By Alex MacDougall
Artist and songwriter Michael W. Smith is preparing to release two new projects (both A Million Lights and Surrounded) in February and will be touring extensively during the first half of 2018, performing and leading in worship in the US, Canada, and Israel.
He shares with us here not only the backstory to his new live worship recording, “Surrounded”, but also recalls some key moments in his life, ministry, songwriting, and role as a worship leader. Visit Michael at michaelwsmith.com.
WL: As an artist, you have extensive contributions to the Body of Christ, both as a songwriter and as a curator of many great new worship songs, granting these new songs a greater visibility because of your platform. Which role do you prefer, the curator or the songwriter?
MS: That’s, a big question. I like them both. I mean obviously, there’s nothing more satisfying in a pure way than to be able to write something that the whole world ends up singing. It’s pretty special. But it doesn’t happen very often, especially a good one. But you know, the curator thing is intriguing. No one ever really asked me that question before, because everybody thinks I wrote “Above All”, but I didn’t. And that’s okay, you know.
WL: Was that Paul (Baloche), or was that Lenny(LeBlanc) that wrote “Above All”, or both of them?
MS: It was both Paul and Lenny. I always make it a point to say, “No I didn’t write that song. Paul and Lenny wrote that song”. However, most everybody around the world would probably say that’s MY song. I just recorded the song, because I thought the song was great. And little did I know that the whole world would be singing it. And not just in America, but literally, all around-the-world. It’s just crazy when I start playing it, whether I’m in Zimbabwe or Holland or South Africa. It’s pretty special. Thanks for asking.
WL: At what moment did you begin to understand the depth of true worship?
MS: It was probably during my days at Belmont Church on Music Row (in Nashville). Don Finto was the lead pastor there and is still my mentor to this day. We’ve been walking together for almost 36 years. There was likely just a moment at Belmont that I had a complete meltdown. I just sort of haven’t been the same. I had been on a tour and was supposed to lead at Belmont that day. I literally just had nothing. I was so tired. And I told Don, “I’m just not sure I’ve got it today”. It turned out to be one of best mornings at Belmont in my life. And so God showed up in my extreme weakness, and stuff started happening. And I think I realized then for the first time that I really was a worship leader.
WL: What goes through your mind at the moment you are leading worship and realize that you are helping people connect with the living God?
MS: There is nothing more satisfying in the world than to be a conduit. I think the only way that happens is that you’ve got to stay out of the way. I’m always asking myself, “What’s my motivation? What’s my posture?” It’s making sure everything is lined up correctly. Because if that thing starts to tilt, then you risk it all, you blow it. And you don’t want to blow it because this could be a pivotal moment for somebody that will change their life forever. People will tell me that the one moment that I sang that song, it completely changed their life. And we’ll never know until we get to the other side to fully understand what’s happened to people. But it’s great to hear people talking about that moment in my concert, whether it’s in America or whether it’s on the other side of the world, that their life was changed. It’s amazing that a 3-1/2 minute song could do that. It’s just pretty incredible.
WL: Agnus Dei is one of your earliest worship songs penned, and remains one of the finest compositions to this day. What were the circumstances surrounding the writing of that song?
MS: I actually wrote it on the fly. It just came out of nowhere. I was wrapping up the “Go West Young Man” record. Honestly, I was down in my basement trying to write a pop song. And then my hands hit the keyboard and I started writing “Agnus Dei”. And I remember feeling completely overwhelmed and thinking, “Oh my gosh, what just happened”? My first inclination was I’ll just have to figure out where this song goes, because “it certainly doesn’t belong on the “Go West Young Man” record. And then about 5 minutes later I thought, “wait a minute, why not?” So it was the last one of the last songs we cut, and we ended up going to New York City and using the American Boy Choir. It’s interesting because a lot of people think Agnus Dei is just some worship song I wrote in the last 10 years. But that record came out in 1990! So it was a moment in a time, and it happened. And it’s so fun. I’ll never forget being in Brazil. There were 50,000 kids on the beach. It was a huge deal. And they just broke into Agnus Dei in Portuguese. It literally just takes your breath away.
WL: Your new project, “Surrounded”, again presents you with the role of curator and songwriter. What can you tell us about the recording and vision behind it?
