Over the course of ten albums, Margaret Becker has established herself as one of the most respected singer/songwriters in Contemporary Christian music (CCM). Her music has evolved considerably since her 1987 debut, moving away from aggressive rock sounds toward more subtle R&B and multi-ethnic styles. These creative changes have documented Becker’s personal and spiritual growth, which have caused some controversy in Christian music circles. Despite all of this, she has retained a loyal audience both as a recording artist and an author.
Becker, the youngest of four children, was born in Bayshore, New York, to first-generation German and Irish parents. She studied violin as a child, then switched to guitar and began writing songs. “The very first song I wrote was called ‘Tree,’ and it was a small six-line song ... that my mom made me go around from house to house singing,” Becker told Deborah Evans Price of American Songwriter. “During those first few attempts my parents were wonderful, very encouraging. They made such a big deal out of it that it encouraged me to keep going and going and going.” By age 16, she was singing in local jazz clubs and dreaming of becoming a cabaret performer in New York. While attending James Madison University in Virginia she embraced evangelical Christianity, a decision which redirected her musical career. For six years she waited for the time to be right for her music, working at odd jobs to keep the money coming in, such as singing in a supper club and teaching music in a private school.
After a number of secular publishers rejected her spiritually-tinged songs, she moved to Nashville in 1985. “What I was writing was always written through the template of faith,” Becker stated in an interview with Contemporary Musicians, “and nobody wanted that. That message was not enjoying any tolerance anywhere. And I didn’t even know about Christian music ‘til a friend of mine heard what I was doing and said, ‘There’s a whole industry built on that commentary.’“ Within her first month in Nashville, Becker heard that Sparrow Records was looking for a demo singer. When she went in and played her demo, the publisher was won over by her songwriting instead and signed her on immediately as a writer.
Becker quickly found acceptance in the CCM community. During that first year in Nashville, Becker worked eight hour days, seven days a week. She honed her songwriting skills working with other songwriters and reaped some early rewards, placing tunes with such well-known CCM artists as Steve Camp (“One on One”), Sandi Patti (“Exalt Thy Name”) and Steven Curtis Chapman (“Wait”). Becker gained further exposure as a background singer for Christian artist Rick Cua’s touring group. Her debut album, Never for Nothing, was released by Sparrow in 1987 and was both a critical and popular success. The LP emphasized rock power ballads reminiscent of Heart, Patty Smyth and other mid ‘80s secular acts. Becker’s vocals on such tunes as the anthemic “Fight for God” and the introspective “Never for Nothing” were soaring and passionate. Regarding the album’s title track, Becker told CCM magazine’s Brian Quincy Newcomb, “Lots of times Christian music is guilty of making it all too neat and tidy. There are people who need to hear that sometimes it’s not that clear to us what God is doing, that it may not seem to make sense but it does and it’s worth it. ‘Never for Nothing’ is just my life in the last six years. It’s an encouragement to hold on and wait it out. Loving God is its own reward.”
Still, as John J. Thompson wrote in True Tunes, “Becker never quite acted the role of ‘The Joan Jett of Christian Music’ ... It was also frustrating to all those rock fans waiting for her to don leather pants and blow the walls down. The reason, quite simply, is that it was never what she wanted to do.” In 1989 Becker released Immigrant’s Daughter, followed by a Simple House, and Soul, all on Sparrow Records. These albums moved Becker away from guitar-driven pop/rock toward more R&B-influenced sounds. Moving away from rock, Becker found R&B and pop music a better fit for her. She also worked hard to make her lyrics more universal. “I’ve tried with each album to push the envelope a little further,” Becker commented to John J. Thompson in True Tunes. “The conviction is that I don’t want to write anything that my brother or sister, or the clerk down at the store wouldn’t understand. I think that at times our industry is so inundated with ‘christianese’ that we can’t really say anything that’s relevant to anyone else. So on this album I tried to specifically write from just a human perspective, not using anything that would be like code words for people who are looking for that sort of thing.”
Simple House reflected Becker’s interest in such modern rock artists as Kate Bush and the Eurythmics. Their recording approach inspired her to use a drum machine when writing each song. “Following the increasingly textured, keyboard-infused sound of Immigrant’s Daughter, Simple House is, ironically, anything but simple musically,” Bernie Sheahan wrote in CCM, “It also happens to be the most fun, interesting and ... most commercially accessible album yet.” Simple House won the 1992 Dove Award for Rock Album of the Year. In tandem with producer/co-writer Charlie Peacock, her lyrics and arrangements gained nuance and polish.
