Tuesday, August 14, 2007


(Portions of this interview originally appeared on BustedHalo.com in 2006)Photo by Kristen Barlowe

Grammy winning singer/songwriter Kathy Mattea has survived her share of personal and career challenges - from a broken blood vessel on her vocal chords that nearly ended her career to speaking out on behalf of AIDS victims when the Nashville establishment preferred she stay silent. In recent years, however, Kathy’s troubles seemed to reach an almost insurmountable level. In addition to a long separation from her husband which nearly led to divorce, she witnessed the slow deterioration of her father to cancer and her mother to Alzheimer’s. But as Kathy writes in an essay about the making of her album Right Out of Nowhere, “I have learned that when I am the most vulnerable, I am the most teachable if I can stay awake through the pain.”

In order to get through this dark period, Kathy was able to draw on a faith that was formed in a small Catholic church in West Virginia and that has always been a consistent presence in her life. Throughout her career, that faith has been reflected in her music. Her first album included the song “God Ain’t No Stained Glass Window” which dealt with the necessity of a relationship with God outside the confines of church walls and organized religion. Her latest album, “Right Out of Nowhere,” continues those spiritual themes with songs like 'Only Heaven Knows' and 'Give It Away.'

Though historically a country artist, Kathy Mattea’s music can’t be pigeonholed because it includes folk, celtic, blues and gospel influences. Her songs also have the ability to be reflective and insightful without sacrificing a catchy hook or melody.

Kathy took the time to talk with me about the Catholic upbringing that formed her adult faith, the challenges and blessings she experienced taking care of her ailing parents, the factors that led to a reconciliation with her husband, and how she practices the Christian ideal of service.

Tony: Let’s talk about God and faith because they play such a prominent role in your songs. Your father was Catholic and your Mom was Baptist. At a time when interfaith marriages weren’t that common, how did the 2 of them get together?

Kathy: My mom had lost a husband. She had two small boys. She moved onto a farm with her sister and brother-in-law. They would always play cards and stuff at night, and my dad would come over because he was friends with my uncle. My dad loved kids but there was some medical history that made him reticent about getting married and having kids. But he fell in love with the boys and eventually fell in love with my mom. And she actually went through the whole process of catechism and converting and everything. Then there was a big blow up with a particular priest. And – this was my mom’s way – she got so mad that she said, “I’ll show you” and she never joined the church.

Tony: I know you were raised Catholic but did your parents integrate both faith traditions in your home life?

Kathy: No. You had to sign this thing that you would raise your kids Catholic. And my mom didn’t really have a religion. She’d go to church on Easter and Christmas.

Tony: So your father was the primary Catholic in the house who taught you about faith?

Kathy: Yeah, and my dad was also a real thoughtful person. So we would have long discussions about the church and doctrine and insights that he had. He would say, “Hmm, I think this is good but I’m not sure I agree with this part.” At a certain point late in his life he said, “There’s a lot about the Catholic Church I don’t agree with but it’s the church I grew up in, it’s where I belong, it’s where my point of view is, and I can go with an open heart and be there.” You know he didn’t pretend but he didn’t have to give it up either. I just thought that was so beautiful.

Tony: You’ve said that you attended a “funky little Catholic church” growing up. (KATHY LAUGHS) Tell me about what that church experience was like.

Kathy: The church is not there anymore. They tore it down and built a bigger church. I love telling the story of my church because it’s so anti the norm of what you think of as the Catholic experience. We had a small wooden church in a small town right across the street from a giant brick Baptist church. If you rang the bell of our church, the steeple was in danger of falling off the church because it was so rickety. To keep people from ringing the bell, they tied the rope high enough so that people couldn’t reach it. So for my entire childhood, the rope to the bell hung through a hole in the ceiling in the back of the church tied in a hangman’s noose. (KATHY LAUGHS). And it was very much just a small town church instead of the big – you know, I think of Catholic churches as being sort of majestic – and this was just a funky little church. We had great music and in a lot of ways that really deepened my connection to the church. A lot of people who don’t consider themselves Catholic anymore have a lot of resentments about the Church. But I feel really lucky to have grown up in a church like that because I felt connected. I felt like I was able to glean all the good stuff.

