Meet Sara Groves again for the first time.
Sara is a kaleidoscope of colors. With every record she creates we, the listeners, climb a little closer to her heart and discover something new about her character. Her honesty, vulnerability and artistry are what make us feel so connected and keep us so inspired. I recently caught up with Sara to hear about what big, new things are happening around the Groves home and discover the backbone of her new record, Invisible Empires.
John: What does Invisible Empires mean and how did the name come about?
Sara Groves: Well, I never fully know what I’m working on [when I start writing] – such as a theme, but inevitably the songs will start to overlap, and I’ll start realizing ‘oh this is all kind of about the same thing.’ It’s always a mystery for me when I’m working on a record, figuring out what the hub of the wheel is. And I feel with this record the hub ended up being a lot of what I was reading from Eugene Peterson’s book, A Long Obedience in theSame Direction. He talks about Psalm 127 which says “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builder builds in vain.” He says the work of man is frenetic. We chase after things, it’s futile. He says literally, man works like the devil, and then he compares that to the work of God. He says the work of God is a lot like pregnancy, you’re making a human being. You’re doing quite possibly the most important work you’ll ever do, but you’re not really doing anything. You’re just getting out of bed, and walking around and eating. As a mom, having carried three children I can appreciate that metaphor. So this whole record is really wresting with the fact that a lot of times I feel like I’m working like the devil. ‘How on earth do I get to that place where His yoke is light, where He’s making my paths straight?’ So this record is looking at the flawed areas of my life where I’m really worrying a lot [and asking], am I seeking stuff on my own and how do I work with God, letting Him work through me?
JOHN: And so the Empires are Sara’s empires?
Sara: Yeah, Invisible Empires to me talks about what Eugene talks about, and what’s in 2 Corinthians: the unseen world – the work that God does – is eternal and real. The Kingdom that He’s building is real but invisible, and then here we are building what we think is real but it’s actually virtual. I look at technology a lot because I feel like it’s something we’ve got to stop and question, ya know? Right now it’s sort of running ahead unabated and I feel like we’ve got to look at it and say ‘Ok, I’ve gained all of these conveniences, but what did I lose?’ And that to me is all part of the same idea of man-made work. We literally worship the things that we’ve made with our own hands. That’s as old as mankind, that problem. I just want to ask the questions about the stuff that falls in with man-made struggle and that frenetic life.
JOHN: So the cover kind of also tells that story, right?
Sara: Well, you’ve got the dark city which might be like man-made cities and behind is this ethereal Kingdom of God. Again, the invisible things of God are more real than the visible things of earth. And then you see a sound wave and that’s actually me singing the words ‘invisible empires’ from the song “Obsolete.” So it’s sort of an embedded message inside the cover. When people get the actual record there are midi files which look like flowers. When you play the piano in a midi file, it looks like flowers with stems and those are also decorating the artwork throughout. So we kind of merged this idea of technology and the spiritual world. We were trying to capture all of those ideas.
JOHN: You’ve talked about technology and how at times it could be a big hindrance to our lives, not necessarily a convenience. How does the Groves family ‘unplug’?
Sara: I have a friend Miranda Harris who says ‘technology is a great servant and is a horrible master.’ I feel like my job as a parent is to get technology into that place where it is under our feet, not mastering us. My husband and I really struggled with watching TV too much and our kids basically had a video game addiction. So as a family, about 2 years ago we did a media fast for the entire summer. We thought, in Minnesota you gotta get outside in the summer! So it was really hard, but we drew a deep line in the sand. [We decided] for the next 3 months we’re going to abstain from everything; we did a whole media fast. And then we talked about what we would add back in. It was really neat. The conversations were really healthy. I think having been detoxified, my kids were able to talk about it reasonably – in the past they couldn’t even talk about it, like it was their obsession. We were able to decide that 30 minutes a day with video games was enough for us and that we didn’t want to let the TV back in because it was definitely eating into all of these things we discovered. We still to this day don’t have cable, but we do have a physical TV that we watch a movie occasionally on, but those are some steps we’ve taken. Troy and I try to keep our online life really to our business or the music, connecting with fans and stuff. I’m not on Facebook at all. As soon as Facebook came out it was a divine moment for me because I knew it would feed into all of my vices so it was something I wouldn’t be able to participate in. I basically heard God say, other people get to do this but you don’t (laughs). So we do other stuff that will feed into our Facebook page, like I write a blog occasionally and Troy does Twitter a lot. I just really felt that it was going to keep me away from my family, from my kids and the people that I really want to be physically there for. So anyway, that might seem radical to some people and I’m not saying that this is in anyway a judgment or a law, but those are some of the parameters we’ve drawn.
