Christian music singer/songwriter Ellie Holcomb released her first children's album, Sing: Creation Songs, in September with an accompanying children's book called Who Sang the First Song?. In January, she and her partner, Drew Holcomb, frontman of Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, dropped an EP called Electricity.
Ellie Holcomb spoke with Sojourners about themes of light and dark in these projects and how she's learning from her kids' desire to care for people who are displaced or hurting.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Anna Sutterer, Sojourners: Part of your writing process, you've mentioned, includes an attempt to cling to a promise in the Word that you're having a hard time believing. What promise are you working through now?
Ellie Holcomb: I'm working on John 1, and it's all about the light overcoming the darkness. The current state of our world, our culture, and politics — it feels like there's a lot of darkness and conflict. Asking God to help me lean into what light looks like in those places — I don't know what that looks like yet, but I love the invitation Jesus gives of, "come and see."
Sutterer: Along those lines of invitation — "come and see" — and how to lean into this present darkness, do you imagine that invitation will transform your music or how you take action in your life?
Holcomb: Yeah, I think if it's my guess, both/and. It's on our hearts to link arms with a couple of organizations with feet on the ground in really dark places: International Justice Mission (IJM) and Preemptive Love Coalition. IJM is the largest anti-trafficking organization in the world and Preemptive Love Coalition does relief for refugees in war zones. One of the things in John that I'm learning is that the word, the Hebrew "word" in John 1, is "dabar," and it's both "word" and "deed." It's this kind of beautiful invitation with both the words we say — and for me as a writer, you're using your craft as words — but also this idea of deed. How does this get fleshed out in my life? I always want to be open to the things in front of me and maybe the things that aren't in front of me, to be willing to go, and to serve, and to love. I have three young kids and I'm hoping to model that out for them and kind of follow their little hearts.
Sutterer: Right, and I've been wondering about your recent entrance into the realm of children's theology and parenting through your album and book. What did you bring into this space from your own experience?
Holcomb: Being a parent has been humbling. I think I learn more from my kids ... maybe it's an equal exchange. I'm trying to let them into my own journey and my own weakness and insufficiency, so that I can point them to the same place that I go when I'm feeling insufficient — which is a love that has no end. There's something humbling about that because as a parent, you want to have all the answers and you want to deliver, and at the end of the day, I'm not everything they need. I know I give them lots of what they need, and I'm called to do that in the best way that I can, but at the end of the day, they need what I need. One of the beautiful things about being a parent, is showing my kids that I need reminders of that truth [that God is never ending love] and songs help me remember. One of the ways I experience God's goodness the most is in creation, so it felt appropriate to write about truths that they could see the evidence of as they walked or looked out the window of the car because I think God writes it all over the Earth.
Sutterer: As I was listening to the melody of "Fear Not," I had a memory of a song my mom used to play while putting me to bed each night. I wonder if you imagined any moments your songs might produce with parents and kids?
Holcomb: I think my main hope was that both the songs and the book would be conversation starters. It's been sweet to hear from parents that kids have asked to turn on these songs when they're worried or sad. That is like, the most wonderful. I feel so honored to enter into those kinds of moments with parents and their kids — singing some truth into those moments. I think sometimes as a parent you just mainly don't want your kids to be sad or afraid or hurt, but I think there's a lot to be learned and I've learned a lot in those places of feeling weak, in those places of feeling scared, in those places of feeling worried. I think I've found the comfort of God's word and who He is and His promises to be real and more real because of those experiences in hard times — to help speak truth in that is an honor.
Sutterer: Has writing Sing: Creation Songs, and Who Sang the First Song? opened you up to experiencing the Word differently?
Holcomb: Oh yeah, absolutely. It's helped remind me that before I'm an adult with responsibilities, I'm first and foremost a child of God. If I can operate from that place first, it sort of shifts all of the other things around in an appropriate way. I think too sometimes we make things too simple for kids and we think we need to water it down, but kids are prone to stepping on their tippy-toes and reaching above. They're able to grasp more than we think they can and, in some ways, they can grasp it better than we can. Trying to sit with their perspective has been a really healthy process for me. And I think sometimes with children, we want to give black and white answers, but I think more often than not, if you're looking at Jesus, a lot of his answers are pretty mysterious, and he knows the mystery but invites us into that mystery too and into the questions.
Sutterer: This phenomenon of being comfortable with mystery, is that part of the song "Love Anyway" from your EP with Drew? I wonder if living with those questions would help someone love while being in those dark moments or times when they're feeling deficient.
Holcomb: The "Love Anyway" song Drew wrote after reading an article in The Washington Post that our friend Jeremy Courtney wrote. The title of the article is, "The world is scary as hell. Love anyway." That feels really simple, but also kind of mysterious. Like, what does that look like for me when I'm not on the frontlines of war? How can I center into that kind of radical, upside-down, backwards living Jesus did? I think that sometimes feels like more of a mystery for those of us who live in a privileged society. I think we loved the invitation to practice love in light of a lot of the darkness and in light of the conflict in our own country too.
Sutterer: Yes, and going deeper into that song, you have a list of moments in human life: broken promises, truth and consequence, pride and tenderness, all those failed attempts, joy and happiness. Why did you pick those postures?
Holcomb: I think they feel like a synopsis of the both/and of life. There's both light and dark, there's both joy and suffering. There's both despair and hope, there's [both] death and life. My tendency is to want to shut my eyes to the hard and just lean toward hope, life, and light. If we do that, we miss part of what it means to be human. One of the things I love about the Gospel is that it seems to me that in some ways God's answer to suffering is, "Me too." There's a hope in that none of us are alone, and I'm grateful for that.