|Date:||June 30th, 2011|
|Format:||Over the phone|
|Length:||One hour, fifteen minutes|
Birthdate – July 1st, 1983
Birthplace – Secaucus, New Jersey
Evan Amos: So you were born in Secaucus, New Jersey, but did you live there up until you were 18?
Audrey Assad: No, we lived there until I was... well, we lived in a few cities when I was in New Jersey. I can't remember how long we lived in Secaucus, it was like six months of my life or something like that. Then we lived in Jersey City, New Jersey and then South Plainfield, New Jersey and then Scotch Plains, New Jersey, where I lived until I was 18. Basically, when I was 7 to 18 I lived in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.
Amos: Is that Northern New Jersey?
Assad: Yeah, it's like North-Central, about 30 miles West of New York City, in Union County.
Amos: You said that you grew up in a multi-cultural household and that your father was from Damascus. Is that Damascus, Syria?
Amos: And your mother is Southern?
Assad: Yeah, she's from Portsmouth, Virginia.
Amos: How did your parents meet up?
Assad: They met at a bible conference at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, when my mom was very young, 14, I think. When she was 16 they sorta struck up a relationship there.
Amos: For your dad, if he was originally from Syria, did he come to America at a young age or when he was older?
Assad: He was 18 when he came to the States.
Amos: Did he just move here because of family?
Assad: He was just looking for a better life, like most immigrants at the time. He came with his family, they were trying to start over in the country where they could find more opportunities.
Amos: If your dad was going to bible conference at that time, did that mean he came to America as a Christian? Or did he convert sometime after coming to America?
Assad: He was raised Christian in the Middle East. When he came here, the church that he started going to, was going to this conference every summer. My mom when to a similar type of church, so she was also going to the conference.
Amos: Is it common to grow up Christian in Syria?
Assad: I don't think so. It might be 2% of people who identify themselves as Christian in Syria. It's very rare, as far as I know. I haven't been there, but it's what I've read.
Amos: When you were growing up, that was a Protestant environment?
Amos: Can you tell me more about growing up in New Jersey? Did you start music at a young age, or were you doing anything notable during that time?
Assad: I started to play the piano when I was 2, so I've been playing forever. I did really well in school; I was in the gifted and talented program. I had a fascination with the English language. I was your classic dictionary reader.
I didn't really do a whole lot with sports or anything like that; I've never been good at that. It was pretty much like any New England small town: tree-lined streets, Italian grandmas and in high school a lot of kids do drugs because there's nothing to do. [laughs] That's pretty much the town that I grew up in.
Amos: Was New York a part of your life at all growing up?
Assad: Yes, my dad worked in Manhattan -basically as early as I can remember- and so we went into the city probably two or three times a week. Since I can remember we'd just go into the city and have dinner, meet him, whatever. I worked for him in several capacities in high school, in the city.
Oh, I was home-schooled in high school, I forgot to mention that. I started home-schooling in ninth grade and I got a job when I was sixteen, working in the city for my dad, while also working part-time in New Jersey at a daycare.
Amos: What did you do for your dad in the city?
Assad: At the time he had a company that provided, or vended I guess, custom-measured and made-to-order Italian suits. He had people that would go out and take measurements. I didn't do any of that; I just ran errands for those people. He didn't work there, so I was there as his daughter, but he worked at a different company that he owned as well. I would just be going out, before the days of cell phones and GPS, and they would say, “Go get us lunch from such-and-such place. Here's the directions on a napkin, good luck getting back.” I went to the drug store, ran errands, picked up lunch, that kind of stuff. I was an errand girl.
Amos: You said that you switched to home schooling in ninth grade, what brought about that change?
Assad: Well, one of my biggest frustrations as a kid was I wanted to learn more than I was learning, and I wanted to learn faster than I was learning, and I had a lot of trouble doing that in public school. Even though we had really great schools -actually our school system was great- so I probably had a better experience that most people.
But I remember feeling frustrated with the pace that I had to keep, because there's just too many kids to a teacher, the ratio, and you're only as strong as your weakest link in that environment. It was partially that, and it was partially because I had a really tough middle school experience with my peers, socially. I thought that high school was going to be worse. In reality it probably would have been fine, but I didn't know that because I thought it was going to be a bigger, badder version of middle school, so I was freaked out. I begged my mom, “Take me out, I just wanna do my work, that's all I wanna do.” So she let me, though I probably would have been fine, in retrospect, but that's the reason that I wanted to be out when I was fourteen.
Amos: Was it just you, or did you have any other sibling that took part in the home schooling?
Assad: I have two younger brothers and they both took part in the home schooling. They were not happy with me when I convinced my mother. They loved school, so they were bummed out, but she pulled us all out at the same time.
Amos: You said that something happened in middle school that made you switch. Was there a specific experience that caused that? Was it bullying?
