BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Tackling the triple tasks of marriage, motherhood and making music, Ellie Holcomb knows all-too well that she constantly needs to seek support to succeed in all three arenas. In her case, the Nashville-based singer/songwriter finds faith to be the fuel that gives her the strength and inspiration to prosper in her personal and professional life. “I grew up in the church, grew up in a family that…had a pretty vibrant faith,” says Holcomb. “You put a kind of people pleasing performer personality in a job where it’s literally your job to perform…and you throw your marriage into the mix with that and it gets complicated.”
Perhaps the culmination of Holcomb’s commitment to faith and family is found in the words and music of the songs on her first full solo album, As Sure As the Sun (available now). Of course having the ability to lean on a higher power and a husband who also happens to be a highly gifted singer/songwriter in his own right (Drew Holcomb of Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors) was comforting to Holcomb, whose album features tunes that can be interpreted as both spiritual and secular love songs. Tracks such as “Love Never Fails,” “Marvelous Light,” “The Broken Beautiful” and the title track are all fine examples of how Holcomb manages to use sonic colors to paint a picture of just how good life can be when one finally finds a way to bring all aspects of life into perfect balance. Appropriately, when I spoke with Holcomb on the phone, she had her three-year old daughter Emmylou sitting right beside her, and her infant son Huck on her lap.
I do know that. He’s enjoyed it every time.
I’ve had two great conversations with Drew, the most recent about his latest album, Medicine. But you’ve got a great record, so let’s talk about that. But before we jump into that, belated congratulations on your new bundle of boy…
(Laughs) Thank you. Thank you so much. We love him.
Yeah, he’s your husband’s mini me (laughs).
It is pretty weird; pretty strange, honestly. I told my husband the other day, it’s pretty weird to feel like I’m seeing you as an infant (laughs).
And I’ll throw in a belated Happy Birthday to your daughter, who just turned three yesterday.
Great! Yeah, yesterday she turned three and if you asked her how old she was she would say 3vember 9th! She turned three on November 9th. She is a bundle of joy, man.
That’s great. Now before we talk about this beautiful album, As Sure As the Sun, let me begin by asking you to tell us about the genesis of your love of music. Looking back now, was there a moment, a song that came on the radio or an event, where after that you might have said to yourself, gosh, I want to make music for a living?
That’s a great question. I grew up here in Nashville and I really call myself an accidental musician (laughs). My dad is in the music business – he’s a producer – so I grew up in the studios and I had a very real understanding of two things: one, I would hear stories from my dad of how powerful music can be, so I understood that music could be medicine (laughs) in a sense. And then I understood, too, that there was a serious cost to being a musician because as a little girl I used to watch all my friends’ moms and dads have to leave and go out on the road. And so I was never enamored with the music life and I kind of swore I would never marry a musician, which is weird because I also swore I would never marry my best friend, and I ended up marrying my best friend who’s a musician. So I got my master’s in education and I loved teaching and just thought that I knew I would always make music, but it always felt like sort of like something I would just do for myself to process my life and my faith. So really the reason I started doing music is, over Thanksgiving break, in a deer blind (a cover device for hunters, designed to reduce the chance of detection) in Texas, Drew, my husband, asked me if I would consider quitting my teaching job and join his band (laughs) so we could see each other more often. I kind of thought to myself, I think if I don’t say yes to this, I’m always gonna wonder what that would have been like. I think I thought it would be a year-long diversion and it’s turned into our life. As it turns out, I love it even though I swore I’d never do it. I absolutely love what I get to do.
Once again the power of music wins.
Yeah, it does (laughs).
Light, I think, is a theme that shines brightly in many of your songs, including the track “Marvelous Light,” of course. Before I ask you to talk about the writing of that song, let me ask you about another part of your life that is certainly very important to you and that’s your faith. Tell me about when you first walked out of the darkness, sorta speak, and into the light. When did you first find faith?
I would say that I grew up in the church, grew up in a family that talked about Jesus and had a pretty vibrant faith. It was very alive and a very wonderful way to grow up. But for some reason I gathered that the gospel and faith was all about just being good enough and loving God and loving other people. I’m kind of a recovering perfectionist, is what I say (laughs) about this journey, and you put a kind of people pleasing performer personality in a job where it’s literally your job to perform and you have a person in need of intensive counseling…and you throw your marriage into the mix with that and it gets complicated. And truly, for me, there was an invitation from a counselor and she just kept saying, you know what Ellie, where there’s truth there’s freedom. And I think I kind of saw the darkness in my own soul that I had been running from my whole life. I did not know that the gospel was not so much about being good enough and loving other people enough. It wasn’t about God coming to make bad people good people, it was really about Him coming to make dead people alive people. And that is what happened. I came alive when all of a sudden I realized I didn’t have to pretend to be okay. I should show up as I was, which was totally broken and kind of a hot mess, and be completely accepted, fully known and both fully loved at the same time. It changed my life, it really did.
