Indie artist, Caroline Cobb, recently released her third album, The Blood + the Breath, an ambitious and well-constructed concept album. It has been met with general critical acclaim and impressive sales. Caroline is a singer/songwriter, and full time stay-at-home mom who hails from Tyler, TX. Joe Brookhouse of Frequency caught up this impressive artist to learn more about the music that inspires her, the nature of self-promotion, and how the heck she manages to pack so much into life and still maintain balance.
Frequency: What is the music that currently represents the playlist of your life? This is a fancy way of asking: “what music are you currently listening to?”
Caroline: I am a really big fan of Josh Ritter, Andrew Peterson, Sandra McCracken, Jill Phillips, Josh Garrels, and Patty Griffin. Those artists consistently put out albums that I really love. Andrew Peterson’s ability to tell a story and convey a truth through an album is pretty incredible. Sandra McCracken has such unique melodies and is great at helping you “see” a song by using imagery and metaphor. Josh Ritter does some amazing storytelling as well. I love the singer-songwriter stuff!
Frequency: So what album is currently getting the most play?
Caroline: Andrew Peterson’s Light for the Lost Boy has been a go-to for me lately. “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone” at the end of the album is a song I have listened to over and over. I hear that it was actually written in response to Josh Ritter’s “Thin Blue Flame” too, so that makes me love it even more.
Frequency: There’s a pretty good mix of spiritual and secular in your list of artists. Do you feel it’s important that Christian music artists stay engaged and interested in what’s happening with mainstream music?
Caroline: I don’t know if I’d say it’s “important” to listen to music that is outside of the “Christian” genre, but I do feel like it’s important to appreciate beauty and a good story. And you’ll find music both inside and outside of the Christian genre that do that. There are days when I can listen to secular music all day long. But, there are other days when I really need to hear truth. On those days, I lean toward listening to someone that I know will encourage me toward Christ.
Frequency: The Blood + the Breath hit #6 on iTunes Gospel/Christian rankings. That’s pretty impressive for a relatively unknown independent artist. How did you manage that? What kind of advice would you give to other indie artists in terms of building a platform and promoting your work?
Caroline: Release day was an amazing, encouraging, humbling day. Watching the album climb the iTunes Christian/Gospel chart that day, with all of my friends texting me and calling me and cheering me on, was such an exciting experience. I look back on that day with a lot of gratitude and humility, and I’m not really sure how it all happened.
If I were to give an indie artist advice on how to promote their album’s release day, I would say the most important thing to do is ask. I had a goal in mind – to reach the top 20 on iTunes Christian/Gospel – and I told my friends, my e-mail list, the kind folks who backed me on Kickstarter, and the people who came to my CD release show about this goal. I asked them if they would help me by sharing the album on social networks, buying the pre-release on iTunes, gifting it to a friend, and rating it. Both ratings and real-time purchases factor into the iTunes rankings for an album. I also asked a few key, more well-known friends to share it if they felt comfortable. I think people who knew me were excited to support me and help me get to this goal. I think the concept of the album, that it tells the Story of redemption and that it is not just an album made up of arbitrary songs, really helped as well. People got excited about this concept, even if they didn’t know me personally.
Frequency: Tell us about the vision behind The Blood + the Breath. What inspired you to take on that task? Where did the resulting songwriting journey take you?
Caroline: in late 2010, I realized that I would be turning 30 on 11/11/11. It was a significant birthday, and a cool date, so I decided to give myself a goal: to write a song for every book of the Bible in one year, by the time I turned 30 on 11/11/11. Every week, I would dig into a book or two of the Bible, pick a passage or story from which to write, write a song, and record a demo. It was a lot of work, but so fulfilling and meaningful for me. I had no intentions of making an album, but when I was finished with the year of writing, I began to consider it. I took some of my strongest songs and saw that many of them shared a common theme of redemption and pointed toward Christ and the Easter story. As I continued to work toward an album, I tweaked many of the songs and wrote a few new ones in order to make sure this theme of redemption through Jesus’ death and resurrection was as clear as possible.