Assad: No, I... I never could really find a way to fit in with people. I had maybe four or five friends that I hung out with. Basically the rest of the population either ignored me or just teased me a lot. I think, honestly, that it wasn't torture. I didn't cry coming home, that kind of thing, I was just over it. “This is stupid, I just want to do my work. I don't really understand why I have to put up with this kind of crap.”
I just sorta felt that it was a waste of my time, in some aspects, to go to school and have to deal with that and have it get in the way of what school is for. That was my thought process back then, but if I look back on it, it was a character strengthening thing, I was just over it. I didn't want to deal with it.
Amos: At the time you were considering home schooling, did you consider going to a smaller private school, or a religious school? Did you have those options?
Assad: We had those, but I wanted to home school because I felt pretty confident that I could do pretty well with a curriculum and some room to think. It was definitely the case. I don't think that we had the money for private school. I was mostly interested in home schooling right away.
Amos: What was the difference in going from public school to home school at the time? Were you mostly driven by yourself?
Assad: I did most of it on my own. My mom really coached me and she oversaw, but she was not a teacher in a lot of ways. I did, for certain things, hire a tutor, like for math because I had no talent in that area. I have no capacity to grasp geometry at all, so we had a tutor come in for that kind of thing. It was a girl that we knew that tutored.
For English and things like that, we had curriculum that we ordered. My mom did her research for sure; there are certain companies out there that are well respected for their texts, we ordered those. What she tried to do, especially when I was on the younger end of high school was do something called unit study, which is where you follow... where everything is sort of correlating. If in ninth grade you study history, then a lot of the literature choices that year for reading, we would have chosen around that trajectory. So I ended up doing a lot of things, like writing projects and reading, all of that stuff that correlated around the same topics.
For example, in world history it was medieval history in ninth grade, so I remember a lot of projects surrounding that, especially including art and literature. That was kind of our method. I also took the SATs and all of that stuff, so that was our barometer for whether I had amassed enough factual knowledge, but aside of that, it was very creative I think, the way we did it.
Amos: Was your home schooling experience everything that you wanted it to be? I've known some people who have done home schooling, and they say that they really enjoy the quality of the education that they receive, but sometimes they miss or regret the lack of the social experience you get with a public school.
Assad: Well, since I had such a tough social experience in middle school, I was relieved to get out of that, but I did after a while start to feel that I needed a social life, everyone does. I had that, I just made it happen. That was my mentality, “Well, I don't have kids at my school, so I have to hang out with kids somewhere else.” I made friends. It caused me to come out of my shell quite a bit, because I really had to seek it out.
I also had church, so there's that, church friends. I did things with them on the weekends. I did Driver's Ed at the high school, things like that. I would meet kids in my age group; I'm still friends with some of those kids. It was patchwork, but I really just tried to fight for it, I guess.
Amos: You moved down to Florida when you were 18, so did that coincide with your graduation from school? Was it before or after?
Assad: I was 18 when we moved to Florida, so I had just graduated from high school. We moved in 2001, which was the year I graduated. We moved in September.
Amos: What caused the move down the Florida?
Assad: My dad is adventurous and he just wanted to move and try something new. He wanted to open a branch of his insurance company down there, so we did. I didn't know what I wanted to do yet, with my life or my career. I honestly had no plans about starting a music career at that point at all, so I was thinking about English or a Literature major, but I didn't know where I wanted to go to school. I decided to go along, I though, “Well, I'll stay at least a year. Maybe I'll find school or maybe I'll want to stay, who knows. I'm just going to go and see what happens.” I ended up staying for six years, but not going to school. I was there until I was 24.
Amos: What made you decide to not pursue college in Florida?
Assad: I said that I didn't go to school, but I actually did. I went for one semester to Palm Beach Atlantic University, in West Palm Beach. I took three classes, so I was just part-time. I was working full-time. I've been working since I was sixteen and never stopped. So I was working and commuting for three classes a week.
I just couldn't get this nagging feeling out of my heart that something was off. I couldn't figure out what I wanted to do. I was spending a lot of money on school and thinking, “I don't know how I'm going to proceed. I'm just afraid to keep going when I have no ideas.” Then when I was 19, which is actually when I went to college for that one semester, I waited a year. I went in 2002, for a fall semester, but I don't know, I just had one of those experiences where I realized that all of this time I've been gifted.
Music was my most obvious gift, I guess. I really loved it and I never really thought that it could be a career choice for me, but I felt suddenly, “Sure.” That's what I was supposed to do. It was one of those moments where it was like, “This is my destiny. This is my gift to the world. I need to run after it.” So at that point I thought that I could go to school, for music or whatever, or I could just keep working and see what happens and that I could just always go back. I loved school, so if I needed to go back I'm not going to hate it, I'm going to be excited. I'm just going to work and try this out and see if I have something worth running after.
