Former Delirious lead singer Martin Smith talks to LTTM about his second solo EP. In this lengthy interview he looks back on the Delirious days and discusses life after the band, worship leading, singing in Spanish and what he plans to do next.
Last time I interviewed you was a few weeks before the final Delirious concert in 2009. You said then:
"I need to sit on a hilltop for a couple of days and then find out what God would like me to do next. Every time I ask God about the future all I hear is 'just wait'."
So, after you waited - what did God say to you next?
So that was November 2009, in some ways not a lot has changed. I still feel like I'm in a waiting place. Although in the last year I've got a little bit more productive. I've been writing some songs, I've managed to record some of them in the studio in the house with my friends from St Peters Church [in Brighton]. I still feel like there's a waiting thing. We're trying to move to Brighton, we haven't yet sold [our house]. We're not in a hurry and we know it's important not to go too soon, physically, spiritually, metaphorically, in all ways really.
Nearly three years have passed since Delirious ended, what has happened in that period?
The first year after that last gig I really did come off the road. I did a few things that other people wanted me to do, leading worship at a conference somewhere, but in the main I really did come home and had that whole period of just being here. In that time I decided to write a book. Anna [my wife] had started writing a book already so I thought, well I've got the time this year so I'll start putting my thoughts down. So that materialised into that book coming out, called Delirious. I'm glad I did take that time to document everything while it was fresh in my mind and in my emotions too because it was a bit of a shell shock to be honest. Once you have a void, where you've been so busy for so many years doing something that is so fantastic and incredible and intentional, when you don't have that in your life it's a little bit strange.
I was also able to help my friend Tim Hughes with his record. We started earlier in the year, writing together and we wrote 'God Is Coming' and a song called 'Ecclesiastes'. We thought, we're enjoying this maybe we should just demo them. So he'd come down a few weeks later and we thought, these demos don't sound too bad! So Tim was like, "could you produce it?". So what was a week ended up being a whole year, but it was a joyful process and one for me which was fantastic. It was a great team, Tim's fantastic and it was a great process for me to keep creative, keep doing what I do as much as I could, and the most important thing was to help someone. Whereas for so many years in Delirious we'd always been focused on our own thing; the next record, the next tour - it was a breathe of fresh air for me just to get into someone else's music, to see what we could do. That ended up being Love Shine Through.
Having produced that album for Tim Hughes, were you tempted to carry on in the producer role rather than as a singer/songwriter?
No, I only really did that because it was Tim, because I love him very much, he's a great friend. It was just a moment in time where this could be cool, let's do this. Instead of just having dinner three times a year we get to hang out every day for three weeks. I wasn't really in a head space of "I'm going to start a production company and start producing things" because I think there are plenty of other people that can do it a lot better than me, with sounds and whatever. But it was just brilliant to have that time.
You turned to your own music after that. You've started releasing a number of short EPs, why did you decide to do that rather than a full-length album?
Well I didn't really have all that songs! [laughs] That's the most simple explanation! To start a full blown record you probably need 15... 16 songs to have in your bag and then you record them all and whittle them down. So that was one of the reasons, but I think the important thing for me was that I'm able to release stuff while it's fresh. These EPs are almost like my journal, that I'm documenting what's happening in my life through this transition. I want people to know how it feels, what's going on. I don't want them to know in two years time when I've spent a year making a glossy record that comes out. I want this to be a journey for everyone too. EP2 comes and this is a continuation of the journey, then EP3... I know it's not ideal in terms of people consuming it, but it's just where I'm at. Also to concentrate on four songs at a time is brilliant from a musical point of view, you can really concentrate and focus and it's not put too much pressure on my family. To just have bite size chunks at a certain time has been great. It hasn't been this huge pressure to put a record out with a massive deadline, it's been a very joyful process really.
On the first EP, 'Back To The Start' seems like a great song to start your solo music with. "I'm coming home, Back to the start where you found me. I give you my heart again... All of heaven shouts let the future begin". The lyrics sound like they're about yourself, starting out again.
When you're writing, often the creative process tricks you into thinking you're writing about one thing but actually your emotions always speak louder than your consciousness. I remember Tim Hughes and Nick Herbert, a great friend of mine, we were writing that song together and we were imagining someone standing at the end of a meeting in church, going up at one of those end of service moments: "God I want you to have my life". So we were thinking, what would that guy want to sing: "Back to the start... I give you my heart". Not knowing really deep down what comes out of you is kind of what's going on inside of you. You can have all these clever ideas but really you write from the heart.
