When you first hear Kelleigh Bannen talk, you’re struck by her quick laugh and the slight rasp that seems to dwell in every good singer’s throat. It bespeaks experience and hard knocks, and while that’s there (read on), this 27-year-old singer/songwriter exudes a joviality and intrepid spirit about her future in a tough business. ByFaith spoke with her in September, as she was working on her first music video. Her debut album, Radio Skies, is as one reviewer says, “unfiltered by the corporate machine.” And so is her conversation:
At what point did you say to yourself, “I can actually do this”?
Well, the decision was different for me than for most artists because Nashville is my hometown. It has gotten a little more intimidating now that I’m here doing this vocationally, but it’s still home, so it feels safe. But we did give up a tremendous community when we left Atlanta, where we were at Christ Church (PCA).
How did you sense God leading you?
God used really practical notions to nudge us toward Nashville. For example, my husband, Jeff, was ready for a job change, and there was a job waiting here. We also had the voice of our [church] community encouraging me to pursue music, and that was a powerful layer. I’m grateful that we both—independently—felt led to move to Nashville. That made us more confident.
And is that calling now affirmed?
Well, I think we still wonder if all that leading was really about music after all. The way events unfolded, it’s been clear that God brought us here so that Jeff could become truly knit into my family, and that we could be prepared (even though you never are) to love, walk with, and care for my parents after we lost my brother, Grant. We moved to Nashville and just weeks later, we realized that Grant was in the grips of addiction. That battle then waged over the course of nearly three years, and finally after many great trials and many glimpses of glory he passed away last February. It’s a story I wish we could tie up neatly in a bow, but I can’t. I am confident, though, that God brought us to Nashville so that we could be present for all of that. Musically, I feel like we’ve just begun. I am hopeful, and I am trying to be patient. On one level, I feel confirmed every time God gives me a song to write.
Where do those songs come from?
Lots of different places. Music played a big part in my early faith: God spoon-fed me theology through hymns and worship songs. But one very real source is the hymns written and collected by 19th-century Baptist minister William Gadsby, who other songwriters have discovered too. I went through a time where I made myself get up every morning and write a melody to one of the texts in his collection. It was a devotional and I got new melodies out of it too!
You’re a Christian pursuing a career in the mainstream music business rather than in the “Christian music business.” How did your theology influence that decision?
I don’t really have a finger on the “Christian music business.” But there is one influential mentor I have to point to, at the University of Virginia, where Jeff and I met. Greg Thompson, the RUF pastor there [at the time], really affected my theology about this. I came into Greg’s office one afternoon to see him and sing a song idea for him—he’s a great singer-songwriter. My song was a pathetic attempt to write a “Christian-ish” love song. I’m sure it was terrible, but Greg used that to teach me that I didn’t have to stick to “safe” and so-called “Christian” topics or use typically Christian language. He reminded me that God made this whole earth—that it all belongs to Him—and that consequently, none of it is off limits. He meant to encourage me to use my lens as a Christ-follower to look at and write about the world. That conversation was pretty huge for me; it was permission to talk about real things.
Who introduced you to “greatness,” or the notion that you could actually do great work?
Greatness—that’s a tough one to tackle, may we call that excellence? I definitely saw excellence modeled from a very early age in my family. My dad pursued excellence in his work every day, and I saw him attempt to set his business apart—in the way they do business, the way they treat customers, and that’s still a concept that really excites me. If we are to work in the world, there must be a way for us to operate that’s outside “the world.” That’s as close as I can get to greatness.
But was there that first performing moment where your feet were six inches off the stage?
Yes, that was in college. It was more about the location and the people than it was about the music. It was in this beautiful auditorium, and that very stage was where my husband eventually proposed to me.
And now you’re performing regularly.
One of the best things about playing with the great men that I get to share the stage with is that they make my job so easy. It’s like they set me up to succeed every night we’re performing. I am so grateful to them for their excellence and their experience. We had a moment at the Bluebird Cafe here in Nashville in May that was really special. We did a song off my record called “Call Me Home,” about being ready to go to the Lord, but it’s also a song that imagines what some of those first moments in heaven might be like. Anyway, it was the first time we had done the song as a band in concert—it’s not really a bar/music venue song—and it was also the first time I did the song publicly since my younger brother had passed away. It was one of those special performances when just the right thing was happening on stage and just the right thing was happening in the audience. Now, we close most shows with that song … regardless of the venue.
Is there a model career for you? How do you hope God will use you in Nashville?