I started writing songs and playing around town. Things just snowballed to the point where I never ended up going back to school.
Amos: When you made this decision and started the idea of pursuing music as a career, did it take a lot for you to be able to go out and start to perform your music in public?
Assad: It probably should have, but I just started doing it. [laughs] I didn't really know what I was doing at all. I can remember just stumbling my way through songs that I had written in front of people. I was not studied at all; I had no idea what I was doing and I just started trying it. I quickly realized that although I had a lot of work that I needed to do, I had something in the raw that people really liked. I just kept pursuing it.
Amos: How long did it take you to form those first songs that you were playing?
Assad: Hmm, I think most of the stuff at that time I was just writing as it came naturally; they usually came quickly but not that often. When I would write a song, I'd have it within an hour, but I wouldn't write one for weeks at a time. I waited for inspiration to hit. Now I have much more of a method. I have a variety of methods, but I work at it as a discipline, where then I just had to wait until the feeling came. I wrote them rather quickly, but as I said, not very often. I didn't have a very big catalog of music for a very long time. It was the same five or six songs that I kept doing, because I knew they worked.
Amos: What was the transition of your musical career from that starting point at 19 to moving to Nashville five years later? Were you doing music on-and-off? Was it constant but slow? Did you throw yourself all in?
Assad: It was slow and steady. I started off not playing a lot of shows, but playing as much as I could get the opportunity to. It then got to the point in Florida that I was playing quite often and starting to draw fans where people would come to my show if I had a show, people would actually show up to it. Over the span of the six years that I was there, or over the five years that I was actually playing, it didn't start out very steady, but I sorta just worked really hard at it. Once I left I had felt that I had built a really good base in the area.
I played in South Beach Florida, not just in West Palm, but I traveled a bit from there and played in the Miami area, even up to Orlando. That whole quadrant of Florida was my circuit. When I was at that point, at 24 years old, I felt like, “Okay, what's next?” I feel like I've over-harvested the soil around here, I should find someplace new to cut my teeth. Nashville was sort of the logical choice for me at the time.
I had a friend living there and she called that her roommate was moving out, so she said that I should come. I thought about it for a while, packed up my stuff and left, having no idea what I was going to do when I got there, which seems to be my M.O.. I guess I just left like I had done what I could, it was time for something new, so I left. I still go down and play in Florida every once in a while, but Nashville was the next logical step for me.
Amos: When you were playing venues in Florida what kind of venues would you be playing? Assuming that your music was the same as it is now, being religiously based, would that affect the type of venues you could play?
Assad: At the time, I would play wherever they would let me sing. I played churches, bars, coffee shops, weddings, funerals, anything. In Miami I sang at a World AIDS Day type of thing/celebration. There was a couple of clubs in West Palm Beach I played.
I played wherever, because to me good music is good music and bad music is bad music. If it's only good for people who believe the same thing that you believe, then your music is probably not actually that good. Your message might be great, but the music can't be that good if other people don't like it at all. I felt like I should be able to play it anywhere, even if it was coming from my perspective, which happens to be religious. I still feel that way. So there's time where I kind of just do that, show up at a bar somewhere and play music, because if I can't play it there, then I'm doing something wrong.
Amos: At the shows that you'd be playing, were you getting a good responses? Was the feedback part of what pushed you to keep pursuing music?
Assad: I was getting good feedback. I was young, and there was certainly immaturity, but like I said before, I could tell that I had something that people liked. At the core of it, it made people respond well. It was apparent to me early on and I sought for that, because I knew that I could work on it and make it better, but I always felt like there was something there that people responded to.
Amos: The music that you were performing back in Florida early on, were these the same type of songs and music that made their way to your first album?
Assad: Yeah, but honestly I think that my songwriting evolved a lot after I moved away from Florida, but at the time, it was a lot of folky influenced... some religious lyrics, some not, but it was your standard coffee shop fare. Since my first studio record I've moved away from that, but at the time it was very average “girl with guitar/piano” stuff.
Amos: For those non-religious songs that you just mentioned, what were the themes to those songs? What were they about?
Assad: Boys. [laughs] I think I had some song about a homeless guy that I saw, but... I don't know! It was really silly stuff, but I think there was some good stuff in it. It was just things that I was thinking, my journal entries.
Amos: The songs that you do now, would you consider them to be based mainly around religious themes, or do you still do songs around a general theme?
Assad: I have quite the mix now. Since all of this stuff happened, I've fallen in love, married, before that had my heart broken, so I have about a half-and-half mix of songs, with religious-themed music. I pretty much stick to that mix, but it's nice to have both, because when I go to a bar I can play a complete set of songs that are just love songs and sad songs, stuff like that. I've built my catalog to a point where I can pick and choose what I want to do on any given night.
