Christian artists face a puzzling conundrum in this day and age. They are often called upon to create an atmosphere of worship, an environment of adoration, a place of wonder where ordinary people can encounter the Living God. They are, by their very calling, endowed with unique creativity and spiritual sensitivity. And that is where the lines get a little blurry. A traditional artist’s bio is designed to make her look bigger than life. It should open with a snappy quote followed by a brief life history and a laundry list of significant accomplishments. There should be glowing accolades regarding her current standing among her peers and prognostications of future greatness, all designed to convince the reader that the artist in question is successful, talented, and in the case of “Christian” artists, considerably more spiritual than the average person occupying a pew on any given Sunday. Bottom line—a bio is supposed to elevate the artist to the semi-mythic level of a rock star.
Jean Watson is not a rock star.
“Galatians 2:20. That’s what I’m learning,” the soft-spoken Watson explains. “I am crucified with Christ. The ministry begins the moment my eyes open in the morning. Ministry is not just when I’m on stage or in the recording studio. Ministry happens on buses, on trains, on street corners. It’s 24-7. It’s about being available to be used whenever the Lord decides the time is right. It’s about learning to live a lifestyle of worship.”
Still, Watson recognizes the tension involved in serving her God while also serving her occupation. She walks a fine line that involves the limelight. After all, the greatest singer, songwriter or instrumentalist in the world has little impact on the culture if no one hears the music. “The glitz and glamour of this industry can seduce you, if you’re not careful,” she admits. “It’s easy to say you are working for the Lord, but there is a tension between wanting to do music and wanting to do ministry. It is difficult to stay grounded. When I go to Nashville, I have to put my armor on. I have to to keep my heart in the right place. It’s so easy to press toward worldly success and notoriety and forget your first love.”
Watson knows firsthand the great challenge of staying true to yourself, true to your calling, when the siren call of success is loud in your ears, and you seem to be able to hear everyone’s voice…except God’s.
“I’ve never sounded like anyone else,” she muses, “and there is a great insecurity in that. When I started out, I was happy being authentically me, but somewhere on the journey I lost track. It’s easier to just try to fit into the mold, to press on toward worldly success and notoriety, than it is to embrace those qualities that make you unique. I had to ask God, ‘What is my purpose?’ And He answered, ‘Go back to your first call, your first love.’ I had a call on my life to be true to the voice God gave me. And that’s not just music. It’s also about how I share what God looks like and sounds like to me. That’s what is on my heart. Now, a dozen years into this journey, having much better opportunities and much higher levels of musical tools and skills, I’m better able to flesh out that vision. The music today sounds more like ‘me’ than ever before.”
Watson points to the title track of her new CD as an example of fleshing out her vision.
“’Wonder’ is a simple song, written by Amanda Cook,” she explains. “The arrangement just transports me into the presence of God. The lyrics aren’t deep or complicated. They don’t have to be. The gravity and depth and power of the music ushers me into an awareness of the presence of God every time I hear it. It is first track because it sets the tone for the rest of the album.”
Sporting a world music sound that falls lithely between the ethereal, yearning Celtic sound of Maire Brennan and the graceful, poetic lyricism of Enya, Jean Watson deftly tightwalks a line that stretches between ancient themes of grace and mercy, and is anchored by contemporary declarations of worship and adoration. There are exuberant expressions of praise (“Blessed Be Your Name”), hymns of hope (“I Can Hear Your Voice”), psalms of yearning (“Restless”), songs of surrender to the perfect will of the Father (“It Is Well”), and testimonies to the mercy and grace of God (“Everything Can Change,” “Amazing Grace”). Whether invested in ardent celebration or lost in pensive worship, there is a humble honesty that runs through each song, that binds them together and points both listener and singer toward the throne of God.
No, Jean Watson is not a rock star. She is a worship leader. Or a contemporary psalmist. Or whatever label you want to wrap around a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who crafts ethereal, soul-capturing contemporary hymns that can inhabit the playlist of a world music radio station as easily as a Sunday morning worship service. But it was not always so.
Before she became a worship artist (or contemporary psalmist, or whatever), Watson, a classically-trained violinist, had her sights set on playing in a big city symphony. And she was well on her way, before laying it all down to become a wife and mother of four children. Life did not deal kindly with Watson. Some poor choices, a divorce and clinical depression nearly broke her spirit. At rock bottom, with nowhere else to turn, Watson cried out to God—and God answered. The end result is restoration beyond Watson’s wildest imaging. Today, she plays violin with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, hosts an internationally broadcast radio show, tours across the country and around the world both as a performing artist and as a speaker, and is putting the finishing touches on her eighth full-length project, WONDER.
Watson credits producer Billy Smiley with helping her capture her unique vision for every song on the album. “Billy was a game changer,” She declares. “He started by asking, ‘What does Jean sound like?’ He was really good at discovering what my vision was for each song, and facilitating that vision. We used expansive movie soundtracks like The Last of the Mohicans and musical references like Celtic Woman to help achieve that world music sound that is so much a part of my vision. We wanted to be intentional about the message of the songs, so we included songs by many different writers and I had a hand in the arrangement so each song carries my personality. Then we called on some incredible musicians like Peter Furler, Steve Hindalong, Jared Neal, John Ellis and Michael W. Smith to help create that sound. Finally, we listened to it as music lovers. I’m thrilled with the finished product.”
In a departure from her previous projects, WONDER is being released on the innovative cross-genre Suite 28 Records label along with Smiley’s Shadowlands Music, and is being distributed to the Christian market and the general market by Naxos of America, Inc., the leading classical music distributor in North America.
“I am excited about having my project in mainstream record stores where people who have never been exposed to Christian music might encounter it,” says Watson. “In being true to my calling, I’m not trying to hide God’s glory. I’m owning those giftings He has blessed me with and saying to the world, ‘This is who I am.’ I am a unique artist, and I love who God made me. I’m presenting that to the world with joy and confidence. It is my hope that people, both Christians and those who have yet to come to faith in Christ, will experience the wonder of the sound of heaven though this music.”