When Jennifer Knapp settles in for coffee and a conversation in a midtown Manhattan apartment, a surprising Australian drawl comes tripping out of her mouth. "Do I really?" she laughs when I tell her she sounds Aussie-born and bred, even though she has roots in Kansas and music ties that are thoroughly Nashville. "I'm easing back into my Southern drawl," she says with a laugh, but she's not quite there yet.
The accent is earned -- Knapp spent much of the past eight years living in Sydney, traveling through the outback "when I needed to be in touch with the earth." In September 2002, Knapp, now 33, walked away from her career as a million-record-selling, multiple-Dove-award winning Christian singer-songwriter. On the lineup of the first Lilith Fair, she had crossover appeal even then, though her name is most indelibly known to the fans of "Jesus music."
The rumors dogged her then as they dog her now. They said Jennifer Knapp canceled all her gigs and sold every inch of gear save one acoustic guitar because she was a lesbian. She stopped answering her e-mail, going months without talking even to her mother or her manager, because she was a lesbian. She dropped out of sight because she was a lesbian. And now, poised to release her first studio album in years, Jennifer Knapp is ready to face those rumors.
Turns out they're true: Jennifer Knapp is a lesbian.
Kind of. She resists the label, insisting that it feels unnatural and foreign, that she's just the Jennifer Knapp she's always been, just with a significant relationship with a woman. As Knapp sings on "Inside," the track from Letting Go that "I play when I get angry," what Knapp fears the most is that "I know they'll bury me / Before they hear the whole story." Her sexuality is certainly part of why Knapp left music and dropped out of sight to the other side of the world for nearly a decade. She fell in love with her girlfriend (whose name she chooses to not reveal), and after eight years together, there's no denying that anymore. But there were also conflicts with her business partner (with whom she had a hand in the early Christian music career of Katy Hudson, who has gone on to kiss her own girls as Katy Perry). Music had become about work instead of about joy. And then there was the rift between her faith and her sexuality. "I thought I had to exchange one for the other," she says.
It's a struggle familiar to most gay people, even those who haven't had to make room for sex and God, often uncomfortable bedfellows. Choosing to come out can still mean choosing away from family and friends who just can't accept us as well as making institutions like marriage and parenthood exponentially more difficult to access. For Knapp, the process of bringing faith and sexuality into a coherent self required her to step away from her life and career in the U.S. The music that had spoken through her voice and hands became completely alienating. "I would think, I don't even have a right to sing a song I wrote, because I am a hypocrite," she says. Knapp spent her first three years as "a PlayStation guru," and, when she tired of that, spent four years working at everything but music. She didn't even pick up a guitar until her last year in Sydney. "I was building something new, starting something fresh," she says. "I had to go someplace that would completely redefine my perspective of who I was in the universe."
Then one day, bored after seven years of simmering, Knapp picked up the guitar again, and the music felt right. She wrote the handful of tracks that would become Letting Go. Her manager tells me they arrived in the mail one day affixed with a sticky note that asked simply "Are these any good?" They were. She came back to Nashville last July because "if you're going to do music, you've got to record it." Just a few sessions told her and her team that it was time to make music again, and she moved back for good in August, bringing her partner with her.
Knapp no longer feels like being gay and being Christian are in opposition, even if others do. "I'm quite comfortable to live with parts of myself that don't make sense to you," she says. She acknowledges that such peace is hard-won in her community. "I keep running across people living closeted, who have literally chosen one or the other," Knapp marvels. And she knows she risks losing some of her biggest fans when word of her sexuality goes public. "I think it's going to be shocking and feel like a betrayal to some people who live their spiritual lives through the music they listen to," says Knapp. That's part of why she's decided to come out in advance of the record -- she doesn't want people to love her music and then discover that their own values won't let them sing along full-throated.
Ultimately, though, the risk is worth it. For Knapp, coming out means the chance to live honestly, to be "wholly myself." She's uncomfortable with the idea that she might be a political figure or a flash point for debates in the Christian music community. Then she recounts some of the e-mail she's received from fans during her shadowed absence from the stage. Some have been full of righteous anger at the thought that she might be a lesbian. Others have urged her to "unfurl the banner," as she says, to come out and lead a revolution among gay Christians. But then there's the e-mail Knapp receives from a young fan asking, if she is a lesbian, to please come out: "That would help me feel less alone." Over the free-ranging hour we've spent together, it's the first time Knapp's voice cracks. No matter how personal her transformation might be, telling the world is inescapably, publicly important.
Later that night Knapp plays a set to a full house at Manhattan's City Winery. She follows old friend Derek Webb, a straight and happily married Christian artist, who plays "What Matters More," a track off his recent album that is explicitly critical of antigay Christians. Knapp is less blunt, playing a mix of her Christian favorites and new songs that hew to themes of love and loss. She does include "Inside," the song that broadcasts the fears and frustrations that lick around the edges of what is otherwise an exciting and joyful return to what Knapp does best. But as she closes the set, graciously telling the applauding crowd that the night's schedule doesn't allow an encore, it's clear that no matter what happens next, Jennifer Knapp will be playing music.
And that, in the end, is all she can hope to come home to.