“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,” says 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.
The title for both the album and title track “Amazing” was inspired by a scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel the Great Gatsby. Frenes explains, “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 continues 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 vapid — things 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 remembers 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 elicit 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,” says Frenes. Frenes acknowledges that she also appreciates Owens’ style that steers away from rutting it out in formula writing.
She goes 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 all together.”
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 says, “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 comes to life when I suggest 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 says, “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 ending — that 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 says, “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 bait her and ask about her pet peeves. She replies 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 says 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 says 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”,
“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 blues
A hazy grey a brilliant green Some painted boldly while others barely seen Some question why some understand We only find our strength resting in the Master’s hand And each of us on this moving canvas 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 blues
We are His workmanship Created for His glory And when we worship Him We reflect His beauty”
Copyright © 2005 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.