Tony Cummings spoke to Oregon-based businessman-turned-musicianary MICHAEL ROBERT
Michael Robert has made several good decisions in his long career in music ministry, two of the best being the choice of using, as his artist name, his two Christian names rather than calling himself Michael Smith (there's only room for one of those), and the second in listening to the advice of an experienced industry friend and recording an album of hymns (though it took a nudge from God for Michael to do so). As it's turned out, Michael's 'Revived Hymns' is the artist's most successful album so far, with his haunting take on "Be Still" climbing to number one in some independent charts. The 46 year old singer/guitarist has in fact had a long-held affection for hymnody. He explained, "When I got saved we did a lot of hymns at this little community church when I was growing up. As I got into my teenage years '80s rock and roll came out and so hymns seemed to me archaic so I moved on from them. Over the next 20 years I basically never played a hymn when leading worship. About three years ago I was with a friend who was helping me with some radio promotion in Nashville. He said to me one day, 'Mike, you've got to release a hymn sometime, man I could get you a number one hit with a hymn,' and I was like, 'Whatever. . .'.
"Sure enough, I was lying in bed one night and the hymn 'At The Cross' started going through my head. You know - 'At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light'. And I thought, 'Man, why am I thinking of that one?' But all of a sudden I felt like God just gave me the lyrics for a new chorus for it. So I jumped out of bed and started scratching it out and grabbed my guitar and out came the song 'At The Cross'. I ended up in the studio with David Garcia and we released that one as fast as we could to radio and sure enough it went number one on the independent charts and ended up getting 80 something on Billboard, even though I'm not with a label so stations won't play it like crazy."
Michael was born in New Jersey but at the age of six Michael's family relocated. Said Michael, "My dad took the family to about 50 acres, out in the middle of nowhere, and we settled out in Applegate, Oregon. My dad was actually selling calculators back then, big calculators, with the big buttons. We were about 30 miles from the nearest town. Our nearest neighbour was a mile away. My poor Jersey girl mum was definitely out of her element. I remember her sitting by the door with a 22 on her lap, listening to the wolves howl across the mountain. Down the road about a mile away, there was this guy who raised wolves, and every night they would howl and I remember my mum waiting for my dad to come home with this gun on her lap. It was frontier stuff."
When Michael was still young his parents became Christians. Remembered Michael, "Back then everybody had a Volkswagen bus. So this pastor jumped into his Volkswagen bus and came 20 miles out to where we were and ended up leading my mum to the Lord. And so she accepted the Lord and then I did after that. We grew up in this little church, attending all the time and then we switched over to this other little church when I got into my teens. I went through the typical struggles of finding out who God really was to me. In my teenage years I wasn't quite sure if Christianity was for me. I did get into the party scene a little bit. Got into some trouble with some things. . . Me and a buddy, we took a car and took off for week down in Palms Springs, California and then finally I felt like the Lord just said, 'Go home'. So I did, I went home. I think I was 17 years old. My rebellious period wasn't long but it was just a time of kind of figuring out what I wanted to believe and who I wanted to be so I determined from that point forward I was going to serve God."
Michael continued, "My dad and another guy started this youth group. I was leading worship there. Started off with these 10 kids, two years later we had almost 300 kids coming to the youth group that we'd started. I led worship for it and it just took off, it exploded into a revival at the Applegate Christian Fellowship. That was back in 1981/82 and the church went on to build hundreds of churches."
The Applegate Church supported Michael when he felt a call to do overseas missionary work with Youth With A Mission. "When I was doing the missionary work we were working with the red light district in the Philippines, right by the Naval Base. We actually ran a half way ministry, helping the girls get out of prostitution, get a job and get away from that style of life. I spent a lot of time actually witnessing to soldiers. And I had a nice mullet back then so they all knew I wasn't in the services."
When back in the States Michael formed the Michael Robert Band and hit the road, sharing Jesus with anyone who would listen. Along the way he shared the stage with everyone from Skillet and The Kry to NewSong and Randy Thomas. A Christian record company offered Michael a record deal but Michael didn't feel he should pursue a full time CCM career. Instead, one Fourth of July he met a young, single mother named Linda, and Michael admits to seeing fireworks - literally and figuratively. Marriage was inevitable. Linda became Michael's grounding and counter-weight; an anchor that held him fast and the compulsion that drove him forward. Through the ensuing years of marriage they have faced all the trials and tribulations that are common to believers, and some that no one wants to even contemplate. "We've gone through some trials over the years," Michael said. "Depression, health issues, kidney problems, open-heart surgery - we've been through it all. We are truly thankful for modern medicine and the working of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing like watching your children suffer to keep you on your knees, to keep you trusting the Lord."
With the new responsibilities of being a husband and father Michael felt called to lay aside the music - at least the touring aspect of it - and he started his own business. He explained, "I invented my own line of natural pest control products called NatureLine, jumped in my old 1971 Datsun pickup and started treating homes." Michael's drive and creativity soon propelled the company to phenomenal growth in the Pacific Northwest, and it is now one of the largest natural pest control businesses in the country. Michael commented, "It is interesting how the Lord sometimes puts you in places you never expected to be."