As a Christian, I don’t think we get to say, “I’ll be doing this forever.” I hope, for instance, that I’ll be able to do this in a way that makes sense when we have children. I used to think my music would be my ministry—the music itself. Now, I think my life as a musician will be my ministry, if God allows that for me. I used to think my songs would be the medium, but really it all goes back to relationships. My hope is that relationally God will use me to love the people I work with.
And you work with people outside the music industry. You mentioned counseling.
Yeah, I work with pregnant women in a crisis pregnancy center, and I am regularly surprised by young girls having such good insights, making good decisions after making such bad ones. It’s intense. And it’s fulfilling.
What shape do you think your music will have on listeners?
I hope to tell the truth. I hope that I can write honestly about how broken I am, how broken the world is, how broken we all are. And when I get that rare chance, I hope I’m able to tell the truth about Christ and who He is. Ultimately, I hope that something true penetrates to the listener … the aroma.
Does your faith affect your choice of the music you listen to?
Yes, there are some things I just can’t listen to anymore, lyrically. I’m sure you’ve experienced that too, you just cringe, and think, “This is definitely not making me more like Christ.” But lately, what do I listen to? Deb Talen. She’s one half of the duo that now makes up The Weepies. Great writing. Really great melodies. Also, Ann Peebles. I have worn that record out. Rich and good!
Since we know this is in your background, a bit of your musical foundation, what is the classical piece that rips you up emotionally?
Handel’s Messiah, which always surprises me for how much I love it. And then, the last classical piece I played when I was studying the violin in college was a piece called “Praeludium & Allegro,” composed by the famous violinist Fritz Kreisler. It is so dramatic, and almost self-indulgent in its drama. I love that piece. I’ll never play it well, but it kills me.
The hymn or worship song that does the same?
Easy. “The Church’s One Foundation.” That song is a crash course in good theology. Samuel Stone wrote that text, and I love the melody by Brian Moss. And Greg Thompson’s version of “Jesus Lover of My Soul.” It’s hard to beat a Wesley text. Sometimes when I’m really pathetic, that’s the only prayer I can get out.
And of the songs you’ve recorded?
I’m really proud of “No Such Thing” because I think it’s truthful about love and relationships. I get to tell a really special story of redemption in “Little Man.” That’s a true story of my dad growing up; it has meant a lot to me. I wrote “Call Me Home,” oddly, the day before Jeff lost a family member unexpectedly. So that song has always kinda crept in, and then after Grant died, I just felt more and more thankful for that song. There’s always a real love-hate relationship with your own writing, though.
You’ve heard your music described as “too smart for country.” How would you characterize it? Is an Alison Krauss comparison fair?
Alison Krauss would be a compliment. But yes, I look up to her, it seems she is always about the music first. She doesn’t seem to be concerned with genre. She just consistently makes great music. You could classify this (my first) record somewhere between rootsy-soul and Americana/country. I think that “too smart for country” comment isn’t very generous to the country music listener, but it may be an appropriate perspective of what industry folks think is right for the country listener.
It’s not easy to make it in Nashville. Have you set your threshold of pain, to maybe say at a certain point, “Hey, I’ve had it. I’m on to something else”?
We have that conversation a lot at home. We are still trying to figure out what a vocation is, and what it means to work unto the Lord. Jeff shows me every day what that really means, though. He really sacrifices, using his big, expensive brain—he’s an engineer—to work at my dad’s Chevy dealership in tough times, providing for our family, a powerful example. I certainly hope that I always get to make music, but I don’t want to make an idol of it. That is a real struggle for me because I do love it so much. I pray that God would allow me to be fruitful in my vocation. James 4 tells us that our life is a vapor and that we don’t get to make firm plans and declare where we are going or when. That’s kind of a relief, isn’t it? I get to say: “If the Lord wills it, I’ll make music in Nashville.”
If a young Christian asked your advice about pursuing a music career, what would you say?
I think God uses all kinds of things, reasons, and passions to get you where He wants you. Maybe He’s calling you to make music and write songs that glorify Him or maybe He’s calling you to something else, but He’s got to get you up and move you. Realistically, this is a perilous business for a Christian because there is such focus on the self. And that’s always dangerous. Even as low on the totem poll as I am, you’ve got to walk that line between promotion and humility. It’s very sticky.
Pursuing music forces me to put my worth in Christ, and what He’s already done. When I put my hope or my worth in my music, or in what people think of my music, that is very uncertain footing. I’m so thankful God is pounding that into my head.
ByFaith readers can get a free download here of Kelleigh’s song “Call Me Home.”