Tony: When you were growing up going to that church, what was your image of God? Was it the authoritative, punishing God or the forgiving merciful God?

Kathy: I really felt like it was a practical God. And part of that was that I loved the way the homilies were. It wasn’t just “be good or you’ll go to hell” or all about fear. It was like “Here’s a mini theological lesson. You’ve got to understand this in context.” We did the gospel reading, and then the priest would say, “And in the other gospels, the story comes out like this. And here’s the history of John’s point of view and who he was and what he did and how he came to be an apostle. So here’s how we see the point of view of the lesson.” And it all got related back to your real life and I just felt like God was my best friend. God was benevolent. But it wasn’t all simple. I had to do the deal.

Tony: You had to put something into it to get something out of it.

Kathy: Exactly.

Tony: The music that was in that church – do you feel it inspired or somehow directed your own musical career?

Kathy: Boy I tell you there was something I felt when we were doing that music that was transcendent which is what music does for me. That, for me, is what art is in this world for. It wakes something up in us that is beyond words and gives us insights from the inside out experientially, and I definitely had that in that church. And I’ve had it in religious contexts and secular contexts ever since.

Tony: In your college and young adult years, did you drift away from God and faith like many young people do?

Kathy: I drifted away from the church but I’ve always had this sense of God as being real. But I would get lazy. I also had a lot of conflict about the balance between a personal relationship with God and a sense of a community relationship – in terms of church needing to be like a membership in a group. I had to work my way through that part as well. I went from believing in my own personal relationship with God and thinking church was too much about dogma no matter where you go. And then I would kind of drift the other way. I went back and forth. And I feel like in my life right now, I have a nice balance of those two things.

Tony: On your album “Roses,” you recorded a song called “Till I Turn To You.” I like the song because it takes a brutally honest look at the difficulties of doing things God’s way instead of our own way. In particular, there’s the line, “I know others fall down on their knees for mercy / But you may have to hurt me before I see the light.” Which type of person are you – the one who falls down on their own to ask for mercy or the one who needs a little convincing?

Kathy: Oh, it’s pain. But you see my point of view today is that that pain is not caused by God. That pain is caused by me staying in my own will. And a lot of times I have to - because I’m a stubborn cuss – I have to do it my own way until it hurts bad enough that I am willing to try something else and I’m willing to let that help in. And to me, that’s the nature of sin. It’s not “I do bad.” It’s “I’m blind.” If I’m doing things my own way, sometimes even if it’s painful, that is the known experience. And when I let go of the known, that’s where the rubber meets the road about whether God is real or not real – about faith. Many times that feels like free-falling off a cliff and I will hold onto the painful thing until I have no choice because I want the comfort and predictability of that misery. But eventually it hurts so bad that I have no choice but to surrender. And that’s my cycle.

Tony: So even though you know it in your head, you still wind up having to go through it all the time anyway.

Kathy: Yeah, because the stuff of life comes at you from a different angle every time like the stuff with my dad and watching him physically deteriorate. But he was wide open about it and we had great talks about life and God and what it’s all about and what he learned. He just always squeezed out his wisdom like a tube of toothpaste as he walked towards his death. My mother completely checked out. Her mind broke because she could not bear the idea. They were two different kinds of anguish. So it comes at you different every time. You think, I went through that with him but this is a completely different experience.

Tony: Were you able to find any blessings during the time of your parents’ illnesses?

