Death Be Not Proud – Interview With Audrey Assad

by Kristen Gilles

in Interviews,Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Album cover art for "Death Be Not Proud" EP by Audrey AssadBobby and I have been listening to Audrey Assad’s new EP Death Be Not Proud, the latest in a growing collection of poetic music for worship and reflection that includes albums like Fortune Fall, Heart and The House You’re Building.

Since we wrote our worship record Parker’s Mercy Brigade following the stillbirth of our son, we were particularly intrigued by Audrey’s Death Be Not Proud, mostly written and recorded in the last semester of her pregnancy. In this My Song In The Night interview with Audrey, Bobby asks how her pregnancy played into the development of this record, how John Donne’s poem “Death Be Not Proud” influenced the song and the EP, and “vertical versus horizontal” songs, being influenced as a songwriter by literature, and more:

Bobby Gilles: Your music has always portrayed life with all its victories but also hardships and sorrows, so “Death Be Not Proud” fits in with that. But how did being pregnant play into the development of this record?

Audrey Assad: Pregnancy is a miracle, and I now know that from experience. I found myself pondering mortality a lot, actually, as Will grew inside my womb over those nine months—partially, perhaps, because there are so many fears that come along with being pregnant—nothing is for certain. Each ultrasound and doctor’s visit I held my breath a bit waiting for the heartbeat to come over the doppler or show up on the screen—one particular time it took them seven entire minutes to find it. I was silently panicking. In more ways than that, I had to learn to let go of my child before I even met him—and so like I said, mortality was on my mind a lot. “Death, Be Not Proud” is at least partially born of that time.

Bobby Gilles: The title cut obviously is inspired by John Donne’s poem – maybe even a “reworking” of that poem, but you didn’t merely set the poem to music. You’ve got some good phrases of your own, like “So death, if your sleep be the gates to heaven …” How did you decide the way in which you’d structure the poem and use it for your purpose?

Audrey Assad: I like to use literature and poetry a lot when it comes to writing lyrics, so by now I just kind of have a natural tendency (to a fault) to read something I like and immediately begin arranging it in my head for music. I’d say that my instincts usually lean towards combing the piece for however many lines I can use directly, (and I always credit the author of course, even if I change the lines around or re-work them) and then see what they inspire from my own brain. I’m not sure if it’s stealing, but you know what they say about artists and stealing … good artists borrow and great artists steal. Maybe I’m just trying to become a good enough thief that I also become a great artist…

Bobby Gilles: “Receive” is a beautiful, Trinitarian, Eucharistic song. Did you write it specifically for use during the Lord’s Supper?

Audrey Assad: That’s a simple answer–yes!

Bobby Gilles: I love your cover of my favorite John Mark McMillan song, “Death In His Grave.” A lot of young singer-songwriters seem hesitant to do covers – I read that Bob Dylan felt like singer-songwriters are losing the benefits of doing earlier works and other songwriters’ material, and growing through the art of song interpretation. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Audrey Assad: Absolutely. I love doing covers. I find myself able to lose my inhibitions performing their songs far more easily than I do performing my own—they often prove very instrumental for me in self-discovery or contemplation because of that. I covered and released Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” a few years back and I can’t tell you what a magical moment it was for me as an artist and a person, to do that song.

Bobby Gilles: Getting back to Death Be Not Proud … in the past you’ve said that most of your songs are more vertical – first person to God. In this record, three of the five songs are horizontal, talking to people (or in the case of the title cut, you’re talking to death). Was this intentional?

Audrey Assad: You know, it wasn’t—it was just the way it came out this time. I definitely believe there’s a place for both, for certain.

Bobby Gilles: You’re considered a very “literary” songwriter, and you’ve talked about being influenced by writers like C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Obviously “Death Be Not Proud” comes from the Donne poem, but how does it usually work? Do you intentionally borrow from certain works or allow them to inspire your writing, or is it more of an organic, “What goes in, comes out,” even if you’re not really aware of it?

Audrey Assad: I’d say the second, more often—in the case of Donne’s poem I had been wishing to write from/about it for years, and just had never had any specific inspiration until recently. We were “homeless” (looking for a house and couch-surfing) for nearly four months while I was pregnant with Will, and a friend of ours went out of town and let us stay in her awesome basement apartment.  The very first day I was there I sat down at her piano and the title track just spilled out. You never know when it’s going to happen!

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