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Michael W. Smith - His Time to Speak

  • Updated Feb 01, 2002
Michael W. Smith - His Time to Speak
By Bruce Adolph, courtesy of {{Christian Musician}}

Let's get the accolades out of the way up front so we can focus on the artist and record label owner. {{Michael W. Smith}} has garnered 22 Dove Awards, two Grammy Awards, an American Music Award and 23 #1 Christian radio singles. Earlier this year he received six Dove Awards, including Artist of the Year and Producer of the Year, as well as ASCAP's Golden Note Award for lifetime achievement. He has one platinum and six gold albums to his credit. That's pretty remarkable by just about anyone's standards. But what's most impressive is that {{Michael W. Smith}} is still an all-around nice guy. He's a true gentleman with the public and is respected by all who work with him. As his thirteenth album, ==This is Your Time==, recently released, we spent some time talking with Michael about the new project, the state of the industry, and his role at {{Rocketown}}.

CM: You're viewed as a sort of "statesman" in Christian music, because you've been around for quite awhile, and therefore have a unique perspective on the industry. As an artist and label owner, how do you view the Christian music industry right now?

MWS: Well, I guess it depends on what aspect you're talking about. I think we've grown up. We've gotten better at what we do, but we still have a long way to go. There are a lot of great things to say about the industry. I think it's in a pretty healthy spot. Record sales are obviously going to fluctuate, it's going to be hot one minute and down the next minute. Same with touring. You've just got to go with the flow. I'm extremely happy with what's happened with {{Rocketown}}. We're very fortunate.

CM: So what do you see as the industry's strengths?

MWS: I'm really proud of the fact that we've gotten creative. We've gotten creative with the "{{WOW Series}}" projects, and with marketing outside of the CBA market. We've gotten creative and built strong relationships with Target and Kmart and Walmart and other chain stores like that, and they've done an incredible job for us. The key has been getting this music out to people who would otherwise never hear it. That's one of the milestones we can be proud of.

CM: What would you change about this industry if you could?

MWS: What would I change? That's a good question. If I could change anything, I would like to be able to change the fact that there's quite a bit of pride in our industry. I think there's room for good healthy competition, but we need to work together more. We need to work for the cause of what this whole thing's about. It seems like someone's always trying to be on top, and record companies watch the numbers asking, "Did we get the number one radio spot?" I think we could pay less attention to that and focus on the fact that we're all in this thing together. We're in Gospel music for one reason. Let's support each other more. That's what I would change.

CM: Since you're an artist yourself, does {{Rocketown}} give more creative freedom to its artists?

MWS: I think so. {{Rocketown}} is a lot like Reunion was in the early days. Don't get me wrong, Reunion Records is a great place. It's got a big roster, but it's not like it used to be. It used to be a family, and there was a lot of synergy. It was contagious. Sitting around with Brown Bannister, and {{Amy Grant}} and myself and our managers, we would dream big. We'd see those dreams become a reality. We all kind of nurtured each other. I think it was a healthy environment, and that's what we've done with our artists. We're kind of a little family over there. We all hang out in this funky little house and everybody really digs it. That's versus being caught up in the huge corporate thing - which works for a lot of people - but I think this is much healthier. Especially since we gravitate toward singer/songwriters. It's a lot of fun.

CM: When you allowed {{Chris Rice}} to continue summer camps with youth rather than forcing him to tour, I saw that your label had a different heart than most.

MWS: Well, we knew that was best for him. That's what God's called him to do. Why get in the way of that? All the skeptics say, "But what about this opportunity and that opportunity?" You know what? We don't sit around thinking about the numbers all the time.

CM: You're known as a handsome man. Do you think this has been an advantage for you in the Christian market? How important is appearance to you when you consider new artists for {{Rocketown}}?

MWS: To answer the second part of your question, I don't think it matters at all. We've all got to admit that it's really wonderful to find somebody who's got an incredible voice and who looks great. You can't help but think that's got appeal. You've got to think that looks do have something to do with it. I try to downplay that aspect. I don't think I'm the most handsome man. People at the company talk about it a lot and I say, "Guys, if you all want to talk about this, don't do it around me." That's not what I'm about. It's a struggle every time I do a record. They're always searching for a great looking picture of me to put on the front. I want to put my picture on the back and do something different on the front. It's always a battle. I did win half the battle this time because it's not a close-up, like ==Change Your World==, it's actually from much further back and doesn't totally center around me, and I'm glad. It's a totally different feel this time.