However, she remained at odds with what was expected of her, “I got tired of people telling me whether or not I was ‘annointed’,” she told Bernie Sheahan in CCM. “People not carrying my record in their bookstore because it had a song about my grandmother, people telling me I had a sensual demon because I move on stage or dress differently than them; being given spiritual reasons for a bad sound system - just because it’s a piece of junk doesn’t mean there’s a demon in it.” Still, she continued to earn Christian radio airplay and, in 1992, received Dove Awards for both her album Rock House and its title track. In 1994, she teamed up with Susan Ashtron and Out of the Grey’s Christine Dente for a well-received trio album, Along The Road. This group effort yielded a Dove Award Nomination for the 1995 Group of the Year. From Becker’s perspective, the tour was a welcome change; not only did she forge new friendships, it was a great relief to share the mounting pressures of touring with others.
Around this time, Becker began traveling as a spokeswoman for World Vision, a famine-fighting organization. “She was so taken with the plight of a community in Ghana, that she’s personally sponsoring the entire village of 2,000 in a fight against hunger,” Tom Roland wrote in the Tennessean. “She’s also leading the charge for the 30-Hour Famine.” Becker referred to the 30-Hour Famine as a “Deny-A-Thon;” for every hour participants go without eating, money is earned that goes toward feeding starving people.
Touring in Europe, Africa, Australia, and South Africa, enriched Becker’s perspective and added to the musical textures on her following albums, including her Spanish album, Fiel A Ti. Her 1995 album, Grace, was a particularly strong album, yielding the ultra-catchy “Deep Calling Deep,” a number one Christian radio single. “Becker is the Christian music equivalent of Mary Chapin Carpenter,” Billboard proclaimed. “A strong, independent woman who writes thoughtful, literate songs and breathes life into them with a voice that is both gutsy and vulnerable.”
Despite her steady success, Becker became frustrated with the music business and took time off following the European leg of her Grace tour. She took a self-imposed sabbatical of re-discovery, forsaking recording in favor of staying near the beach, sitting, watching sunrises and sunsets, and reading and writing all day long. This career re-evaluation mirrored her ongoing spiritual struggles. Her return to her Catholic heritage sparked criticism from some in the evangelical community and even led to protests at a few concerts. Becker described a scene in Chicago to Laura Harris of MusicForce.com, “There were protesters outside handing out pamphlets saying that my band and I were of the anti-Christ because I was finding ‘spiritual food and water,’ so-to-speak, in the Catholic Church.”
Becker weathered this controversy and returned to recording, releasing Falling Forward in 1998 and What Kind of Love a year later. The latter album combined hip-hop grooves with semi-acoustic arrangements. “We took everything from strings from the ‘60s to small string quartets to sampled strings - just strings everywhere, all different applications,” Becker told Deborah Evans Price of Billboard, “It’s an equal blend of retro guitars and retro keys married under modern production values.” The CD’s best tracks, including “Friend for Life” and the title number, displayed Becker’s increasingly refined, understated vocal approach, a far cry from the melodramatics of her first release. Her lyrics showed greater subtlety as well, using a Christian perspective as a basis for commentary on the human condition rather than explicitly evangelism. As she told Contemporary Musicians, “At this point in my life, I think God will have his way, regardless of what I do. And I think the best thing I can do is just be honest. And if people are evangelized by that honest commentary, so be it. But if they’re not, it’s not my responsibility.” Happy for the experience, Becker toured with her long-time favorite singer, Ashley Cleveland, on the “Stories and Strings” tour during 1999.
Over the years, Becker has contributed essays to a number of Christian publications. She co-wrote an entire children’s series with a scriptwriter and contributed to various women’s magazines. In 1997, the Evangelical Press Association awarded her first place for her standing column in Campus Life, “One More Thing.” Her first book, With New Eyes, a collection of essays about real-life experiences, was published by Harvest House in 1998. Growing Up Together, a collection of stories about siblings, followed in 2000.
Ten albums, 22 Top Five radio singles, three Dove Awards, and four Grammy nominations later, Becker still shuns her celebrity status. “For me, it’s never been a star trip,” Becker declared to Contemporary Musicians. “The celebrity part of it is the part I’ve actually despised. So it’s more been about making music, and if I could do that with a bag over my head and still be as effective and no one would know my identity, I’d be really, really happy about that.”