Songwriter Interviews

Michael W. Smith

by Dan MacIntosh

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Like many other artists who have enjoyed lengthy careers, Michael W. Smith's music has spanned multiple phases. He began primarily as a songwriter, penning songs for Sandi Patty, Bill Gaither, Amy Grant and others. That relationship with Grant tightened when he began touring as her keyboardist for Grant's Age to Age tour in 1982. The following year, he released his first solo album and quickly became one of the biggest names in Christian music, achieving some mainstream success along the way, including the #1 adult contemporary hit, "I Will Be Here For You."

These days, Smith concentrates more on leading worship at his church and producing worship albums. His latest worship release is titled Sovereign, which as Michael explains, is titled after a song on the set called "Sovereign Over Us" which was written by Bryan Brown, Jack Mooring and Aaron Keyes.

Smith took time to talk about these new songs, as well as many of his more popular songs over the years.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I wanted to start with the title of your new album. What made you choose to call it Sovereign?

Michael W. Smith: Well, first of all, I don't think you hear that word very often - especially in the church you don't. And honestly it really came when somebody pitched me a song called "Sovereign Over Us." I heard it and was just blown away. I mean, it's such a great, great song. And we just thought lifting that first word, "sovereign," just seemed to pop.

It's many reasons, but that's one of them. I think everybody in general at Capitol Records and everybody in my camp thought that would be an appropriate title for this record. It sort of encompassed everything about the album. So that's the short story.

Songfacts: You work with a lot of young writers; new writers that you haven't worked with in the past. How comfortable are you when it comes to collaborating? Do you think you do your best work when you're kind of bouncing ideas off of other writers?

Smith: Well, I do after I initially have an idea. I've never been very good at scheduling a writing appointment – you know, I need to write at 10:00 a.m. I've just not been good at that. A lot of country writers who do that are very successful at it, but most of my ideas come out of nowhere and just when I least expect it.

But I will have to say that on this project I got out of my comfort zone and I stepped out with a lot of faith and started working with a bunch of these kids, and a lot of cool things happened because of it. So I definitely broke all my rules in terms of what I usually feel comfortable about when I'm writing.

It was a great step. It was tedious at times and some uncertainty: going through 120 ideas to get 12 songs can wear you out just a little bit, but man, it was worth it. And I'm just extremely happy with this project.

Michael's song "You Won't Let Go" was inspired by a familiar passage in scripture. In Romans 8, beginning with verse 38, the Apostle Paul writes:

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God's love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow – not even the powers of hell can separate us from God's love. No power in the sky or in the earth below – indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Other examples of Smith songs based directly upon specific scriptures include "Agnus Dei," which quotes Revelation 19:6:

And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunders, saying, Hallelujah: for the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigneth.

And "Above All," which paraphrases Ephesians 1:21 in part, which reads:

Far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.

Although Smith didn't write the latter, he helped popularize the song with his 2001 Worship album.
Songfacts: I read that you wrote one of the songs on guitar. Which one was that?

Smith: Well, I was writing with a guy named Seth Mosely, who is kind of one of the new kids on the block in Nashville and actually doing some great production work, great writer. We were working on another song called "Miracle," which is Cut No. 3 on the album. And just before I left, I said, "Hey, you got anything? You're a writer. You got anything on your computer?" And he pulled up this track and it was the track to "You Won't Let Go" - is that the one you're referring to? Yeah, it would be, you were asking about the guitar. So he pulled up this song and it was the track, which is "You Won't Let Go," and he did that melody. I pulled this acoustic guitar off his wall and Seth and just started writing this melody on the guitar over that track. And then I ended up writing the thing in 10 minutes or whatever, and I looked at him. I said, "Bro!" I said, "I think we have something here."

Then I kept singing the only words I had, which was a bridge that's "nothing can separate us, nothing can separate us." And I just knew that the song needed to be about that Romans passage in the scripture that said, "Nothing can separate us from the love of God." And so we ended up writing the song, and it ended up being the first single.

So, yeah, I thought that was a great way to start off the record. But that's another example from what I said earlier of just doing crazy stuff like that and writing with these people I've never written with before. So a lot of cool things happened because of it.

