CHAMPAIGN — The word “plumb” has quite a few definitions. It can be used as both a noun or an adjective, but neither of those really describe Christian rock musician Tiffany Arbuckle Lee, who took the moniker “Plumb” for herself from the title of a Suzanne Vega song.
Instead it’s one of the verb definitions of plumb that really cuts to the heart of what Lee is all about as an artist: “To examine closely or deeply, to probe.”
Lee’s drive to do exactly that has not always made her road an easy one. She performs alongside many other artists Saturday at the University of Illinois’ State Farm Center, a featured player on the 2014 Winter Jam tour. But none of this was ever in her game plan. When she moved to Nashville at the age of 20, she didn't intend to get involved with the music industry.
“I did all kinds of work when I was there; I sold my clothes to consignment shops, babysat for people and taught gymnastics to make enough money to get by,” she said. “But I kept getting offers to sing, and eventually to record.”
Indeed, unlike so many other fledgling musicians around her, Lee wasn’t hunting for success in the music business. Instead of her chasing opportunities, they showed up unbidden. Living a few doors down from Matt Bronleewe, an original member of Christian rock band Jars of Clay, she began fusing her music and her faith. Although her early work was praised for its musicianship, she also received a good deal of criticism for her themes. Songs such as “Damaged” centered on serious subjects such as child abuse, leading some listeners to question her place in the generally uplifting Christian music market.
“When songwriting, I’ve always just said whatever I wanted to,” she said. “I never considered what should be acceptable for a genre.”
Plumb’s edgier material had another unseen effect, which turned out to be cross-genre success. Several of her singles became top 10 hits on U.S. dance and adult contemporary charts, exposing Lee to a very different set of audiences. Throughout, the singer still considered herself a Christian musician at heart, but believes she was under no compulsion to preach her beliefs directly to all audiences. Instead, she said that if she simply shares herself with them, they will discover the truth on their own.
“St. Francis said, ‘Let your life preach a sermon, and if necessary use words,’ ” Lee said. “I don’t feel a responsibility to tell audiences how to live, only to live the life my creator wants of me. Who I am is the same no matter what audience I’m in front of. I believe you need to be sensitive to your audience and respect what they need from you.”
Performing on the Winter Jam tour, on the other hand, is the opposite side of that coin. There, audiences have come by the thousands specifically to connect with Plumb’s spiritual side, something she called an amazing and powerful experience.
“For someone who likes being up on stage in front of people it’s kind of like being a kid in a candy store,” she said. “The thousands of people motivate you to perform your best in that setting.”
Lee’s life has been marked by the unexpected. Each time she feels confident things will go one way, the circumstances unexpectedly change and she is presented with new opportunities. She strongly sees the work of divine providence in it all, and compared God to a director with ultimate power over her life’s script.
“He has different ideas for our next roles than we do,” she said. “We can never predict what direction he will push us in, but it’s always better than I could have dreamed.”