“Sometimes you’ve just got to shake things up,” Michael W. Smith says with a smile. After selling more than 15 million albums, scoring 28 No. 1 hits, earning three GRAMMYs and more than 40 Dove Awards, no one would blame the Christian music icon if he decided to coast just a little bit, but that’s just not in his nature.
On Sovereign, Michael’s first worship album since 2008 and his first project since signing with Capitol Christian Music Group in 2013, he deliberately steps into a new creative chapter to craft a vibrant collection of vertically focused songs with a fresh sense of musical innovation.
I sat down with "Smitty" to how he shook things up on his new album, Sovereign.
Dan: And you’re with a brand new record label. What's that been like? Has it been different from what you've done in the past in terms of how things have progressed? Could give me some insight onto how things are different?
Michael: Well, it's honestly a bit of fresh air. I mean, it was hard to leave when you've been with a record company for that long—for 29 years. But sometimes you just need to shake things up a little bit. I've always been impressed by Capitol and BMG and the kind of stuff that they're doing. And I’ve always wanted to work with Bill Hearn. So, through a series of many meetings with just about every record label there was, I felt like this was the right move. And they're knocking it out of the park. They're all in. It's been a real team effort to create this project and I'm really excited about it. I think it's my best work yet. We’ll have to see if everybody else feels the same way.
Dan: Has the process itself been different from what you've done in previous records?
Michael: Very different. Big faith steps for me. Going to territories I've never been to before on the creative side. Working with all these kids—I'm old enough to be their dad. That’s been a challenge and mostly fun. Working with producers I've never worked with before. It's been one of those times you jump out there with a lot of faith and it's really proved to be a great thing.
Dan: The first single is "You Won't Let Go.” Can you tell us a little about that song?
Michael: I wrote it with a guy named Seth Mosley, one of the producers and writers that I've never worked with before. We were hanging out in his studio working on another song called "Miracle.” It’s one of my favorite songs on the record. We kind of made that the bar, saying, “If the song doesn’t top this guy then it's not going to make the record.” We went through 120 songs.
Michael: So I said to Seth, “Just play me something.” He started playing this track and I picked up an acoustic guitar started playing the melody you hear on "You Won't Let Go.” We got to the verse and chorus and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I need to get my iPhone out and hit record so I don't forget this melody.” Thirty minutes later we felt like we really had something solid musically.
The verses from Romans that say, "Nothing can separate us from the love of God” really propelled the first idea for the lyric. Then we pulled a girl named Mia Fields in, who's a great writer. We all got in the room and we tackled the lyric and before you know it we had a song. And at the end of the day everybody felt like that was the first single. I'm very, very happy with it.
Dan: I love the way that the song ends, with repeat of the simple word “always” at the end. It’s a powerful reminder to the strength of that Scripture.
Michael: Yeah, I agree. It's fun to hear it on the radio. It's been awhile since I've had something on the radio. We've been doing a Christmas record and the Glory record—all these little specialty records that just I love doing. It didn't seem like anything from the Wonder record really connected for some reason.
I can't predict what radio will play. I've never written for radio my whole life. I've never specifically said, "I'm going to try to write a pop song for radio." With Sovereign, it looks like we have a lot of songs that have potential for radio. It's very commercial but it's very authentic and worshipful.
Dan: I see that you've written on several of the songs but other ones are songs that you found. Can you share with us how you found some of those other songs to round out the record?
Michael: I said, "Look, I don't have to write in on every song. If we can find some songs that are really great then I'm up for that." I mean, I love to write as much as possible, but this is not about me trying to write all the songs on the album.
So the word got out and all these people start sending me songs. I got a couple from a guy named Dustin Smith who leads worship in a church in Kansas City. "You Are the Fire" is one of his songs. I started doing it live in the fall even before I started working on the album. It seemed to really connect. "Sovereign Over Us” is just unbelievable. It’s written by Aaron Keys from Atlanta. Actually, my son-in-law, Jack Mooring from Leeland, was co-writer on that song. It might be the best song on the album musically and especially lyrically.
