When she’s not traveling in Latin America, backpacking in Colorado, performing at U.S. universities or house concerts, blogging (check out Tracy’s blog on The Other Journal blog page), building her relationships and community networks, composing music with words in English and Portuguese, playing with her Great Dane, or working on the music collaborative project The Restoration Village (www.RestorationVillage.com), Tracy Howe is in some manner or other exuding her earnest desire for reconciliation and transformation through conversations and active engagement in issues of social justice.
At a Seattle benefit house concert for Mustard Seed Associates (www.msainfo.org), I met Tracy and listened as her beautiful music unfolded a vision of hope and community, a space for thoughtful inquiry into the tension of tradition and transformation to change. I asked Tracy to share her thoughts and mission with The Other Journal.
The Other Journal (TOJ): What are your earliest experiences with music and songwriting?
Tracy Howe (TH): There was a beautiful baby grand piano in the living room while I was growing up. My parents had gotten a really good deal on it, and my dad played a little by ear. Mostly he had a three song repertoire, the feature piece being “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles, that he sat down and played a couple of times every year. By the time I was four, I was spending time in front of the piano, looking at all of the keys, learning some songs by ear. I begged my parents for lessons and was happy to start when I was seven or so and started to excel in classical music.
As for words, I had a vibrant imagination—I wrote an entire play when I was ten or eleven. I journaled and I wrote stories and poetry. By the time I was twelve, I started composing piano pieces, but it was not until college that my words joined the music. My very first album, in fact, which I recorded in someone’s basement while in college, is based around piano composition: the lyrics are overlaid on the music. Over the years, I matured as a songwriter, but that’s kind of where I started.
TOJ: How do you understand your purpose, and how have you found your “voice”?
TH: As the name might imply, I am a restorationist. I believe in a hope that restores people and communities and relationships. Specifically, I am a restorationist following in the way and love of Jesus. Jesus affects my perspective and the way I pursue people. In a nutshell, I understand my mission to be to reconnect broken people to Jesus and communicate things about His hope and promises in the places I go and in the relationships I have. But the music is just a piece of how that might manifest. I want my songs to be the fruit of and a catalyst for God’s work in the world, His love and justice, but I want the way that I tour and relate to communities as an artist also to manifest something of eternal hope and promise.
If my “voice,” then, is the unique expression and perspective I have and the way I am able to uniquely encourage and influence people, that is something I have matured into over the years almost entirely in the context of relationships. From my peers and mentors, who have reflected a fullness in me that I have not been able to recognize myself, to encountering Jesus in the poor and communities I have grown in relationship with—I don’t think anyone can become the fullness of who they are without help.
TOJ: There are strong themes that unfurl in much of your music. Hope, community, and restoration are three; can you describe to us the meaning and motivation inside your idea of restoration?
TH: I would love to! Originally, it was the words and promises of Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 60 and 61 that laid a foundation of vision for The Restoration Project. I had already been touring full-time for a couple of years and The Restoration Project came as a vision of creative partnership more than a musical endeavor actually—a dream of artists and leaders sharing resources, gifts, and friendship internationally and across borders of all kinds, be they political or socioeconomic, to manifest a greater reality of being a divinely created family.
Years later, I went through some restoration of identity and relationships in my own life, and I started to see how our unique expression is related to the process of restoration as well. Again, I believe it can be both the fruit of and catalyst for the manifestation of God’s purpose on the earth.
To put some narrative to these ideas, let’s look at Hosea 2. Remember, Hosea was a prophet that God told to marry a prostitute and through that relationship He taught Israel about His great and patient love for them. It is an incredible book and story, and for the most part, it recounts Hosea’s process and conversations with God. However, in chapter 2, God starts to speak about and interact directly with the woman: “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt” (Hosea 2:14-15).
God says: (1) I will allure her and bring her into the desert; (2) I will speak tenderly to her (other versions say, “I will speak words of comfort to her”); (3) I will give back her vineyards—the promises of God are being recounted and reclaimed; (4) I will show her the Valley of Achor as a door of hope; and (5) she will sing as in the days of her youth, that is, in the days before she was a prostitute when she was simply a daughter.
There are many more things we could talk about in breaking down this passage, but as for restoration, what I want to focus on is the Valley of Achor becoming a door of hope. The Valley of Achor was a place of death and deception that no one would want to remember or talk about—the story, which is recounted in Joshua, involves deception and violence. So for God to make it a door of hope is incredibly profound. It’s as if to say, all the darkness and ugliness that have become part of your story and existence—the worst things you have gone through—I can take them all and redeem your entire story, and it will become a door of hope. After all, the depth from which we have been restored is proportional to the measure of glory for God in the process. And then look what happened: she sang “as in the days of her youth.” The days of her youth, were the days before her prostitution, the days of just being a daughter.
I very intentionally try to capture the stories of people I know and meet, often digging into the darkness, believing it can be transformed. I write about communities of living faith that inspire me, and I put them in the context of this transformational hope, the kind of hope that takes the worst things in the world and makes them a platform for worship and new songs.
TOJ: What do you hope for?
TH: I have a dream that these songs would be released—this unique expression that comes at the end of restoration and divine transformation. For example, the song of Deborah (Deborah was a judge and prophetess who was written about in the Hebrew Bible, and she sang a song about God’s faithfulness after great trial and battle); no one could have written the song besides Deborah who stood the battle and witnessed God in her journey. But we read it, and something of God is magnified for us. I believe that God has actually chosen to place a great deal of the revelation of his work and purposes in this time inside of His people. For this reason, I actually have a sense of urgency in seeing people restored and expression released. Imagine the stories of nations . . . with sad and tragic histories being redeemed and songs sung from a posture of hope, and the grace and hope those songs might carry if sung in other communities and nations, and the beauty that could be released. Those are the kinds of things I dream about.
TOJ: You spent a lot of time performing at universities. What movements do you see in which young people are living out their roles as members of the church?
TH: One of the most necessary and hopeful Spirit-led movements is an awakening to the Kingdom as a reality that is possible through the love and purpose of God, which is revealed to us in the way of Jesus. There are many things that entails, but more and more, I see a deinstitutionalization of our Kingdom identities emerging from communities of young people. Quite simply, there is a new economy in play. The old church economy, which told people that the only full-time ministry positions were being a pastor or a youth leader, is fading away. People who understand themselves as teachers and leaders in the Kingdom of Jesus are understanding it as a deeper reality than a vocational title, and so they are free to pursue business and politics and science. It is a wonderful thing. And vice versa—artists and poets are being awakened to the eternal purpose of God-breathed expression and their role in a church that not too long ago (and in some cases still) did not recognize the validity of artist leaders (despite the fact that the original Levitical leadership in Israel was one-third artists).
Anyway, it is all very hopeful. My feeling is that it is a timely global awakening of the Spirit, perhaps fueled by the desperate state of the planet and the intense suffering of the global community . . . so I want to set things in motion leading toward restoration and not despair.