How do you write an album based on solicited letters (many of them tragic) detailing the intimate details of your fans’ lives? If you’re Nashville-based singer-songwriter Matthew West, the answer involves a dry erase board and a highlighter.
Where did you get the idea to do The Story Of Your Life, an album of songs based on people’s letters?
In 2007, I released a record called Something To Say. The central theme of the record was to encourage the listener that their life matters, they have something to say, something to offer to the world. As I began turning my attention to a new record, the thought occurred to me, “I just told people they have something to say, what would happen if I turned the microphone around and actually let them say it?” The idea scared me because it had never really been done before, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I decided to start asking people to send me their story. That’s how the whole thing began.
How did you approach the writing process?
I didn’t know what to expect when I asked people to send me their stories. I thought maybe I’d receive a few hundred. All in, I received over ten thousand stories from all over the country and twenty different countries around the world. So, knowing I had a ton of reading to do, I decided to get away for a while. I spent two months, March and April, in a cabin in Tennessee. I moved my guitars, piano and some recording equipment into this little place in the woods. I spent most of the time in solitude. I would read story after story with a highlighter in hand, occasionally writing down title ideas or highlighting stories that really moved me. Some days, all I would have to show for my time was a stack of stories I had read, no songs. Other days, I would write three songs in a day. I had a big dry erase board that I would write down title ideas or topic ideas down in red marker. Each time I finished a song, I would re-write that title in blue. Over those two months, it was my own personal challenge to myself, to see more blue than red on that board.
How was writing songs based on stories from letters different, or similar, to the writing you normally do?
For starters, I had to wait. I had no control over what these songs were going to be about. I was forced to wait for the stories to come in. So, I came in with no preconceived notions or ideas. I typically write all year for a record. This time, we already had the studio booked for May, and I knew I only had two months.
This process stripped me of any and all of my “go to” habits or methods when writing. I’ve spent ten years in Nashville on Music Row among an incredible community of songwriters, writing songs for my records and for other artists. During that time I’ve become a big believer that collaboration can often make the song better. But, these people chose to trust me with their stories, and I felt like they required my personal response for the most part. As a result, I wrote nine of the eleven songs on the record by myself.
The last thing is, I have always wanted to write songs that would connect to the masses. The kinds of songs that the whole crowd would someday sing back to me. But this time, I was more concerned with that one mom from Michigan who would be hearing this song I wrote inspired by her story. ‘Am I doing her story justice? What will she think?’ My focus had shifted without me even knowing it, and so did my goals.
A lot of the letters you got had dark subject matter. How did you keep the album from being depressing?
I was asking myself that same question. In the first two days, I received over a thousand stories. Out of those first thousand, one in every four stories dealt with the topic of sexual abuse. Women who had their innocence stolen from them as children, and many were still struggling to deal with what happened to them. I quickly became overwhelmed, thinking, “I didn’t ask for this. Or at least, I didn’t think I asked for this.” But I quickly realized that when you dig beneath the surface and go deeper in getting to know someone’s story, you find that for many, our weakest moments are defining moments. My heart broke for so many people who shared with me from the broken chapters in their stories. Many stories started with a sentence like, “I’ve never told anybody this before, but I heard about what you’re doing, and it’s time to tell my story…”
I was worried in the beginning about making a depressing record, but if I was going to deliver what I promised, I was going to have to let go of that, and trust that the hope in these stories would shine through in the end.
There are 11 songs on the album. How many songs from letters did you write total?
I finished thirty-seven songs, and started about a hundred and twenty. The ones that I didn’t finish have maybe just a title, or a chorus, or a general idea. I honestly felt like I could have kept going. It was the most creatively fulfilling season I’ve ever had.
You’re a Christian music artist. Are their particular drawbacks and rewards to trying to forge a career in the Christian music genre?
For starters, you don’t normally get the call from mainstream media outlets like American Songwriter magazine, (thanks, by the way.) Honestly, I played two hundred secular college campuses before signing my first record deal with Universal South Records in Nashville. They signed me in the hopes of an eventual mainstream push, but chose to launch my career through Christian radio, and I guess I just never left. I used to resent that, but then I read ten thousand stories from people who listen to my music. Christian or not, the people who are finding my music are going through the same stuff that everyone else is, and now more than ever I feel like I’m exactly where I am supposed to be. I’ve never been the Christian artist who writes “church-y” music. My songs aren’t about faith. They are about life; life from a faith perspective. And The Story of Your Life is a record I hope will rise above any stigma “Christian” music may carry with it. These songs and stories cross far beyond the walls of any church.
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
Mom found her a new place to live
Dad found him a new girlfriend
Looks like everybody’s moving on
And it’s “hey look on the bright side kid
Now, you got two Christmases”
And it’s every other weekend from now on
But all I want is the way it was
When love would always last forever
And family stayed together
Back to the day before two houses
When they held my hands and I was little
Before I got caught in the middle
Somewhere in between two houses
‘cause these two houses sure don’t feel like home
How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?
I try to write from all different angles just to keep it fresh. I do a lot of writing for other artists outside of my own records, so that requires a different mindset altogether. Depending on who I am writing with, or what artist I am writing for, I might have to lead with the music, or focus more on the lyric. So, I try to be able to move from one to the other on any given day. When writing for my own stuff, the lyrics and music develop side by side.
Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
With my time in the cabin being so limited, and my desire to stay in the moment of being moved by a story, I forced myself to hold back from revising or over-editing in the moment. I have been learning to be okay with a song that has some rough edges in the beginning, if it means the heartbeat of the song remains intact. But once I was in the studio, I began fine tuning lyrics as needed. I’m not one to assume the first draft is always the final draft.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
Oh, I don’t know. I could list any number of Nashville writers who’s names most people wouldn’t know, but they probably prefer it that way. They’re not underrated on Music Row, but to the rest of the world they are anonymous. Even though I’m an artist now, there’s something about the life of a behind-the-scenes writer that appeals to me. That’s why I always keep one foot in that world, someday maybe both.
What’s a song you wish you’d written?
“True Companion” by Marc Cohn. I danced to that song at my wedding. It’s a good one.