In the late ‘90s, Jennifer Knapp was a rising star in the Contemporary Christian music scene. Her acclaimed album Kansas, a strong collection of spiritual folk-rock, went Gold and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Gospel Album. She toured extensively on the Christian music circuit and released two more successful albums: 2000’s Lay it Down, which vaulted to #1 on the Contemporary Christian album chart, and 2001’s The Way I Am, which hit the Top 10. Knapp had established herself as a major player in her genre, but the non-stop cycle of recording and touring quickly took its toll. She found herself burned out and ready for a break. At the height of her popularity, Knapp walked away from the Christian music industry and went on a long hiatus that lasted until 2010.
Shortly before the release of her comeback album in May 2010, a collection of secular material called Letting Go, she dropped a bombshell – – Knapp announced that she is a lesbian and that she had been in a same-sex relationship for much of the time that she’d been away from the music industry. As one might expect, the backlash in the Christian community was immediate. Knapp faced the controversy with grace and honesty, maintaining that while she was moving away from the Contemporary Christian music scene she was still a devout Christian.
Fast-forward to the present, and Knapp is busier than ever. This month she unleashes dual projects: a memoir called Facing the Music in which she recounts the story of discovering her faith, her sexuality, and her experience coming out as gay in the notoriously puritan Contemporary Christian music scene, and a new album of secular material, Set Me Free, due October 14 on Ani Difranco’s Righteous Babe label.
If the book is as good as the album, it will be well worth picking up. Set Me Free is an engaging collection of melodic folk-rock sung in Knapp’s sweet voice which is a bit of a mix between Sarah McLachlan and Emmylou Harris. It’s hard to classify Knapp’s music exactly – – it’s in that same hybrid world of folk, rock, blues and country that Lucinda Williams inhabits. Set Me Free should appeal to fans of all those genres.
The bluesy “Remedy” sets the tone, with an ominous vibe and a knockout, hard-rocking chorus. There is an urgency and immediacy to it that is palpable. The lovelorn title-track “Set Me Free” has a country feel to it, while “Why Wait” is a straightforward rocker with a big, sweeping chorus and edgy guitar work.
The somber, slow-burning “Neosho” has the swamp-rock feel that’s reminiscent of Dylan’s Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy album. “What Might Have Been” is a slow, sad ballad, steeped in regret and longing, with some lovely harmony vocals. Knapp pulls a surprise out of her hat as the album nears its conclusion: she takes on the R&B classic Anita Baker tune “Sweet Love.” Knapp transforms it into a strikingly beautiful bluesy-rock ballad, and it works to perfection. She ends the album with the haunting “Come Back,” a smoldering and heartrending expression of longing and regret.
Knapp’s vocals are never less than completely convincing and fully felt; the emotional investment is obvious. She’s a terrific songwriter and vocalist, and Set Me Free has the world-weary vibe of someone who’s been through the wringer and lived to tell about it. It’s a triumphant return for an artist with an important perspective who deserves to be heard for her music, and for the message she is working so hard to convey – – that homosexuality and Christianity are not mutually exclusive.
In addition to writing her memoir and recording an outstanding collection of songs, Knapp has also been working to break down barriers between LGBT individuals and communities of faith via her organization “Inside Out Faith.” Her message that homosexuality and Christianity can exist in harmony is an important one as gay rights and marriage equality continue a startlingly fast and inexorable march across the nation. Legal rights are important, but also vital is breaking down the barriers of ignorance and fear that tear families and communities apart, and Knapp is aiding that effort not only through her organization, but also by the example that she has set.
To learn more about Knapp’s organization, visit InsideOutFaith.Org.