Christian music songstress Gretchen Keskeys pays tribute to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 with the heartfelt new single, "20 Years." Throughout Gretchen's life, when something has touched her heart, or broken it, she's written about it. And 9/11 is no exception.
Moreover, Gretchen will be releasing her upcoming fourth studio album, Her Faith, this fall. Inspired in part by the trials and tribulations of 2020, and her own experience, Gretchen penned each song on the new project, which she says focuses on the hope of Christ and His help and strength to endure tough times.
We are honored to catch up with Gretchen for this exclusive interview.
Q: Gretchen, thanks for doing this interview with us. I really love your new song "20 Years." Why did you decide to write a tribute to the 20th anniversary of 9/11?
Thank you so much. It didn't start out as a song for the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In the summer of 2020, amid all the unrest, violence, division and disrespect of police officers, I started thinking about 9/11 and how much our country had changed. It broke my heart. 9/11 was a true tragedy for our country, but we had never been so united, so patriotic and so full of gratitude for our first responders. And as I do with so many things that touch my heart deeply, I write.
I wrote a short poem which I posted on my social media. "Thinking back to 9/11, the sights and sounds they still can flood in. A day of heroes and of sorrows, those who never saw tomorrow. But in the sadness, there was beauty, a country bound as one in unity. From those who died to the heroes who saved. No one gave a thought to race. We were all Americans that day. That day back then, our toughest test. But that was America at its best." I got a lot of heartfelt response from that and I saw that many people felt the same way. They missed the USA that was back then. I forgot about the poem, but during 2021 as I realized we were at the 20th Anniversary of 9/11 this year, I thought back to that poem. And that's when I thought I'd see if I could turn it into a song. And that is how "20 Years" came to be.
Q: Can you still remember where and what were you doing when you first heard about what happened to the twin towers?
Yes, very much so. The September 11, 2001 attacks happened to occur at a time (before the attacks) in my life that for me was personally very sweet. Our firstborn daughter had just turned one years old and my life was one of living in the glow of a happy new marriage and baby. I had worked in local news and media, but I was now a grateful stay at home mom and loved my life.
My husband worked as a firefighter for Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District. He would sometimes be gone for days at a time, but I stayed busy with our daughter and creating a loving household. I woke up as usual around 6 am (in California) and checked in on our daughter. She was still sleeping, as was my husband. So I savored this time of pouring a cup of coffee and settling in at my computer to see the morning's news. What I turned on, I could never have imagined in a million years. But within minutes I was on the floor in tears crying out loud to God. I had just turned on the news right as the second plane hit the South Tower. WHAT?! I thought: this is impossible. What IS THIS?!! And then before long I heard talk of the Pentagon and the words "Terror Attack." It truly was the most frightening and evil thing I had ever witnessed.
My thoughts immediately went to our baby daughter and what this could mean for her. Would my husband need to go into work (he did,) and would he be in danger? And I then watched in pure horror and agony and heartbreak the video of those in the towers trying to escape the flames. And listening to news of so many trapped in planes. It was awful. Like most Americans, it is forever imprinted in my mind. I could never forget it. It was a traumatic day. And on that day, we had no idea how far and wide it was, so it was terrifying for all of America as well as heartbreaking.
Q: What are some of your reflections about 9/11 twenty years later?
It still is hard to believe that our own airliners were used to commit such an evil act. But it did happen and it was as horrific as everyone says. My late father (who had me later in life,) was a Pearl Harbor survivor and Disabled American Veteran. I grew up in a patriotic home knowing that the attack on Pearl Harbor was the worst day for America. The day that would "live in infamy." When they said 9/11 was the new "Pearl Harbor," I couldn't disagree. It was a devastating day for our country. And most Americans watched it live in real time. So many people that day just going about their lives were totally blindsided and hurt and killed by this evil. But, how our country came together was so astonishingly beautiful.
My husband told me people would stop by day and night to his fire station to drop off food and flowers. Even though they were not directly affected, people were so moved they had to do something. It was no longer about "me," it was about "us." It was about helping and supporting each other. It was about defending and protecting America. And it was about seeking and needing God. There is no doubt our country was humbled that way. We felt totally helpless. Even our president didn't know what was going on at first. And we had no idea how deep and far and wide these attacks would go. We needed God, truly needed Him. And the churches filled up. That was a beautiful time. I miss that part of those days. The kindness, the unity (as the song says, "And Congress even stood as one as God Bless America was sung.") It was amazing to see politics put aside. We were truly a UNITED States of America.
That being said, I also always want to remember that many lives were lost. And I always want to address this with respect and honor for those who are still grieving loved ones. We must never forget. I prayed for the song to have that respectful spirit and I have heard from those directly touched by 9/11 and I am grateful to hear they received the song and video that way.
Q: Besides "20 Years," I believe you have a new album coming out. I believe many of the songs were shaped by your experience during the pandemic. How has the pandemic affected you?
