In singer-songwriter Jennifer Knapp’s camp, her career is referenced two ways.
There’s Career 1.0, which encompasses her Christian contemporary phase, starting with the 1994 independent release “Circle Back” and lasting through 2002, when she stepped away from the music business. Then there’s Career 2.0, she told The Daily Times recently, which began in 2010 with the revelation that she’s gay and that she was returning to music with a new album, “Letting Go.” Despite her absence from the spotlight, however, she never left music completely, she said.
“I didn’t write or perform, but I was building life experience that was going to end up back here,” she said. “I even thought in 2010 that I was starting a whole new career, with the coming out and the storm I knew I’d have to weather from the Christian community. But as it turns out, some years on from that, it’s all part of my life.
“I’m the musician I’ve always been, and I work very hard in my craft. At 40 years old, I wrote different than when I was 20, but I can see this very connective thread. Even though there have been two iterations of my career, that connection has been oddly comforting. It empowers me today to keep doing what I’m doing.”
What she’s doing is continuing to make poignant, heartfelt songs documenting her journey through the human experience. She’s got a new album, “Love Comes Back Around,” due later this month, on which she explores love — but not in the conventional sense, she added.
“There was something about this time, and particularly the lyrics of these songs, that I wanted to tell the long story of love — the hardcore, the grinding it out, the loss, the sacrifices it takes to get there,” said Knapp, who returns to East Tennessee for a performance Wednesday at The Open Chord in Knoxville. “I know that story, and I think, as a musician, I know how to tell that story now.”
Certainly, her understanding of love has deepened and grown more complex since the mid-1990s, when she arrived as a fresh, fiery young voice in Christian contemporary music. Her Gotee Records debut, “Kansas” — named after her home state — went on to sell more than 500,000 copies, and she quickly became a draw on the Christian tour circuit, headlining her own shows and opening for acts like Third Day. She flirted with mainstream recognition with an appearance at the 1999 Lilith Fair, the same year she won two Dove Awards, including New Artist of the Year and Rock Song of the Year for “Undo Me.” Two years later, she was nominated for a Grammy for her 2000 release, “Lay It Down.”
After completing the tour cycle for 2001’s “The Way I Am,” however, Knapp retreated from the stage and studio. In hindsight, she said, she was gripped by a sense of fear that paralyzed her as she grappled with coming to terms with her sexuality.
“I realized I wasn’t playing or writing because I was terrified people would know this thing about me,” she said. “I finally figured out that it would be one thing to not do it because I didn’t want to do it anymore, but it would be another to not do it because I was afraid. And when I realized I was afraid, I thought, ‘That’s just stupid. I’m going to write and perform and confront it, because I’m that way.’”
Deciding to live her life as she feels her creator intended, she returned to Nashville and put out a press release addressing her sexuality — not to flaunt it, but to ensure that fans and peers didn’t feel led astray, she said.
“When I came back to Nashville, people thought I was the same person they always knew, which was true, but at the same time, if they were to see me on the street with my partner, they would think I was being dishonest,” she said. “It was such a strange thing. Part of it was a necessity, but another part was a willingness to say, ‘I’ll stand in public and be that and deal with it when it comes.’”
There was, of course, backlash, especially in the faith-based music community. It took her by surprise, mostly because she didn’t understand the value of her music or herself as a Christian artist, she said. In a way, the reception — both positive and negative — fueled her desire to continue making music. This time around, however, what she’s doing feels more true to herself and her faith — something she hasn’t shed, regardless of the puritanical interpretations of those who have condemned her.
“There’s a certain point where you weather certain types of storms, and you can do whatever you want,” she said. “It’s not a license of recklessness; it’s knowing you can survive whatever happens. It’s knowing, ‘I can really sit down here and don’t have to worry about the outcome of this song. I can sit here and write the song that’s calling me to be written.’
“It’s scary as hell, but I wanted to write this record about love and all its forms, and I didn’t want to feel like I had to think about the record in radio terms. It takes a lot of courage for me to sit up and play some of these songs night after night and tell the stories that go along with them, because there’s a soft underbelly there that allows me to be vulnerable.”