Matthew West’s ‘Stories’ Grow Bigger with Time
With a new book, a fabulous new Christmas album, an acting role in a holiday movie and a slot on the ever-popular Winter Jam tour, Matthew West is one of the industry’s busiest artists. Always in creative mode, whether he’s co-writing with Mark Hall for the new Casting Crowns album or blogging about taking his young daughter to school, West is a gifted multi-tasker and this has been a particularly fruitful season.
Among the projects he’s most excited about these days is “The Heart of Christmas.” To West, finally recording a Christmas album makes him feel like he’s arrived. “It symbolizes a lot. I always thought that if someday a record label would actually let me make a Christmas record, that meant that I’d made enough records, and maybe had enough success, that people would actually want to hear how I sang ‘Jingle Bells,’” he explains with a laugh.
West does indeed serve up an impressive take on the seasonal classic, but beyond “Jingle Bells,” the album’s best moments are the new tunes West adds to the lexicon of Christmas offerings. Among the standout tracks is the title song, “The Heart of Christmas,” which is also the title of a new GMC movie starring Candice Cameron Bure (Full House), George Newbern (Father of the Bride, Justice League) and Jeanne Neilson (Faith Like Potatoes) that debuts on GMC December 4.
The movie was inspired by the song “One Last Christmas,” the true story of two-year-old Dax Locke, who lost his battle with leukemia. “The song tells the story about how after the doctors told the family there was nothing left that they could do they went back home to Illinois and were trying to figure out how to make the most of the time they had left with their son,” West says.
“It was coming up on Halloween and their son loved Christmas, so they decided to skip the Halloween decorations and go straight to the Christmas decorations. The neighborhood caught on to what they were doing and it became this really special outpouring of support from the whole community. They put Christmas decorations up in this neighborhood instead of Halloween decorations. Word began to spread throughout the city and the state. Pretty soon people are sending pictures online from all over the country with their Christmas decorations up in honor of this little boy.”
West released the song last year and the accompanying video became one of the most watched clips on You Tube. “A producer in LA called and said, ‘We want to make a movie inspired by this story,’” recalls West. “We were like ‘What?!’ So long story short, they weren’t joking. They wanted to make a movie inspired by this story.”
They also asked if West would write a new song that would become the movie’s title and thus “The Heart of Christmas” was born. “It needed to be a song that captured the whole essence of the film and the other stories that were going to go along with the script,” West says. “After reading the script and realizing that one of the main characters is this mom who has a couple kids and working two jobs and trying to make time for everything---when she’s really kind of missing the heart of Christmas---that’s how I came up with the song idea. Everybody liked it and decided to put it in the movie and call the movie ‘The Heart of Christmas.’”
West enjoyed the “writing on assignment” aspect of creating a song for the film. “I learned that I just need to keep my expectations wide open because really neat stuff keeps showing up beyond what I even thought was going to happen,” he says. “For me as a writer, I love assignments. I love getting a script in my hands and being charged with the assignment of writing a song. As a songwriter, that’s when I come alive.”
West also makes an appearance in the film as the Locke’s neighbor Mark Hurtgen. “I was kind of the star of the show,” West says then bursts into laughter. “No, I played the friendly neighbor of this family who was dealing with this difficult time. [This] neighbor and his wife were the ones who have the idea to help decorate in honor of little Dax. I had three lines and I was so nervous. Hopefully, I didn’t ruin the movie. There’s not any Oscar buzz or anything like that. I’m not going to quit my day job.”
It’s Cool To Be A Christmas Crooner
As a singer, you kind of just get in your style and you do what you do, but this gave me a chance to explore even more as a vocalist some of the types of music that I love and not really worry about it. I don’t really care about cred. I don’t really care about [whether] that’s not cool. To me, Christmas is the one time of year where it is cool to become a crooner. Even if it’s not considered rock ‘n roll, I don’t care because I’m not Kings of Leon, so I can do whatever I want.”
Produced by Pete Kipley, The Heart of Christmas utilizes West road band on the record. “Pete had seen my live band on tour and was blown away by their level of musicianship,” says West. “He said, ‘Man, I think we should make the record with your live band.’ So I got to go into the studio with the group of guys that I’ve done life with over the last few years. At times we see each other more than we see our families, so we’re all really close. These guys are world-class musicians. They can play any style. A Christmas record is not an easy one to play—not mine anyways—because it ranged in styles from the classics to New Orleans style to pop/rock stuff, and they just knocked it out of the park.”
As is the case with most Christmas albums, Matthew’s project was recorded during the hottest part of the year in order to be on the shelves for the holiday season. “Because it was summertime, I had a hard time getting into the mood vocally,” he admits. “I didn’t expect that to be much of a challenge, but the first couple of times I went in to sing I was hitting the notes, but I just wasn’t feeling it. So that was one of the bigger challenges. I didn’t realize how much your head could get in the way.”
