Contemporary Christian music has come a long way in the past decade. While some artists disappear after one album, others enjoy quite a bit of success and are able to make a lifelong career out of it. Rebecca St. James falls into the second category, and has been heralded at “the most influential woman in Christian music.” It’s been a long journey from her hometown of Sydney, Australia… and she’s not slowing down anytime soon. Read on, in this exclusive interview with Wisconsin Music:
WM: How about a brief recap of your career?
RSJ: I moved to America at fourteen because of my dad’s job. He got offered a management job in Nashville. I’d recorded a little praise and worship album in Australia, so I just went around singing the songs from that album at churches and youth groups. A couple guys from a record label, Forefront records, came and saw me sing when I was about fifteen. I signed to that label at sixteen, and I really started traveling fulltime then. So it’s been about ten years now since that all began. Quite a journey! There’s a lot of times within what I do that I cry out to God for strength. I’ve got new song on my album that’s coming out next year called “God Help Me”, and I think that song is very honest. There’s a lot of times where I know I can’t do what I’m doing on my own, and I need his power. So it’s a good relationship-builder with me and my relationship with God.
WM: You just mentioned your new album. What can you tell us about it?
RSJ: Well, it’s planned for mid to late summer, and I’m actually heading into the studio in February. I did a bit of writing for the album this summer, and wrote the song “God Help Me”, and we’re actually doing that on this particular tour. I’m excited to see people’s response to it! It’s going back to my rock roots a little bit more, I grew up with bands like Stryper and White Heart and Petra, so I’m a total rock chick at heart! I’m really going back to that, my roots.
WM: Now, your original name is not St. James, it’s Smallbone. How did you come up with St. James?
RSJ: Well, my record label had encouraged the name change, because Americans generally don’t know how to say or spell my name. They thought of St. John, because they thought that sounded British or Australian, and I don’t even know anyone named John. So I didn’t want to do that, but James is my grandfather’s name, so it was something that was very close to me. We were just praying about what name to use. I called my grandma on the other side of the world, after we’d already thought about St. James, and she had no clue we were thinking about using that. I asked what family names could we maybe use, and she suggested a few like Beasley and Smith, and all these others I definitely wasn’t going to use! (laughs) Then she said, “Well how about James, because Jim was James.” This was a couple months after he’d passed away, so it was a total miracle I needed to confirm that was the right thing to do.
WM: You didn’t like Beasley?
RSJ: No! (laughs) Rebecca Beasley doesn’t quite have the ring I wanted!
WM: So you became a national recording artist at sixteen. Growing up, what did you aspire to be? Was it always a performer?
RSJ: No, no, actually, one of my dreams when I was a kid was to be in a musical. I think I went and saw “The Sound of Music” at age six, and I wanted to go and be a part of that musical. I think my mom said, “When you’re eight, you can try out for that!” (laughs) I don’t think I ever did it. But being in the rock opera “Hero” was a real dream come true for me. I got to do the acting thing, and singing thing, and it was rock! It was wonderful.
WM: Do you see more acting in your future?
RSJ: I’d like to, yeah. We’re actually kind of looking at some opportunities, possibly, for a TV movie for maybe next year. Just kind of exploring it, and praying about it. If it doesn’t happen, it’s not the be-all, end-all. But if it does, I think I would really enjoy that. I’m a bit of a dramatic person, I think! (laughs)
WM: So you’ve grown up in the spotlight… do you think your ministry has changed from young adult to adult?
RSJ: On some level, I’m probably speaking to more of a broad range of people now. When I started out, there were families coming, but it was largely teens. We’ve always had, on some level, a family focus. But I think that’s increased over the years as I’ve gotten into my 20s. I’ve now just put out a book that’s for women, that’s my first adult book, and I think that will broaden my audience some as well.
WM: Let’s talk about that book. It’s titled, “SHE.” What can you tell me about the book? I gather it’s geared toward women …
RSJ: (laughs) It’s on becoming a Safe, Healthy, and Empowered woman of God… so that’s an acronym for SHE. It looks at nine different areas that women struggle with today. Everything from cultural obsession with beauty, to femininity, to the post-feminist movement. I think the feminist movement freed women in a lot of ways, but hurt them in others as well. And we’re looking at purpose and mentoring, which is kind of a lost art today. A lot of women are just kind of doing too much, and living overloaded lives, so there’s nine areas of struggle like that. We’re looking at, “What’s the problem, what are the lies that culture has fed us at some level, and what are the truths from the Bible that can empower us to live.” Linda, my co-writer, and I share from our hearts the things that God has done in our lives, and the things that we’ve learned from experience. So we’re fully upfront about the fact that we haven’t arrived or anything, but we are in process of becoming those Safe Healthy Empowered women of God that we want to be.
WM: Now, you’re very active in the “True Love Waits” campaign. You not only sponsor it, but you live it. Have you seen fruit from this part of your ministry?
