In a wide ranging interview, Mike Rimmer spoke to MICHAEL W SMITH about worship, being a pop icon, George Bush, Bono and much more.
Michael W Smith is currently in the studio working on what will be his 19th album. His story is well told but let me give you a quick synopsis. Leaving his home town to move to Nashville (penning "Friends" as his goodbye song) he eventually fell on his feet, joining Amy Grant's live band. Smith slowly built a CCM career in the '80s, attempting cross over but not hitting big pop success until the single "Place In This World" caught the imagination of American soldiers thrust into the original Gulf War conflict in Kuwait. Ironically, these days he's known for his close friendship with the man who sent American troops back to Iraq although this time Smith's music isn't the accompanying soundtrack. That friendship with George Jr has also led to some other interesting liaisons including a budding friendship with Bono, but more of that later.
Once voted one of the world's best looking men in a popular American magazine, his pop career slowly faded and he concentrated his time on the CCM scene. Having sold millions of albums throughout his career, there wasn't much that Smith couldn't do including an instrumental album, 'Freedom', and more recently a couple of worship albums - 'Worship' and the imaginatively titled 'Worship Again' live CDs.
Later in the interview he will confess that these two albums were the easiest of his whole career to record. But for now, he and his family are in Europe travelling by chartered jet between countries and taking in Belfast and London on his itinerary. These are his first UK shows in positively ages and he's very pleased to be here, bouncing onto the stage at the Hammersmith Apollo and greeting the crowd with "Hello London!" to great applause. Backstage before the gig, Michael is on a tight time schedule and we privileged few media get a brief time with the man before his minders move him on. Conversation begins with the current worship album where he reports, "The worship records are the easiest records I've ever made because I've been a worship leader for 20 years. Musically I've been a pop guy. I grew up on Elton John and The Beatles and I've always wanted to share my faith through pop music. This was just something I was supposed to do, you know? Kind of 'for such a time as this' and there's just something very powerful that's going on around the world. I think people are just dying to get their hands on something that they can sing, that will help them articulate the way they feel about God. And I truly believe there's a real move of God happening everywhere. I think you combine those elements and I think that's why the 'Worship' records take off and explode. They're the biggest records of my career and I never would have guessed it at all. It's just an honour for me because it's something that I'm called to do. I feel very relaxed and it's not a misfit. I feel very comfortable doing it."
The lack of worship songs on Smith's first 14 albums leads me to wonder whether Smith is simply jumping on the worship bandwaggon. Why haven't more worship songs appeared on earlier albums if he's always been passionate about worship? He responds, "You know what? I'm really not sure. I've always written worship songs, they've just never appeared on my pop records. They didn't seem to really fit. I remember when I did 'Agnus Dei' on the 'Go West Young Man' record, it was hard to make that fit, but we did. As for jumping on the bandwagon, I decided that I would not do a worship record. I wasn't going to do it because that's what I was afraid people would think. Then I went back and forth and I said, 'I'm not doing it. I'm just not going to do it!' And that was the wrong thing because it was the fear of man and what people would think. It was one of the very few times that I felt God woke me up in the middle of the night and said, 'For such a time as this. This is who you are. This is what I've called you to do!' So at that point I had to say, 'Yes.'"
Listening to the live worship albums, their formula is simple. A huge band of musicians and a massive crowd of worshippers who are ready to worship along with these familiar songs. Listening to the albums, it sounds like it really is the easiest album to record, just capture the crowd singing along with Smith. I wonder whether there's a difference these days between leading people singing songs and actually leading worship. Where does Smith see himself? He responds, "I feel that I best articulate and communicate through my fingers. I feel like I pastor when I play the piano. Even my instrumental record is a very worshipful record. Everything I do is unto him. I always want to be careful that when we hear worship, it's not just what happens on Sunday morning in a worship service. Worship is a lifestyle. So that's where I want to educate people who sing along and say, 'Yeah, this is great!' All the 'up' is great but we have to go out too, which is an act of worship."
When it comes to his own style, he says, "I think it's different for everybody, everybody's got to work out their own salvation. I hate it when you get into 'styles' and this and that. My prayer every night is, 'God, I want to be the perfect conduit. I just want to be the perfect vessel and I want to stay out of the way. So you come and you do your thing and if I need to say anything then Lord you say it!' We have a song list but boy that's about it and I let it flow from there." I wonder out loud whether Smith finds it difficult because on one level, he is still a pop star. Surely all of that baggage only gets in the way when it comes to worship. He responds, "For me I think I can turn the corner. I think it's probably harder for the audience. They want to hear 'Place In This World', they want to hear 'Friends' and they're gonna hear it, but I feel like I've found a way to turn the corner. I'm real comfortable with it. A lot of it I think is, 'What's my persona? How do I behave on stage? How do I even move and project and engage people?' That's 90 per cent of it to me, it's almost more important than what you have to say or sing. I know that my real desire is to be a man that walks in humility. That's really my heart's desire so I'm past the whole 'pop star' thing. I couldn't care less. So I think I've diffused that actually, at least I hope I do, I've been told that I do. I don't get too many of the screams anymore. I always pray for humility and that I wouldn't get an ego. I do think it's hard from where I have been because I have had pop success. I've had big mainstream success in the pop realm and in Christian music and the, 'Oh gosh, he's a worship leader but he's a pop guy!' I can't help it, I just happen to be both and I just happened to score my first movie too, so there's that other part of me. So there's a lot of facets of who I am musically but the worship thing is the most comfortable because it just comes with ease actually."
