Florida-born, NYC-based singer-songwriter Amy Jay has released her debut album, Awake Sleeper. Recorded at Brooklyn's Mason Jar Music with producer Jonathan Seale (Feist, Fleet Foxes, Aoife O'Donovan), Awake Sleeper marks Jay's third official project and first full-length release.
Awake Sleeper was profoundly inspired by Jay's day-to-day life in New York City, conjuring its incessant energy, its ambient noise and constant motion, occasionally quiet but ceaseless in its flow. Jay gave life to her songs with an idiosyncratic sound equally informed by experimental electronica, classical music, and post-rock as it is by traditional acoustic folk songcraft.
Q: Thank you Amy for doing this interview with us. Let's begin with yourself: tell us a little about who you are.
Thanks for having me! Sure, I am originally from Florida, but I have been living in New York City for just over a decade. I learned the violin and piano from about five years old and only discovered my voice when I tried out for the middle school play, and the choir director said I must join choir. I always hated practicing but was motivated to play the songs I liked and play around with new ideas. I officially started songwriting in high school, but my focus was primarily choir and orchestra, and stayed with choir through college. That's when I began pursuing being a singer/songwriter.
After graduation, I worked in music publishing, working on behalf of songwriters. I realized I wanted to be the songwriter, not work for them, so I fundraised and put out my first EP. It quickly became overwhelming to have a full-time job and expect to devote full-time hours to music. So I reflected long and hard about what to do next and discovered I loved another creative part about releasing music: the design. I ended up quitting my job and pivoting my career by taking a 3-month intensive course for graphic design. Now I work as a part-time graphic designer. Through this journey, I came to see myself not only as a songwriter but a general creative being. That's how I was made, and I want to steward it well.
Q: You grew up in the church, tell us about your experiences there.
I was raised Catholic and did the whole thing - first Communion, CCD, confirmation, but my family only went to mass on the holidays and were the kind of people that came late and left early to avoid the crowd. It was when my best friend from school invited me to her youth group at an Assemblies of God church that I discovered my faith when I committed to following Jesus. I had said the words to fulfill all the Catholic duties, but my heart was not in it. I think I actually didn't really understand what was going on - when I look back, I remember very little teaching from those days, and I think the concepts were too deep for my mind to comprehend.
But when I experienced contemporary worship music surrounded by kids my age and in the safety of going with my best friend, I immediately found comfort and a home. I saw such freedom in lifting hands and dancing around. I had a relationship with Jesus I never knew could be. The bible felt alive; God felt alive. I remember my dad asking me why I was crying one time after I went. The best I could say was "I don't know," but I knew it was a cathartic healing cry and what I believe was the Holy Spirit. So I went to youth group as much as I could on Wednesdays and I also started going to a super charismatic service on Fridays (think no chairs, ram's horns blowing, flags waving, people slain in the spirit, etc.). I dove deep.
I started going to a non-denominational church on Sundays when I could drive. Then in college, I got involved with the Navigators and found a different kind of community. Everything was focused on discipleship and I was mentored by older students until I was the one mentoring. During that time I also started leading worship, I joined my friend's gospel choir, I got involved on the worship team at my church. Music and faith were inextricably linked. I'll leave it there for now.
Q: I believe you had a theological crisis. What are some of the events that led up to this crisis?
I did. I went through a theological crisis (for a longer season than I ever thought) after a trip to California to visit a very popular church in the worship movement. What happened there was life-changing - I didn't hear the gospel preached, I was approached by a member of the church in an inappropriate way, and the congregation was totally into what felt like empty words of a sermon. The final straw was that the man who preached claimed to be translating the Bible on his own based on visions from God. That was terrifying for me to hear, to have unknown accountability. In the following years, the home church I was going to was getting more connected with this church and other strange coincidental events followed that made it so I left that church as well. I no longer felt safe and didn't know who to trust anymore. I was officially disillusioned with the charismatic Christian church movement.
Q: Can you describe this crisis and how it has affected your view of God and the Bible?
