Exclusive Interview with Matthew West
You’ve collected more than 20,000 stories, how did you pick the ones that inspired your album?
Well, I honestly feel like they picked me. It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and you ask someone older than you, “how do you know when you’re in love?” And the only answer you get in return is, “Well, you just know.” Inevitably, there would be a story that would jump out at me and drive me to begin writing; the kind of story that made me think, ‘there isn’t a person in the world who’s life wouldn’t be better for hearing this story.’ There was also something very specific I was looking for when I read. One main ingredient that seemed to be a common thread in all the stories selected, transparency. The more open and honest I felt like the storyteller was being, the more drawn to their story I felt.
One of our free mp3 downloads this week is “Forgiveness” from your new record, what’s the story behind that song?
Speaking of transparency… Renee wrote to me about the tragic loss of her daughter at the hands of a drunk driver. Her daughter Megan and Megan’s best friend Lisa were on their way home from the beach one night when their car was struck by Eric, a 24 year old young man who was drunk behind the wheel. Renee’s world fell apart. Eric was sentenced to 22 years in prison, but over time, Renee felt like she was the one being held prisoner. God put it on her heart that she would never be free until she learned to let go of the bitterness, the anger, and the hatred she was carrying towards Eric, the man who killed her daughter. And so, she did the impossible. She reached out to him in Prison and set it free and forgiving Eric.
This act of forgiveness caused a ripple effect that is still being felt by everyone involved in this story. Eric was so moved by Renee’s compassion towards him that he accepted Christ into his heart while behind bars and began to believe that maybe God isn’t done with his story yet. Then, Renee’s family followed her lead and one by one they too forgave Eric. Finally, Renee went to the courts and requested to have Eric’s sentence cut in half, from 22 years to 11. This fall, Eric will be released from prison and will join Renee as they travel and speak about the dangers of drunk driving at high schools across the country. But they also stand together as a powerful example of what forgiveness can do.
What is the difference in writing songs for other artists (Point of Grace, Natalie Grant, Rascal Flatts) in comparison to songs for yourself?
When I’m writing a song for another artist, I usually start out with that intent from the beginning, or maybe I’m even writing with that actual artist. So, these days the line doesn’t get blurred as much as it did when I was first starting my career. Every song used to be up for grabs, ‘should I keep it for me or let it go?’ Writing songs for another artist requires a different kind of headspace, and even a different set of tools. Different artists need different things from you. So, you have to be able to remove yourself a bit from the song and dive into their process, their musical style, and their message. There have only been a few times when I finished writing a song for another artist and found myself secretly wishing I’d kept that idea for myself… But my mentality as a songwriter has always been that it’s ok. If a song gets a chance to go on and have a life of its own, it doesn’t matter if I sing it or not. I’ll just use it as motivation to go write another song.
In your last couple of records, you have had others send you their stories, and then from those stories create your songs. What can be exclusively experienced in this unique approach to songwriting?
Well, this experience has turned my creative process upside down, in a good way. It has created a unique collaborative experience between the artist and the listener. I kind of feel like we are writing letters to each other. They write their story to me. I write my letter in the form of a song back to them. The storytellers have inspired me to dig deeper, and to be as honest and transparent in my lyrics as they are in their letters and in their lives. They have stretched me to write about topics that I never even would have dared to dive into. But driven by the desire to be true to the promise I made, I had to write songs about things that weren’t safe, especially for Christian music… “Broken Girl” is a song written in response to the shocking discovery I made that 1 in 5 stories I have read has dealt with the topic of sexual abuse. “Two Houses” was inspired by the teenage girl who’s dad just walked out. “Unchangeable” was inspired by the woman who grew being told how worthless she was.
And as I continue writing songs inspired by these stories I find my focus has shifted. Instead of always trying to write a song that will speak to the masses, in that writing room, it becomes about writing a song for Renee. It’s funny how that works though. I’m writing with a narrower focus, and yet the songs seem to be connecting on a universal level. I guess in some ways, our stories are all connected.
What are your hopes for your new album, In the Light?
