Matt Maher has had quite the year since releasing his latest CD “Empty & Beautiful” (Essential Records), last April. He performed at World Youth Day in Australia and the youth rally during Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States.
His CD was launched into space on NASA’s Discovery mission last May. A song from the CD, “Your Grace Is Enough,” reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Adult Christian Contemporary Chart. Recently, he was nominated as “Best New Artist” for CCM Magazine’s 2009 Reader’s Choice Awards.
Amid the whirlwind success and travel — last year, he was on the road 300 days — the United Catholic Music and Video Association Unity Awards winner is ready for a new CD and remains committed to what his music is about: glorifying God.
His inspiration: “Prayer and Mass. That’s where it all comes from. Artists and musicians need to embrace the sacramental life of the Church. Music reflects what’s going on in your heart.”
Maher’s advice for aspiring musicians reflects this viewpoint: “Go fall in love with Jesus. Pursue him radically. What will happen is that eventually songs will start coming out. Art will come out as you live the faith. The Eucharist is a mystery that’s discovered, not proclaimed on stage.”
His stepfather, who is not Catholic, helped him reflect on his musical purpose recently.
“He challenged me to write from faith, not about faith,” Maher said. “I want my devotion to come out in my lyrics, not the other way around. Otherwise, it’s like an assignment.”
“Write about life, and the faith will come out of that,” he added. “In that context, it’s more authentic. Otherwise, it’s almost a business proposition based on theology rather than art reflecting 2,000 years of Tradition.”
Maher is one of a burgeoning number of contemporary Catholic singer/songwriters who write from the gut as well as the Gospel. That list includes Janelle, Curtis Stephan, Sarah Bauer and Marie Miller.
“I think Catholic music is in a state of transition, in a state of finding an identity,” Maher says. “A good thing is that Catholic music is coming into a full expression of itself musically.”
Adds Stephanie Wood, coordinator of NextWave Faithful, an online outreach to young Catholic adults, and host of “NextWave Live” on EWTN radio, “There are quite a few exciting things going on with Catholic music. Ten years ago, people thought Catholic music was church music. In the past five or six years, it has taken off. Catholic musicians are making names for themselves.”
Wood’s radio show features a variety of Catholic musicians.
“Instead of public service announcements, we take music breaks,” she says. “We feature heavier-sounding bands with rock beats. It’s a popular feature. The kids love it. Ours is the only show on EWTN trying to get young people into music. It’s the main mechanism to get their name out there, since there are no Catholic music stations.”
“When I started doing this show about five years ago, there was hardly anyone to play,” she adds. “Now there’s stuff that could go up against [mainstream Christian contemporary artists] Jars of Clay or Third Day. There are high-quality artists. Lyrically, we have the fullness of the faith that can be expressed in music.” Wood recently featured The Thirsting. “They’re a great band,” she says.
NextWaveFaithful.com features a positive music chart with Catholic and non-Catholic artists. The music Next Wave features is available at CatholicMusicNetwork.com. Another online source of Catholic music is SpiritandSong.com.
“We have a great commitment of artists to their sound,” says Robert Feduccia, SpiritandSong.com general manager and artist relations and product development associate director. Spirit and Song is a division of Oregon Catholic Press.
“What young people want is real, believable sound from a real, authentic place in the spirit, singer-songwriters sitting down with their guitars creating interesting art with real attention to artistry,” he says. “Lyrically, I’m hearing a lot more depth. People are coming to grips with the quest of being human, having a relationship with the Lord, and our artists express that.”
Up north in Canada, Catholic music is also making a name for itself.
“Janelle has broken a lot of mainstream avenues to bring knowledge of Catholic music, that we can produce good music,” notes Jason Reinhart of Life-Vision Communications Inc., who is the manager for and husband of Canadian Catholic artist Janelle. The artist recently reached No. 1 with More Radio magazine’s Adult Contemporary radio chart. She has written an autism theme song and is working on a praise and worship CD.
