The Queer Christian Women of the 2019 Grammys
Amy Kuney, a.k.a. Ames, co-wrote a pair of songs that could win a Grammy this Sunday — at least indirectly. She contributed two tracks to Kelly Clarkson’s Meaning of Life, which is nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album. Despite the songs being included on a celebrated record performed by a huge pop star, the track has a very specific significance to Kuney, whose music has been largely inspired by being both Christian and queer.
More women were nominated for Grammys in major categories this year than in years past. (In 2017, for example, there were zero women up for Record of the Year as opposed to the four in the category for 2018.) Beyond that, the nominees are more diverse in yet another way: in addition to Kuney, there’s a whole crop of artists — from Brandi Carlile to St. Vincent — who tackle both queerness and religion via their music and personas. And, for people on the come-up like Kuney, it’s encouraging to see that very specific struggle take centerstage.
Kuney grew up in a strict Southern Baptist home where secular music wasn’t allowed — and neither was her burgeoning homosexuality. As a kid, Kuney used to listen to a lot of Susan Ashton, a Christian country artist who made her name in the ‘90s. In fact, “Move You,” which Kuney wrote for Clarkson, was inspired by an Ashton track called “You Move Me.”
“It was very specifically about God,” Kuney tells TIDAL. “I remember wishing so badly that this song was written about a person and not God, because I didn’t have that relationship with God. Since then, I wanted to write something that was that concept but about a person.”
Susan Ashton’s version has a chorus of direct praise and worship (“You give me courage I didn’t know I had/You move me/I can’t go with You and stay where I am so/You move me”), whereas Kuney’s song uses religious ideas a little differently. “Like a solemn Hallelujah/Like a choir shouts amen/Like your first time falling in love on a stairway up to heaven…/I wanna move you like that,” Clarkson sings on the 2018 single.
Religion more often than not finds its way into Kuney’s songwriting. In 2018, she wrote a song for Matt Simons called “Amy’s Song,” which she says tells “my story as a gay woman who grew up in a very conservative Christian environment where being gay was considered a ‘choice’ and an abomination.” Another song that she wrote for herself, “Flowers for Anna,” was inspired by an early childhood crush on another girl at church.
“I’m really, really, really straightforward about my experiences and what I would do to get through,” Kuney says. “I used to be really vague about those things, but now I’m just going for it. I don’t really care anymore. I’m all about being blunt.”
In fact, in some ways her experiences are a strength rather than a weakness, she says. “I’ve been equipped to work with many, many people because of my experiences. With artists who have been through something, I’m able to meet them on a level where we don’t have to start with pleasantries — it just kind of comes naturally.”
Kuney says her mother and father still live and work in Honduras, where they relocated to do missionary work when she was a child, and continue to have a difficult time with her sexuality. “It’s been really tough because I’m 33 now and I’ve dealt with this my whole life,” Kuney says. She has known she was gay since she was seven. “I think my kind of flaunting this hurts their cause a little bit. But I’ve been really tasteful about it. I haven’t rubbed it anyone’s faces.”
She says that while her parents often encourage her to write songs for church, they were able to appreciate Kuney’s songs for Clarkson, which they heard during the artist’s appearance on The Today Show last year.
“The songs are pretty deep — they’re not upbeat pop songs; they’re both kind of mid-tempo. Lyrically, they’re very kind of introspective,” Kuney says. “I think if they heard some of the other stuff I’ve written, they’d not be so happy with the language.”
Kuney is not alone in finding inspiration in religion — artists like Prince, Drake, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar have all dedicated songs to their chosen deity, while Christian artists like Jennifer Knapp have tried to forge a paths as an openly gay musicians. But 2019 seems to be ripe with music tinged with religion and sexual identity — at least where the Grammys are concerned.
Tiffany Gouché is also up for a Grammy this year — and, like Kuney, she is both queer and Christian. She wrote and produced Lalah Anthony’s album Honestly, which is nominated for Best R&B album. Anthony is also up for Best R&B performance for the track “Y O Y.”
Gouché has been writing songs for as long as she’s known she was queer, and growing up in a very religious household was certainly a struggle that helped shape her narrative. “I’ve dealt with a lot of trauma and a lot of rejection and isolation within my upbringing with being Christian,” she tells TIDAL. “But I’ve dealt with it and I realized that it really has nothing to do with me. … We’re all individuals and we have purpose and once you find that you have that, it’s easier to walk and not try to box yourself in.”
Over the years, she’s funneled these experiences into song: “Takin’ Over the World” for Pussycat Dolls, “Credit” for Ty Dolla $ign, “Jayraymecofasola” for Jill Scott, and “Never Enough” for Terrace Martin.
“I faced a lot of disappointment [in my music career],” Gouché says. “But it was really just my passion for music that kept me going. I stopped looking at accolades as a means to continue. I had to go within, knowing that the outer source wasn’t fueling me.”
Kuney faced similar challenges; early in her solo artist career, a label said she was “too masculine” to be marketed. For whatever the reason, Kuney and Gouché have been in the industry professionally for a decade, yet they still haven’t found success with their own solo efforts. Still, they find strength and validation in the larger crop of Grammy-nominated artists tackling religion and identity at this year’s ceremony.
Brandi Carlile, for one, is a big source of inspiration for the two songwriters. Carlile is up for seven awards, more than any other of this year’s female nominees — that includes Album of the Year for By the Way, I Forgive You. Carlile is also openly gay and openly Christian. Janelle Monáe, Meshell Ndegeocello, Mary Gauthier and St. Vincent are all also up for Grammys, and each of them have both spoken and sung about their queerness and their respective history with religion.
Folk-country Americana artist Mary Gauthier has always been open about her sexuality over the course of her more than 20-year career, despite being raised by an Italian Catholic family and making music in a genre not known for welcoming gay people. (“I can tell that the audience can tell that I don’t look like Carrie Underwood,” she once joked about a performance at the Grand Ole Opry. “I’ve got a gay look. I don’t mean to have a gay look, but I’m gay!”)
Gauthier’s album, Rifles & Rosary Beads — a religious and political LP featuring songs inspired by U.S. veterans and their families — was nominated for Best Folk Album. (From the track “Got Your Six”: “No need to talk or testify/Just keep your story tucked inside/No savior on the crucifix/Look in my eyes/I got your six.”)
“The best music always comes from the worst pain, from the soul howling in pain,” Gauthier said in an interview a weeks ago. “”Does anybody see me?’ ‘Am I alone here in my sorrow?’ The response to that call is, ‘No, you are not! We see you! We feel you!’”
Like Kuney, St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark) was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but grew up in what she has referred to as Texas’s “ambient religiosity.” St. Vincent says she “tends to draw on religious mythology because it’s so ubiquitous” and wields religion “in an intellectual sense.” On her Grammy-nominated album, MASSEDUCTION, the kinky role-play themed song “Savior” slides in lyrical content that calls to mind the Catholic guilt Clark says she no longer possesses: “You dress me in a nun’s black outfit/Hail Mary past, ’cause you know I grab it.”
Add to that the fact that St. Vincent is likely singing to another woman and it becomes yet another layer. It’s naughty. It’s sacrilege, almost — something songwriters like Kuney and the rest were taught to fear and avoid as children instead of embrace as artists.
Kuney, for one, hopes to help dissipate that fear. “I want to be able to encourage young people, regardless of their religious upbringing, to just hold tight,” she says. “The waters are so warm and inviting right now. I’ve actually been able to come out and be open about who I am — people still being inviting and encouraging.”
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