LOS ANGELES – A rising star on the Christian music scene is returning to the public eye with a new identity after a mysterious seven-year absence spent mostly on the other side of the world.
Jennifer Knapp is not only coming out with a new album, she is also "coming out," a term the Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter considers "very bizarre" as she nervously relaunches her career.
The 36-year-old Kansas native, who dated men during her college days, is braced for a backlash from religious fans who faithfully shot down whispered rumors about her sexuality over the years. On the other hand, she said in a recent interview with Reuters, "I'm definitely getting a lot more friendly winks from the girls (at her concerts) than I have in the past!"
No other singer of Knapp's renown in the Christian music genre is openly gay. In the past, the industry looked dimly on those who deviated from the straight and narrow. Radio stations and retailers quickly dropped Sandi Patty and Michael English after they admitted to (separate) extra-marital affairs during the 1990s. Amy Grant was also blacklisted when she went through a divorce later that decade. All have since been forgiven to varying degrees.
Knapp is taking a preemptive stand anyway. She has recorded a mainstream album, and is not specifically targeting Christian radio stations and retailers.
"I just wouldn't find it respectful at all to say, 'Hey, this is something that you want in your store next to your Jesus statue,'" she said. "It would just be disingenuous to try and convince someone that they needed to do that."
Born again, again?
Still, Knapp considers herself a "person of faith" and recoils at the suggestion that she is turning her back on the church, an accusation that dogged the likes of Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin when they left gospel for pop stardom.
As a mainstream act targeting the adult album alternative niche -- alongside the likes of U2 and fellow lesbian Melissa Etheridge -- it is suggested to Knapp that she is now born again, again.
"Maybe that's what I should have called the record," she said. Instead, Knapp opted for the equally forthright "Letting Go," which will be released May 11 through Sony Music-owned independent distributor RED.
It will mark her fourth album and first release since 2001's "The Way I Am," which received a Grammy nomination for best rock gospel album.
Knapp has sold about a million albums since releasing her 1998 debut "Kansas." She toured relentlessly, and was part of the lineup of the 1999 Lilith Fair tour. She also won four Dove Awards, the gospel music industry's top honors.
But increasingly exhausted and dispirited, Knapp lived the fantasy of many working stiffs by dropping out and traveling the world. She ended up in Australia, became a citizen, and now drops the friendly appellation "mate" into the conversation. She plans to spend most of her personal time Down Under.
But Knapp's time in the wilderness was not all about shrimps on the barbie and Vegemite sandwiches. She underwent an early midlife crisis of sorts as she reexamined her faith, sexuality and career. Making music was the furthest thing from her mind.
Before Knapp met her girlfriend in the United States, she was celibate for 10 years, which she says is in line with the general expectation for unmarried members of the evangelical community.
"Anyone who has a decade of celibacy has 'complete loser' written on their back," she joked, although she still respects those who do abstain.
Knapp's new sexual identity is clearly a major talking point, but she does not view herself as a crusader in the gay community. She jealously guards her privacy and that of her girlfriend, who "doesn't want to be famous in any way whatsoever at all."
While fans will inevitably scour the songs for clues about her new love life, Knapp says she never writes songs about specific people. But she pulls no punches in the first line of the track "Inside," singing: "I know they'll bury me before they hear the whole story."
"I hope that the defiance does come across as humble," she explained. "If there's any frustration, it's trying to politely break the yoke of being asked to be something that I just can't be, and with all humility go: 'Just please be kind when you discover the truth.' It's kinda all you can do."