Nicole Unser grew up on country music, from Reba McEntire to George Jones and Lee Ann Womack. Something about their honest, heart-felt lyrics connected with the Spokane, Washington native whose career has taken her on a winding journey through Nashville, Tennessee and Austin, Texas, down Mississippi backroads and around sun-dappled New Mexican mesas. Along the way, Unser has collected stories - her own and others' - turning them into songs about the goodness of God amidst the heartbreaks of life. As she says, "In my heart of hearts I'm a storyteller... and sometimes I need to sing to do that."
And in the tradition of great storytellers, Unser serves up insight and truth with a genuine love of people and a salt-of-the-earth manner that is all her own. Her latest story, "Fear You Don't Own Me," is a declaration of freedom found in Christ and is delivered in Unser's raspy-sweet vocal style reminiscent of Miranda Lambert, Jewel and Sarah Buxton. It's a miraculous and precious statement from a woman who lived in fear for many years, beginning with a childhood overshadowed by a parent's mental illness.
In addition to the new "Fear, You Don't Own Me" single now available through digital platforms, Unser plans to release a second single, "You Give," on February 7. She will release a third single, "Wyoming," which is also the title track to a forthcoming album, on March 6. Meanwhile, Unser has begun event planning for the new year, including worship for a women's leadership conference at Wycliffe Bible Translators February 27-March 6 and interactive "Story Night" events that immerse small groups in worship, prayer, meditation and storytelling.
Q: Nicole, thanks for doing this interview with us. Let's start with yourself: how did the Lord lead you to become a worship leader and songwriter?
A: Thank you so much for inviting me to share some stories. As most creatives would probably tell you, I've been singing from as young as I can remember. I spent much of my childhood singing Dixie Chicks and Martina McBride into hairbrushes in front of my bedroom mirror.
When I was around 19 or so I remember sitting around a bonfire with my then boyfriend Josh, now husband, wallowing in hopes and dreams that seemed impossible. I stared teary-eyed into the fire and pined, "I want to be a songwriter." Plain and simple he just looked over and said, "Then write songs!" Could it really be that simple? So, I started writing songs and playing local shows. Bars, restaurants, Honky-Tonks, fairs, wineries. Unfortunately, I had no idea who I was and was writing and singing songs that I thought would bring me the love and belonging my heart had been longing for.
At 21, God met me on a red dirt road in Biloxi Mississippi while I was on a trip with Samaritan's Purse to do some rebuilding for folks affected by Hurricane Katrina. On one of the last evenings of the trip God asked for my heart - it was the most romantic southern proposal this northern girl could ask for - and I said yes! My prayer of salvation was no fancy Billy Graham-like prayer, I just said "Alright", and my heart finally bowed down low before Him.
At 23, Josh and I were married and moved to New Mexico to live in the bunkhouse on a friend's ranch. It was only a few months into going to our new church when my pastor's wife, also the small-town church's worship leader, took me out to lunch and she didn't mince words, "So, Nicole. I've been praying for a guitar player and I think it's you."
I assured her: "Um ... I will pray for you 'cause it definitely isn't me!" I was used to singing about Whiskey in bottles; these people sang about weird things like blood and tombs and lambs. It was a new, strange world for me.
I was working at a small drive-through coffee stand in town and later that week while frothing some milk I heard a gentle but certain voice, "You know Nicole, I can't do anything with you if you don't get out of your box."
In that moment I knew God was calling me to something greater than just singing about my heartache, although that is something country music is really good at. He was inviting me to sing about the ways he was restoring my heart and making it whole again. I began "leading worship" but it would come to look quite different from the way most are used to seeing it.
Q: Country music has been a big part of your background. Tell us a little about your love for country music.
A: Music is powerful. Country music is all about storytelling and the power of storytelling is in the ability to see things differently than we have before. I watched a great TED Talk around this point called, "How the Story Shapes the Teller." The speaker pointed out that when we don't learn to look at our own stories critically, to see them from different points of view, to invite God in to retell or heal parts of them, they become like giant boulders sitting on top of us. So many of us stay stuck under the weight of our own stories for 20, 30, 50 years. Entire lifetimes. The power of storytelling, the power of country music, is that it reaches into the dark corners that shame has backed us into and invites us out into the wide-open expanse of God's healing love. We can then crawl out from under that boulder and stand on top of it. I would add that it doesn't go away, it will always be our story, but it becomes the platform upon which we stand to proclaim the healing power of Christ.
We are not meant to stay stuck under the weight of our story or hidden away in fear of being hurt. We were created for more. We were created to worship.
Q: How has country music helped you to understand worship better?
A: Thank you for asking this question. I've never thought of it like this before, but it absolutely has! I think one of the dangers of our weekly meetings as the body of Christ is to become dulled and desensitized to the importance and holiness of what we're being invited into. If we're not careful, the "Gathering of the Saints" can turn into another box on the "Good Christian" list that we check off before we "check out." I think that sometimes we are tempted to approach Sunday mornings and fellowship in general in a surface level kind of way.