I have a new record coming out in February so I have even more new songs that follow that same kind of split. I don't intentionally split it down the middle, just love songs and worship songs, but it just seems to be what's happening, so I go with it.
Amos: When you have an album that's released on a Christian music label, do they specify or lead content, or do they let you do whatever you want?
Assad: My label lets me do whatever I want. They speak into it for sure with their wisdom and business savvy, all that, but they said -in more ways than one- that they believe in my art, my vision for the music, so we'll just help you do what you do. Just do your thing, we'll help you out. That's kinda been the their approach and it's been awesome and a lot of freedom.
Amos: I want to go back a bit and talk about when you first got to Nashville. When you moved to Nashville from Florida, was there a big switch in how you were doing music? It seems that once you move to a city like Nashville, you really have to go at it full on.
Assad: Yeah, that was my intention. I was saying that this is my way of doing this. I'm not sure how, I just know that I'm ready to try. So I went up there and the only idea I had was that I needed to make a record, that's what I need to do. At that point I hadn't really had anything recorded, I had a couple of demos and things like that, but nothing that I could sell. So I moved up there with the intention of recording a project and then seeing what happened; I really didn't know what I was going to do.
I raised money at a show in West Palm Beach shortly before I left, which would have been December of '07, and I put a guitar case at the edge of the stage and said, “Hey, I want to make a record, can you help me out?” It was like 200 people that showed up to this thing and I ended up raising, I think within two days, about $7,000, which was between people giving money to that cause and friends that helped me out on the side.
I ended up making this project with a producer there named Paul Moak and Phillip LaRue. We made a five-song EP as soon as I moved to town. That was my first move: recording. A week later, Sparrow Records was on the phone. It happened pretty quickly in that way.
Amos: Nashville is a very specifically musical community, so was there any equivalent to a music group or community when you were in Florida?
Assad: No, not in the way Nashville is, because Nashville is such a hub for the business part of it. There's just so many musicians here, it's crazy, but there was kind of a small musician's community that existed in Florida. We helped each other out and played shows together. Some of those people whom I'm still friends with live in Nashville now as well. We've all kinda followed similar paths in that way but it was much smaller, much, much smaller; we're talking 15 people as opposed to 5,000 people.
Amos: You mentioned that your to move to Nashville was because your friend had a roommate situation pop up and you took advantage of that. Do you think that your moving to Nashville was based on more on chance, or that you would have eventually moved out there regardless of that roommate opportunity?
Assad: It was a decision that I made based on a few things. One thing was the feeling that I needed to do something new. I knew that if I wanted to do something real with this music stuff and make a living off of it, I had to jump in. There was no way that I could wait for it to happen, you have to do something at some point, something adventurous or crazy.
I knew that Nashville, they call it the Music City for a reason. I was aware of it and the things that it could offer me. The only thing that would have held me back from going was just fear, you know? I think it was a mix of adventure and wisdom, to make it happen. I felt that Nashville held that mix that I needed, so it was both adventurous and wise to go. It felt like that was what I needed to do.
Amos: You had mentioned that when you first got to Nashville that the recording of your demo happened relatively quickly. What was it like to be getting into the studio and recording with other musicians in a proper way after years of essentially being on your own?
Assad: I was like a baby. I felt so young and immature, so awed by these people that did this for a living. I didn't contribute as much to that first project creatively, as I would have liked to, because I was just so in awe of the whole thing. I was like, “You guys just do what you do, I'm just happy to be here!” [laughs] I think that there's a charm to that, in people's projects when they are starting to find themselves. You're sort of letting other people into the process for the first time and I loved it.
I think that it made me a better musician to watch them do what they're good at. It may not have been the sound that I have now, but there's no way to find without going through that first step. It was instrumental to me in the forming of my sound, my music and my writing. I was diving into this world where people are writing songs everyday, it was a really neat experience.
Amos: What was the theme and the sound of that EP?
Assad: It was very much more on the folk side. It was more rootsy than what I do now sonically. We had an accordion, guitar and piano, just this really organic-sounding production. It was great for me at the time, because I just needed to start from there to figure out what I wanted to sound like. The songs worked that way and so I think it was the right choice.
The songs were a little more meandering, I think, than my stuff now. I didn't really know how to write a pop song then. It was all whatever sounded good to me. The themes lyrically were similar to what I do now. I suppose that there weren't any love songs on that record, but in terms of songs that I do that have a religious perspective, they were very similar, very personal. Most of the songs that I write that have religious overtones are still personal. I'm writing for me, for the God that I worship, as someone that I speak to intimately, so they have that theme to them. That's something that really hasn't changed at all since I've started writing music with these personal “me to you” type of songs with God. That was there, for sure, on that record.
Amos: You said that you got a call from Sparrow Records after the recording of the EP. Were they the only record label that you heard from? How did that EP end up in their hands?
