It’s been a tough five years for Christian singer-songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman. He is the most-awarded artist in Christian music, with 57 Dove Awards, five Grammys, 47 No. 1 singles and nearly 11 million albums sold, but it all skidded to a halt in 2008 with the death of his youngest daughter. One of three girls adopted from China, Maria Sue was just 5 years old when she darted in front of a car driven by Chapman’s teenage son, Will Franklin, in the family driveway. When Chapman appeared in a Modesto concert in 2011, he and his two sons, who played in their dad’s band and were launching their own group, were still coping with grief.
The Bible says, “ To everything, there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. ... a time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
Chapman said he feels as though his time of weeping and mourning is changing into a rebirth of joy.
Earlier this year, Chapman released an album that focused on his Kentucky musical roots. Unlike his previous works, “Deep Roots” featured bluegrass instruments and music, and was sold through the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain. But it’s been seven years since Chapman recorded a full-length album with his original Christian songs. That will change on Oct. 1 when his 18th album, “The Glorious Unfolding,” is released. The music reflects lessons from his recent journey, but with a return to melodies and lyrics marked with exuberance and joy.
“It just feels like a new season, a new chapter,” Chapman said in a recent phone interview. “We’ve obviously been through so much, crawling on our hands and knees through some dark places. We’re still walking with a limp, but it’s a feeling like you’re beginning to have your pace increasing, more joy, more laughter.”
Seven days after the album’s release, Chapman will return to the Gallo Center with The Glorious Unfolding Tour. He’ll bring two guest artists with him – singer-songwriter Laura Story (“Indescribable,” “Blessings”) and Jason Gray (“Nothing Is Wasted,” “Remind Me Who I Am”).
The Bee caught up with Chapman – married to Mary Beth with children Emily, Caleb, Will Franklin, Shaohannah and Stevey Joy — when he was in Florida to perform at Walt Disney World’s annual Christian concert called Night of Joy. The 50-year-old talked frankly about how his family and his music have changed in the past couple of years:
Q: It looks like your new album was quite a family affair. Was that a fun one to make?
A: I did get to have Caleb involved, and Will Franklin played drums on six or seven of the songs. I got to record it in my own home studio that just got built, so we were able to do more with it. Will got married in December and his wife has sung on my last three albums. My last album was with Cracker Barrel, and I had my father and my brother singing with me, with banjos and mandolin and fiddles and all of that. I think by going back to my roots and doing that album, which was very different than anything than I’d ever done, and then going forward, people say this new album has a lot of energy and excitement. It’s taking the journey from where music began for me to exploring some new sounds. I grabbed Emily, (daughters-in-law) Julia, Jillian, Mary Beth, even Stevey Joy for “Sound of Your Voice.” This album was a real blessing for me.
Q: What does the title “The Glorious Unfolding” mean?
A: Our lives are a story that God is writing, and he already knows the end. I really believe the Bible verses are true when God says, “I will complete what I started.” There’s a great verse in Jeremiah that I’ve held onto, especially the last five years: “F or I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” If God knows the plans, he knows our story and our lives. If we are trusting him with it, we get to watch this story unfold. It’s like reading a novel. You could read one chapter and say this is a bad chapter, but then two chapters later, you can see how things are happening because of what happened in the previous chapter. I’ve seen Will meet this incredible woman who loves him and cares for him and reshapes all of us who still, if we could, would go back and have our daughter with us. We can see how it’s all going to be amazing. We’re getting little glimpses of that even now. I trust that; I’m holding on to that.
Q: What’s new about this album, lyrically or musically?
A: Musically, I still have so much to learn. I love hearing new music on the radio or iTunes. I’ll pick things out in that like, wow, I’d never have thought of putting a glockenspiel in a rock song. Or you have (Marcus) Mumford who comes along and makes banjos really hip. I’m inspired by different sounds and have incorporated them into this new album. Even the way drums are recorded – instead of putting a drum track down, we created a lot of the rhythm for this album by hand claps and hitting the walls in the studio; putting microphones on the stairway in my studio and stomping on it. Beating on a cardboard box with a microphone in it. Just creating new sounds.
I played a lot of piano and wrote about half of the songs on the piano this time, which is unusual for me. Lyrically, I wouldn’t say it’s any different than what I’ve written for the past five years. I don’t think I could be any more honest than I’ve been. It’s hopeful. I think it brings perspective now. I have a confidence in these words that I’m saying now.
Q: How has your marriage changed, five years after you lost your little Maria Sue?
A: It’s stronger, obviously, because it’s forged in the fire of suffering. The hottest fire was losing Maria. Many marriages don’t survive (losing a child). I wouldn’t have understood that without walking through it. Grief is so relentless. It doesn’t follow an order or follow any rules. There will be a time when one of you needs to yell and scream and vent and the other is in a good place, and then it flip-flops. The closest person to you is the one you take out your anger on. Surviving children go through it and have questions. All of that has forged our marriage and made it even stronger, and yet, even more fragile. The bottom line is that by the grace of God, we are still together, and that is no small miracle.
Q: The last time we talked, you laughingly said you were hoping for grandkids soon so that Mary Beth would fill her arms with them rather than bring home another adopted child from China. Any grandkids yet?
A: Yes! Our oldest daughter, Emily, gave birth to our first grandbaby almost two years ago. That brings new perspective to our lives. Our adopted daughters are growing up. “Only One and Only You” was written for our 13-year-old daughter (Shaohannah). One’s written for my wife, “Together.”
Q: Hey, what’s with the new look? You’re looking younger than ever, maybe like 12 years old with those glasses and hair. Are you rebelling against getting older?
A: I’m proud of all 50 of those years and wearing them the best I know how. Photoshop is my friend (laughs).
Q: You’re touring with Laura Story and Jason Gray. Tell me about them.
A: Laura is an amazing songwriter, and I love being with great songwriters. I felt like I knew Laura because of her songs. When I heard “Blessings,” I thought, “I want to know this person.” She is everything you would hope she would be. She plays upright bass, so we may have to bring out a bluegrass number. I don’t know Jason as well, but I love his songs I’ve heard on the radio.
Q: I know this tour is just in the beginning stages, but what’s next for you? What do you think you’ll be doing with the last third of your life?
A: I think I’m going to continue, Lord willing, to sing my songs and write them as they come to me. I want to celebrate the life; next October is our 30th anniversary and Mary Beth’s birthday. We’re already talking about maybe a Christmas tour next year. I have some new recordings I’d love to do in my own studio. Worship songs have been a real part of our journey these last few years when I couldn’t get any songs to come to my lips. Maybe I’ll write a few and do those songs.