Jean Watson is a classically trained singer and violinist based in Michigan. She’s been creating Christian music since 2002. Since then she has recorded ten full-length albums. Her music is rooted in her deep relationship with God and His grace and healing. On November 1, 2019, Jean released her latest album, For Unto Us, which features 11 contemporary and classic Christmas carols all arranged by her. She has been honored four times as the Best Female Praise and Worship Artist USA by the U.K. Christian Music Alliance.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Jean about her new Christmas album, the songwriting process, her faith, and how music and God pulled her out of some of her darkest moments.
John Farrell: How are you doing?
Jean Watson: I’m doing pretty well. I’m in the midst of a lot of activity in my life. My youngest daughter just had a baby. There’s a lot of family things going on and the ministry is exploding. I have a lot of events coming up and the CD was just released. There are videos being released. I feel like it’s a beautiful explosion, but I have to ride this wave. It’s an awful lot.
I guess, to be honest, I feel a little overwhelmed at this very moment, but it’s not a bad sense. It’s just all these good things and learning how to live a life where I can be what God wants me to be in this moment. I need to be a good mom, a good wife, and always seeking the Lord, but then there are all the practical things that need to be taken care of with music and ministry. That can be challenging, so I think I have some new skills to learn as things are speeding up here.
JF: Congratulations on your new grandchild and all your projects.
Jean: Thank you!
JF: Your new album, For Unto Us, just came out on November 1. What can listeners expect?
Jean: I only record things that are meaningful to me. I don’t record a song because I think it’s going to be popular. These are some of my favorite Christmas carols. Some of them are traditional; some of them are kind of obscure. People may not have heard them before. They’re maybe from the Middle Ages, but beautiful lyrics, beautiful music that I think needs to be heard.
Then I did some new things. I did a cover of David Meece’s song entitled, ‘One Small Child,’ which was one of my favorites years ago. I had the privilege of singing the cover with David himself. That was a bucket list thing. There’s a new version of ‘One Small Child,’ which is just phenomenal. It just moves your heart. Then there’s an original song that I wrote. There’s everything from the medieval and the obscure to traditional and then also brand new. A little bit of everything.
JF: What was it like recording with David Meece?
Jean: It was a thrill. I got to meet him and spend time with him. I realized that we both had backgrounds in classical music. He was a classical music piano prodigy back in the day and I’m a classically trained violinist. So, we had an awful lot in common and I felt so honored that he would come out and sing because I don’t think David has recorded anything for quite a few years. The fact that he would step up to the plate again and sing I knew may not have been easy for him when he hasn’t done it in a while. I was tremendously honored and I got to tell him how much his music has meant to me over the years. It was just a great thrill. It was wonderful.
JF: You mentioned you wrote an original song for the album. What was that process like?
Jean: I’m always thinking, ‘What do I want to do before my time on this earth is over? What do I feel like God’s put in me to accomplish and what does that harvest look like?’ For me, a lot of it’s musical and I thought, ‘I want to do more Christmas music.’ So, I started working on these songs back in the spring, coming up with some arrangements. I went down to Nashville in June and worked on the arrangements with producer Billy Smiley.
We were missing one song and he said, ‘You’re going to write it.’ I didn’t really want to. I was like, ‘Writing songs is so much work. I don’t want to do that. Everything about Christmas has already been said, so just forget it.’
I basically said ‘no’ and drove home. On the way home, driving up from Nashville to Michigan I heard these words in my head: ‘Come all you weary ones and seek Him. In a stable filled with hay, you will find rest.’ I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m writing a song.’
I thought, ‘Okay, what would it be like to be like the shepherds, one of those first ones who got to experience the presence of God on earth and to just come as you were in such humility and just come and see Him and touch Him?’ So, I wrote this song called ‘Unto Us (Emmanuel).’ It invites the listener to draw near to God and experience Him, His presence as if it’s really in front of them. I hope that the listeners are moved by it.
The feedback I’ve been getting so far has been phenomenal. People are resonating with it. I don’t think you can listen without being touched in some way. I’m glad that Billy challenged me and that I heeded his advice and wrote the song.
JF: Did the entire song come to you while you were driving? What was Billy’s reaction?
