It started with a trip to the Grand Canyon in summer of 2020, when travel restrictions were beginning to lift and the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to be easing. Singer/songwriter Ellie Holcomb already had songs ready for an album, when that trip derailed her plan and began a new adventure. The resulting album, Canyon, is a breath of fresh air, an affirmation of God’s promises brought to life through vulnerable lyrics and music.
Ellie’s faith is lively and moves with such passion through her music and life that it did not allow her to sit still for long during 2020. After touring schedules were cancelled, Ellie and her husband Drew, who you might know from music group Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, spent much of the early quarantine days hosting Kitchen Covers. The series of daily Facebook Live mini concerts were held in their kitchen (usually after supper had been served and cleared) and became so popular it resulted in its own vinyl records release.
Her third studio LP, Ellie says “Canyon is a record about a deeper sorrow and a higher hope,” following a year of grief and disorder, and that “writing and singing these songs felt like finding my way through a serious season of suffering and sorrow.”
So, when she started over with a new record mid-year it was yet another challenge, but it was one that was fully God-inspired, and Ellie is quick to affirm the truth of God’s presence in her artistic process.
Spend time marveling in the beauty of God’s creations in the title song “Canyon” and “Constellations,” and join in with Ellie crying out for His presence in “I Don’t Want to Miss It.”
It might be the soulful southern-flavored “Sweet Ever After” featuring Bear Rinehart from NEEDTOBREATHE that nestles in your consciousness for a while, as it celebrates the promise of a heavenly reward following this sometimes-troubled earthly life.
Music, lyrics, art, and verses all combine to create a therapeutic soundtrack to the turmoil of 2020 and the hope of the future. Her schedule is already filling up this year, including tour dates with Lauren Daigle and husband Drew, and a recent concert at the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. After listening to Canyon (several times on repeat), I was eager to talk with Ellie Holcomb about the project.
Your album title Canyon feels so appropriate because 2020 was just this massive canyon in our lives. Nothingness. But then I heard the title song and thought, she did not interpret it that way at all.
You know what? I had the privilege of going to the Grand Canyon. I had never been until last year when the numbers were low in the summer. I actually got to go for the first time and I was undone. I couldn’t shake it. I’d actually written a whole other record. And then I went to the Grand Canyon and shoved 35 songs off my desk and wrote another record because it was so profound! Because you’re right, 2020 was a giant canyon. And we actually camped on the northern rim of the Grand Canyon, we went down into the canyon and rafted on the Colorado River, spent the night on the banks, and then rafted out. And so when we were down there, our guide was saying the canyon walls tell a story. He was explaining that it’s just basically a story of disaster upon disaster upon disaster.
It’s like mudslide, volcano, earthquake. And then there’s this huge split. There’s this divide. I just felt like I was looking at a picture of all of our hearts after that crazy chaotic year full of heartache, loss, a global sense of sorrow and suffering. And then also political division, racial tension, sort of an awakening. I don’t know about you, but things felt more divided than they have in a really long time. And so I thought, this is such a picture of our hearts after this crazy chaotic year.
But there in the very pit in the lowest place of the broken open canyon, there’s this river running through. Water always goes to the lowest place. I just don’t know that I’ve seen a picture that’s felt closer to the gospel than when I was down there in the pit of that canyon. And I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, there is a current of God’s love. There’s living water that runs deeper than our deepest ache or sorrow, deeper than our deepest places of division. And it will carry us if we’ll let it – if we can kind of let go and breathe and remember that we are beloved. I just could not get over it!
So all of a sudden I just started looking back on my story and I’m like, ‘this is who God is. He shows up, He moves low. He goes to the lowest place and he’s doing it. Jesus is doing it over and over again. He bends low to mix mud to put it in the blind man’s eyes. He bends low to draw in the dirt when the woman caught in adultery is brought there. He bends low to wash feet. He goes low. And I am so grateful, especially after last year. So many of us lost so much, so many of us were so lonely. So many of us so broken. But we have a guide who meets us in these places and who carries us and holds us together when we’re falling apart.
You shared a few special verses on Facebook that you said were integral to this album recently. I was wondering if you could talk more about that.
I love them all so much. Oh my goodness. That’s a lot of what a lot of what I have done, the reason I started writing songs was because I was memorizing scripture with a friend of mine who battles depression. And there were so many lies that she was believing. And in the conversation one day I realized there’s so many lies that I believe, and I basically realized it wasn’t enough for us to just acknowledge the lies, we desperately needed to ground ourselves in what was true. So we started memorizing scripture together, and as it turns out, it like, God’s not lying when He says that His word is alive and active. And just like the rains that fall from the heavens and don’t return to the heavens without nourishing the earth, causing it to bud and flourish, so is the word that goes out from His mouth. It will accomplish the purposes for which He sent it. And that’s what we found out. Memorizing scripture didn’t change our circumstances necessarily, but it gave us solid ground to stand on when the shame storm started rolling in.
