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Best-selling recording artist Michael W. Smith hasn't recorded a pop album in five years--but he's hardly been idle or absent. Instead, he's been busy with other worthwhile projects since 1999's This Is Your Time. In 2000, he recorded an instrumental album, Freedom. In 2001, he released the live Worship CD, which went platinum and prompted the 2002 sequel Worship Again. Then came The Second Decade in 2003, celebrating his 20th anniversary as a Christian recording artist. So now at long last, we come to Healing Rain, Smith's 18th album, and fans are curious what to expect. We jumped at the chance to visit Smitty's farmhouse getaway to talk about the new music, the people he's been working with, and his longtime friendship with President George W. Bush.
So you're back to pop/rock.
Michael W. Smith: Well, it's been a long time coming. I actually started on this record not long after This Is Your Time. I wrote probably 50 or 60 songs for the record, and actually recorded 31 of them. Sometimes you have to keep troubleshooting, and since the record kept getting delayed, I thought I should keep trying to write better songs. There are three on this record that were written three years ago. I think a good song is a good song, and hopefully these will stand up to the test of time. This was probably the most enjoyable, though hard, time I've had making a record. Maybe it's from not doing it in a while, but I really enjoy being in the studio. It's the producing side of things, getting creative and seeing the album come alive. And during the process, thinking to myself, "Wow, I can still do this!" It's been exciting to dive back into the studio and try new things.
Smith: Well, for one thing, I didn't think I would produce the record, but I ended up producing 6 of the 11 songs. I'm getting older and I don't think I have my ear to the ground like some of these younger kids do, but I found out that I can still produce. There are certain things I think I do well, and there are certain things I don't think I do well. There are a few, kind of hip sounding tracks on the album—those are the ones I didn't do! Matt Bronleewe produced four others, and the other one was produced by Sam Ashworth, Charlie Peacock's son.
What about songwriting? You typically match your music with a variety of lyricists.
Smith: I got back together with one of my favorite collaborators, Wayne Kirkpatrick, for three songs. I also worked with Wes King for "Eagles Fly," and another with Dan Hill called "Human Spark" that we wrote right after 9/11. The big surprise for me was making a trek across the Atlantic and writing a few songs with Martin Smith, lead singer of Delirious, who's written so many great songs for the church. We had a blast. I've found a new co-writer. It was such a joy because I would play some musical ideas, and then he would giggle and start to write. Suddenly 30 minutes later, we'd have a song. I love writing with people like that. Wayne Kirkpatrick takes a month to write a lyric, which is okay because it usually ends up pretty amazing.
You recorded some songs at George Lucas' Skywalker Studios in California. Why?
Smith: We mostly just wanted to leave town. Recording here in Nashville is great, but it's also detrimental in the sense that we've got cell phones and daily demands that keep us from focusing on creating. So we looked for a cool place to record, and someone told me about Skywalker Studios. I'm a huge Star Wars fan and of George Lucas' work. We called him, checked into it, and found there was time available to record there for a week. It was absolutely gorgeous and unbelievable. The recording space was this huge and spacious room like Abbey Road. A couple of the tracks from "the Skywalker Sessions" made it onto this record--"Human Spark" and "We Can't Wait Any Longer."
Judging by your 2003 Second Decade Tour, it seemed like people were more responsive to your worship segment than your pop songs. Do you think that's due to your absence from pop, or is it more indicative of the popularity of worship?
Smith: I think it's a little of both. The worship albums were such hits with people, they'd probably be happy if we just did those albums straight through. And I think a lot of people probably went to the show just to hear the worship stuff because it's all they own of my albums. So they probably just weren't familiar with "Wired for Sound" or "Rocketown," and that's fine. Who would have ever guessed that the worship albums would be the biggest records of my career?
Do you think this new audience will now embrace your pop sound?
Smith: "Healing Rain" seems like the perfect song to bridge between those in my audience that want to hear worship and those that want to hear more of the pop/rock. Same with "Here I Am" and "All I Want," both written by Martin Smith. They're both worship, but they're progressive, not congregational.
How did "Here I Am" come to be?
Smith: I'll never forget Martin asking me where I go to pray and get alone with God. And I told him that I come here to my farm. So this place was the inspiration for the first song. The opening line is, "There's a place where I go where the angels hear me pray." The neat thing about this record to me is that it starts and closes with prayer.
