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Matthew West

matthewwest.com

Several years ago, when Matthew West invited people to share their stories to serve as inspiration for an upcoming album, he had no idea it would be the start of an amazing journey that would forever change his music, ministry and life. Armed with more than 10,000 stories from fans all over the world, the floodgates of inspiration opened and West crafted a landmark album, The Story of Your Life. Suddenly people were given a voice and a chance for their stories to be heard. It started a powerful wave that continues with even greater momentum on West’s new album Into the Light.

“On every level it has been the single most fulfilling thing that I’ve had a chance to be a part of in my career,” West says. “It’s just the added element of emotion that I feel by having a chance to be a part of this person’s story and to share their story with an audience. Something really special is taking place and I’m along for the ride for as long as it needs to go. As long as those stories come in, I think I’m going to keep making these kinds of records.”

Produced by Pete Kipley, Into the Light features 12 compelling songs from Christian music’s most gifted storyteller. A two-time Grammy® nominee, West has released five previous studio albums, populating radio with such hits as “Strong Enough,” “The Motions,” “My Own Little World,” “More,” and “You Are Everything.” One of Nashville’s most highly respected songwriters, West has also had songs he’s penned recorded by Rascal Flatts, Michael W. Smith, Billy Ray Cyrus, Casting Crowns, Diamond Rio and many others. “The Heart of Christmas,” the title track of West’s 2011 holiday album, inspired a television movie and provided him with his first foray into acting. His 2010 album, The Story of Your Life, burst onto the Christian album chart at No. 3 in its debut week in 2010 and has, to date, outsold West’s previous album by 20 percent. It also spawned a popular book, “The Story of Your Life,” which West penned with noted author Angela Thomas, and a church curriculum DVD series.

In writing the songs for Into the Light, West didn’t have the luxury of clearing his schedule and singularly immersing himself in the stories he’d gathered to work on the album. He was busy touring with Casting Crowns on one of 2011’s most successful tours. “I wrote every song on the road, all over the country. My songwriting retreat was the back lounge of the bus, the dressing room at the arena, every town and city that I traveled in,” West states. “I was writing all day and then I would hop on stage and sing in front of these audiences and get a good look at the faces of these people. I would tell them. ‘Hey, send your story to me if you want to’ and then I’d hop off the stage and go back to my dressing room and write more songs. It was a lot more challenging just because it was really hard to find that solitude. I was in 43 cities around the country writing songs all along the way. It was special in its own way.”

As West talks about the songs on Into the Light, his voice teems with energy and excitement as he shares the stories that informed the music. “There’s something that feels important when I sit down with the responsibility of somebody’s life story in front of me and I’m going to put that to music in some way,” he says. “It’s not important like, ‘Look at this awesome thing that I’m doing,’ but it feels important because this person has trusted me with their story and my responsibility is to them.”

It’s a responsibility West takes very seriously as evidenced by the powerful first single, “Forgiveness.” The song was inspired by Renee Napier whose 20-year-old daughter, Megan, was killed by a drunk driver over Mother’s Day weekend 2001. The driver, Eric Smallridge, was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Not only did Renee forgive Eric, she also petitioned the court to let him out of prison early. He’ll be released this fall, after serving 11 years, and will join her at speaking engagements warning young people about the dangers of drinking and driving and sharing about the power of forgiveness.

“This woman’s act of forgiveness continues to be felt by everybody involved,” West says. “Eric’s life has been changed because this woman said those words: ‘I forgive you.’ Eric accepted God into his life as a result. I feel like her story and, hopefully, this song can unearth some life defining questions that all revolve around the one word, ‘forgiveness.’ Is there a grudge I’m holding towards someone and it’s time to let go?  Is there anyone in my life who I have wronged, and my pride has held me back from asking for forgiveness? And the most important question of all: Has my heart fully embraced the forgiveness offered to me by a God who loves me unconditionally? These are the questions that we all must answer, and in doing so, we discover that forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door to true freedom in our lives.”

“‘Into The Light’ was inspired by a woman named Alice,” he says. “She wrote to me about the night that she escaped an abusive marriage. She had been too scared to leave for a long time and had believed the lies that she was telling herself—that it was better for her family—but then it got to a point where she was afraid for the safety of her two young sons. She said, ‘It was a cold, black, rainy night when myself and my two sons snuck out and escaped from our house. We ended up at a safe house shelter.’ The next morning when they woke up, the sun was shining, the rain had stopped and for the first time they felt safe.”

