One recent morning our Editorial Director Doug Doppler and myself jumped on a phone conversation with one of our favorite songwriter/musicians Matt Maher and did a tag team interview with him. The following is what transpired…
[WM] You are an evangelist, and music is a great tool for evangelism. You are obviously very attuned to the idea that part of what you want to do with a song is to draw a person in, even if it’s the first Sunday that they’ve been to church. Tell us what evangelism in music means to you.
[Matt Maher] Music is a great gift from God that opens the soul to new horizons. It presents possibilities in the human heart for revelation to happen. Out of all the art forms, music is the one that is the most accessible. There is something about it… there’s probably science behind it about the physics of sound waves but music that is beautiful is not just a subjective thing, but it is objectively beautiful as well. Objectively beautiful music corresponds to what the sound waves actually look like. When you hear a boy’s choir singing in a cathedral and everyone is in tune and the place is acoustically well designed, it creates an overtone series that looks beautiful, and that is objectively good.
Music tends to reveal things that are good, true, and beautiful. Then the possibility arises to be able to engage with someone about an idea that may or may not be related to what you’re singing about. Music becomes a way to illustrate a point using words and melodies in a way that speaking alone can’t do.
Personally, I wrestle with the idea of music being a tool of anything, in the sense that I wonder about using it when it comes to evangelism, which I think is one of the primary (if not the primary) mission of the church. I believe evangelism is God’s work, primarily, not the church’s. What I mean by that is that the Holy Spirit is the one that ultimately makes connections with the human heart and does the hard work of transformation, not us. When you realize that there is less pressure for music to become a tool that produces changeable results.
One of the things I wonder about when it comes to music in church, is if we are measuring the success of a song by how much it moves people. Sometimes that is a valid criticism, but it is very subjective. Some churches you go to, like a Lutheran church with a large Norwegian congregation. . . they just don’t raise their hands. Yet you talk with people afterwards and they express how moving the song was and they thank you for playing the song. It created an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to do something powerful.
What I’ve tried to do more and more in my songwriting, when it comes to congregational music, it to write music that people can sing together and that creates an environment where God can do transformative work.
I do still see what I do as carrying the banner of Jesus, without a shadow of a doubt. I believe He is the hope of the world. But I’m not doing it in a way of subversively trying to hypnotize people into a place where they will say “yes” to Jesus, because I don’t think that’s what needs to happen. I think music opens up people’s hearts, minds, and souls in a way that nothing else can. It points them upwards. So, I struggle sometimes with the idea of music being used as a tool.
One of the things we struggle with now is music just having value in our culture, period. Technology and innovation seem to be almost celebrated more than the music that is made. With streaming technology, people are listening to music more than ever before, but at the same time artists are struggling to make ends meet more than ever before. It’s a very interesting age.
My heart and my hope is that music will continue to be made that helps the church sing. I believe that singing is a big part of what we are supposed to do on Sunday mornings. I think that singing is different than watching or listening. Those things are valid too, but I think singing is a big part of what we’re supposed to do, so I am very conscious of trying to write songs that people can sing together.
[WM] We often describe congregational worship music as being “vertical” music, in that it is intended to be sung upwards to God. How do you describe your songs that aren’t written as “worship” songs, or as “vertical” songs, but are intended to be heard and taken in by the listener?
[Matt] To use a “Christian” term, you could say that there are congregational songs and there are devotional songs. More and more I’m trying to just see it as music. Even the whole conversation around “sacred” music versus “secular” music… “Sacred” music is a very specific reference to a very specific style of music that was written in the 16th century using polyphony and chant. It’s a historical reference, not a genre reference. “Christian music”, in a way, is a lyrical reference, not a genre. So, worship music is not a genre, it’s a lyrical classification. Someone first called it “Modern Worship Music” because it was a good marketing slogan, and nobody was really thinking about the implications of what that would mean. I tend to think of it all as just music. I got a degree in Jazz Performance, but I wouldn’t consider myself a Jazz musician.
I love music, and I love great music, and I think that a fair amount of what I write is congregational church music that people sing on Sunday mornings. Occasionally I will write a song that is still coming from my faith, but isn’t specifically meant for Sunday mornings.
There are a bunch of songs that I wrote for this record that didn’t get recorded. I actually wanted to be more diverse on this album, but when my dad died it brought everything into focus in a way that helped me to focus what I was trying to say in this season with this record. It’s a collection of songs that tries to help people give voice to dealing with suffering. That’s the point of this record.
[Matt] There’s a song called “Faithfulness” that says, “There are memories that seize my heart, but they will never steal or tear a love apart.” There are things that happen in life, and bells that you can’t un-ring. Things happen, and you’re forgiven, and grace covers and transforms, but sometimes memories are still there and they can come back to the forefront. Even with my dad passing away, the weirdest things will set off a memory. It’s not the big things, it’s the little things. It’s in those moments that there is a temptation to lose sight of the love of God and give in to despair, fear, and doubt. But to be able to sing “Great Is Your Faithfulness” over that is really powerful.