"How ya doin'?," someone might ask. "Good, thanks," we respond out of muscle memory. When was the last time someone asked you, "Is it well with your soul?" Or "How is your heart?" When I sing songs I've written at house concerts that I like to call "Story Nights," something really intimate and authentic happens.
When I sing real songs like "Bittersweet 16," a song about my mom's attempted suicide on my 16th birthday, I watch people's walls come crashing down and defenses begin to lower with each tear that streams down their faces. These songs are asking, "Brother, is it well with your soul?" And "Sister, how is your heart?"
At the end of the day I think we have to ask ourselves what worship really is. We were created to worship and the danger is that if we don't worship God, we will in fact worship something or someone else. To me, worship is more than three rock songs and a hymn on Sunday morning. It's how we treat the bank teller on a frazzled Friday afternoon, if we choose to be honest with the extra money the cashier accidentally gives us or whether we make time to bow low in prayer when we have a million things left on our to-do list.
I like leading worshipful songs on a Sunday morning with my brothers and sisters.
I LOVE singing unexpected stories on a Friday night at someone's house, songs that invite us out of the places we hide and into the bigger story that God has had prepared for us since the foundation of the earth. Those "holy living room" experiences are so special.
Q: You have a new song out. Tell us about what "Fear You Don't Own Me" means to you.
A: The song was inspired by a time when I was in the middle of relational tension with someone I love who was making decisions that were harmful to them and everyone around them. I remember standing in the bathroom in the midst of fear-fueled tears when I just yelled out, "Fear, you don't own me!" I ran into the kitchen, sat down, opened my Bible and began reading Proverbs 3. It says things like, "Trust in the Lord .. do not lean on your own understanding .. be not wise in your own eyes .." and this song began to flow out of me. I penned, "I don't walk in condemnation, don't believe the lies of Satan," not because I felt strong and courageous but because I needed to proclaim it until I did. As the lyrics continued onto the page, "'Cause I've been made new, He didn't have to, but Jesus came and he took my shame," I began to believe what God was showing me through his word.
This song isn't for someone at the top of their game, it's for all of us who need to proclaim the anthem of God's love until the melody rattles our bones and shakes us to the core with the assurance of his faithfulness and providence.
Q: I believe you have a couple more singles coming out in the next few months. Tell us more about your upcoming releases.
A: "Fear You Don't Own Me" is the first of nine singles that will be released monthly through this coming September. The full CD will be released in March for purchase at NicoleUnser.com.
The second single, "You Give," will be released on February 7th.
Some of the other releases include the album's title track in March, "Wyoming," a song about a girl going back to the last place where she really knew who she was. This song is important because I think we all have a "Wyoming"... that place we need to go back to in order to move forward.
May's release is a song I wrote for my adopted teenage daughters called "Dear Daughter," and in September, "Bittersweet 16," a song about my mom's attempted suicide.
I'm excited to take people on a journey, song by song, throughout the rest of the year.
Q: How do you want these songs to impact the lives of your listeners?
A: A few years back we had some huge wildfires up here in Washington State and as I was washing dishes one day and watching the fire dance along the mountains across the valley from our house I thought, "It's been five days and it's out of control and if the winds shift we're gonna lose it all."
That lyric turned into a song called "When The Smoke Clears" and I decided to take my camera around and interview my neighbors about their experience. The resulting video ended up being like a time capsule for our community, an anthem to share and remember what we all went through together. It was a new experience being behind the camera instead of in front of it and as I invited my neighbors and friends to share their stories, I heard a voice whisper to my spirit, "This is why I've gifted you, Nicole. To tell their stories. Help them tell their stories."
Every one of these songs is someone's story. One of my favorite storytellers Bob Goff says it best, "True love doesn't tell someone what to do, it reminds them who they are." My hope is that people will see themselves in these stories and these haunting but hopeful songs. There's no more powerful way to help people remember who they are than through music that meets them right where they are and then invites them into the love and healing of God.
Q: I like what you said about worship, that worship "is not about entertainment, but it's about transformation." Can you elaborate more upon this statement?
A: Let me tell you a story.
"I heard your voice and I just followed it." A teen student who I had met when I was a chaplain in the local juvenile detention center stood before me. She looked at me through tear-stained eyes hidden behind her short black bangs, and as I wrapped her up in a hug I said, "God loves you so much that He sent my voice to find you right where you were, so that you would follow it and find your way back to him."
I was singing songs from this upcoming album at a local fair when the music drew her to the stage. But it wasn't entertainment that her heart needed. It was love. The love of a Father.
People don't need light shows and state-of-the-art sound systems. They don't need me trying to live out my Rockstar dreams so I can feel important. They need someone to notice that under the well-groomed facade they present to the world they might actually be drowning. They need someone to offer a hand to pull them up into the lifeboat.
Worship is about surrender and we can't fully surrender to the Father until we realize we are drowning. I hope that my music, animated by the spirit of God, would do the hard work of meeting people in the midst of merely treading water and invite them to swim in the current of God's love, healing and restoration. It's an adventure, but there's truly no safer place to be.