The Music She Loves: An Interview With Ashley Clevleand

In the midst of what seems like a hymn revival in Christian music, Grammy-winner Ashley Cleveland has a lot to say about what she calls, “vital links to both the history and future of the church.” Check it out as Ashley discusses the differences between hymns and today’s Christian Music.

How does Men and Angels Say reflect you personally?

Well this record is different because it’s hymns, it’s all old hymns. I’m a child of the Protestant Church, the Presbyterian Church and I love old hymns. I have a real passion for them – for me they are purest form of worship, for me they touch a place in my soul that no other music touches. I have been performing hymns as long as I’ve been performing; I’ve always included them in my set list and over the years I’ve come up with arrangements that were real compatible with the way that I play music and that I present music. And I have had a desire for years and years that, once I had enough arrangements to fill a record, to make an album of nothing but hymns. So that is really what this record is about; it’s a very personal record for me in a way—part of it is out of my love for the hymns, part of it is out of my desire to keep them alive in the church, because so many churches have replaced the hymnal with modern worship music, and there’s lots of great modern worship music but to me to throw out the hymns would be a tragedy. I’m not saying either or, I’m saying to be inclusive (because) they’re so much a part of the Protestant heritage.

So this has been more of an ongoing project for you?

The idea of it has been ongoing, in looking for the right arrangements that would actually serve the song well and yet be compatible with how I play. To me, when you are recording songs, as a songwriter, the greatest thing you can do is serve the song. The singer needs to serve the song. And there needs to be enough of a song there to serve, and these hymns, to me, are gems of songs—they are poetry put to everything from bar music to Beethoven, so it is really important to me to serve and song, and yet I’m not going to record it the same way that somebody in the 17th century would have recorded it. So for me, the timing was all about coming up with the right arrangements, and most of them were arrangements that I came up with two of the hymns being other people’s arrangements that I really loved and identified with, so I borrowed them.

What is your favorite hymn?

My favorite hymn is Come Thou Fount. Because it is written by a man who recognized his vulnerability, who recognized that he had a wandering heart and that he was prone to wander at all times, that it was all about what the Lord was doing and not about him, and so he throws himself on God’s mercy and says, “Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.”

Have you heard anything contemporary that has impacted you in the same way that hymns have?

Well let me start by saying I live in Nashville, Tennessee, which is widely recognized as the current Mecca of songwriting—it is where the songwriters of this generation are. And it houses the greatest songwriters writing right now, it really does, there are just spectacular writers here. So having said all that, and I function quite a bit in the community and I hear a ton of songs, a lot of them really wonderful, in all of my life I’ve only heard one song that sounded to me like a hymn that was contemporary, and that is a song called “There’s A Light” and it was written by my friend Beth Nielsen Chapman, who’s a very well known songwriter, and she wrote is as her husband was dying of cancer. And it was a song that I recorded on an album called Lesson of Love, which was my third record, and it to me sounds like a hymn.

There’s a real style [to hymns]. If you look at the theological text and the poetry, the beauty of the lyrics, combined with the music there’s a style to the hymns that nobody has really replicated. And modern worship to me is very different. The approach to modern worship music is a very different approach to the hymns. It’s just kind of a different animal.

Would you say that modern praise songs are lacking in the richness that the hymns possess?

I would say…Not all of them, there are some wonderful modern worship songs that I think are beautiful, so I would have to speak in very broad generalities, but for me, yeah, they are lacking in substance, lacking in good theology sometimes, and sometimes, horrifically enough, lacking in good grammar.

I ask this because I saw on your website your list of “Desert Island” albums, and I noticed that the titles you listed are not exactly the same as your typical Christian music fan. What is it about those particular artists and that music that is appealing to you?

