“Sometimes you’ve just got to shake things up,” Michael W. Smith says with a smile. After selling more than 15 million albums, scoring 28 No. 1 hits, earning three GRAMMYs and more than 40 Dove Awards, no one would blame the Christian music icon if he decided to coast just a little bit, but that’s just not in his nature.
On Sovereign, Smith’s first worship album since 2008 and his first project since signing with Capitol Christian Music Group in 2013, he deliberately steps into a new creative chapter to craft a vibrant collection of vertically focused songs with a fresh sense of musical innovation.
“I feel like it’s a good season,” Smith says, leaning forward in a comfortable chair in the 1940s Tennessee farmhouse he’s converted into a studio. “I’m pretty passionate. I have lots of energy and I’m probably enjoying making music more than I ever have in my entire life. I’m having fun and I’m excited about this record and this next chapter.”
When it came time to write and record songs for his new album, Smith decided to enlist the talents of several young songwriters and producers that he hadn’t collaborated with previously. “I said, ‘I’m wide open and I need somebody to push me,’” Smith recalls. And he found a willing catalyst in Capitol CMG A&R ace Chris York. “Chris said, ‘Why don’t you write with this person? Why don’t we get this producer?’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll get out of my comfort zone and try it’ and it’s been awesome! There’s new blood, new territory, new people. I’m freer. I’m willing to take some risks.”
Among Smith’s new creative cohorts are Seth Moseley and Kyle Lee, who co- wrote the potent anthem “Miracle.” Smith says that song set the benchmark for the new album. “We went through 115 songs and ‘Miracle’ was the one for us that set the bar, and set it pretty high. Then when we were working on ‘Miracle,’ I asked Seth: ‘What do you have on your computer? What are you excited about?’ So he starts playing this track and I take this acoustic guitar off the wall and start playing ‘You Won’t Let Go.’ I wrote the melody on the acoustic guitar. That’s not the way I usually operate, so it’s just like living on the edge a little bit.”
“You Won’t Let Go,” the first single from Sovereign, has quickly become a staple in Smith’s live shows and has given him a triumphant reentry into Christian radio where the song is being enthusiastically embraced. The song’s powerful lyric resonates with believers as Smith sings: “No shadow comes without the light making a way / No raging storm can ever defy one word of faith / My heart remains sure in the wind, Sure in the waves / You are the anchor for my soul You won’t let go / You won’t let go / No matter what may come I know You won’t let go. You won’t let go.”
Smith has always had a gift for delivering songs that capture the hearts of the listener and give voice to their thoughts and feelings. During his three-decade career, the Kenova, West Virginia native has shaped the Christian music landscape with such classic songs as “Friends,” which was named the No. 1 Song of All Time by CCM Magazine and “Healing Rain,” a powerful anthem that remains one of the best-loved songs in his extensive repertoire.
In approaching this new chapter in his career, he had the desire to creatively push himself, and there’s a sense of musical adventure that permeates the songs on Sovereign. Moseley serves as one of the producers on the new album along with Chris Stevens, noted for his work with TobyMac, Carrie Underwood, Sanctus Real and Mandisa, among others. Smith also tapped West Coast-based writer/producer Jeremy Edwardson. “He’s from Redding, CA and has done a lot of the Jesus Culture music,” says Smith. “Also Josh Silverburg ended up producing one song at the very last minute called ‘The One That Really Matters.’ It’s a Dustin Smith song. Dustin is a worship leader from Kansas City who did a record at his church and it’s really good.”
“The One That Really Matters” features a guest vocal by one of Smith’s favorite young singers. “Kari Jobe is amazing. There’s something on her,” he says of the anointing. “I love her posture. You just feel like she’s really all in. You don’t feel like she’s trying to bring any attention to herself. She gets lost in these moments and you can’t help but just go, ‘Wow! I want to be like that. I want to get lost like that.’ She’s a great singer and the way she projects herself, it’s pretty special.”
Prior to recording Sovereign, Smith toured the world extensively sharing the gospel in such remote locales as Bahrain, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Abu Dhabi. “It rocked my world and it inspired me big time,” he says of his travels. “I had some of the most memorable moments of my entire life on this world tour. In Bahrain, I had to be invited by the king to get in. They’ve never had a Christian concert ever, but there are a lot of churches there. Somehow a Hindu, a Catholic, a Muslim, a Protestant and a Jew all formed this committee and wanted me to come to Bahrain and do a concert of peace.”
Smith recalls landing at 3:30am at the airport in Bahrain and it looking like a scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with some dangerous looking men standing around. Suddenly a man began singing “alleluia” from “Agnus Dei.” “He kept singing and then we got flash mobbed by 80 people at 3:30 in the morning singing ‘alleluiah’ I started crying,” Smith says of being overwhelmed by emotion. “I cried through half the show. I couldn’t stop crying. There was something about that show.”
Whether sharing the gospel on foreign soil or mentoring artists that seek his counsel on balancing family and music, Smith has long had a passion for serving God and serving others. It’s a fire that continues to burn brightly with no sign of abating. “I don’t see retirement anywhere in the Bible,” Smith says with a grin. “It’s a calling. I love to write. I love to play. It’s still the most beautiful place.”