The resulting song is a vibrant pop anthem that exudes hope and celebrates the triumph of the human spirit and God’s mercy. West has a gift for not only sharing the poignant stories he’s been given in brilliant, life-affirming lyrics, he also wraps those stories in engaging melodies that underscore the emotion in the words. “Hello My Name Is” boasts a catchy melody that immediately draws the listeners into the song where they are hit with a powerful truth that reminds them they are the “child of the one true king.”

“The Power of Prayer” is a moving story song inspired by a 13-year-old California boy. “His mom and dad were fighting constantly and he didn’t have a good relationship with his dad,” West says, recalling how the young boy wrote his prayer for his father on a special wall at his church. “A couple months later the minister visited their home and his dad prayed and asked Jesus to come into his heart. The boy said, ‘Now we read the Bible together and I love my dad. He and I are really close and my parents don’t fight like they used to.’ I thought, ‘what a sweet, sweet story!

“Sometimes a lot of us wonder if our prayers just bounce off the ceiling. Maybe we don’t see the answers we want or we don’t see them fast enough. I just thought that was just a defining thing in that kid’s life to see, ‘Hey, I prayed for my dad and life got better and God answered my prayer.’ I just thought that was just a neat illustration for everybody else that’s maybe holding out and wondering when their prayers are going to be answered.”

“Moved by Mercy” is a powerful song about a girl who found a safe haven at Mercy Ministries in Nashville. The song features a special guest vocal by Caitlin Evanson, a touring musician who shares the stage with many mainstream artists. “I just wanted to find an amazing voice to bring life to that girl’s story, and I’d never really written a song like that on one of my records,” West says. I’ve written duets, but it’s a duet where the girl just takes over in the chorus. It was really an experiment creatively for me, but Caitlin sang the fire out of that song. It’s a goose-bump moment for me when I hear her sing on the record.”

“Do Something” was inspired by 20-year-old college student who is changing the world. “She went to Uganda for a semester to study and she found an orphanage where children were being neglected and abused,” West explains. “She single-handedly got the Ugandan government to shut down the orphanage and they handed over 40 kids to her.  She started her own orphanage in Uganda and that’s what the song ‘Do Something’ is about. She said, ‘I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no clue I just knew I had to do something.’”

As he’s collected more than 20,000 stories now and turned many of them into songs of hope and inspiration, West has decided to take the entire endeavor a step further. He’s started a nonprofit organization called Population We. “My dad’s been a minister for 38 years and a counselor. He’s just loved on people in the Chicago area his whole life,” says West. “He’s joining Population We as our full time counselor. He’s going to be able to help us follow up and follow through with the stories that come across our paths that need help. We’re going to be able to plug them into the counseling that they need or addiction recovery program that they need to go to or the safe house that they need to find. We’re going to be building this network of resources to help become a conduit and to connect these hurting people to the help they need so that they can begin to heal. It’s changing everything about what I’m doing, not just the way I write music, but how we’re going to go about caring for this community of people that are connected.”

For those brave enough to share their stories with Matthew West, he’s given them a voice to be heard and is using their stories as a vehicle to improve the lives of others. “The title track really exemplifies what everyone who took time to share their story has done,” West says. “ ‘Into the Light’ is about that new beginning and really it just felt like the very fitting metaphor for what all of these storytellers are doing. They are bringing their story into the light and they are doing so in hopes that somebody else that might be going through the same thing can find the courage to step into the light like they have. That’s exactly what Alice said, ‘I’m writing my story not because it’s easy to tell, but I think there’s a lot of other people out there who are going through the same thing and need to know that there’s help that they can find and that their life can be better.’

“So that’s what Into the Light is about. It’s about bringing these stories into the light and realizing how contagious it can be. When people hear Into the Light, they are going to realize that maybe they aren’t the only one struggling, and I hope they’ll find the courage to discover the freedom that’s promised when we step into the light.”

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Sidewalk Prophets

sidewalkprophets.com

Their background may have made it look easy—after all, Sidewalk Prophets toured with Jeremy Camp and Audio Adrenaline on the strength of independent albums, then rode the popularity of their first Word Records release, These Simple Truths, to a Dove Award for Best New Artist and a nomination for Pop/Contemporary Album of the Year. "The Words I Would Say" hit #3, "You Can Have Me" went Top 20, a Christmas single, "Hope Was Born This Night," hit the Top 10, and "You Love Me Anyway" went all the way to #1 on the Billboard Christian Singles chart. The band has toured with the Rock and Worship Roadshow with MercyMe and Francesca Battistelli, among others, and landed another Dove nomination for Group of the Year in 2011.