A lot of the songs on this record were inadvertently inspired by different hymns. What’s interesting is that many of those hymns were written by people in seasons of doubt. Like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” was written by Thomas Obadiah Chisholm, who was an insurance salesman. He wanted to be an evangelist, and he tried it when he was 36, but he had terrible health and he ended up retiring from ministry after one year. He wrote 1200 poems while holding down a desk job as an insurance agent. In the midst of that mundane existence he was writing these poems to Jesus, and one of them was “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”
Judson VanDeVenter, who wrote “I Surrender All,” struggled for a time between going into full-time evangelism or going into art. It was when he surrendered his future to Christ that he wrote the hymn.
Charlotte Elliott wrote “Just As I Am” after being up half the night one night having an existential crisis about her faith. Her spiritual mentor told her that she could write poetry as a way to help her process her emotions, including her doubts. So, while going through a season of crippling doubt where she was questioning everything, she wrote this simple poem to help remember what Jesus had done for her at the cross.
What’s so cool about this record, for me, is that so many of the hymns that these songs are inspired by are hymns that were born out of suffering. In my own life, so much of this record was written just before and then recorded during a time of suffering. In some ways, I feel like God was having me write songs for the season that I was about to go through.
There’s another song on the record called “The Cross Forever Speaks” that is about persecution, from the perspective of someone who is dealing with the weight of the sense of feeling alienated and alone. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4, “We are pressed, but not crushed. Persecuted, not abandoned. Struck down, but not destroyed.” It describes the ability to have the faith to respond to the challenges that we face.
In this day and age, especially for Christians, we ask ourselves how we should respond to the challenges that we face. That’s really my heart behind the record. Even my new single right now, “You’re Love Defends Me”, wasn’t written from a place of confidence or emotional certainty as much as it was a place of meekness, feeling the weight of life, and declaring the faithfulness of God in the midst of that.
[WM] You are one of the forefront evangelists inside the framework of the Catholic Church these days. Oftentimes it’s easy to pigeonhole artists and think of them as belonging to one sect of Christianity or another, and then to vilify those that don’t fit into our theological paradigms. Darlene Zschech recently caught some flak from certain segments of the Christian audience when she sang for the Pope.
What kinds of things would you like to say to people about how we are all worshiping Jesus, and the unifying things that bind us together no matter what segment of Christianity we come from?
[Matt] I think a couple of things need to happen. It’s a good time to reflect on this, since we are at the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation. We can look at the net positives and the net negatives of the events that happen in our life. The Reformation is an event that happened in the life of the church, and there are objectively bad things that came about as a result of it. There were wars that were fought and people were killed. Christians were killing Christians. 8 million people died in Europe. That grieves the heart of God.
There were aspects to how the Catholic church responded to the treatment of Protestants that were terrible. And vice versa. In the history of the United States alone, there has been religious tension since its inception. America was largely founded by Westminster Christians who were fleeing the influence of the King on their way of life. They didn’t trust anybody who wore a crown, so they definitely wouldn’t trust someone like the Pope. Other terrible things have happened, like families that were split apart because of denominational differences.
The first thing that would be great for Christians to stop and think about before this anniversary slips away would be: Does the fact that the church is not unified grieve the heart of God at all?
There has been tremendous missionary activity, and so many people have come to know Jesus, and you can’t argue that this isn’t a good thing. But overall, is the disunity of the Church a net positive? Should we just accept it as something that doesn’t need to change? Or, is part of the reason that Jesus prayed that we would be “one”, in John 17, is because unity is a part of ushering in the Kingdom of God here on earth? Jesus prayed that before He went to the cross, probably because He knew that we wouldn’t be unified. In Christ, there is a relational reconciliation that is possible that isn’t primarily focused on doctrinal reconciliation.
Part of the issue that we’ve faced is that, for too long, humanism has meant really smart people coming together to try to figure out how to reconcile our differences. I think what the Holy Spirit has been doing, especially for the past 10 years, has been to build relationships with people that love and follow Jesus. Yes, we have theological differences and we have different ways of doing things, but the commonality of what we share in Christ is bigger than our differences. I think the notion of a reconciliation that comes about through relationships is beautiful. We are reconciled to God through relationship to Jesus, so why wouldn’t we be reconciled to our brother through relationship with our brother? A part of our reconciliation with God through Christ has to extend to our relationship with each other.
That’s another aspect of this new record. In a way, there are two halves to the record. The first half deals with how the cross reconciles us with God, and the second half dealing with how the cross reconciles us with each other.
I think that, for too long, evangelism has focused on the first and just assumed the second. More than ever, it’s the second that’s under attack. You can’t attack what Jesus has done. You either believe it, or you don’t. But you can’t theologically undermine the cross, because it’s already happened and it forever impacts human history. That’s why I wrote a song that says, “You may silence me, but the cross forever speaks.” It’s an eternal event that stretches out and has implications for all of human history. You can’t change what God has done. But you can ignore the responsibility of what God has done means for what we should be doing with our fellow man.
