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Individualistic. A free spirit. Untraditional. In junior high those labels are a death sentence. In adulthood, they usually describe people the rest of us wish we could be – creative, intriguing people like Audrey Assad. Truly one-of-a-kind, this intensely honest singer-songwriter is carving out her own unique path in the music industry and opening hearts to God along the way.

Audrey stood out even when everyone else was trying desperately to blend in. “Middle school was horrendous for me because I loved to study, loved school and loved band,” she recalls, adding, “and kids don’t let you get away with that at all.” It didn’t help that one of the instruments she played was the xylophone.

Then, following high school graduation, Audrey left the suburbs outside New York City and relocated with her parents to Florida. There, amid the sun and sand that lures so many young adults into a life of nightclubs and partying, the longtime Christian took her spiritual life to the next level.

“I was 19 when I started to fully understand the idea of surrendering my life -- not just as a concept, but the daily hopes and dreams and disappointments -- and giving that away to God,” she says. “That’s when I first started to realize He had gifted me with music.”

Shortly after that spiritual epiphany, Audrey set aside the notion of pursuing an English degree or studying fashion design and began leading worship in the foyer of a church she didn’t even attend. Standing by her lifelong conviction to “bloom where you’re planted,” she set out to do whatever God put in front of her that let her use her gifts.

That led to local gigs, worship events and a four-song demo, recorded by a friend with Garage Band for several hundred dollars. Along the way, Audrey struck up friendships with 10th Avenue North and Phil LaRue. Next came a move to Nashville and a five-song EP, Fireflies, recorded in 2008 with LaRue and Paul Moak. It was that recording that caught the attention of the A&R department at Sparrow Records, but not before Audrey joined Chris Tomlin on his Christmas tour and album, covering her song “Winter Snow” as a duet.

Her July 13 debut, The House You’re Building, releases just days after her 27th birthday, but the depth and maturity of her songwriting will make you suspect her cake should have quite a few more candles on it. The collection of piano-driven pop also contains plenty of worship, something that’s more than just a genre of music or something saved for Sunday mornings, it bleeds into every one of Audrey’s live sets.

“Worship leading is a big part of what I do. If I’m not opening believers hearts, then I’m not doing what I want to do,” she explains. “Of course, I want to evangelize and change people’s lives, but really I just hope it opens them up a little bit more to God.”

She’s passionate about songwriting as well. The songs for her debut were written in Nashville, featuring collaborations between Audrey and everyone from Maher, LaRue and Ben Glover (Britt Nicole, Mandisa, Gloriana) to Marc Byrd (Hammock, Third Day, Kutless, Leeland) and Sarah Hart (Amy Grant, Adie Camp, Robbie Seay Band). She also penned one song on her own and shares a co-writing credit with producer Marshall Altman (Marc Broussard, Natasha Bedingfield, Bethany Dillon). The tracks were then laid down at Altman’s Galt Line studio in Los Angeles where Audrey was forced to dig deeper than ever before.

“The record is about faith. It’s about the cross and fear and pain and how God is carrying me even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like it,” Audrey explains. “Marshall pulled things out of me emotionally that I don’t think I’d ever accessed, making me realize that every time I sing these songs, I have to channel my pain and walk through it.”

In addition to looking up for lyrical inspiration, Audrey also turned to favorite poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Francis Thompson, to the works of St. Augustine, and to her own feelings of still not quite fitting in.

“For Love of You,” the album’s first single and title track, was inspired by the Hopkins poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” and is one of the few angst-free tunes on the album. There’s no struggling or wrestling, it’s simply a celebration of the idea that there are traces of God everywhere.

“The House You’re Building” is arguably the album’s most personal song. Written with Ben Glover, the tune finds Audrey comparing herself to a broken, misshapen stone. “It’s about being a misfit, of not feeling fit to be a Christian, but then realizing that the walls of God’s house are being built from oddly-shaped and misfit stones,” she says. “He does that on purpose so I know I have a place. There’s a hole in the wall that I fit perfectly in.”

“Restless” is a song for today’s younger generation, a group raised in an age of social networking and ubiquitous technology. Meanwhile, “Breaking Through,” written with Altman, draws inspiration from the Thompson poem “Hound of Heaven,” painting a stark picture of the search for God and His dogged pursuit of us. More than just a song, it’s a metaphor for Audrey’s life of late.

“That’s been my journey the last few years, learning to believe that and walk in that acceptance of God choosing me,” she says, musing, “That’s what my journey will probably always be. The first reason I write songs is to preach to myself.”

During this season before and during the recording process, the wise-beyond-her-years Assad continued to push herself to grow – in her spiritual life and her chosen craft. At one point, she challenged herself to write one song a day for 30 days (one of those tracks landed on her debut). She’s also reading all of C.S. Lewis’ works chronologically over the course of a year, looking for further theological inspiration. And in 2007, as part of her ongoing spiritual journey, she converted to Catholicism, quite a change from her upbringing in the Plymouth Brethren church.

Meeting Matt Maher during Gospel Music Week ’08 led to another big life-change. He brought Audrey out to Phoenix for the Arise conference. “We’d never sung together, but he had this feeling like it might work,” she says. “Our first time singing together we were like, ‘where have you been all my life -- musically speaking?’” After that, Audrey spent eight months on the road with Maher and his band, forging a strong friendship. It was that tour, with this group of guys who became like brothers, which led her to spend more and more time in the Phoenix area, the band’s home base. Soon, she was packing her belongings and heading west.

“I love Nashville, but it just didn’t feel like home to me,” Audrey explains with conviction. “Phoenix was home.”

Since her arrival she’s dug in, planting deep roots. She’s found a thriving congregation at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in nearby Tempe, where Maher also attends, and enjoys the opportunity to offer encouragement to the young female worship leaders coming up behind her.

It’s certainly not the norm – most aspiring artists move to Nashville, eager to remain part of the local scene. But Audrey’s never been too concerned with what everyone else is doing. Instead, she was looking for the right fit for her. “I wanted to be part of a larger community, and I was really drawn to the idea of living somewhere where I could travel and then return to people just living regular life,” she says.

It’s a good thing Audrey has found a place that keeps her grounded because once listeners get an earful of For Love of You this earthy, artsy young talent will no doubt be flying high.