Carman Licciardello: Don’t Water Down Lyrics

Becoming a Christian is a life changing experience. For Carman Licciardello, one of the biggest changes in his life is that when he became a Christian, he also became a songwriter.

Becoming a Christian is a life changing experience. For Carman Licciardello, one of the biggest changes in his life is that when he became a Christian, he also became a songwriter.

“I started writing songs in 1976 after I became a Christian,” he relates by phone prior to a concert in San Angelo, Texas. “Before that I was just singing in clubs, trying to make a living. It wasn’t until after I received Christ that I was inspired to write songs. I view my songwriting as a blessing from the Lord.”

Since he began writing, Carman (he only uses his first name professionally) has become one of the most popular singer/songwriters in contemporary Christian music industry. He was named Top Contemporary Christian Artist on 1990 by Billboard magazine. Revival in the Land has been certified gold and was the Top Selling Contemporary Album in 1990 by Billboard and CCM Update.

The Revival in the Land video has been certified platinum, an unheard of feat for a video package in the Christian music industry. The video took home Dove Awards in 1991 for both Long Form and Short Form Video of the Year. Additionally, Carman Live…Radically Saved is a gold album and video which has also won a Dove for video achievement and a variety of other accolades. His latest release Addicted to Jesus looks to be continuing that momentum.

The youngest of three children, Carman’s love of music began early in life. Growing up in the suburbs of Trenton, New Jersey, Carman’s father was a meat cutter and his mother was a musician. He began his music career playing drums in his mom’s band.

From there he went on to play drums in various bands, occasionally coming out from behind the drum set to sing a few tunes. After his conversion, Carman began devoting himself to perform Christian music and to writing songs that would express his beliefs.

Since recording his first custom albumin 1978 and then signing his first record contract in 1981. Carman has written all his own material. He co-writes occasionally, but says he’s yet to record an outside tune.

“It’s not that I wouldn’t record someone else’s song,” the Benson recording artist says. “It’s just that I feel better able to write for myself…I think maybe as other writers become more familiar with my music they’ll probably be more able to write songs for what I do, but I really don’t get a lot of pitches. I guess people assume that since I’ve always recorded my own stuff I wouldn’t record another person’s songs.”

Some of Carman’s songs have been recorded by other artists Helen Baylor and Carla Worley have recorded his tunes. Take 6 recorded his song “Sunday’s on the Way” and Carman says he was pleased with the cover, but admits he hardly recognized the tune. “They have such a unique style,” he states, “It was great. They really took the song and made it their own.”

One thing Carman feels very strongly about is not watering down the lyrics of Christian songs to dilute the message. “If you’re looking to hear songs with hidden messages or veiled references to God, you’ve come to the wrong place,” he comments. “I’m gonna say it long and say it loud.”

Carman says he also feels it’s important that a Christian songwriter’s music reflects his lifestyle. “A Christian artist is held accountable for what he is singing much more than a secular artist, if he presents an idea or an ethic,” he states. “For example, on of Paula Abdul’s songs is “Cold Hearted Snake.” Now she could or could not have met a cold-hearted snake, but that’s not important, because she’s an entertainer. She’s playing a role. But for Christian singers and songwriters to have credibility their songs must be compatible with their lifestyles. In secular music the lifestyle and the message don’t have to go hand in hand.”

An integral ingredient in songwriting, either Christian or secular, that Carman feels is essential to a good song is the use of imagery. One of the strong pints in Carman’s songwriting is his ability to paint vivid visual images. “A lot of the songs I do I take what I call a Psalm 23 approach, using pictorial imagery and language, using characteristics like David used the characteristics of a shepherd to portray truths about God in a way that people could understand. He used the language of the day.

“He related his occupation. He was a sheep herder. So he wrote ‘The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures.’ God’s not taking David and putting him out in a field. He’s using it as imagery. That’s what I try to do when I’m writing is to use that same approach—using a graphic visual image to portray an aspect of God’s character in a way that people in my generation can comprehend.”