MS: The crazy thing was I working on this pop record,”A Million Lights”. And in the middle of that, at the beginning of this past summer, I had this wild idea of cutting two records during back-to-back weeks. And so I was reassessing, “why am I doing this, and am I doing it right”? As we get older we just want to go back and reexamine ourselves and ask “Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?” And I read a passage from Amos 5 that rocked my world. I’m paraphrasing, but basically, God’s a little ticked off and at our insincerity and says, “Stop it”. He tells us that He’s looking for justice. I love The Message version of it. It’s just powerful. He says that He wants justice to roll like a waterfall. And man, I’m telling you what, it just threw me up against the wall. So I feel like the whole cause for justice and the poor and the orphans just escalated in my heart. And it inspired the “Surrounded” record. I didn’t want it to be about me. I wanted this project to take the focus off me. I want to do it “in the round”. I wanted to just have people all around. I wanted us ALL to be worship leaders and not get in a hurry, and just see what happens. And that’s what happened that night. It was just overwhelming. I mean it was just incredible. And so the Spirit was incredible in the room. It’s just a beautiful journey of reminders of the promises of God.
WL: Tell us about your new songs on this project. Both “Washed Away” and “Your House” were co-written by yourself and writing partners.
MS: “Washed Away” was just this piece of music that I wrote in my studio. And it just continued to move me. I didn’t have any words at all, but I just couldn’t get away from it. And so I called Michael Farren and said, “I’ve got this melody I can’t shake and I think I’m supposed to give it to you.” So he took it, and had it forever. And then all of a sudden one day he called me up and said, “I had an epiphany last night, and I’ve been weeping ever since”. It was “Washed Away”. I love how he incorporated a hymn into it. “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus” really seemed to work.
As to the other song, “Your House”… we used to sing a song at Belmont called, “I Saw the Lord, Sitting Upon His Throne”, and I kept thinking, “Gosh, I wonder what it’s like to walk into God’s house.” And so literally 5 or 6 years ago I wrote this thing about how I came into His house and I saw the Lord and his train filled the temple. And I couldn’t shake that one either. And I played it for Kyle (Lee), and told him “I think there’s something here”. And so it inspired us to sort of rewrite a little bit for “Surrounded”.
WL: Is there a distinct beauty that you find in traditional hymns that you might not find in other compositions?
MS: Lyrically, the stuff that these men and women wrote so very long ago is so powerful, and something we often lack that in our current worship state. A lot of the stuff sounds the same, and people use the same terminology. If you go back in and look at some of these great hymns, you think, WOW! We need some more poets. Thad Cockrell and I co-wrote on the song, “Light To You”, but I really had very little to do with it. We just wrote a bridge for that together. Thad is an indie artist in town who writes these amazing songs. He and I got together and he played me that song. I just could not shake it.
WL: Has worship and singing together with your family, played a role in your home?
MS: It has, many times, especially when Jack (Mooring), my son-in-law, is here. We all kind of get together and start singing around the piano. That’s a lot of fun. And last year I wrote lots of songs with his brother, Leeland. We normally didn’t just sit around the piano as a family growing up. You know, we all were creative and writing, and doing all kinds of stuff. Most of our moments were at church, you know. But someone was always playing the piano at the house. So, either playing the piano or making a film or writing a song. For the creative Smith family, it just was nonstop.
WL: Are you able to incorporate worship and singing within your volunteer work?
MS: Absolutely. Yes, with Compassion International, Rocketown in Nashville, and with regard to the AIDS crisis.
WL: What advice do you have for aspiring songwriters and worshipers?
MS: Keep your heart pure, and ask yourself “what’s my motivation”? There is a way to lead with great courage and strength, AND be filled with humility. But that’s a tough one, you know. I look at Don Finto, my mentor, and he’s got this amazing personality, just vibrant. But he’s humble. He’s got sort of both. It’s just powerful. And so we need more people like that, who can lead with great strength and lead well. Get up and lead worship, but in the ways I’ve mentioned. That’s, that’s the role of the worship leader.
WL: What would you like to see your new project, “Surrounded” accomplish?
MS: I would hope that it would unify the body of Christ…every tribe and every nation, and every color, every race, every social class. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to each other. We’re all in this together. So let’s do this together! Let’s do it as one. And as much as we all say that we’re united, I don’t think we are completely. I think we’re divided. Because everybody has kind of got their thing going on. And we need to get rid of, “I got my thing going on”. Let’s cheer each other on. Let’s root for each other. We’re all on the same team. Let’s root for Bethel. Let’s root for Jesus Culture, and whatever and whoever. We all have one goal: to make Jesus known. Let people know who He really is! We need people to find out who He really is. There’s no denying the fact that God loves me completely. That’s what the world needs. We have to seize the moment. We’ll never accomplish the things that God wants us to accomplish if we remain divided. That’s what I hope to recognize at the end of the day. There’s something about true worship that can cause spectacular things to happen. Who knows?