Steven Curtis Chapman: An audience with Steven

Tuesday 1st October 1996

The new, "Edgier" blues-tinged album by American CCM phenomenon Steven Curtis Chapman is being tipped to be his biggest yet. Phil Crawley reports.

Steven Curtis Chapman
Steven Curtis Chapman

Admiral Cummings has a nerve -'phoning on Tuesday night asking if I'll do an interview with one of Christendom's finest in less than 48 hours. Still, he probably expects others to work as hard as he does!

My first port of call was the Internet - using "Curtis Chapman" as my search data I uncovered slightly more than 53,000 documents. So, suitably equipped with information and Walkman I set off for Methodist Central Hall in London for a tea-time press conference preceding Steven's first England performance pre-Greenbelt. There I found a TV crew, two radio interviewers and the anxious guy from Alliance Music. The following is based on the question and answer session we had with Steven Curtis Chapman.

Phil: You've said that CS Lewis has been a great inspiration in the writing of your new album.
Steven: "Mere Christianity was a book that had a real impact on my life as I was writing the album and thinking about ideas that I would talk about. I find that a lot of my music is inspired by authors that I'm reading at the time. I'm ashamed to say that it's taken me so long to discover the book. I'd heard about it all of my life, I think I'd read a few pages over the years, but I finally took the time and was just amazed by the insight and humility of a man with such wisdom and insight. It really had a profound effect on me and I hope to communicate through this album what I believe CS Lewis had such a handle on, that is living out our faith as Christians in a way that's relevant to our culture and really having an impact on the world that we're living in, not escaping to a sub-culture where we're just comfortable with people who speak the same language as us, but really saying that this should have such an impact on our lives that it will affect everything. We shouldn't draw these distinctions between the sacred and the secular; rather our relationship with God should be having an effect in every area. These were the ideas that went towards writing this album, 'Signs Of Life', trying to live in such a way that my faith is evident to my wife, my kids, the guy I'm buying groceries from, the people I come into contact with when my kids are playing little league baseball. I'm asking the question, 'Are these signs of life evident in my life?'. The writings of CS Lewis had such an impact on me asking some of those questions of myself."

Phil: You took quite some time off while recording the album to spend time with your family.
Steven: "Most of my ideas, if they don't come from other people's books and writing come from my family and my experience with them. I can recount numerous stories of song ideas I've got while playing with my kids in the yard, living a normal life, being a dad, being a husband, the things I regard as being my greatest callings. These things are the ways I honour God, loving and caring for my family and as I find I make time and make this commitment over the many wonderful opportunities that my professional life affords. I've heard it said that it isn't the quantity of time, rather the quality of time that counts. I've found that the only way to capture those unexpected quality moments is to make a whole lot of quantity available to my family. Those moments happen and you don't know when it will be, and so I'm really trying to learn how to make those times count. There's a line in the track 'Signs Of Life' that talks about crayons rolling around on the floor of the car, bicycles all over the driveway and balls in my yard, but these are signs of life."

Phil: In previous albums you've spoken about discipleship and your involvement in the real world, but with your jet set, hotel room lifestyle, do you really relate to the common man?
Steven: "I try and involve myself in a lot of real life things. My kids have been one of the greatest connecting points for me and the real world. It's been through things like coaching my little guy's soccer team. I know nothing about soccer, I just tell them to kick it in the direction of the opposition's goal! It puts me in contact and gets me into relationship with people who otherwise I'd never have contact with. My family and I make it a point to go to Wednesday night church supper and just eating with the other folks from my church, people who are not at all involved in the music business. It takes a very definite effort on our part because when you're in a career or vocation that has a tendency to single you out you find it a lot easier to hang around with people you identify with what you go through and you don't have to deal with a load of questions. However, one of the greatest contact points for me is with what is unfortunately becoming the real world that we live in has been my work with Prison Fellowship. Two years ago I began going into prisons and having services there with the inmates and Charles Colson who founded the organisation and that has been the most tremendous way for me to recognise what the real world is like, and every time I walk out of the doors of a prison my life is changed again."

Phil: What things drag you down?
Steven: "I've been reading a book by Brennan Manning that talks a lot about the impostors that try and convince us of the importance of things that aren't very important. Things like, 'What do people think of me?', and as a performer I certainly struggle with wanting people to like me and what I'm doing. While I'm waiting for the album to be released it is taking everything I have not to go and read every review. I can take 40 great reviews, but that bad one destroys me. That's one of the things I'm wrestling with and I recognise that by God's grace I'll overcome. Mother Theresa recounts how Francis of Assisi said that God has not called us to success, but to faithfulness. I need to get to that place to say, 'I've been faithful with this,' regardless of whether this equates to what the music industry or even what the Christian culture wants. I know I've been faithful to God in loving my family and taking care of the things he's put before me. Those are the real struggles and challenges I find myself facing."

