Matthew West on The Story of Your Life
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One of the best concept albums to come out of Christian music in recent memory, Matthew West's The Story of Your Life is a response to thousands of life stories his fans shared with him last winter. The 11-track record features songs that cover a myriad of personal trials, including abuse ("Broken Girl"), divorce ("Two Houses"), cancer ("Survivors"), and adoption ("One Less"). The title track introduces fans to this memorable and encouraging listening experience that ends with a song aptly named "The Healing Has Begun".
Recently, the singer/songwriter spoke with CBN.com about the inspiration behind The Story of Your Life and the moving experience he had while writing songs based on fan-submitted confessions and declarations of hope and faith.
CBN.com: The Story of Your Life is a concept album that is a follow-up to your last record, Something to Say. When did the idea behind it hit you?
Matthew West: Typically, what I would do is I would finish recording Something to Say, and then the next songs I’d be writing the day after. But this time, I didn’t feel compelled to write at all for a new record.
In many ways, Something to Say was a very personal statement for me. The struggle that I had going into that record and having vocal surgery, it was a very significant time in my personal life of overcoming what I thought was career-ending surgery. So this time I was asking God, “Well, OK, what’s after Something to Say? What do I say? What do you have to say through me?”
And the thought occurred to me. Let people say it. And I was scared by that, because I was like, “OK, God that basically means that I lose all control. I know my life. I can write about my life.” But that wasn’t enough this time. God was going to stretch me yet again, as if my vocal surgery didn’t make me feel helpless enough. This was going to stretch an area of my life where I had confidence, in my songwriting.
I talked to my manager, who is also my brother, and I said, “What do think? Is this weird?” And he said, “Man, this is amazing. People are going to feel empowered by this. It’s going to give people a voice like never before.” My record label agreed.
I didn’t want it to sound like “contesty”, like you can win a chance to have a song inspired by you on a Matthew West record. I thought that would lose the heart of what this was attempting to create. I wanted to do it more organically.
The first day, I got 1,000 stories. It was like that the first two days. All of a sudden, I was like, "holy cow, something special is about to take place". I rented a cabin in Tennessee, about like 25 minutes from my house that felt like it was out in the middle of nowhere. And I spent two months in that cabin reading 10,000 stories.
CBN.com: What were you thinking emotionally and spiritually as you read people’s life stories?
West: The details and what people were sharing overwhelmed me. Heaviness would be another word in terms of what I’ve learned. If somebody were to ask me, “what’s a defining moment in your life? What’s a moment that really shaped who you are?” Chances are, I’m not going to tell them the story of the day I got my college diploma, although that was an amazing day. I’d go to the moment when I had my throat surgery and was in the depths, and thought my music career was over. I was at my weakest moment. Yet, it was in that trial of my life that God met me in such a real way and said, “Not only am I not done with you, but I’m going to shape you and grow you and grow your faith through this time.”
Well, I shouldn’t have been surprised that when I asked people and opened up that door, they were telling me their weakest moment. They were telling me the abuse that they suffered. They were telling me the broken home that they had to deal with. They’re telling me about some of their defining moments, and a lot of them were the hard stuff of life, the ugly stuff of life. A lot of the stories started with a sentence like, “I’ve never told anybody this before, but I heard about what you’re doing, and I think if my story could inspire a song that would encourage somebody else in there that’s going through what I’ve been through, then maybe all things really do work for the good.”
There was a sense of great responsibility, that these people trusted me. They have opened a window into their world. Many of them wanted to know that somebody was reading their story. I owe it to them to deliver these songs that tell their story, and tell it in a true and honest and sincere and genuine way that’s going to turn around and help somebody else. So I felt a lot of pressure.
There was a personal battle. What I’ve noticed is any time you attempt to be faithful to something God has called you to do, the devil knows that. The attack in your life is going to heat up. So I felt that like no other season of my life, because here I am, I’m like trying to be faithful and do this thing that I feel God has put on my heart. I should have known it wasn’t going to be easy, and it wasn’t.
CBN.com: How do you write songs, let alone write a record, out of what you read?
West: The vision I had before I even did any of this was I saw myself sitting in a cabin—and all around me, all the walls, the tables, the floors, the couches and chairs, were covered with white pieces of paper. On each piece of paper there was a story. When I first got to the cabin and I started getting these buckets of stories, I started putting them on the floor. Then I started thinking, “OK, that’s a bad idea; this is chaos.”
It’s like an artist. When an artist creates, it might look like a mess until there’s a finished product. That was a bit of the chaos for me that I knew what I was doing, but somebody else would look and go, “What is going on in here?” I would put some stories in folders that sort of they had similar themes. What that did is it helped me realize what are some more common themes that I’m surprised are being represented here. But it let me know these are topics that I can’t turn away from. If I’m going to be true to this project, whether I like it or not, I need to write a song about this.
In the first 1,000 stories, 250 stories were from women sharing with me how they had victims of sexual abuse. There were women in their 40s saying, “I was abused as a child by such and such person. And I’m still dealing with that guilt in my life.” And I’m thinking, “How am I going to write a song about this?” But I did. I wrote a song called “Broken Girl”. Anybody who sent me their story that dealt with the topic of abuse, that’s their song.
I’ve never been so excited about a project, and ironically it’s a record that has nothing to do with me. Well, I shouldn’t say it doesn’t have anything to do with me, because the truth is I connected with the stories. In some way, I found myself in a lot of the stories. Thanks to the people that sent me their stories. For me as a songwriter, they allowed me a window to be able to write a song about something that I’ve never experienced.
My first radio single is my response to all those stories, and it’s called “My Own Little World”. It talks about how reading these stories had really changed how I look at the crowd in front of me at my shows, how I look at the world, how I look at the person sitting next to me in church. Hopefully it challenges people to look beyond their own little world.
The line in the song says, “In my own little world, it hardly ever rains. I’ve never gone hungry. I’ve always felt safe. I’ve got some money in my pocket, shoes on my feet. In my own little world, population me.” The last verse says, “Father, break my heart, for what breaks yours. Give me open hands and open doors. Put your light in my eyes and let me see that my own little world is not about me. What if there’s a bigger picture? What if I’m missing out? What if there’s a greater purpose that I could be living right now, outside my own little world?” That song is like what happened in that cabin. It took me out of my own little world.
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