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Sometimes the most compelling art and spiritually-nourishing songwriting comes after a challenging season, though in the case of consistently thought-provoking troubadour Audrey Assad, it appeared after a gut-wrenching deconstruction of her fundamentalist faith foundation, alongside crippling battles against anxiety. In fact, it was that very maze of emotions, coupled with the inability to write worship songs she felt were genuinely authentic, that resulted in the four years between her last original album and the immensely awaited Evergreen (Fortunate Fall Records/Tone Tree Music), which besides chronicling the no-holds-barred transparency of her struggles, buds with rebirth and hope. 

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“I wish I could point out a catalytic moment, but my journey out of fundamentalism has been very gradual,” explains Assad. “Actually, I have found that fundamentalism was not just a descriptor for my childhood beliefs, but also a deeply ingrained worldview through which I looked at everything in my life. It has taken far longer to soften the effects of that lens than I had imagined it would when I left my Plymouth Brethren church behind at the age of twenty-one. Even in my mid-thirties now, after having been Catholic for ten years, the residue of fundamentalism remains. I live in a slow, constant process now of encountering the vestiges of fundamentalist thinking as they present themselves, assessing them, and putting them to the side if I am done with them.”

Continues Assad: “I do remember hitting a wall in late 2014 when I was experiencing some serious burnout, and when I finally took some time to breathe and examine my interior state in early 2015, I found scorched earth. I had always struggled to relate to believers who heard the voice of God at every step, but it had gotten even more desolate, and I truly felt no sense of God's presence at all—in my heart or in the universe. I would say that is when I truly began to actively deconstruct the religion I had grown so comfortable with. It seemed very bleak at the time to me, but looking back, it was a really healthy experience of disillusionment that led to greater detachment—I learned to live with open hands around everything, even my belief.”

However, Audrey will be the first to admit there was a point where her sense of belief was practically non-existent, specifically relating to ancestral empathy for those slain in one of the modern world’s most brutal conflicts. Having been raised in an Arab-American household with a father of Syrian descent gave her a laser sharp perspective on the country’s violent civil war, and ultimately, the traumas and tragedies that happen to innocent victims in a state of unrest that’s in process to this day. 

“As a younger person, I had been used to scoffing at people who expressed disillusionment or despair at wondering why God lets bad things happen to good people,” recalls Assad as she traces some of the earliest seeds of her Evergreen renewal process. “But when the Syrian civil war broke out, I finally began to understand what they were feeling. My father is a Syrian refugee and so the war hit me in a very tender spot. As the horrors of that brutal conflict unfolded and then kept rolling out year after year, as I saw images of children killed by nerve gas and parents holding their babies who had been pulled dead from the rubble of yet another collapsed school or hospital. I began to feel an anger I had never experienced. I didn't just wonder why God let bad things happen to good people—I truly began to wonder if God existed at all. Really, I think I had always wondered that, but never given myself true permission to ask. The war was revelatory of my underlying doubts, and once those finally had a voice, the clamor was deafening. It was so strange to feel so bitter toward a God I didn't think I believed in. But I didn't know where else to put my emotions, honestly. My prayer life was reduced to a few snarling journal entries every few months.” 

As intense as every page in her diary developed, the deeply personal exercise was the genesis of what would become a very public outpouring in the form of Evergreen, or what Assad so aptly summarizes as “a series of journal entries from outposts on the road I traveled to get here.” The idea was actually conceptualized in the summer of 2016 when she reignited her musical friendship with “I Shall Not Want” co-writer Bryan Brown, who co-wrote and co-produced “Evergreen,” the very first song from the sessions that cemented the album’s title.

“I was still learning to let go of my need to fit God inside my head, and I was still really bent out of shape, but I had also begun to see seedlings sprouting through the forest floor in my burned out heart,” notices Assad. “I remember looking up the tree of life and finding out that it was believed in some Jewish traditions to be a sycamore fig tree, which is evergreen. I loved the idea that the tree of life, which I had always naively imagined to be some little backyard fruit tree, was actually a towering, season-less one. It is also said to be the sort of tree that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus, and that story has been a great comfort to me in this process.”

