Like a lot of busy careerists in their mid-30s, Amy Grant sometimesfinds herself looking back a bit wistfully as her life speeds ahead on a faster, more cluttered track than she might prefer.
At 34, she is nearly two decades into a singing career that began when she signed her first recording contract as a 15-year-old from Nashville who had found religion in a Bible studies class. After spending the first half of her career conquering the Christian pop world with devotional songs, Grant successfully campaigned for mainstream pop success, culminating with her 1991 album, "Heart in Motion," which yielded five Top 20 singles and sold more than 4 million copies.
Grant's sleekly produced blend of romantic pop and spiritually aware meditations on personal and worldly challenges continues to hold many in her original legion of religious fans while appealing to more recent secular recruits: Her current album, "House of Love," has passed the 1 million sales mark.
After devoting her whole adult life, and part of her childhood, to a musical career, is there any change that Grant craves, any new direction she dreams of following?
She paused to ponder that last week when reached by phone at a hotel in Yakima, Wash., a stop on a 10-week tour that brings her to The Pond of Anaheim tonight.
" 'What you've been doing since you were 15'--that makes it sound like a pretty deep rut," she mused, a little wryly, in a hearty, husky Tennessee twang. "I feel my responsibilities are driving my life right now. I don't mean that in a bad way, but I don't have the freedom to, say, go land (parts in) a few movies. I've got three children, and it takes a whole lot of juggling to do what I'm doing right now.
"The things I'd like to do have to do with personal experiences and not work," she continued. "This next year I'm really looking forward to some writing retreats. The endless days and nights I had to write (songs) when I was 15, I've got to fight for them now. (Back then) I'd get in the car and drive out in the country with my guitar. To me, driving on a country road and getting totally lost and writing music 'til the sun goes down is a unique experience."
Nowadays, Grant said, when she tries to sequester herself to write songs at her suburban Nashville estate, a small voice is apt to pipe up, "Can I go with you?" and spark a twinge of working-mom's guilt.
Lack of togetherness isn't an issue in the Grant touring caravan. Her opening act is her husband, Gary Chapman, whose 1994 album, "The Light Inside," is one of this year's Grammy nominees in the best pop/contemporary gospel album category. Their children, ages 2, 5 and 7, are along for the tour, with a nanny and an assistant nanny to help out.
"I know what it's like to come home after being away and feeling a pervasive insecurity in the children," Grant said. "(On tour) I don't know if they're drawn to the music, or if they just like the fact we're all together. Gary and I might be pulling our hair out, but (for) the kids it doesn't get any better than this. I'm not kidding myself about when they're teen-agers. We don't have the Von Trapp family on our hands."
Grant's 12-year marriage has not been without its strains; her repertoire includes a number of songs about couples struggling to stay connected amid marital troubles.
"The songs I'm singing are the songs I need to hear," she said. "I just think being married's a challenge. The payoff is unbelievable, but it's not without a lot of sacrifice and soul searching and melding your life to somebody else's. My goodness, we're all born stubborn. I see it in my 2-year-old."
The marriage has had to weather the substance-abuse problems Chapman had in the mid-'80s; Grant says her decision in the late 1980s to effectively fire her husband from her touring band led to another touchy time.
"I said, 'I feel we need to separate our personal lives and our working lives.' Quite honestly, Gary is a very commanding figure on stage. Part of it was (that) it was tough for me to feel like I was driving a band, because they all looked to him. It just created a dynamic that I felt was not good over the long haul.
"I'm crazy about him, but enough is enough," she added. "I've seen a lot of couples who work together in music, and their marriage doesn't last. If we're going to put out a lot of energy, I'd rather have it be in our personal lives than in a disagreement over who's going to play guitar."
Grant says she thinks that change helped spur Chapman, a singer-songwriter-guitarist who had for several years set aside his own career as a recording artist.
"At the time, he had invested a lot of his hopes and dreams in what I was doing. But both of us knew he would never pursue the stuff he was good at if he continued touring with me (as a backup musician). I didn't want to be sitting around in rocking chairs and have him feel he never gave his creative dreams a shot."
Grant says her own creative dreams are doubling back to her earliest musical love--folk music. Her rise to mainstream stardom has been built on lush ballads and bright, synthesizer-driven dance-pop confections, but she sees an eventual simplification of her sound.
Her roots show a bit in her current album's shiny but basically faithful version of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi"--the first outside hit Grant has covered on one of her own albums (she sang "Love Me Tender" on the "Honeymoon in Vegas" soundtrack).
"I just feel like the boat is going to turn around for me, and I'm going to turn to my own musical roots, which were not quite as pop as I'm doing now," she said. "I love what I've had the chance to do, but it seems most of us in the end return to familiar things. For me, before I was doing contemporary Christian music, it was James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Joan Baez and Judy Collins. When I look down the road, (folk-pop) looks like music you can age gracefully with. As I'm approaching 40, I want to be who I am, be able to change."
Grant's latest spiritual songs, "The Power," "Love Has a Hold on Me" and "Children of the World," are sufficiently broad and non-sectarian that they could conceivably play in mosques and synagogues as well as the conservative churches that are the home turf of the Christian pop movement from which she sprang.
Some evangelical strict constructionists may think her newer stuff is lacking in that old-time religion, just as some mainstream pop fans may find Grant's songs and persona lacking in spice and intrigue. She says none of it bothers her.
"I guess at this stage in my songwriting, I'm just trying to capture whatever feeling is compelling me," she said.
If she omits specifically Christian imagery, "it's not an attempt to say, 'I'm hiding my faith in Jesus,' or wanting to not stand for something. The whole Christian (music) world is like my family. Even though those weren't my own musical influences as a kid, that became my world because of my own conversion experience.
"My main focus now is pop, but I don't feel like I've been kicked out of the family. If I walked backstage at the Dove Awards (the major awards ceremony for gospel music and contemporary Christian pop), I'd know everybody. All the young artists, I'm like their big sister.
"I'm in that unique position of not being wild enough for (some mainstream pop fans) and being too outside for the narrow (Christian) scene, so I steer clear of all the (critical) talk. I just love the people in my life, make music, and I'm so glad people show up at the shows.
"You know what my overriding thought is? I can't believe that, as a grown woman with three kids, I'm still doing my hobby. I just go, 'YEE-HAW!' "
* Amy Grant and Gary Chapman play today at 8 p.m. at The Pond of Anaheim, 2695 E. Katella Ave. $45, $35, $25. (714) 704-2500 (box office) or (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).