Well all of those artists, the thing that they all have in common is that they were what I listened to when I was becoming a musician, and they were the things that inspired me. I’m a huge fan of the acoustic artists, I was so drawn to acoustic guitar. People like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and particularly Neil Young, were artists that so inspired me when I was in my teens and just learning to play guitar and starting to learn songs, and so those songs mean a great deal to me. And a lot of it was they were older than I was and they were writing about much more adult themes than I could even understand, but there was an emotional content to the way they wrote that I totally caught and that I loved. And then there’s a part of me that will rock until the day I die, and the Stones, and Little Feat, and all these other bands, Tom Petty, those artists really met me in that rock n’ roll place, and my biggest dream was to play rhythm guitar like Keith Richards, I just think he was the bomb.

What is it about those artists that really sets them apart for you from today’s Christian music?

(pauses) That’s the music I love. There’s just something so authentic about those artists, and to be quite honest with you, the music that I hear today sounds recycled and like a pale imitation of what’s come before, and it doesn’t move me the same way. Music has gone to a different place. When I was growing up in the 70’s, every band, every act you heard, they were their own thing. And today, if I have to sit in the car with my children, which I do have to quite a bit, and listen to Top 40 radio for more than an hour, I just want to rip my clothes and put ashes on my forehead, I can’t stand it, it all sounds the same to me. And it’s not inspiring to me, and as far as listening to modern worship music, I don’t like modern worship music, I’d much rather have a hymnal with me and a guitar. Or I tell you, there is one gospel record that I would listen to over and over and over again, it’s called Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord and it’s the Edwin Hawkins Singers featuring Dorothy Morrison, and it has Oh Happy Day on it. And the gospel songs on that record just kill me. And you can’t even find the record except in vinyl. So it wouldn’t even be a possibility for me [to get it], but I would take that to the desert island.

But I guess I’m just a product of my time, and I think for artists, for musicians—I mean I can only speak for myself, but I suspect this is true—there are certain artists that are the ones that inspired you. People don’t just emerge from a vacuum, somebody inspired you to take up this gauntlet and run with it. So those are the artists that inspired me. Like the Beatles, I remember being a kid and discovering the Beatles and thinking this is absolutely extraordinary. Even now, when the Beatles One came out, I went and bought it, my kids wore it out. And I thought where do you find an artist today that is going to be enduring 30 years from now? Who would that be? Can you even remember who was big three years ago? You know, it’s just a different climate.

Would you say that one of your goals is to be one those enduring artists?

Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I would love that. I don’t know if I am that, I don’t know if I’ll be that, but sure…You know, if I didn’t want to be enduring, if I didn’t want to make a contribution to the public, I would stay at home and play for my own enjoyment. Anybody that says, “I don’t really care if I ever get any recognition and I don’t really care what happens I’m just here to serve the Lord,” is lying. You know, they are. It’s too hard—you can’t go out and play music without an ego and without a desire to make something that matters and makes a difference. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think people get caught up in this idea that you have to present yourself as this humble, self-effacing person but everybody knows that’s a crock anyway, everybody’s completely self-absorbed, and God already knows it too. So for me, yeah, I would love for my music to be enduring. If I had one song even that was enduring or if I did one recording in my life that was enduring and that maybe 20 or 30 years from now somebody listened to and it meant something to them, I would think that would be wonderful. But by the same token, if I can invest that way in one other person’s life in a way that is enduring, and makes a difference for them, that’s equally crucial to them. It’s all about what kind of legacy you want to leave.

Can you perhaps summarize what kind of legacy you’d like to leave?

Well as you probably noticed, I’m not very good at soundbites (laughs), but I’ll try. I would like to leave a legacy of enduring songs, I would definitely like to do that. But more than that, I would not like to outlive any of my children, so I would like to leave all three of my children behind, and I would like for them to be contributing, compassionate, God-loving members of society that communicate the Gospel to the people around them. And I would like to have been a good friend, and I would like to have loved my husband well, and I would like to have taken the gifts that God gave me and used them with all my heart for His glory and also for His pleasure. And that’s really what I would like to have done.