The last thing I would say, is just to throw out a theological thought for people: We follow Jesus and we want to care about the things that God cares about. God Himself is unified in perfect relationship in the Trinity, and God cares about relationships. Part of being in a relationship with God is that you are not in a personal relationship. It’s a communal relationship, because God Himself is a community of three Persons.
[WM] Your song, “Your Love Defends Me”, has 2 versions on the record. When I first heard the acoustic version, I heard the first 2 chords and immediately thought, “Oh, this is one of those songs.” But it’s interesting that there is an electric version and an acoustic version. As I was listening to the recording, when I got to the acoustic version I immediately thought that it has something very special to it. What was your intent with having both versions on the album? Was it to make it feel more accessible and playable for worship leaders who are sometimes intimidated when trying to reproduce the giant arrangements they hear on some of the modern worship songs? Your acoustic version really struck me as a way that one person with one guitar can still make worship sound huge.
[Matt] For me, what always makes a song most compelling, is a compelling performance. We live in a day and age with Pop music where ninety percent of what you are listening to, and that your attention is drawn towards, is in the vocal. A live version with just piano and vocal, to me, forces you to just listen to the voice and the lyric.
In my thoughts, that song was never going to be a radio single. Originally the arrangement was super vibey and didn’t get big until the very end. It was a song that was much more reflective and inward focused, and there were other songs on the record that I thought were going to be the first single. But we ended up pulling out this one.
I did the vocal for the studio version and was really struggling with my voice that day due to allergies and being in Nashville. I could barely sing, so there’s a frailty to the sound that’s never gone away, and I feel like that’s just how it always needs to be sung now. I’m very glad that it turned out that way. It was a great “accident”. It changed the way I looked at singing the song.
[WM] When you recorded the piano version, were you singing and playing at the same time? That’s a different experience to do that, isn’t it? I know you’re thinking about worship, but how do you take your mind off of the fact that you’re recording it when you’re trying to create this intimate worship moment in the studio?
[Matt] I think it’s one of those Malcom Gladwell quips about 10,000 hours of practice, even though I’m probably only about 5000 hours in, to be honest. It’s about learning to play and sing at the same time and get to the point where the piano playing doesn’t take a lot of my direct attention. It’s like active RAM in a computer versus hardwired stuff. From playing so much piano, there are certain styles of playing now that don’t take up as much active thought, so I can focus more on how I’m singing. I’m not that strong of an instinctive singer. There are some singers for whom it is completely effortless, and the scope and breadth of their voice, and how much control they have over it is remarkable… but I’m not one of those people. I do what I can with what I have.
[WM] Tell us about your partnership with Martin Guitars now.
[Matt] This guitar has been super fun to play live. I wanted something that was a little more like a D16 or a D18, so I worked with Scott Follweiler at the Custom Shop, and they built me this guitar. It has Martin’s new pickup system in it.
[Matt] It’s sounding great! The enhanced system is really cool. It’s basically 3 buttons: volume, tone, and the enhance button. It took a little bit to figure out, because in my older D18 all I had was an LR Baggs with a volume knob, which literally was just plug-and-play. That’s my favorite Martin. It’s in my studio right now and I don’t travel a lot with it currently. So, between this new black smokeburn colored D17 Martin and that D18 Martin, those were the two guitars that I used on my whole new record.
The cool thing about this new D17 is that it’s a Mahogany body, so it’s a more affordable guitar, and it’s light so it travels really well. I love that they put the battery in the bottom end of the guitar because it’s so much easier to change out than having to reach your hand into the soundhole. It’s a really fun guitar at a great price point.
[WM] The last thing I want to say is that I love the Americana that is just woven inside of your music. I’ve seen you perform live many times, and the Americana is all in what you do. Although you don’t sound like him, I would say it’s similar to John Mellencamp. Who are the guys in the Americana camp that have influenced you through their music?
[Matt] When I was growing up it was definitely people like Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. Tom Petty as well, although his thing is more desert rock and has a distinct L.A. vibe to it. In recent years it feels like everybody that Dave Cobb produces is someone that I love. Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, who I think is finally starting to get some of the recognition that he deserves because he is a fantastic lyricist and songwriter. Patty Griffin was huge along the way, along with Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell. I was really inspired by Joni’s life. She put out Blue when she was 36 years old, and that gave me a lot of hope! I worked at a church for 10 years, you know? When I was in my 20’s and in Phoenix, all of my friends were loading up in vans and going to L.A. and playing in bars, and I was doing Youth Retreats. I felt like following Jesus meant that I wasn’t going to get to really play much anymore. I pinch myself now that I get to do what I get to do. In some ways, it’s like God is giving me back something that I laid at His feet.