That movement influenced so much of my faith and the experiences of my child and adult life. My foundations were shaken - experiencing this made me question the basis of my faith, if my faith was real to begin with, what absolute truth was, what the essentials of Christianity were, and what was fluff or gray area that I could live with and let go because no one is perfect but God. I recognized everyone was getting something wrong, and I believed in being a part of a community as part of the body of Christ, but I didn't know where to land. I was in that place for years.
I was mad at God for being so opaque and silent, yet seemingly demanding of me. I felt trapped like it was up to me to figure this out or my salvation was at stake. I researched high and low for what every denomination believed and their differences. I fit nowhere. I lost my peace, the security I always felt before that I wasn't sure of anymore. All I could listen to were podcasts or videos of theologians or leaders saying conflicting things and not knowing who to trust. I didn't know if I was interpreting what I was reading in the bible incorrectly. I didn't trust myself. I was completely lost for a long time trying to search for a new grounding, while God seemed to stay distant and obscure. I kept reading, though, and I kept praying (though it felt so pointless and dry).
I found some solace going to communion services at an Episcopal church near my office, where it seemed my past and my present were somehow held in suspension, and I could at least acknowledge that I needed Jesus. I was able to share his body and blood with other believers (whether or not anyone believed it was literal or not). The meal at the table was for me too. That sacrament was a life raft for me.
Q: How has this faith crisis influenced your music?
I certainly process everything through music, so of course, these themes were woven in my album, and a whole song was dedicated to it ("Sorrow"). In my personal life, I backed away from contemporary worship music for a long time. It is still sometimes hard to listen to, which makes worshiping God through music pretty difficult. It helps to listen to different genres of Christian music or other Christian singer-songwriters outside the CCM world. For the first time in a while, I am thinking about writing worship songs again, this time with my eyes open and purely gospel-centered. We'll see what happens.
Q: How do you think your music, especially your new record "Awake Sleeper," can help those who are struggling spiritually and emotionally?
I think we have to face our doubts. I think we have to question. Otherwise, our emotions and our spirituality will die. You can't throw away the bad feelings and keep the good. You either have both or feel nothing at all, which is a shallow human existence. A lot of the album reflects this processing, about the past and relationships (including the one with God). So I hope that this encourages listeners to think and be challenged. I don't think that total deconstruction is always necessary for a strong faith but I do think that challenging our beliefs is and recognizing there are always doubts is essential. It's part of the frustrating mystery of God's character. It's okay to express deep pain, but there's a caveat there because I think we need people to process healthily. Friends, mentors, counselors. I did not do this alone; even if I felt lonely, I was not alone.
Q: What were a couple of highlights for you in the making of this album?
To piggyback off of the last question, it was that I was surrounded by amazing musicians and did it with the magical talent of my producer and friend Jon Seale. We had some long talks about my faith struggle, which I am so grateful for. Every day I was in the studio, I left inspired from being washed by incredible sounds. Looking back, it was pre-covid and we had no idea what was coming, but making art with others was so healing then and I can't wait to do it again soon.
Another highlight was before one recording session on my way from the train to the studio, I heard a song blasting from the street that I needed to find. After some Googling, I found out it was "Blessing After Blessing" from Positive. That song gave me so much life for months as I couldn't listen to CCM for a long time without feeling icky.
The other very significant highlight was that my husband and I had just adopted our dog Huxley and he was the best emotional support animal I ever knew I needed. Every recording session he was there with me. Nothing is like the unconditional love from a dog. It helps me understand a little slice of God's love for me.
Q: How do these songs speak to you today?
It's funny, I wrote and recorded these songs in 2019. A lot has changed, and the dust has settled a bit. But it was so important for me to go through the hard journey to know it's okay to live in uncertainty. Obviously, covid has trained us in that arena too. I think listening to my songs helps me honor where I've come from which is a beautiful thing. It is also a reminder that the process continues, that it isn't linear, and I am not alone in it.