JOHN: So that’s how the Groves family operates…
Sara: Yeah, that’s how we roll.
JOHN: When you look at the overall record, you do talk about busyness, technology, all these sorts of outside influences coming into us – but there are a few other themes in the record as well. What else is there?
Sara: In ‘Finite,’ the first line of the song says, I’m not every woman, it’s not all in me. I was sitting across the table from Jill Phillips and we were both feeling absolutely exhausted, pulled in a million different directions and she said the word ‘finite.’ I latched onto that and said ‘there’s a song in that word.’ So we sat for the next two hours and worked on that. In ‘Mystery,’ I talk about trying to bring God to earth somehow as if I could specifically do that. In ‘I Will Wait for You’ I say, I’m going to wait for You now more than ever. I can work like the devil, but that can’t really be my way, I have to wait for You. So it is my weariness at trying to do all of this work by myself and trying to make the Kingdom come. You’ve followed us as we were embarking with InternationalJustice Mission, and we still work with IJM, (we have the song ‘Eyes on the Prize’ on this record that’s about their work). But I think I jumped in with two feet and started taking off, maybe getting a little ahead of God a little bit. And I had to realize and say, Ok, I can’t change the world, God will change things through me and He can change me. I have to wait on the Lord, and say I’m waiting for whatever You’ve got for me, and I don’t want to get ahead of You anymore. And then tying that in with the idea that I want to be about Your work, not my own work, not my own kingdom but Your empire. So that’s definitely, I would say, the river that runs through the whole record. Honestly, it’s a tired mom trying to figure it all out saying ‘I think You have more rest for me than this and I don’t think that all these things I feel obligated to are You. I think I’m obligating myself to things that aren’t necessarily God-centered.’ So how do I purge my life of all the distractions to really listen for the things that God wants me to do?
JOHN: Through your art you’ve certainly opened up – whether it is marital issues, strengths, weaknesses, parenting, you’ve shared a lot that maybe other artists are uncomfortable doing. It has certainly made an impact on people. When you look at Invisible Empires, do you feel that you’re following along that same path, opening up that heart again to the public and saying ‘here we are, this is our life?’
Sara: Yeah, ya know Fireflies and Songs was a very personal record and almost every song was me lying on the operating table. With this record I did pick up again kinda like with Tell Me What you Know and Addto the Beauty where I looked at some other things that were happening in the world. ‘Scientists in Japan’ is about bioethics (laughs), that’s not necessarily where you find me at home opening up own personal heart. So I did return to some other broader, cultural themes in this record, but there definitely are some. ‘Mystery’ would be a deeply personal song about my last couple years’ struggle with anxiety and walking through fears. I couldn’t feel God in the traditional ways I had felt Him. I’ve always had very emotional connection to God. So basically in dealing with the anxiety and panic attacks I was having I had to tell myself, my emotions are not my reality. The way I feel is not real right now! I feel like I’m going to die, and I’m actually not going to die, I’m going to be okay. But I had to deny my emotions. For a good year and a half I just rehearsed that. My emotions are tricking me, they’re not reliable. And so having had an emotional connectivity to God, it impacted the way I would feel when I would pray, everything, how I sensed God. But in the place of this emotional sort of thing I’ve always had of God, this other sense of His presence has come, that I’m really grateful for. I don’t think I would have gotten there without this whole experience, but He has been so faithful to me, and so present. Not in this emotional way where I’m “Oooh! I feel Him! I feel these emotional goosebumps!” It’s just been this solidness, I can’t even describe it. It’s literally just been a season of manna. So ‘Mystery’ is definitely a song where I’m confessing that I’ve just been working at this, trying to pull God down, I’m physically tired from trying to bring ‘Your kingdom come on earth’ And saying ‘I must not be doing it right because I need a rest. But You will meet me again. You will show up, it’s not about me, it’s about what you’re doing.’ ‘Miracle’ is a very personal song about marriage and relationships. Feeling things I can’t feel, saying things that are hard to say, not just in my marriage but in friendships. So yeah, I definitely have moments where I’m writing from that very deep personal place, and then I have other things where I’m revisiting things like I have in the past, cultural movements and events. Things that I feel like I want to ask a question about before we run full force ahead (laughs).
