Artists rarely walk away in the middle of a successful career, but Dove Award-winning singer-songwriter Chris Rice has never been a typical artist. It’s been more than a decade since his last album, but patient fans will rejoice with the May 17 release of Untitled Hymn: A Collection of Hymns via Fair Trade Services. The project is a follow up to his 2006 release Peace Like a River: The Hymns Project, which has been streamed more than 72 million times and counting.
“I kind of disappeared. As an introvert, it was really easy to just step away,” admits Rice, sitting in a Nashville coffee shop, submitting to a rare interview. “I loved what I was doing — touring, writing, recording and all that — but as an introvert, it really took a lot of energy, attention and focus. All of that was going to complete strangers all the time and as an introvert I didn’t want my whole life to be like that… I just quietly let my band know a year and half a head of time, ‘Hey start looking for other work. I’m going to be phasing out for a while,’ so I kind of faded from public.”
Prior to his self-imposed sabbatical, Rice was one of the Christian music community’s most revered singer-songwriters, known for his clever wordplay (as evidenced by such album titles as Smell the Color 9) and laid-back, self-deprecating stage presence. The Maryland native worked with church youth groups early in his career and his original music was integral to his connection with teens and college students as he traveled extensively speaking and singing.
In the mid ’80s, Rice moved to Nashville where Kathy Troccoli, Terri Gibbs, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and other artists began recording his songs. Smith offered him a deal in 1996 on his newly launched Rocketown Records, making Rice the flagship artist on the fledgling venture. He soon put the label on the map with such hits as “Deep Enough to Dream” and “Untitled Hymn (Come To Jesus).” He won the Dove Award for male vocalist of the year in 1999 and became a fixture on the Christian music scene.
Later in his career, he also began experiencing mainstream pop success with such songs as “When Did You Fall (In Love With Me),” which peaked at No. 9 on the Adult Contemporary chart and “Lemonade,” which climbed to No. 22. After five albums with Rocketown, he signed with eb+flo Records and released Peace Like a River: The Hymns Project in 2006. The following year, he released What a Heart Is Beating For, his last album before stepping away from the spotlight.
“I feel like part of it was realizing I love to do this, but my life cannot be about all of this,” he says. “All of that attention and energy of who I am was being spent on thousands of strangers, who are great people and awesome and worthy, but I could not keep up with all of that. I was sacrificing my friendships and family and neighborhood and not being a good friend, brother, son because of all the attention required by all these other people. I had to find a healthy way to say no to things without frustrating other people or making them feel like I was angry or anything… I knew I was introverted, but I didn’t know how much harder it would be when you’re a public person. My reaction was the part that surprised me: ‘I can’t pull this off. My life can’t be like this,’ which was sad to me, but I needed to take care of myself.”
Rice found other ways to spend his time and express his creativity. “I’ve literally filled my days for the past 10 or 11 years at a climbing gym, climbing trips and climbing outside. I get a lot of time out in nature, which I wrote a lot of songs about,” he says of his passion for rock climbing. “I’ve done a little fiction writing. I have nothing ready for publishing or anything like that, but I’m dabbling and having fun with that, and actually self-published a little poetry book about a year and a half ago.”
Five years ago, a friend invited him to exhibit his paintings at an art show in Franklin, TN, which led him down a new creative path. “We all contributed 12 paintings [for this] one-night show. I sold four and I didn’t advertise or publicize it to music fans,” he says. “The next day, one of the artists called me and said, ‘Hey I’m doing this 30-day challenge painting something every day and selling it online. Why don’t you do that too?'”
Rice embraced the challenge and was surprised at the results. “I set up a little thing on chrisrice.com and just started tweeting,” he says. “I’d finish a painting every day and tweet it. Every single one of them sold that month, so I just kept that rolling, not one a day a month, but I let it become a comfortable pace. In the past five years now, I’ve sold like 270 paintings, so I’ve transferred creative energy into that as well.”
