When it comes to contemporary Christian music, very few of today's singer-songwriters have more hit singles or more popularity than Matthew West.
But because he's a Christian artist, he says that popularity tends to come more from being heard rather than seen.
"Christian music is interesting because you get a weird kind of recognition. People recognize your song when they hear it on the radio, but if you're standing right in front of them, they wouldn't know who you are," he says. "I think it's an appropriate part, actually. Christian music is less about celebrity and more about impact. If people get more excited to see me and less about what I'm singing, I'm kind of missing the point."
Regardless of what he says, West happens to be one of the reasons Christian music fans will be excited to attend the popular Ichthus Festival.
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Initially started more than 40 years ago, this four-day festival of music and ministry will feature West and other big names in Christian music: Newsboys, RED, Relient K, Natalie Grant, Colton Dixon and others. The event takes place this year for the first time at the Kentucky Horse Park and will run through Saturday.
Deciding to become a Christian music artist was easy for West, 38. The Chicago native and son of a pastor grew up in the church, teaching himself to play piano.
"Music and faith are things that just went hand in hand for me," says West, who performs Saturday. "As I started to make music for a living, ... what you typically draw your inspiration from is the things that are important in life. I wanted to use music as my vehicle to put a positive message into the world."
After graduating from college and moving to Nashville, West got that message out as a songwriter, penning tunes for Christian artists Sara Groves and Salvador before releasing his debut album, Happy, in 2003. The album features West's now-solidified mix of guitar-driven pop rock with inspirational and affirmative lyrics and spawned the hit single More, which locked down the No. 1 spot on Radio & Records' Christian Adult Contemporary chart for nine weeks.
Subsequent releases, notably 2005's History and 2008's Something to Say, produced additional hit singles, including Next Thing You Know (Thirteen) and You Are Everything.
West says part of his success as a Christian singer-songwriter comes from his music's accessibility — "My music has never been, like, beat-you-over-the-head church music," he says — but also his desire to create more than just a catchy tune.
"I guess in terms of when I write a song, I don't want a song. I want a soundtrack," he says. "I want to write the kind of song that goes, 'Man, that song completely tells my story right now. That song is my life right now.'"
He took that ambition one step further with the release of his next three albums. Starting with 2010's The Story of Your Life and later with 2012's Into The Light and his latest release Live Forever, West took the inspirational life stories from thousands of fan submissions and brought them to life in his songs.
"I'd be blown away all over again just telling the stories of people's lives," he says. "You read these stories and it sparks ideas, it sparks excitement for life."
Right now, West is touring the country promoting the music on his new album, writing a book and, when he gets a spare minute, penning songs for Christian acts and even a few country artists (he's already written songs for the likes of Billy Ray Cyrus and Rascal Flatts). He has big plans for the future, but when he writes songs or performs live, those plans have more to do with growing his influence on people's lives than on his own fame.
"It's kind of ironic. The more well known I've gotten, the less concerned with being well known I am," he says. "Musically, I'm growing and taking risks and I think my best music is still ahead of me. That's been part of the process of digging deeper lyrically, going farther musically and knowing my audience on a deeper level."