Interview: Composer Sarah Hart on Writing a Modern Catholic Hymn

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As part of its annual four-day celebration of Catholic education, liturgy and spirituality, the Religious Education Congress of Los Angeles commissions a song to use for its liturgies. This year, the selection team chose composer Sarah Hart, who has worked as a Catholic lyricist, musician, retreat director, writer and composer for 30 years.

“I graduated from college and moved to Nashville, literally the day after I graduated,” Ms. Hart recalled. “It was the place of Christian music. I moved here with no job, no money and no place to live.

As we talked on Zoom, she shook her head at the memory.

“In the Living Waters” speaks directly to anyone who is hurting, ashamed or alone, and describes a God who is waiting to welcome them.

” I do not recommend it. One day I was so discouraged that I sat in my rented room and watched ‘The Little Mermaid’ five times in a row,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m just going to sit here and cry and watch ‘The Little Mermaid’ because I don’t know what else to do right now.”

“But I guess when you’re called to a place, sometimes you just have to bravely step out and do it, you know?” She keeps.

In many ways, the song Ms. Hart wrote echoes that feeling of “going out bravely.”

“In the Living Waters” speaks directly to anyone who finds himself suffering, ashamed or alone, and he describes a God who waits to welcome him: “The past is dead and what lies is a clear and clean river, / where the savior holds his hands open and it waits for you and me.” While its lyrics are clearly religious, its sound is very contemporary and pop. It plays like a song you might hear on the radio. “The label ‘Christian music’ bothers me a little,” Ms. Hart tells me. “As a listener, I can listen to a worship song and then listen to Jackson Browne and feel there’s something so Christian about it.”

For inspiration, Ms. Hart looked to her roots. “I grew up in southeast Ohio in what I like to call my little Catholic hippie community,” she explains. Everyone “played banjo, guitar, spoons and autoharp”. The times spent in the church were exciting, she recalls: “It was in the 1970s. Everything was new and the church was breathing, open and lovely. There was a freedom there. I associate instruments like the banjo and the guitar with this experience of faith.

“I grew up in southeast Ohio in what I like to call my little Catholic hippie community.” Everyone “played banjo, guitar, spoons and autoharp”.

I wondered if Hart viewed her choice of instruments as an invitation to congregation in that sense of freedom and liberation she experienced as a child. “What makes other people feel free is completely different from me,” she notes. “But I would say that we are all constantly trying to return to our best memories of faith, [the times] when we felt most comfortable, most loved, happiest, and most satisfied with our faith. And she hopes her music can help: “My hope is that people will feel something new about God or realize how loved they are, how worthy they are.

Listening to “In the Living Waters”, I am struck by its sense of hope. Any Catholic can talk about how God forgives our sins, loves us, welcomes us. But this song really has the meaning of someone who has understood what it’s like to be both lost and then received. I’m asking Ms. Hart about this.

“I was that person who just wasn’t able to let go of the past and carried that anvil on his shoulders,” she admits. “I was that sister who didn’t realize there was a feast waiting and had a friend who said ‘Hey, come to church with me, there are free donuts “.

Personal experience is key to writing Christian songs, says Ms. Hart. “It’s really hard to write about something you don’t know.” When she teaches young composers, one of the things she tells them is that they need to develop their spiritual life. “Whether it’s scripture reading, prayer, quietude… If you’re writing for the church, it’s only going to be as good as your relationship with God, I think.”

Personal experience is key to writing Christian songs, says Ms. Hart. “It’s really hard to write about something you don’t know.”

It can be difficult to write for the church, she notes. “Maybe not everyone will feel that way, but I think often church writers write to please the church or to please the hierarchy rather than being honest about who Jesus is, was and will be. , even honest about themselves.”

But in his experience, it rarely serves the writer. “If that’s not really how you feel, it won’t translate,” she says. It won’t help the community either: “The church needs more honesty,” says Hart. “I’m so tired of people not telling each other the truth. All the time, Christ is like ‘Here’s the truth, everyone!’ It’s so important to do that in our music too.

This thirst for transparency shines through in the composers that Hart admires. “I think some artists are so effective because they’re not afraid to speak their truth,” she says, “whatever that truth is.” She brings up favorites like Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. “Most of my really huge influences come from secular music,” she admits. “And they are great songwriters. I’m all about ‘Tell me something.’ Really, just sing me a poem.

“The church needs more honesty,” Ms. Hart says. “I’m so tired of people not telling each other the truth.”

John Flaherty, a composer who chairs the liturgy committee and director of music at the Religious Education Congress, said one of the things that got him excited about Hart’s piece was its accessibility. “Theme songs are always great,” he explains. “I love playing and directing each one of them. But sometimes they are impossible for a parish to achieve.

Hart’s song, which she wrote in just a week, was clearly something people coming to convention could take back to their own communities and make their own. “It can be played with a simple piano, a guitar or a small ensemble,” says Flaherty. “And it’s very singable.”

Flaherty also appreciated the style. “I love it: it’s like that kind of Appalachian-Irish-Scottish-Tennessee-Kentucky sound. We never had that kind of song as a theme song,” he says. “But that’s a segment of the church, isn’t it?” When the percussionists at the religious education convention didn’t know how to play the washboard, Mr. Flaherty actually went to the hotel lobby, grabbed a few spoons, and taught them how to play.

Looking at her journey as a songwriter, Sarah Hart has many great stories. There’s the time she told her high school band principal that she wanted to be a pediatrician, and he laughed in her face. “Sarah, you’re so stupid,” she recalled him telling her. “You’re not going to be a pediatrician, you’re going to be a musician.” Or there’s the moment when, as a child, she got to see Vincent van Gogh’s work for the first time in real life. “I turned around the corner and right in front of me was ‘Irises’,” she recalls. “And I was arrested. I started sobbing. All I could think was, ‘I’m looking at God.’

Mrs. Hart notes that she has no idea about Van Gogh’s own experience of faith, or if he had any faith. She also found herself in the position of composing for secular film and television and making people wonder why a person of faith would do that. But she rejects this tendency to work in silos.

“If you have faith in something bigger than yourself, then whatever you do in your life is going to seep into it all,” she says. “It’s not like, ‘Well, we bring our faith to church on Sundays and then we go to Cracker Barrel.’ It doesn’t work that way, we live it, we breathe it and it pours into everything.

“I’m just a person who believes God gave me something to say,” she says. “And I think it’s important that we don’t build walls around ourselves. That’s not what Jesus did. So I don’t want to do that either.

Listen to “In the White Waters” here:

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