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When life suddenly becomes a few shades darker, how do you make sense of it? Where do you put the pain and confusion? When faced with a series of tragic events, JJ Heller and her husband/co-writer, Dave, decided to pull out their songwriting book to process the hurt. The culmination of these songs eventually became their sixth studio album, LOVED.
In previous years, the duo steered much of their material toward life’s whimsical and simple joys of love and new parenthood. However, when illness, death and broken marriages entered their community, the Hellers chose to stay true to the weight of their season of life when crafting new lyrics and melodies.
“LOVED is a collection of songs that belong together; there’s a common thread connecting all of them,” JJ says. “It’s setting our sights on the horizon instead of the few steps ahead. It’s an album about resolve. It’s about steeling ourselves for the journey just in front of us, but also being assured of who we are and where our destiny lies.”
The 10 original songs on LOVED serve as a reminder to hope in a future restoration. The lyrics are consistently calling the listener to step out of fear and into trust; to rest even as we pass through life’s trials.
“As we started working on this record, the words ‘open heart’ kept cycling through my mind and I didn’t know what it meant,” JJ recalls. “God’s helped me to see life as an adventure rather than a series of potential hurts. The world can be scary, but when we know we’re loved, we can be open to risks because we are confident in our identity.”
The album’s lead single “Who You Are” sets the tone for the record as a reflective, storytelling ballad that’s become signature for JJ Heller songs in light of her previous, Top 10-charting radio releases “Your Hands” and “What Love Really Means.” The Hellers finished the song in the wake of Dave’s brother’s life-ending battle with cancer. “Who You Are” made a near-immediate impact near New York City when local Christian radio station Star 99.1 FM chose to play the song hourly for the entire weekend following the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT as a comfort to listeners.
“When I experience pain,” Heller says, “normally my first reaction is to ask God ‘Why?’ Typically, God’s response is, ‘Do you trust me?’ It’s not like He’s unfamiliar with rejection, loss, and pain. I’m learning that, in any circumstance, we can trust that God our Father is who He says He is. That’s why the refrain of the chorus is, ‘I don’t know what You’re doing; but I know who You are.’ ”
Keeping redemption and restoration in mind as the Heller’s penned the songs for LOVED, they often drew inspiration from the parable of the Prodigal Son. In “Come Back to Me,” they sing, “When I look into your eyes, I don’t know who I see / The walls are closing in, but they don’t have to be.”
“In the parable, the younger son went away physically, but the older brother was emotionally absent,” Dave says. “I think there’s a little bit of both of them in all of us. Both failed to recognize their true identity in who they were in their Father’s eyes. Their true home was always available to them, but they had embrace it in order to experience it.”
Under the production of gifted collaborators Ben Shive (Andrew Peterson, Bebo Norman) and Cason Cooley (Katie Herzig, Matthew Perryman Jones), LOVED departs from the grounded, folk-pop consistency of previous records, and instead explores a more expansive sound, both instrumentally and vocally.
“Making a record that sounds different from what we’ve done in the past is a very risky thing,” JJ says. “But if we stop growing and changing as artists, then something has gone wrong. Our challenge for LOVED was to create something beautiful and new, but still maintain the same elements of honesty and transparency that established connections between us and our audience in our earlier projects. The way this record came together completely exceeded my expectations!”
In spite of the growth and evolution of the Heller’s craft, LOVED, serves as a shining example of what’s driven JJ Heller fans to her music for nearly a decade, and why her audience continues to enthusiastically grow: honest invitations into the heart and soul of an everyday wife and mother pursuing truth and desiring a perfect love.