RSJ: Massive amounts. Ever since the early days that I first started talking about it, which is probably right about when I first started singing. I started going to “True Love Waits” rallies at that point. Because I was a teenager and I was going to “True Love Waits” rallies, they’d offer me to share a couple of words in support of that idea. It became something that people latched onto with me, and really young people who would say, “Thank you so much for speaking about this, it’s given me courage to wait.”
I spoke to a pastor recently at a church in Hollywood, CA, who’s 28 now, and he had come to one of my shows when he was in his late teens. He had been thinking about having sex with his girlfriend that night, only to hear me talking about saving sex for marriage. He decided to wait, and then he found out later on that the girl he was going to have sex with has AIDS. So stories like that. That’s quite a dramatic one, but I hear stories all the time about people that have been influenced by that part of my ministry.
WM: You made worldwide headlines back in May with a quote regarding Britney Spears. Did you ever hear anything back from her management, or people in her entourage?
RSJ: Yeah, I think we did! (laughs) I think it did get back to her, and the comment that I heard back was, “Rebecca who?” Then I think some people who listen to my music then went back to her website, and started defending me. Then somebody from her website said sorry, they didn’t mean for it to get like that. (more laughs) It was so bizarre for me, because I’m over touring in Europe, and I’m hearing reports daily about how far this thing has gone! I was just in Europe last month, and I met a girl there from Canada who read an article in the paper all about it. (laughs) It’s just so wild that something like that, which was really me showing compassion for her. I know that the life that you lead when you’re living in the spotlight is so difficult. And it was more me just saying I feel sad for her with the pressure that’s being put on her and how that’s influenced her life and now others. And it just ended up becoming this big thing.
WM: I think it’s great that it got the coverage that it did. I admire you for your statement.
RSJ: Thanks. I think part of the reason that it got the coverage that it got was because a lot of people agree. I think a lot of people feel sad for her, and a lot of people see her as a product of the industry and the pressures of it.
WM: You’ve been quoted that you want to find your love, marry and start a family. When all that happens, will you continue performing?
RSJ: I don’t think so. That’s kind of not in my view, it could be in God’s. I’m kind of a ‘take one day at a time’ person, and just see where God leads. Evie Tornquist, she’s now Evie Karlsson, was a singer about 25 years ago before Amy Grant… and she’s my mentor now. When she got married, she ended up pulling out of the music scene and just focused on her family and other forms of ministry. So I’ve always kind of seen myself following in those footsteps to some level. So we’ll just have to see what ends up happening. But I’d like to be fulltime Mum someday, so we’ll just see.
WM: Is Rebecca the individual different from Rebecca, the performer?
RSJ: I think when friends come and see me, they just got to know me as Rebecca. It’s initially a little odd for them to see me up there, in that kind professional part of my world. But at the same time, they say it’s still me… it’s just a different aspect of me.
There’s definitely different hats that I put on, and probably to some level it’s like anybody at the office. They’re not professional at home in their grungy clothes, they’re just laid back. Probably less intense and more fun and laughy! (laughs)
WM: When you’re not performing, are you always an outgoing person, are you this bubbly in real life?
RSJ: Yeah, I think I am. I’ve got to get away and be quiet and not be around people every now and then because of the pressures of my life. I’m not a total extrovert, I don’t have to be the life of the party all the time. I actually like being one of crowd quite a bit, and I think that’s because most of my life demands leadership from me. And so when I don’t have to be a leader I actually quite enjoy that. But at the same time, I’m pretty much most of the time a pretty bubbly people-person. I’m empowered by people, I don’t like being alone for long periods of time. I lived alone for a few months and I hated it. I’ll will never do that again.
WM: I take it you have your own place?
RSJ: I’m actually building a house right now. I’m very excited!
WM: Are you ten or eleven years into your career?
RSJ: Well my album came out in ’94, so I’m going to say ten.
WM: So you’re ten years into it now, let’s say ten years down the road: what do you see? Do you see yourself continuing to perform at this level, or do you see yourself branching more into the acting?
RSJ: Well, hopefully in ten years I’d like to be married, and raising a family, maybe doing a little bookwriting, something on the side. Maybe a bit of acting. I suppose I see my acting possibilities as being more in the next five years. If doors will open up that way. I don’t see myself doing big movies or anything like that, but like a TV movie. Something a little more chilled out on the pressure side, that’d be wonderful.
WM: Will you keep your St. James stage name…
WM: … or change to Beasley?
RSJ: (laugh) No I don’t think I’ll confuse myself any further with another name.
WM: Out of all the work you’ve done in the ten years, do you have a favorite, one that stands out?
RSJ: You know, my Christmas album, I’m really proud of that piece of work I think because we were taking songs that were a couple hundred years old but still so powerful … and doing new arrangements. It was just a blast. I really enjoyed that work and feel like there’s a lot of creativity in it. That and probably my “God” album were probably my two favorite pieces.