Interview: Singer-Songwriter Jennifer Knapp on Being Christian and Gay

Jennifer Knapp
Jennifer Knapp

Jennifer Knapp is one of pop’s most curious performers: she has been an icon of Christian music, of LGBT politics and, of course, damned fine songwriting. Knapp’s most famous album of the 90s, Kansas, was a gospel folk masterpiece, an edgy alternative to soft Christian music with “Hold Me Now” as that album’s elegiac centerpiece. By 2003, Knapp put her career on hold, came out as a gay woman, and moved away from Christian music into secular lyrics and broader soundscapes, starting with 2010’s Letting Go. This year, Knapp released what could be her best album, Set Me Free, on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label, and started a tour that hits Philly’s Tin Angel on November 13.

A.D. Amorosi: You came out before it was easy – well, easier – to do so. Do you think marriage equality has made life easier for gay people or are all the same struggles still in place?

Jennifer Knapp: Not to take anything away from the advances in social acceptance we’re experiencing through marriage equality, but there’s still the fact that one has to “come out” in order to claim the benefit, so to speak. For those who have close contact with the friends and affirming allies, yes, there’s growing solidarity, but those in less friendlier environments, I know many folk for whom it is as tough as it’s ever been. Particularly to those within earshot of faith communities that still insist that gay marriage is destructive to their understanding of marriage. In coming out, LGBT people can be seen as the recognizable offenders of that understanding, so they still have to run the gauntlet of potential loss and shaming. In the end, “easy” seems to depend on where you live and how far you have to reach to find a friend in support. Yes, the odds are better and safer for those coming out, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

A.D.: You discussed the notion of leaving the Christian music industry wasn’t simply due to coming out but rather career burnout. When and why do you believe that you outran the burnout?

Jennifer: I can’t say that I outran anything, really. More like I gave up and fell in an exhausted heap. How can you outrun anything when you are so utterly used up? There was simply nothing left to give. Nothing. People asked for years. Even I asked myself if I’d ever go back. Like a drought, laryngitis or an empty fuel tank, nothing’s growing, nothing’s moving, until one morning you wake up and the world seems new. I wish I could say that I did something, worked hard or earned my place back in music again, but really it was just quiet, healing rest. Once, I fell on to the ground exhausted, but with a lot of time, I can’t explain it, I got filled back up, rested and ready to head back out.

A.D.: Do you find that people are surprised that you stuck to your faith, and what have the reactions been, good and bad, to that decision?

Jennifer: I think what surprises most people is that I’d be willing to engage and hang out with Christians. Heck, I’m surprised myself. In doing so, I’ve had to confront and walk through the bad parts. The part where Christians will go out of their way to tell me what an abomination I am. You don’t have to believe in God to experience the full impact of such disdain. It hurts the spirit. But by the same token, if I had never publicly claimed my faith along side my sexual orientation, I might never have had the strength to endure it. The best part is meeting those who stand beside me who know love is a deeply spiritual need and that religion without it is a broken promise.

A.D.: I’ve written a lot about sacred and Christian music artists – what is the upside of it? There must be something you miss about the sound and the industry, AND, having left that sound, do you still perform those songs in your secular set and how does that feel?

Jennifer: I think the upside of any specific genre is that you’re connecting with and creating community with the very people who share the language, spirit and ideas of where you come from. By example, country music might be the working class music of middle America or rap music the expression of inner city life. The challenge is that in making what is common to the genre we don’t make it a club of membership or of stereotype. It may speak to many, but can miss out on the unique experiences and nuances of the individual within it.

To be honest, there’s not much I miss about the industry itself. I’d rather avoid, if I can, any genre of music where people might get the impression that I need them to be a certain way in order for me to love them. It’s not that I have a judgment against it, it’s just that I enjoy and feel called to a more diverse set of possibilities. I do still play some of the old stuff, and who knows, maybe someday I’ll write new songs that can be played in church. I don’t know who needs to change more for that to become a “thing”, me or the church? It’s probably both.

A.D.: How has having your own advocacy org, Inside Out Faith, helped you pursue your goals?

Jennifer: If IOF has helped me personally in anyway, it’s that it’s helped clear up the distinction for me about what faith is meant to be and where it can be found. If for a moment I thought I could outrun my Christian experience or leave it all behind, I’ve discovered that I can’t. Whether I’m playing in a lesbian bar or at a church, I come with these three things: my faith, my music and my sexual orientation. They don’t all get to speak at the same time and must usually find a way to work together. I’ve made a choice to engage the part where my faith compels me to act with compassion. I realize that doing that while I’m selling concert tickets may not be the best place and that while speaking in a church, it may not be the best time to try and be a diva. IOF has, in many ways, taught me that the goals in my life aren’t always going to measured by what I make a career of, but must also include how I can positively contribute to my community.

