Several years ago, when Matthew West invited people to share their stories to serve as inspiration for an upcoming album, he had no idea it would be the start of an amazing journey that would forever change his music, ministry and life. Armed with more than 10,000 stories from fans all over the world, the floodgates of inspiration opened and West crafted a landmark album, The Story of Your Life. Suddenly people were given a voice and a chance for their stories to be heard. It started a powerful wave that continues with even greater momentum on West’s new album Into the Light.
“On every level it has been the single most fulfilling thing that I’ve had a chance to be a part of in my career,” West says. “It’s just the added element of emotion that I feel by having a chance to be a part of this person’s story and to share their story with an audience. Something really special is taking place and I’m along for the ride for as long as it needs to go. As long as those stories come in, I think I’m going to keep making these kinds of records.”
Produced by Pete Kipley, Into the Light features 12 compelling songs from Christian music’s most gifted storyteller. A two-time Grammy® nominee, West has released five previous studio albums, populating radio with such hits as “Strong Enough,” “The Motions,” “My Own Little World,” “More,” and “You Are Everything.” One of Nashville’s most highly respected songwriters, West has also had songs he’s penned recorded by Rascal Flatts, Michael W. Smith, Billy Ray Cyrus, Casting Crowns, Diamond Rio and many others. “The Heart of Christmas,” the title track of West’s 2011 holiday album, inspired a television movie and provided him with his first foray into acting. His 2010 album, The Story of Your Life, burst onto the Christian album chart at No. 3 in its debut week in 2010 and has, to date, outsold West’s previous album by 20 percent. It also spawned a popular book, “The Story of Your Life,” which West penned with noted author Angela Thomas, and a church curriculum DVD series.
In writing the songs for Into the Light, West didn’t have the luxury of clearing his schedule and singularly immersing himself in the stories he’d gathered to work on the album. He was busy touring with Casting Crowns on one of 2011’s most successful tours. “I wrote every song on the road, all over the country. My songwriting retreat was the back lounge of the bus, the dressing room at the arena, every town and city that I traveled in,” West states. “I was writing all day and then I would hop on stage and sing in front of these audiences and get a good look at the faces of these people. I would tell them. ‘Hey, send your story to me if you want to’ and then I’d hop off the stage and go back to my dressing room and write more songs. It was a lot more challenging just because it was really hard to find that solitude. I was in 43 cities around the country writing songs all along the way. It was special in its own way.”
As West talks about the songs on Into the Light, his voice teems with energy and excitement as he shares the stories that informed the music. “There’s something that feels important when I sit down with the responsibility of somebody’s life story in front of me and I’m going to put that to music in some way,” he says. “It’s not important like, ‘Look at this awesome thing that I’m doing,’ but it feels important because this person has trusted me with their story and my responsibility is to them.”
It’s a responsibility West takes very seriously as evidenced by the powerful first single, “Forgiveness.” The song was inspired by Renee Napier whose 20-year-old daughter, Megan, was killed by a drunk driver over Mother’s Day weekend 2001. The driver, Eric Smallridge, was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Not only did Renee forgive Eric, she also petitioned the court to let him out of prison early. He’ll be released this fall, after serving 11 years, and will join her at speaking engagements warning young people about the dangers of drinking and driving and sharing about the power of forgiveness.
“This woman’s act of forgiveness continues to be felt by everybody involved,” West says. “Eric’s life has been changed because this woman said those words: ‘I forgive you.’ Eric accepted God into his life as a result. I feel like her story and, hopefully, this song can unearth some life defining questions that all revolve around the one word, ‘forgiveness.’ Is there a grudge I’m holding towards someone and it’s time to let go? Is there anyone in my life who I have wronged, and my pride has held me back from asking for forgiveness? And the most important question of all: Has my heart fully embraced the forgiveness offered to me by a God who loves me unconditionally? These are the questions that we all must answer, and in doing so, we discover that forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door to true freedom in our lives.”