CM: You seem to place a high priority on your family life. What kinds of things do you do to protect it?

MWS: First and foremost, my kids know by the way I interact with them, by the things I say yes or no to, that they're more important than my career. They know that if my family were suffering I would take a sabbatical if not quit the whole thing. Whether it's driving the carpool or taking their mom out on a date once a week, they see my involvement. They know that in the past I've given up opportunities to perform on television because it's family time. The record company is saying, "Do you know what a great opportunity this is?" And I tell them, "I'm sorry, but I'm going to be in Beaver Creek, Colorado with my family and I'm not going anywhere."

CM: You co-wrote several of the songs on the new album with a variety of different writers. What's the process like when you're co-writing?

MWS: I wrote all the music and came up with titles for about half the songs. I probably wrote more lyrics for this album than I have on many other records. I've never written with more co-writers in my entire life. It's usually just Wayne Kirkpatrick. Wayne was busy doing the Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines thing. I don't know if it's because I'm getting older or what, but I had a hard time trying to find people who could convey what I wanted to say. I worked with people I've never worked with before in my entire life, so that was a real stretch for me. I just went with the best lyrics, with the people who could get inside of me and read my heart. In terms of the writing it was definitely the most difficult project I've ever done, but I'm really happy with it. In my opinion there are some really big, big things on this record. "This is Your Time," which {{Wes King}} and I hashed out together, is a great song. I think Wes wrote a lyric of a lifetime. It's centered around Cassie Bernall, the girl who lost her life at Columbine. There are some things I think I'm going to be proud of for the rest of my life, and that's one of them.

CM: Your giving {{Ginny Owens}}, a young artist, a chance to write with you was a great break for her.

MWS: Yeah, and of all the songs for her to write She wrote a song called "I'm Gone," which is about my wife. It's kind of a fun song: I found this girl, I completely lost my mind, I'm gone! Could this be love? Ginny knew that the song was called "I'm Gone," and I told her a little bit about Deb, but I thought that her writing this was really incredible. She's really happy about it too.

CM: Brian Lennox is your co-producer. You worked with him on ==Go West Young Man==. Why did you choose him to work with on this album?

MWS: I wanted to drive the record. You get a Patrick Leonard or a Brown Bannister, and they're pretty much going to drive it. Brian was willing to step back and allow me to make a lot of the decisions, but I could also turn over the baton and let him do his magic. He's one of the most amazing engineers I've ever worked with. A lot of it had to do with what he can do sonically with consoles, and O2Rs, and hard drives and radar systems - it's wild! It was a totally different way of making a record. He had it down pat.

CM: What's the main theme of ==This is Your Time==?

MWS: I don't think the record necessarily hangs together. I don't think there's any one thing that makes the record cohesive. When people listen to the record, I think they'll remember "This is Your Time." It's the title, and it's the most powerful song on the record. And then we come back at the very end and do a reprise of the song. It's the milestone of the record. I hope it will make people evaluate their hearts and realize it's time to step up to the plate.

CM: I recently saw the video for that song, and it's very well done.

MWS: I'm really happy with the video. That was a very emotional time for us. We felt like we were treading on sacred ground a little bit. We didn't want to offend the family. It's a delicate subject, you know? We just wanted to do the right thing, and I think we did. I don't think we overstepped our boundaries by putting Cassie on the front. Her testimony is extremely powerful.

CM: Were you involved in any of the memorial services in Columbine?

MWS: I was at the big memorial, the one that Al Gore and Franklin Graham were at. I sang "Friends." It was so surreal. To this day I can't believe it happened. It was very powerful. I was there all day visiting kids in the hospital. Meeting Cassie's mom and dad was the highlight of the day. I was blown away by their faith. That was the inspiration for the song. I came home and couldn't get Cassie off my mind. Knowing a little about the tough times she went through, and her recent commitment to the Lord inspired me. If I hadn't gone, I don't think I would've written that song.

CM: You seem to be a mentor for a lot of young artists. What would you say to encourage the young independent Christian artist reading this article?

MWS: Ultimately, you're the one who has to work out your own salvation. If you feel like God wants you to pursue this career, then go for it. I knocked the door down. I was so confident - I might have been a little too confident - because I knew this was what I was supposed to do. On the other hand, I prayed and said, "Lord, if this isn't Your will for me, then change my desires." I decided to go for it, but I knew that if I was supposed to do something else, I'd do it. I think if you can get a good combination of those theories, you're going to be okay.

Don't miss our Interactive Exclusive with Michael as well!