Phil: What do you think you would have been if you hadn't become a Christian music performer?
Steven: "Well, I started a pre-med major in college and I was thinking that I'd become a dentist or something. I had aspirations to become something in the medical world. Not that I had any real love or desire for that, rather it was the kind of thing that my family were into. It sounded like a good plan so I headed for it. I'm very thankful, as I think any of my prospective patients should be, that I ended up in music! I'm not very good at maths or science, and you kind of need to be if you're going to be in that profession. I really believe now, looking back, that the things that make me tick make me think that I'd be involved in ministry. That little voice tells me that I've got that desire to get involved in mission work. There will be a season in my life where my family and I will get more involved with that. So, I'm sure I'd have been involved somewhere in the ministry."

Phil: Tell us something about other songs on the album.
Steven: "For six or eight months I was really struggling with the record as to whether it was the right time to be doing it. However, the turning point came with a song called 'Lord Of The Dance' which I co-wrote with my pastor Scotty Smith (we're also working on a book together, which should be out in a few months). He is a wonderful, Godly man and he and I had time to talk about all the things that were churning in my heart, but one of the things that came out of it was that of all of the time consuming activities we all get up to - the dance of life - have a deeper purpose. There is a reason for every step we take, God orders those steps and we will find the meaning and purpose of this dance we call life if we experience a relationship with the Lord of the dance."

Phil: Your music reaches a lot of the Christian community; do you have any inclination to reach out to non-Christians?
Steven: "Yeah, probably with the last two albums there has been more of a push to get my music into the mainstream. I've received numerous stories about how people have been touched. One of the best is of a gentleman who was going through a divorce and when going to buy some CDs he bought a Garth Brooks disc. By some mistake probably due to the fact that the same parent company owns both labels, he took home a CD with my music on it, but labelled as Garth Brooks! He'd never been interested in Christian music, and certainly would never have gone out to buy a Steven Curtis Chapman recording. He wrote into a country and western music magazine and said that although he was grateful that the record company had sent him a replacement Garth Brooks CD he was still listening to my stuff because at a low point in his life it spoke to him and he felt it had given him some direction. Now I have many other stories about people who've heard the music and really said that they really connect with it."

Phil: You've said that in making the new album you had a great deal of liberty in what you did. Is there ever a conflict between what the record company wants and your vision of your ministry?
Steven: "I have been very fortunate, and this isn't a pat answer with me being the company man for the record company. I have been fortunate, and the more I hear other artists talk about their relationship with their record labels I know that this isn't always the case, but at no time have I ever felt that they've pushed me in a direction other than that which I feel I've been called to. I think what the comment originally related to was the style, musically, of this album. The liberty really was to be able to experiment, to go into the studio and try out things. I've played a lot more of the guitar part on this record; I sang all of the background vocals. In the past there has always been a 'checking in' process with the record company concerning the songs, their arrangements and recordings. Invariably it has been more of a weeding out process with them reducing the 40 or so ideas to 12 songs. But this time it was like they were saying stylistically I could do whatever I wanted. Make the record in New York with musicians you've never worked with before, make it here in Nashville, whatever, we support you. It was a very freeing, exciting way to make a record."

Phil: How do you handle the fame (28 Dove awards!) how do you stay humble?
Steven: "My response to that is changing. I don't want to sound overly spiritual or just bring religious words in. I was raised in a very musical family, but my brother was the singer, I just accompanied him on the guitar. Even when I started recording I wasn't sure I had what it took, and even when the awards started coming I can remember driving home from award ceremonies with my wife and being really worried that they were going to find me out! I thought perhaps they'd come and take them away and say, 'Okay, we've heard you live and now we know that you're not really what we thought you were." I had an impending sense of being found out. It is a gift that God has given me, something I've worked diligently at with time and energy, and so, for somebody to come and give you an award for a gift you've been given is something of a paradox. It's something to wrestle with. Don't start thinking that you're any better than anyone else! Before a performance once I heard someone pray, 'God, keep us mindful that the voice is no more important than the ears that hear it.' In God's economy the people hearing the music are just as important. We may be the ones who are applauded at the end of the night, but you just have to make sure that the glory goes to the one who deserves it. But, I say that my response to this question is changing. The Brennan Manning book I mentioned earlier has highlighted areas of my heart that are hidden that get revealed, maybe by a bad review or something. It rises up and I'm sure I don't always deal with it in the way God would want me to. However, I have a lot of people around me, friends and family who tell me to check myself, how big is your head, how big is your heart?"

Phil: What are you listening to at the moment?
Steven: "I've been listening to DC Talk's current album ('Jesus Freak') - it probably had something to do with the fact that my kids are hooked on it! My five and six year old boys listen to that and Audio Adrenaline. I really appreciate some of these new artists -1 feel like that old man here - who are so blatant and clear with the message, they are so clear with what they're doing. It is really world-class innovative music. I'm really excited about Jars Of Clay - what those guys are doing and I love West King and I pull that one out every now and then and check in with him. I've also just discovered Mark Knofler's new album, boy, it's phenomenal and so I've been wearing that out recently."

At that point the guy from Alliance wound it up, but Steven stayed around for a while signing the freebie copies of the new album and chatting. I was struck by what a really nice guy he is and so I left this, my first Cross Rhythms assignment, clutching said freebie CD (it is excellent!) and feeling encouraged for the state of Christian music.

And that evening.

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