Carman says he prefers writing story songs. “What I try to do in six or seven minutes is to take a whole concept, a truth, live it out and make it into sort of a movie score and try to bring a pop acceptance to it. It’s sort of a different art form,” the BMI writer relates.

Apart from the strong visual images in songs like “Witches Invitation,” “Revival in the Land” and “The Champion,” one of the things that has made Carman one of the things that has made Carman one of the most successful singer/songwriter’s in his field is that he writes songs in a variety of styles from straight ahead pop to bluesy overtones, to rap and rockabilly. What determines the styles of music in Carman’s songs?

“The message of the song, what the song is about” he says. “For example, with “The Champion,” the title of that song gives it an athletic connotation. So the musical approach is somewhat athletic, like a Rocky sequence. But at the same time it’s dealing with the resurrection. So there has to be some sort of supernatural orchestration. “The Champion” is a combination of “Rocky,” “Star Wars” and “We Shall Behold Him.”

“Revival in the Land” is a dialogue between Satan and one of his chief demons so the music has to be intense, horrific and has to have somewhat of a military feel because it’s one leader commissioning an underling to accomplish a task. Yet at the same time there needs to be a victorious a ‘sound the alarm feel’ in the song because the song is almost like one of those WWII movies where the people are in the bunkers. And there’s also sort of a revival feel, like an old-time Pentecostal revival. So you’re dealing with so many different elements, but they are all mapped out by the lyrics…It (the style) just depends on the nature of the song. I don’t try to stick within one style.”

Carman is well-known in the Christian industry for the quality and impact of his videos. When asked if he considers what kind of video a song will make and if an impending video will affect how he writes a song, Carman replies, “No, the only occurrence where I’ve ever thought about a video or changed a lyric to suit a video is with a video we did for a song on the current album called “1955.” In it there’s a line that says “Howdy Doody held the nation captive on TV.” I had originally wrote the line to say Uncle Miltie, but decided Howdy Doody would be better for the video and we wouldn’t have to go through as much hassle over getting the rights to use it in the video. But that was the only tie I changed a lyric for a video.”

Carman says when he writes, he usually composes on the guitar. But he says more recently he has started just composing music in his head because he was hearing things that he couldn’t perform on the guitar. He says his demos often consist of him playing a song and then at certain points just humming or verbally describing how something should sound.

According to Carman, producing Keith Thomas has a collection of his demos. “I think he plays them New Years Eve for laughs,” the 34-year old songwriter says with a smile when talking about this unorthodox demos. “I’m afraid they are again to surface publicly; instead of Funniest Home Videos, it would be Carman’s demos.”

Carman says writing Christian music has some similarities with secular songwriting and some differences. “Predominantly, when a person writes a song they are writing about another person or about a relationship. Ninety-five percent of all songs are about relationships, my girl did this or my wife did that. I love her. I miss her. It’s all relationship-oriented. People write about the ultimate relationship they have knowledge of.

“After I became a Christian, relationships between two people were still important, but then the ultimate relationship I had knowledge of was not between two people but between me and God. So all I’m doing is writing love songs, just like anybody else in music, I’m writing about the ultimate relationship I know. So I’m not doing anything different.

“Instead of talking about the horizontal, I’m talking also about the vertical which opens up a whole different array of topics. Most secular songs talk about man relating to man or man relating to woman. But in the Bible you have man relating to man, man relating to angels, man relating to demons, man relating to God. You also have god relating to man, God relating to demons, God relating to angels. Once you open the scriptures, you have a multiplicity of topics, if you go beyond the confines of a person to person relationship to the whole sphere of spiritual dimension. So that’s what I do.”

When asked to give advice to aspiring songwriters anxious to carve a niche in the Christian music industry, Carman’s advice is simple and direct. “First, you’ve got to be a Christian,” he says. “If not it would be like a ten year old trying to write a song about marriage. You can’t really write a good song unless you know something about the subject. You can’t convey what you don’t possess.”