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Sad songs

Music | Folk artist Sara Beth Geoghegan searches for hope in grief and failure

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," Sept. 26, 2009

Sara Beth Geoghegan is painting walls, spreading wallpaper, and arranging furniture, moving from her tiny Nashville apartment into her first house. New and more spacious surroundings serve as an apt metaphor for where she finds herself at this time in life-moving from a claustrophobic depression set into motion by the heartache of a broken engagement to a new place of hope.

Plenty of gifted female singer-songwriters work out of grief or depression. Rosanne Cash's beautifully sad 2006 release, Black Cadillac, is about as good as it gets, a blood-on-the-tracks confessional recorded after her loss of her mother and father in one year. Yet while she provides a ripple of hope amid an ocean of doubt and struggle, Cash never comes close to an expression of faith in God. That's why Geoghegan's recent independent release, Tired of Singing Sad Songs, is a breath of unsentimental fresh air, realistically confronting the pain of loss and sadness while affirming a sure hope in Jesus.

Geoghegan (pronounced "go-hay-gen") is a New Orleans native and self-­confessed "birdie with a big mouth" whose concerts intersperse outrageously funny stories with wrenching songs. Though her gifts have been mostly expressed in the context of the church, her songs give voice to universal experiences that promise to connect with a world well acquainted with sadness.

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"People say, 'You say the things I don't know how to say," says Geoghegan, whose folk-pop "psalms" affirm hope in the midst of besetting difficulties not prone to easy answers. "For me in life, it's never been black and white. I want to connect the dots from A to Z and make this really pretty, but it's still a tangled mess. God is simply asking that we trust Him, that we believe the gospel."

Growing up in New Orleans, Geoghegan initially wanted to be an actress. When at 13 she defied her mother by double-piercing her ears, resulting in her being barred from performing for a year, she took up music as an act of rebellion. Upon graduation she moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University, where she was later signed to a publishing deal with the Christian music division of Universal Music. Her publisher encouraged her to write "upbeat, happy songs" for the CCM market. For Geoghegan, that was difficult.

"Though it's gotten better, the Christian music business has had a problem playing music that deals with difficult content," says Geoghegan, adding that songs that do deal with sin, suffering, and depression tend to do so in "generic and non-specific" terms. Her mostly autobiographical songs evince no such hesitancy.

One that has resonated with audiences is the prayerful "Lord, Deliver Me." With a chorus that asks God to "deliver me from me, deliver me to You," she zeroes in on the "desire to be noticed, loved, exalted, favored, popular, chosen, or acknowledged," to be rescued from a self-absorbed life. In another offering from the album, "Ooh, We Need Jesus," Geoghegan's raw honesty is matched by simple faith: "At my very best I'm a hypocrite and I need your love/ When I hate everyone."

The album-with simple piano-driven arrangements of acoustic instruments-was recorded in her tiny apartment with Geoghegan playing an upright piano she inherited from her grandmother. Supporting musicians dropped by to add their parts, and friends joined to sing on some of the choruses.

"I don't want to write solution songs, because every person has to walk through their own life," says Geoghegan, "but I do want to communicate hope. I do want people to remember the grace of the gospel."
-Steve West is a writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

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