A multiple-ASCAP Christian Music Songwriter/Artist of the Year winner, and four-time Grammy nominee, Matthew West was awarded his first American Music Award in 2013 and a Billboard Music Award in 2014. While the awards are a testament to West’s creative talents in music, his desire to tell a story has become his passion. It’s not all about his stories; he has developed a love and dedication to telling other people’s stories through his music. As such, West and his father founded an organization that encourages people to share their stories. Risen caught up with this busy artist to talk about his music, family and the difference between living for now and living for forever.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: As a kid you loved sports and wanted a baseball scholarship but ended up getting a music scholarship instead. When did your love for music develop? And, when did you know your talent could be turned into a career?
Matthew West: To be honest, music was a second passion for me; sports were my main focus and passion all through high school. My father is a minister so I grew up with a love for music and was exposed to music at a young age, because music is a central part of church life. I would sing special songs in church services, but I was really passionate about baseball and football. My dream was to be a college, and maybe professional, baseball player. Like many high school kids that bubble bursts and you realize that is not what you are going to be doing for the rest of your life. So it really wasn’t until my junior and senior years of high school when I began to look at my life from a more realistic perspective. It was then that I could see all along that people had been in my path to encourage and really affirm that I had a gift for music. As music began to take center stage in my life, during my senior year of high school, I auditioned and got a scholarship to study music at a conservatory. I studied at the conservatory for four years and got a degree and it was those years in college that really became a furnace for transformation and growth. I developed a love and passion for songwriting and communicating a story through the music that I write.
RM: With your dad being a pastor, what did your faith look like in your life and were you always focused on the Christian music industry?
MW: As far as my faith is concerned, growing up as a preacher’s kid you can kind of feel like your faith is a family association and less of a personal journey and relationship. That has been part of my story, really discovering that God wanted to have a personal relationship with me and realizing that I wasn’t going to get to heaven just because I had family connections. College can be a transforming time for good, or bad, in many people’s lives and for me it was the best kind of challenging season. It was the first time I was away from being known as “the preacher’s kid” and I had to decide, “Is my faith real to me? Is this part of my journey?” I had made a personal decision to become a Christian as a kid at the age of thirteen, but there is something to say for stepping away from the shadows of a family that is in ministry that really challenges you and makes you take inventory of what you really believe and who God is to you. I’m thankful that I had that season, and it’s no mistake that my music and spiritual life simultaneously began to take shape at the same time.
There is something to say for stepping away from the shadows of a family that is in ministry that really challenges you and makes you take inventory of what you really believe and who God is to you.
RM: You’ve written songs for, or collaborated with, varying artists from Vince Gill and Rascal Flatts to Mandisa and Casting Crowns… what is your favorite part about working with others?
MW: After I graduated from college I moved to Nashville basically to begin my career. However, my first opportunity was actually as a songwriter. It has been interesting to write for and collaborate with other artists for their music. I always thought I would just be writing my own music for my own records, but my first opportunity was the opposite – it was me behind the scenes writing music for other singers. That’s how my career started, by learning the art of collaboration. I had my songs recorded by other artists while I still pursued making my own music. It’s a different experience creatively, but it’s become a really fulfilling journey for me where I get to make my own records and have a creative statement that is uniquely mine, but then I also get to be a part of other artists’ careers and ministries and I get to help them shape their voice in the world as well. It was sort of a surprise element of my career, but one where I began to realize that God has bigger plans than I might even be aware of so I should never really draw too distinct of lines deciding what my music is going to be or what kind of career I am going to have. I’ve enjoyed working with other artists and I think it’s made me better. I am in a weird season where one of my songs is on the charts and then a song I wrote for somebody else is on the charts – it’s kind of fun to see that happen.
RM: Speaking of a handful of great artists, you are a part of The Bible Tour 2016. I understand this is your songs with compelling images from The Bible series?
MW: It’s a really unique multi-media experience. Obviously millions of people watched The Bible series when it was featured on television. It’s beautifully done telling the story of the life of Christ and significant heroes of the faith. All the footage is paired together with different artist’s music like myself. It sort of brings a new life and meaning to the songs that we will be singing, and also brings to life the greatest story ever told. We, as artists and songwriters, are modern day storytellers. Now we get to see our modern day stories merge with an age-old story that will hopefully bring the Word to life in a powerful way.
RM: This is the third year The Bible Tour has taken place, and we’ve seen more faith films released into mainstream theatres this year as well. Why do you think faith and values are resonating with so many at this time?
MW: I think we are in a very interesting time in our society and culture. There are greater extremes. There are people dead-set against anything with a religious overtone and then people who are willing, now more then ever, to stand up for what they believe. I’m in the stand-up-for-what-you-believe place. Mark Burnett [creator of The Bible series] is in the same place. Here is a high-powered television movie executive who believed in telling the story of the Bible, that is pretty risky. He could’ve stayed and played it safe with his reality shows [Shark Tank, Survivor, The Voice, and The Apprentice] but he put it out there and millions of people responded. What I’d like to think is that it speaks to an eternal desire and hunger and void that every one of us has; to find a greater significance and purpose in life. At the end of the day that is why I make Christian music, in the hopes that people will be reminded where they can go to find that fulfillment and purpose in life. The world is misguided sometimes when they go to find that fulfillment which is why we do tours like this, in hope that people will respond to the greatest story ever told.
