After 35 years, 59 Gospel Music Assn. Dove Awards, five Grammys and 10 RIAA-certified gold or platinum albums, Steven Curtis Chapman wasn’t sure he’d ever make another album. But a surprising lesson from The Boss fueled Still, Chapman’s first new album of contemporary Christian music nearly a decade, out tomorrow (Oct. 14) via Sony Music/Provident Entertainment.
“Bruce Springsteen’s last two records inspired me,” Chapman tells Billboard of 2019’s Western Stars and 2020’s Letter to You. “Here’s a guy who is in his 70s, and I heard him say, ‘I’ve had this incredible blessing of having years and years of conversations with people.’”
Springsteen’s music and perspective resonated with Chapman who decided he still had more to say. “I just love having those conversations and that’s what these songs are. They are my conversations with people and I want to keep doing that,” says Chapman, who, this year, became the first Christian music songwriter to receive the prestigious BMI Icon Award, joining a distinguished list that also includes Dolly Parton, Barry Manilow, Carole King, Kris Kristofferson and Sting.
Well-known as the most-awarded artist in Christian music, the Paducah, Kentucky native has built a successful career, with such hit singles as “The Great Adventure,” “More to This Life,” “Dive,” “For the Sake of the Call” and “Heaven in the Real World.” He released The Glorious Unfolding in 2013 and Worship and Believe in 2016 on Provident, and independently released Deeper Roots: Where the Bluegrass Grows in 2019. “The worship record was a side thing, different from what I typically do,” he says, “and the bluegrass record was a passion project, something I’d always wanted to do — but again, it was different.”
When it was time to return to his usual musical lane, changes in the business and the way music is consumed made him hesitant: “It was a long process even of deciding, ‘Do I make another record?’ because making records now is so different and the business is so different.”
Chapman acknowledges that attention spans today are short, and geared toward streaming individual songs, while he’s always liked to tell long stories. But these days, he laments, “People don’t even read the whole book. I’m a storyteller. I want to take you on a journey. I’m an explorer and I want to share what I’ve learned: this is where my heart got broken, this is where my heart got full of hope, this is where I felt joy… but when you’ve got a world around you that says, ‘Just give me a song real quick because I’ve got a billion other songs barking for my attention,’ creatively it was a hard decision to do that.”
Yet Chapman chose to dive back in. Lyrically, he took the same approach he always has as a writer — being unfailingly vulnerable and just pouring his heart out — but sonically, Still is fresh and innovative. He worked with what he refers to as his “dream team,” consisting of longtime collaborator Brent Milligan along with Ben Shive, Brian Fowler and Micah Kuiper. He also enlisted his sons Will Franklin and Caleb, members of the band Colony House. “When I started thinking about who could help me grow and help me communicate these songs in the most relevant way while maintaining the integrity of it, I thought of Colony House, because they are so cool. Then I thought, ‘Wait a minute! I fed those guys a lot of meals for a lot of years. Maybe I’ll call in a favor,’” he says with a laugh.
Chapman is appreciative of his young producers helping him frame this collection of songs in the best possible light, because they are all so personal — including addressing such significant life challenges as the death of a close friend, his brother-in-law losing his battle after being diagnosed with five brain tumors, and of course, the pandemic. “I couldn’t have written these songs five years ago. I wouldn’t have had this perspective,” says Chapman, who turns 60 next month. “The way I process life is I’ve got to write a song about it. I needed to do this for my own heart and for my friends and family.”
Chapman’s deal with Provident was up and he was a free agent so he began talking to other labels after he finished the record, but in the end he decided to re-sign with Provident, Sony’s Christian music division, because of their enthusiasm for the new songs. The label is currently working “Don’t Lose Heart” to Christian radio. “I talk about feeling like you’ve lost the fight, and fear screaming out Your name. I’ve been there. Don’t feel ashamed. People have told me, ‘When you sing those words, knowing your journey, knowing your history, it’s a whole different thing. There is power in those words coming from you,’” says Chapman, who has known his share of tragedy — including the death of his five-year-old daughter Maria in 2008.
Though he’s hopeful the song will do well at radio, as a veteran of 35 years in the business, Chapman is realistic. “I’ve been told, ‘Radio loves you, but you’re fighting a battle against your own history — because there’s recurrent songs, and quite a few No. 1s,” says Chapman.
One of the songs on the album that Chapman admits makes him nervous is “Living Color,” a poignant tribute to his best friend in seventh grade, Carlton Bell. He started the song 20 years ago and finally finished it, including keeping a line in the song where he expresses concern over writing about race. Ultimately, it came down to honoring his friend. “I was thinking about my buddy Carlton… I gathered a group of friends — black and white, different colors — around the fire pit one night and said, ‘How do I respond in the best way with the platform that I have?’ I don’t want to feel like I have to jump in some conversation. I just need to listen.”
As his memories of Bell continued to percolate, Chapman looked up his friend, who had moved away from Kentucky years ago and, sadly, he found Bell’s obit. “I’ve got so many great memories of Carlton,” he says. “We were different skin color, but it didn’t matter… I decided to write the song and I got to that last verse, and I was just super honest and said I was scared to even write the song, because I didn’t want to say it wrong. But I decided to write it, because if I didn’t, then this beautiful story of friendship wouldn’t be told. It’s a story I think the world needs to hear.”
Chapman will be sharing songs from his new collection next spring on the Still tour. “I’m so excited to get back out on the road,” he says. “We’ll be in theaters, sort of intimate, and we’ll get to take people on a journey. We’re going to create an interactive night. I feel like it’s a 35-year celebration for people who know my music, but also I want a person who walks in there and only knows one song — or maybe none — to feel like they got an incredible night that was rich for them in experience.”