JOHN: So yeah, tell us about ‘Scientists in Japan?’ Where did that come from?
Sara: Well, so in the very beginning of that chapter in Long Obedience… there’s a quote that Eugene Peterson pulls out from a French philosopher and says [something like] The marker of this day is that we set great machines in motion without any idea of where they are headed – I’m butchering this – but he says, how tremendous the means with no concept of the end. We set machines in motion without any concept of where we’re headed. We just set things in motion, set things in motion. So I was at this think tank with Christian leaders and this bio-ethicist look the stage. He said literally there are only a handful of us who are Evangelical in the field of bioethics, and he had spent a year of his own time going around to all of the Christian colleges asking them, begging them to start carrying at least a minor in bioethics. There’s not a single Christian college, university of liberal arts or otherwise that is carrying a minor in bioethics. And the response was the same, well, students aren’t coming here for that, they go to the universities for that. Well exactly! We’re giving the entire field over, he said, we can’t talk about these things in churches. If I were to stand up on a Sunday morning and say “Scientists in Japan are building a robot to take your job,” I would be booed off the stage. So ya know, the little feisty part of me said, I’m gonna write a song, hopefully a whimsical one, that starts with that line (Laughs). It was compelling what he said, ‘you will face ethical challenges as you care for your aging parents, unless you think about it, you will be caught off guard.’ And that spoke to me. I will one day be caring for my aging parents, and I need to know what I think about life and death and all of the things between those.
JOHN: So you and Troy are working alongside Charlie Peacock on an ‘Art House North’?
Sara: We are. We are hoping to get an offer on our house this week. We’ve purchased a 100 year old church, and the Art House in Nashville is a 100 year old church, that is also the studio and home of Charlie and Andrea Peacock. So we asked him about four years ago, ‘would it be possible for us to partner with you in this way?’ and they were excited, so we’ve been looking for properties. The byline of the Art House is ‘creative community for the common good.’ So basically the goal in the simplest form is, artists often work in isolation but we want to give them a reason to gather whether formally or informally, and we believe that sparks will fly when they get connected. So we’re hoping that people will respond to the different artist forums and things that we hold at the Art House. I really believe something creative and new that our city has never seen will be born out of artists connecting with other artists. So that’s our dream. We’re going to live in the church, we’re building out a parsonage in the basement, and then the whole building will be used for hospitality and events. So that’s where we’re headed!
JOHN: Ok, so last question. We know you started homeschooling this year. Can you briefly tell us about your experience? And are you homeschooling all three kids?
Sara: I am sending Ruby to preschool, that gives me time with the boys that I need, they’re 5th and 3rd grade. [It was] a little bit out of necessity but it was also [a result of] a neat experience with a missionary family that put us squarely in the homeschooling camp this year. A friend of ours from IJM called and said my hero in the faith is coming to the United States and he wants to meet you. He’s a missionary in Burma doing incredible, incredible things. So we cleared our calendar and they came, and they were a team, Team Eubank. And in talking with Karen Eubank (the matriarch), I just caught a vision for us that I haven’t had before. We’ve always been Team Groves but we were doing a lot of things by putting the kids in school, a lot of gymnastics and things to keep them in the sort of ‘normalcy’ of public school, whatever that is, and we just all of a sudden felt really free and called to home school. We really call it ‘world school,’ we like the term. It’s been surprisingly joyful; I thought it would be more stressful than it’s been. I actually feel like we’ve simplified in a lot of ways, and the boys are thriving. And I’m having fun, the teacher in me is waking up and it’s really been joyful! That’s the only word I have for it. So I don’t know how long we’re going to do this, I don’t know what God has in mind for us, but it has been a huge blessing.
JOHN: Ok, we said that was the last question, but one more. Candy corn or the fake pumpkin candy corn things?
Sara: The real deal, that’s so funny. I just went on a trip where I wasn’t with my husband or my kids and I got a glimpse of myself without any checks and balances (laughs). I didn’t mean to do this, but I went to the grocery store and before I knew it, I had a bag of candy corn and like, all kinds of terrible snacks. So over the weekend I ate an entire bag of candy corn! If my kids were there, or if Troy was, I never would have done that… but I got a little freedom and I just went nuts and ate a whole bag of candy corn. So yeah it’s definitely a favorite (laughs).
JOHN: Sara, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today. We love your music and message – and wish all the very best to you and your family.