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Singer gives voice to the stories of thousands

By Steve Almasy, CNN
Christian music singer Matthew West spent two months in an isolated cabin, writing songs based on stories sent in by his fans.
Christian music singer Matthew West spent two months in an isolated cabin, writing songs based on stories sent in by his fans.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More than 10,000 fans submitted their stories when Christian music singer asked
  • Matthew West wrote CD based on the stories, which deal with topics such as abuse, divorce
  • West says central message of album is that God provides hope to everyone
  • "The Story of Your Life" debuted at No. 16 on iTunes most downloaded albums chart

Franklin, Tennessee (CNN) -- Connor was understandably nervous the night before his first day of high school.

Like most kids, there was the fear of starting at a new school, but Connor isn't like most kids. He has a learning disability, and life at his middle school had been hard. His mother, Michelle Caple, watched as he struggled each day. She tried to comfort him, letting him know that he wasn't stupid, that he was special.

If only the kids at school felt that way.

On this August night before starting a new season of his life, Connor sent a text message to his new buddy Matthew West.

What he needed was assurance that everything was going to be OK.

What he needed was hope.

West texted back, saying he'd be praying for Connor.

Chances are West, a 33-year-old Christian music singer who lives in Tennessee, would never have met 15 year-old Connor, who is growing up in Michigan, if not for West's unique musical project.

West has written 11 songs based on some of the stories sent in by his fans. The result is the aptly named "The Story of Your Life," which released last week and rose to No. 16 on the iTunes most downloaded album chart.

West's album, which tackles subjects such as sexual abuse, life with cancer, dealing with abortion, is filled with the hope. He also wrote about bullying in school, based on a letter Connor's mom sent in.

"I could just see hope at work, in different stages of these stories," he said recently at a restaurant in his adopted hometown of Franklin. "There were people waiting for their breakthrough, waiting for their miracle.

"And there were people who were standing on the other side looking back on a time when they made it through and talking about how God was faithful to them in their lives."

Video: 'My Own Little World'

From depressing to uplifting

At one time, having read through many of the stories, West was terrified it was going to be the most depressing record anyone had ever done. He looks at the result of the past eight months and thinks this is the "most uplifting record I have ever made."

West will assure you that he wasn't out of his own song ideas. Far from it. He's still been writing plenty of songs about his own life. But this is a man who told listeners on his previous album, his third, that it wasn't just the famous singer or the TV newscaster that should be listened to. Their voices were important. too.

"As I began thinking about a new record I kept thinking, I just told them they have something to say. What if I actually let them do it?" he said.

So off he went with an idea to venture into the unknown. He had no idea how many people would send in their stories, no idea what they would write about, no idea how it would be to work on his own.

West, who co-writes a lot of his songs and songs for others, knew he was being trusted with something deeply personal. He felt the need to isolate himself and immerse himself in these stories.

He asked his manager and brother, Joel West, to find a cabin. It needed to be secluded, and he'd need it for a month. It needed to be close to Franklin, so he could come home for dinner with his family each night. And he needed it soon.

Joel said he went to the internet. Despite his pessimism, he found just the right place 45 minutes away. One cabin was available. He booked a month.

Matthew and Joel hatched their plan in June 2009. The concept was great. It was "what you were made for" Joel told his brother, but they needed to do it right. Joel spent months planning not just an album, but a video component and a possible devotional book.

He worked out the details with lawyers and told only a few people what they were doing. After all, in theory asking fans to contribute to the songwriting process sounds like a fun contest, not an album concept.

"All I knew is what I felt, what I knew Matthew felt. We knew this was not a contest, this was not a gimmick, this was life," Joel said by phone.

The brothers stuck to their vision, and on a Friday afternoon in February, Joel punched the button and Matthew announced to his world what he wanted people to do. Tell me about a moment or time in your life, he wrote. It can be happy or sad, but tell me what has had a profound affect on you.

All I knew is what I felt, what I knew Matthew felt. We knew this was not a contest, this was not a gimmick, this was life.
--Joel West, brother and manager of Matthew West
RELATED TOPICS
  • Christianity
  • Music
  • Child Abuse

The letters pour in

The brothers joked about how many stories they would get. Matthew said he figured a few hundred, but told his brother they better get 1,000 by Monday. They both were stunned when that's exactly what happened.

The letters kept coming as radio stations promoted the cause. So each morning, Matthew would eat breakfast with his wife and two little girls then go off to the cabin to read the stacks and stacks and stacks of mail until it was time to come home for supper. But after he put the kids to bed, he'd head back to the cabin and stay until the middle of night.

"I'd get calls at 1 in the morning and it'd be him out at the cabin and he'd be like, 'Listen to this story and listen to this song I just wrote,' " Joel West said.

One month became two. There were 10,000 stories now.

They weren't easy to read. A quarter of the letters were sent in by women who wrote of the sexual abuse in their pasts, Matthew said. He sat in the window of the cabin those first days, getting increasingly angrier -- angry at the people who commit these horrible acts and a little angry at himself for being unaware about the scope of the problem. But he knew he couldn't turn away any longer.

"When I was reading those stories, I was like deathly afraid, because I thought, 'What have I just done?' I thought if I was going to be true and deliver what I promised to deliver and write about what was said to me, that means I can't I can ignore this topic," he said.

His moment of awareness hit him hard. After all, the one common thread among the people who sent in their stories was they were Christian music fans, the people he would see at his concerts or in church on Sundays. They were good people, and yet they were sharing -- more often than not -- stories about the bad things in their lives.

During the time he was reading letters and writing songs, Matthew was also touring with his band. One night, he shared the song he had written for the victims of abuse with his band. He called it "Broken Girl."

They insisted he play it that night. He was unsure of whether it was the right time to unveil such a song. He played it anyway.

The next day at the cabin, his brother brought him another pile of letters. In it was a note from a man who told Matthew that he had already written the story of his life. The man wrote that he had abused his own daughter, had spent time in prison, had become a Christian and was now trying to repair his relationship with his girl. They had attended Matthew's concert in Seattle together.

Matthew said he broke down under the weight of the realization of how his songs would impact his audience.

Warm reception

But is the resulting record any good or is it just a novelty? Deborah Evans Price, who has covered Christian and gospel music for Billboard magazine for more than 16 years, applauded Matthew's work.

"People shared their most personal struggles and challenges, and West has honored their candor with poignant, uplifting songs," she said in an e-mail. "I think when industry awards are handed out in the coming year, this is a deserving project that should reap West the recognition he deserves."

Reviews have been kind too. CCMmagazine.com says: "West's strong melodic touch, transparent lyrics and crystal clear vocal work results in a deeply personal, moving album."

The stories behind the stories

When the song has a single source of inspiration, Matthew has tried to meet the subject of the story.

Matthew lights up when he talks about hanging out with Connor at the Unity Festival in Michigan this summer. His eyes smile even more when he hears that Connor says he is doing well in school and his mother says he seems to be a much more confident young man.

Connor has twice as many Facebook friends now, but more importantly has close buddies on the cross country team.

"He belongs somewhere now," his mother said.

But not all the trepidation is gone. Matthew West shows a text message from Connor sent before he was going to a social gathering. He was nervous, hoping it was going to go well.

And within a few minutes, he got a reply, a message of encouragement from a singer who told him not to worry what everyone else thought.

Just be who you are, the singer told him, the wonderful person God made.

 
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