The reality, though, like that of the seemingly placid duck whose feet are pumping furiously underwater, is something else altogether.

"It's not easy for any of us to do what God has called us to do, to go make disciples of the world," says lead singer Dave Frey. He is referring in part to the rigors of the road, which can be extraordinarily demanding for a band as hard working as Sidewalk Prophets, but also to the challenges all vocal believers face.

"It's not a safe thing to try to live like Christ," he says. "You're going to have people criticize you and put you down. It says that in the book of James."

"But," he is quick to add, "when you think both of the sacrifice Jesus made and how off the charts that was but also of what that won for us, you realize that for those of us who persevere and follow him, it will be a good, and an amazing journey."

There is no doubting the dedication of the band, easily one of the hardest working in all of music. They are hands-on about everything, from overall career direction to the smallest details of stage set-up and merchandise. They meet with fans at each stop, including those without tickets to sold-out shows, sign autographs, do interviews, handle their own driving, immerse themselves in PR strategy and keep up a steady contact with fans through social media, including some of the cleverest and most off-the-wall road videos anywhere.

But ten years on, all that work has carried their music and their collective hearts for the Lord to the upper reaches of the charts and earned the affection and respect of a growing legion of fans. They have ministered to audiences that now total in the hundreds of thousands, from church camps to 20,000-seat arenas and the iconic Ryman Auditorium.

Now, with their latest album, the band, which also features lead guitarist Shaun Tomczak, rhythm guitarist Ben McDonald, bassist Cal Joslin and drummer Justin Nace, takes another step forward.

Live Like That, produced by Dove award-winner Ian Eskelin (Battistelli, Stellar Kart), who was also at the helm of These Simple Truths, more than fleshes out the meaning of its title track.

“There comes a point in our lives when we ask: what exactly is this life for?" says Dave, "It’s in those moments that I’m reminded of those who have impacted my life—my grandparents, parents, teachers and pastor—and whether they knew it or not, I saw Christ in them. This album is a reflection of our journey in music and our desire to live our lives in such a way that it is rooted in a deep passion and love that knows no bounds.”

That passion is evident in every note of "Live Like That," and in songs like "Love, Love, Love," with its hints of Motown soul, "Help Me Find It," with its sense of longing and its big pop sound, and "Keep Making Me," with its tight harmonies and its hope for the kind of brokenness that leads to spiritual breakthrough.

Both Dave and co-founder/co-writer/rhythm guitarist McDonald took advantage of the time they were able to set aside for the project, after a hurried recording process for These Simple Truths.

"It was a whole new feeling," says Dave. "We were able to set aside most of a month in the studio. It was the first time Justin, Cal, and Shawn had played on an album with us, and it was great to have time to get everything just the way everybody wanted it."

"With the first record," says Ben, "the label is more involved in honing the sound, and by your second record you start to take the reins a little more. We were a lot more comfortable in what we were doing. We were thankful as a band to be able to see the growth, from the sound to the lyrics, which have a little more depth this time around."

The record is also a shout-out to the band's dedicated fans. A contest brought some in for the chance to sing backup, and the band solicited photos of people their fans admire and want to be like for use on the cover.

"Without people like that in our lives," says Dave, "that cloud of witnesses, we'd be lost. God sent them for a reason, and that's what our album cover is about."

"It's about all of us wanting to live in such a way that people see that in us," adds Ben. "It's as simple as that."

The band is especially grateful for fans who teamed up to help ease one of the many challenges presented by 250 days a year on the road, with over 300 taking part in a fund-raiser to help the band abandon once and for all in its ramshackle old van and make a down payment on a tour bus.

"This is just one example of how much our amazing fans have given," says Dave, "and how much that support has made it possible to do what we do. And it's so nice to get eight hours of sleep a night on the road rather than three!"

