Putting a 'sacramental imagination into folk music'

Alanna Boudreau recording in studio (photo provided)Alanna Boudreau recording in studio (photo provided)

Alanna Boudreau is a lay Catholic folk recording artist who lives with her husband Kevin Mahon in Cortland, N.Y. Her songs include "Heart of the World" (written after reading Hans Urs von Balthasar's book of the same name) and "Dappled Things" (based on the poem “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.). Songs from her latest album include “Simon (Petros)” about the apostle Peter, “Controlled Burn” and "Pem.” On Aug. 29, I interviewed Ms. Boudreau by email about her music.

Catholic recording artists have been relative latecomers to the contemporary Christian music scene. How would you describe your music and evaluate its success?

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Before I say anything else, I want to point out to readers that my music is not “Christian”: I say this so that no one expects something liturgical and worshipful only to discover that my music is neither of those things! While I am a practicing Catholic, the music I write does not unfold in an explicitly Christian tone.* There are elements of what one might call a “sacramental imagination” at work, in that the faith informs my perception of reality and what it means to flourish as a human person. The songs I write deal primarily with relationship and the big question of whether or not I am “in relation” to those things in life which impart meaning and purpose. To be more concrete, these songs are based on actual events and persons in my life history, and are reflective of my inner grappling with intimacy, disillusionment, forgiveness, deception, reconciliation, vulnerability, regret and renewal.

Who are some of your musical influences?

Paul Simon, John Denver, Norah Jones, Billy Joel, Sufjan Stevens, Dispatch, Eva Cassidy, Debussy, Satie, Ingrid Michaelson, Eric Clapton, Sondre Lerche, Kings of Convenience, Simon & Garfunkel and Penny & Sparrow.

What inspired you to set Gerard Manley Hopkins to music?

Hopkins’ poems were a regular part of the fabric of my childhood: my siblings and I were homeschooled, and there were countless books of poetry sliding out of every possible shelf in the house, some so old their binding was as loose as an ill-fitting coat on a wiry little man. I was always mesmerized (and confounded) by Hopkins’ word usage, and would sometimes read his poems aloud to myself simply for the sheer joy of phonaesthetics. One day after praying the Office, I was flipping through the poetry at the back, and was compelled to pick up the guitar and attempt to sing the poems. That’s how “Pied Beauty” came to be set to music.

What do you hope people hear when they listen to your music?

I hope that they hear some part of a story they can identify with a reminder that any experience they may be having is not foreign to others, and that they needn’t buy into the lie that they are isolated, unacceptable or beyond the reach of joy and peace.

How does your music intersect with your prayer life?

I’ll often read something during prayer that will catch my attention and stay with me afterward: I find that the writings of Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis take me by storm. Frequently the fruits of this rumination show up in my music sometimes months or even years after the inspiration first struck me. I’ve also found that the same interior movement that compels me to pray compels me to sit down with the guitar and write: just a quiet feeling of, “you ought to.”

How does your Catholic faith find its way into your music?

The Catholic faith is full of mystery, contrasts and paradox. It has a muscular doctrine regarding the purposefulness of suffering, and it offers an astounding understanding of human sexuality and identity (thank God for St. John Paul II and for those who went before him in laying the groundwork). I have found each of these facets of the faith to be profoundly consoling, challenging, illuminative and worth exploring: frequently, my explorations of these topics come out in my lyrics.

What are some of the blessings and challenges of being a Catholic or Christian artist today?

One of the blessings of being both a Catholic and a musician is that I have a rather vivid imagination to work with, as well as a deep thirst for reasonability and intentionality. We have such a rich tradition to draw from: so much art, literature, music and human character.

One of the greatest challenges has been seeing how often people attempt to over-spiritualize everything. For example, I recently came across an article in which the author had taken a song I’d written and interpreted it in such an overtly Christian way that it ended up sounding sentimental and insincere—not to mention, completely misconstrued! This wasn’t the first time that had happened, and I have to admit it is perplexing and frustrating.

I’m writing about human relationships: messy, nuanced, open-ended, gloriously dysfunctional and tirelessly desiring perfection, even on this side of heaven. Not every song needs to be a discourse on the theology of the hypostatic union for it to be good and meaningful. As Christians we’re called to be uncompromising in upholding the truth, but we’re not called to be brashly obvious to the point of forgetting what it means to relate to other people as people. Yelling the Good News from the housetops is effective only insofar as you’ve come to appreciate the fact that God loves persons in the subtle aspects of their personalities too—in the places that aren’t as tidy, obvious, measureable or open to change.

What is your creative process like?

