Songwriting with Matthew West
by Matthew West
For the past few records, I’ve embarked on a unique journey of storytelling that really flipped my creative process upside down and led to some of the most memorable musical moments of my life. By collecting over 40,000 stories to date — from everyday people with real world struggles, and translating those personal experiences into touching, memorable songs of comfort and strength – an incredible conversation has taken place between me and the people out there listening to my music. People sending me their stories was a game changer for me. It showed me the unbelievable power that music has to build a “trust” through the radio. Their stories have served as the inspiration for many of the songs I’ve written.
Amidst this process, I’ve received stories over the years from people who would rather remain anonymous. Even though I don’t know their names, I’ve always wanted to talk to them in a song. I have often wondered what makes a person feel invisible, insignificant, unimportant, and unknown. This song is a message: You matter, and you’re awesome. You’re God’s pick, His choice, His creation, and His idea. Nothing is hidden from Him. He sees every single part of you and loves you with an endless love. “To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to belong. And you belong here in the arms that won’t let go.”
Before you move to Nashville, you are typically writing by yourself, but when you’re living in Nashville and kind of get put into the “machine,” all of a sudden the pendulum swings to the other extreme and you wind up only co-writing. You can lose the confidence or the skill set to see a song from beginning to completion. Writing a song by yourself is not always a quick process. Nashville can be a town of high songwriting output, and it’s rare because it’s not just quantity, but it’s quality, too. So being by myself is sort of the antithesis of the fast-moving part of it. But when you fight the mental battle that it takes to write a song by yourself, you learn to trust your instincts.
In Nashville, they say, “It all starts with a song.” And I like to add to that by saying: Every song starts with a story. We all have a different soundtrack of our lives, but I’m not talking about just a musical soundtrack. Telling our stories causes a chain reaction. Essentially, our “change reaction” causes a “chain reaction.” There’s excitement around telling the great stories of what God has done in our lives. Sharing our testimonies is often how contagious freedom is found. There is so much power in vulnerability, and “Amen,” a song on my newest album, All In, rejoices over this truth. I don’t want just good songs; I want important songs. By important, I don’t mean it will change a generation. I’m not that arrogant to think I can do that, but I mean important to me. If a song changes the way I look at something, chances are it will have that potential in somebody else’s life.
I began 2017 by spending several weeks in a cabin that Alan Jackson built. It resides on some land owned by some friends of mine, and they were kind enough to let me camp out. I surprised myself in that cabin by how personal my lyrics were coming out. I scared myself a bit, too. I guess it was just time. Time to take some inventory of my own story; where I’ve been, where I am now, and where I’m going.
One of the things I’ve noticed about my songwriting is that I’ll start with the idea being very personal, a little snapshot of my own specific story. With All In, maybe this time it’s my story that causes a ripple effect. Maybe my story as a dad who knows he’s got to do a better job can cause a ripple effect for other dads, or for other husbands. How cool of a legacy would that be for this record?
Amongst the 14 tracks found on All In, I came up with the idea for a tune called “If I Only Had One Song.” I was imagining someone telling me, “This is the last song you’ll ever be allowed to write or sing again.” Originally, I thought, “If I only had one song, I would write a huge, dramatic song that lays out the full message of the gospel. I’d lay it all out in an epic, evangelistic fashion.” But the more I thought about it, the more stripped down my thoughts became. Honestly, if I only had one song, what song would my Creator want to hear from me? What would I want to say to Him? That’s why this song turned out the way it did. It’s simply a song for God that says, “I’m not going to overcomplicate this. I just love You, I thank You for all You’ve done for me, and if this is my last song, it’s going to be for You.”
I’ve sung many different songs about a number of different things, but at the end of the day, it all points back to a loving Father who never gave up on the prodigal son. Going “all in” doesn’t imply that we always have to display our faith through a grand gesture. Truthfully, sometimes a simple song of worship to the One who made you is what it’s all about.
I absolutely love writing songs, and I love watching those songs come to life in the recording studio. But it’s getting on the bus, hopping on stage in city after city and carrying that music to a live audience night after night that completes the creative circle.