By Jessica Connor
SPARTANBURG—The Rev. Elise Erikson Barrett knows what it’s like to drift through life on autopilot, pushing your own needs aside so you can put commitments and even life’s tragedies at the fore. A self-described lifelong perfectionist, Barrett heeded the call of others’ expectations to the point where she was masking her own desires, her own feelings. If she didn’t feel them, they couldn’t get in the way, she rationalized. And so it went.
But when her husband, fellow United Methodist pastor Chris Barrett, was diagnosed with stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2012, she encountered the kind of wake-up call few others experience. The busy mother of three young children put everything aside to be her husband’s caregiver through a failed course of chemotherapy and a successful bone marrow transplant.
“My approach to facing hardship is try harder,” Barrett said. “You assume if you dig deeper there’s just more there, but this time with Chris’ illness, I got to a point where it’s like I was digging deeper but there’s nothing there. I was having panic attacks in bathrooms and was at the end of my capacity, and it was awful.”
Barrett turned to God, to songwriting, to music—and finally began to acknowledge her own feelings. To breathe again. To become, for the first time in perhaps her whole life, fully awake and alive.
Now, she has released her debut album, Awake, to explore these profound questions of faith, love and loss that surfaced during her husband’s multi-year battle with cancer, ultimately focusing on what matters the most.
“I’m a person who likes to do the right thing, who wants to be highly moral and wants to be a perfectionist … and those are good personality traits for people who want to be leaders or pastors or parents or whatever. But what happened with Chris’ illness pushed me outside my autopilot,” Barrett said. “I had to start asking questions like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ‘I feel sad; what does that mean?’ ‘Trying harder isn’t working anymore; what is the significance of that?’”
Barrett ultimately concluded she “can’t be half a person anymore.” It was getting in the way of life, of being the full and true person God created her to be.
“I wanted to be awake and alive to God’s presence first before I’m awake and alive to other people’s expectations and anything else,” Barrett said. “So ‘Awake’ is the title of the album because it is the acknowledgement that autopilot is really functional for a lot of the time, but for me, the challenge of our circumstances push me out of it. And I’d rather be awake and find life a little more difficult than be asleep and find it easy.”
Working with award-winning producer Gabriel Harley, Barrett’s album reflects a unique spin on the piano-driven singer/songwriter genre. Available through her website, www.elisebarrett.com, as well as on iTunes and Spotify, the album features Chanticleer alumnus Jace Wittig, violinist Jory Fankuchen (Death Cab for Cutie) and San Francisco string quartet Squid Inc. The result has been a spiritual triumph for Barrett and those alongside her.
From prayer language to album project
Music was a natural place for Barrett to turn after her husband grew sick. From her early years in the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, through college and divinity school, and to her experiences as a pastor and worship leader, music has been a cornerstone for her throughout her life. But she hadn't written music in years when her husband was diagnosed with cancer.
But turning to music again made perfect sense, she said: “Music is one of my prayer languages.”
Writing a few songs turned into writing many, and slowly she began to share her pieces with family and friends. During her husband’s transplant process, she and some friends did a “Marrow Mix” for him, featuring songs he could listen to during the process, and they recorded the mix at Charleston Sound. At the studio, she got much encouragement, but she pushed it aside—“interesting, whatever”—and turned all her focus toward getting her husband and children through the illness and out the other side.
But once her husband was in remission, Barrett found herself wondering what was next. After all, with his health journey unpredictable and with three young kids, she couldn’t go back to work as a pastor, only to have to shelf that if the cancer returned.
“I started praying and thought, ‘What if this season could have some gifts in it, and money wasn’t a factor?’” she said.
The answer was clear: she’d do music and write.
So Barrett set out to use the season as a gift to do the things she wanted to do musically. She decided to record a CD for people who had walked with their family during their difficult time. She contacted an old high school friend, Harley, whom she knew was a producer, and inquired about costs. She planned to fund the project herself, spend a week in Harley’s studio outside Indianapolis and make the album.
But friends pushed her to do a Kickstarter campaign, which is a fundraising project where people pledge money to help launch a creative venture, such as a book, album or film. Barrett was hesitant, because she felt like her family had received so much from people already, but friends were persistent, so she reluctantly agreed.
The campaign was wildly successful, quickly raising 150 percent of Barrett’s fundraising goal.
“I was blown away,” she said.
Meanwhile, her producer friend was experiencing some major success of his own: he became affiliated with the historic Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, Calif.
They were off and running.
But then, a huge blow: just as Barrett’s album project was taking off, her husband got seriously sick again and was hospitalized. They feared a return of his cancer. Barrett was devastated.
“I got really angry at God because I’d felt this urgency to start and now I wouldn't have time for it,” Barrett said. “Looking back, I would not have done the Kickstarter thing if Chris had gotten sick first, But now I had this money, and had this obligation to produce this CD I’d promised people, and a sick husband.”
The Barretts prayed about what to do and decided they needed to proceed with the album—only now instead of just recording for a week this summer in Indiana, Barrett would spend a week recording at Perfect Mix Studios in the Indianapolis area and then fly to Berkeley to record the rest at Fantasy Studios.
The experience at Fantasy was “just amazing,” Barrett said. The engineer, who Barrett said was not a name-dropper, would tell random stories in passing about working with Dave Matthews or Bonnie Raitt.
“He was so mellow and so kind and so encouraging,” Barrett said. “Everyone out there was so great to work with.”
And best of all: her husband’s health is now on an upswing. The cancer had not returned after all, and after a brief but frightening setback, they are settling into a new, and healthier, reality.
God’s work—one day at a time
With the album now released and a fall peppered with concerts and other album promotion, Barrett is now focusing on keeping her heart and mind open to new possibilities—and whatever else God has in store for her.
“I have this album now, and I don’t really know what’s going to happen with it,” Barrett said, laughing. “This whole thing snowballed in front of my feet without me doing much about it—I had envisioned this was a bucket list project for a stay-at-home mom in her mid-thirties with a sick husband, but Gabe my producer was like, ‘Oh, now it’s promotions.’”
So without any expectations, fully awake and alive, Barrett is choosing to follow whatever crumbs fall in front of her, take each day as it comes and rest in the assurance that she is doing God’s work no matter where the album, or life, takes her.
“I did this concert at Spartanburg Methodist College, and it was the first time I’d performed any of these songs, and I did a testimony and it was just powerful,” Barrett said. “And it felt like it fit, like it was resonant with God’s work for me right now. … I don’t know what to expect, but I’m willing to offer it.
“I’m just trying to listen for God’s voice.”
Awake is available on www.elisebarrett.com, as well as on iTunes and Spotify.
By Jessica Connor