Lori Chaffer’s music is mannah from heaven

“It’s Not Safe (Everything’s Going To Be Alright)” by Lori Chaffer, from 1Beginning (Hey Ruth Music):

On June 1, after giving a sermon about the Old Testament character Bathsheba, Jacob’s Well pastor Deth Im turned the mic over to a tall, brown-haired woman.

Lori Chaffer was supposed to offer her reflections on Bathsheba through music.

As it turned out, the pickup for her acoustic guitar didn’t work. Unfazed, Chaffer snagged an electric guitar from the church band and plucked out a harrowing song from the perspective of a woman who had lost everything.

Starting out low and sultry, Chaffer’s bluesy voice cut high for the refrain, Whyyyyyy be a mystery?/Lyyyyying in history. I got genuine goosebumps. I couldn’t wait to meet Chaffer.

It turns out that, having virtually disappeared from the music scene after some national success, Chaffer herself is something of a mystery.

“I’m not really a good multitasker,” the 37-year-old says by way of explanation. We’re at a Brookside coffee shop, in the neighborhood where she lives with her husband, Don, and their kids.

Chaffer spends every day with 4-year-old Miles and 2-year-old Ruby while Don produces music at the Conductor, his studio on Southwest Boulevard.

Not so many years ago, the couple traveled around the country together and sold tens of thousands of records as the spiritual folk-rock outfit Waterdeep.

But touring while maintaining a family life was too hard, Chaffer says. Her hiatus from writing and performing hasn’t just been for the kids, though. As a woman songwriter in the realm of Christian music, Chaffer felt stifled.

“The Christian music industry caused me to shut down,” she says. “It’s a little too much propaganda and not enough art.”

She mentions the time that a Christian radio station insisted on removing the word bimbo from a Waterdeep song. (The band obliged, grudgingly.) Also frustrating: her sense that she was stuck in a genre that left no room for complexity, including the things that most inspired her — “hard stuff, sadness, confusion.”

On her last solo album, 2003’s 1Beginning, Chaffer struck out against those conservative forces: I’m so tired of feeling like everything’s all wrong/If it takes a little wine and a lot of song/Doesn’t mean it’s not safe.

Throughout the album, which was released on the couple’s own Hey Ruth Records, Chaffer touched on some heavy themes — loneliness, lust, addiction — in a voice that suggested Fiona Apple or Regina Spektor. In the songs, most of which contain stories, any divine imagery is so subtle that it’s almost imperceptible. “Characters go where they’ve got to go,” Chaffer says. “And you can’t let them do that if you’re always wanting to praise God in the end.”

Which is why, at Jacob’s Well, she so enjoyed giving voice to Bathsheba, an imperfect character from the Bible. “She was no Proverbs 31 woman, no Virgin Mary, which was nice,” Chaffer told the congregation before singing. “I found myself wanting there to not be a moral to her story, just like I don’t really want there to be a moral to my story. It’s just a story.”

Before she met her husband, Chaffer barely knew what Christian music was. She grew up on David Bowie and Lynyrd Skynyrd. She was the first person at her Springfield high school to get a U2 cassette.

As she starts to write again, Chaffer says those original rock influences are shining through. Now, her music is more anthemic, less narrative. “I just kind of want to let my freak flag fly a little more,” she says.

Still, getting the creativity flowing hasn’t been easy.

To prod her, Don gives her musical assignments. Example: Write a 30-second song using only two guitar strings and 10 words. “It’s greasing the wheel,” Chaffer says.

Waterdeep shows help, too. The band plays locally every couple of months, often gigging along with Don’s other band, the Khrusty Brothers. There is also talk of a two-week Waterdeep tour this fall.

As Chaffer begins her re-emergence, the necessity of touring is a source of debate in her house. But for a woman who hasn’t usually enjoyed being on the road with a bunch of men, having little Miles and Ruby in tow this time could be the ultimate compromise.

Or at least an unforgettable family vacation.

Categories: Music