How Did Michael W. Smith Become So Successful?

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Looking over the 14 albums Michael W. Smith has recorded since Michael W. Smith Project was released in 1983, my first reaction is “This man has touched so many lives with his music.

Michael is one of those singer/songwriters who has always managed to push the envelope a little while maintaining a strong sense of who he is and what he wants to say through his songs. Along the way, he keeps on reaching new fans while maintaining the loyalty of those who have been with him since the beginning.

One of the reasons for that loyalty has to be the quality of the music that Michael presents. Among his 25 number-one singles are a diverse group of songs including “Great Is The Lord,” “Emily,” “Rocketown,” “Friends,” “Live The Life,” “I’ll Lead You Home,” “I Will Be Here For You,” and “This Is Your Time.” He has crossed over to mainstream radio, the most recent being the emotional “This Is Your Time,” written after he played the memorial service for the students killed in the Columbine tragedy in Colorado. He also did a duet in 1999 with piano great Jim Brickman which hit mainstream radio, “The Love Of My Life.” His most recent recording is an album of instrumental, Freedom, something he says he’s been wanting to do for a long time.

Michael began writing songs when he was six years old, got side-tracked with sports but then came back to music in his mid-teens.

In reply to what inspired his interest in music and songwriting, Michael says “I sat around listening to the Beatles all the time. I could pick out songs on the piano, so I started making up my own little songs and they were not good ones. But I was creating something for me! I wrote off and on, messing around with music for a long time. When I was fifteen years old, I wanted to be a professional baseball player, but more and more I got interested in music, and I passionately fell in love with the piano and writing songs. I woke up one day thinking ‘I’m supposed to do this the rest of my life and I think I can do it.’ I was in bands. I played at church a lot, played piano for the choir, and I’d do a special number that I wrote, or take a hymn and put new music to it.”

He made the decision to move to Nashville in 1977 and followed his dream by moving there the next year. “I came down and stayed in the Hall of Fame Hotel in April of 1978. I knew it was my destiny to be here and write songs and do music. I worked at Coca Cola, waited tables, landscaped, sold men’s clothes, played in a band at the Commodore Lounge… oh gosh, I’ve done a little bit of everything.”

Michael eventually met Randy Cox, who introduced him to Amy Grant. Then he met her managers, Mike Blanton and Dan Harrell, and soon found myself writing songs for Amy and “that’s where it all began.”

He signed with Paragon Publishing/Benson Publishing in September of 1980, earning $200 a week. A year later he signed with Meadowgreen Publishing, where he remained from 1981-84. He signed a record deal with Reunion Records, releasing his first album in February of 1983. He currently has a co-publishing deal with Acuff-Rose and says he has a good relationship with them.

“If you can find a good partner who can help further your career and give you exposure, that’s a real key to me,” he says. “There have been a lot of changes there, but it’s still great. I am interested in writing for film. I write pop, not country, and Sherri Saba is connected to the film world. She’s in L.A. and we’re just starting to work on that part of my career.”

Smith has not only written songs for himself, but for many others including Amy Grant, Sandi Patty, and Point of Grace. He is also a collaborator, having written with hit writers including Grant, Wes King, Cindy Morgan, Chris Rice, Ginny Owens, Chris Rodriguez, Beth Nielsen, Chapman, Diane Warren, Mike Hudson, Toby McKeehan, Wayne Kirkpatrick and his wife Deborah.

“I don’t know if my approach to writing is any different,” Michael says. “I never know when inspiration is going to hit. I’ve sat down to write a few times but it’s not been very successful. I know people do that, but for me when you do that, especially on the music side, you are mechanically trying to write and it feels stifled to me, it’s not inspired.

“All my favorite songs were inspired, you feel it in your gut and you turn on your equipment and it kind of pours out of you. All the songs on my new instrumental record were written in five minutes or less. You may have to tweak it later. Sometimes I’ll go a month, three weeks, and not write anything. Then I’ll write three or four songs and I’ll love three of them. To me it’s a supernatural thing; I didn’t go to school to learn to do this. It’s a gift, I’ve had it a long time, so I’ve gotten better at it.”