Now, it's obvious to me that it's a very autobiographical lyric. When it gets to the "I'm coming back... I'm running back", that's obviously a massive reference to the prodigal son. I don't think I wandered too far [laughs] but even so, deep in me, I knew I kind of did. It doesn't have to result in doing terribly bad things to wander off and blow your father's inheritance and all the stuff that the prodigal son did. But for me it was just a slight disconnect, with myself, with my soul, with my Father God. It's a very subtle thing and it's only now that I look back and I think, yeah I wasn't really in the pocket. I wasn't really in the groove as I wanted to be. I think being busy busy busy, coming to an end of a season, very wearing, very tiring and I think that song really does sum up that whole period that I'm in now.
On the second EP, there's a song called 'Catch Every Teardrop' which talks about the car crash you were involved in, but it's also a metaphor isn't it?
You're right. 1995 it was when I had a proper car crash. Anna was with me and Jon [Thatcher] was in the back. I always knew I wanted to write about that, but sometimes you can't write about things in a band that are that personal. It's too autobiographical. But I'd always had that line in my lyric book, "I fell asleep at the wheel, had a car crash". It's all I've had for about 15 years, until this year. I had this song called 'Where Are The Heroes' [starts to sing], and I thought, it's a nice tune, but I don't really understand the lyrics, don't know why I'm singing about that! [laughs]. What is all that about?!
So bit by bit that song came together, but of course it moves into verse 2 which as you say is more metaphorical. It's about mid-life crisis, getting to middle age and there's a fog sometimes. There's a car crash, you can't figure out who you are, what you're supposed to be, what you're supposed to be doing. Am I any good at anything? What can I contribute to the world? You see that a lot in the world and I see that a lot in my friends who are a similar age. Your kids are starting to grow up, you've bought everything that you thought would make you happy. Then suddenly there's this moment of crisis. Some people make it through that and some people struggle. I suppose the catch of a tear drop thing is just imagining someone in that situation and knowing that God knows. All those tears, God knows about every single one, he sees us go through these times.
It's Psalm 56 verse 8, it's not a new thing, but just a really beautiful picture of God stooping down and putting all our tears in a bottle. I don't know what these songs are all about really, and that one wouldn't be a Sunday morning 'put it on the overhead screen' sort of song, but I'm in a great place at the moment where I can write about anything, what I like. I can write about what I want and what I want to express, it doesn't have to fit in a box, it doesn't have to fit on a 10 song record for America, yet. It can just be on these little EPs, these little movements, they're not a big statement, I can keep pouring them out and hopefully they'll touch someone at some time.
You said there are some lyrics that you can't sing in a band. Does it feel like you have more freedom now, or do you feel more vulnerable releasing music as a solo singer rather than as part of a band?
Photo by Marc Gilgen
Is that freedom why you're releasing these EPs on your own - you haven't signed to a label even though that must have been an option open to you.
I don't know all the answers to that because I'm just in the moment now, I'm just enjoying it. It's a very simple place. If I had a label right now and a publisher it would be more complicated because I'd have more voices. It doesn't mean that those voices wouldn't be helpful, those people are fantastic at times, but I just feel it's right at the moment. The place I'm in is good, I'm able to control it a little bit in the right sense of the word. I want it to be in balance with my family. The kids come into the studio after school and they're a part of the process. My eldest daughter Elle has sung on one of the songs, some backing vocals, which is fantastic. Just little bit by little bit they're involved in it.
It's not like I go off and I do my thing. I'm really intentional that as a family we're traveling together, they're hearing the songs when they're written, as they're being crafted and recorded and they're living with it like I am. We have this phrase at the moment that Anna and me and the kids are in a rowing boat and we've left one side of the river, we don't totally know where we want to get to, but we know we've got to get to the other side of the river. We're right in the middle of transition, but it's just Anna and me and the kids in this rowing boat and we're doing the best we can, we're going to get across the other side. It is very simple at the moment and I wouldn't want to confuse it anymore than it is.
You've gather together a group of musicians to play on your EPs who are relative newcomers - is it important to you to help nurture these young musicians and mentor them?
Yeah I think it is, I think something happened to me when I got to the age of 40, I think something changed in me. It started becoming not just all about my career and the records and moving up and up and up. It's a response naturally to having your own kids. Elle became a teenager, so that changes you naturally in that you take on much more of a father role anyway, and that transmits to wanting other people to really experience it, to give them a break and help them the best you can. Actually I'm finding that's a much more joyful process and place than I've ever really had, to see other people grow is actually exhilarating, something you can't really explain until you see it happen.