But as it turns out I’m not very good at memorizing scripture! But I can remember like a thousand songs, you know? And so I started sitting in God’s word and letting music come out. Basically what I’ve done is the ones that I ended up sharing. We could call it ‘Fighting Words Friday.’ The verses that I ended up sharing are really the ones that my own weary and forgetful heart struggles to believe. And so I think if I can hold onto these, if I can sing these, maybe then my heart has it has a shot at believing it. John 7:38, which is the one that you’re talking about that relates to Canyon is whoever believes in me, rivers of living water will flow from within them.
So I just, I love that verse. We named our third son Rivers and have prayed this over his life. And I just, I think that in the midst of the year that we all went through last year, which felt, I don’t know about you, Kimberly, it just felt like a desert. It was a desert of community. It was a desert of work.
And so in the midst of a desert place to know that there are these underground reservoirs of water, of peace, of love that we have access to at any moment, was profound for me last year. That’s what I found as I was willing to just come and be my broken, busted up weary self in the presence of God.
What I hear in your songs on Canyon isn’t like a dirge, or a mournful remembrance of last year. It’s an encouragement to grab joy.
That’s right. Let’s hold on to hope. And you know what, Kimberly, I’m a seven on enneagram – I hate pain. So I had done this whole journey of counseling where I visited the deepest wounds in my own story. And as I breathed in grieved in those places, I felt like I got practice for 2020.
I encountered Jesus. I encountered the nearness and the tenderness and the kindness and the empathy of God in my own story. And the places that I thought would be the death of me that I thought would kill me to go and just grieve those places. I actually encountered the healer Jesus there. I think it emboldened me, so I wrote a whole record about that. And then when 2020 hit I’m like, ‘Oh, this is not just for me. This is global!’ Like I thought the gospel was a raindrop and God’s like, ‘No, It’s the ocean.’
And so I’m like, oh my gosh it’s scary to travel down to the deepest places of pain and our own stories and our nation’s story and the church’s story and it feels like it might kill us, but there’s a river running through at the deepest places. God resides there even in the most broken places. And if we can know Him there in our most broken places, what I started realizing is we have a reason to sing and rejoice – even there.
When you start singing, even in the pit of a canyon, in the pit of a valley, the way your voice echoes off of all those broken pieces is beautiful – it’s multiplied. What I hope for this record is that it’s a reminder that we have a reason to rejoice, even in our deepest places of sorrow and pain.
You’ve talked about how you had a vision for the artwork. Artist Lauren Rocket designed a lot for it. Did the visual aspect of the album come to you as you were writing the songs?
Yeah. I love that question. When it comes to a record cover, I’m like, “I don’t know!” But when I went to the Grand Canyon and just – the image of that brokenness – I’ve heard it said that a Canyon is like an upside-down mountain. It’s like the gospel is upside-down and backwards. And so the thing that we think will kill us, going to the deepest places of pain, is actually where we see the power of the love and the presence of God. And then that’s where we’re healed and it kind of flips it all upside down. I remember coming home from the Grand Canyon and I called my manager and I was like, “I’m going to need us to find a canyon with a river running through it that I can dance in. Good luck!”
I wanted to be able to bring that imagery to the record. So if somebody wasn’t able to visit a canyon, that they would be able to have that image. ‘Cause we all know what it is to be human. I think if anything, last year taught us that to be human is to be broken. So we all know what it’s like for our hearts to feel, like you said, 2020 was a canyon in and of itself.
Are there any hidden gems on the album that you’re excited for people to discover?
This is like picking favorite kids! I think if there is a song that encapsulates the message of the journey that I have been on is a song called “Paradox” that I got to write with Natalie Hemby. It just talks about that backwards and upside-down thing – that God’s love sometimes pulls us to the low places and meets us in those low places that we’re the most afraid of going because His love can hold us and heal us and do really the most powerful healing work there. Then “Sweet Ever After” is a song I wrote with Bear Rinehart, who’s in NEEDTOBREATHE. I had not written a song about the tornado that tore through our neighborhood. It went right behind our house, scariest night of my life. And so that song, I think, speaks to the hope that we have even in the wake of the wreckage of storms and brokenness. And it is a rollick! It’s one that just makes you want to like run fast and dance!
Take a listen to the rollicking fun “Sweet Ever After” below and be sure to check out Ellie’s entire album here!