Singer and songwriter Jennifer Knapp is one of the top Christian artists in the United States. She has played with the famed Lilith Fair tour, has been listed in the Billboard top 25, won a Dove Award, and has been nominated for a Grammy Award.
Knapp was born on April 12, 1974, and raised in Chanute, Kansas, a town of 9,000, and did not have a religious upbringing. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she grew up with her father and stepmother. The town had few activities for young people; as Knapp told Susan Hogan-Albach in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “You either hung out at the dollar movie theater or went out to the river and got drunk.” Looking for something that would give her a sense of belonging, she turned to alcohol and drugs.
Knapp played trumpet in high school, and earned a music scholarship to Pittsburgh State University in Kansas. She began her college career, she told Hogan-Albach, as “an alcoholic and an atheist.” However, she soon encountered a dorm-mate who was a Christian; this girl kept telling her about Jesus. Knapp initially viewed her as “a flake,” and continued to drink. When she came home drunk, the girl would take care of her, making sure she made it to bed instead of passing out in the hall. These actions made an impression on Knapp. “I didn’t know it then,” Knapp told Hogan-Albach, “but she was embodying Jesus.”
In 1992, inspired by this example, Knapp decided to become a Christian. At the same time, she bought a cheap guitar and began writing songs. Her songs were influenced by the music of other strong women—Tracy Chapman, the Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin, and Mary Chapin Carpenter—but at first, her lyrics didn’t go over well. According to Don Mayhew in the Fresno Bee, friends told her, “Quit writing about your forlorn lovers. Nobody wants to go out with you, so stop writing about that. Write about your life.” So, Knapp began writing and singing about her spiritual journey. Playing in coffeehouses, she became so busy, with over 100 gigs a year, that she dropped out of college to pursue a career in music.
Knapp then signed a record deal with Toby McKeehan of Gotee Records in Nashville, Tennessee. Her first album, produced by Gotee and titled Kansas, came out in 1997. Although the album initially received lukewarm reviews, her gutsy vocals and raw honesty won over both fans and reviewers. Hogan-Albach called it “arguably the best new Christian album on the market,” and quoted the album’s producer, Mark Stuart, who said, “A lot of Christian music is cookie-cutter lyrics with feelgood clichés and no depth. But Jennifer has passionate depth.” And, Knapp told Hogan-Albach, “I’m not the kind to walk out on stage and say, ’Hey, does everybody love Jesus?’ If I just put cliché out there, nobody is going to believe that I’m for real.”
Kansas sold 350,000 copies, spent 80 weeks in the top 25 of Billboard’s Contemporary Christian chart, and helped Knapp win the 1999 Dove Award for New Artist of the Year. The album was so successful that Knapp had to move closer to an airport, in order to be able to reach concert venues more easily. In the process, she went from Kansas to Missouri.
In 1999, Knapp played for with women’s music festival, Lilith Fair, which featured a wide variety of female performers. She told John Blake in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she discovered that her Christian songs gained respect even among unlikely fans: “I had a guy come up to me with no shirt on and a beer in his hand, and he said, ’I don’t believe in God, but that thing you said about Jesus was cool.’”
Knapp told John Roos in the Los Angeles Times that the Lilith Fair experience also showed her, “I could be myself as long as I’m willing to not demand that the entire world believe as I do. The experience allowed me connect with people outside of my circle, and that’s a healthy thing.”
Lay It Down was released in 2000. The album took Knapp moving away from her folksy roots to a harder-driving, edgier sound, and it appealed to mainstream audiences; she received a Grammy nomination for Rock Gospel Album of the Year in 2001. By that time, she was becoming tired of being pigeonholed as a Christian artist; she found the term somewhat limiting. She told Don Mayhew in the Fresno Bee, “I don’t go to a Christian Chinese restaurant; I just look for good
Born on April 12, 1974, in Chanute, KS. Education:. Attended Pittsburgh State University, KS.
Sang in coffeehouses; released first album, Kansas, 1997; toured with Lilith Fair, 1999; released Lay It Down, 2001; and The Way I Am, Gotee, 2002.
Awards: Gospel Music Association Dove Award, New Artist of the Year, 1999.
Addresses: Record company—Gotee Records, 1746 General George Patton Dr. #105, Brentwood, TN 37069, website: http://www.gotee.com.
Chinese food. I don’t stay at a Christian hotel just because it’s a Christian hotel. I don’t have my sheets washed in a Christian washing machine… Why should it be different for music?”
In the Grand Rapids Press, Knapp told John Sinkevics that although she was proud of Lay It Down, she wanted her next album to push farther. ’There’s some more mature writing that will be on the next album. I’m hoping this record will be a little more artful.” In 2002 Knapp released The Way I Am, which became the fastest-selling album in her five-year career. The album was closer to pop than anything she had done before, and she viewed it as a risk, since its rock sound might alienate more conservative Christian listeners. Despite its new sound, the album was nominated for a Dove Award for Album of the Year in 2003.
In April of 2002 Knapp told John Sinkevics in the Grand Rapids Press that she knew that some listeners still viewed her as “a girl with a past” and that she would never be able to make everyone happy with her image. She commented, “As an artist, I hope I just do a good job of explaining where I come from in my life.” At the time, Knapp was touring as the opening act for Christian band Jars of Clay. That band’s guitarist, Matt Odmark, told Sinkevics that the band was “looking for the strongest opener that was out there,” and that Knapp was one of their top choices.
Of the show she put on for the tour, Knapp told Sinkevics, “I didn’t think when I set out that it was going to be this rocking of a show. But we’re kicking butt when we go out there. You just want to break strings and sweat… and this music really lets us do that. This band lets me be a rock ‘n’ roll star.”
Knapp’s rock sound and image led to many offers for her to do a record aimed at the mainstream market. These offers have given Knapp a great deal to think about, and she is still considering moving into the mainstream. She told Mayhew that she did not believe there was a stereotypical Christian lifestyle: “I’ve never felt that you aren’t a Christian because you wear leather and have a tattoo. The question is, ’Are you still able to manage holiness?’ Can you be a rocker and maintain a reverence of God?”
Kansas, Gotee, 1997.
Lay It Down, Gotee, 2000.
The Way I Am, Gotee, 2002.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution(Atlanta, GA), September 22, 2000, p. P3.
Campus Life, July 2001, p. 22; January-February 2002, p. 64.
Christianity Today, August 5, 2002, p. 59
Fresno Bee(Fresno, CA), March 23, 2001, p. E5.
Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Ml), March 5, 2001, p. B1; March 12, 2001, p. B2; April 28, 2002, p. B7; January 15, 2003, p. B7.
Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2000, p. F23.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 29, 2000, p. E4.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), June 20, 1998, p. 7B.
Tennessean (Nashville, TH), February 23, 2003, p. D21.
Today’s Christian Woman, March-April 2003, p. 74.
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