RM: Artists are always trying to connect with their fans, but I love that you take it even further and have people submit their stories to you through your website. And then you actually read them! The last number I heard was around 40,000 stories. How have these powerful stories inspired your music?
MW: It’s an idea I had several years ago to give others an opportunity and a safe place where they could share their stories. A place they could be honest and reminded their story is significant. I think a lot of people have been made to feel that their story doesn’t matter. So it’s been a unique journey to remind people that their story isn’t over and that their story could help somebody else. Reading people’s stories, and then watching those stories become songs has been a special part of my musical journey. I feel very much like a storyteller in the truest sense of the word. These days instead of telling my story through my music like I started out doing in college, I’m telling the story of other people’s lives. In doing so, I hope that we can all see a little bit of our own stories, and realize that even though we are all unique, we are not that different after all. We all have struggles, we all share that none of our stories are perfect, we are all in progress with stories that are currently being written, and we are all loved by the same God.
RM: One of my favorite songs of yours is “My Own Little World.” You and your dad founded PopWe, what is this? How can God use our stories for His glory?
MW: It’s been a common theme in my life where I’ve started down one path only to realize there was a bigger picture all along that was still being painted. Whether it was being a high school baseball player and not even realizing God had bigger plans for me to make music, to even now I thought my goal in life was to make music that touches people’s hearts and then I have this idea to start collecting people’s stories and then lo and behold, collecting those people’s stories opens this door to a whole new world of ministry that goes far beyond music.
That’s the crazy thing, because the essence of Christian music is the desire to go beyond just entertainment, but even Christian music can stop short where it may impact someone’s life and encourage their day; but where does someone go when they really need help? That is where my dad and I stepped in. As you can imagine some of the thousands of stories I’ve collected are people reaching out because they want their story to help somebody else because they have overcome cancer, or addiction or they’ve been through this tough time and they want somebody else to know they are not alone. There are a lot of stories that come in and they are from people who haven’t seen their breakthrough yet. They are from people in the middle of their darkest hour and they are reaching out to get help. That was one of the things I did not expect and it led my dad and me on this journey to create a ministry that has the heartbeat and desire to help people to live a more meaningful story with their life at whatever stage they are at. Our ministry is about stepping into people’s stories no matter how broken they may be and reminding them that their stories are far from over.
At the end of the day that is why I make Christian music, in the hopes that people will be reminded where they can go to find that fulfillment and purpose in life.
RM: Your latest album is Live Forever. Talk to me about the inspiration and the difference between living for now and living for forever?
MW: The Live Forever album is a continuation of the stories I have collected. People ask me, “How long are you going to do this?” And my record label asks me, “Are you going to keep collecting stories?” I just say, “Hey, the stories continue to come in and they touch my life and it seems like the songs inspired by them are impacting other people’s lives.” My song, Grace Wins, is number one in the country right now, but people may have never heard the story that inspired it. They may not know about Rob, who was at my concert and was battling a drug and alcohol addiction at that time. He was really knocking on death’s door and yet at our concert, he has this powerful experience and felt like God reminded him that his life was not over but he needed to make a change; so he writes his story to me and says, “I need to get help.”
My dad and I have a relationship with a recovery center called Teen Challenge and so our ministry was able to raise the funds to get Rob into Teen Challenge. Now [at time of the interview] he is 18 months clean and sober and the recovery center has seen the change in him and gave him a job. He’s now working with young men that are beginning that same journey of recovery. These are the stories I collect and these are the stories that inspire my songs. The message of Live Forever can really be summed up in that story of Rob. The idea of, I don’t want to live for now, I want to live forever, that is basically the decision Rob made. Rob decided, I am going to let grace win in my life. I am going to choose to believe that my future can be better than my past. At that defining moment Rob decided to make a change and allow God to change his life.
For different people it’s different things. It’s when our sights get so set on the present moment that we lose sight that God has an entire eternity planned for us. I personally waste a lot of the seconds God has given me focused on the wrong things. I’ve written a lot of albums that cover the chapters that have already been written in our stories – dysfunctional family, or a battle with cancer, a divorced home or battling depression – this album was really about covering the chapters that are yet to be written. The chapters that are being written right now. I wanted to write an album of victory anthems about moving forward with our eyes on the prize.
RM: You are going right from performing on the Winter Jam Tour, to the Bible Tour, then your own tour through September, and right into headlining a Caribbean Cruise. Whew! How do you maintain that schedule especially being married with two daughters?
MW: Family comes first without a doubt. We have homeschooled our daughters for the last three years so that we could travel together as a family. We felt like that was what we were supposed to do and it has made all the difference. In fact, my oldest daughter is on the road with me this weekend and we are about to go to lunch together as soon as I’m done with this interview. We are going to hang out and get some quality time on our lunch date. At the end of the day that is what is most important, getting time with my wife and daughters and putting them first. We do have a chaotic schedule, but we try to make it where it isn’t just “dad’s job”, but where we have a whole family ministry. Plus, if my family life is healthy, my ministry life will be healthy so there is no substitute for having them on the road with me. We really have to be deliberate if we know we are going to have a really heavy touring season, or if dad has to be away for a certain amount of time, we really try to make up for that lost time. Every artist has this challenge; we have a different kind of normal. I never what to lose sight of what really matters. I know my greatest success will be if my kids feel like their dad always put them ahead of his career.