Filled with Compassion and a Heart for Worship
Some of music’s most successful and popular bands came to the United States from the U.K. Rock bands journeyed across the pond to spread their influence to American youth. While most were secular rock bands, one was a group of guys who were passionate about reviving Christian worship music for young audiences. That band – Delirious – together for nearly two decades, with such hits as, “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever”, “Shout to the North”, and “Majesty (Here I Am)”, had its final performance in 2009. When the band disbanded, Lead Singer Martin Smith became a solo artist and most recently has taken to the stage with his band Army of Bones, on tour throughout 2016. Risen caught up with this talented vocalist, guitarist, songwriter, and producer to talk about his career, faith, family and what inspires his music.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in La Jolla, California
Risen Magazine: You grew up in England, what was your childhood like?
Martin Smith: I grew up in North London as one of four kids. My parents are great people and I grew up in a Christian home. It was quite a traditional church upbringing; it was called the Brethren Church. I remember as a kid the women wearing hats and quite formal clothing and the guys wearing suits and ties, and there was a lady on the organ – so definitely not Hillsong LA. It was only when I left home that I experienced what we would call now the more charismatic side of the church – the Holy Spirit and more crazy [high energy] music and songs.
RM: When did your faith go from something you were raised in, to your own decision that this is how you wanted to live your life?
MS: I think for any kid, the key to having faith, is being around people where you see that it is authentic. I certainly saw that in my parents – they were very faithful people, very generous, and our house was always open to people. I saw from an early age that there must be something in this through works. But I do remember having that moment as a young kid where I realized that I wanted to follow God, it was something that I wanted to do. I had an experience like many people do where you feel like you are at the beginning of your life and you want to put in in God’s hands and that is what I did. Believe it or not I was about eight years old, which sounds incredibly young, but even then I had a sense about it.
We felt every word we played and every note we wrote, we meant.
RM: When did your love, and skill, for songwriting develop?
MS: We were a big sports family so there is no music in my family whatsoever, even in the generation before, so it is quite strange how it happened. We grew up playing cricket and futbol and all sports all the time; my dad was really into that. By the age of 12 we moved to a new church and my dad decided to help run the youth group. He said, “I think we are going to need to be able to sing some songs so you better learn.” [Laughter] So he bought me a teach-yourself-to-play-the-guitar book and within a week I learned one song and we played that one song over and over again in the youth group. I learned three chords and that was it. That’s how it started and then as I grew up, the songwriting side definitely grew in me. As strange as it seems I began to make melodies out of the air and words and stuff like that. To me it felt quite normal, but looking back it is slightly an unusual way to write. I left home at 17 and that is when it really started to grow because I went and worked for a recording studio as tea-boy, like making coffee for people; I don’t know what you would call it [in America]. That’s where I got really immersed in music because every day I was sitting in the studio listening and it felt like a training period really.
RM: Having that experience and your skills develop, was it on your radar to do music as a profession or even become part of a band?
MS: Initially, I wanted to be a sound engineer and produce great records. That is what I was actually being trained to do. But out of that I started to mess about and write and I realized I really enjoyed being on the other side of the glass as well. I started leading worship in my church which I had never done before. When I did that I realized I really love this and maybe there is something in this for me.
RM: There definitely was because you’ve written songs that have become mainstays in Christian worship including, “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” “Shout to the North,” and “Majesty (Here I Am).” Did you set out to change the landscape of Christian music around the world or did your style and lyrics just elevate the standard?
MS: I don’t think you set out with all these grand ideas and gestures, but I do remember being 13 years old, sitting in my church thinking, “If I brought my friends from school, they would die if they came with me.” So it was more of a reaction of a young kid thinking, “If I could ever do something with my life, it might be to change how this [church setting] feels for people.” The basic core was that I wanted my friends to come to church but not as it was. I remember inviting my friend to come to play with me in church, he brought his drum kit and I got my electric guitar out and my dad allowed us to do a few songs in the evening service and everyone thought, “What is this?” And now everywhere you go around the world there is a drum kit and an electric guitar. It’s quite prominent now, but then it really wasn’t.
RM: It seems most of the songs you write are inspired by verses. How do they develop? Reading scripture and song comes to mind or thinking about a theme and finding the verse to support it?
MS: There are no rules really. For me, it’s pulling on lots of different sources. It could be reading the Bible, or reading a magazine, it could be watching a movie, it could be sitting here having a conversation with you and I think, “That’s a really interesting way of saying that.” So I’m basically stealing everybody’s ideas and writing them down. [Laughter] One of my kids might say something that I think is unusual – I try to pull with many areas. Then I try to pick the right music that goes with the lyrics. If I knew how to do it, I would do it every day. But it’s an unknown science and I’m still trying to find the keys to it.