Kathy: Oh my God, so many of them. You know there was this moment with my mother that was the defining moment of that concept you just brought up. It was about a year before she died and I made a driving trip to visit some old college friends. And on the way I stopped at my Mom’s house. And as part of this, I had ordered a guitar for a friend of mine’s kid and so I had it sent to my mom’s house in West Virginia. When I got there, it arrived. I thought I better check it out to make sure it got shipped okay, that nothing got damaged. So we’re sitting on the porch and I tune the thing up and I hit a chord and my mother starts singing “Love at the Five and Dime” (Editor’s Note: one of Kathy’s first hit songs). My mother, you have to understand, was tone deaf and would never sing. And she starts singing it. And I wasn’t singing, I was just hitting the chord to see if the guitar worked! And the caregiver looked up and she said, “Oh that’s right. She gets restless around dinner every night because she feels she should be doing something so we bring her in the kitchen when we cook dinner and bring the little boom box in to play your greatest hits record every night and she sings along.” So I got that record out and went through the titles in order and my mom sang every song with me. And she couldn’t make a sentence at that point!

Tony: But she remembered all the lyrics?

Kathy: She remembered all the lyrics and sang with me. And you know even as late as this summer when she didn’t know who I was and she didn’t remember why she was supposed to know me, she could still sing all the verses of “You Are My Sunshine” to me. And that is a picture to me of how deeply seated music is for us and how important it is.

Tony: And that is a moment you’ll carry with you forever.

Kathy: Forever.

Tony: Alright, let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about marriage. You’ve been open about the fact that you faced a separation from your husband Jon. But the marriage survived by evolving in some way.

Kathy: Yeah and it’s still evolving...So many times I think we make a decision to get ourselves out of the pain. But it’s sitting in that pain and hanging out with God that gives us the answer to the deeper questions in life. But our culture doesn’t encourage us to do that.

Tony: Some people’s problems with marriage have to do with forgiveness. Somebody did something wrong and they associate forgiveness with giving in. How have you learned to define forgiveness through your marriage?

Kathy: Forgiveness is between me and me always. I used to think that forgiveness was taking the high road and saying, “Okay, I’ll forget about this.” It was almost like this sanctimonious thing.

Tony: Like an ego boost?

Kathy: Exactly. There was a point in my marriage, as part of my spiritual exercise, I made amends to my husband for the things that I had done in the marriage to bring us to this crisis. At the end of that I realized that by sitting there and owning what I had done in this marriage, suddenly all the wrongs I felt had been done to me just didn’t matter anymore. I could see very clearly that I contributed as much to where we were as he had. So suddenly instead of forgiveness being about pronouncing him not guilty, forgiveness was really about not judging in the first place. So instead of it being about letting somebody off the hook, when you’ve really forgiven, there’s no hook to let somebody off of anymore.

Tony: So essentially in your relationship with your husband and your relationship with God, it’s when humility is there that the good stuff happens.

Kathy: Absolutely. God doesn’t see any difference between us. He loves us all just the same. We can’t make a mistake big enough for God to not love us. We can not forgive ourselves and therefore cut ourselves off from being able to see that love. That’s where the work is to me.

Tony: You mentioned before you did spiritual exercises. Was that anything specific you could talk about?

Kathy: Part of my journey has been becoming a 12 step person. I’m not addicted to any substance or anything like that. But it has been walking through those twelve steps – and I know colleagues who’ve done it; I know people who’ve done it through their church. I have a friend who lost her husband to cancer and she joined a support group at her church. As part of their exercises, they took a sort of Christian approach through the twelve steps. And if you do them, if you actually do them, they will change your life. To me that process has been like taking my glasses off and cleaning them and putting them back on. And suddenly it’s like, “There’s God. He was there all along. I just had all this crap in the way and couldn’t see Him.”

Tony: Did you ever feel overwhelmed by everything that was going on?

Kathy: I did but what I did differently this time is that I found a support system and I stayed more connected with other people than I have with some of the other challenges I’ve been through in my life. And I have a friend who talks about healing and community – that’s a big part of why we’re all here. That didn’t just save me, it didn’t just allow me to eke through. It gave me a new point of view about what the world’s really all about and what a gift this life is. And just like any difficult experience that you rise to meet, it does transform you. I think that it really transformed how I am in all the different aspects of my life.