Assad: Paul Moak whose studio that we recorded at, that project that we made at his place called the Smoke Stack. He called Sparrow and sent it to them, he sort of thought that they'd like it. I had no idea that he was doing that, he just sorta did it, and they responded to it right away. I had absolutely no intentions of sending anything to a label yet. I didn't know what I wanted or wanted to be on a label, so I was just like “Oh my gosh, this is fast! I don't really know what to do!” That was all of Paul's doing.
Amos: I've talked to other artists and there seems to be a lot of where just getting to the record label and having the label talk to them was a huge ordeal. They would have to play shows constantly, sending out all sorts of tapes, trying to talk to various people and network, that it seems so lucky that you got the call from them first.
Assad: Honestly, I really was shocked. I expected to have to come here and wait tables for years, if anything was ever going to work out for me. However, I think that there's this duality to it, because in one way I was shocked but I knew that conventional wisdom would say, “You need to come here, pay your dues, before you get the attention of anybody.” I knew that, and I was prepared for that, but I also felt that it was in keeping with what I had experienced so far, that I had this thing that was intangible. That was regardless of maybe maturity or even great execution, this raw ability that people just responded to. That had been the case ever since I started and I saw that happen, and it happened again.
It's weird, because this is not how it's supposed to go, but this is also how it's always gone. It's strange.
Amos: Do you remember when you were signed to Sparrow?
Assad: Yes, I signed a deal in September of 2000 and... let me think, it's 2011 now, so... September of 2009 is when I signed a deal. It was about a year and a half after I had first made contact with them.
Amos: The time from when they first contacted you to the time you signed was over a year?
Assad: Yeah, a year and half, but that was because I was not sure. I was unsure of what I wanted, because today's music business is very different than it used to be. I was aware that there were other ways to do it now; you don't have to have a label to put a record out and to tour. When I heard from Sparrow I was very honored but I thought that I hadn't even talked to anybody else, I haven't done my research, I haven't met anybody. It wasn't an issue with trust with them specifically, it was just I needed to go out and figure out who I was as an artist, what I wanted to say and also how I wanted to put it out there.
Sparrow was really awesome that they gave me that freedom and said, “Go find yourself, but keep us in the loop because we're really interested in you.” That's how that went. In that year and a half I quit my job, I was working as a nanny, but I quit my job and went on the road as a background vocalist. It was with an artist that I had met and I started to write more. I signed a publishing deal, as a staff writer for a songwriting publisher. I started to really work my butt off, to figure out what I wanted to do.
As I formulated my vision a little bit, I kept going back to Sparrow. At that point I had met other labels and they just didn't feel right to me, and Sparrow had a great pedigree, so I jumped in with them. That year and a half was just me forming a plan, crashing the sound and just working hard. I took my time.
Amos: What were some of the other labels that you went to at the time?
Assad: I met with Provident Label Group. Let's see... I never met with anyone at Word Records. I suppose the only two labels that I met with were Sparrow and Provident. I had met people who worked at other labels, but I never had any official meetings. I was just meeting... it's so weird here, because it's a small town and you sort of meet people everywhere that work in music, so I met a lot of people and sat and talked with them, but I never had any official meetings except with Provident and Sparrow.
Amos: At what point did you decide to finally sign with Sparrow, and by that point were they as receiving as in the beginning? Did they say, “We'll sign you right now!”
Assad: Well, it was January of 2009 when I finally decided to that I know that I want to do this with a record label, and I want it to be Sparrow. So it was about eight months or so after I had initially talked to them. They were receptive initially, but they also had... we followed due process. We did another showcase where they had their executive sit there, where their employees come and hear me play live.
We did all of that even though they were very interested, because they really wanted to see if I had really developed and if I had taken their notes. When we first started meeting, I was just really young and I had hesitations and so did they, even though they were very interested. They felt like I had needed a little more development, you know? They wanted to see if I had had that development, if I had really pursued it. I did another showcase and that was in the spring of 2009. After that showcase they pretty much came forward and said, “We're going to make an official offer.”
Amos: Do you remember having any sort of changes in yourself as an artist between the time you first arrived to Nashville and to the point where you did that second showcase that got you the label contract? Was a change of direction or was it tightening of what you already had?
Assad: I think that I was really getting more comfortable with speaking in front of people. That's one thing that I really worked on, because I'm really awkward and I didn't know how to articulate my thoughts between songs at all. That improved a lot in that year.
I think I needed more confidence in just commanding a stage. You can't always put your finger on how someone does that, but I had a lot of room to grow when it comes to that. I think that I gained a lot in that year, just doing a bunch of shows. I went out and played, I think it was over 100 dates that year. Sometimes I went over a cold room every night and that'll cut your teeth like nothing else. Those were the main areas that I think I had room to grow in, so that's what I worked on.
