It's (not) only rock and roll. And people like it.
It’s been three years since these 12 nuns first stood on a stage to rock. Dressed in their black and white habits, twanging electric guitars, combining cellos, violins and clarinets with rock n’ roll drums, the band Siervas (Spanish for “Servants”) is far from being a one-hit-wonder. With millions of views of their videos on YouTube, two albums and a growing international following, the band almost made it to the Grammys last year.
Born in a Peruvian convent, Siervas first shared their music in prisons, when tending to the needs of incarcerated women, and among the poor they care for. As they kept on writing more and more songs, and had their first CD released, they began to tour both nationally and internationally. Here, vocalist Sr. Monica Nobl speaks with Aleteia about rock and roll, serving the poor, letting God be God, and pop music.
It seems obvious that, in order to make the music you make, you are exposed to non-liturgical music. What kind of music do Siervas listen to? What other “secular” musicians do you admire?
The truth is that we don’t really listen to secular music. When we do have the time to listen to some music, we choose to hear music with Christian messages, and even better if it is music from Catholic musicians. However, we have all been naturally exposed to secular music throughout our lives, before entering our life in community. Every one of us have their own preferences. Some like the Beatles, Michael Jackson, U2, Toto, Sting, or Adele, among others.
What role does the daily life of the people you serve in your community play in your songwriting?
The music we compose expresses what we have in our hearts. We named our first album, Ansias que queman (“Burning yearnings”) because it expresses one of our deepest desires: that we may all make a commitment to make a change in the world and let God in a bit more. In a like manner, our second album was titled Hoy Despierto (“Today I wake up”) because we want to help everyone to wake up and see there is a God who is very much present in the world but at the same time very much ignored and rejected. Evidently, our contact with needy people and the awareness we have of the need of God in our contemporary world is what has inspired and continues to inspire us in the composition of our songs.
Some non-explicitly religious musicians (mostly pop musicians) have criticized confessional religious music, arguing most of its lyrics are not entirely credible, as if lacking authenticity, probably because they might find it too confessional. That is, that instead of “telling,” most lyrics “preach.” In fact, pop music is full of stories of fall and redemption, and people actually relate to those quite easily, probably even more than with explicitly religious music. What would you say about this?
The truth is that I was not aware of this criticism. But anyway, since we started with this musical project we knew that every time we went on stage and, of course, in every song we would write, we wanted to present ourselves just as we are. Siervas does not put on a “show,” but rather seeks to share with those who listen to us, with authenticity, who we are, how we live our faith, what makes us happy and what worries us. For that reason, the catechesis we give before each song, in our live shows, is quite important. In the catechesis, we try to share our experience of faith and the best way we have of doing this is giving testimony of the path we have already traveled. The world is very much in need of Catholic references that can share the true meaning of following Our Lord Jesus. Religion should not be something that is far away and alien to people. To the contrary!
Being in a band is hard. Does sharing your lives in the convent help you deal with the tensions inherent to your musical endeavors or, on the contrary, add more stress to it? Sometimes one imagines your convent like a huge rehearsing room, or a recording studio with a chapel in it.
Living with others is always a challenge. We all have to learn to listen and respect different opinions. Of course, in communitarian, conventual life, we have to learn this too. What is nice about Siervas is that first and foremost we are a community, we are sisters and friends, and then we are a band. I think that helps a lot when we have to face the normal challenges a band has to face. For us, the mission we have as a band is very important but before being musicians we are nuns, we are apostles and what unites us is the desire to take God to others. We don’t only have the band as an apostolate, we are also in charge of other services. Many of us visit jails; others visit people living in extreme poverty.
Do you think Siervas has a place of its own in the pop scene? What separates pop music from religious music? Is this a false distinction?
As nuns our biggest yearning is that God may have a space in contemporary culture, so if pop music is the channel to make his message arrive, without a doubt we hope to have a space in contemporary pop culture. There is no reason for scandal if you see a nun on the drums or the electric guitar. We never use these instruments or rhythms for the liturgy, which we think requires music that meets its specific spiritual needs.
If we talk about boundaries (those that might separate pop music from religious one) I think we face a double difficulty. On the one hand, by wanting to modernize liturgical music, sometimes due to ignorance there is a misuse of rhythms and songs which are introduced without the needed reflection and understanding of the liturgy. In that aspect a clearer separation is needed. But, at the same time, I think that an artificial boundary has been built between music with religious content and pop culture. This false distinction between religion and modernity is what Siervas, I hope, is bridging.
In the Catholic Church, there are many groups that make religious music that has liturgical use. They even play at Eucharistic Adoration, or animate Christian events. But we saw that there is a big need of music that might be able to reach those who are farther away. With Siervas, we are trying to make music that may make it to the peripheries, to Catholics who have strayed away, for Christians who are not Catholic, or even for atheists. We make music that you can listen to while driving or commuting, in your free time, music with a message that can accompany people in their everyday lives. I would not define our music as “religious.” It is music with a message which is delivered in a pop, pop-rock, Latin-pop format. We want to “smuggle” the message of God, so that it may reach those who would not receive it if it came presented in any other style.
How is your music career related to the specific charism of your congregation?
The charism of our congregation is to serve those who are in need. We work with the poor, disabled, homeless, women in jail, amongst other services besides our missionary works. We chose to be called “Siervas” (which means “Servants”) because, through music, we want to put ourselves at the service of the modern world which is very much in need of God. God needs to be announced in the existential peripheries that Pope Francis has talked about so much and our music has the mission of arriving to the hearts of those who need Him most. Besides giving hope and strength to Catholics who are already committed with their faith, we want to reach atheists, Christians who have grown apart from their faith and all of those who don’t know our faith. We are missionaries, making music for God, and our music is the channel with which we can reach all these people. With music we put ourselves in the service of others in a double sense. We serve the Lord by announcing Him to a world that needs his message so much and, at the same time, music is an instrument that allows us to raise funds for the needy so that we may be able to help those who live in geographical peripheries.