Steven Curtis Chapman: Letting His Musical Influences Come Out

Those of us here at American Songwriter feel that we have watched Steven Curtis Chapman grow up, both in his music and in his life. He was the winner of our first Professional Award in 1991, when he was named AS’s Christian Songwriter of the Year, an award he also received in 1993, when he was also named Songwriter of the Year, meaning his songs remained at the top of the CCM Charts for more weeks than any other songwriter in any of the genres of music in which we give awards (Christian, country, pop, R&B).

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Those of us here at American Songwriter feel that we have watched Steven Curtis Chapman grow up, both in his music and in his life. He was the winner of our first Professional Award in 1991, when he was named AS’s Christian Songwriter of the Year, an award he also received in 1993, when he was also named Songwriter of the Year, meaning his songs remained at the top of the CCM Charts for more weeks than any other songwriter in any of the genres of music in which we give awards (Christian, country, pop, R&B).

We first did a cover story on Steven in our March/April 1993 issue, written by Deborah Evans Price. Steven, then 31, had already won four Dove awards for Songwriter of the Year from the Gospel Music Assn. and was well on his way to making a mark in Christian music as one of its most prolific and best-loved singer/songwriters. To date, he has won 38 Dove awards, nine for songwriter of the Year. He has won three Grammys for Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album, and has 31 number one singles to his credit. Other artists have recorded his songs as well, including Billy Dean, Charlie Daniels, Sandi Patty and Glen Campbell.

This year, Steven is once again AS’s Christian Songwriter of the Year, resulting from his writing for the project Speechless. The Songs on this album are a result of the songwriter taking a year off in 1998 to spend time with his family, a year he describes as “a roller coaster year filled with joy and pain.” During that year, a shooting at Heath High School in Kentucky, his alma mater, caused Steven to make several trips to the school to offer emotional support as well as to do a benefit for the victims’ families. Then, a friend’s daughter was killed in an auto accident. The impact from these events on his writing of the songs for Speechless was without question, yet the songs he chose for the album have messages of hope and proclaim even more emphatically God’s love in our lives.

Steven performed on of the songs, “With Hope,” at the memorial service for Cassie Bernall, the teen who was shot in Littleton, Colo. After being asked if she believed in God.

Influences for the album came from the music of Collective Soul, The Wallflowers and the Dave Matthews to Newsboys and Delirious and from Christian authors like Jim Elliott, Oswald Chambers and Brennan Manning. Pastor and friend Scotty Smith was another influence. As for the musical sound of Speechless, Steven says bassist Adam Anders was an integral part of the recording process.

When AS talked to Steven, he was literally at the last concert date of 1999, in Bristol, Tenn. He took time to reflect on the last nine months since Speechless had been released and where he feels he is in his career as a songwriter and singer.

“It’s really interesting that you should ask me how my songwriting has developed over the years, because I was just thinking about that very same thing in the last few nights,” Steven responds to my first question. “I have from the very beginning written songs that are deeply profound – not because of my writing but because partially of what spiritually has been communicated to me. I know that, for me, songwriting is so much bigger than I am. It’s a process that the Creator has invited me to be a part of what he is, because we become co-creators when we get to write songs.”

As for the maturity of his writing, Steven says it is a natural progression because the more you live the more you realize you have to learn. “You go through more life and you experience more hurt and pain and wonderful times and you begin to realize that life is more mysterious and hard to explain than you though. It (the realization) has strengthened my faith in God, not my own answers and ideas. I think my writing has reflected that. I’ve been more free to wrestle in my songs. More than presenting the answers, I maybe explore the question, and anchor my life to my faith and my relationship with God.”

As examples, Steven cited pain, tragedy, school violence, children dying, his being a husband of 15 years rather than three or four years, all of which have been influences on his songwriting. “Since I write from life experience, I feel I have a deeper well to draw from,” he says. “I’ve learned more and more how to tap into what really is musically who I am. In the beginning stages, you are influenced by wanted your songs to be radio accessible and like by people. As time has gone by I’ve earned people’s respect from my writing and I’ve felt the freedom to say I’ve been influenced by blues and folk music and I’m gonna let those influences come out more in my music. I think people will go there with me now, where as in early days, they might not have known what to do with it. That has opened up freedom to experiment and express best what the lyric is trying to say.

“It’s been a pretty wonderful gift from my listeners and my music and fans to give me that freedom and follow me where I might take them. People who know it’s not trying to be trendy, it’s trying to be honest with the music.”

Steven says that when he starts to write a song, when the idea starts to come together, he hears it all in his head before he starts to put it down. “There is a soundtrack that immediately begins to play in the CD player of the mind, a song that begins to play there, and my challenge as a songwriter is to get that song out of my head and heart onto tape. I have to get that same emotion, musically and lyrically, into song form so that people can hear and listen to it. I may rewrite it 14 times to get to what it is, but there’s always that hearing it. And through the years I’ve taken it musically and lyrically wherever it needs to be.”

When he sits down to write, Steven might come from any of several directions. It might be the groove, or guitar riff, or it might be a line of two, or it might just be the idea starting to come together.