Even with the progress, Reinhart says, distributing the music to the masses remains a problem.
“Distribution channels are not as strong as they could be,” he says. “There aren’t as many Catholic bookstores. It needs to be easier for people to learn about it.”
Coming From Faith
As for music contributing to the New Evangelization, Maher notes, “What needs to come first is the desire for evangelization. The New Evangelization comes first; the music comes second, as a response.”
The New Evangelization is at the heart of Spirit and Song. “Our artists have a heart for evangelization, for bringing the good news, coupled with worship, which comes from a deep place in the liturgy and outside of the liturgy,” says Feduccia. “We’re intentional. We know that music outside of the liturgy feeds it inside the liturgy.”
New media is a driving influence, Feduccia notes.
“With Jackie Francois, we gave a five-hour window for song downloads,” he says. “It was ‘five for five free.’ The response was great. It helped her record to get out there. Our ‘The Commons’ interviews debut songs. With the song player, we have 30-second artist introduction followed by the song. We have song-by-song features with Sarah Hart and Jackie Francois. We want to be cutting-edge, to use current methods. We have podcasts with Steve Angrisano and Jackie Francois, who is the host for ‘Perfect Playlist.’
“Listeners can submit titles, and if theirs is selected, they win a free CD. Ken Canedo does a liturgy-planning podcast. He takes the readings, does reflections, and gives music selections.”
Feduccia hopes to test iPhone and BlackBerry concepts this summer.
Internet and new technology help, Reinhart agrees: “If something is good, people find it.”
Regardless of the avenues used, society needs to hear the message of faith: “We are living in a post-Christian culture,” Maher says. “We have to find ways to reach out with messages that they understand.”
Wood hopes that the genre will stay true to its roots.
“Now, a lot of Christian labels are making it more of an industry, not a ministry. I hope that doesn’t change with Catholic music. Catholic music is ministry oriented.”
Adds Maher, “One of the things I love about Catholic music, which fundamentally sets Catholic music aside: It’s never been the modus operandi to create a subculture within a culture. The goal of a Christian is to be in the middle of the world, not in the world. We need to be in the culture, in dialogue with it with philosophy, truth, beauty and art, especially art; art has the ability to reach people no matter their religious background.”
“I think as Catholics we will always be rooted in the liturgy, with sacraments and the Incarnation,” Spirit and Song’s Feduccia says. “The industry has matured. In the past 10 years, we’ve started to see more diversity in sound. Catholic Christian music has something unique to offer. Josh Blakesley is from Louisiana. His music isn’t country or blues, but Southern. It’s who he is infused with sacramental, liturgical and incarnational theology. I think we’ll continue on that trajectory.
“Artistically, I don’t know where things are headed,” he adds. “Radio is such a peculiar, elusive thing. But in the part of the industry that’s not as public — the songwriters — we see Catholics having great influence. We have songwriting partnerships with EMI. The top song at World Youth Day, ‘Take Up Our Cross,’ was written by Curtis Stephan, Sarah Hart and Mark Byrd of EMI [who wrote the Christian radio hit ‘God of Wonders’]. Sarah Hart has just written for 33 Mile, a mainstream Christian group.”
“There’s hope and a great future for Catholic music,” adds Reinhart. “What we need is great Catholic music with a great message to contribute to the New Evangelization. If songs are great, the records are great. That will take the Catholic market to the next level. It doesn’t fit the mainstream record mold or the Protestant mold. There’s a purity to Catholic music. We are seeing more record deals happening. Catholics are more accepted in Protestant circles.”
And Catholic youth are an important key.
“Young ministry has been teaching youth about the life of Christ, the history of the Church, and, eventually, that will start to come out artistically,” Maher predicts. “Great things have happened in the Church through music. The great composers wrote for the Church and gained respect in society. I think that could happen again.”
Amy Smith is the
Register’s copy editor.
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