in worship music. What do I do being on the charismatic side of things?” This led her to where she is today: a highly regarded contemporary Christian artist with two albums under her belt and a third, Fortunate Fall, being released this month.
“It’s taken the last few years to get to where I am now, where I’ve built this ecumenical ministry of leading prayer in both Catholic and Protestant churches, allowing a discussion about Catholicism to be had on social networks, with fans, and with people I meet along the way,” she says. “It was something that was gradual – I just knew God was calling me to use this gift, so I just started playing everywhere I could and one thing led to another.”
Ecumenically minded and mature in her faith, Assad seems to be tailormade for the new evangelisation, and is full of praise for the new Pope: “With Pope Francis’s papacy, he is encouraging action rather than just thinking. I almost feel as if Benedict and John Paul showed us the ideas and Francis is showing us the path, and I like the idea that, within Pope Francis’s spirituality and charism, the connection between art and justice might be made: artists partnering with people to raise awareness and funds for issues in this world.”
Assad sees her own role as using her musical formation in the Plymouth Brethren for the benefit of a Church which, she acknowledges, is not renowned for its musical abilities. “It absolutely has given me something, a gift that I want to give to my Church. Since becoming Catholic I have become part of the Charismatic Renewal within the Catholic Church, and there is a lot of singing there!” Her aim, she says, is to combine her worship background and Catholic faith into songs which are “a really humbly offered gift to Catholics”.
As well as the clear evangelical influence, Assad’s music is notable for the depth of her lyrics, borne of an intensely thoughtful spiritual life. Though she claims not to do as much spiritual reading as she ought to, a typical song of hers will draw on or quote Scripture and classic works of Christian theology, as well as great literature. Her interest in the latter she puts down to an autodidactic streak developed after leaving school. “Since I dropped out of college at 19, I thought: ‘Well, at least I’d like to keep reading things that are going to be an effort to me.’”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, converts feature heavily amongst Assad’s Christian influences. She professes a love for CS Lewis and particularly for St Augustine, whom she describes as “a great gateway to Catholic thought, intelligent without being academic and cold”. She explains: “A lot of his writing I encountered on my way into Catholicism and he has been a great bridge between different Christian denominations. He’s a beautiful writer with a beautiful heart.” Augustine’s theology features noticeably in Assad’s new album Fortunate Fall – the title itself being a translation of his phrase felix culpa – which takes her music in a more overtly prayerful direction. Drawing inspiration from the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil Mass, in particular the verse beginning “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam”, Fortunate Fall is “part praise and worship, part liturgically influenced meditation”, with a “framework that is definitely built for prayer, whether that be personal, alone in the car, or Friday night prayer and worship”.
She says: “That line [of the Exsultet] is a meditation on the idea that God brings good out of things that start out evil, and that is His nature. There’s something very beautiful about that, even when it requires the existence of evil in the first place. It’s a strange thought, and not one I grew up with, but since becoming a Catholic I’ve heard it every Easter.”
The album, then, is the result of her exploration of the idea that “there’s something mysteriously fortunate about the Fall of Man that afforded us the chance to know Christ as our Redeemer”.
Assad has recent personal experience of the redemptive power of suffering, her husband, William, having been diagnosed with cancer in their first year of marriage. “Watching someone go through a sickness like that, caring for them and all of those things, was certainly a trial and a burden – something that challenged me to trust in the Lord and to believe in His goodness no matter what, and to take everything in some mysterious way as though it were from His hand.
“The songs on this record are definitely part of the fruit of that couple of years of learning to accept things as though God gave them even when they’re hard, even when they’re painful and sorrowful and dark, because He is bringing good out of evil in every life. All of these songs reflect that experience.”
One song of which Assad is particularly proud is “Lead, Kindly Light”, based on Blessed John Henry Newman’s hymn of that name, which deals with learning to trust in God’s goodness. “I think I’ve learnt in the last few years not to desire, not even to need anything illuminated except the next step for me, and that’s a very Scriptural idea. God is a light unto my feet and a lamp unto my path, but you can only see how far the light reaches. Sometimes it gives you these wide glimpses of your life and of the things that are going on, and other times all you have is the lamp in your hand.” This perspective on Divine Providence is, she says, “probably most of what people experience” in their spiritual life, and one she hopes the song encapsulates.
A strong tendency for self-criticism emerges when Assad talks of how she crafts her songs. This is a process she takes “very seriously”, making a conscious effort to combine the fruits of her theological study with accessibility and openness. “It’s important to me when I’m listening to music, especially if it’s designed for prayer, that it is a combination of those things. I don’t want to go to either extreme: one being sacrificing any thought that challenges the mind or the heart, and then the other being that you don’t give people a doorway into that thought.”
Fans old and new will undoubtedly find that Fortunate Fall lives up to that aim. But Assad’s own conclusion is characteristically modest. “I don’t know if I’ve accomplished it with this album – but I’ve definitely tried my best.”
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 9/8/13