Right before Covid changed everything, I had several appearances scheduled, worship events coming up as we were starting out the year. I was excited about the year. The lockdown was a disappointment, but I thought I would settle in and enjoy being with my family. For a while I loved it. But as time went on, I found myself spending more and more time looking inward and thinking about my life in a critical way. My daughter had been sent home from college because of the pandemic and she was frustrated. My mother who lived in a nice assisted living facility had fallen and broken her back. We weren't allowed to go to the hospital to be with her. And that brought me down. Our home which is usually busy and upbeat, started to feel a bit closed in and down. And the more time I focused on the problems at hand, lack of hope, looking back at mistakes I felt I had made, I became more and more depressed.
One day I realized I hadn't sang worship for quite a while. So I spent some time one morning at the piano pouring out worships songs and I was immediately lifted. And in all this, I started singing a song I wrote as I went along about as long as Jesus loved me I would be ok. "The glow of life has dimmed a bit looking back in the rear view mirror. Everything I once held dear has changed it's getting clearer. But before my heart starts hurtin, I'll remember what I know for certain. Jesus loves me. That I'm gonna hold onto. He loves me, Jesus loves me and as long as Jesus loves me I'm gonna make it through." I felt the most hopeful I had in a long time. Every day I was drawn back to the piano to write more. All the songs came from a place of praise and surrender. Every day I wrote a new song to where I thought, here is an album. It is an album straight from my heart. It came from a place of losing hope to back to life only by focusing on Jesus and praising Him.
Q: How have these experiences impacted you in your song writing?
I always must be connected to the Vine (Jesus.) He is the one who enables me to do any of this. If I am lacking, I only need to pray. If I am going through a dry spell, know that He is doing work there too. Just like He did in the pandemic. And I know how life is, so I know there surely will be more trials and down times and dry spells. But I can praise God in all that too. He promises to work everything together for good and to complete a good work in me. So I will rest and trust in Jesus and enjoy the ride! And somewhere in there, there will be another song.
Q: Who are some of the people you have had worked with for this new record?
All of the words and melodies I wrote and created. But I rely on an outstanding group of Nashville musicians, arrangers, producers, background vocalists and engineers to make it all come together and sound amazing. Eric Copeland of Creative Soul Records producer. Steve Dady of Sunset Blvd. Studios arranging, engineer and producing. Dave Cleveland on guitar, Steve Brewster on drums, Gary Lunn on bass, Jason Webb on keys.
Q: Give us a sneak peek into this new album: name three songs on the album that you are most proud of and tell us why.
This was a hard one because as I went through the list, I can truly say each one could be a favorite. But I will name three! I will start with "Her Faith" - that is the title of the album. I wrote it about my very dear mother who passed away in May of this year. She suffered so much during 2020. She broke her back, had a stroke and was diagnosed with cancer which led to her death. And while all this was happening during the pandemic, we could not be with her in person in the hospital or her care facility. But, she stayed strong and upbeat and hopeful. She was a woman of deep faith (from her childhood to her 90's) who lived an amazing and accomplished life. The song speaks of this faith and I believe it has a great message for young people starting out: "She knew God was for her and God was with her, because of these two things nothing could stop her. She climbed the mountains, the highest heights. But there was one thing she never left behind. It was the faith that carried her through life." I loved my mother dearly and I am grateful to honor her through this song.
Next, I'll say: "You Keep Hope Alive in Me" - just because this is such a profound truth for my life. "When my burden's heavy and I seek You, I will always find, always find: Your kindness, patience. You're my gentle loving Jesus. Your grace and understanding I'll receive. Oh and there is no friend, who is better than Lord Jesus. Because you lift me up, you lift me up and You leave me with Your peace. Oh Jesus You keep hope alive in me." He truly does.
"It Is Jesus" - I love this because it is about what it means to be a Christian. It's not about all the things we might think: "It's not dressing up for church, it's not saying things just right. It's not putting on some show saying my life's a perfect sight. It is knowing I'm a sinner and I needed to be saved. It's believing that Lord Jesus saved me by the price He paid. Yes it is Jesus, it is Jesus. Jesus is the One who paid the cost. It is Jesus, only Jesus. Our one way to the Father, It is Jesus who gave His life for us." - we never have to get bogged down in this life. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. He did it all (paid the price, gave His life for us) so we can be free and have an abundant life and life eternal. Yes, It is Jesus!
Q: How will your new songs speak to us who are struggling in this pandemic?
I hope it will bring Jesus front and center because He is what is needed to not just get through but to truly live even in very hard times as my mother did. Keep Jesus the focus, looking up, not looking down or in or back. We can't control what is happening in this world. Especially in a pandemic. We can go crazy trying to keep it together, kill every germ, follow every rule, do things just right. Or we can rest in Jesus, do our best, and He promises to do the rest. As another favorite song on the album, "Child Be Still" (based on Psalm 46:10) says: "Child be still and know that I am God. Cast your cares and worries on me each and every thought. Quiet your mind and give to me the fight and as you do I"ll make a way and keep your burdens light. Child be still and know I'm God." It's a great way to live.