The long journey that brought them to Live Like That began when Ben and Dave were attending Indiana's Anderson University. A demo they recorded was taken without their knowledge to a campus recording contest, which earned them a performance slot. That, in turn, led to radio program directors and record labels, and a chance encounter with Audio Adrenaline's Will McGinnis gave Dave the chance to sing in front of 20,000 screaming fans. Meeting with a major label exec led to an impromptu showcase at Lancaster Christian Academy in Smyrna, Tennessee, and a deal with Word Records.

The varied nature of the venues they play these days gives them any number of ways to communicate with fans and enjoy the process of musical ministry.

"With being in big arenas right now, it's overwhelming," says Dave. "All those thousands of people and so many of them come by the tables and you get to meet with them one-on-one. My favorite part of doing shows is the chance to say, 'What's going on in your life?' Then there are the smaller shows, and even some of the living room concerts we're doing as premiums for some of those who contributed to the bus campaign. These are people who become friends and almost family members. I don't ever want to lose that."

Whether it's those magic moments of connection or some of the more wearying parts of the road, Dave, Ben, and the rest of Sidewalk Prophets are treasuring life and ministry.

"We love seeing what God is up to and continues to be up to," says Dave. "Through the good, the bad, and the ugly, He's there and He's always going to be taking care of us so we can continue to do what He's called us to do.

"I have no idea what the next few years look like," adds Ben, "but I'll be faithful and trust Him. It really is a wonderful journey."

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Jason Castro

jasoncastromusic.com

“I’ve heard it said that music is the language of the soul,” says internationally-renowned recording artist Jason Castro. “I think it’s something God created for our souls to be able to rejoice in.”

Now, as this mellow Texan with the blue eyes, bright smile, and distinctive dreadlocks prepares to release his first full-length Word Records album, Only A Mountain, he finds himself with the chance to rejoice alongside a broad new audience of fellow believers. The prospect, he says, is thrilling: “This album to me is really kind of a breakthrough,” Castro confesses. “It feels like this veil has been lifted.”

Produced by Matt Bronleewe, Ben Glover, and David Garcia, Only a Mountain is set to be released January 15, 2013. Its eleven original tracks – all written or co-written by Castro – are primed to appeal to fans both old and new, whether they discovered his unique voice via his captivating run on American Idol, or have found their lives touched by one of his melodic, heartfelt performances in the years since. The songs on Only A Mountain are fueled by “the realization that life is beautiful,” Castro says. “It’s a lifestyle philosophy that I carry: What good can we do today? How can we be a light in the challenging world in which we currently live? I feel like I’m coming into my own. This is just my story to tell.”

Much of that story is now familiar to millions of people worldwide: Raised in the church by a musical family of Colombian descent, Castro started drumming at 11, playing music in the youth ministry, joining his father in leading worship. But despite his musical background, the notion that young Jason might have a voice – or something to say with it musically – didn’t really begin to take shape until he hit college and picked up the guitar. The young drummer who cut his teeth on a steady diet of Blink 182, Switchfoot, and MxPx found himself drawn to the introspective sound of singer-songwriters like Ray LaMontagne and Jeff Buckley. “I started listening to their lyrics,” he says. “And that really captured me. I loved what the words were doing to me, and I wanted to be able to do that, you know?” Although he admits the first song he wrote and played for his then-girlfriend (now wife) was “pretty bad,” he soon gained enough courage to join friends for some coffeehouse gigs. When he hit the stage for the seventh season of American Idol, he’d only been singing for a year and a half.

“I don't know if I ever had an indication that I was meant to be a musician, or good enough to do it professionally,” Castro laughs of taking the Idol plunge. “All I really had was a heart for it.” That heart eventually led him to a fourth-place finish on the show, where he won consistent critical acclaim for his stripped-down takes on songs like “Over the Rainbow” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” His laid-back acoustic style was unlike anything that show’s belting-diva-accustomed audience had ever seen. “I wasn’t a great natural singer or anything, but I had passion,” he says now. “For whatever reason, things lined up the way they did, and I believe there was a bigger reason than things just ‘happening.’ I really cherish the Idol experience. Sometimes I just laugh, like, ‘Was that real?’”

The success that came next was even more unbelievable for the soft-spoken and humble Castro: His 2010 self-titled debut on Atlantic Records entered the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart at No. 18, and spawned the international hit “Let’s Just Fall In Love Again” – a No. 1 single in Norway, Singapore and the Philippines. Determined to establish himself with the public as a legitimate performing artist and not just a TV star from American Idol, he then began touring regularly with his band and has never stopped.

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