I hope first and foremost that my storytellers, all 20,000 plus will hear this record and feel like I did right by them. Beyond that, I hope these songs and the stories they tell will draw others out into the light with their stories. Stepping into the light with your story is a scary thing. We all have parts of our stories we’d rather keep hidden. And the devil will try to make us believe that the less than perfect parts of our stories disqualify us from ever being of any use to God. But the stories on Into the Light are the proof that Romans 8:28 is true. God really can use ALL things for the good. He’s willing, he’s able, and he’s waiting to use our stories. All we have to do is take that step out of the darkness and into the light. When we do, the Light of the world will shine through our lives and draw the world around us out of the shadows. They will want the same freedom we have.
How do you keep God the focus of all that you do in music?
Honestly, I don’t always succeed in that. There are many times when I’m tempted to get caught up in what number my song is on the charts or how many albums I’ve sold or not sold. The drive to be successful can be a good thing, and a not so good thing. But I’ve had enough humbling experiences in my life and career in music that these days I can never seem to get too far from the truth that apart from God I can do nothing. So, my goal with every song I write is to be REAL. Real with the pain, but just as real with the hope that comes from knowing God.
In what ways do you hope your new album is a call to worship?
It’s funny, after years of running from being a worship leader at my church, I have recently taken a position as worship leader at my home church. I get to lead a handful of Sundays every year, when I’m not on the road. This experience has been something I was reluctant about, because I just never thought that was what I was called to do. But I’m on a journey of learning what obedience looks like. And I keep finding out that when we step out in obedience and let God define how he wants to use us, that’s when we find true fulfillment. I know that’s not the answer to your question. It just made me think of how I ran from leading worship for so long, and now I find myself actually writing worship songs for my church to sing.
Even though Into the Light is not a “worship” record in terms of having songs that would be lead in a church service, I hope these songs are a call to worship the God who is at work in each of the stories I wrote about. Ultimately, the one thing each of these stories has in common, is they’ve all been touched by a miracle working God who can heal all things, redeem all things, and breathe new hope into all things. When someone stands up and says, “This is my story, it ain’t all pretty, but look what God has done,” that is something that will direct our worship towards the God who saves.
What are your plans now that you have just recently recorded and released your record?
We are bringing these stories to life on the road right now. We’ve created a concert experience that is different than anything I’ve ever done, or have ever seen done before. It’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve been a part of in my career. Watching the audiences connect with these real life stories and seeing how God is at work at these concerts has been amazing. We will be on the road for the rest of this year and for the next several months after that. Beyond that, I am working on a modern hymn for a multi-artist collaboration, and having the chance to write with some other artists for their records when I’m off the road.
How is your home life incorporated into your music life, and vice versa?
This year, my wife and I have been praying and asking God how our family life is supposed to look. I’ve spent a lot of time away from my family because of touring, and we have decided that needed to change. Since my schedule wasn’t slowing down, we decided to home school our oldest daughter so they could travel with me for the first time. This has been an incredible shift in our family, and we are seeing God’s favor in it. For the first time, this has become OUR ministry, not just mine. At the end of the day, I don’t want to build a successful career in music, and be a failure as a husband or a father. We are just trying to stay willing to make sacrifices at every turn and put our family first before any career opportunities. I believe God will honor that, and he has.
You hope the songs you write and the shows you play give light to others in their relationship with God, what’s the mindset switch you must make to ensure that what your giving is an act of worship, not just performance?
I love to entertain audiences. I like to incorporate humor into my shows, and take the audience on a journey, laughing one minute and crying the next maybe. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with entertainment or performance when it’s coming from the desire of allowing God to use all the ways he has uniquely gifted you to connect with people. But if it stops there, then that’s where the problem will begin. In the past, I’ve been guilty of making my main focus the connection I was making with the crowd. What God keeps showing me is that my main desire needs to be connecting the crowd to Him. To do that, he has gifted each of us in different ways.
Any helpful hints, tips, or resources from one artist to another?
I think authenticity is something that every artist should strive for. Don’t settle for chasing some style or message or angle that we see is “working.” Don’t follow, lead. That’s the only way to create music that will have a lasting impact. When I finally stop chasing some sound or some style, that’s when I get dangerously close to finding my own unique voice, and creating something that is authentic.