Every year when the Christmas season comes around, singer-songwriter JJ Heller is transported back to her childhood when she and her family would decorate the tree, drive around the neighborhood looking at Christmas lights, and open gifts on Christmas morning. And all those memories include music.
As an adult who is a popular indie artist, JJ wanted to create an album that could serve as the soundtrack to other families’ Christmases and also ensure that the message of Christ remains part of their holiday celebrations. She recently did just that on her album “Unto Us.” She joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” to talk about it and to share some music from the album.
Tony Rossi: Christmas is a religious holiday, but it can get too secularized. So I love the fact that your album celebrates the secular parts of the season, the fun parts of the season, but also point back toward Jesus. How important is it for you to combine those two elements in this CD?
JJ Heller: When my husband and I were trying to figure out what kind of album we wanted to make, I was thinking about my own childhood and how pretty much all of my Christmas memories are attached to music of some sort. I grew up listening to Amy Grant Christmas music and Vince Guaraldi’s “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” and then later, Sarah McLachlan’s Christmas album. All of those songs influenced the way that my album sounds. It has a classic feel and is also nostalgic and whimsical, and celebrating the childlike wonder that comes around at Christmas. But also, we make it a point to focus on Jesus and the birth of Christ because that’s the whole reason why we celebrate. I feel like we accomplished that with the album. And I think it also brings joy to God’s heart that it’s a season that we come together with our families and our friends, and we express gratitude and generosity through gift giving. It’s all of those elements together that makes Christmas the wonderful thing that it is.
TR: You mentioned Amy Grant’s CDs before and – I’m dating myself by saying I have Amy Grant’s audio cassette of “Home for Christmas” in my car. And one of my favorite aspects of that album is the fact that she has kids singing on so many of the different songs, like “The Night before Christmas” and such. And you put kids’ choirs on your album, too. What do you feel their voices add to the spirit of this album?
JJ Heller: I think it’s one of the most important elements on the album. I know that for a lot of people, sometimes Christmas is associated with hard feelings of loss or loneliness, or maybe cynicism. I feel like the children remind us of the innocence and the wonder that I think that the Lord wants us to experience at Christmas, having open hearts with hopeful anticipation.
TR: Along those lines, your original song “Oh, to See Christmas!” is about viewing the holidays through the eyes of a child. Was that song inspired by your own kids?
JJ Heller: Totally! I have two little girls. Lucy is just about to turn eight and Nora is five. And it has been the biggest gift to celebrate Christmas with kids because I think it brings it alive again in a way that I didn’t really anticipate. I think of my own childhood and all of the wonderful memories that I had. Every year, my family would drive from Northern California down to Southern California and we would spend Christmas with my grandparents and all my cousins. One of the things that we did at my grandparents’ house was put on a record of polka music, and all of the cousins would dance around the Christmas tree. We would put the Christmas tree in the middle of the room, and we would just dance around and be totally silly. And then, I grew up and stopped dancing to polka music! But now I have my own kids, and it’s so fun to see them be silly and act excited and see the wonder in their eyes when they see the Christmas tree lit up, and all the gifts underneath.
TR: Let’s talk about the faith-based angle of your work in general. How did the seeds of faith get planted in your life in a way that made them take root?
JJ Heller: I was fortunate to grow up in a Christian family. I went to church from the time I was born, I grew up hearing Bible stories and memorizing Scripture, and my dad is actually a Bible teacher at a Christian high school and has been since I was a baby. So I’ve had the blessing of hearing the truth about who God is from the time I was little. I think the challenge that comes with that, though, is claiming my faith as my own instead of just going through the motions and believing it because that’s what my parents told me to believe.
When I went to college, I feel like that was a pivotal time in my faith journey. I went to a Christian college and I was taking a whole bunch of theology classes. I think the Lord was working on my heart and I was struck with for the first time [with the reality] of my own sinful nature. [I thought], “Oh no, am I really a Christian? Do I really love God? Because I sin all the time!”
…From that point, though, the Lord gently showed me what grace is and that my salvation is not determined by how good a person I am, but it’s determined by Christ’s sacrifice for me. It’s because God and because Christ is so good that I get to have a relationship with the Lord. And I feel like I’m still on that journey now as a 36-year-old trying to figure out more of who God is and more of who I am, because of who He is. So it’s definitely a journey and I feel like there’s a long way to go, but I’m so comforted by God’s unfailing faithfulness.
TR: You mentioned earlier in the interview about times of struggle in your life that you endured and how they work their way into your music sometimes. During those times of struggle, sometimes people can have their faith shaken. Is that what happened to you? Or were you able to lean on your faith as a support?
JJ Heller: My struggles specifically have been with anxiety and panic attacks. Those came on about 13 years ago at the time that Dave and I got married. There were so many big life changes going on, and my mom was severely depressed at the time. I think my body didn’t know how to handle everything, so I started having panic attacks. It took me several years to figure out how to get that under control and the Lord slowly leading me down a path of healing.
But it was during that time, too, where I was so aware of my need for Him that I was praying all the time. And I feel like my struggles led me closer to the Lord. I know that’s not everyone’s story but for me, that’s what happened. Moment by moment, I was asking the Lord to get me through and to give me courage and remind me of His presence. And so He was really good to me at that time.
It’s funny because none of us pray for bad things to happen. We don’t say, “Oh Lord, please give me some tragedy to endure.” But looking back, those are always the times when we can press into the Lord and feel close to Him because we know that we can’t make it without Him. Those are the times where we grow. So as I grow older and those hard things happen, I think the Lord is slowly changing my heart to be a little bit more receptive to those things. When they start to happen, instead of saying, “No, no, no, please take it away!” – instead, I pray “Lord, please show me what you need to show me through this situation and give me the strength to get through it and help this make me a stronger and more compassionate person.”
TR: In our final minutes, I want to touch on this. The Christophers, who sponsor this show, everything we do revolves around this motto, “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” You were alluding to this before in your previous answer, but when you do hit times of darkness now, what do you to light that metaphorical candle and to move toward a brighter future?
JJ Heller: The Lord has given me an outlet to write songs. For example, I have a song called “Your Hands,” and that’s the song that I wrote about my panic attacks. The first line of the songs says, “I have unanswered prayers. I have trouble I wish wasn’t there.” But then the chorus moves on to say, “When my world is shaking, heaven stands, and when my heart is breaking, I never leave Your hands.” So, the way that I process through a lot of times is by writing songs!
And that was the song that miraculously ended up on the radio about a year and a half after I wrote it. Here’s this song that was written out of the depths of my despair. And then, it got played on the radio and we started to get this flood of e-mail messages and Facebook posts and letters from people from all around the country telling us, “Thank you so much for writing this song, because the Lord used it in my life at the exact moment that I needed to hear it. And it has given me hope and peace, and reminded me of the truth.” So out of this really dark time in my life, the Lord was able to use that for good, to encourage the lives of thousands of people who I’ve never even met. He’s so amazing at doing that, at taking our brokenness and turning it into something beautiful.
(Watch the lyric video of JJ Heller’s “Christmas is Here.” And to listen to my full interview with JJ, click on the podcast link under the video:)