“Be anxious for nothing,” Phillippians tells us, but sometimes, that’s easier said than done. JJ Heller is a Christian musician who has encountered firsthand the challenge of panic attacks and anxiety, and her experiences often inform her music. Her single, Your Hands, was directly about her struggles. In November of last year, JJ released a follow-up album to her highly acclaimed lullaby collection, entitled I Dream of You (Volume 2).
We recently got the chance to chat with JJ about that album as well as the relationship between lullabies and anxiety, and a little bit of everything else—musicmaking, marriage and faith in the midst of trials. We were edified by the conversation, and we hope you are too!
Tell me how I Dream of You (Volume 2) came to be.
Well, my husband and I write all of our songs together, and we’ve been creating music together since we got married in 2003. In 2008, we had our first baby, and all of a sudden, I was able to write a love song for the first time ever! There was just something about having a child that unlocked a different part of my heart and so all of these love songs and lullabies started flowing out. A few years after that, we decided to make a whole album of love songs and lullabies. We spent some months trying to fill out the rest of the album, and trying to think about, “What do we want our children to hear as they’re falling asleep?” So we filled the songs with encouragement and hope and peace and love. I thought it was an album for kids, and it wasn’t until we got into the studio to track that first album and we were listening back to the vocals that I had to track, and I was letting the words kind of wash over me, and I realized, “Oh my goodness! These songs are for me, too!”
It was so amazing to release them to the world and to hear that same message from people, that not only were these songs healing their children but they were soothing their own hearts. I was just absolutely amazed to hear stories and stories of how these songs had an almost medicinal quality to them, that parents would play it for their children with sensory processing disorders and how it would immediately calm them down, or play them in the neonatal intensive care unit and they could see on the heart monitors that their heartbeat would normalize and their breathing would even out.
Because of all the stories that I’ve heard over the years, we decided to make a follow-up album. In November of last year, we released I Dream of You (Vol. 2), and this time around we wanted to fill it with cover songs. It’s twelve of my favorite songs of all time, songs like “Here’s Come the Sun,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Edelweiss,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” all of these songs that evoke a sense of nostalgia in my own heart. We wanted to create music that would be timeless and classic, so a lot of the songs have orchestral sections and a children’s choir and piano. I feel honored that I was able to be a part of it.
You mentioned how the songs have been used to calm people of all ages. In the past, you’ve been very candid with your own experience with anxiety and panic attacks. What do you think the relationship between lullabies and anxiety is?
Well, I wrote a song with my husband and a friend called Your Hands, and it was directly talking about my experience with panic attacks and anxiety and kind of asking the question, “Where is God when we’re struggling and why doesn’t He always answer our prayers the way that we want Him to?” I came to the conclusion that, no matter what we’re experiencing, God is there with us in the midst of it. And I think because I’ve experienced panic and anxiety, there’s something inside my heart that knows that I need to hear lullabies. I think that I feel so compelled to create peaceful music because I know that my own soul needs to hear that. It’s so beautiful that God works like that. He takes something that has been really painful in my own life and turns it into something to bring healing to other people as well.
Do you have any advice that you would want to give to our LightWorkers readers or tell people when they reach out to you? What would you say to someone who is struggling with anxiety and/or panic attacks and doesn’t know quite where to turn or know what to do?
It took me a while to figure out that I was actually having panic attacks because at first, I thought there was something physically wrong with me. I went to so many doctor’s appointments, trying to figure out what was going on. I would be sitting there, doing nothing, and my heart would start racing and my fingers would feel numb; I’d feel dizzy like I was going to pass out; it was hard to breathe. I just had this overwhelming feeling that something was terribly wrong. I finally figured out that I was experiencing panic, and once I discovered that, it was a relief.
But then, it was a puzzle to try to figure out, “Okay, now how do I make these things go away?” I started to go to counseling and actually went through a program that I found online that was really helpful for me. But when I talk about anxiety, I always like to encourage people that it’s so important to tell somebody that you are experiencing it. Our tendency is to keep it hidden because we don’t want somebody to think that there’s something wrong with us. We don’t want to be embarrassed. It feels very vulnerable to talk about panic, because you look around, and it doesn’t seem like anybody else in your life is experiencing it, but that’s because they are also afraid to talk about it. Once I started to get a little better handle on my anxiety, I felt like God was asking me to start talking about it onstage, which I fought against for a long time. It just felt too vulnerable. But then, I finally got up the courage to start talking about it.
And since then, every single time I’ve told my story about anxiety, at least one or two people will come up to me afterward and say, “Thank you so much for saying that because that’s my story, too, and I thought I was the only one.” There’s something about finding out that you’re not alone that brings so much freedom. So I love encouraging people to find at least one safe person in their life that they can be totally, completely, brutally honest with. Whether that’s a spouse, or a parent, or a professional counselor, just start talking to someone about what’s going on in your heart, because healing doesn’t happen in the hiding places. It’s only when we get those things out into the light that we can start healing.
Speaking of lullabies and love songs, your latest song, It’ll Be Alright, is a little bit of both. I know it’s about your relationship with your husband. Tell me a little bit about the inspiration for that song.
My husband Dave and I are releasing a song on the first Friday of every month. We’re collaborating with other writers to create new songs. And since this past month was February, we thought a love song would be appropriate. We’ve been married now for almost sixteen years, and we were reflecting on the meaning of love and marriage and commitment, and the fact that, through the course of our marriage, we’ve experienced some highs and a lot of lows, but the beautiful thing about marriage is that we know, no matter what, we’re going to be there for each other and with each other. And sometimes, there will be a moment when I’m the strong one and I have to support my husband, and in other scenarios, he’s the strong one and he needs to support me and to be there and hold my hand. So the song is a celebration of that, a kind of recommitment to being there through anything that life throws at us. As long as I’m breathing, I’m never leaving/I’ll hold you in the dark and the daylight/I love you and it will be alright…
Will all of the songs released on the first Friday of every month be turned into an album?
We’re just kind of making it up as we go. They could potentially end up as an album, but I’m just really trying to focus on streaming possibilities and releasing new music. I’m not exactly sure if it will end up on an actual album.
Still in process, it sounds like.
So, last question. What artists or albums do you go to when you’re looking for peace?
Ohhh… that is hard, because I really like to pick and choose. And because of that, I’ve actually made my own playlist on Spotify that’s called, Peaceful Songs for Anxiety. It’s probably twenty or thirty of my favorite songs that I love listening to when I’m feeling anxious, and I just need to be reminded that God is in control and everything is going to be okay. I made that public, too, so if anybody is looking for an entire playlist of beautiful songs, they can check that out on Spotify.
You can check out JJ’satest album, and new song, “It’ll Be Alright,” on Spotify and iTunes, and read more about her experience with anxiety in her recent blog post, “You’re Not Going Crazy.”