For JJ Heller, every album is a bit like a yearbook. Each new collection of songs is an accumulation of real experiences and stories gathered along the way. Heller’s latest release, Sound of a Living Heart, was brought to life under the production of Jonny Macintosh (Third Day, Lead Us Back). The 11 brand-new songs describing the pursuit of a whole-hearted life, is like a well-textured story, inviting the listener into a deeper journey that continues long after the final song ends.
Departing from the seasoned songstress’s more tranquil love songs and lullabies of her 2014 release, I Dream of You, the new record is a wholly original vision with universal appeal. Starting with the opening measures of the first track, “Let Down Your Guard,” it’s clear JJ isn’t settling for the same old safe way of doing things, and she’s inviting her listeners to join her. Lyrics like “You don’t have to hide, you can be alive,” speak right to the heart, while strong rhythm tracks and hooky pop melodies make it impossible to resist tapping your toes.
What follows is seamless exploration of Heller's artistic range, including pop-infused tracks, familiar folk melodies (you might recognize “This Year” and “Meant to Be” which already garnered immediate and widespread attention with millions of listeners through JJ’s social media presence), as well as soaring power ballads, a gospel-inspired tune, and a heartrending story-song that features the vocals of Sanctus Real frontman, Matt Hammitt.
Although Sound of a Living Heart reaches into fresh sonic territory, long-time listeners of Heller’s music will recognize the signature writing style of JJ and her songwriting/performing partner and husband, Dave Heller. Together they meld honest lyrics and vulnerability in their own trademark style.
“I’m a recovering perfectionist,” Heller says with a laugh, “but I’m learning to press into the discomfort and messiness of life. I know I’m going to make mistakes and experience pain, but God is always there to put the pieces back together.” Sound of a Living Heart is JJ’s invitation to journey with her through life’s less-than-perfect times.
“I went through a season a few years ago where I experienced a lot of suffering. Not only did that time inform the songs on this record, but I think it also helped me discover more about being whole than if those painful experiences had never happened. I’m learning that joy is not dependent on my present circumstances, and hope is always available if we have eyes to see it.”
One of JJ’s favorite new tracks, the sparse piano ballad, “Daylight,” transforms these sentiments into poetry:
There is an inch of daylight underneath the door
It’s enough for me to fill up my canteen
Food and water are only buying time
If I want to live, your love is what I need
“Rather than trying to shield myself from pain,” Heller says, “I want to choose to be adventurous, take risks, and tell a better story with my life.”
The record concludes with the rousing title track, “Sound of a Living Heart,” which begins quietly with Heller reflecting on a life of illusory comfort, “…if I refuse to feel, I’ll never bleed, but I’ll never heal.” The tension builds to finally let loose in a driving instrumental section reminiscent of classic anthemic Coldplay tunes and gives way to the final chorus in which the Heller’s vocals effortlessly blend in a response to the divine call to a life of freedom:
Out of the grave I’ve been sleeping in
With new lungs I’ll begin again
Lift my voice and sing my part
This is the sound of a living heart
Within each of us resides a story waiting to be told as we journey toward our most authentic and fulfilled life. JJ Heller’s new offering might just be the perfect soundtrack for the one you’re telling.