RM: For seventeen years you were part of the band Delirious, traveling the world, playing shows and changing lives. What stands out to you most about this time in your life?
MS: Looking back it was a great team and it was a great band. We grew together from the beginning – five families and 17 children between us. It was a real strong family thing and I think you could hear that in the music. It wasn’t a bunch of session guys or people going through the motions. I think we felt every word we played and every note we wrote, we meant. I think the key was that we were very relational and I look back on that season with a lot of fondness.
RM: You are married now, and were for the duration of your music career. I read you met your wife for the first time at her sister’s wedding because you were the wedding singer.
MS: Yes, that is true. I was singing at the wedding in a suit that was three times too big for me, but even then, still she liked me which is cool. That was amazing and it has been 22 years.
it has less to do with being instructive and more to do with relationship, friendship, grace and looking after people.
RM: And six kids.
MS: We have two boys and four girls – Ellie is 18, Noah is 16, Indiana is 15, Levi is 13, Ruby Anna is 10, and Maryanna is 8. We have a full life and a busy, busy house with lots of pizza being eaten. [Laughter] That is why I am still working.
RM: I understand your kids played a role in your decision to end Delirious in 2009. What do you hope your children have learned from Dad? What was important to you to instill in your kids?
MS: I think they would appreciate that their mum and dad are always pushing forward. We won’t settle easily. We are always using what God has given us and maxing it out. The house, we have people living with us all the time. Musically, we want to keeping pushing and we want to keep serving the local church, so hopefully they will see that we are living life to the full and we want them to do that as well. Go for your dreams and not have any boxes put around them.
RM: You continued to write and work with other artists, but you just launched your new band titled, Army of Bones. You have released a few singles with the album coming out in January 2017. Tell us what we can expect?
MS: It’s not a Sunday morning project. I guess my heart is getting in front of people that wouldn’t have the luxury of coming to church. Our world is a very different place than it was 30 years ago. There is a lot of brokenness and you have to somehow believe that music can touch people. I think we are trying to find a different way to allow people to experience what we would experience when we get a touch from God. That’s the hope. Ultimately, I believe God is alive and can use music to touch people.
RM: You also wrote a book a few years back titled, Delirious: My Journey with the Band, a Growing Family, and an Army of Historymakers (2011). Why is it so important to challenge people to live out their faith and be an agent of change?
MS: I suppose naturally we like comfort, don’t we? We’re all geared up for making our lives as comfortable as possible. So we don’t like it when we’re out of that zone, but unfortunately that is the place we have to be to reach people. Especially as the world has gotten more complex – there is more brokenness, there is more abandonment, there is less family, there is less of everything we have known and loved. I certainly do not have all the answers, but we are grappling with a new way of how to reach the world. I have a feeling it has less to do with being instructive and more to do with relationship, friendship, grace and looking after people.
RM: You have traveled and performed all over the world. What similarities do you see between people, and what are the main differences?
MS: The basic things are the same – the fact that we all want to be loved, and that we want to belong to something and feel like we have destiny. I think those are all pretty universal. I think America still has a sense of luxury in terms of there is still a deep Christian moral framework here whereas in the U.K., it’s more secular and we are suffering from that. Having said that though the church in the U.K. is a little bit different because if you are going to call yourself a Christian you are out there, you have to do it. Whereas perhaps here it means a slightly different thing.
RM: Because of your travels, you and your wife founded CompassionArt. Share how this is still being used to reach others.
MS: In the Delirious days we went on a couple tours to India and Africa and places like that, Indonesia, and I think gradually we started to see, “Wow this is a big world.” And actually we live in a bubble in the West. Lots of poverty everywhere and I think that really started to bring a change in me. I’m far from a charity expert, but what I could do was call my friends up that were in the same position as me and that is really what CompassionArt is all about: a gathering of musicians and writers and we got together for a week and wrote some songs. The really cool thing about the whole process, and I believe it’s the first time it happened, and maybe the last, I managed to get the publishers to relinquish the rights to the songs so those songs sit in the CompassionArt trust. They are owned by the charity. Looking back that is a small miracle really. Getting all these publishers to say, “Whatever happens in that week, we are releasing it.” So the royalties come straight to the trust. The songs are still there and they are earning money and the money gets distributed to various projects. It was such an exciting time. It also kick-started all the co-writing. Before that time, most people would write songs on their own and now pretty much everything you hear is co-written. In the mainstream sector they had been doing it for years, but [in the Christian genre] people realized we were better together.