For singer-songwriter Matthew West, it’s all about the story. Whether sharing his own conversion story on the song “Next Thing You Know,” or singing about his wife’s childhood in “A Friend in the World,” West is a natural storyteller with a gift for penning emotionally compelling lyrics. And now he wants to tell your story.
Currently holed up in a cabin on the outskirts of Nashville, West is poring over stories that fans have submitted on MatthewWest.com. The ones that strike a chord or jump off the page will end up as songs on West’s next album, The Story of Your Life.
Just a few weeks ago, West took a break from that process to talk with me about the project, about his story, and even about a certain preacher who forever changed his life.
Q: Tell us about your next project and how you got the idea to use stories from your fans on the record.
A: As I was praying for the statement that I wanted to make with my next record, I kept coming back to this one idea and it was to call a record, The Story of Your Life. It’s based on this question: What if I turned the microphone around and what if this time, instead of writing songs inspired by my life, I ask people to send me their stories and found inspiration in writing songs about other people’s lives?
I guess I feel a desire to remind people that they matter to God and they matter to the world. Often I look around me or out into a crowd that I’m singing to, or I talk to people after concerts. I see that sometimes this world goes out of its way to make us feel small and insignificant, or imperfect, or disqualified somehow from being used by God.
My hope is that I can encourage people that their story matters. Even though you might think your story has too many bad chapters, I want to encourage you that God’s not done with you yet and He’s still telling a beautiful story about your life.
Q: Do you think it will be more challenging to capture and convey emotion when the story is not your own?
A: At first, my thought with this project was, “Am I going to feel disconnect in writing these songs?” But what I’m already experiencing – I’m reading hundreds and hundreds of stories–and my heart is breaking for the pain that people feel and the trials they’ve had to go through. Then I’m rejoicing when their lives find redemption.
Inevitably I’m seeing some of myself in these stories as well, and so I think I’m finding out something about myself. I think that’s kind of the point of this whole record is that the story of our lives, when we allow God to tell them, when we allow God to speak through the story of our lives, it will inevitably touch somebody else’s life.
I know that my life’s going to be impacted through this experience and I’m honored that people already are choosing to give me a window into their world. I’m really believing that redemption is going to take place in the hearts and lives of people that send their stories in, and then those that hear the songs inspired by the stories.
Q: Can you share some of the stories you’ve already received?
A: They’ve kind of run the gamut. I’ve gotten stories from young people, specifically 15-year-old kids who are being abused by their dad or their parents; and from kids who are struggling with cutting, with self image, with eating disorders.
I’m reading stories from college students who are searching for their identity in life and wondering what God’s plan is for their lives, wondering why they don’t have any friends and they’re battling depression.
I’m hearing stories that are breaking my heart of adults who are finally coming face to face with something that happened in their childhood, whether it be sexual assault or some unthinkable tragedy.
But it’s not all gloom and doom, because by the end of some stories, it’s amazing to see how God can heal a marriage that seems beyond repair. It’s amazing to see how a tumor can go away when the doctors had given somebody weeks to live. I’m reading these stories and I’m being reminded that, man, pain is real but hope in Christ is real.
Q: Are there any that have really resonated with you personally?
A: I’ll tell you one story that inspired me just recently. It was a story of a mother who was talking about her middle school child and how her heart breaks for him because he wants friends so badly. He’s seeking acceptance so much but he has a learning disability and some of the kids are giving him a hard time.
I’m a parent. I have two little girls and there’s something about the honesty of that mother saying, “I want my child to see what I see and what God sees, and not be ruled by the harsh words of the kids at school.”
And I’m finding myself in that story. I was made fun of as a kid. I was the chubby kid in school and the kids would call me “Fat Matt.” Here I’m reading this story of this mother, and I’m thinking back to my own childhood. I know how those words can hurt and I also know how those harsh words as a child can shape insecurities you have as an adult.
So that’s just a glimpse of the stories that I’m reading, and also how I’m sort of identifying with these stories. I am spending a month in a cabin reading these stories and writing songs, and just praying that God will use me to speak encouragement through these songs. It’s scary, but I’m really excited about it.
Q: About the cabin, why have you chosen to lock yourself away and what do you expect to see happen during that time?
A: Anybody who knows me realizes that for me to go to a cabin, it must be an act of God! You know how there’s that show “Man vs. Wild?” If I ever did a show like that, it would be “Man vs. Suburbs” or “Man vs. Strip Mall.” I’m kind of more domesticated. I’m not the outdoorsy guy and yet I had a vision of me inside of a cabin, of all places, and inside I saw thousands of stories printed out on pieces of paper all over the cabin, all over the floor and the couches. And I was there reading them all.
I didn’t know what to do with that for the longest time and then I just thought, “Okay, God, I’m going to be faithful to what I feel like You’ve put on my heart.” So I found a cabin and every day I’m drive out there. It’s close enough to my home so I can still see my daughters. But I’m spending some amazing time in solitude and reading stories, having quiet time and then writing songs. (See Matthew West talk about this process in a special YouTube video.)
