“Do you feel that?” Sara Groves asked her friend and fellow songwriter Jill Phillips over dinner one night. “I feel like the pace of life keeps getting faster and faster. Everything feels so frenetic these days.” Groves explained.
After dinner, Groves and Phillips spent a couple of hours around the piano writing the song “Finite,” which begins with a witty response to Chaka Khan’s: I’m Every Woman. The slow-tempo piano piece supports Groves’ and Phillips’ cry against that frenetic energy of society. Women are not able to rise to society’s demands, and that’s ok; they’re not meant to, for they are indeed finite and, as the song admits, Come to an end. Fortunately, she has empathizers like Phillips, also a mother, who shares her passion for music and family, understanding the demands and joys of both.
A mother of three with ten studio albums under her belt as well as a few Dove Award nominations, Groves no doubt feels some pressure. That pressure proved to be a main inspiration as Groves crafted her new, eleven-song album Invisible Empires, set to release October 18, 2011. In it, Groves explores why society feels so fast-paced, is so social-media-obsessed and so “frenetic,” as she describes it.
Groves’ creativity seems to never see an end. Cultivating a new relationship with producer Steve Hindalong (Leeland, City On A Hill & Sixpence None The Richer) the duo created Invisible Empires, Groves’ decade-marker album with her label Fair Trade Services. The team effort has created an album more epic in scale than the Christianity Today Album of the Year Fireflies and Songs (2009), which Groves self-dubbed her songwriter’s album. “Fireflies is very much like a girl and her piano,” says Groves, “and I knew this record was going to be a little bit bigger than a girl and her piano. I like to write pop songs, I like to write bigger songs. I like strings and guitars, so I guess when I went to go write this record I didn’t feel like this was going to be Fireflies Part II.”
One of these epic songs Groves wrote as a reflection of the victory she has felt over a period of intense anxiety that plagued her and her songwriting. The song entitled “I’ll Wait” resounds a powerful chorus: I’ll wait/For you/Now more than ever/I see/It’s true/Now more than ever/I’ll wait/For you/Now. Referencing the sometimes-paralyzing fear that gripped her during that time, Groves says, “I knew from the beginning this is something I’m going to have to walk through, but I knew from the very beginning I was going to be a stronger person when I came out the other side. So that song is saying, ‘Now more than ever I know, I know that I have to wait for You. I can’t move on my own.’”
Adding to her message of our inability to move without God is the slightly quieter yet equally profound song “Obsolete.” Being the source of the album title, this one seems to pull her album theme together. One of the final stanzas states, And I don’t know where we are/Are we passing through these wires/Are walking through the streets/Of invisible empires? Groves drew from Psalm 127 when writing these lyrics. The Psalm says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” Groves agrees, saying, “We’re not building something substantial that will last, so we build and operate in this invisible world. On the flip side of that, God is building a real invisible empire that in the spiritual realm is sometimes very hard for us to see, yet it is the only thing that’s real.”
“Obsolete” addresses another theme of Invisible Empires inspired by a quote Groves read recently: “The Internet makes everything not enough.” Through the viral effects of social media, Groves believes this planet has been made out as one big party that it actually isn’t. In “Obsolete” she sings, Walking through our hall of doors/Looking through a million portals/Everyone is having fun/Everybody seems immortal. When in reality, we’re all as mortal as they come. Everyone, that is, except the robots Groves sings about in “Scientists in Japan,” a song she never expected to be on the album. Leave it to Sara Groves to create a beautiful and resonating ballad in response to a topic like bioethics.
Co-written with Andy Gullahorn (Jason Gray’s “The Reasons Why You Brought Me Here”), Groves came up with the song idea after attending a conference where a scientist called for Christian artists to become involved with enlightening the church. Groves says she thought, “‘I’m going to write a song and the first line is going to be Scientists in Japan are building a robot to take your job.’ I didn’t think it was actually going to be on a record; I just took it as a challenge—how to write a song about staying engaged in bioethics.”
Though she succeeded at that challenge, Groves will still spend her “advocacy currency” on the organization she’s supported for several years: International Justice Mission, a human rights agency that works toward justice for victims of human sex trafficking and other forms of enslavement. She writes an IJM song for every album, one that will keep the message of their organization in front of people.
For Invisible Empires, that song is the gospel-inspired “Eyes on the Prize.” The song opens with the hymn “The Gospel Plow,” adapted during the Civil Rights Movement and recorded for this album a capella by the talented young voices of a group based in Jersey City, NJ: the New City Kids. Groves enters the song singing about Paul and Silas and asking listeners to Keep their eyes on the prize/Hold on. While that message is universal, Groves had IJM specifically in mind, knowing that this nonprofit social-justice organization, like many do, has reached its point of the “long haul.” Some supporters have lost their fervor but the ones remaining, like Groves, are growing more attached to the cause.
IJM is one of the organizations that will be supported through the upcoming Reason to Gather tour, spotlighting Groves, Audrey Assad and new duo Jenny & Tyler. The artists’ sounds are as unique as they are compatible.
On tour isn’t the only place the Groves family will be going this fall. They are currently working on selling their house in Minneapolis in order to move into a hundred-year-old church in St. Paul, Minn., where they plan to renovate part of it into their own living quarters and part of it into an Art House. The Art House’s purpose will be to serve the artist community of the Twin Cities in a similar fashion of the Art Houses in Nashville and Dallas started by producer and songwriter Charlie Peacock and his wife Andi, who are mentors to the Groves.
Through all of the activity, the Groves keep their eyes on the prize with a mission statement they crafted in 1997, when she first started doing music full time. And this mission statement serves as their goal for Invisible Empires: “We believe every person has a next step with God. Whether you’re an atheist or the ninety-nine-year-old woman who’s served God all of her life, I’m writing music about those processes, those moments to pause and ask, ‘Where am I on the road, and where would God have me go next?’”