On Friday October 27th at Gospel Music Association Canada’s Awards two of the most popular people on the Canadian music scene took to the stage. Seated at the piano singing backup vocals was the incredibly talented Greg Sczebel. The lady at the front of the stage singing lead and strumming her acoustic guitar was Carolyn Arends perhaps the most popular singer of Christian lyrics that this country has ever produced.
Recently Arends released her ninth CD Pollyanna’s Attic and it may be her best album to date. The alto voiced singer from Surrey British Columbia on Canada’s west coast has magically blended up-tempo tunes with bold lyrics. The woman who perennially puts the cheery smile on the face of Christian music, this time out confronts issues that the Christian community needs to question and come to grips with.
The recipient of two Dove Awards, numerous Covenant Awards (Canada’s equivalent of the Dove) and a fan favorite throughout the United States and Canada Arends still in her thirties now has the stature to ask big questions and do it with a smile and charm.
Roy Salmond who may very well be Canada’s best producer says, “For me, Pollyanna’s Attic represents a new level of creativity for Carolyn Arends. A little less sunny in disposition, it’s punchy and still incisive lyrics are complimented by her most stripped down and direct instrumentation to date. After all her albums, that she can still beguile and entice with her song craft is a testament to her enduring artistry.” Salmond has produced some of Arends’ past CDs and acted as Associate Producer and Engineer for Pollyanna’s Attic. The album was produced at his Whitewater Productions studio.
“Just Pretending” the first track on the CD thematically represents the direction Arends took with this record. “I think the first song is first for a reason. That song is having fun with the tremendous effort that some of us put into appearing that we have it all together. Sometimes I just think about the effort that goes into that and keeping things somewhat polished and together. If we took that energy and put it into other things I think we would be amazed at what we could accomplish. That song is a nudge and a wink about ?let’s get real’. I know when I take my mask off and I am most real is the time when the most amazing things can happen in my life. God can do the most with me (at those times),” says the songstress.
It is that approach to songwriting and ministry that led Sara Groves to comment, “I can always trust that Carolyn Arends is going to bring the full weight of her experiences to her songs, and that makes me anticipate any of her new music.”
Arends explains how the project began to take shape, “January 1st of this year I couldn’t sleep for some reason and started thinking about all of the songs that had gotten away from all my other projects. They were a little more issue oriented, grappling with more shadowy things. Most of my stuff has a lot of light sunshine in it. I thought, ?What would happen if I put all of these songs on one album and just kind of gave myself permission to explore this kind of stuff?’
Arends makes the point that the issue-oriented songs are balanced with her optimistic perspective and faith. “I am so absolutely drenched in the hope that we have because of faith in Jesus. That was the starting point for this record,” she says.
You can hear the smile in Arends’ words as she says, “This record is darker but hope certainly gets the last word. The guys who wrote the songs (Arends wrote or co-wrote all but two songs) are just gut level honest about the problem with evil. (They are honest) about their own questions and the things that the wrestle with. That honesty makes their affirmation of who God is much more powerful when they get to, ?I praise you and I will praise you forever.’ It is not a praise of denial, it is a praise of, ?There are things that I don’t understand and there are things that I grapple with but You are God and I do trust.”
It is with that sensitivity that Arends collaborated with Connie Harrington to write the words to “What In The World”. The song wonders aloud about the violence that has so permeated our society. It poses the same question as the Apostle Paul, ?Why do we often do what we don’t want to do. Arends says, “You wakeup and hear sirens in your neighborhood and you wonder who’s hurting. You offer up a prayer and your mind maybe goes to, ?What’s going on with the world anyway?’ Even some things that have been in the news this week, I found myself once again going, ?What? What is going on with humanity that this kind of evil can enter into the world and certain things can happen?”
The songwriter captured a moment from her own life in “What In The World”. “The second verse goes into a tiny exchange between my husband and me. I just used a careless word sending him out the door and saw that little flicker of (being) wounded on his face. It was like, ?Wait a minute what in the world is up with me?’ I am realizing that doing what we don’t want to do is coming from the same place (as other forms of evil) and grappling with it,” she says.