Jean: That’s a funny story. There’s this thing on my phone called, ‘Voice Record.’ The way I will capture an idea is if I get it spontaneously, I just record it on the phone. There’s all these recordings on my phone, one after the other. Ideas for lyrics, melodies, and these random things.
By the time I got back to Michigan, I thought I had written the song. I was like, ‘Okay, that’s pretty good.’ So, I wrote it down, recorded it, and sent it to Billy and I got this really flat response. He was like, ‘Oh, okay, that was nice.’ Which to me means that was really bad. I was so disappointed because I thought I had written this masterpiece. Then you’re all deflated.
I put it away and said, ‘Okay, forget it, I’m not going to write a song. Forget it. I’m done.’ I tried to forget about it. A month went by and it came up again, and I thought, ‘No, I have to go back and work on it.’ So, I kept shaping it and shaping it. I don’t know how many different versions I did, probably fifty or sixty different takes, melodies, shifting words around, all this revising, and finally I sent something to Billy that said, ‘Version 3,765,413,’ because I had revised it so many times. He writes back to me and says, ‘That’s it. You got it.’ It took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but it was worth it.
JF: Why did you travel from Michigan to Nashville to record the album?
Jean: I have a longstanding relationship with Billy. He’s produced the past four or five CDs I’ve recorded. We’ve assembled a team of musicians who are just phenomenal and know my style. They play into it so well. Everything is there and it’s not hard for me to travel there. I can drive or I can fly. I just use the connections that God has provided for me. Phil Keaggy is there. Phil played a very large part in this album, as well. And Russ Taff. Everybody was there, so I go where the action is.
JF: There are some big artists featured on this album. Why these musicians for this particular album?
Jean: My husband and I think about that and pray about that. I love to do collaborations. I think the listener likes to hear that. Too much of the same voice can get hard on the ears. I love to work with others.
We pray and see who comes to mind. David Meece was an easy choice because I wanted to sing his song.
We went to see a Russ Taff concert in the late spring and my husband looked at me and said, ‘Russ is going to sing on your next album. Just watch. He’s going to sing.’ Sure enough, I had a chance to meet him and his voice was absolutely perfect for the song ‘What Child Is This?’ and ‘Silent Night.’ He came on board.
Phil and I have worked together quite a bit. He’s played on several of my albums. We’ve performed together. We’ve done a video together. We’ve been on television together. Phil and I have a good friendship, and the more you play with someone and know their style the more fun it is. It’s super-easy where I can send him a song and he’s got it dialed in. He knows exactly what sound to add.
The fun of all this is that the longer you work with people the easier it gets and you figure out who are the best fits for the sound you’re trying to create.
JF: Why these eleven songs? What’s so special about them?
Jean: They’re all favorites of mine. Everything with me goes back to my relationship with God and that’s just who I am. It’s not like I wear a sign everywhere I go that says ‘Jesus is Lord’ or anything like that, but I feel like if we’re in a relationship with God what we do is going to reflect that.
For me, it wouldn’t be satisfying to record ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.’ My songs have to be a reflection of that relationship with God. All of them are going to be spiritual and centered on Christ. Some of them are ones that I just love the music. Some of them are old and obscure, but I think the music is incredible.
‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ is one like that. It’s a very old, obscure carol written in the 15th Century. Nobody’s ever heard of it. Nobody knows it. It’s kind of a nonsense carol. It’s not based on biblical truth. It tells a story of Christmas that’s just a little bit skewed. It’s not quite right, but it’s absolutely precious and the musical arrangement turned out to be a lot of fun.
I pick songs where I think the music is worthy of being heard or maybe there’s a spiritual message there I want to communicate.
JF: Why did you decide to create a Christmas album when there are so many other Christmas albums out there? What does this album do that other Christmas albums don’t?
Jean: As I get older, this is what I’m learning: to not work to please people, but to be who God has made me to be and be it well. Do it well.
When I’m creating something musically, I’m really not thinking, ‘How many copies is this going to sell? How many streams am I going to get? How many downloads?’ I’m recording things that are a part of myself and expressing who I am through music. If people resonate with it, that’s fine. If they don’t, that’s fine. But I think that’s what all great art does. It expresses a personal truth and the catch-22 is people do resonate with something that’s authentic. I feel like this music is authentic.