The closing prayer being "All I Want?"
Smith: Right. Martin's writing is articulate and meditative. It's really an interesting song to me, kind of dark and soaring, without a lot in the way of lyrics. But I absolutely love the line, "All I have is a love that set my world on fire/Let it fall, let it burn in me/And oh to be a friend of God is all that I desire/All I want is to be faithful/All I want is You." That just sums it all up for me. Nothing else satisfies. It's all I pray for, and it seems an appropriate way to end the record.
Talk about "We Can't Wait Any Longer."
Smith: That song was inspired by my work with Bono and DATA. He's doing a great work. I believe we can't simply turn a blind eye to 6,500-7,000 kids who die every day [of AIDS] without doing anything about it. It's my challenge for people to become pro-active in some way--call your congressman, call your senator, support the AIDS initiative, whatever--just get involved somehow. Do something. That's what the whole song is about. It's the heaviest on the record, but I think it's important for people to hear it. After I finished recording it, I had a wild idea that we should try to use The Uganda Children's Choir. I happened to work with them through GMA, so I thought it would be powerful to have them on the record as a heart cry in the middle of the song, singing in Swahili. In the bridge, they're singing, "Somebody save me, somebody help us." At the end, not to get too dark and depressing, but I kind of paint this scene of death and destruction, and there's a little Ugandan girl saying, "Please, somebody free us." I'm hoping it'll be a wake-up call to Americans.
Speaking of Americans, let's talk about your relationship to the Bush family. You performed at Republican National Convention; how was that?
Smith: Man, it was awesome. Lots of machine guns and security dogs. I've been around Presidents before and I've been a friend of the Bush family for years, so in a way, it was nothing new. But that was probably the most intense security I've ever been through. But that's okay--things were fine as long as you got into the right car. It was an incredible night. I got a little distracted because while I was telling the story behind "There She Stands" before performing it, Cheney walked in. [laughs] The television coverage made it look like the whole arena was applauding, but it was an isolated area. At first, I thought the commotion was just another demonstrator being escorted out!
How did you get to know President Bush so well?
Smith: I met his dad in 1989 when I did the Christmas in Washington TV special. My wife and I ended up going to the White House and have been family friends ever since. I think it was when I visited Kennebunkport in 1992 that I first met George W. Bush over the weekend. At that time, he wasn't even governor of Texas—he was involved with the Texas Rangers. And I remember it was me and some other guy who took on father and son in a game of tennis. And we kicked their tails. We absolutely annihilated them. I'm extremely competitive, but they're even more so. And I was thinking that after that, my relationship with the Bushes was over.
Apparently it wasn't!
Smith: Since then I've been an encouragement in his life. I think he likes me because he knows I've meant a lot to his father, but I think it's also because he knows that I don't want anything from him. Everyone in D.C. has an agenda and wants something from someone. The two of us try hard to preserve the friendship and not talk politics--although I'd love to share a few thoughts with him, but I try to remain sensitive to our relationship. He actually calls me "Dubya." He snickers and calls me "The real Dubya." Whatever!
Is the man you know the same man we see in the news and on the television?
Smith: I think he's a strong leader and tough, but there's also a sensitive side to him that you don't get to see enough of on TV. And that would be my advice to him—I think it's okay to let America see more of that sensitive side. I've seen him tear up recounting stories of soldiers and sacrifice. We also get to talk more about faith and spiritual things, which you won't usually see on issues-oriented television. He's committed to his faith, and he reads devotionals every morning. I've occasionally sent books--the modern English version of My Utmost for His Highest, one of Max Lucado's books, and John Eldredge's Wild at Heart--and wondered if he ever took the time to read them. But then the next time I'd see him, he'd thank me and tell me he read them.
Mixing pop music and politics is a hot-button issue. Do you worry that your association with Bush might turn off some fans?
Smith: There was talk for a while about whether some of us should go out and counter the [pro-Kerry] Springsteen tour. But I just didn't think that was a good idea because I think the Springsteen tour is going to backfire by alienating audiences. When I take the stage at my concerts, my political speech is not for any one candidate. If you don't like Bush, then don't vote for him. It troubles me more that so many people aren't registered to vote. Even in the Christian community, it's some big number like 40-45% unregistered voters. [According to the Pew Research Center, almost half of America's 59 million evangelical Christians didn't register to vote.] Bottom line, if you love this country, you will vote in November.