For all her success (15 top ten radio singles) Arends has never compromised the most important aspect of her life her seventeen-year marriage to husband Mark or her children Benjamin (8 years old) and Bethany (5 years old). The couple met when Arends was seventeen years old and a student at Trinity Western University.
“Mark is sort of the hidden editor in everything that I do. On a real nuts and bolts level my marriage has a huge impact upon my music because Mark is the first guy I deliver a song to. He is also the guy who will take his life in his hands to say, ?It’s alright except for that one line in the second verse,’ knowing how frustrated I will get because he is always right. Creatively he is my first sounding board. Of course the things that we go through together always trickle down into the songs,” she says.
Arends gives credit to Mark for being one of her earliest supporters. While they were still dating and at school she says, “Early on a lot of it was about how he helped me. It was about him seeing me in terms of my potential and really believing in me. I had parents who had done that for me but it’s different when it’s not your mom and dad particularly when it relates to what I ended up doing for a career. He just really believed in me right from the get go and really gave me confidence. He helped me to expand my vision. Spiritually he has helped me each of these seventeen years to expand my vision of who God is.”
“I met Mark when I was seventeen. We have grown up together and he is the biggest influence in my life in terms of how I see the world, how I understand who God is and who I want to be. It is kind of hard to catalogue all the ways that he has helped me to grow,” she says.
“Anyone who has followed my career for very long knows that the kids are a big part of my songs both in really obvious ways and in songs about parenthood. Even on this album (it comes through). My kids aren’t little anymore, they are eight and five. What am I going to tell them about the world or what am I telling them about this world? How are Mark and I are modeling what it is to be a follower of Jesus here in this time and this place? That requires some effort and some thought. My family is in every note that I sing,” she says.
Arends who is now a highly successful independent artist parted ways amiably with Reunion Records a number of years ago so she could spend more time with her family. “We try to cap my touring at two weekends a month, so I am gone every other weekend. There are lots of things they (her children) like about having a mom who is a singer,” she says. For instance she notes the kids think it is pretty cool when someone else is playing mom’s music.
“They are understandably not thrilled that I have to go away every second week. We have talked about the fact it is a job (and she says thoughtfully) but that it is something that I was made to do and something that God seems to use. I think they really get that most of the time. They pray for me and they check in at half time by phone to see how it is going. I hope it is not naï¶¥ of me to say that so far they feel like they are a part of it and that it is important. For the most part I think that they see it as a pretty positive thing,” says Arends.
Parenthood has been a continuing theme for Arends during her pregnancy with Benjamin and since. “It started out with a music project also called We’ve Been Waiting For You subtitled the Parenthood Project. As a songwriter I work through what was going on in my life and tried to understand it as well as celebrate it,” she says. “When Mark and I were expecting Ben our first (child) I just started writing a lot of songs about parenthood. I would sneak them onto my regular records. Eventually I had so many of these songs I thought I just need to do a whole project about the adventure that is parenthood,” she recalls.
The CD Parenthood Project evolved into Arends’ second book sharing the same title as the record. The book is filled with prose, short stories and anecdotes. “All the hormones were flowing accordingly so it was really a natural thing to write and a lot of fun. It’s cool because it has been out a few years now and I still get emails frequently from a mom who has received it as a shower present or dedication present right after she has had her child. It is really fun to hear how that little book is making its way into people’s lives.” says Arends.
As I speak to artists across North America often I find that the same ones who were attracted to the music of the late Rich Mullins have also followed Arends’ career. During her early days in the music industry Arends spent a great deal of time with Mullins. He appeared on her debut CD and Arends accompanied him on a tour that visited fifty-three cities in ten weeks.
She says of Mullins, “He was just this guy doing what he loved to do and chasing after God. In so many ways I hope that his influence can still be seen in what I am trying to do. I am trying to do it in the same spirit that he did it in.”
If I may have the final word on behalf of your fans, it does show and it is very evident. It is also why you have been able to accomplish what so few Canadians artists in either the general market or Christian music have and that is remain living in Canada and establish yourself as a fan favorite on both sides of the border.
Photo Credit: Joe Montague
Copyright © 2006 Joe Montague, exclusive rights reserved. This material may not be redistributed without prior written permission from Joe Montague. Joe Montague is an internationally published freelance journalist / photographer.