“‘Into The Light’ was inspired by a woman named Alice,” he says. “She wrote to me about the night that she escaped an abusive marriage. She had been too scared to leave for a long time and had believed the lies that she was telling herself—that it was better for her family—but then it got to a point where she was afraid for the safety of her two young sons. She said, ‘It was a cold, black, rainy night when myself and my two sons snuck out and escaped from our house. We ended up at a safe house shelter.’ The next morning when they woke up, the sun was shining, the rain had stopped and for the first time they felt safe.”
The resulting song is a vibrant pop anthem that exudes hope and celebrates the triumph of the human spirit and God’s mercy. West has a gift for not only sharing the poignant stories he’s been given in brilliant, life-affirming lyrics, he also wraps those stories in engaging melodies that underscore the emotion in the words. “Hello My Name Is” boasts a catchy melody that immediately draws the listeners into the song where they are hit with a powerful truth that reminds them they are the “child of the one true king.”
“The Power of Prayer” is a moving story song inspired by a 13-year-old California boy. “His mom and dad were fighting constantly and he didn’t have a good relationship with his dad,” West says, recalling how the young boy wrote his prayer for his father on a special wall at his church. “A couple months later the minister visited their home and his dad prayed and asked Jesus to come into his heart. The boy said, ‘Now we read the Bible together and I love my dad. He and I are really close and my parents don’t fight like they used to.’ I thought, ‘what a sweet, sweet story!
“Sometimes a lot of us wonder if our prayers just bounce off the ceiling. Maybe we don’t see the answers we want or we don’t see them fast enough. I just thought that was just a defining thing in that kid’s life to see, ‘Hey, I prayed for my dad and life got better and God answered my prayer.’ I just thought that was just a neat illustration for everybody else that’s maybe holding out and wondering when their prayers are going to be answered.”
“Moved by Mercy” is a powerful song about a girl who found a safe haven at Mercy Ministries in Nashville. The song features a special guest vocal by Caitlin Evanson, a touring musician who shares the stage with many mainstream artists. “I just wanted to find an amazing voice to bring life to that girl’s story, and I’d never really written a song like that on one of my records,” West says. I’ve written duets, but it’s a duet where the girl just takes over in the chorus. It was really an experiment creatively for me, but Caitlin sang the fire out of that song. It’s a goose-bump moment for me when I hear her sing on the record.”
“Do Something” was inspired by 20-year-old college student who is changing the world. “She went to Uganda for a semester to study and she found an orphanage where children were being neglected and abused,” West explains. “She single-handedly got the Ugandan government to shut down the orphanage and they handed over 40 kids to her. She started her own orphanage in Uganda and that’s what the song ‘Do Something’ is about. She said, ‘I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no clue I just knew I had to do something.’”
As he’s collected more than 20,000 stories now and turned many of them into songs of hope and inspiration, West has decided to take the entire endeavor a step further. He’s started a nonprofit organization called Population We. “My dad’s been a minister for 38 years and a counselor. He’s just loved on people in the Chicago area his whole life,” says West. “He’s joining Population We as our full time counselor. He’s going to be able to help us follow up and follow through with the stories that come across our paths that need help. We’re going to be able to plug them into the counseling that they need or addiction recovery program that they need to go to or the safe house that they need to find. We’re going to be building this network of resources to help become a conduit and to connect these hurting people to the help they need so that they can begin to heal. It’s changing everything about what I’m doing, not just the way I write music, but how we’re going to go about caring for this community of people that are connected.”
For those brave enough to share their stories with Matthew West, he’s given them a voice to be heard and is using their stories as a vehicle to improve the lives of others. “The title track really exemplifies what everyone who took time to share their story has done,” West says. “ ‘Into the Light’ is about that new beginning and really it just felt like the very fitting metaphor for what all of these storytellers are doing. They are bringing their story into the light and they are doing so in hopes that somebody else that might be going through the same thing can find the courage to step into the light like they have. That’s exactly what Alice said, ‘I’m writing my story not because it’s easy to tell, but I think there’s a lot of other people out there who are going through the same thing and need to know that there’s help that they can find and that their life can be better.’
“So that’s what Into the Light is about. It’s about bringing these stories into the light and realizing how contagious it can be. When people hear Into the Light, they are going to realize that maybe they aren’t the only one struggling, and I hope they’ll find the courage to discover the freedom that’s promised when we step into the light.”