What’s unique about it is that, for me, recording is a terrifying thing. You step behind the microphone and whatever’s inside of you is going to come out and you wonder if it is going to sound good? Am I going to be in tune? Are people going to like it?
When I was singing this album, God told me specifically, to not allow any fear to come out of my body, only love. The funny thing is this is my tenth studio album, but my voice, I’m not embarrassed to say, sounds better than it ever has, which it really shouldn’t. Physically it should be deteriorating, but what you hear in the recording is no fear. You just hear this absolute confidence and love breathing through and it’s breath-taking. I know it’s God’s spirit in me doing that.
There’s always a little bit of a Celtic feel to it and there’s that ethereal Enya sound – I always get compared to Enya as far as my voice – that’s always going to be there. It’s a little bit artsy. It’s not something that’s going to a Top 40-type album, but it’s extremely moving and expressive. I don’t even know what to compare it to. I feel like it’s what God planned to create through me at the moment.
JF: How would you describe your music?
Jean: I think the last two albums really focused in on what I’ve always wanted my music to sound like. Recording over the past several years is a process of just chipping away at what’s really inside coming out and expressing that sonically. Every time I record an album, it gets a little more and more focused.
If I was going to describe it to someone, a word that always seems to be used is ‘Celtic.’ People compare me to the sound of Celtic Woman. Maybe a little bit of Sarah McLachlan. Loreena McKennitt is a Canadian singer who sings in a Celtic style who sounds quite a bit like me.
I am a classical musician so sometimes you’ll hear classical elements. That’s not to say it would sound like classical music, but I think as a classical musician, so I think the music is probably more complex and intriguing than something that was just thrown together. But then it has pop elements in it too, and I’m not afraid to use lots of drums and bass guitar and have fun. It’s hard to describe.
Some people would say it sounds a little bit like world music; it has a little world music sound to it. I like to use exotic instruments. I’m not trying to get on a Top 40 playlist, I’m just trying to create music.
JF: Outside of singing and playing the violin, do you play any other instruments?
Jean: I play piano also. I wouldn’t say piano’s my best instrument, but I can play it functionally and I do play piano on the album. We have other keyboard players that join me as well, but I’m able to add keyboard skills there too and that’s where I’m going to stop. I’m just going to focus on what I’m good at and then hire people to do the rest.
JF: What’s the overall message you want your fans to take away from this album?
Jean: Definitely the title, ‘For Unto Us.’ I want the listener to rethink Christmas. I think Christmas comes around and it’s something that we remember, a past event, or it’s the presence and what we’re experiencing in our culture. Through the songs, I want the listener to draw close to the manger themselves as if it’s happening now. As if they are the ones being invited to the stable to see Christ for the first time and just encounter Him as a living, breathing being, but also knowing He’s God.
In addition, all the miraculous possibilities that could go with such an encounter, like healing, freedom, hope, and the knowledge that they’re loved. All the things that humanity deeply needs that have been provided through the miraculous birth and then death and resurrection of Jesus.
I’m not ashamed or hiding the fact that there’s a method to my madness and that these songs are saying, ‘Hey, this is real. This really happened and God’s love is here and available for you. That’s what Christmas is all about.’
JF: Your new album only came out in early November, but how has it been received so far?
Jean: It’s been going so well that it’s the cause of my frenetic life at the moment because I don’t have a staff working for me and I’m in desperate need of admin help.
I’m getting a lot of feedback on the Internet. People are loving it; they’re being blessed. They’re sharing it, which is great.
I was told not to print CDs because nobody buys them anymore. I’m like, ‘I have to print some because I’m doing some shows.’ So, I printed a thousand CDs. I was counting them last night and we have already sold almost seven hundred of them in the past two weeks. Somebody’s buying CDs and they come back and buy multiples of them. I think I’m going to sell out before Christmas.
I think it is important, especially to the artist, because we put so much time and effort into our work and then in our culture today music is no longer valued as something to pay for, which is a shame, but it’s the way it is. It’s also important to me to create that physical copy.
We worked very hard on the art. We probably put hundreds of hours into the artwork on this CD and the photography is all part of the work. I feel that aspect that you can hold onto with your hands and grasp is infinitely important.