A.D.: Do you ever get sick of answering questions about God and gayness? Is it a drag sometimes to represent such large themes?

Jennifer: Sure I do. There are days when I’d appreciate walking through the whole day where sexual orientation or God didn’t come up. Go play some songs, have a good time and help people feel okay about themselves. But I think the grind is actually in the enormity of it. It’s a really big deal to go through life feeling valued. To be honest, I’ve got that in my life now and I know how hard it is to find it. Family, friends, the people that matter? Everyone deserves to know what that’s like, so how could I not think about passing a little of what I’ve got on to the next person to share? The people who make it so hard will always lose out to those you meet where you can pass along joy.

A.D.: How and why did you wind up with Righteous Babe and Ani DiFranco – did you go toward her on purpose?

Jennifer: Not unlike a lot of musicians, we’re all usually working within a few degrees of each other without ever knowing how close we actually are to one another. I spent years admiring Ani’s work and would have never thought to reach out, but someone who knew her and RBR knew me, we decided to meet up. I got a chance to do an opening spot, meet her crew and it all seemed to make sense. RBR has long history of powerful artists with back stories and strong messages, so they weren’t intimidated by the faith and LGBT narrative that also comes with my art. They have a lot of experience in nurturing the whole life as art, so I look forward to the challenge of playing in the back yard they’ve built.

A.D.: Some of the hard swinging rockabilly/hootenanny/country songs – honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you have this much raucous fun. Do you think this has something to do with the release from Christian music (I know this is your second album away) …or is it something else?

Jennifer: I am having fun. In a lot of ways, it’s reminiscent of when I first started playing. Where I’m just writing, listening and exploring what comes next. It’s nice to get out from under the pressure for a while of having to shape everything into a certain shape. Don’t get me wrong, I think every artist has the challenge of working diligently to perfect their craft and art, but in the pressure to succeed to whatever ideals we imagine, sometimes we can find ourselves trying to manufacture an idea rather than nurturing it or having it teach us something about ourselves. Maybe it’s all in how an artist perceives their surroundings, but it’s been helpful to get permission and support. From friends, fans, and other professionals to take the latitude to find the hidden gems. It’s good. Real good.

A.D.: In fact, in general, there’s some dusky introspective tracks to go with the blues and the hard country – is this album a natural organic evolution of where your sound was/is going … or did you push it along?

Jennifer: You know, I always underrate my ability to make something sound exactly like any one particular thing. God knows I’ve sat down to make records before, saying "I want to make a record just like Tigerlily." Well, maybe I could, but I’m not Natalie Merchant, not to mention there are no other songs on the planet remotely like them. In my mind, I get into the general vicinity or what I imagine, but really, I always feel like I’m a slave to where the music demands to go. I’m a real believer in listening to where the song needs to go and at times, it can be challenging. I used to have a great deal of anxiety anytime a song got near a country vibe. Maybe it goes back to my days in junior high when all my Whitesnake and Bon Jovi loving friends teased me mercilessly for liking R.E.M. and Johnny Cash? Anyway, I wanted this record to be "organic," whatever that really means, but it’s mostly because that’s what seemed most appropriate to the collection of songs.

A.D.: Tell me please about coming up with “The Tale” – it’s my favorite song on the new album.

Jennifer: Funny thing about that song, it’s been one that a lot of people comment on, but I’ve had real insecurities about. It took a while to get onto a record, mostly because it’s been voted off before. No one seemed to connect with it, so I didn’t play it much and debated about putting it on the album.
I wrote it when I was back in Australia, a break up song really between me and Christian music. The setting is like a relationship between two ordinarily good people, who when forcing the issue, end up destroying each other. It’s that point where you realize that to stay is only creating more pain, and that no matter how hard the break up, sometimes it’s actually better for everyone to part ways. You gotta get the leaving I suppose to get on with the living.

A.D.: What do you want people to get from this record that they may never have received from you before? Better still, what do you want new fans to catch onto quick?

Jennifer: I’d love it if it gave people permission to feel, safety to feel. So often we judge our own journeys, compare it to others or insist that obstacles are enemies to be destroyed. We’re always angling to accomplish rather than just sit, listen and relish the moment. New fans or old, I think there’s music we gravitate to because it reflects something deep inside us we couldn’t otherwise say ourselves. The most fulfilling music is usually because we’ve found it at the right time and place. As an artist, I think that’s all I could hope for, is that it feels like a kind of discovery of themselves.

Jennifer Knapp will be performing at the Tin Angel, 20 S 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA, on Thursday, Nov 13, 8 PM., $15. For more info visit or call 215.928.0978.

Photo courtesy of Autonomic Media

Posted on Wednesday, November 12, 2014