Mike Rimmer conducts the most in depth interview the American singer, songwriter and poet KEVIN MAX has ever undertaken.
Is Kevin Max the most misunderstood artist ever to have worked within the Christian music scene? Read on and decide for yourself! A free thinker and fiercely intelligent with an edgy sense of humour, these are three qualities that you don't always immediately associate with Christian music where Kevin by his own admission has struggled to deal with the scene's cultural norms. In recent years he's learned to express more of his true feelings about life, spirituality, creativity, art and a hundred other subjects but found himself rejected and perhaps deliberately misunderstood.
As a solo artist he's felt free to express more of his observations and questions but equally these haven't always been welcomed. His latest album 'The Imposter' is the best of his solo work to date following on from the artsy 'Stereotype B' which although the most musically satisfying, was sadly the least successful of the former dc Talk members' debut solo projects. Having said that, none of the group members have come close to dc Talk's level of sales. Currently Toby is closest, selling nearly half a million copies of his two solo albums but this is dwarfed when you consider 'Jesus Freak' has sold nearly 1.7 million and 'Supernatural' nearly a million. And Kevin? 'Stereotype B' racked up just over 60,000 sales. Unlike Tait, at least Kevin is making some interesting music and he'll later tell me that he feels like a debut artist and his best work is two or three albums in the future, and I'll believe him!
The conversation takes place in Nashville at Gospel Music Week. To be honest, I'd been trying to set something up with the singer since I heard the magnificent 'The Imposter' album but time differences, touring commitments, etc, etc have proved difficult. I didn't even want to set something up at GMA because my experience of Kevin at the event is that it's difficult to get a decent amount of time with him and I had some serious questions to ask. So when we met in his publicist's suite, I deliberately didn't set out to corner him for an interview and instead we ended up talking about Elvis, old gospel music and Kevin's diverse art collection. In the end we decided to record an interview in rather strange circumstances. I would chat to him while he drove to the airport to fly home to LA.
A couple of days later I'm standing outside the entrance of the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Nashville where he is picking me up thinking that this is a strange way to do an interview but I'm learning with Kevin that nothing is ever quite straight forward. He seems to have spent an entire career doing things that have been misunderstood or misrepresented. I suspect it's not always deliberate but simply part of his character. "Absolutely," he agrees. "I just think that, without sounding really, really egotistical, intelligent people understand what I'm trying to do. I think the people that are looking for the cookie-cutter widgets that the industry produces are not going to want to understand me, and/or take the time to understand me. So I think because of that, fluff pieces are written on me and so we're still talking about me wearing a feather boa back in 2001! People who really have a goal and a vision of what they want to do, what they want to talk about, usually get along pretty well with me. We see eye to eye because I'm a pretty easygoing guy when to comes to wearing everything on my sleeve and talking about my problems and my solutions if you will, to life."
Over the course of the conversation, I'll discover that this is true as Kevin opens up about some of the very personal things in his life. In a CCM scene where everybody seems to be talking and singing answers at each other, Kevin finds himself asking questions through his music and sometimes people don't like those questions or feel he's asking the wrong questions and so little room is given for his kind of artistry. He observes, "I think I like to ask a lot of questions when I write because I think we all have to go on that journey of understanding what we believe in over and over again. Challenging, testing the spirits if you will, constantly trying to figure out, do we truly believe in this? But a lot of people really are looking for a certain thing and when something comes about that's different, they don't want to take the time to investigate."
He continues, "I think it's changing though. I see a revolution if you will, of artists that are thinking outside of what their Christian marketing gurus are telling them to do and what the executives and big labels are telling them what to do. To be honest with you, Christian music is such a ghetto anyway that it's kind of like.it's irrelevant to the whole music world unless you're creating something that gets the whole world to buzz. So really we come back to great song writing. We come back to great content. If the content is there then you've got a story and you can talk about something."
The content of his current album, 'The Imposter', is very influenced by author and speaker Brennan Manning. Kevin explains, "I wanted to write a concept piece that was about the battle between the flesh and the spirit. And the flesh usually wins. To be honest with you, our fleshly man versus our spiritual man? Our fleshly man is a lot more muscular I think. I wanted to show that in a project but offer that glimmer of hope to say that we have the opportunity, we have the strength within us to overcome the flesh when we want to. It's the decision that we make. It's what separates us from the animals. So I kind of got to that place where I was looking for a title and I was going over one of Brennan's books called Abba's Child and I saw 'the imposter' thing."