West remedied that by dressing in a sweater and decorating the studio for Christmas. “We made the record right in the middle of the hottest days in Nashville,” he says. “Everybody was in shorts and flip flops and we’re trying to get into the Christmas spirit. My manager went to the hardware store and found a Christmas tree. We got lights and a nativity scene. I was looking online for eggnog because you can’t find it anywhere. I was going to have eggnog shipped in. That’s how desperate we were to get into the Christmas spirit, but we found a way and it was fun.
“Once that music started playing and we were singing ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,’ you started forgetting that it was 100 degrees outside. It was great. I loved having my girls [daughters Lulu and Delaney] come to the studio. That made it even more festive and Christmassy when you’ve got your family around and you’re having fun. We had a great time and who doesn’t love Christmas music? The only pressure I felt was for my original songs to be able to stand up next to some of those amazing classics like ‘O Holy Night.’ There’s pressure from a songwriting point. These songs better stand up.”
West needn’t have worried. In addition to such perennial favorites as “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Jingle Bells” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” West delivers seven original songs, including the buoyant opener “Come On, Christmas.” “I wrote that song on the beach,” West says. “That’s why I said, ‘Come on, Christmas’ because it wasn’t here yet. It was the middle of summer and we were a few weeks away from going into the studio and I kept having this idea. This song describes how much I love Christmas and how much I can’t wait for it to come.”
The album also includes several special guests. Amy Grant joins Matthew on “Give This Christmas Away,” which was previously was included on Veggie Tales’ “Saint Nicholas---A Story of Joyful Giving.” Mandisa duets with Matthew on “Christmas Makes Me Cry,” and Vince Gill lends his talents to “Leaving Heaven.” “It comes from a different perspective,” West says of the song. “It’s actually Jesus talking and you don’t really understand it at the beginning maybe, but he’s talking about how it’s been real nice living up in heaven, but he can’t stay long. It says, ‘I’ve got to make my way. I’m leaving heaven today.’ And the chorus goes on to say how he’s trading in the streets of gold for a broken earth and then by the end it says, ‘If you ever wonder how much you’re worth, you’re the reason why I’m leaving heaven.’ It’s a reminder of why God sent his son to earth, why we celebrate Christmas.”
10,000 Stories & More
“One of the biggest disappointments from making that record was I realized that out of those 10,000 stories I could only pick 11 songs,” he says, “and that the world was only get to experience 11 stories when in realty there were more inspiring stories that I felt the world needed to read. Whether I ever wrote a song about them or not, I would read these stories and go, ‘Man, that just fires me up! Somebody else needs to read that,’ so the book was in the back of my head for a long time. I kept thinking there has to be a way to get these stories out whether I write a song about them or not.”
West found the avenue he’d been looking for when speaker/author Angela Thomas approached him at a women’s conference in Austin. “She heard me talking about the project that I was working on and she comes up to me afterwards and she said, ‘I normally only write books by myself, but I think this needs to be a book. I think you need to write it and I’d love to write it with you.’ That’s how it came about,” West recalls. “We met at a women’s conference and wound up writing the book together. The idea was to keep the stories that the people sent in their purest form. We didn’t edit the stories. We let them be what they were.”
West has also filmed a companion DVD project due out after the first of the year. “[It will be] a small group study curriculum for ‘The Story Of Your Life’ and it’s going to be a five-week DVD that people can watch either by themselves or in the context of a small group or even a church can go through it together,” he says. “It’s going to be accompanied by a workbook and a guided journal to kind of help you discover the story of your own life.”
In addition to Matthew filming segments for the DVD, two of the people whose stories are in the book also participated. “We’re filming them telling their stories,” he says. “I think that’s going to be a really powerful tool for people to take the same journey that I had back in that cabin, just discovering people’s stories and really discovering the power of what happens when that light goes on and we realize that our lives and stories could impact somebody around us. That’s what it’s all about and that’s what the book is about.”
West days the book project was extremely gratifying. “I’m so pleased with how the book turned out,” he says. “For a long time I’ve had this dream of extending my writing beyond the confines of a three-minute song. My mom has always told me, ‘I think you’re going to be writing books someday’ and I always thought she was crazy because I had a hard time reading books in school let alone writing them. Now I look at that book and go, ‘Turns out my mom is always right!’ I’m getting ready to start working on my second book.”
Coming to a City Near You
As he reflects on this past year and the projects he’s been involved in, West admits it’s been a rewarding time. “It’s been the most fulfilling season of my life and my career,” he says. “The more you develop in your music career you start thinking it’s all about what you have to say and my life has been continually turning in this direction of realizing that it’s not about me. If it takes me writing songs about other people’s stories, then so be it. I’d be happy to do this for the rest of my career, if that’s what it takes. These stories really sparked new life in me too.”
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