One of the ways Michael says he improves his writing is to listen to a lot of music. “I listen to a lot of different types of things. I learn from my seven year-old son; he’s playing me stuff I’ve never heard before. I love the chord structure, the bass notes, I pay attention to a lot of stuff he’s playing me.”

When choosing a co-writer, Michael says he usually has the music already written and then it’s just a matter of deciding who would be the best person to add significant lyrics.

“Most of the time, 95% of the time, I’ll have the melody and then I’ll start making some decisions about who I feel would be best to co-write the song with me. I’ll sit down initially with them, tell them what I’m feeling. When I wrote “Rocketown,” I had no idea what it was, that was the only word I had in the whole song. So when I sat down with Wayne, I said ‘All I have to tell you is it’s got to be called “Rocketown.”‘ So we sat and talked about it and that’s how the song came out.”

Kirkpatrick is one of the people that continues to show up as a co-writer with Michael, but he says everyone presents a different writing experience. I’ll leave a song with Wayne, let him live with it, stay in touch everyday. With Wayne I’ll get frustrated, he’s so good he wants it to be done before I hear it, and I want to hear what he’s doing. Cindy Morgan is fast, she’s just so fast. It depends on whom you’re working with.”

Michael says he’s ready to take another walk along the edge with his next project. “I feel like I could expand a little bit, and learn a lot, and I think I will since this whole Los Angeles thing is presenting different opportunities. I’m ready to try some new things. I really do believe I’m going to really mix it up on the next album. I’m going to really go out and do something revolutionary. I can’t go and make another pop record. I don’t think it’s a mid-life crisis – I have to go and live on the edge. I feel like I’m ready to go and make a different record. Almost like the Big Picture album, my third album. It was radical because I had been so conservative on the first two. I’d love to write with Richard Marx; he knows who I am. Maybe I can write something else with Diane Warren.”

Whoever he works with on the next album, his basic belief that his songs are written for a purpose won’t change. “I do believe they are there for a purpose. When a song brings tears to your eyes, your heart, when you’re writing it you go ‘I think this thing is going to work.’ And most of the time your gut is right.

“Sometimes the message is even a mystery to me. I’ll be writing and I’ll think ‘This is powerful – whoa!’ It’s supernatural to me. Then you get a letter from someone that says ‘This song wiped me out.’ They totally sat there and the song impacted them totally different than someone else. It had a different outcome, but a good result, although it wasn’t what I thought it would be. Music is very powerful.”

“One letter I will never forget was about a song called ‘The Last Letter,’ a song about a kid writing a suicide note. At the end he changes his mind and puts the gun down. One letter that came in, this kid was going to commit suicide, he had his dad’s gun, but he heard “The Last Letter” and he made a commitment to the Lord and put the gun away. Now he has a family, and he thanks me for changing his life. What an honor, but its humbling at the same time, to know that God used me to save someone’s life. It just blows my mind. To hear those stories is a confirmation of maybe I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and it makes it all worthwhile.”

When asked for advice for other writers, Michael quickly responds, “Be optimistic. I thought I could do it, and I came here prepared to do what I had to do. If you have to wait tables for three years to put food on the table, you work hard. If it’s something you feel you’re supposed to do, then you go for it. Come here, go for it, but be willing for God to change your desires of what you are supposed to do in your life. If, after five or six years, you don’t have a song cut, you have to think maybe you are supposed to do something else with your life. That’s what I did.”

“I’ll never forget – in 1981 I took a song that I thought was a great hit in to my publisher, and he said ‘It’s not that great.’ It took me back, but 30 minutes later I was going, ‘I can make this song better.’ I was optimistic, I kept fighting, and I was determined to get better. I wrote 103 songs in 1980 and 100 were horrible. But three songs were great, and Sandi Patty cut “How Majestic Was His Name,” and all of a sudden I started getting better. Always embrace the learning curve, there’s always room for growth. You always get better at what you do. I hope what I write this year is way better than what I wrote last year.

“I’m just overwhelmed, just so thankful. There are people who would love to do what I did. I am definitely a blessed man.”

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