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A seasoned veteran of the indie Christian music scene, Tara-Leigh Cobble has released 8 records, published 3 books and a disciple group guide, and toured extensively over the years, sharing her music and her heart. As a matter of fact she has covered close to 750,000 miles, at more than 2,000 shows in 48 states and 13 countries.
But the most exciting aspect of Tara-Leigh's art is that it is driven by her relationship with the Lord and her desire to build God's kingdom here on earth, as you will learn in this interview. We asked Larry Stephan, one of the members on our UTR critics panel, to have a cyberspace conversation with Tara-Leigh on the occasion of the release of her 8th album, Come Back Soon.
Larry: Can you give us some background on how you got started as an artist?
Tara-Leigh: Songwriting has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, but I didn't start playing guitar until I was 18. In college, I played one of my songs for a friend who was a youth pastor, and he asked me to do a concert for his youth group. At the time I was planning to be a flight attendant after graduation, so I could see the world for free. But God had other plans for me to see the world for free – through touring. That night on the stage, I felt Him prompting me to pursue music as a career. I documented a lot of this story in my book Here's to Hindsight: Letters to My Former Self. The day after that first concert, I started calling everyone I knew who had the power to put me in front of people, and I left on my first tour a month later. I didn't even know how to tune my guitar yet, or when it needed to be tuned. In retrospect, I never should've been playing shows at my skill level. But God used my ignorance as a launching pad for what has been my only job in my adult life.
Larry: Come Back Soon is your eighth record. Have all of your records been produced independently?
Tara-Leigh: They have. My parents are both entrepreneurs, so it's built into my bones to pursue things even if they don't come easily.
Larry: While some of your previous releases have worship or devotional moments, this is your first recording devoted entirely to worship music. What was the reason for this?
Tara-Leigh: Lee McDerment, a good friend who is also the worship pastor at my church in South Carolina (NewSpring Church), has been telling me to do a worship album for years. I'm a part of the worship team at NewSpring, and I love writing worship songs for our church. But that wasn't always the case. For a long time, the songs that came most easily were songs about love and ache and loss. But one night, over dinner with Lee and his wife, I told them that I'd been writing more worship songs lately, and it was the first time I wasn't writing out of pain. “Maybe, for you, worship is the art born from joy,” he said. The following week I took part in a songwriting challenge to write 7 songs in 7 days. I told myself that if I could make all those songs worship songs, I would record an album. I think I finished the week with 9 new worship songs. Most of those are on Come Back Soon.
Larry: There is quite an apparent difference in the content and mood of Morning's War, your previous recording, and Come Back Soon. It feels like a journey.
Tara-Leigh: Morning's War came at the darkest time of my life, my “dark night of the soul.” I was emotionally laid bare, God felt absent, and I couldn't seem to keep my head above water. Music was the only place for me to put those feelings. I wrote angry. I wrote aching. The pages of my lyrics were wrinkled and bent and tear-stained. But the two years between Morning's War and Come Back Soon were years of restoration and healing. God pursued me with such compassion and gentleness. I wanted to praise Him for it. I needed art that reflected what had happened in my relationship with Him. I couldn't let Morning's War have the last word, even if it had spoken an important word in its time.
Larry: Please tell us something about the four books you have published.
Tara-Leigh: I never set out to write books. A publisher (RELEVANT) contacted me about writing my first memoir, and I fell in love with the craft. Like music, I was shaky with my skill set at first, but God was faithful to grow me. I have 3 books of memoir essays, and I call them “The Letters Trilogy,” because they all have “Letters to...” in the subtitle. My first book, Here's to Hindsight: Letters to My Former Self, is about how I met Jesus, how I became a musician, the first couple of years on the road. The theme of its sequel, Crowded Skies: Letters to Manhattan, is finding God's plan for your life. The last book in that series is Orange Jumpsuit: Letters to the God of Freedom. It tells the story behind the songs of Morning's War. People have always said my art was “honest,” but it never felt scary to be honest until I wrote that book. I had so much more to be honest about than ever before. I've also written a discipleship manual called Mile Deep: A Practical Guide To Discipleship Groups. Discipleship is my passion, and it's how I spend almost all my spare time. For other people who share that passion but lack an organized vision, this short book gives them a structured framework.
Larry: Can you explain your role in the network of discipleship groups you lead?
Tara-Leigh: It started with one group of nine girls I'd never met before. I wanted something more involved than a Bible study, because I know myself, and I know that I would just do the assigned reading an hour before the group met, and I'd never be challenged to make God a part of my daily life otherwise. So I put together D-Group (Discipleship Group), which feels a little more like boot camp. Eventually the group grew to 25 women, so I split it into two groups of 12 each, plus me. When girls moved to other cities, they wanted to take it with them, so I appointed them as leaders, and they kept the same schedule. It has developed into 16 groups across America, and I send weekly videos to the girls, we have retreats twice a year, and I had to write Mile Deep to hand off to leaders as a guide, because I've never even met some of them. I'm astonished at the ways God continues to grow D-Group, but also my love for Him through D-Group.
A huge thank you to Larry for conducting a terrific interview, and thanks to Tara-Leigh for her gracious responses. Her latest project Come Back Soon was recently cited by our UTR critics as one of the Best Albums of 2013 (so far). You can find out more about Tara-Leigh and her music at her website and her facebook page.
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