While Michael poured his energies into his pest control business, Linda embraced motherhood as the Lord blessed the couple with five more children. With an athletically inclined brood, Michael soon found himself president of the local Little League and coaching all levels of sports. But slowly as the years went on the prolific songwriter and tireless worship leader found that his enthusiasm for music was waning. He admitted, "I had gotten into a place where it had lost its heart for me and I was going through the motions and leading worship was becoming a chore and something that I kind of lost my heart for. We had a family camp where I packed my family up and headed to the woods by this lake. At the last moment my wife said, 'Why don't you throw your guitar in?' And I was like, 'No'. I kept staring at it and finally grabbed it and threw it in. I got up there [to the lake] and I pulled the guitar out and I was studying the Psalms at the time and I just felt the Lord say, 'Grab your guitar and sing some Psalms. You know that's what David did. You don't have to give this up forever.' So I picked up my guitar and started playing and it. I actually sat there and wrote three worship songs just going through the Psalms and it was just like the Lord gave that gift back to me with a new love and a new passion. Over the course of the next year I wrote probably 40, 50 songs all going through Scripture, just writing various worship songs. Started leading worship again in the church, started teaching them to everybody and finding out which ones were good and which ones weren't. All the time I was wondering, 'Lord, why am I writing so many songs, why am I doing this and running a bug business?'"
What was to be a pivotal meeting in Michael's spiritual and creative life was when he ran into Ron Davis. Grammy and Dove Award-winning recording engineer Davis had been a key figure in the development of modern worship music, working on over a hundred projects for Integrity Music. Explained Michael, "He had actually moved to Oregon to get away from the madness of Nashville. He had started a little recording studio and had heard a few of my songs. We hooked up and started recording together. I actually recorded 36 songs with him right out of the gate. I just wanted to get my primary worship songs that I did in the church out there."
Michael remembered, "When I got into the studio with Ron and we started recording my voice on the first few songs, he actually stopped at one point and said, 'Come on in here'. So I went in there and we sat on the couch and talked for a minute about what my goals were. At that point my goal was just to record these songs for the church, for my kids, to just share with people. I had no intentions or plans of ever trying to tour or do anything beyond just that, one step at a time. He said, 'There is a guy I want you to meet.' There was a guy who had moved up to Oregon named Ken Orsow who was a vocal coach. He had worked with Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder and had been living in LA for 20 years in the music industry."
Continued Michael, "Working with the vocal coach helped tremendously and it was actually on the third lesson that it felt like a light bulb went off and it was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is how you sing!' I still listen back to that lesson sometimes and it was just like the Lord was saying, 'Now! Now is the time.' So I jumped in the studio, recorded those 36 songs, brought Ken in to actually help vocally to record them and you know that was amazing to me because I'm not deaf. I can tell if vocals aren't the part. I think that's what always held me back as I felt like I was never properly trained. I grew up on a ranch out in the middle of nowhere, just winging it, so this was all I knew. So to work with somebody who was really able to show me some good technique and some good exercises to keep my voice strong, it was amazing."
In 2009 Michael released two albums, 'I Come Into Your Presence' and 'Lift Up Your Voice', on his own independent label Michael Robert Music Group. They were soon followed by the 'At The Cross' EP. Releasing three projects in the same year seemed to fly in the face of music industry wisdom but the singer/songwriter had rediscovered a zeal for music and a passion for souls. He said, "I came out guns blazing, I was making up for lost time. I felt like I had so much to share and give and it just felt like that's what I wanted to do, to get all those songs recorded as fast as I could. So I spent two years in the studio working on those three CDs."
With his recordings Michael took to the road, ministering here, there and everywhere. He said, "When I first set out to do this I felt God said to go wherever they invited me to come; to not let money or crowd size dictate where I went. I love reaching out to crowds of all sizes. It's great to go to a church that might never get to see a national recording artist. I've helped pioneer several churches in the past, and I love to encourage these vital ministries and hopefully help them grow."
2009 also saw Michael make his first church tour of the UK, helped by the airplay he'd received for "Here I Stand", featured on the New Christian Music various artists CD circulated to radio stations. Michael went into the UK trip with his eyes open, realising Britain was more a mission field than a marketplace. He commented, "I went to the guys in my band and I said, 'I'd like to do this, let's pray that God will supply the money for us to go'. So he did, and we bought the tickets and came and we ended up having 16 concerts on that trip. I just emailed like a madman any church in the UK, 'Hey I'm going to be over there, do you want me to come by for a while for a place to stay?' So it was great, we had a great time. Our first trip here was amazing."
After his Ron Davis-produced projects Michael recorded his next album 'Livin' In A Gray World' with a top Nashville producer, David Garcia (Mandisa, Kutless). Top line producers don't come cheap. How did Michael afford the Garcia sessions? He responded, "Back to the pest control business. You know there is a reason God put me in that industry, because he blessed it and it grew and it is basically able to fund my music ministry."
Michael is very aware of the seismic changes that have occurred in the music industry in recent times, and most of them he's glad about. He commented, "When you have a hundred thousand listens on your You Tube site you get people's attention, I mean it just has to. So I found that with my songs as I began to release them that more and more Billboard reporting stations were starting to pick them up. For decades it was radio, radio, radio. If it didn't get radio, it didn't sell any records, but now that's changing, which is good. I have sold almost 20,000 CDs now out of the trunk of my car. So I am going around churches just playing. It's exciting to see them all getting out there. I know that a lot of the record labels consider a number like that a success now. I did have an offer from Word for some distribution but they wanted too much so I didn't take it. I just decided to stay independent and do my own thing and so that's by choice. Because I want to tour about 80 to 100 concerts a year and I want to plan my own schedule and book myself tight so I can get back to my six kids as fast as I can."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.