I think it starts with what I ingest! I read a ton and listen to a good amount of music. As a rule, I stay away from the Top 40; as much as I’d like to think that I’m impervious to the saccharine strains of bubblegum pop, I’m not! For as brainless as much of popular music is these days, it gets into the mind and quietly pulses in a message of self-absorption and convenience. So I try to stick with music that’s a bit more, shall we say, circumspect, stuff that gives a more accurate depiction of the wide gamut of human existence. Same goes for the books I read.

The songwriting process typically happens during times of quiet, when there isn’t a ton of activity going on externally. I’ll feel a quiet prompting to go sit down alone with the guitar (or at the piano), and then I’ll begin playing a melody, or humming something over the chords I strum. Within moments the lyrics and melody start to come simultaneously. The main scaffolding (that is, the essential idea and song structure) comes within about 15-20 minutes. Often I will go back and tweak songs, rewording, rephrasing etc., but I try not to poke at them too much once they’re done. They come as whole pieces, out of nowhere, this sudden, creative descent. While I have written songs collaboratively with other people in structured settings, my usual approach is spontaneous and free flowing. And then the inspiration is gone, and I wonder if it will happen again.

How did you find your vocation and what makes you feel at home in the Catholic Church?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always desired marriage, longed to be a wife, a mother, the heart of a home. There were periods of time during high school and college when I thought and prayed seriously about religious life, but my thoughts always turned, again and again, to earthly marriage.

And so I remained open to dating and relationships throughout the entirety of my college career and thereafter, though like in any vocation, there were times when nothing seemed to be “working out,” and I felt like I was waiting with my heart in my hands for a long time. It wasn’t until two years after graduating and a goodly amount of heartache that my now-husband and I started dating, though we knew each other in college. I can’t really say that I “found” my vocation; it’s not as though Kevin was waiting under a rock for me to find him, nor did I wrestle mightily for years wondering if I would end up married or as a nun! Rather, it was more of an awakening, a recognition of something right and fitting, and the periphery questions that had characterized my life up to that point fell away once Kevin and I started dating. The Mass, no matter where I am on the globe at any given moment, makes me feel at home. The Eucharist grounds me.

Who are some of your role models, living or dead, in the Catholic faith?

I mentioned him earlier, but St. John Paul II will always be one of my heroes. His example, warmth, lifestyle, writings and charism for the youth have impacted my life more than any other Catholic figure. St. Teresa of Avila is also a source of inspiration: I value her practicality and spiritual honesty.

Caryll Houselander, Edith Stein and Alice Von Hildebrand inspire me as intelligent, faithful women who used their gifts for the glory of God and betterment of mankind. My husband inspires me to be more generous, vulnerable and constant; his example of virtue calls me on. My spiritual father, Father John Nepil, inspires me by his priesthood to live my vocation of marriage with my whole being.

How has your faith changed or evolved over the years?

As a child, my love for Jesus was strong, unquestioning and simple. My mom would bring us to adoration weekly when we were small, and though I wasn’t pondering transubstantiation or considering various epistemological conundrums at that point in life, I was deeply affected by the experience of presence in adoration, and I came to understand that God waits for me in silence, that he is radically available, and the peace and stillness he offers is the antithesis of the cacophony of the world (and of my own clamoring inward appetites).

As I’ve grown older, there have been plenty of moments (and seasons) in which my faith has been tried and tested: the problem of evil touches everyone’s life to some degree, and when we are cast to the ground in disillusionment and blinding pain, it can be difficult to “feel” full of faith. On top of that, the rise of technology coupled with vast discoveries in the field of science has led to our society’s treatment of religion and devotion as being obsolete or, worse, irrelevant. As someone who loves to think through things and who yearns for personal and intellectual honesty, I am not impervious to these movements around me: nor am I convinced that they add up to life being a mere coincidence, a happy gathering of atoms with no eternal trajectory.

It seems to me that to believe in the meaninglessness of everything would be a far greater stretch to make than to believe in God, especially as I look back over my own life, which has been guarded, upheld, renewed and provided for with such alarming specificity and providence. I have encountered Jesus and I am unable to forget him or his love. If I were to abandon the faith, my struggle to run from the love of Christ would be exhausting indeed, and, ultimately, futile. A person cannot “unmeet” Christ, who is, in the words of John Paul II, “the living denial of all loneliness.”

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis, what would it be?

First of all, I would thank him for his dedication, hard work and priesthood. After that, I think I would ask him about the first moment in his life when he experienced God, and how that singular event has rippled through his life to this day.

Any final thoughts?

My music is on YouTube, iTunes, and available in physical form through my website www.alannaboudreaumusic.com. I also blog at www.alannaboudreau.wordpress.com. Thank you so much for having me!

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America. Jacob Boddicker, S.J., contributed to this interview.

Correction, Dec. 29, 2016: This line has been corrected for purposes of clarification: "While I am a practicing Catholic, the music I write does not unfold in an explicitly Christian tone."

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