Martin Smith & Jonny Bird
Photo by Marc Gilgen
So I went and spoke to Jonny and said why don't you come over to the house sometime and help me with a couple of songs, do a bit of programming. Within about 20 minutes I'd sussed out that he's actually pretty clever and he can do in 10 minutes what it takes me three days to do. Then I find out he can play guitar too, and keyboards, and pretty much plays everything. So he's the first guy in the team then! Jonny's really helped me put these EPs together and co-produced it. He's just got stuck in, given himself to it. He's been one of those people I've been able to pour myself into, not in a weird spiritual "I'm going to mentor you" way. We're just doing life, we're making music together and I'm learning as much from him as he is from me, it's just a joy. Then of course there's other people in the mix, you could read all their names on the credits, it's been an absolute joy.
Have you been writing with anyone lately?
Yes, I love co-writing I think it's a great idea, whoever came up with that?! I like it because someone always brings an idea that's better than what you can do. You can get a song to a certain place but if you involve other people that you trust they'll always make it better. I've been writing with a guy called Nick Herbert, who's the worship leader at St Mary's in London, Tim Hughes a little bit, Chris Tomlin - we've written a couple of songs, one called 'Safe In Your Arms', 'Waiting Here For You' and 'Awake My Soul'. I've written with a guy called Jonas Myrin [Hillsong London] who's a bit of a genius. So a good little team there. But the real reason is that I get to hang out with these people, so we use the songwriting thing as an excuse to hang out and go for lunch and chat about all that's going on in the world. That's as inspiring as finishing the day with a song that people are going to sing
We often ask people when we interview them for LTTM, if you could write with any song writer who would it be - and quite often they'll either say, Chris Martin from Coldplay, or Martin Smith! Who would you pick?
[Long pause] That's a really good question. I would love to write a song with Adele, that would be good fun. Then there's the guy from One Republic, Ryan Tedder, a very talented guy - he'd be great fun to write with too. But I mean, I wouldn't ever turn Chris Martin down!
What songs are you using in worship at the moment at your church?
Well we've got an amazing worship team there, I'm one of the worship leaders but there's probably 4 or 5 there. That team is lead by a guy called Paul Nelson who's a great guy, really love him. There's a pool of songs that he puts together and we pick the songs from that pool. It's a real mix of songs. It's been a great experience leading worship in a cathedral because the size of it changes what you do a little bit. You don't immediately press the rock button because sometimes it's a bit too big for the room. All the medium paced songs sound beautiful so that has a bit of an influence. But probably the same as every other church around the world, we're doing 'Our God Is Greater' [laughs]. Amazing song.
You're playing at a handful of events around the UK and the world at the moment - is that something you plan to keep on doing or do you think you'll ever do a big tour again?
It would be a great thing to do a tour but I don't think it will be until next year. I think the plan is just to get the music out - get these four EPs underway - then maybe there will be people who would like to come and hear that music. But I'll just wait for that moment, I don't have any big plans, but I do love playing live. I think that is something that will never leave me, when you're in front of people - whether it's leading worship on a Sunday morning or doing a gig - it's just in me. I guess that's what I do really, deep down. I'm sure those opportunities will come, I don't know to what level anymore but all I can do is write these songs, put the music out and see what opens up.
special album released to celebrate that. Some of those 20 year old songs are still being used today in church services around the world - why do you think they have made such an impact and are still so relevant after all this time?
Wow, even as you're saying that it sounds like you're talking about someone else, someone else's life, but I guess that is quite amazing. The first Cutting Edge meeting for the kids in the town, Littlehampton, was 1992. We started with 70 kids. I was leading worship but you couldn't really call it leading worship, it was disastrous! I couldn't say two words in front of the microphone, I didn't know how to put a set list together and it was a nightmare. But our hearts were passionate, our hearts were on fire for God and that's what people connected with.
So I suppose when I think of the songs, they weren't particularly very good radio songs, in fact none of them would have fitted on radio. They weren't this and they weren't that, but they came from the heart. They were passionate poems with music. "Open up the doors and let the music play", I don't think I would write that lyric now, I don't think that's what you would do now, it's just not what you would write. "Let the streets resound with singing", it was just where we were at and in someways nothing's changed. I still dream of the streets in which we live filled with singing and the praises of God and I believe that will happen in our lifetime. I think that's what people connected with, the heart beat in it was so big and it covered a multitude of sins didn't it!
Since Delirious ended, you've all gone your separate ways, doing your own things - do you think you'll get together and work with them again one day, either as a full band, or writing together?