Amos: Now that you're in Nashville and in this very large music community, did you reach out to the other musicians that you were meeting for mentoring or collaboration? Talking about things like how to play, how to write, how to sing? Or did you reform yourself just by watching others?
Assad: I did, it was both. There were a few people that I really latched onto, one of them was this guy Matt Maher. He was the guy that I went on tour with as a background vocalist and an opener for that year, in 2008 and 2009. I really learned a lot from him, a lot from him, just by osmosis, by being on the road with him and seeing how he does his job and how he writes his songs.
We started writing together a lot. We've written a bunch of songs with each other, for each others projects at this point. I can't say he's like the Elton John to my Bernie Taupin, but we write the most together out of anyone that I know. I don't write with anyone else more or more easily. He was sort of a mentor for me, it organically developed as that sort of a thing. I learned a lot from him. We also happen to have the same management.
There were also a few other people that really took me under their wing as well, writers. I learned how to co-write. I learned how to write for other people, for other people's music. Those were all things that I definitely learned from watching people who had done it for much longer than I had done it for myself.
Amos: Have you written a song for someone else?
Assad: I have. I haven't written a song for someone else in the sense of that I didn't write it with them. I've written songs with other people for them. I have a few of those kind of cuts, mostly on Christian kinds of projects. I guess all of those would be on Christian music projects. I've got a good six or eight of those, at this point.
Amos: From the point that you had signed a deal with Sparrow Records, how long did it take you to play for Marshall Altman, who would later go on to produce your record?
Assad: I played for Marshall in, as far as I can remember… October? I had signed in September, so it was very shortly afterward, because we knew that we wanted to make a project in the spring. He was one of the people that I had interest in already, and I had asked to meet with him. So yeah, that happened very shortly after the contract was signed.
Amos: Did you play for other producers then?
Assad: I did. I played for three other… I played for Paul Moak, who co-produced my first EP. He was in the running for that, but he had already heard me, so I didn't have to go and play for him. He was one. I played for a guy named Ed Cash and I played for a guy named Dan Muckala and for Marshall. So there were four, four producers we considered working with, but I already knew that I wanted to work with Marshall, so I pretty focused on him.
Amos: How long was the recording process for The House You're Building?
Assad: We did it in spurts, because it was originally supposed to be an EP actually. We did six songs and the label loved them so they thought, "Let's do a full record, because this just went so well." We did the first half in 2009 in the fall, the second half we finished in… March? I think, of 2010. Yeah, 2010.
We did it all in L.A., so I flew out there three times to make that record over the course of four/five months, I think. That's the best of my memory. We did it at the Galt Line Studio.
Amos: Did you have any trouble putting together The House You're Building? Was it made of material that you had been working on for years at that point?
Assad: It was definitely kind of a patchwork quilt because I had had so long to write it. I didn't really know at that point what sound I was going for; I was just doing what felt right, over and over. It was a little bit of a motley crew of songs, because I had talent but not a lot of focus. It was a mixed bag.
Amos: How many of the songs that were on the first album were songs that you had newly written during the production of the album, from beginning to end?
Assad: Uh… there were 11 songs on the album and I think that 7 of those at least probably happened within a very short span of time. It might even be more. "Known" was very old, it was actually on my EP as well, because it was one of my favorites. It's the only song on the EP that made it to the record. Other than that song, most of the material had been written in the year leading up to the recording of The House You're Building, so it was all pretty new.
Amos: After you finish recording the album but before it's released, what are you doing? Were you playing shows in Nashville?
Assad: I was doing radio promotion a lot, between when we actually finished the master and when we actually released it. We finished the master, it was handed in, if I remember correctly in April or May, then it was released in July. It was pretty quick, but we finished recording in March, so it felt like March to July for me. I wasn't around for most of the mixing and all that stuff. I will be for this project, but I wasn't for that one. It was all done in L.A. so I wasn't there.
I was doing radio promo, promoting the single and playing shows. Mostly not in Nashville. I've only really only played two or three times in Nashville, still, up to this day. I was still playing with Matt a lot. By that point I had built up some more traction as a solo artist on a national level, so I was playing more shows on my own as well. I was doing a mix of things: concerts, radio promotion and still writing a lot at the publisher that I worked for.
Amos: The tour that you went on with Matt Maher back in 2008/2009, was that a national level tour?
Assad: It wasn't really a tour per se, in the sense that a lot of tours work where you're on a bus and you route. His career is a mix of those bus tours and basically just gigs that he's booked because people want him to come. He took me on every gig that he went on for months at a time so he was flying all over the place. We went to Canada, we went to South Dakota, Florida, New Jersey, the South, the Midwest. It was just everywhere and all of the time; he's very busy. I just followed him around for months.
Amos: You've had critical and commercial success with your first album in the Christian market, where it was even the top selling Christian album of 2010*. Do you think in terms of the Christian market or beyond that? Is that something that can help or hurt you?
