“When you sing in a canyon, your voice echoes off everything that is broken, and it multiplies in ways it wouldn’t if you weren’t in the pit of it,” Ellie Holcomb tells American Songwriter over the phone from her home in Nashville. When COVID-19 numbers were low last August, the artist and her husband took their first trip to the Grand Canyon. The trip began camping on the Northern rim, then they rafted the river all the way out, stopping on the riverbanks to camp down within the canyon.
“When we were down there, our guide was telling us that the canyon walls really tell a story, and it’s a story of disaster upon disaster,” she says. “I was just looking at the divide between the canyon walls, thinking ‘this is a picture of how so many of our hearts feel after this year.
“To be human is to be broken. And we all know, especially after the last year, what it feels like to have our hearts wide open like a canyon,” she continues. “But there, in the very deepest part, a river was running through it. From personal experience, as it turns out, there is a current of love that runs deeper than our deepest sorrow or longing that will carry us when we feel like we can’t carry on on our own.”
Citing the devastating floods in Nashville, she reiterates, “Water always moves to the lowest place. But my experience with God is that there is a presence of love that moves low, just like water.
“When I left the canyon, I couldn’t shake the image, the hope that even in our deepest places of ache, we belong. We are held when we are falling apart, and we are beloved.”
Back home, she returned to a pile of 35 songs she had written, lamenting on personal pain and elevating the empathy of God in her places of wounding within her own story via counseling. Swiftly, she shoved the stack off of her desk and got to work on what would become her new album, Canyon—her third solo album and Capitol Christian Music Group debut, due on June 25.
Following Red Sea Road in 2017, this 12-track collection, composed of meditative etchings from her awakening of sorts, widens her lens as a storyteller and represents her journey to this point in her career.
For eight years, she recorded and toured full-time with her husband’s band, Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors, before stepping off the road when her first child was born. Her solo debut, As Sure As The Sun (2014), landed her a Top 10 hit on Christian radio with “The Broken Beautiful” and a GMA Dove Award for “New Artist of the Year. In the years since Red Sea Road, Holcomb has released two children’s books—each with a companion of original music written specifically for kids.
Canyon marks a shift for the songwriter, an ability to see beyond her own story. By applying the personal to the whole collective, Holcomb created a path through unprecedented darkness.
“What I thought was a raindrop was actually an ocean,” says Holcomb. “This is global. And we can sing even through sorrow. Suffering never has the final word in the story of God. In the wake of COVID and racial tension, standing in the canyon, everything finally clicked together in a line.”
“I couldnt shake it,” she adds. “I was undone, in the best of ways.”
One of the first songs she wrote that pushed her in the direction of an entirely new collection was “Constellations.” Penned with David Leonard and Jon Guerra, the pleading track seeks answers to impossibly existential questions. Throughout building verses, within the silence of her vulnerability and loneliness, Holcomb concludes that she is in good company with those experiencing similar hurt.
With the help of friends and co-writers—including Natalie Hemby, Bear Rinehart of NEEDTOBREATHE, Thad Cockrell, Zandy Mowry of the New Respects, Carly Bannister, Christa Wells, Nicole Witt, Mia Fields, Hank Bentley, Jeremiah Dunlap, Matt Wertz, and Ben Glover—Canyon is a response to collective chaos. It chronicles Holcomb’s emotional processing, through the flowing river that carried her gently from the depths of darkness in an effort to guide others out of their own canyons.
“When you learn you are beloved even in that most broken place, when things feel so divided and jacked up, you feel like you can still breathe and you can still sing,” says Holcomb.
Citing a National Geographic story she read, Holcomb explains the logic that a canyon is an inverted mountain. The album cover explores that notion, likening her ventures into the depths of the unknown to that of a climb or journey to a peak. In the midst of a great deal of brokenness, Canyon resounds triumphantly. By sharing the wholeness she found within those ancient walls, Holcomb’s new songs sound like joy. The record is invitational in nature, overcoming the unimaginable as a collective.
“There is something beautiful about that imagery. Having the courage to visit our lowest, deepest places may be the key to healing us to live wholeheartedly,” says Holcomb. “My hope is that this record echoes from the deepest valleys to the highest mountains, to let every beating heart know they are beloved, and know they belong.”
Pre-save Ellie Holcomb’s new album, Canyon, here.
Photos by Ashtin Paige