There is a book series that I love called The Wingfeather Saga by a guy named Andrew Peterson. He’s a singer, songwriter and an author. It’s wonderful stuff; think like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling type stuff. There is a character in his novels named Podo Helmer, he’s this old grandfather figure who’s an ex-pirate, and he spends most of his life trying to hide his past and all these things he’s ashamed of from the people that he loved the most; his family. Without giving anything away, in the second book there’s this scene where all of these secrets, all of these things he’s ashamed of, are exposed in front of the people he loved the most. And I will never forget the line that Andrew wrote after this pretty intense scene happened. He says, “Podo moved about his days with wonder and peace.” Because he found that his whole story had been told for the first time and yet he was still loved. I just wept reading that because that was my experience with faith. That is my story. I spent most of my life hiding. I didn’t know that it was okay to not be okay. I just did not know that it was possible to be real and to be broken and to be loved and be accepted all at once. And when I discovered that that was a reality, it changed my life.
The song “The Valley” tackles a different type of darkness: depression. You’ve confessed that in your life you were prone to “believing some harmful lies” as it sees in your bio. Are you comfortable with sharing some of those lies?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. The main thing is God doesn’t love you, you’re not good at anything, who are you to think that you can do anything good, uh, you can never change. I mean, fill in the blank. How much time do you have (laughs)?
I got plenty of time.
(Laughs) Okay, good. I’m trying to think about what the biggest lie would be. I have had some bouts with anxiety and panic attacks and I haven’t dealt with it in the same way that a lot of other people have. I wrote that song for some friends of mine who struggle with depression. Man, it’s so funny cuss two years into singing that song I realized that it was just as much for me as it was for them. Really it’s just a song about coming to the end of your rope and then having to turn from yourself and cry out to God to rescue you. So the harmful lie that I believe is that this is all up to you and you’re gonna completely screw your life up, your children’s lives up and the lives of people around you: that I’m worthless and I might as well shut up. And man, you start believing those lies and you get yourself into a pretty despairing and dark place (laughs) and oh, man, I have been there.
Well I think on behalf of many, I thank you for not shutting up because music is life in so many ways. It’s the soundtrack of everyone’s life and these messages are helpful to so many people, I truly believe. Um, the title track to As Sure As the Sun is a really pretty piano piece with an uplifting message. Aside from family, friends and faith, what are you most sure of in your life these days?
Hmm, man, you know what, about five or six years ago, a friend of mine who struggled with depression and I really started trying to memorize scripture, really in an effort to kick back against the darkness with the light. We maybe needed some truth to kind of anchor ourselves into; things to be sure of. I love the way that you asked that question. What we found was that maybe God wasn’t lying when he said that His word is alive and active and it doesn’t come back void. That particular song is still the one and it’s probably the thing that I’m the most sure of. It comes from this promise in Hosea 6:3 and it says “Let us acknowledge the Lord; let’s press on to acknowledge Him. For as surely as the sun rises, He will appear.” That is the thing that I am most sure of. I think the thing that I’m the most sure of is – I don’t understand a lot of the suffering in the world – but I can say with a lot of certainty that I’ve seen God meet us in the middle of this ache. And that I’ve sensed his presence and I know that we’re not alone in it, and I’m really grateful for that.
I believe you used the word “broken” a couple of times in your answer, and more on that in just a second, but I did want to take a bit of a left turn here. You mentioned early on in the conversation that you have a master’s degree in education and went into education prior to getting into the music realm. Is there something that you could help us with as far as what you would change about the education system? Can you take us into the classroom and tell us what is lacking or missing that you would like to see change?
Oh, that’s a great question. I have a lot of friends who are in the education field because that was where I started. Principals and teachers who are really passionate about kids and investing in people’s souls and who they are and wanting to help people who are gonna be future leaders of our country. Those people are the ones who really make changes. (*At this point in Holcomb’s answer, our phone connection was lost. After reestablishing connection, she continued her answer). I was basically just saying that I think a lot of the accountability and the standardized testing – I’m not saying that that’s a totally negative thing – but the stronger that that arm has gotten, I think it has crushed some of the passion that teachers and educators have to be a part of kinda helping invest in future members of communities and citizens of this country. So I would love to see there be, gosh, just a little bit of a different approach than more testing and more accountability. And I’d love to see teachers get paid better, too, because they’re the ones on the frontline. I’m not sure we’re doing the best job of that.
I could not agree more. Teachers are woefully lacking in compensation.