Some years earlier, whilst with dc Talk, the group went on a retreat with Brennan Manning and spent a week together. Kevin recalls, "He actually said to me, 'I realise that as an artist it's really difficult to constantly be who you are in front of people and entertain at the same time.' And I said, 'Yeah. I tend to like to project a different personality when I get on stage and I enjoy that. I don't want to be just plain old Kevin Max Smith when I jump out on stage. I become somebody else.' And he goes, 'Exactly. You become the imposter.' So that conversation, I remembered that and decided to put the whole package around that."
In his book Unfinished Work, which was published at the same time as 'Stereotype B' was released, he explores the beginnings of this theme observing that for some of the time with dc Talk he would fall into the role expected of him as a member of a Christian band but became increasingly unhappy about it. Now as a solo artist he is able to more fully and honestly express himself.
Over the years, Kevin has been a magnet for rumours and stories and accusations that his lifestyle has sometimes been less than that expected of a "Christian" artist. In the war between flesh and spirit, he has fallen. He responds, "I think if we were all honest, each and every one of us has broken the law several times over. I think I'm one of those few artists that actually talks about it, which makes me a very easy target. I think somebody else that might not talk about their weaknesses.or discuss them in an open interview like this, or put them in their music.people that hide everything, well, nobody can really get to them. It's like that constant bubble that you're trying to break to try and get into the soul of somebody. To me, that represents the Christian music marketplace because people are looking for that shining example. And when they have an example that's actually saying, 'Hey, I screw up. I've been divorced. I've probably taken the name of the Lord in vain a few times. I tend to drink once in a while when I'm on the road.' It's like you expose those things and immediately you're outcast."
He continues with an interesting observation that exposes the hypocrisy at the centre of these responses, "The funny thing is that the Church, the Christian community, when it's observing somebody over in the general market, let's say Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan or Bono, who are exploring their faith but again in a very realistic manner and talking about their weaknesses, they seem to somehow latch onto those people and make them heroes. But if they're in their own backyard, forget it! So that saying, 'a prophet is never understood in his own home' is very true."
But there are expectations for artists who are Christians. Just as there are expectations for the lifestyles of Christians generally. If the rumours are to be believed, he has a reputation for taking girls back to his hotel room. He's certainly on record admitting a soft spot for female company. "These are rumours because I don't take girls back to my hotel room. When I was a single guy I met up with a lot of females, absolutely, but as a married man, absolutely not. I set very strict rules for myself when I'm on the road because of the fact that I know that I'm pretty normal when it comes to my male impulses and my male responses to females. Absolutely, I find females very intriguing. But not at all am I somebody that is about to screw up something that God has given me, you know? So those are rumours are not founded on truths. If somebody has a picture of me going into a hotel bedroom with somebody, then please throw it out there man! Let's talk about it! You know? But absolutely not. And I think that's the thing, somebody might hear something and then make something up and then it compounds and becomes something that is just completely horrible and damaging. But at this point I'm not worried about people and their rumours about me, I'm worried about my relationship with God, my relationship with my family and my career, which is moving further and further out of the reaches of the CCM scene. But at the same time I really feel a calling to continue to relate to those people and allow them to listen to the music and make them feel a part of it, because that's where I've come from. And I believe that Christians need to be challenged and loved on as well."
As someone who has suffered the agonies of going through a divorce, I was sad to discover that Kevin had been through the same situation. Shortly after the release of his debut solo album I can remember him taking some time off the road trying to make the marriage work but sadly those efforts didn't work. He confesses, "I was pretty up front about what happened. There was never any tabloid-worthy reasons for our divorce. We grew apart. I mean, we had separate goals, we had different ideas of what that marriage should be, and over a course of six years it unravelled. I actually fought for the marriage for a good year and a half, through counsellors and pastors in this area. At the end of it she and I did not see eye to eye. I finally got somebody that I really felt was a spiritual leader in my life to get some conversation going with her as well. He finally told me, 'She's not ready for this.' So based upon that I allowed her to file for the divorce and go forward with it. I really tried very hard for a year to make that work. A lot of prayer went into it."
He continues, "I think when it happened, it really, really shut something down in me and I've had to constantly go before God and say, 'Am I healed? Are you healing me?' We use the word 'restoration'.I don't care about restoration, I care about God inviting me in still and being a part of my life. I know he forgives and I know he has forgiven me for that. I think now I'm blessed with a second marriage, it's about learning from the mistakes of this first one and build upon that and have an amazing relationship that is God-honouring and successful. And absolutely! I look forward to the future for us and I think the birth of my daughter, on October 7th 2005, was an answer to prayer. I look at it as the most obvious thing it can be - a blessing."
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