Having been around the music scene for over thirty years, and with three Grammy awards under his belt, veteran artist Michael W Smith would be forgiven for slowing down a little. When he caught up with Christian Today, however, he insisted he's not even close to walking away from his piano yet.
His new album, Sovereign, is out this week. Filled with "vertically-focussed" music and collaborations with the likes of Kari Jobe, Leeland Mooring and Seth Moseley, it's a worship album like none he's produced so far and proves that at 56, his talent is only becoming more refined.
Michael shared with us the passion behind his new sound, and how despite his vast experience, he's only really just getting started.
CT: Sovereign is your first studio album since 2008 - what prompted you to start recording again?
MWS: I felt it was just time to do the next thing really, and felt the need to reinvent myself again. I changed record labels and they got a bunch of people together so it was a real combined effort. It's been a year in the making, it got me out of my comfort zone, working with all these young people – these young 'kids' – and it's really paid off. I couldn't be happier with the outcome.
CT: How would you describe Sovereign? How is it different, creatively speaking, to your past music?
MWS: It's really unique, and as a worship album it's very vertically driven. It's the first worship album I've done that's not live, it's a studio album, and it's different because I think it's anthemic. It's got this pop side of me married to the worship side of me and it's two worlds colliding in a good way. It's interesting musically; it's not just simplified – worship songs are so often simple – but it's more creative, it's got some art to it, and I think it'll be interesting to see if the rest of the world agrees!
CT: What do you mean by "vertically-driven" songs?
MWS: Lyrically the album is vertical; all these songs are sung to God, talking to God, and they make a statement like "Oh God, I am a miracle!", "Christ be all around me", and in 'Sovereign over us' we sing, "Your plans are still to prosper, you have not forgotten us, you're faithful in the fire and the flood". They're not horizontal, but more vertical and that was sort of the goal from the very beginning of making this album.
CT: You've collaborated with lots of amazing people, how did that come together?
MWS: I called my label and said 'I don't need a bunch of yes people, I need to be challenged, I need to do this with people, just tell me who – I'm wide open'. I had a team of people that I loved and had worked with for years, but I was open to input so I started working with these people that I didn't have any relationship with and it turned out so well! It was tedious at times, of course, we went through 120 songs to get down to 12 [for the final album], but that's just the process! We tried to raise the bar and got something really very special. So we have an album now that's legit; it's a real album that holds together from start to finish and I'm more proud of that than anything else.
CT: What's your heart for this album? How're you hoping people will respond?
MWS: I hope it's received well! I think it's a work for our time; there are some art moments and some things said differently in this album. Some of the songs are really powerful; 'Sovereign over us' is about adversity and going through hard times. That song is for people who are struggling. 'Miracle' is one of my favourite songs; it was the first one we wrote and it raised the bar. Bono said the other day "I am a miracle", and you know, he's saying there are people all around the world who have been changed by the person of Christ and I am one of them, and that's what this song's about. 'Christ all around me' is also really powerful when sung.
CT: Which song do you love most to perform?
MWS: 'Sovereign over us' is powerful every night that we sing it, and we've been trying it out over the past couple of months. We haven't done 'Sky spills over' yet but I think it'll be a favourite, and then 'Miracle' is also great live.
CT: You released your first album over thirty years ago – how do you keep going?
MSW: Do you know what? I'm more passionate today than I ever have been in my whole life. I feel sure of my calling, I'm just hitting my sweet spot now, I'm not tired, I want to finish well. I'm pumped up, I feel energetic and I'm ready to go which might sound weird after thirty years but I'm probably more inspired and more energetic than I've ever been.
I don't really know the reason for that! Maybe it's that I don't have anything to prove; in the early days it was about trying to impress and win lots of awards but I don't care about that stuff anymore. And when you don't care it frees you up and your heart's in a better place. You're not stressed or tense, and so I feel freer today than ever, which sets the stage for making great music. But I couldn't have done it by myself, it's a real combined effort, and lots of people contributed heavily to this project and for that I'm very grateful.
CT: What are your tour plans?
MSW: We've been touring just a little bit already, but the real tour will start this summer. We're hoping to come to Eastern Europe in June and we'll tour America extensively this fall, but then the world tour will hopefully be in 2015 and I'll come to London. I really want to play the Royal Albert Hall again, so I'm coming whether you like it or not!
'Sovereign' is available to buy on iTunes or Amazon now.