Tony: I know the support system can be crucial because, myself, I’m good at giving help but not so good at asking for it. So the fact that you got to the point where you could seek support and accept it is a great step forward.

Kathy: Sometimes you get so broken that you have no choice and that’s when you really get humbled. Because I think that not being able to receive help has as much ego in it as giving with ego. There is this ebb and flow to life and there are times when I can’t do it by myself and I have to get humble enough to say “Help.” And then I have to remember to give from that same place. And then you really get to see that we’re all just schmoes in the room. We’re just all here in this life finding our way in this human experience.

Tony: Right. Somebody once said ‘when you’re broken, that’s when God comes in.’

Kathy: It’s true. You know that Leonard Cohen song? The chorus says “Ring the bell that’s still to be rung / Sing the song still to be sung / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” I’ve gone back to that so many times.

Tony: Is it tough sometimes to get yourself out of the way and let God do the driving?

Kathy: Oh boy, you think! (KATHY LAUGHS) That’s the lifelong struggle of being human isn’t it. If I could get out of God’s way, God could do amazing things in my life. But when I get scared I take the reins back. There’s this great little thing I put on my web site, I heard somebody say it one time: “Life is like a rowboat. If you row, God will steer. God will be happy to let you steer. But the thing is God doesn’t row.”

Tony: I know you continue to stay involved in AIDS charities and cancer charities. Who instilled that ideal of service in you?

Kathy: It’s been an interesting journey because there are many opportunities to do service as a public person and I feel like I’ve done pretty good with that. But there needs to be a sense of (service) in a personal way. And that’s what I’ve been working on in recent years. I started a tithing program for myself and just started trying to do a little bit of service work every day, even the smallest thing. And that’s been a real different kind of focus for me, and that makes all the pressure not be on doing it so publicly.

Tony: Since you’re getting immediate feedback from people, does that help you in a spiritual sense too?

Kathy: Yeah, I think that’s one of the really big lessons about life is that we think that love comes from outside of us. And when you do service work, you get to learn that love – when you give it – you get the energy going the opposite way and realize there’s this bottomless well of love in you. It is not a finite thing. It is an infinite thing. Sometimes you can only learn that by giving it. Someone told me a story yesterday. They are friends with this woman who spent a lot of time with Mother Teresa and she was talking about being at an orphanage and they had to catch a plane. And this was in India and they were leaving the country so it was imperative that they don’t miss this plane. And they were going out to the car and one of the nuns came out and said that there’s this dying baby. Mother Teresa turned back to go inside and this woman was saying, “We’ve got to catch this plane, we’ve got to catch this plane, you can’t go back inside, we’re going to be late.” And she said that Mother Teresa turned around to her. She said, “I have to go see this baby.” And she said, “I will come, I will come to the plane.” And she said the thing that astounded her at that moment was that Mother Teresa had as much compassion for her and her anxiety about the plane as she did about the dying baby. That deep of a well of compassion only comes from living it in every second of your life. I looked at my friend who told me that story and I said we have so far to go.



Willa said...

Tony, this is unequivocally the most compelling, exceptional intimate interview of Kathy Mattea that I've ever read. I'm a huge fan of hers, but a better word might be admirer. While I definitely love Kathy's music, it is my deep admiration and respect for her work and who she is that drives my interest in her. This engaging piece is all about who Kathy is at heart, and I for one am so grateful for the opportunity to read and absorb it. Thank you for this truly superb article and the deeply thoughtful interview behind it.

Willa Shaffer

OhSusannah said...

I only discovered Ms.mattea's music by accident in the mid 90s. I was a ta friend's house and they were watching a country music awards how before we went out for the evening.I liked her voice a lot, got a cd by her.LOVED IT.BEEN A huge loyal fan ever since. Her music, the gift of her voice heals me in a way no other artist has ever done when I've gone through difficult times.Wonderful interview.