You Had Something to Say, Matthew West Listened
One of the industry’s most prolific songwriters, Matthew West has consistently challenged listeners to pursue their faith with fervency, whether it’s in one of his songs or something he’s co-written with his peers. But for his fourth studio album, Story of Your Life (Sparrow), West abandoned all his tried and true songwriting formulas, and holed up in a cabin in Tennessee, set out on a new journey altogether – by leaving his insights by the wayside and telling the stories of ordinary people – like you and me.
On the heels of his new album’s release, West explains what he learned in this unconventional process and how that furthers his personal mission of writing songs about everyday life from a faith perspective.
gmclife.com: You defied the usual songwriting convention and went off to a cabin and just wrote for a couple of months. What was that like?
Matthew West: The idea to go to the cabin fit with my idea for the record. The central message of my last album, Something to Say, was encouraging people that your life matters and God wants to speak through your life to change the world. So I was praying about the next record and I felt like ‘I just told these people they have something to say. What if I did a record and just had them say it?’ That was the exact thought process. I felt like God put that on my heart, and now I know He did because of all that has transpired since then.
I asked people to send me their stories through Facebook and Twitter first. I received a 1,000 stories in the first two days. I wasn’t even really publicizing it or anything. I was like ‘Hey, send me your story,’ and we set up a link on my website. In the three weeks we collected stories, we ended up receiving 10,000 from all over the country and from 20 countries around the world. So when I realized how many stories I had, I knew I had to get away [to the cabin]. So I holed up for two months reading these stories and writing songs – and that’s how The Story of My Life came together.
gmclife.com: For many artists, the idea of getting away sounds like the perfect thing. But as a creative type, how did you stay productive and not let the proverbial A-D-D
Next: West: I really had to fight through the A-D-D and focus...
West: I felt a tremendous amount of pressure at times. But one of the interesting things, and people who’ve read my liner notes know this, is that I love to write songs with other people. This time because it was people sending their stories to me, I felt like it needed to be my personal response to these people’s stories. What that meant is that I spent a lot of time in solitude. I spent hours by myself every day. I think most people would admit that it can be a bit of an uncomfortable thing. For me, that’s not natural. I like to be around people, doing shows and talking.
I really had to fight through the A-D-D and focus. Some days I just needed to get away from it. I was in the woods, so I’d go for a walk or go jogging and come back and read more stories. Honestly, I was stripped of everything – those go-to methods – that I normally use to write a song. There was a moment when I was reminded of the last song that was on the radio, “The Motions,” that “this might hurt/it’s not safe/I’ve got to make a change” and it’s funny because that song sort of prepared me for this season. This record has stretched me beyond my comfort. It’s impossible for me to go through the motions of making another record. I’ve been stretched creatively and spiritually.
gmclife.com: You’re making yourself live out the things you’re singing about, huh?
West: (laughs) Mmm hmm. It’s interesting being in this position where you’re the messenger. I’ve never been so excited about a record, and it’s not about me. That was an a-ha moment for me of going “Oh, what if the rest of my life was like that too?”
gmclife.com: And as an artist, it’s all about you.
West: Yeah, even on days like today, I’m doing 50 interviews, and you talk about yourself for hours on end. And you come home, and you just assume that’s what your wife wants to hear. It’s like “No, no, no.” This has been a really refreshing season of talking about this record because the bulk of what I’m talking about is other people and what their stories meant to me. Likewise, the tour feels that way too. I like being in the role of the messenger. I like telling other people’s stories and letting them be in
gmclife.com: How did you go about deciding which stories would make their way into the songs?
West: My tendency would’ve been to approach a project like this by just writing, writing, writing. But I made a promise to myself not to do that. So I ending up spending the majority of the days not writing and doing the opposite – just reading my Bible and writing in my prayer journal. My prayer for every day was “God, don’t let me pick up a guitar or put pen to paper until You show me a song that needs to be written.” And that was my motivation: not to get ahead of myself or God.
When a story or a line [about] a certain topic that wasn’t being talked about in the Christian community jumped out at me, or when I read a story that made me think 'the whole world needs to hear this,' then I’d ask God to give me the words to write about that. In the two months, I wrote 40 songs and started with about 150, but I pared it down to 11 stories that I felt like [I couldn't] live without. But honestly, there were more than 11 of those. I feel like I only scratched the surface. I feel like this is volume one.
Next: gmclife.com: You probably have enough stories for ten more albums.
West: I know! People’s stories are incredible. They were so honest; those are the ones that really spoke to me. There were a lot of stories where the first line would read, “I’ve never told anybody this. When I heard about what you were doing, I felt like I should tell my story – finally.”
A woman wrote in and told me about a mistake she’d made 35 years ago. In 1975, she’d had an abortion and had thought about that every day since. It was one of the stories that inspired the song “The Healing Has Begun.” I called her last week and spoke with her on the phone. And what I didn’t know is that this whole process led her to tell her husband, of like 25 years, for the first time. She told him two weeks ago, after she found out that her song had been written. The Lord just worked in her life and she worked up the courage to tell her husband about this choice she’d made many
So I was seeing stories like that play out – where the stories aren’t over yet. This record is becoming a part of people’s continuing story. If we had four hours I could go on
I went to some of these people and surprised them by playing their song, and I tell you, some of the most memorable experiences in my entire music career have happened in these past two months.
gmclife.com: And if you look back over your career, most of your songs have been about real life, but this is presenting that in a new way...
West: There are a lot of Christian songs about faith, and this is a subtle difference, but I feel like I’ve always been called to write songs about life from a faith perspective. That’s why I think most of my songs don’t tend to be vertical worship. So when this idea came up, it hit my sweet spot: These are songs about real life! Yet I’m making a point not to leave out the message of hope we have in Christ. Ultimately, that’s what sets Christian music apart. But it can still be about real life topics, and sometimes I think we limit ourselves in terms of what Christian music can say. There are topics on this album that aren’t always talked about in church, and some of that scared me. But at the same time, it also fired me up.
gmclife.com: What was the most surprising thing you learned from reading
West: What scared me was being in the cabin and realizing that almost 25 percent of the 10,000 stories I read were about sexual abuse. And in the first three days, I got 1,000 stories and literally one in every four dealt with that. They were from women in their 40s and 50s and for a lot of these women, they had this happen to them when they were children. They had their innocence stolen, and they were still trying to make sense of that part of their past. I’m sitting there going ‘Man, I didn’t ask for this. These aren’t the people at my shows.’ All of the sudden, I was like ‘OK, God, this is what you put in front of me.’ This is going on in the church, and they don’t have anyone to talk to, so they’re sending their stories to a complete stranger hoping a song can be written that tells the story of their brokenness.
Man, it’s opened my eyes. Onstage, I no longer think I’m just preaching to the choir because I realize there’s a whole lot of people going through real pain and real hurt and real abuse and real broken homes, and I just hope these new songs can connect [with them] on a deeper level than I’ve been able to before.
About the Writer
After graduating with a B.S. in Journalism from North Central University in 1998, Christa Banister moved from Minneapolis to Nashville, Tenn. and eventually started working at CCM Magazine/Salem Publishing in various editorial capacities as an editor, columnist and website guru for five and a half years. After that, she launched her own Dallas-based freelance writing company and writes for numerous clients including Salem Publishing, Crosswalk.com (she review movies for them each week), Christian Single, Christianity Today, Threads Media, Songs4Worship.com, PassAlong.com and also helped kickstart the first Christian music blog for MTV. In addition, she also writes bios for professional recording artists and authors and penned her first two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers for NavPress.
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