JF: Who are your musical influences?
Jean: I don’t listen to a lot of music or specific artists these days. I play classical music for a living still so I listen to classical music because I have to.
Some of the artists that have influenced me are not necessarily Christian. One that has deeply influenced me musically is Sting – the way he incorporates world music into his style and the complexity of it. I listen to music that intrigues me. Sting broke a lot of molds with his music, and I can still listen to him and be inspired.
There’s great worship music being created right now that I love to listen to. John and Melissa Helser with Bethel. What fascinates me about them is their music is not run of the mill and the lyrics are really well-crafted, not just thrown on a page in five minutes. I do listen to a lot of worship music. They’re some of my favorite artists to listen to.
Jennie Riddle, who wrote ‘Revelation Song,’ doesn’t live too far from me. She lives in La Porte, Indiana. She is mentoring young people to write worship music and some of the music that’s coming out of their People and Songs group is really fine. I like listening to some of the stuff that’s coming out of those young artists. Then I’ll go back and listen to Bach and Beethoven.
JF: How did you first get into music?
Jean: My parents were amateur musicians. They just enjoyed music. Classical music was always played around our house. I wanted to play an instrument. When I was seven years old, in our public school, the first instruments they showed us were the strings. I pointed to the violin and said, ‘Okay, I’ll take that one.’
I literally just picked up the first instrument that was showed to me. If I had been shown a flute, a clarinet, or a tuba, that’s probably what I would’ve played. I started playing the violin, pursued that very seriously, went to conservatory, and got some degrees in classical violin playing. Then I realized quickly that wasn’t satisfying to me. My heart was much bigger than just playing music on a score with a bunch of people. My faith was the most important thing so the music was going to have to serve that. That’s when I started singing as well.
JF: How does your faith play a role in your music?
Jean: It’s everything really. The music is just a sonic expression of what’s in my heart, which is my experience of what it’s like to have a relationship with God. My relationship with Him is always breathed through the music. So, it changes.
If you listen to my albums over the years, some of them sound very different and I can say, ‘Oh, this is what was happening in my life at that time.’ The songs might be coming from a place of great brokenness sometimes and other times the songs are flowing out of rejoicing in victory. You can really hear a flow of what was going on in my natural life.
JF: Your journey to where you are today has been filled with highs and lows. How has your music helped bring you out of those lows?
Jean: The story begins with the fact that I trained as a classical musician, got married, and had children. I laid music aside for several years and moved around the country, ending up in Michigan.
Within the space of a couple years, the marriage ended in divorce and my life radically changed. I was already not doing any music, but suddenly I was in a position where I had to physically provide for four children and find a job. I didn’t have any job skills. I had to reinvent my life and discover how to survive.
When things in my life didn’t go the way I thought they were going to go I became very depressed. Feeling very hopeless and sorry for myself. I cried out to God in that very dark moment. I asked Him to help me and a series of miracles happened.
The phone rang shortly after I prayed. I picked up the phone and the man who was calling asked me what my name was and if I played the violin. He said he had been calling every Watson in the phone book until he found me. He was the concertmaster of the local symphony and he’d heard my name mentioned in a restaurant the night before. He asked if he could hear me play.
That man ended up helping me get a position in a symphony orchestra. It was such a random thing to get a phone call from a stranger knowing exactly who I was, where I was, and what I was meant to do. I couldn’t help thinking that God set that up for me.
Later that same year, it was the same kind of deal, my landlord walked into my house and heard me singing accidentally. I had recorded some songs for a friend. They were playing when he came in. He heard my voice. He was really moved and started weeping. He said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing with your life Jean Watson, but that’s what you’re supposed to be doing.’
That man gave me my rent money back and told me to start recording. That was the start of a new life, ministry, and career. God re-invented me after I cried out to Him in the depths of despair.
He’s done so many works in my life since that point. I just encourage others who feel a sense of brokenness, loss, hopelessness, or desperation. There is something you can do and that’s cry out to God. Keep crying out to God and He will answer the phone.
JF: When did that happen?
Jean: It happened about 2000-2001. Quite a few years ago now.
JF: How did you come to faith?