“For the song ‘What About The Change,’ I had the bridge section and an intro section guitar riff first and I just loved the feel of that music. Then once I started to think about it, I remembered a sermon my pastor was preaching about people of faith. We have bracelets and T-shirts to externally show, but they have nothing to do with what we believe, if our life isn’t showing it. I remember wanting to write that into a song. At one point the two found each other. Then the marriage of the two formed the song.

“A lot of times I’ll just have lyric and idea and will sit down and think what musically will say this, what soundtrack begins to play in my head, how will I create that musically?”

No matter how the song comes together, Steven says “There’s always go to be that point of inspiration somewhere. I have a lot of music ideas lying around, and lyric thoughts as well. But the point of inspiration has to be there, and that usually begins with a lyric idea, a thought, a conversation I’m having with somebody, a sermon I’ve heard, a book I’m reading, a thought that affects me. My job is to find a way to say that in a poetic, creative way and to make it art, to make it something interesting and moving to look at and experience.”

Steven compares songwriting to fishing. “What’s so fascinating for me with the songwriting process is you never know what’s going to turn up. That’s probably why I love to fish – you look at the water and you know something’s under there, maybe a huge trophy fish – there’s this mystery and intrigue, and you never know what’s there until you throw out the line. Songwriting is the same way, it might turn out to be fish you have to throw back, but then it might be something that turns into something really special, affecting not only the life of me as a writer but other people.”

Although Steven doesn’t write all the time, once he doest start to write, the flow is there. “There are seasons when writing is more a focus for me. I can’t sit down and say today I’m gonna write a song, but once I start into that, it rains, it pours. I start to get ideas and one idea will spark another idea, then I’ll find myself with five or 10 song ideas floating around and I’m trying to get them all down.”

Steven has actually been forced to write while he’s been out on his concert tour because he was asked to write several special songs for upcoming projects. “One is a song for a two-part miniseries on the life of Jesus, and I’ve been asked to write a song ‘inspired by’ this special. It was a little weird; they didn’t have the movie available to see all of it, but I did see some of it. There was one particular part, in a scene of Mary Magdalene and how her life was changed by her encounter with Jesus. I was hesitant at first to write for this one because they didn’t stick straight to scripture, but I counseled with my pastor and felt I could contribute something. It acknowledges Jesus as the song of God and other ways I feel about him, and so I felt I could contribute to the album.

“I’ve been writing some songs toward the end of this tour for my wife, for out 15th anniversary songs. And there’s a big youth event coming up, in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, a big youth super conference with 20,000 to 30,000 kids. They do it every three years. They’ve asked me and Geoff Moore to write a song for it. So all the time I’m writing, but there are seasons when I know it’s time to begin to think about a new record and I really begin to shift into that mode.

“I’ll be doing a lot of reading and thinking in that direction and the songs will start to flow. I carry a little recorder with me all the time, I do most of my writing on guitar, some on keyboards or piano. Primarily they all start out with just me and a guitar, trying to get the feel and idea down, and then we can turn it into whatever with programming and drum loops. I want it to be a stand-alone song I can play before I turn it into a groove in the studio. Sometimes if I don’t have the recorder with me, I’ll end up leaving messages on my voice mail at home, singing into the telephone. I was in a dressing room in the mall, and I got this idea, so I got on my cell phone and called myself to leave the idea. I would get ideas and then forget them, so I’ve learned to make use of all the modern technologies to make sure I don’t forget an idea anymore.”

When asked for advice Steven conceded that what he was going to say might have been said in his previous interviews in American Songwriter. Indeed he was right. In the 1993 interview, he cited something Bill Gaither told him, which was to keep doing what you do the way you know in your heart you are supposed to be doing it.

In that previous interview, he also said what he repeated for American Songwriter readers in this interview. “When you are moved by a song, take that song and dissect it and try to find out what it is about that song that moves you the way it does. As you begin to take it apart sometimes you can see some little skills that are used along the way. Usually they are songs written from the heart of someone’s experience. You need to discover how they were able to weave it together and tell the story.

“That’s been a great thing for me. It may not always be a power ballad, it may be a kickin’ up temp song that will move me to have fun, jump up and down with my kids, or maybe move me to reach over and hug my wife and tell her I love her and kiss her on the cheek. But it’s a process I continue to use and it has really helped me with my writing.”

Even though Steven’s father was a songwriter, and often wrote at home with many of his songwriting friends, the songwriting process didn’t connect with Steven until a girl who played piano at his church when he was about 10 or 12 wrote a song and performed it at the church. “I was a huge music lover, and I remember thinking, ‘I bet I could do that.’ My first song was about wanting to live my life in a way to honor God, taken from the story in the Bible of the master who leaves his servants in charge of his affairs. When he comes back, he says to the servants who had done well, ‘Well done good and faithful servants.’ The idea was with gifts and abilities He has given me, I want Him to be able to say to me ‘Well done good and faithful servant.’

“I write because I want to be able to communicate why I wanted to start doing this in the first place. I believe the ultimate purpose and reason why we’re here is to have a relationship with the Creator, and when I can convey that creatively with my music, I love to do it.”

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  1. I have several christian songs, with melodies I rote personally, which I would like to offer christian artists. I undestand most artists wish to write their own songs, bu tI would be willing to have a cowriters agreement with anyone interested. I would be glad to provide a sample of my lyric writing capabilities.

    Thank you .

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