I know. I’m not supposed to be biased. As a journalist, I’m required to take an objective, even-handed approach to the artist I interview. However, we all bring who we are to the table. And who I am is a dad with a 10-year-old daughter who is convinced that “cool” music was invented by the Christian pop-dance trio known as ZOEgirl. And that’s not a bad thing since the girl group laces their lyrics with a positive, biblical approach to issues ranging from simple theology (“I Believe,” “With All of My Heart”), to complex topics of self-esteem (“Plain,” “Give Me One Reason”).
Knowing their already profound influence on my daughter (the Mix of Life CD has been played on our car stereo, oh, I would say, a minimum of a bazillion times), I was already predisposed to like the ZOE ladies before I joined them at Borders Cafen the Nashville, Tenn. suburb of Brentwood.
Meeting Alisa Girard, Chrissy Conway and Kristin Swinford in person did nothing to sway my already founded opinion. Disarming smiles. Amiable banter. If there was an article to be written, such as, “ZOEgirl: Revealed!,” I would soon find that it would only contain the following items to draw jaw-dropping gasps:
- Chrissy Conway learned to play the piano by imitating Debbie Gibson records.
- Kristin Swinford is married and loves cats.
- Alisa Girard claims that their mother taught her sisters and her about sports. And their dad “throws a baseball like a girl.”
Not exactly material to create a firestorm of controversy. Which suits this female trio just fine. They have more important things on their minds these days, including their first headlining tour, built around the group’s new progressive pop project, Different Kind of FREE. But how did they get their own tour? How did these three young women come together to create a singing group that captures the attention and minds of its young audiences?
The ZOEgirl journey began in California’s San Fernando Valley. It then wound through the heartland of Jackson, Mo. to the beaches of southern New Jersey. These are the centers of life where the musical gifts of ZOEgirl took root. For Girard, the ministry template was formed at an early age by observing her father, Chuck Girard (one of contemporary Christian music’s pioneers), in concert.
“When I was a little girl, my dad would let me sing one song to my Sandi Patty track,” remembers Girard. “Then I would watch him perform. What I saw was the heart of a person who is on stage, not for the fame or accolades, but to introduce people to Jesus and lead them into the presence of the Holy Spirit. That became the foundation of why I do what I do.”
Swinford’s musical DNA was also inherited. From her grandfather’s jazz styles to her mother’s introducing her to a vast spectrum of genres, she is a veritable musical connoisseur. God’s direction eventually brought Swinford’s calling into focus, placing her at Missouri Baptist University, where she sang in a Truth-like ensemble, then transferring to Belmont University in Nashville. Through an audition, she joined Girard, who previously moved to Nashville to initiate the singing group we now know as ZOEgirl. Still, there was a missing piece to the ZOE puzzle.
The last thing on Conway’s mind was anything that had to do with sharing the spotlight. From childhood into her teens, her life consisted of singing and performing in local theater. In time, she joined a band that included the then-unknown mainstream artist Pink. Disappointment followed, as the project the group worked on for five years never saw the light of day. The band disbanded and, rejecting any further notion of musical ensembles, Conway was on course to be the next Britney Spears, poised to sign a secular recording deal with Def Jam Records.
Then Conway prayed. And God stepped in.
“This record deal was my dream,” shares Conway. “But for the first time, I felt conviction. I said, ‘God, whatever you want me to do with my life, I just give it to you. If this deal isn’t what you want, just show me. Give me a sign.'”
In this case, God’s sign was audible. The phone rang.
“I called the day after she prayed,” says Swinford. “I didn’t even know if she (Conway) was a Christian. It (the timing) just blows my mind.”
The view at present
ZOEgirl officially debuted in 2000 with the release of their self-titled project. Although this is a modern ministry, Girard’s dad, Chuck, notes the parallels between ZOEgirl and his own foray into Christian music nearly three decades ago.
“The shows are different today in that they are all tightly choreographed and you don’t veer from the concert song list,” explains Girard. “However, I really believe that there is an anointing on their music and an honest desire on the part of all the girls to communicate the gospel.”
Communication — meeting the audience where they are — has been the goal of ZOEgirl from the beginning. They really have a heart for, and their music connects with, pre-teen and teen girls.
“On each album, we have felt led to talk about issues from a very realistic standpoint,” explains Swinford. “From letters we have received, to times we have worked with young girls, we focus on issues they’re dealing with and offer, to the best of our abilities, biblical answers that will help them face their struggles.”
“At the time we came out, mothers were exasperated with what their daughters were listening to. We were an alternative to the mainstream pop music,” says Girard. “I have to believe by the letters we have received that those little girls who were listening will turn into godly women.”
Not lost on the members of ZOEgirl is that not only were those little girls listening, they were watching. With the success of the group’s first two projects came instant recognition, which immediately thrust them into the spotlight — of role modeling. That’s why Conway, Girard and Swinford take very seriously the way they handle themselves offstage as well as on.
“The best thing we can do is strive everyday to get closer and closer to what God has called us to be,” explains Girard. “If girls would do that, then we are being effective role models.”
A peak into the future
In a relatively short career span, ZOEgirl is beginning to amass a long list of achievements: the Dove Award for New Artist of the Year, top-selling CD projects and an ASCAP songwriting award for Conway. But there’s no time to enjoy the laurels and platitudes. They are releasing a new album, Different Kind of FREE, and have been offered the opportunity to headline their own tour.
This new album is unique in that it was designed for a tour such as the one ZOEgirl launched with the Tait band in August and is continuing through the fall. The women hope that this new music will evoke a response like never before.
“With the music for this record, we really wanted all of the songs to be shaped around that (concert) evening,” says Girard, “songs that are going to translate well in a live setting and let the Holy Spirit really have Its hand on moving in people’s hearts.”
To be sure, Different Kind of FREE is a different kind of record than the group’s previous releases. The pop-dance elements remain, but with an edgier polish. What hasn’t changed is ZOEgirl’s penchant for tackling the tough issues faced by its young audience.
In a follow-up to “Plain,” Swinford wrote “Love Me For Me” because she says, “there are so many confusing notions about beauty being thrown at us from magazines … everything that people do to become what is perceived as perfection on the outside. Ultimately, all of those problems stem from not knowing our true worth in God.”
Psalm 33:14,15 provides the backdrop for the song, “You Get Me.” Conway wrote the song to speak to that part in all of us that yearns to be accepted, loved and understood. She knows that sometimes, people will do anything for approval and recognition.
Conway says of the song, “It wasn’t until I became a Christian that I really understood that God is the only person that we need to seek approval from. There is no one else in the entire world who can say that they understand us the way God does.”
The new songs are ready. The tour is underway. But what brings the members of ZOEgirl to this moment goes far beyond hard work and dedication, beyond learning effective concert presentations from touring with artists such as Newsboys and Carman.
“The thing that has prepared us more than anything for what we’re doing is looking into the eyes of every girl that we’ve ever been in front of onstage and knowing for as long we’re up there, it’s our responsibility to make sure they understand who Jesus is,” says Girard. “In return, receiving letters that said that they received Jesus at the concert … that has been just the kindling that has kept the fire burning. That’s what keeps us going.”
Copyright © 2004 Christian Music Planet, used with permission.
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