How listening to Beyoncé and Chance the Rapper helped Rachel Kurtz expand beyond gospel

Rachel Kurtz

Rachel Kurtz Photo by Shelly Mosman

“I love sex so much.”

Rachel Kurtz is eating lunch in the North Loop on the eve of her album release, and she doesn’t look around at the neighboring tables before she blurts this out. It’s not necessarily a sentiment you’d expect a singer with a gospel music background to express so bluntly, but Kurtz is relentlessly honest about her life and heartaches. Her voice is loud and brash, and her laughter flows easily as she talks about Love, Rachel Kurtz, her first album not centered explicitly around religion.

Kurtz grew up in a conservative household, attending church three times a week. Church music was the soundtrack to her life; she never realized she could create her own songs. Her world shifted as a teen during a religious singing excursion to West Africa, where she fell in love with a boy who sang and taught her guitar—and who wasn’t impressed with her first songwriting efforts. She told him, “Screw you, hippie! I’m gonna write a song you like.”

Kurtz later converted to Lutheranism and found grace in forgiveness. “It was then that I made out, smoked my first cigarette, got drunk for the first time,” she says with a laugh.

Kurtz has seven albums under her belt, and she honed her vocal style performing in front of thousands at arenas during Christian conferences. But not until a few years ago did she try stepping outside of gospel music. She began hosting evenings at Icehouse every couple of months, inviting musicians to share their songs on stage with her. Fresh from a divorce, she would perform songs born out of heartache and her experience dating as a single mother.

“I discovered who I was at these shows,” Kurtz says. “I’m more straightforward now in my songwriting. I was listening to [Chance the Rapper’s] Coloring Book and Beyoncé’s Lemonade on repeat in 2016. They’re telling unashamed stories. It was a lot of ‘I love Jesus and weed and sex.’ It was a revelation to me and made me realize there was room for all of this. There was comfort in the rules of religion when I was a kid—and I’m so grateful and thankful for my life—but I knew there was more. It’s clear there’s miraculous stuff going on even when bad stuff happens. I didn’t know what the album was going to be, but I had so much fun at Icehouse. I knew I wanted to get it on record.”

Kurtz got Tommy Barbarella, former keyboardist for Prince’s New Power Generation, to produce the album. and she brought in Matt Patrick and Erick Anderson of Afrokeys to change up her aesthetic. Love, Rachel Kurtz grabs gospel by the throat and throws in soul and blues to help fend off the perils of life.

On “The Heat,” Kurtz tackles the flood of endorphins that meeting someone new brings. The song is based on a real-life relationship, and Kurtz found solace in writing about the experience. “He was scared that I was moving too fast, and he was supposed to come to my show. He never came. Waiting for that guy triggered me waiting for my dad. Watching the door for someone kills me. I don’t care about him anymore; I hope he has the best life. That wasn’t the point. I had to capture that feeling in my music. I sang it first day of recording, and it was highly emotional. I never could play the game [of dating]—and now more so than ever with me being in my 40s.”

Gathering the courage it takes to be a single parent is another topic Kurtz embraces on Love, Rachel Kurtz. She wrote “Lioness” after she watching a Beyoncé video. “I was inspired by my kids and myself when I wrote that, which is scary to admit,” Kurtz says. “That’s a yell-y, loud song, while ‘Single Parenting’ is quiet and stark. That song stemmed from ‘Smoke Break’ on Coloring Book. Chance says something really simple about his girlfriend—his daughter’s mom. This is part of my narrative.

“It’s such a massive experience that so many people have,” she continues. “I ruminated on it, and I wrote part of it one day. My ex-husband and I don't have the best relationship. The end of the song broke my heart when I wrote it, but it sums up my experience honestly. I don’t want it to sound victim-y. I want it to be very clear what the song is about. The thing that’s vivid to me is holidays. Everyone has fun with their families. It’s always the loneliest to me—after everyone goes to bed. Parenting should be a duo effort. That’s the saddest night for me.”

For all the heartache and laughter, what shines through the most on the new album is Kurtz’s honesty. Many of her songs are derived from African-American styles, which she was hyper- aware of while recording. “I have a white rapper friend, named AGAPE, who has wrestled with the same thing. He and I like to honor people of color. When my friend Austin Channing Brown first saw me perform, she told me, ‘I just had to watch you for a while and listen, but I realized the music you’re singing is coming of your soul and your suffering.’ I’m not trying to sound black nor mimic it. If someone told me I was misappropriating, I would listen. I recognize every music we have is from African-American people. Every genre stems from that.

“One of the reasons I’ve been able to be a Lutheran artist for this long is because of white privilege,” she adds. “I’m super aware of that. I recognize a few other friends that have tried to do that same thing, and they haven't gotten the doors to open. I would never deny, but I mean every damn word and this is the way it comes out of my mouth. It’s freeing to say the truth -- to be vulnerable. It’s so freeing, but also so heartbreaking, because our truths are different from each other. I want people to hear this album, not because I want people to think I’m a great singer/songwriter, but because I want every single mom that sits alone on her couch to hear single parenting. I want to give people permission to be honest, and I want people to know they’re not alone. It’s the gift we get to have as artists. It’s such a privilege.”

Rachel Kurtz
With: Said Kelley, Johanna Matthews, Jessica Smith
Where: Icehouse
When: 8 p.m. Wed. June 13
Tickets: $18/$20; more info here