Listening booth: ‘Floodplain’ by Sara Groves

floodplainOnly two musicians are left who compel me to have their new music as soon as it is available. One is Brian Wilson, Beach Boy and iconic composer. The other is singer-songwriter Sara Groves. It’s been a great year, first with the release of Wilson’s No Pier Pressure and now with the oncoming release of Groves’ Floodplain, “officially” due Nov. 6 but available now for download and pre-order.

Derrick Jensen is attributed with the quote, “Writing is really very easy. Tap a vein and bleed onto the page. Everything else is just technical.” That’s how Sara Groves writes. She pours her soul into intimate lyrics and melodies that expose her heart, her spiritual struggles, her doubts and anxieties and triumphs over herself, tapping into something universal, providing the comfort that someone else has gone through all this, too.

It has been four years since Sara Groves produced an all-new album (She put out a collection of past beauties with four new songs a couple of years ago), so Floodplain arrives like a friend offering a tall, cool drink from a spring after a long, long walk in the desert. Yes, I teared up during the opening notes of “This Cup,” the album’s first song, when her soft and crystal-clear voice returned.

How many hours have I spent, watching this shining TV,

Living adventure in proxy in another person’s dream?

How many miles have I traveled looking at far-away light,

Listening for trains in the distance in some brilliant other life?

This cup, this cup, I want to drink it up,

To be right here in the middle of it,

Right here, right here, this challenging reality’s

Better than fear or fantasy.

The story of how this album was made, told in a note that accompanies the pre-release package, is as touching as the dozen heartfelt and lovely songs: Paralyzed creatively by “depression and serious inertia,” Sara was approached by a couple of friends (Steve Brewster and Matt Pierson) who said they’d been offered free use of Jon Phelps’ Northern California studio, and they proposed getting together for a “band camp.”

“The whole premise was What if … what if we just played, without any expectations or pressure. No record labels, no deadlines, we could just take our time without being on the clock. If something came of it, good, but if not, it would just be a great experience.” To make it work, they asked Sara to bring along some new songs, unfinished songs, covers, whatever.

A couple of days in, it became clear that her friends had come together to help her “get unstuck enough to make a new record.” And it worked, brilliantly. It’s been a long time since Sara has sounded this free and fresh and her songs sounded so pure.

“We’re going on an expedition, looking for lost time,” she sings on a key early tune, tapping her veins and sharing all those struggles and triumphs as she always has, but in the quiet of that Northern California studio, the songs shine with the love of friendship, her colleagues’ generosity, and a gently rediscovered confidence,

In “Second Guess Girl,” she visits the uncertainty behind the front we all put up and all we encounter in the world: “Is this time for a speech or for silence? Are you calling for peace or defiance?” In the title song she writes about how “some hearts are built on the floodplain,” always risking the stormy waters of hurt but willing to take that risk.

In the midst of the storm, she recalls Moses and his people’s journey through the desert, when food is said to have appeared every morning: “There’s enough for today; there’ll be enough tomorrow.” And she recalls “I’ve Been Here Before” and made it through to the other side, an encouraging thought when the whirlwind strikes again.

It wouldn’t feel like a complete Sara Groves album without a musical update on her now 20-year marriage to her husband, Troy (“I Feel the Love Between Us”) and the joy of being a mom (“Signal,” in which she is amazed by the young man who is her older son).

Sara Groves shares so much through her music that she feels like a friend, even though I’ve only been privileged to meet and talk with her for barely a half-hour through my work as a journalist. It’s always reassuring that her journey has the same ebbs and flows, doubts and fears, triumphs and tribulations, that we all experience. I find myself rooting for her and heartened that she made it through the storm to produce another collection of gems. I pray that she feels comfort in the knowledge that she gives such beauty to us, her fans, supporters, cheerleaders and, yes, friends.

In the first few days of discovering cherished new music, it’s hard to make a judgment, but my first exposure to Floodplain feels like the burst of awe and delight and insight that I felt on first hearing Conversations and Add to the Beauty, Sara’s earlier works that I count among the albums I would take with me to the proverbial desert island. I love all 11 records, but those two and now Floodplain are probably my favorites.


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