That's just to name a few. Chris Stevens is a guy I've worked with. He's worked with TobyMac and Mandisa for years and was a fan growing up in Eugene, Oregon. Now he's producing three of the cuts and he's mixing the whole record.
Dan: I had the privilege of attending the taping of the deluxe edition at your barn.
Michael: Oh, that's awesome!
Dan: Can you share some of those moments from that night that stuck out to you?
Michael: I thought it was awesome. I mean, we had a lot of stuff to overcome. The weather – it was 14 degrees outside.
Dan: It was cold.
Michael: We kept all the folks in Franklin that sell propane in business. I think from so much that could have gone wrong, everything just worked. I think the challenge was having all of these people come—400 people—to sing these songs. And they’re songs that these people had never heard before.
There were some wonderful moments. I thought the Leeland moment was incredible. The Kari Jobe moment was amazing. We prayed, “Can we just have a fresh encounter with the Lord this night? Forget about the cameras, forget that we're taping this thing for DVD and audio.” So we forgot all about that. And we felt something. I sensed the beautiful presence of God in that barn.
Dan: As somebody in the audience, I agree there was something about the night. The presence of the Spirit was there. You hit on a couple moments that I thought were really special too. The song with Kari Jobe, “The One That Really Matters,” was a fantastic song and watching the two of you perform that in that moment was really good.
Michael: It’s a Dustin Smith song. We found that song at the last minute. Actually Jack, my son-in-law, mentioned it to me. Jack says, "Hey, you've heard that song, ‘The One that Really Matters,’” and I go, "You know I need to go back and listen to it again." We were still trying to find one last song that possibly could end the record. I went back to listen to it and thought, "Wow. Maybe this is what I'm supposed to do."
Dan: Leeland was at the barn that night as well.
Michael: Leeland and Jack, along with David and Leslie from All Sons & Daughters wrote "Christ Be All Around Me.” I went to Jack because he had cut that song at the barn three weeks earlier and said, "Would you all mind if I cut it?" Everybody was cool with it. That song turned out really amazing not only live, but on the studio version as well.
Dan: I heard that your son Ryan filmed the night at the barn. Is that correct?
Michael: Yes. He's amazing. He's just so good. I'm so proud of him. There were a lot of people in line for that job to do that deal. Ryan had never shot a live DVD. He's made tons of videos. He's written and directed a movie called After, but he had never done this. I said, "Guys I'm staying out of it. You guys hire whoever you think needs the job. There's a conflict of interest here for me.” They all fell in love with Ryan at Capitol.
It looks amazing. You're not going to believe it. It's so incredibly well done.
Dan: How cool to have your son be part of that. That's pretty awesome.
Michael: Yup. Kind of fun working with your kids.
Dan: Last thoughts on the record. Can you give us some insight as to how you landed on Sovereign as the title track and an overall theme to the record? What made you land on that particular title and song?
Michael: Well, second or third in terms of importance, I think the title pops. But really, first and foremost, I just think we're all just so in love with “Sovereign Over Us” and feel like this song is going to have longevity for a long, long time, mainly for what it says: What the enemy means for evil, He turns it for the good. Even in the valley, He's faithful. He's working it for the good. I think this is something so many people just need to hear.
I think it's the right title for the record. It encompasses everything that's on the album for sure.
Dan: Going back to that night at the barn, you mentioned something that night that really stuck out to me and I'd like to get some additional thoughts. You mentioned that you believed that 2014 was potentially a big year for the church. What do you mean from that standpoint in terms of what are you seeing and feeling out there?
Michael: I just sense in my spirit that there's something stirring, you know? I feel like there's this—to borrow from Jim Cymbala’s book—Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire. There seems to be a real hunger and passion in this next generation. I think that's going to pay off. When I say pay off, I think that's going to usher in something very, very beautiful. I think there’s something about to explode.
That's just me. I could be wrong. But if you're a true believer and you look at the Word, man, we're in battle. It's a fight. We have an enemy that's very real and trying to take us down. And I'm feeling like there are a lot of victories coming in 2014.