Exclusive Interview: Matthew West Opens Up About Faith, Success, and The Stories that Inspire Him

( [email protected] ) Sep 21, 2015 07:00 PM EDT
Just before kicking off the second leg of his Live Forever Tour, CCM artist Matthew West spoke to the Gospel Herald about his faith, success, and the stories that inspire his songs.
Matthew West's Live Forever Tour is coming to 40 cities from September 24-November 22. Photo Courtesy of Matthew West

Matthew West is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished CCM artists of today. The Tennessee-based singer/songwriter is a multiple ASCAP Christian Music Songwriter/​Artist of the Year winner, an American Music Award and Billboard Music Award winner and four-time Grammy Award nominee. His songs have been recorded by Rascal Flatts, Amy Grant, Casting Crowns, Michael W. Smith and many others.

But for West, success isn't measured in awards or chart-topping hits. Instead, he defines success as connecting with the hearts of people through the songs he writes: "My first hope whenever I make a record is that it won't just be ear candy, but it'll be something that goes into the ear and travels far deeper, to the heart and the soul," he told the Gospel Herald in an exclusive interview. "If it conjures up an emotion for someone, then it will be considered a success by my standards."

On September 24, West will kick off the second leg of his wildly popular Live Forever Tour, which will run until November 22. The tour is coming to 40 cities with fellow Christian artists Francesca Battistelli and special guest "Mr. Talkbox," formerly of TobyMac's Diverse City Band. In addition to a variety of earlier hits, West will perform songs from Live Forever, his sixth studio album which features "Hello, My Name Is," "Do Something" and "Forgiveness."

To learn more about the Live Forever Tour and to get tickets, click here. Below is the exclusive interview with Matthew West.

GH: Tell us a little bit about your latest album, Live Forever. What was the inspiration behind this album and how did it get its title?

MW: Well, I'm a storyteller. So, I decided to take my storytelling to the people over the last several years; instead of telling the story of my life, I've been telling the stories of other people's lives. In giving people the opportunity to tell me their stories, I've collected over 40,000 stories from people all over the world and found inspiration through them.

This new record is called Live Forever, and it's the third album where every single song was inspired by a person's story; somebody who listens to the radio and heard my songs or came to one of my shows.

It's really been been an amazing creative journey. The album is called Live Forever because it's steeped in the message that how we choose to live out the stories of our lives has a chance to leave a legacy behind us and echo for eternity. The message of this record is to encourage people to make the most of the time we have on this earth - life is brief and precious, and how we live this life has a chance to outlive our seconds and minutes and hours on earth. The theme of the album is 86,400 - that's how many seconds are in 24 hours. There's a chance to hear that over and over and over again, because I'm encouraging people to make every single second count.

GH: Was there one particular story that stood out among the others in affecting you emotionally and spiritually?

MW: That's the crazy thing, I should get a sponsorship for Kleenex (laughs). I read these stories all day. Picture the best movie you've watched; my favorite movies are the ones where I'm tired at the end, and I've laughed and cried and cheered - and all of that in one I find myself doing as I read these stories.

My favorite stories are redemption stories, when someone shares with me how they hit rock bottom but decided it wasn't over. There's a song called "Day One" that's inspired by this guy named Josh. Josh hit rock bottom; anyone would look at his story and say, 'It doesn't get any lower than this.' Josh had a difficult upbringing, he lived in a troubled household, he never met his mother. He got wrapped up in drugs and was a drug dealer by the time he was 16 years old. He got in big trouble and was sentenced to ten years in prison. While in prison, he entered the gang life. Eventually, he decided there was a better life for him and gave his life to God and found his personal faith. Near the end of his time in prison, people doubted him and called his faith his "jailhouse religion" and said he'd return to his old life once he got out. So, he got out of prison determined to prove everyone wrong.

He told me he got a part time job at a pizza restaurant, worked really hard - came in early and stayed late. Today, he's the general manager, and he has a wife and a baby girl. It's an awesome story of a man who changed his life, and didn't let his rough past dictate his future. His song is called "Day One" because he's a new man.

That's the message of this album - it's time to make the most of your life, stop living with regret, you can only control the chapters that are being written right now.

GH: What is your favorite song on Live Forever and why?

MW: They're all special to me for different reasons, but I would say the song "Grace Wins" is one of my favorites. I think it's one of those songs that hopefully is going to speak to people. One of the things I've noticed in reading people's stories is that so many people live their lives with a smile on their face, but deep down they're so defeated by circumstances they're in or by choices they've made. Instead of taking the opposite choices like Josh, and instead of making their lives better, they wind up living in defeat, and history ends up repeating itself.

I wrote "Grace Wins" because I want to encourage people not to live in defeat because of past mistakes. God loves you so much and has decided you don't have to be defeated - hold your head up high and live your life in victory. It's a message that I think speaks to everyone.

GH: As an artist, what's your greatest hope for Live Forever? What do you want people to take away from that experience?

MW: Music has tremendous power to really touch someone's life and move in their heart and make them feel something. I feel like the tendency in this life is to live numb, because feelings are often painful or hard to deal with. Music taps you on the shoulder and says, 'Hey, it's okay to feel something.' On this record, I hope that people feel challenged and inspired to go outside this morning and every day of their lives and make the most of the time they've been given in this life. I hope they feel victory and feel relieved and freed from the burden of maybe some difficult times in their past, or choices they've made. I also hope that through this album, people will be reminded of how brief this life is - it's not the final destination, it's just the airport. We get so comfortable in the airport and forget that we're headed somewhere better. So, those are the common themes of this album.

GH: How have you grown and changed musically and spiritually since the release of your first album, Happy, in 2003?

GH: There's been a lot of changes in my life; on a personal level I feel like I've grown up and matured. A great reason for that can be credited to my wife, who I've been married to for 12 years, and my daughters, who are 9 and 6. Becoming a husband and father changes you in all the best ways and makes you less selfish.

Spiritually, and in my career, I'm just as certain as I ever was and just as motivated as I ever was. While I chose to make Christian music in the beginning for the right reasons, I had a different definition of success in 2003. Now, I'm reading somebody's story and writing a song just for one person. If it goes out and connects with more people it's amazing, but if each song touches just one life today and then tomorrow - we really could change the world. I hope that my music can be part of that.

GH: What advice would you give to young people who hope to enter the Christian music industry?

MW: I would say the biggest thing is to bloom exactly where you're planted today. When I started out, I had a specific idea of what success looked like - I think we do that in any career or path. I thought if I wanted to be a musician, I had to have a national stage and write hits. But I've learned that in pursuing a music career, success might not always be with a song on the radio - it might be with leading a youth group on Wednesday night, or at a coffee shop, or as a worship leader at your church.

When I was starting out, I sang anywhere and everywhere I was given the opportunity - weddings, funerals, coffee shops, church services - you name it. I went and did it because I was passionate about it. I put CD's in the trunk of my car and drove around the country. Nobody knew my name or cared, but I was passionate. When people look at my career and think, 'That must be nice,' they have no idea the amount of work that goes into it. I never turned up my nose at any opportunity. You don't just jump into celebrity, it's something that you have to develop over a long period of time. Over that time, you'll develop a greater appreciation for the work that goes into it.