Sarah Hart, the ‘accidental artist’
In Catholic circles, when you’ve performed for the pope, you’ve made it big. In 2013, Sarah Hart from Nashville, Tennessee, had the honor of sharing her talent with Pope Francis and a crowd of 150,000 people at the World Meeting of Families in Rome.
A musician and songwriter, Hart has composed songs for artists such as Amy Grant, Matt Maher, and Audrey Assad, and for the groups Celtic Woman and Newsboys. Her 10th album, Sacrament, debuted in March 2018, and she is currently working on her 11th album, titled And Lovely It Is. Parishes across the country sing her hymns, including “You Alone,” “Go In Peace,” and “Alleluia! Love Is Alive.”
Hart, a mother to two teenage daughters, is also a keynote speaker, retreat leader, and composer. She has written a musical about the life of St. Bernadette called Bernadette of Lourdes. Catholic Digest spoke with Hart about how she got her start, her music, and her family.
Q: Were you raised in a Catholic home where the faith was talked about?
A: Yes. I had the great joy of living with my mom, sister, grandparents, and great grandmother as a child. It was a home full of love and faith. My grandmother and mother were Catholic, and my grandfather and great grandmother were Presbyterian. It gave me a great sense of the way ecumenism should be lived — for which I am incredibly grateful. I also went to Catholic schools for 12 years.
Q: When did you realize that you wanted to be a musician?
A: In all honesty, always. I grew up in a household full of music and musicians and learned to sing and play from a very early age. My family was incredibly encouraging, as was our community.
Being practical, I wasn’t sure I could earn a living with just my music, so I had other ideas, too. For a time, I thought I might become a pediatrician. I remember auditioning for band camp placement the summer before I was a freshman in high school, and the band director just stared at me after the audition and said, “So, what are you going to do with your life?” I said, “Well, I think I might be a pediatrician.” He laughed out loud and then shouted, “Honey, you’re not going to be any pediatrician; I can promise you that. You’re going to be a musician!” I’m still grateful for the way he so bluntly spoke into my life.
Q: What’s the story behind why you chose to sing Christian-themed music?
A: It just happened naturally. Because I grew up in the Church around musicians and singing in choirs, music and faith were intertwined. Writing songs about God and my love for my faith was a very natural extension of being a musician who had the understanding that God created melody and language for us to embrace and for us to turn it into something beautiful for others.
Q: Where do you get your ideas for song lyrics?
A: Life itself is a great teacher and an incredible inspiration. One can find lyrical inspiration anywhere, but bringing the honesty of the human experience — with all of its joy and grief, richness and poverty, light and shadow — is crucial. You can’t be a great songwriter unless you are willing to be incredibly honest and vulnerable. I also believe that to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader.
I’m also inspired by poetry, and I read a ton of it. The psalms and the Book of Proverbs especially are an endless source of beauty and inspiration.
Q: What inspired you to write your Sacrament album?
A: When my oldest daughter was being confirmed, I looked at the song choices for the service and thought that the theology didn’t really speak well to this wonderful rite of initiation and that the music was perhaps not a great fit either. So I decided to write a song for my daughter’s Confirmation, which I played at the service. It’s called “May You Walk,” and the lyrics reflect not only the rite of Confirmation but also the emotion of what is actively happening. It went so well that I decided to do a whole recording for the sacraments.
I think it’s important for writers and musicians in the Church to pay attention to their congregations and to listen to the Church at-large, instead of saying, “What would I like to sing, write, or play?”
Q: You also write songs for some well-known musicians. Is it difficult to let those songs go and not record them yourself?
A: Only sometimes — for the songs I really love — but I know they will have more of an audience elsewhere. More often than not, I’m writing with intention for another artist specifically, so it’s not as difficult. I’m always so grateful to have the opportunity to write with and for other artists; it’s a great joy.
Q: Were you a professional songwriter before you launched your solo career?
A: It really all happened around the same time. My plan was initially just to be a songwriter or backing musician and not necessarily an artist. But once I moved to Nashville and began to understand that songwriting was writing from my own experience and my own heart, the songs came very quickly. The songs I wrote were close to me personally, so it made sense to sing them myself. I like to say that I’m an “accidental artist.”
Q: What was it like performing for Pope Francis, and did you get to meet him?
A: It was incredible, profound, and overwhelming. I got up and sang a song with the Holy Father sitting about 20 feet away. I was not sure I would have the opportunity to meet him, but as the event was closing, a man tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Follow me; you’re going to meet Pope Francis.” Before I knew it, I was standing in a short line, getting ready to meet the pope. Etiquette is not my strong suit, so I wasn’t sure what to do, but I felt the Holy Spirit say, “Calm down, you will be fine.” When I got to the front of the line — and I was standing face-to-face with Pope Francis — I threw my arms open wide and cried “PAPA!” while going in for a giant bear hug.
All the guys around him were laughing, though I don’t think the security detail was too amused. Pope Francis was grinning from ear to ear, so I knew it was all good. When I finally let go of that embrace, I felt mortified upon noticing that I had gotten a smudge of black mascara on his shoulder.
Q: You write musical theater, too. Tell us a little about your productions.
A: I have written one full-length musical at this point, Bernadette of Lourdes, based on the life of St. Bernadette Soubirous. It premiered in Nashville a few years ago, and since then we have been licensing it primarily to Catholic high schools across the country for performance. I’m currently working on a few others.
Q: Are the retreats you conduct only for musicians?
A: They’re not just for musicians. I lead all kinds of groups across the country. I’ve written four retreats — working on a fifth based on the sacraments. I take the content to women’s conferences and retreats, parish missions, parish days of reflection, music ministry retreats, et cetera.
I would say at this point that I’m keynoting as much as I’m singing, and I love it! Anyone can find out about what I do and where I will be by visiting my website, SarahHart.com.
Q: Will you tell us about your family?
A: My family is a beautiful reminder every day of how powerful unconditional love is. I’ve been married for 25 years to my wonderful husband, Kevin. I’m a woman of great chaos, and I tend to bring it with me at all times. Kevin steadies me. There’s always much to laugh about in our lives, and we do, which is such a gift.
My children, Rose and Evelyn, are beautiful and fabulous people. Most of the time I can’t believe my good fortune that I get to be their mom. They’re both artists; my oldest began university in 2018 at a design school, and I believe my youngest will follow a similar path. They also run their own business, HippChicks.com, selling art, T-shirts, and altered fashion, and their mission is to share messages of hope and positivity, especially for young people who are so often burdened with the negativity and narcissism of the world.
Q: Do you find that writing songs brings you closer to God?
A: There’s so much about the creative process that draws humans closer to God. Just as meditation and prayer open us up to God, so does creativity. What being creative does is allow us quietude — moments to listen — and if we want to engage in a relationship with God, listening is key.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of Catholic Digest.