Songfacts: Your primary instrument I imagine is piano. Are you hesitant to try to write with guitar just because it's not your main instrumental focus?

Smith: No, I actually like to write on the guitar. I'm not as versatile as I am on the piano, but sometimes having an instrument that you don't know all these chords, sometimes it sort of forces you to be simple and to not be so complicated. And it sort of throws me into another corner, which sometimes is not very comfortable.

But, gosh, I've written some of my favorite songs on the guitar. So I'll just pick it up from time to time when I feel like I'm just exhausted from not being able to write anything on the piano. I'll just pick up the guitar and try something from that standpoint. So most of the time it turns out to be a good thing.

Michael has an astonishing seven #1 Christian albums, and his name shows up on 15 other Billboard charts as well. "I Will Be There For You" went to #1 on the Adult Contemporary tally and #27 on the Hot 100. He wrote the song with Diane Warren, who is one of the most versatile and successful songwriters of the last few decades; her hits include "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing" (Aerosmith), "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" (Starship) and "Un-Break My Heart" (Toni Braxton).

John Kalodner, who teamed Warren with Smith, made his biggest mark guiding Aerosmith through their resurgence. He often teamed established artists with top-tier songwriters, which wasn't always easy when the artists were accustomed to writing their own tunes.
Songfacts: I want to kind of go back into the past a little bit and talk about your experience of writing "I Will Be There For You," which I believe you wrote with Diane Warren. How was that experience? Were you maybe a little intimidated because she has the Midas touch when it comes to writing hit songs.

Smith: Yeah. Well, first of all, I was just extremely grateful that she would even co-write with me. She might co-write now, but back then she didn't co-write with anybody.

She's pretty opinionated. I was on Geffen Records then, and John Kalodner, who was my A&R guy there, set that whole thing up. We seemed to hit it off and I got pretty comfortable pretty quick. But yeah, you're around this girl who's written all these great hit songs.

We got in the studio and I started coming up with this piano melody and all of a sudden we had a song, and little did I know that it ended being a #1 AC pop song. But I'd like to do that again. So thanks for bringing it up. I might need to give her a call.

Songfacts: The other thing that I thought was interesting was when I was reading about your song "Friends," which was just an early song, that your wife wrote the lyrics to that.

Smith: Yes.

Although Debbie Smith is best known as Michael W. Smith's wife and mother to their children, she does have a non-Michael W. Smith-related writing credit for "There's Still Time" on Kathy Troccoli's 1982 Stubborn Love album.

In his book, It's Time to be Bold, Smith stated it was love at first sight when he first spied one Deborah Kay Davis in 1981. "When she passed by, it was all over for me. I was blown away. Totally head over heels in love. I frantically picked up the phone and called my mother in West Virginia. 'Mom, I can't believe it. You're not going to believe this, mom. I just saw the girl I'm going to marry."
Songfacts: And how often does that happen? I didn't realize that you wrote with her. Do you write with her often?

Smith: Well, we did in the early days before we had children. She co-wrote every song on my first album - all the lyrics she did. And then "Friends" was just written for a guy that was leaving. He was part of a little bible study group we had, and he was moving away. We were all having a get together that night and she said, "Man, we should write, we should do something for Bill. We should write him a song." Bill Jackson was his name.

I said, "Great, we'll write him a song and send it to him." And she said, "I think we should write it this afternoon." And I thought she was had lost her mind.

And then 30 minutes later I was outside, she walked out and handed me this lyric, and it was the words to "Friends." I went inside to the piano and in three-and-a-half minutes wrote the melody and we played it for Bill that night, and everybody cried. I got up the next day and looked at my wife, and I said, "Deb, I think we might have something here."

So that was on the very first album, and it was also on Change Your World. It's been recorded several times over these last three decades, and I'm still singing it. Little did I know I'd have to sing it the rest of my life.

Songfacts: It sounds to me like when it comes to writing songs, your forte is more with the melodies and less with the lyrics. Do you find that that's where you need the most collaboration is when it comes to writing the words? Because it sounds like the melodies come pretty easily to you.

Smith: That's been the case for the most part of my career. The "Friends" thing was very unusual. I've written a very few songs with the lyric in front of me and me trying to write a melody to it. I'd say 95 percent of my songs, it's been a melody thing first. And a lot of times I'll have an idea lyrically, but I'll just need to pull in the great poets and the people who really write great lyrics, like Amy Grant and Wayne Kirkpatrick over the years. Just great poets.

