Lauren Daigle, a Christian Music Superstar, Is Ready for a Bigger Tent

“I’m terrified,” Lauren Daigle said with a broad smile rather than any evident terror. It was six weeks before the release of her new self-titled album, and the biggest singer in contemporary Christian music (CCM) was sitting in a lounge at the midtown Manhattan offices of Atlantic Records, glowing with positivity.

Daigle, a vivacious 31-year old with a whimsical streak that’s evident in her colorful wardrobe, has crossed over into the pop world with greater success than anyone since Amy Grant in the early ’90s. But this is the first time she’s written love songs that aren’t about religious faith, and she’s worried that people will hear them as references to her personal life, rather than ruminations about universal experiences.

“I’m all about writing songs to help people through things they’re questioning,” she said.

“Lauren Daigle,” due May 12, will also be her debut on a major label, after releasing three albums on Centricity Music, a Nashville indie, and it will likely propel her further into the public eye. Later this year, she’ll headline her first arena tour.

The United States has become a much more divided and combustible country since Grant’s heyday, and Daigle is no newcomer to navigating the lion’s den. She has been caustically criticized within the Christian community for some of her choices, especially for appearing on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” hosted by a lesbian celebrity, in 2018. All performers are carefully scrutinized in the social media age, but CCM artists live under a unique microscope, and much of the audience is unforgiving.

“I can’t imagine the stress artists are under now,” said Brandon Woolum, the managing editor of the long-running publication CCM Magazine. “They have to make sure they don’t say that wrong thing that gets them canceled.” Any article his site runs about Daigle or Grant draws complaints from readers, Woolum added. “People are still mad at Amy.”

Even in the past, some Christian artists, notably Grant and the stars Sandi Patty and Michael English, have been repudiated by fans for having affairs or getting divorced. English later denounced the Christian music industry as “a sick world.” Is Daigle worried that one mistake could damage her career in CCM?

“Yes, one million-trillion percent,” she said. “For a long time, I lived my life confined, to make sure people think highly of me, and it made me miserable.” Her new mission is to remain unrestrained.

Daigle grew up amid the brackish wetlands of Lafayette, La., counting alligators on the drive over to visit her grandparents, and for her new album, she wanted to redirect her music away from light, acoustic soft-rock toward a more soulful, Southern sound. She recorded the album, and another that will follow in the late summer, with the producer Mike Elizondo, whose credits include Fiona Apple and Carrie Underwood, as well as Eminem and 50 Cent.

She wrote some songs with Shane McAnally, a Nashville hitmaker who is gay. And because the themes on her album are less faith-based than in the past, she knows some will count what’s referred to in the CCM world as JPMs (mentions of Jesus Per Minute) and find the music too worldly.

“I’ve seen people ask, ‘Is Lauren Daigle even a Christian anymore?,’” she said. “At this point, it’s to be expected, so it doesn’t bother me.”

In a radio interview after the DeGeneres fracas, Daigle summed up her view of Scripture. Anyone who expected her to shun gay people had “completely missed the heart of God,” she said. “Be who Christ was to everyone as well.” This brought more opprobrium, including a Christian Post column that scoffed, “Lauren, dear sister in Christ, you failed this test.”

Does Daigle, who identifies as nondenominational, feel that Christ’s messages have been widely corrupted? “Oh, absolutely. I have seen people use what He said to promote an agenda and keep people controlled. You have a lot of power if you’re telling someone their eternal destiny.”

Grant, a friend, praised Daigle’s “lovely” voice, adding that “the dynamics of her own life give her a deep compassion for other people.” As for the criticisms Daigle has faced, “My response is, God is good, people are a mess — all of us.”

“Dealing with post-Covid symptoms paired with the animosity that plagued our nation brought me to one of the lowest points of my life,” Daigle said. “I had to do a deep dive on who I was.”Credit…Olivia Crumm for The New York Times

Christian rock began in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when it was known as “Jesus Music,” a grass-roots movement led by longhaired hippie outsiders. It gradually built its own infrastructure of record stores, media, festivals and radio stations. Major labels took notice, and began to buy up Christian labels or start imprints of their own.

The first schism came over the Amy Grant generation of crossover artists who played songs that could be interpreted as devout or romantic, a middle ground known derisively in some CCM circles as the “Jesus is my boyfriend” or the “God or a girl” phenomenon. But Daigle’s crossover, close observers say, was different.

“Lauren represented a new type of stardom on unapologetically confessional terms,” said Joshua Kalin Busman, an assistant professor of music history at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. “She left no ambiguity in her music and spoke transparently about her personal relationship to God.”

As a child, Daigle dismissed Christian music as cheesy. She was raised in a religious home that welcomed secular music, as long as there “weren’t F-bombs every five seconds,” she said. She got in trouble a lot at school, for cheating or talking too much. She believes she has ADHD, and also mentions “some OCD” and a few episodes of depression.

As her interest in music grew, she cleaned her church choir director’s bathroom in exchange for singing lessons. But she also became ill, with symptoms that included extreme fatigue, jaundice and worsening vision. She eventually learned she had cytomegalovirus, a chronic illness, and began home-schooling using a syllabus and a set of VHS tapes as her guide: “That was the season that changed the trajectory of my life.”

She started reading the Bible and had visions of herself as a music star. “I could literally see stages and tour buses. I said, ‘God, are you showing me this, or am I losing my mind?’ I think it was God, because everything I saw has come to pass.”

In 2010 and 2012, she was an untelevised contestant on “American Idol.” She also enrolled at Louisiana State University and sang background vocals with the Assemblie, a U2-ish Christian rock group in Baton Rouge, which drew the attention of Centricity Music.

Her first single, “How Can It Be,” hit No. 5 on Billboard’s Christian singles chart, the first of 14 songs that have breached its Top 10, including five No. 1s, a record for a female singer. “You Say,” from 2018, spent 129 weeks as the most popular Christian song, and reached Number 29 on the Billboard Hot 100. It has a brooding, almost gothic quality, and showcases her flexible alto, which is full of range and power and often draws comparisons to Adele.

“You Say” was still ruling the Christian chart when the pandemic began. As with her first outbreak of cytomegalovirus symptoms, isolation and illness proved transformative.

In November 2020, Daigle appeared at a New Orleans worship event organized by Sean Feucht, a provocateur who used “religious freedom” as an excuse to challenge lockdown regulations, and she faced harsh backlash. As with the DeGeneres flap two years earlier, Daigle cried for days, she told me.

A year later, Daigle contracted the coronavirus and had migraines for months. Her post-Covid symptoms were worse. She used to go skydiving and cliff jumping, but now she suffered panic attacks, anxiety and bouts of paranoia. She started counseling, and simultaneously wrestled with the question of why so many white Evangelicals supported Donald Trump, and the attendant divisiveness in the country.

“Dealing with post-Covid symptoms paired with the animosity that plagued our nation brought me to one of the lowest points of my life,” she said. “I had to do a deep dive on who I was.”

Eventually, Daigle began to feel divine love present in the care showed by people close to her, and she wrote “Thank God I Do,” a bruised ballad that’s one of the highlights of her self-titled album.

Her two health crises strengthened her “tenacity and resilience,” she said. Criticism and rejection reinforced her resolve to follow a personal understanding of Scripture, rather than that of a church or minister, a practice that goes back hundreds of years, to the founding of Protestantism.

“It’s not to say that criticism and animosity doesn’t hurt,” she concluded, “but I do have that confidence piece that will always get me back up on my feet.”

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