*[Best selling *new* Christian artist, according to SoundScan]
Assad: For me I think it's relative to what you want to do. I don't know if help or hurt would be the terms that I would use, but there's definitely the risk of being pigeonholed because of your content. In reality your sound might be something that more people enjoy than just the people who maybe, usually listen to music from a Christian market. At the same time, that's inside me and that's who's given me the room to be who I am and the help to make these projects happen.
To me… I guess my opinion is that I believe that what I do is really good and I think… I think that I can make it happen in such a way to where the Christian market where I kind of thrive in, stays around to hear my new project, but also so that I can win new fans that maybe don't listen to that kind of music normally. I think my music is good enough to do that. It might be a tough job to accomplish, but I think that I can do it. It's doable.
So again, I don't think I'd use the terms help or hurt, but I think there are unique challenges there in that situation, for sure.
Amos: To put it in another way, I know that sometimes the goal for an artist can be to stay within a market, or their goal might be to be someone who can crossover to other markets. Is that something that you think of?
Assad: I've thought about it quite a bit. This is one of my biggest questions, I think. Do I continue to sort of focus on the place that I've focused on for the past two years? Do I reach outside of that? Do I crossover in the sense that I leave that behind? The best that I can come up with at this point is that I don't want to leave it behind. I don't want to leave the Christian market behind at all. What I really hope for is more of a mosaic situation, which may be idealistic of me, but I feel like I can do it. To actually reach out beyond the area that I've reached so far, but continue to operate within the circles that I'm in at the moment. That's what I'm hoping for.
A crossover, it's a bit of a… I do understand what you mean, I'm hoping for something a little bit more inclusive, of the places that I've already been. It's a little deep, I don't know. I'm not really sure how to get there. That's kind of what I'd like to do. I'd like to see it reach more people. Not even in an evangelistic sense, I don't really see it that way. I just mean in a business sense. I'd love to be having a wider reach, musically, for sure, because who doesn't want that? [laughs]
Amos: How long after the release of The House You're Building did you start work on writing the material for your next album?
Assad: I took a while off, because I was touring like crazy when I released the record. Not even in the sense that I was making so much money -I was making no money- but I was working really hard to get out there and promote the record, sell tickets and all of that stuff.
I didn't know how to write on the road at that point. About six months later, probably early this year, I realize that, "Oh my gosh, I need songs and I need them fast!" It was that feeling of, "Wow, I don't have my whole life to write a collection of songs, I have to actually know what I want to do and do it." I started writing in the early part of 2011 with a lot of focus, or more focus than I had the first time anyway. One of the things that I found was these kind of relationships that I knew worked on a co-writing level, were the ones that I went back to over and over, like Matt and a few other people.
I didn't take as many appointments as I had the first time, I didn't write with whoever for my stuff. I didn't have that kind of time and I needed to focus better than that anyway. I started to write a lot and I was traveling in the spring. I was on tour and I'd write on the plane, I'd write on the bus, at the venue. If I was home I'd try to write, too. I just started working at it. I wrote all of the songs for this new project, most of them, between January and now, but they were much more intentional than the first batch had been.
Amos: Can you force yourself to write a song?
Assad: Yes and no. Like I said, it's a discipline more than anything else, but there are certain songs that you can force and certain songs that you can't force. I don't know why that is, but some songs come when they want to, some songs are a result of hours and weeks of work and crafting and trying. There are some songs that just happen. It's a mix of both. I have both kinds of songs on the album.
I don't know what makes some songs like that and some not, but I just try to serve the song as it's happening. If it's a song that just wants to happen on its own I just let it, if it's a song I feel like I can push and pull and tweak, I do. It's about figuring it out.
Amos: If you have an idea for a song, is that something that you start with and try to see to the end? Do you have a whole folder or file of songs that are just pieces, half a verse, a chorus, something like that?
Assad: I had a huge folder of things like that. That was a huge help to me this time around, because I… there are a lot of days where you don't think of anything. So the days where I did think of something I'd write it down or whatever, so on the days when I couldn't think of anything I'd have something to use or start with.
My thing is if I try something, if I have a file of ideas and I try to write a song and I pull one out and I I'm working on it for an hour and nothing happens, I'll just put it back. It's gone. Even half an hour, maybe. I can usually tell pretty quickly if it's not going to pan out that day.
Amos: The new album that you're doing, you're doing it with Marshall Altman again?
Amos: Was that an idea that you had early on? After you get done with The House You're Building that you wanted to work together again?
Assad: I felt that way right away. I know that there are a lot of great producers out there and maybe one day I'll work with them, but I felt that The House You're Building was an unfinished thought. In a lot of ways it was an unfocused thought to begin with. I felt like I knew that we could do something better. I knew that once I had a better vision, that I had better confidence and better songs that we could do something really good.