But yeah, you get them with a melody, you get something melodically, I always feel like that's the part that catches people's ear.

Songfacts: Do you a have a favorite songwriting story with Amy Grant?

Smith: Oh, gosh, I have plenty. The one I think about is when we were in Colorado. We were recording at the famous Caribou Ranch. We were recording the Straight Ahead record, and I played her this song, "Thy Word." I'd just taken this simple scripture, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." And that's the whole song melodically. And that's all I had for the chorus.

Later that night she starts walking back to her cabin. You have to understand Caribou Ranch is an 8,000 acre ranch and it's very dark, and you're in the middle of nowhere. There's bears and all that sort of thing - you've got to really know where you're going. And she got lost.

It's a compound with all these cabins and stuff. She finally saw a lamp and started walking towards that light, didn't realize that that was her cabin. And she walked into that little cabin and sat down with a notebook and pen and wrote the verses to "Thy Word."

Songfacts: Oh, my goodness. What a great story.

Smith: [Laughing] Yeah. So that was inspired by her: "When I feel afraid and I think I've lost my way, still you're there right beside me. Nothing will I fear as long as you are near. Please be near me until the end." That was all inspired by being lost.

Songfacts: Wow. Your song, "A Place In This World" I'm sure has been really meaningful to a lot of people, and you must hear the stories from people of how it's touched their lives. Are there any particular stories that kind of stick with you as far as how that's inspired people?

Smith: Well, the one story I remember vividly - I could still go back to reading the letter - was some young girl, I think she was 18 or 19 years old, who had a horrific childhood in terms of abuse and she was suicidal. She gave me this whole story in a two-page letter. She was driving down the freeway and listening to a pop radio station and heard "Place In This World" and pulled over and began to weep. She had this encounter with God on the side of the interstate, and her life forever changed. That's the one that I'll never forget. There's been plenty of people who have talked about "A Place In This World," but that's the one letter that I'll never forget.

Songfacts: Wow. And it must be amazing to think that something that you created could have such an impact. Some people look at music as entertainment or a diversion, but it can really change people's lives.

Smith: Absolutely. The power of a song. Amazing.

Kari Jobe is an associate worship pastor at Gateway Church, a non-denominational charismatic Christian church in Southlake, Texas. She was nominated for Best New Artist of the Year at the 2010 Dove Awards where she won trophies for Spanish Language Album of the Year for Le Canto and Special Events Album of the Year for Glory Revealed II: the Word of God in Worship, which she shared with fellow worship artist, Matt Maher. She's at her best when performing live, exemplified by her song "Forever."

Jobe performed "The One That Really Matters" at Smith's barn in Franklin, Tennessee for the Sovereign project.
Songfacts: I want to end up by just talking about your work with Kari Jobe, who I recently discovered and I'm just amazed by her. How did you discover her?

Smith: Well, I'd heard about Kari for a long time just from some of the worship projects that she's been a part of. She's done a few great worship songs, like "Revelation Song," and a couple other things that I heard doing my homework when I was leading worship at my church. I would go back and listen to some of the things that she's done.

We've known each other for about five or six years. And then, gosh, I just had this wild idea towards the end of this project that she would come and be a part of "You're the One That Really Matters." Actually, just the live version; that's the only thing that we were going to do. And on the Sovereign video, the whole thing just exploded that night at my barn, and it was just electrifying.

And so when we finished that I went back to her a day or two later going, "You know what, if you don't mind, I think you should seriously think about being a part of the record, as well." And she said yes. So it's a good moment. It's a good way to end the record. So very excited about this project.

What I love about Sovereign is that I feel like it's an album. It holds together. It's not a single here, a single there. It is like an album.

Yeah, I think if you can be proud of anything and be humble at the same time, that's probably the thing I'm most proud of.

Songfacts: Well, I really like it. I love that you're doing so much great worship music now and it just sounds like you're just as excited as you've ever been. So that's a good sign.

Smith: Well, it is a good sign. I'm passionate and I'm probably more energetic today than I ever have been.

June 26, 2014. Get more at
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