Yeah, we're all friends. You know we were so close for all those years, like brothers, I mean three of us are brother-in-laws literally. You can't imagine the intensity of five guys on the road for long periods of time, very close, we knew everything about each other. I wouldn't be surprised in the future if something came together but I can't predict that, I can't say now whether that would happen. But it wouldn't be because there's a problem or anything, it would just be because it didn't happen. People are happy getting on with their own things. We'll see, you can't rule anything out can you. It was a great band, after a lot of years we eventually became quite good at what we did. The sum of all the parts was bigger than the individual and we created a good noise. I think we can all look back and be proud of what God helped us do.
Something you pioneered in Delirious was getting songs into the mainstream charts. In recent times we've started seeing more Christian music doing that, with Worship Central's album, Matt Redman & LZ7's single, do you think it's easier now to get Christian music into the charts?
I often wonder what Delirious would have been like if we'd have had Twitter and Facebook back then because of course there was no social media, it was all physical mail outs to people's homes, hardly any internet really. What could it have been like if we'd had half a million Twitter followers, and just gone great, single out on Monday, go and buy it. We could have had a number one every time. But then everyone would have had that, so it's hard to compare. That was exciting, having a movement of people, predominantly young Christian kids, seeing God music out on the airwaves. They could tell their friends at school "this band that I like is top twenty, you can hear it on the radio and by the way, actually they all go to church, believe it or not." I think that it gave people a lot of pride.
So I'm glad that people now have that same opportunity to get that little bit of exposure. I think things have changed though, you've now got iTunes, you can get things in a bit easier I think. In those days we had to fight for distribution all the time, trying to argue with Our Price or HMV, that shows my age doesn't it! Woolworths and Our Price! [laughs] Convincing them that next week 25,000 kids are going to come in here and buy this song. They're like, "No they're not. Delirious? No one knows about them. We're not going to sell twenty copies". And we were "No no no, you need to stock all these thousands because it's going to be alright". Then next time it was like "oh alright, we'll trust you a bit more" and then it would get a bit easier. So we did have to fight a lot for that chance and we also put a lot of money into promoting it which now of course you don't really have to put money into promoting a song because you can just twitter something and people go and buy it. But then it really was money where our mouth was, heavy promotion campaigns, you've got to pay people to put it out. You know, the guy that takes the song to radio, believe it or not, you've got to pay him. So that was all big steps of faith for us, we believed in it, and no regrets really.
What advice would you give to any bands or songwriters just starting out?
That's a great question. I think, write from the heart. If it's songs that you write then let the heart rule because that's really what communicates with people. That is really what breaks someone else's heart, when you are confident enough to be gutsy and just talk it out, let it out. Write about things that other people wouldn't write about. Lay it out on the table, find ways of writing lyrics that are going to get in people and not just copy, not just songs that are going to sound like other things. Nowadays you've got to be very sure of yourself, about signing to a record label or a publisher, really sit down and think through what that's going to bring to you. For a lot of people it will bring a lot, it will take them to places they couldn't get to themselves. Other people might not need that system so much. But don't just assume that this is what you need to do, be confident in your own music, your own ability and you'll know what the right thing is to do. I think be authentic and just be someone that is unshakable in what you want to communicate and just put it out there, believe in it, and then live with it!
What does the next year hold for you?
I'm doing a little bit of traveling in South America. Every now and again I go out there because I've connected with a church there in Bogota, a fantastic group of people. There's like two hundred thousand people in the church and it's very inspiring, the people that run it there have been very inspiring to Anna and myself and our kids. So I find myself going to Argentina or Colombia or other places. I sing in Spanish a little bit, I've made some EPs in Spanish as well by the way! 'Cantantest & Soldados' [Singers and Soldiers] is the title of those EPs. I don't know how that sounded by the way!
You should sing something in Spanish now!
[Sings a few lines in Spanish from 'Waiting Here For You'] I can't even believe that I've remembered that, I can't even remember the English words most of the time! So that's very funny, we've had a lot of fun making those EPs because it sounds like some Mexican guy trying to impersonate me! It doesn't really sound like me doing it, it sounds a bit weird.
I'm looking forward to Big Church Day Out in a couple of weeks time [June 3rd]. I've got various things throughout the year. An exciting thing in June is that I'm going to New York to record a live DVD with Jesus Culture. They've very kindly invited me to be a part of that and team up with them, really do something together. So that's an honour, I love those guys, very excited about that. Also I get to take Anna to New York, so it's going to be like a second honeymoon, that's going to be pretty amazing.
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