And then the tenure system is pretty broken, too. We continue to pay teachers who maybe are not doing the best job and they’re protected by the unions. If you’re not doing your job at all you definitely shouldn’t be getting paid. So that seems a little broken to me as well.
Speaking of broken – thank you for the perfect segue – and the juxtaposition of being broken and made beautiful in the song “The Broken Beautiful;” sonically the song is upbeat. How did you decide on this arrangement?
I love that you’re asking that. I was in a writing session with a guy named Matt Armstrong and I wrote most of these songs when I was pregnant with my little girl, Emmylou, who is sitting right next to me on the porch swing right now. I was taking more bathroom breaks than usual cuss I was pretty pregnant (laughs). My strong suit in writing is not the guitar; I have I don’t know how many voice memos on my iPhone, but I’m a singer first before I’m a musician, so I love getting together with other people who are far more proficient at instruments than I am (laughs). And so I took a bathroom break and I said [to Matt], hey, will you just like come up with something musical and let me maybe try to sing over it? I came back and he was playing that thing that you hear at the very beginning of the song; the little melody. And I was like, oh my goodness I love that, and I literally just started singing and the song just came out over that real fun, kinda upbeat melody. Man it was such a blast writing that song, so he really came up with that and it was a joy to kinda sing over it.
Cool. The imagery of the words “broken beautiful” reminded me of this Japanese art form Kintsugi, which basically repairs broken pottery by making it beautiful again.
Oh my goodness. How do I not know about this?
Yeah, I was gonna ask you if you were aware of this. And it’s the name of the band Death Cab For Cutie’s current album.
Maybe for your next interview you can throw that out there (laughs).
Yes (laughs)! I’m writing it down right now (laughs).
So let me ask you about “Love Never Fails.” Sonically it’s downright sunny, I would say, and lyrically it’s one of so many songs that could be about spiritual or secular love. Would you agree?
Tell me about that one.
So often when I am writing these songs I am sitting in scripture asking God to help me believe that it’s true (laughs). Honestly it’s a really cathartic process for me. I just thought, man, this is how God loves us. Sure, this is what we should aspire to and like I wanna be like this, I wanna be more like this, but man, this is how God loves us. So it’s a prayer, for me, it was.
Earlier I mentioned secular love; now might be a good time to interject your husband’s name into the conversation one more time. I’ve told him this before, but now I have my first opportunity to tell you that in my view, “The Wine We Drink” (found on Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors’ 2013 album Good Light and featuring Ellie singing with Drew) is one of the best love songs I’ve heard in the past several years. That is a go-to song for me, so thank you for singing on that great track.
Oh yeah, I totally agree with you; just for the record (laughs). Oh I just love it.
It’s just so great. Let me quote a line and then ask you a question about it: “There’s a beauty that we never know what the future holds.” What does that line mean to you today?
(Laughs) Oh man, there are no guarantees in life, are there?
Honestly, I think today, now more than anything, with kids, well we had a really scary delivery with Huck, our little boy, and it was this reminder that life is so fragile. And so I would say that’s what that line means to me today. I’m gonna go play on a couple of shows with Drew this weekend, which I don’t normally do these days, and I think when I sing that it will probably be hard not to cry (laughs) because I think the older I get I realize more and more that there are no guarantees and a lot of sorrow as well.
Absolutely. I am so excited! We haven’t done this show in a couple of years; we took a hiatus from Christmas touring. This will be [December 23] at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center here in Nashville, and it’s just one night and I’m told it’s sold out. It’ll be Christmas music mixed with some of Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors stuff, and then what’s great about Nashville is that all our friends who do music live here and so we’ll have a slew of special guests. It is a festive and wonderful evening. You know, I could do Christmas in July (laughs); that would be fine with me, so it’s one of my favorite things, decorating the stage and preparing all that music is an absolute blast.
I know a few chain stores that might agree with you on Christmas in July, actually (laughs).
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s right.
Alright Ellie, well thank you, it’s been a pleasure…
Jim, thank you, thank you so, so much. I just wanna say, and Drew has said this about you, but thank you for being amazing at what you do and thoughtful on how you ask questions. It is not always like that. You’re an amazing interviewer and you’re an amazing human to talk to on the other end of the line for these things, so I just wanna say thanks for being lovely and wonderful. And also thanks for putting up with my children’s racket (laughs).
Well thank you. It’s very nice of you to say, and I guess from my end you can’t ask for a conversation to end in a better way than that, so we’ll leave it at that. Thank you very much. I’ll just add that it’s my pleasure because I’m obviously a music junkie and I love to have these conversations. So on that note, Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas to you guys and hopefully we will get a chance to say hello face-to-face someday soon.
I look forward to it. So long, Jim.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Ellie Holcomb, please visit and “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics.