Much has been made of classical composers, including Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, getting their best ideas on long walks. But you don’t hear jogging referenced all that much—though in the case of Sara Groves, an indelible, incredible image that inspired her new album Floodplain came during a brisk run along the Mississippi River in Twin Cities area she calls home.
Groves recalls: “I saw this homeless person in a tent and I asked God, ‘Is he poor in spirit? Is he blessed? Do you wish he would get up and do something with his life?’” Then she looked up at the top of a nearby bluff and saw the James J. Hill house, a magnificent brick-and-stone edifice build by the railroad magnate in 1891.
“It’s a symbol of power and it’s easy when you are on a high bluff to say, ‘When are you going to get your act together?’” Groves says. “I was running and weeping. Then I came home and wrote ‘Floodplain,’ and that became the hub—the source of the album.”
Four-years after her previous release, Floodplain marks Groves’ triumphant return to form and then some. The title cut, its plaintive piano theme rippling like a twilight current, is coupled to a lyric that strikes a masterful balance between the beautiful and the vulnerable: “Closer to the life and the ebb and flow/ Closer to the edge of ‘I don’t know’/ Closer to ‘Lord, please send a boat.’”
Groves knows intimately about calling out for deliverance, as she’s battled depression, anxiety and writer’s block, among other challenges, in the years since 2011’s Invisible Empires (her last album of new material).
“Floodplain is basically God saying to me, ‘Some hearts are built here – they feel more, but then they are also more susceptible to floods. This is not bad: This is where you are.’ I love the floodplain, it’s a beautiful place,” she says. “But I felt so much shame and that I was so responsible for my own struggle. My dear friends who care for me deeply have said, ‘Do you work out?’ Or: ‘You need to think positively.’ But positive thinking is not the gospel that saves me. And that’s what I’m wrestling with on this album: What is the gospel that saves me?”
For Groves the answer has boiled down to a scriptural truth lived out in full: She’s trusted God with all her heart and without leaning on her own understanding. “The boats that have come for me the last two years, in the form of friendship and peers and co-workers—it’s been absolutely stunning,” she says. “My strength has come from my community of friends who have been raising me up.”
The musicians who initiated the project sent boats, too. Groves’ husband and long-time manager, Troy, had taken a new position with International Justice Mission. While it was a welcome change, it left Groves responsible for her next steps for the first time in her career, “I just couldn’t see myself in the future. I couldn’t see what I would be doing.”
Groves was in paralysis as a songwriter when two veterans of her past albums, drummer Steve Brewster and bassist Matt Pierson, were gifted with a week of free studio time at Sonic Temple Studios in Ferndale, California. Brewster called Groves and suggested a no-pressure week of “band camp.” They also invited guitarist Scott Dente (Out of the Grey), and electric guitarist Dan Phelps. The friends met in a forest-studio, had long conversations, ate amazing food, took walks in the Redwoods and eventually worked some of Groves’ ideas into fully-fledged studio recordings.
A couple of days in, Groves was thinking. “ ‘Why am I here? Why is Steve here? Why is Scott here?’ I looked at Steve and said, ‘Why is this happening? What is the unspoken hope?’ And he replied, ‘The hope is that you have a hard-drive full of new music, that it’s something you can be proud of, that it will be your next record—and that you can move forward.” At the end of the first week, another week was gifted to the group by studio owner, Jon Phelps. A few months later, seven more songs were added to the seven from the previous week.
It took some time to see that hope through: more than two years from those first sessions to the last mixes. But the impact of Floodplain promises to last much longer. Some artists dig deep. Others take a leap of faith. Groves did both, holding nothing back along the way. And that approach makes each song on Floodplain shine—both on its own, and as part of a resplendent river of sound and spirit.
The opening track, “This Cup” weaves gently fingerpicked acoustic guitar around a poignant theme. “I want to take up my cup and not see it as a burden,” Groves says, “God will work in my reality if I stick around for it. I don’t want to live in fear or fantasy. I believe if I drink my cup, I will ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’”
“On Your Mark,” with its gently galloping rhythm and psychedelic coda, was inspired by Groves’ recent struggles. “I’ve gone through this process of letting myself off the hook—‘I can’t do this’—but there’s also a continuum of denial, and of owning, and I don’t want to live there. Between denial and owning, there is a healthy place of being aware: I’m having a rough day, I need to have grace for myself.”
Yet along with the grace has come tremendous growth. Groves’ eldest child is now a high school student. And the Minnesota-based Art House the family created is now being fully uplifted by her neighbors and kindred-spirit artists.
It’s all a reminder that if a river runs through Floodplain—be it the Mississippi, living water or both—it doesn’t merely navigate a valley of sorrows. In the end, it also leads to a ceaseless wellspring of redemption.
“That’s what this record is all about: abundant life that is genuine and real,” Groves notes.