Q: The visual you described kind of reminds me of the video you shot for “Save A Place for Me” on our Ransom.TV site. Tell us a little bit about how that video came together.
A: That is just another way that my life has intertwined with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. [More on the first way later!] What an awesome blessing they have been in supporting my music, in helping tell the story by giving it a visual. This is the second video that I’ve had to honor of doing with the BGEA film team. They came out to Nashville not too long ago and filmed the video for “Save A Place for Me,” which is a song that has a very personal meaning in my life.
I wrote it when I was dealing with the loss of my uncle, who passed away from cancer. He lost his battle with cancer and my grandmother, at the time, was nearing her last days of life. She passed away on New Years’ Day and I sang this song, “Save A Place for Me” at her memorial service in Iowa.
I am so proud of the way this song and video turned out. There’s a scene in an old home where I’m sort of walking through the house and I open a box and pull out a picture of my grandmother. Later on in the video, there’s a scene of a memorial wall where, one by one, different individuals are having a moment remembering someone that they too have lost. I have a chance to take that picture of my grandmother to the wall and say a prayer for her while I’m singing.
So it’s a really special moment for me and I love that video. I get chills every time I see it.
Watch the video here:
Click on “Matthew West: Save a Place for Me” to view larger screen
Q: Although I am biased, I still think that’s amazing!
A: Your team did an awesome job. Shortly after writing that song, I went through a period of, “Did I do it right?” “Did it say what it needed to say?” “Did it have the right heart?” because I didn’t want this song to be fluffy. I didn’t want it to be like a greeting card with some clichéd way of dealing with grief.
Not long after, I stumbled across an article in Newsweek and it was Billy Graham talking about the passing of his wife, Ruth. I remember he said something to the effect of, “I know that Ruth is in heaven and I know she’s got a great big mansion up there. I just hope she saves a room for me.”
When I read that, immediately I felt this peace that the heart behind the song was the right heart. You know, the song says, “Save a place for me, I’ll be there soon” so its pretty special now to have it come full circle again, and do it to video with the Billy Graham Association.
Q: In case some of our readers don’t know, tell us about your first connection with Billy Graham.
A: My personal connection stems way back to when I was a 13-year-old, rotten preacher’s kid, growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. My parents are amazing people and my dad’s been a pastor at the same church for 35 years. But as a 13-year-old kid, I spent most of my life around church, whether I was in the front row on Sunday morning, or in Vacation Bible School, or just doing work for my dad around the church.
I felt like I had my fill of church. As a result, if I had the television on at home, if I stumbled across a preacher or some sort of Christian programming, I would quickly flip the channel. I’m a big baseball fan so I was always looking for a Chicago Cubs game or something like that.
I remember one day, when I was 13, I was flipping through the channels and I stumbled across a Billy Graham Crusade. Like I said, normally my instinct would be to change the channel, but there was something going on that day that left me unable to change the channel. I felt like God was really knocking at the door of my heart and pursuing me in those moments.
My mom, who’s an amazing woman of God, came downstairs to the family room where I was watching the Crusade and she knew something was up because I wasn’t watching a baseball game. She sat down with me and asked me if I wanted to pray and accept Jesus into my heart.
It was right at the time that I remember the song, “Just As I Am,” was being played, and I was watching people leave their seats in whatever coliseum they were in. I felt like the Lord was doing a work in my life, even as a 13-year-old kid, and I said, “Yeah, I wanna pray.” I’ll never forget. That was the moment I accepted Christ into my heart and made the most important decision of my life.
Q: And you had a hit song referencing that experience. To come full circle with “stories,” can you talk a little bit about why you wrote the song?
A: For years my dad has always said that the day that you accept Christ in your heart is a moment that you should always remember, just like you’d keep a picture in your wallet. So, in a way, “Next Thing You Know” is like a picture in my wallet. It’s a way for me to remember the day God first got hold of my life.
I sing that song pretty much every time I get on stage and it literally tells that story. The lyrics say: I remember when I was 13/ I saw a picture on my TV screen/ the Reverend Billy Graham and all the people singing “Just As I Am”/ and it felt like you were talking to me. And the song goes on to say, Everybody’s got their own 13.
What’s been so exciting–as I shared that song over the years on stage and through the radio–people would come up to me and say, “Hey, my 13 is 35” or “My 13 is 11.” Parents will come up and share how that song opened the door for them to tell their children what I was singing about. It’s opened the door for different young people to be led to the Lord by their parents.
So the reach and the impact of Billy Graham and the Evangelistic Association has been far and wide for many years. It only continues through my ministry as I have the chance and the honor of sharing how God used his ministry to touch my life.
Order Matthew’s CD “Something to Say” from our online bookstore.
Read our interview with Matthew, Nothing Else, from 2008.
Visit the Ransom.TV site and blog.