I think The House You're Building was really good, but it lacked focus. I just felt really strongly that I had the artistic connection with Marshall to do something really, really great and I didn't think we got there. It's like we hinted at it, but we didn't get there. So I felt that a second project just had to happen; we had to try and see if I was right or not. So far I think I'm right. [laughs]
Amos: I wanted to go back a bit. You said that you had started to meet up with Matt Maher in 2008, who is Catholic, and it seems around this time you yourself converted to Catholicism. Are the two correlated?
Assad: No, I actually converted to Catholicism in 2007 before I ever met Matt at all. It was completely separate from him, but we met a year later. It was great timing because I didn't know anybody. I didn't have a lot of Catholic friends at the time, so I needed that, and he was a musician. We had that sort of mentor relationship going on. That was great; it was an added bonus.
Amos: When you became Catholic, did you go through the RCIA?
Assad: Yeah, I went through RCIA in Florida.
Amos: Oh, so this all happened in Florida?
Assad: Yeah, I became Catholic in Florida, about six or seven months before I moved to Nashville.
Amos: What was the decision behind making the shift from Protestant to Catholic?
Assad: For me it was about… I just felt that I wanted to be tied to the oldest version of what I believed. Something that had some measure of authority and consistency. That's not how I grew up. I grew up in something very autonomous and kind of like… "Well, you have to interpret the Bible yourself because the Holy Spirit is with you." It's a nice sentiment, but I didn't think it worked at all. Like, why are there so many different kinds of churches? It's all from the same book, I don't understand?
I was just thinking that this was not logical… I… I don't want to make too many strong statements, but I was kind of at the point then where I was like, "I'd rather be Atheist than Protestant. I don't think it makes any sense." That's how I felt at the time, which is a little less extreme than now in terms of how I feel about the Protestant church now, I love it. I think that they gave me a lot of good gifts.
But I didn't think it made sense, I just didn't understand. The Catholic church to me just offered this… for good or ill, they've had their problems, but they stay the same. They grow and they change in that way, but they hold their ground. "This is what it is and this is how it works. Deal with it." I responded really well to that. That is what I want. I want to belong to a church that knows what it is and it is what it is. It doesn't apologize for that.
I knew that I'd always have to wrestle through questions and issues, you know, teachings and all that stuff, but it gives me some place to plant my roots. I have to wrestle through this stuff and I know that I can rely on the consistency of the church through that process. There's a lot more to why I did it, but that's ultimately the catalyst for my changing. You have to set me on fire to the ashes to get me to move.
Amos: I know that the Catholic church can be seen as the progenitor for the other types of churches, which can be seen as offshoots, but that's what specifically drew you? The way that the Catholic church is the original or purer form of the ideas that drive Christianity?
Assad: I wouldn't put it quite that way because pure kind of implies… young and back to the beginning. I didn't really want to go back to the beginning, because the beginning was very different, and I actually can't go back to the beginning, but I felt that… I felt that it, I don't know how to put it. I guess that the Catholic church has a very reasoned approach to faith. I felt that that, over time, had proven itself true and effective and consistent.
It certainly looks very different than it did, in AD 40, no one can argue with that. It's been tested with time and, to me, proven true. Where as it's hard to nail that down in other churches because they shapeshift so much. They come and go but the Catholic church does not. That to me was almost enough of a reason to go there. I knew that it would be very controversial and difficult for a lot of people related to me and who listened to my music. I just couldn't see the sense in staying somewhere that was just subjective to whoever was leading the movement, it just didn't feel right to me. It didn't make any sense to me at all anymore.
Amos: How did you meet your now husband?
Assad: We met at an event that I was playing with Matt Maher in 2008. He was working there running cameras and I was singing with Matt in Tucson, Arizona at the University of Arizona. We struck up a very light friendship but we were not romantically involved until about eight or nine months later.
Amos: You live in Arizona right now? In Phoenix?
Assad: I do. I live in Phoenix, or right outside of Phoenix proper I mean.
Amos: Was that part of your reason moving out there, to be with your boyfriend/husband?
Assad: No. Actually, I really, really wanted to get out of Nashville for a year to kind of… part of my process for writing the songs for the new record… I wasn't at that point when I moved to Phoenix, but I knew that I would be getting to that point, in a while. I really felt like I needed some space. I needed some space to hear my own voice so that I can decide what I wanted to say and how I wanted to sound.
I left Nashville for a while to gain some room to think and breathe and hear and focus my vision artistically. That was absolutely effective for me, but I really miss Nashville and love it because it's inspiring in its own way. I think we're going to end up back there, but at the moment I live in the Southwest.
Amos: Okay, you've got to get back to recording, so I'll go ahead and let you go, but I wanted to thank for you taking the time to sit down and talk with me.
Assad: Thank you, I hope all of this helps.