Rice had also been co-writing with his friend Andrew Ripp and in January, they released a duo project under the name Ripp+Rice titled Songs We Wrote on Tuesdays. “We had written songs for his record and had about 15-20 extra songs that we had written that he never recorded so as a joke we said, ‘What if we record these and sneak them out?'” he says.
Rice was enjoying the laid-back, under-the-radar approach to releasing new music, but his sneaky return didn’t go unnoticed. “Somebody over at Fair Trade heard that I’d done some music and they contacted Ken Lewis, who is part of the label that I was on with Monroe [Jones],” he says of eb+flo Records. “They contacted Ken and said, ‘We see Chris is doing some music now. His last hymns record has really been surging for some reason for the past couple of years, online especially. Do you think he’d be interested in doing a follow-up hymns record?'”
After careful consideration, Rice agreed, but set boundaries and let them know he had no interest in touring, doing interviews or sitting in meetings. “If I could just get together with Ken in his studio, make the music and hand it in, that would be fun to do,” Rice says. “So literally we were just texting back and forth, and a couple hours later there’s a distribution deal in my email from the company. They wanted to do it, so I thought, ‘Let’s go ahead and do this. Why not?'”
Rice says Fair Trade has been easy to work with. “It was one of those instant decisions that made total sense. We finished it a couple months ago. All the stuff is done now and I’ve been able to pull it off without too much attention,” he grins.
One of the things that appealed to him about this project was the chance to revive the classics. “I love hymns. I love the record that I did before,” he says of Peace Like a River: The Hymns Project. “I felt like I already picked the best ones for the first record and then I realized no, there are so many more.”
The new collection features Rice’s take on such classics as “Amazing Grace,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” “This Is My Father’s World,” “There Is A Fountain” and an acoustic, Americana-flavored take on the longtime favorite “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The album also includes Rice’s acclaimed original “Untitled Hymn (Come To Jesus)” and closes with “Too Much I Love,” a new song that started as one of the poems in his book Widen: A Collection of Poems.
“So many of the songs I’ve written over time and so many of the hymns that I love have a verse in them about nature. That always resonates with me,” Rice says. “With that in mind I wrote this poem called ‘Too Much I Love.’ The first line says, ‘too much I love this world you made’ and it starts describing how everything is so overwhelming, the beauty, the music, the shapes and colors of things, and heaven is supposed to be better than this. If it is, then I’m going to have to have new eyes, new ears, new ways express it or it’s just going to kill me in a place where death can’t happen. So I approached it [thinking] ‘How do I find a nicer way to say that?’ If it is better than that there then you need to have mercy on me and give me ways to absorb that when I get there, so I approached the poem that way and it turned into the song. The whole point of it is this that I experience here on earth, that I love, is kind of a foretaste and a reminder of a better place.”
Many churches today utilize modern worship music during their services and hymns aren’t as prevalent in some denominations as they once were. Rice is happy to do his part to keep hymns alive for the next generation. “For a lot of reasons, I feel like my whole career may have been just to have a platform to bring attention to these songs, not just my own songs that I wrote,” he says. “I really felt that way about the first hymns record and it’s kind of proven itself true over time. Those are the recordings of mine that have gotten the most attention by far than anything else. That thrills me. These are songs that were written hundreds of years ago by theologians, not someone trying to be on the radio, so there’s a lot of weight and meaning. They were writing songs to preserve truth, and many times for congregations who were not literate so they could learn it and hold onto it forever. I see a value in that.”
Single and living in the trendy 12 South area of Nashville, Rice is enjoying this season of life. “I’ve never been happier. I’ve never been unhappy, but I feel like I’m in a wonderful place where things fit,” he says. “I’m super active and involved with people. Most of my adult life, I didn’t get to be a good neighbor because I just wasn’t home enough and I feel like I’ve had this period now where I know my neighbors, people who work in my neighborhood and there’s something really fulfilling about that right now. I still get to be creative and active and have ways of contributing to the world, a little more quietly than I used to, but I still have that. I’m in a balanced spot right now I’m super happy about.”