Along with a consistent round of counseling and prayer, additional weight from panic attacks and even an anxiety-related hand twitching that made it difficult to play piano were lifted after seeing a trauma therapist in 2017. “That movement into therapy was the beginning of the end of the 'crisis' portion of this whole thing,” adds Assad. “I began to look at my emotions with compassion and allow them to exist in harmony or tension (or both) within me, and gradually the panic got better and so did the bitterness. Anger is my companion now and not my enemy. So I guess I still have anger, specifically about injustice and war, but I'm no longer consumed by it. I find that it is a healthy part of who I am.”

At the dawn of 2018 with so much turmoil behind her, Assad is finally ready to unleash Evergreen to the world at large. And considering the multiple Dove Award nominee’s string of critically-lauded albums, collaborating with Chris Tomlin, writing for Christy Nockels, Matt Maher, Meredith Andrews and many others, plus tours alongside Jars Of Clay, Tenth Avenue North and tons more, it’s being met with tremendous anticipation, especially when it comes to her current creative path.

“This album, more than my last few, really is a combination of journal-style personal writing and worship writing, which are very different from each other,” observes Audrey. “There is certainly a pastoral element to writing for corporate worship that doesn't necessarily exist in writing more confessional-style devotional music. I labored over the choice of songs as I desired to put together something that would be cohesive, but diverse in its intent…I have loved Irish music since I was a child, and I know it pops out here and there on Evergreen. I decided to run with that whenever the inspiration struck. I really wanted to create lush soundscapes—to sort of melt everything so the listener could float. In addition, I used mellotron on almost every song in some way—both as a sample and from an actual instrument. I also played drums for the first time on this record (on ‘Unfolding’) — experimentation was the order of the day in some ways. I crafted a lot of the sounds myself, and I did about 2/3 of the vocal engineering and a large part of the production and playing. I think I ended up with something that feels like me.”

Take for instance the lead single “Deliverer,” which hearkens back to her hit-making streak on Sparrow Records, beginning with self-restrained beauty that eventually blossoms into a wall of sound as it speaks of Assad’s attempt to look at the term from fresh angles. “All along I had thought Jesus was my deliverer from God—it turns out that, among other things, Jesus actually delivers me from my worst ideas about God.”

Another standout is the sublime gentleness of the piano ballad “Drawn To You,” which includes a chorus co-written with Maher and the completion of the verses after Assad’s first connection with her trauma therapist. “I wanted to compose something that honored my grief, and the pain in every human heart that might find a refuge in the song,” she shares, which are echoed in the lines “My tears an offering of my highest praise—Your eyes say 'welcome' and I receive Your gaze" taken straight out of her lyric book. “It can be so hard for us to let someone really look at us, into us—even God. That gaze is healing, though. I am always seeking to become better at receiving it.” 

There’s also Celtic-flavored stomp of “Wounded Healer,” which was written and co-produced with Ben Shive (Andrew Peterson, Brandon Heath, Colony House) and inspired in part by a book by Henri Nouwen of the same name. “I heard the term first from him, and fell in love with the idea that Jesus rose from the dead still bearing his wounds, and went to heaven with a wounded body. It's something I try to meditate on frequently, to seek out what mysteries God might be revealing about himself in it. I hoped to achieve an Irish sense of melody without a lot of traditional Irish sounds—layering and editing synth samples and pianos to create the sound for the opening line was one of my favorite things I did on the whole project.”

Regardless of a specific song or musical style, Assad is striving for her soul-baring journey to challenge and inspire listeners, while simultaneously speaking into her own recovery process. “I hope that Evergreen is a healing oil in the wounds of whoever comes across it. I am stumbling towards health and wholeness and I desire that for anyone who hears this music. I recognize that some of the themes and stylistic choices are perhaps slightly different than where I have been camping as an artist for the past few years—but I am hopeful that it will be a solace and sanctuary for anyone who needs peace and joy in their lives. It has been a labor of hard-won love, and emerged from the deepest parts of my spirit.”

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