Frequency: The album has been on the street for a month now and you’ve been actively touring in support of it. What has the response been like?
Caroline: The response has been really encouraging so far! Again, I think people are drawn to the concept of the album and are even a bit hungry for it. At shows, I play through the entire album from start to finish, telling the Story and trying to connect the dots along the way. At the end, people tell me they are encouraged, they want to go back and dig into some of those old stories that they’d forgotten, they are reminded of the grand narrative of the Bible and how Jesus is the main character of every story, in a sense. It’s been a great privilege. When you pop the album into your CD player or come to a show, my hope is that you wouldn’t just hear a bunch of songs that are unrelated, but that you would have an experience. That you would go on a journey – a journey through God’s Story, which brings meaning and hope to our own stories.
Frequency: You’ve alluded in the past to a dearth of songs that creatively engage with scripture. Why do you feel that is the case? What do you think Christian songwriters should do to ensure they are telling “the Story”?
Caroline: I think there are a lot of songs out there that use scripture – a scripture here and a scripture there. But, it’s much harder to find a song that unpacks or exposits a certain story or passage from scripture. I never really noticed this until I started a website called The Scripture to Music Collective, where I tried to curate songs that are from specific passages of the Bible. Wouldn’t it be cool to be reading the book of Ezekiel and to have a playlist of songs that are from that book? That was the aim of this site. But, it was incredibly hard to find songs that engaged with scripture both creatively and faithfully. I think it would be so valuable for the Church to have songwriters who would make it a goal to sit down with different texts in scripture – especially the lesser known texts from the Old Testament or the minor prophets – and write songs from them. I think more and more people are starting to do this… The Gospel Coalition even put together an album called Songs for the Book of Luke and gave it away at their last conference. My friend Bruce Benedict from Cardiphonia has also done some of this through his site. I would love to see this become more of a movement, just like the retuning of old hymns has become something that is much more mainstream.
Frequency: You also created a devotional book to accompany the album. How did that come together? What kind of experience are you hoping your listener will have with these two in conjunction?
Caroline: Yes, I’m so excited about the devotional book! Each song comes from a specific passage of scripture, or from a specific story. I asked friends in vocational ministry – friends from all over the US and even the world – to write devotionals for each song. I also asked artists and designers to contribute a piece of art for each song. My hope for the devotional book is that it would take people who listen to the album deeper into the Story, that they would experience it on a heart level and be able to engage with the scriptures that inspired each song. The devotional book also has a lot of extras: song stories, lyrics, scripture references, the story behind the album cover, and more.
Frequency: When you’re not writing songs, what keeps you busy?
Caroline: Most of my time is spent being a full-time, stay-at-home mom of my two young kids: Ellie (3) and Harrison (13 months). My husband and I also have the privilege of being volunteer leaders with Young Life, and our Young Life friends will be seniors in high school this next year. I feel that God has called me to prioritize my family and yet to also be a good steward of the gifts and talents he has given me. I also feel like I am meant to steward this specific album well, using these songs to tell the Story through concerts and just getting the album out there. I love doing it! But even though the calling to music and to being a mom is pretty clear, it is hard to know how it all is supposed to work out day to day. A lot of times, I’m just fitting songwriting into the margins – into my kids’ nap time, or even with them running around! I have tried to be really intentional about fitting songwriting and music into the rhythm of my day and my week. My husband has also been so supportive, and it’s been really invaluable as I try to take the small steps every day.
Frequency: How do manage to tour in support of the album while you are keeping all of those other balls in the air?
Caroline: I’m not really sure how it’s all going to come together each time! This last tour was me, my husband, and my two kids all packed into our little Ford Fusion, driving across Texas. I’m trying my best to play as much as possible, but yet I realize that I have some limitations that others don’t have. And that’s ok. I’m trying to just take the small steps of faith that I know to take. I once got to have a chat with Jill Phillips, who is also a mom of young kids, and that’s the advice she gave me: “just take the small steps in front of you that you know to take.” And that’s what I’m trying to do.