Stephen Curtis Chapman

Stephen Curtis Chapman

 Jeremy Cowart

Christian music star talks about his 18th album, "The Glorious Unfolding," and the surprising support he's received from One Direction's drummer

With an unprecedented 57 Dove Awards to his credit as well as five Grammys and dozens of No. 1 singles, Christian music veteran Steven Curtis Chapman could afford to rest on his laurels, but that's just not his style.

Chapman's Sept. 30 release, "The Glorious Unfolding," is his third album in less than a year following 2012's Christmas collection, "Joy," and this spring's "Deep Roots," a bluegrass-flavored homage to his Kentucky upbringing. Billboard has the exclusive premiere of a "Glorious" new track, "Something Beautiful":

"Brent Milligan, my co-producer on all of those, has quite a few more gray hairs than he did before," Chapman jokes. "It wouldn't have happened without him for sure. For every hour I spent, he spent another three or four on his own putting things together, on the bluegrass record in particular."

The Christmas album marked Chapman's first release on Sony's Provident Music Group after leaving Sparrow Records, the label he'd called home since his debut album in 1987.  Chapman admits his approach to making records is different today. "With the Christmas record, we went to Kentucky and recorded for four days," he says. "There were a lot of late nights and going in and filling in the blanks and gaps, but [I've] definitely been learning a different way to make records.  Back in the day, some of my albums were probably four or five months of recording. These have been more kamikaze style, just going in and doing it quick and yet still come out with something that I feel very, very proud of and very fulfilled. I listen and I feel very pleased artistically. They are complete."

Chapman is particularly proud of "The Glorious Unfolding." He admits that after recording for more than 25 years, the challenge in crafting his 18th album was to deliver something fresh while not taking such a detour that it would leave the existing fan base feeling alienated. He skillfully achieves that tricky balance. 

"I'm thankful that it feels like I'd hoped it would," he says. "I'm hearing wonderful and encouraging responses. People are saying, 'It feels very fresh and exciting, like you did break some new ground without leaving the ground that you've established and we've come to know.' It doesn't feel like I put on a pair of skinny jeans and acted a lot younger or different. The old friend is there, but it's something new and fresh."

When word got out that Chapman was working on a new studio album, he got support from unexpected places, including tweets from a certain British fan. 

"It fired up people re-tweeting and going nuts," Chapman relates. "I'm like, 'What is this about?' I look and the guy has two million followers, so I'm thinking, 'Who is this guy who's listening to my music? I want to know this guy.' I Google search it and he's Josh Devine, One Direction's drummer. It turns out he's a big fan. He grew up in the UK in a Christian home listening to my music. His dad is a big fan and knows my music inside and out. Josh came to Nashville and we had lunch. I played him some cuts in my studio and he was freakin' out about it. He said, 'I've got about two million people and I'm happy to spread the word. When can I start tweeting about your new single because I love it?' This is a 20-year-old kid who plays drums for One Direction and he's saying, 'Man, this is such a great new song, great new record.' That's just a really awesome thing.  I could have never even imagined that. It's just a blessing."

Chapman's new single, "Love Take Me Over," has been quickly embraced by Christian radio, garnering 42 adds the first week of release. The 12-track album also includes the beautiful ballad, "Together," penned for his wife Mary Beth and "Only One and Only You," written to encourage his 13-year-old daughter Shaohannah. "She's been through a lot and I'm just very, very proud of her," Chapman says. "I wanted to just write a song to tell her how amazing she is."

One of the most poignant songs on the album is "Michael and Maria," which was written about their friend's son, Michael, who lost his life after a skateboarding accident and the Chapman's five-year-old daughter Maria who died in an accident May 2008. "I sang it at [Michael's] memorial, standing on the same stage where we did the memorial for Maria," says Chapman. "It was this total flashback for us."

After his daughter's death, Chapman questioned whether he'd ever make music again, but he soldiered on. His 2009 album, "Beauty Will Rise," is a collection of songs dealing with the tragedy and the emotional turmoil he and his family endured. The songs on "The Glorious Unfolding" represent the latest season in Chapman's life. 

"The idea of this unfolding story has been the overarching theme as I started thinking: 'What's the message of this season of my life? And how can I share that in an encouraging way with others that listen to my music and know my story?'" says Chapman, who is embarking on the Glorious Unfolding tour this fall, a 35-city trek with Laura Story and Jason Gray.

"There's a deepening sense of God is telling a story. It's [what the Bible says in] Jeremiah 29:11 'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.' It's like God saying, 'I know the story I'm telling. Will you trust me? Even if it means there are hard chapters, will you trust me with those hard chapters and will you trust that in the end of this story that you're going to be amazed?'"