Jean: I grew up in an Episcopal Church and learned to worship God and all of His Holiness. I never remember a time where I didn’t feel the presence of God or know He was real. I had some very deep spiritual experiences there as a little girl. But I didn’t really understand everything about God in a biblical sense.
When I was in high school, I was invited to a Young Life Bible study and someone clearly explained the gospel to me. I loved God, but I didn’t know about the cross and what that meant for me. I said, ‘Oh, that’s what it’s all about. Okay, I get it.’
As a high school student, I prayed and asked Jesus to be Lord of my life and come into my heart. I made a deeper commitment when I was in conservatory in college and decided to really surrender my life completely at that moment at eighteen or nineteen years old. That for me was the defining moment where there was a line drawn in the sand. I don’t belong to myself anymore. My life is under new management, new ownership. I’m a servant of Christ. It’s all about Him.
That doesn’t mean that things were wonderful or easy after that point, but everything that happened after that moment was seen through a lens that God has a purpose and a plan for me and even when I make mistakes He can still redeem those and use those to fulfill His plan and His purpose. That is what keeps me going because life hurts. Life is painful and everyday we make mistakes, other people make mistakes and hurt us, and we can either get bitter about those things or we can choose to believe that when we offer them to God He can use them for good. He uses all that suffering to make us more like Himself.
The older I get the more I’m learning that I can live without the fear I’m suffering because even when life hurts we can say, ‘Okay, God is making me more like Jesus today.’ I can look back now that I have some history and believe what He began in me, in those early days in the Episcopal Church, he’s bringing to completion in my life and I hope to share it with so many more people. That’s why I keep singing, writing, and speaking. To encourage others not to give up and keep seeking the Lord.
JF: What is your favorite verse or book from the Bible?
Jean: I love the Book of Ephesians. Ephesians just really encourages me because it talks about our position in Christ. It reminds me of who I am in Christ. That I’m seated with Christ in heavenly places and that all powers and principalities and all that stuff is underneath my feet. I don’t have to live in fear. That particular book is one of my favorites. I also love Galatians 3:20:
I’ve been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.
I just love that. When life gets hard, I just remember that Christ is living in me and I don’t have to do it by myself.
JF: You wrote the book, Everything Can Change in Forty Days: A Journey of Transformation through Christ, which was published in 2018. What can readers expect to learn from that book and what is it about?
Jean: I love that book. I never thought I’d write a book, but I did. It tells all the stories of what I’ve seen God do in me and through me over this chapter in my life. It shares those stories in forty short chapters. Each chapter, I call them ‘Days,’ is where we get to be changed and become a little more like Jesus.
It’s a short devotional book and each chapter ends with some questions and a little prayer. The first half of the book looks at how we can be changed on the inside and the second half of the book deals with how God can use us to change the world.
It’s all based on Isaiah 61, which talks about why Jesus came. He came to heal the broken-hearted, to set the captives free, and do all those things in our lifetime not just when we get to heaven.
I wrote the book out of frustration at a lack of transformation in my own life and also seeing a lack of victory in the church as a whole. Christians living at a level that’s lower than what I think we’re called to live and not expecting change.
As I share the miracles that I’ve seen God do in my life, I am really encouraging the reader to expect more, to hope for more, to pray for more. And to see what Paul talks about, exceedingly, abundantly, beyond what we could ask or think. It’s a hope-starting book. It’s something that I think if someone’s feeling discouraged or stuck, they could read the book and have some very practical tools to move forward in life.
JF: What’s next for you?
Jean: I’m so excited about next year. I don’t know what is next, but I think in the winter months I would love to do some more writing. In my heart, I want to write a book about Joy. That’s a big subject for me. I speak a lot about it at women’s conferences. There’s a book in my heart that needs to be written called Joy Is a Verb. Joy is something that we choose. Hopefully, there will be a new book.
A lot of travel next year. I already know there are a couple of new nations on my calendar, and we’re expanding beyond Ireland and England, which is where I usually go. So more international travel for sure. The calendar is filling, which is fantastic. I just look forward to more fruitfulness through singing, speaking, writing a new book, and hopefully recording down the road too.
JF: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with me about your new album and your personal walk with Christ. Good luck!
Learn more about Jean Watson at JeanWatson.com
John Farrell is the Digital Content Writer / Editor of Inspiration.org.