Aside from his worship releases, Smith has recently added his vocals to a song on the new Sandtown album. The Baltimore children's choir have chosen to record a version of U2's "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" and Smith contributes the lead vocal. Flashback to a Monday in December 2002 and in Nashville, Bono is making a flying visit to raise awareness of the work of DATA, the initiative to bring relief to those suffering as a result of the AIDS crisis in Africa. Michael W Smith is one of a select gathering of Christian artists who meet the U2 singer. He shares about the crisis, the group of artists pray together and then Bono picks up a guitar and leads them in worship singing "We Are One In The Spirit". Afterwards Smith and Bono spend some time together and sow the seeds of a friendship and discuss their mutual friend George W Bush. The Smith family spent last Christmas with the President. "I know that a lot of people in the UK probably have a problem with the President", he confesses, "but Bono's beginning to see this real soft side. I know the soft side to the President. I know for a fact that he has a real heart for God. I know for a fact that he cries easily because he has a heart of compassion. A lot of times you look in the press, you look on the TV and you just look at this guy who looks like a big cowboy. He's more than a cowboy. He's really not as arrogant as you think he is. He's got a really good heart."
Whilst Bono spent some of the early '90s phoning Bush Sr every night from the concert stage to challenge his political decisions, these days politically Bono has taken a different approach. He has worked very hard to try and influence the American President to step into the AIDS crisis in Africa. In making friends with Smith has he exploited Michael's close friendship with Bush? Smith laughs, "Tough question! I mean there could have been some of that but you know what? After my discussion with him I did not ever feel like that that was really the intent of his heart. I think he already had an audience with the President, we obviously know that BUT I don't think it was just because of my relationship with the President but probably my stature.and I say that with humility!.of what I represent in the Christian industry. I think the biggest thing was that he really felt that I could help with these artists to wake up the Church to what's going on in Africa. I think that was a pure motive to do that. In the meantime, we've struck up a friendship."
That friendship led to the pair spending some more time together when Smith flew to Ireland for the Belfast concert. He explains, "I gave him a ring and said, 'I know you're busy but I'm coming to Ireland and I thought you might not be very happy with me if I came to your country and didn't tell you.' So he invited us to lunch. I had my wife and my kids and so we all went. So it was wonderful, we had a great time."
Smith has dealt with the challenges of the AIDS crisis in his own way. "I talked to the President about it. It doesn't get much better than that does it?! Just that I believed in it and I was in for the cause and I believed in DATA and what Bono was doing. Then Bono did a video for us talking about the situation and I don't know how many times I showed it.10 times maybe?.at festivals last summer for thousands of people. It was a bit of a risk for me but I really believed I was supposed to do it and right in the middle of my show I'm going, 'I got something I think you all need to see. Would you please welcome Bono!' and ole Bono would come up on these huge screens and it was powerful! Than after that we went into '40' by U2. It's pretty cool!"
It may be a bit of a risk for Smith to line up with Bono since the American evangelical community are still suspicious about the Irish singer's faith. Franklin Graham once quizzed Bono on whether he'd truly been born again and was satisfied with the answer. Smith reflects on the friendship saying, "Bono and I have a lot in common so it's real interesting getting to spend some time with him and getting to know each other. I think it's a God thing ultimately, I really do. I think I'm in his life for a reason and vice versa."
Meanwhile Smith's life moves on. It's been 10 years since he released the compilation 'The First Decade' so 'The Second Decade' is scheduled for release in November. Reflecting on the last 10 years he says, "Hopefully I've gotten wiser! I'm less concerned about record sales and less concerned with whether I'm on top or not because that's not where the peace is at and everybody wants peace. My personality and who I am as a person is not wrapped up in who I am as an artist. I think my priorities are probably better in place today than they ever have been and I think that's important."
After the release of the last decade retrospective, Smith's new album will be a pop effort. When pushed he admits, "The tentative title to the record is 'Fly To The Moon' but in this business it changes from week to week. I'm actually really, really excited about it. I've recorded at Skywalker Ranch, which is George Lucas' place in the north of San Francisco. I'm a Star Wars nut anyway so it was like 'I'M AT GEORGE LUCAS' RANCH!'. and the studio is fabulous. It's a great environment creativitywise. I think, in terms of the pop stuff, it's the best stuff I've done." He dismisses the possibility of a duet with Bono saying, "Bono's too busy!" And then the tour manager whisks him away from me, off to meet some competition winners in a meet and greet before the show starts.
He's a busy boy that Michael W Smith!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.