When Michael W. Smith was introduced to Leeland Mooring, front man for the Texan rock band Leeland, neither of them had any idea how their future friendship would influence two of this year’s most anticipated albums.
Or did they?
If you were Michael W. Smith and you were looking to release a new album this year, what kind of record would you make? After all, this would be your first album in two years, and the musical landscape has changed significantly. Today’s Christian album sales chart tends to be dominated by rock acts such as Underoath, Flyleaf, Jeremy Camp, Jars of Clay, Third Day and BarlowGirl. And imagine if you’d known that a little over a month before your record came out, the No. 1 selling Christian album would be Redeemer (Solid State) by Norma Jean, a hard core metal band.
“I didn’t have any preconceived ideas, and I certainly wasn’t going to try to be worship or be rock or whatever just to try to play it safe,” says Smith. “I’ve never done that, nor will I ever.” A lesser man might have been tempted to release a worship album. After all, Smith has led worship at his church for six years, and, then, there’s the little fact that he’s released two worship records since mid-2001 that have sold a combined 2.4 million copies.
“First of all, I’ve got to be who I am, and, next, I’ve got to reinvent myself,” he continues. “It’s as simple as that, honestly. That’s a real challenge — how you really stay true to yourself when you’re trying to reinvent. If I’ve done anything right, I think I’ve reinvented over the years.”
Indeed, during the span of his remarkable 23-year career, Christian music’s leading man has stretched the comfort zone of his adult contemporary reputation with successful albums individually defined by rock, crossover pop, modern worship and, even, instrumentals.
But this time around? Unprecedented. To help him frame the heartbeat of his new album, Smith turned to a teenage kid from Texas. In fact, he would go on to give the young fella more songwriting responsibilities than he’s given anyone since his storied partnership with Wayne Kirkpatrick. That begs the question: What was he thinking? “That’s just not like me,” the 48-year-old Smith says. “I’m going to co-write — sorry — with a 17-year-old kid? I didn’t even know him!”
You could say the idea came out of the blue. Or, as Smith puts it, “It was all providential.”
Change the World
Flashback to late March, right before the Gospel Music Association’s GMA Week. Thanks to a rare opening in his schedule, Smith took the opportunity to attend a Provident Music Group showcase at The W venue near Nashville. That night he discovered his favorite new band — Baytown, Texas’ own Leeland — and more.
“I was blown away,” explains Smith. “Literally, I felt like I was plastered against the wall. I sensed in my spirit that this is something extremely rare. I hope it’s not because I’ve hardened my heart. I don’t think that’s the case. I just have a hard time finding something that moves me.”
To say that he was simply moved by Leeland wouldn’t be the half of it.
“Finding something moves you that is authentic and there is something about the spirit of it?that is what took my breath away.” At this point, Smith, who is hosting this interview in his own Deer Valley Studios, gestures toward the musician seated to his left and says, “It was this guy here delivering those songs.”
This guy is Leeland’s front man, Leeland Mooring. As the kid hears Smith’s praise, Mooring bows his head, his face, slightly changing color, begins to blend with his red hair. This wouldn’t be the first time his modesty would manifest itself on this September night.
“When I left The W,” continues Smith, “I got Terry [Hemmings, president and CEO of Provident] and said, ?I want a copy of their music.’ I got a CD of seven songs the next day and just put it on non-stop. I couldn’t believe how good it was. So that was when I went to [producer] Matt Bronleewe going, ?Hey, you worked on the Leeland record. I got a wild idea: What if we brought Leeland Mooring in and I co-wrote with him?”
Then Smith put in a call to Baytown, Texas.
Place in this World
“So I picked up the phone,” recounts Mooring, who’s now 18, “and he said, ?Is this Leeland?’ I said, ?Yeah.’ He goes, ?This is Michael W. Smith.’ And I dropped the phone! I opened the door and told my mom [whispering], ?This is Michael W. Smith! This is Michael W. Smith!’ like flipping out. So she’s quietly freaking out. After I got off the phone with him, and he wanted me to come write with him, I flipped. I started screaming like a little kid. I was like, ?I’m going to write with Michael W. Smith!’ I was running around the whole house.”
Giving Smith a glance, Mooring says, “That night you came to our concert, my mom was saying, ?There is a reason he came to that. God had him come for a reason. You mark my words.’ We’re all kind of laughing at her. We’re just like, ?Whatever, Mom. He came. Don’t want to make too big a deal of it.’ But she kept saying, ?You mark my words.’
“It’s funny because I remember even a few years ago, when I was 14, she told me, ?Leeland, one day you’re going to get to write with Michael W. Smith. I really believe that.’
“There is something about a praying mother that always has kind of a discerning spirit about stuff,” he opines. “My mom is constantly praying about God’s will for our lives and our ministry. We believe in divine appointments and divine connections — people that are put in your life because God’s put them there.”
The Moorings aren’t the only ones who believe in divine appointments.
Old Enough to Know
“My eyes are peeled for the supernatural,” reveals Smith. “I’m open. I’m always looking for ?God, what do You want to do? What am I supposed to be about?’ And then, ?Who am I supposed to be involved with?’
“Who am I to try to protect my turf? I’m so past the whole trying to be a star, trying to make a name for myself…I feel like the spirit of Christ lives inside of me, so I’ve got a fairly good thing of discernment. I just kind of sense things. I feel like his mom did. When I first heard Leeland, I thought, ?I’m going to end up working with this band on some level.’ I just knew it in my heart. And, then, to see when I fell in love with his mom and dad and the whole band. Then, my kids — we see them all together — I mean, it’s wild. And they just all love each other. Everything has just been mind-boggling really.”
Hearing all this, one can’t help but wonder if this unusual connection is unprecedented in Smith’s life. What about all the younger artists he’s bonded with and encouraged over the years — especially at his own record label, Rocketown? Is there a comparable friendship with another singer/songwriter in his history?
“I don’t think so,” says Smith. He affirms his love and respect for Chris Rice, Ginny Owens, The Turning and The Swift before stating, “For some reason there is some sort of heart connection — spirit connection — with [Leeland Mooring and myself]. I can’t explain it. It’s just the strangest and most wonderful thing really.
“I have to go back to — there’s something providential about this whole thing.” And then Smith drops a doozy. He describes Mooring in a way one might assume he’d reserve for personal friends such as the Rev. Billy Graham, President Bush or even U2’s Bono. “I have a real sense that there’s just a special, high call of God on his life in terms of doing some great things to impact the Kingdom here on earth. Of anybody that I know — I’ve never met anybody where I’ve really sensed that. He’s got it. I’m going to really enjoy watching this thing unfold.”
Copyright © 2006 CCM Magazine, Used by Permission
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