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Carolyn Arends Bibliography: (click on each album cover to view tracks and Carolyn Arends lyrics)
Carolyn Arends Biography
Much has happened in the five years since Carolyn Arends last recorded a "regular" album, 1999's acclaimed This Much I Understand. She went indie and started her own label. She and husband Mark had their second child. She wrote a couple of books. She toured. And she did a few niche albums-a greatest hits CD, a rootsy acoustic record, and a project of poignant songs about parenting. But all along, something more was stirring in the heart and soul of one of Christian music's finest singer/songwriters.
Which brings us to Under the Gaze, the seventh album from Arends, the winner of multiple Dove and Vibe awards. Under the Gaze is a delightful, eclectic sonic blend-her signature folksy pop and tender ballads, with tastes of bluegrass and traces of classical touches throughout-featuring the incisive, insightful artist at her literary best.
The self-produced album has been a long time-in many ways, a lifetime-in the making. The project's 11 originals (including one co-written with Connie Harrington) explore everything from laughter to tears, from infancy to the elderly, from life to death, from here to the hereafter-all under one overriding theme: God's infinite gaze. He sees all-the big things and the little, the magnificent and the mundane. It's all beneath his watchful eye-a notion Arends has come to appreciate more fully in recent years.
"If I had to identify an enduring theme in my music, it's this idea that you can't compartmentalize life," she says. "All of it belongs to God. Even the most seemingly silly thing is so fraught with promise, because it's alive with who God is. I keep coming back to that in my songwriting, apparently because it's a hard thing for me to learn!
"I have to keep remembering to see all of life that way and not create these little compartments-the things I think God is privy to, and the things I think he's not - or the things that should matter and the things that don't. It all matters to God. It's all sacred, because there is nothing the God of the universe does not involve and encode Himself in. He sees when a sparrow falls. He knows the number of hairs on our heads. He watches our comings and goings, now and forevermore" (Psalm 121:8).
Thus the title cut declares, "He who made the earth and sky / Keeps it under watchful eye / Never once does He divide / Secular and sacred / Every atom bears His mark / Like every inch of who we are - / All things are always / Under the gaze of God."
The album, on Arends' own indie imprint, 2B Records, is her third consecutive self-produced project. She plays guitar and piano throughout, while longtime friend and associate producer Roy Salmond lends his multiple talents (piano, organ, electric guitar, harpsichord, ukulele, accordion, vocals and even something called a "goat guitar"). The other two members of the Carolyn Arends Trio-Spencer Capier (violin, fiddles, viola, mandolin, bouzouki, BGVs) and Spencer Welch (organ, synth, BGVs)-bring their usual brilliance to the table, as do a number of other gifted musicians. Arends' family-husband Mark (one of "The BMBC Manly Men") and children Ben (6) and Bethany (3)-even gets in on the act, pitching in with a few "heys" and other background vocals.
The title cut is just the beginning of Arends' exploration of that which falls under the vast, eternal scope of God's gaze-things in her own life, as well as in the lives of others.
There's a nod to her own bookish childhood and C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia in "Not a Tame Lion," a reference not just to Aslan ("Your tenderness is reckless / And your mercy's wild") but to God Himself, who, like Aslan, very well may not be safe, but he most certainly is good. "Lewis really helped me to not be threatened by the mystery side of God," Arends says. "I grew up thinking I really should understand it all, but various Lewis writings have helped me embrace the mystery of God. Thank you, Clives Staples!"
There's a nod to her college days at Trinity Western University in "This Is the Moment," which she began writing as she prepared to play a chapel service at Pepperdine University's Convocation. "I thought about my first days of school, how I loved buying new school supplies, how the year was as fresh and clean and full of promise as all those blank pages of loose-leaf paper," she says. "Then a happy thing dawned on me: In the Kingdom of God, the Father's tireless grace makes every day a fresh sheet of paper. The Prodigal Son story shows a God who scans the horizon for the slightest indication that we are turning toward Him, a God ever ready to run to us and celebrate our homecoming. There's no prerequisite that we have all our ducks in a row. Any moment we turn to our Heavenly Father can be the watershed moment we've been waiting for."
There's a nod to her marriage in "Your Laugh," a whimsical, smile-inducing tribute to her husband's laughter. There are nods to friendships-those that uplift and encourage ("Half a Million Reasons") and those that are more emotionally taxing ("Fragile"). And there's a nod to the myriad ways in which we worship ("Any Given Sunday").
Indeed, there's plenty of life under God's gaze. But there's also death-and the hope of heaven that awaits us on the other side. Arends delves into these themes with tender sensitivity in songs that explore an infant boy's tragic death ("Only Time Will Tell"), an aging grandmother's longing to meet her Maker ("Getting Ready for Glory"), and an uplifting tribute to those saints who have gone before us ("Great Cloud of Witnesses").
"Only Time Will Tell," written for friends who'd lost their baby to a heart ailment, was Arends' way of grieving-and of pointing to the hope of heaven. "I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to sing this song without crying," she says. "But the song affirms for me, in its own oddly triumphant way, that while we mourn, we do not mourn as those who have no hope. We mourn as a people who understand that there is both a Now and a Not Yet."
"Getting Ready for Glory" is about a friend's grandmother who spent her last years alone learning as many Psalms and great old hymns as possible, doing her "homework" for the life to come. The song-its chorus sure to be a concert sing-along favorite-ends with a rousing, celebratory refrain sung by friends from the Arends' church in Vancouver, B.C.
"Great Cloud of Witnesses" refers to believers who've already gone on to glory and are now "cheering us on with wild enthusiasm," says Arends. The song, based on Hebrews 12:1-2, mentions Bible greats like Moses, Abraham and Isaac, but also those who were close to Arends-like her grandparents and her old friend Rich Mullins, all of whom, as the chorus joyously proclaims, "say the finish is worth every inch of the road."
And every inch of that road, every mile from here to eternity, is indeed Under the Gaze, an inspiring musical journey sure to bring its listeners one step closer to the prize.
The LORD will - watch over your life;
the LORD will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore (Psalm 121:7-8).