Jessica Gerhardt released her latest single “Gillian” on May 21st. The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter's primary instrument is the ukulele, which, with her vocals, make up the heart of the track. An assortment of synthesizers and electronic drums fill out the composition added by Michael Schneider. Gerhardt notes that the title of the track references the character Gillian from Frederick Buechner’s novel Godric.
Godric tells the story of an English saint, Godric of Finchale. When a young monk visits Godric to record the presumed saint’s story, his life’s complexity soon becomes apparent. Though Godric often played the prodigal, God continues calling him back home including through a mystical experience with a woman named Gillian. Gerhardt’s track takes the perspective of this watchful guardian telling her ward, “Don’t cling to me, but for your life, cling to the vine.” It ends with the repeated refrain reminding Godric that, “On this earth, all things are passing, passing away.”
This otherworldliness characterizes much of Gerhardt’s music. She released her first EP, “Words like Rainfall” in 2014 under the name Feronia. Made up of four tracks, the EP includes a cover of, "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)" by Talking Heads. Explaining the choice of the cover, Gerhardt said, “To me that song, in particular, is a prayer. And I think David Byrne [Talking Heads lead singer] admits it’s his only love song really. He tends to deal with just abstracts, but in that song, I often think of it as a prayer to the Holy Spirit… I have most certainly prayed that song when I’ve played it.”
Centered around Gerhardt’s vocals and ukulele, the song, along with the rest of the EP, features guitar, bass, keyboards, and (mostly) live percussion. She followed this release with singles including her own arrangement of the Pentecost Sequence from the Pentecost liturgy.
Last summer, she released her second EP, “Be My Hands.” Decidedly not typical praise and worship music, Gerhardt's lyrics still regularly display themes praising and/ or wrestling with the work of grace. The EP’s title track implores the Holy Spirit to, “Be my hands as I hold this person close to my heart./ Be my hands as I hold what is whole from breaking apart.” The proceeding choruses alternately ask this intercession for her eyes, words, and heart. Asking God to infuse the senses harkens to the traditional Catholic and Orthodox understanding of theosis or divinization whereby we, “may come to partake of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4) through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Some of the tracks still feature the ukulele, but this latest EP as a whole trends toward more electronic and experimental backings reminiscent of fellow Los Angeles musician Julia Holter and other contemporary indie songstresses.
Music played an important role in her life from an early age. Gerhardt explained, “[My dad] worked at Rhino Records in the accounting department, so he was always bringing home music and CDs [physical disks used to playback music from a bygone era]. Both of my parents were really into music when I was growing up as a kid, so I was exposed to a lot of different classic rock, and Motown, and all kinds of music, so it was always in the home.”
This musical background inspired her to begin creating music at an early age. Gerhardt continued, “I started writing songs when I was eight years old. But I didn’t play any instruments, so I just had melodies in my head, and I would write down the lyrics… I received a ukulele as a gift when I was 15, and I had one lesson from my friend that gave me the uke. And then I just really loved it and kept teaching myself how to play.”
Her faith life mirrors the organic growth of her musical talents. She began taking her faith more seriously following confirmation during high school, and she participated as a peer mentor in a youth group. This experience motivated her to join a small Christian group on campus at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Reed College is notoriously non-conformist, which she knew, but she was unaware of their unofficial slogan, “communism, atheism, and free love” before attending. Being the only Catholic in the small Christian group made Gerhardt more cognizant of the particularities of the Catholic faith that she largely took for granted. The first time she led in prayer, she innocently concluded with a Hail Mary to the confusion of others in the group.
Although music played an important role in her life, Gerhardt did not think of it as a career route until an experience with the group on campus. Gerhardt narrated, “One night they had this all-night vigil, and I took a shift at... [around] 1 in the morning on a Saturday night. So I was there, and I was the only one there, and I had the whole chapel to myself. So I started singing, and I basically felt this voice within me interrupt me, and say, “I want you to do this.” And I was like, “pray in the chapel at 1 in the morning?” and the voice was like, “I want you to pursue music.”
She was majoring in psychology and planned on going into counseling before this. After grappling with the experience, she graduated from Reed and moved to L.A. continuing to make music. While doing this, she took a full-time youth ministry position at a local parish, which she never envisioned herself doing. Gerhardt continued in this position until stepping down last year to pursue music and other creative endeavors full time. She sees the work of providence in how her life continues to unfold that confirms her decision to pursue music. “So far it has not been the journey that I would have picked for myself or predicted, but it has been very life-giving,” Gerhardt remarked.
Catholic themes saturate Gerhardt’s music, but they rarely come across as straightforwardly as Christian themes occur in much of modern Christian music. In this way, her music provides an invitation to a deeper spirituality for believers as well as a bridge for non-believers to begin thinking in terms of the Christian vocabulary. She cites Josh Garrells as another artist who openly espouses his faith while not falling easily into any narrow categories of how Christian music should be.
Carving out a space between Christian and secular music often proves trying, but being open about her faith brings surprising joys as well. Gerhardt said, “I’ve felt in the past couple of years that God is inviting me to be pretty open about [my faith]. And the result has been that I feel better because I don’t feel like I have to hide or compartmentalize aspects of my life, and I have also been able to get into really amazing conversations with my non-Catholic friends about things that I never thought they would be interested in or care about. But a lot of the feedback I have gotten, both from Catholics and from non-Catholics, has just been that they appreciate the way I am open about my faith without pushing it on anybody. So that’s how I hope to continue to be as an artist and a Catholic.”
Gerhardt played a quarantined-inspired Zoom concert on May 22nd in support of Gillian. She also recently started a Patreon, and subscribers received an additional St. Julian of Norwich-inspired track along with Gillian. Her music is available on Spotify, Bandcamp, and other online streaming services.