(RNS) The career of contemporary Christian singer/songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman has spanned 30 years, marked by success and tragedy. The Paducah, Ky., native is the recipient of five Grammys and the most Dove Awards — 58 — from the Gospel Music Association.
He also has grieved the 2008 accidental death of his 5-year-old daughter Maria, who he and his wife adopted from China. On Tuesday (March 7), Chapman, 54, is out with a memoir, “Between Heaven and the Real World: My Story.”
He talked about his career and his family life with RNS. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to tell your life story in this book, especially given that it touches so much on personal tragedy?
I have known for a long time that I would love to tell my story in great detail when the time felt right. I felt like it was important if I was gonna ask anyone to take the time to read my story that I owed it to them to not just talk about the high points ’cause that’s not nearly the whole story — but to really be honest about the struggles as well.
At one point you considered pursuing medicine instead of music as a career. What happened?
It was basically my father’s encouragement. He was and is a musician and owns a music store so he said, “Music is fun, great hobby, but very few people make a living (at it) so go to college and get a real job.” The summer before I began my freshman year of college as a premed major, I met the person who would introduce me to Bill Gaither, who would give me my first publishing deal and kind of give me my start in pursuing music. It was kind of the perfect storm, the planets lining up, that I was struggling greatly with college chemistry while I was getting phone calls from music publishers saying “we think you’re a pretty good songwriter. We’d like to offer you a publishing contract.”
You write that your first solo performance was at a pool party and you’ve gone on to sing at Opryland and Carnegie Hall. Did you ever hope for that kind of a career trajectory?
I had been part of a duo and my brother was actually a singer so that was kind of my very first solo performance without my brother. I was terrified …. From there I got my first professional job at Nashville at Opryland USA singing, actually, in a country music show there and from there all the way to Carnegie Hall in New York a couple of years ago. When you grow up in Paducah, you don’t dream that big. For me, at that point, the biggest thing I could imagine was someday performing at the Paducah civic center so Carnegie Hall was beyond kind of my wildest dreams for sure.
You have written about what it was like to lose your 5-year-old daughter Maria in 2008 in a vehicle accident. You prayed at the hospital for God to bring her back to life. How do you deal with prayers that seem to go unanswered?
It’s part of why I’m thankful I got to write the book because I got to finally share in great detail what that journey was like and how desperate I was and determined that God was gonna answer that prayer or I wasn’t leaving the room. It took my wife whispering to me and encouraging me that the answer wasn’t going to be what I wanted in that moment. I believe it’s a process of having to trust God. It really comes down to a matter of choice to say “I’m going to trust you, as foolish as it may feel right now. But I have nowhere else to turn.”
Living between heaven and the real world — that’s kind of where I feel like I am right now, longing for heaven more than ever now because I believe that’s where my daughter is. And yet (I am) still living in a very real world with unfixable things and brokenness.
As a writer since about 15, how have your songs, such as “Spring is Coming,” reflected your personal life?
I have always just set my life stories and my faith journey to music.
“Spring is Coming” is the song that very, very clearly reflects standing literally at the grave of my 5-year-old daughter with our tears watering the ground, of believing because of our faith that it’s not the end of the story, that even though we’re in the hardest winter we ever could have imagined experiencing that we really believe spring is coming.
How have you managed being a Christian celebrity — getting attention for yourself when you are trying to draw attention to Jesus instead?
It’s a real paradox. Do I just throw the baby out with the bathwater? It took me wrestling through that process and deciding if I ever come to a place of just being really comfortable with that, that’s probably the most dangerous place to be. That was the counsel that I received even as I went to my pastor and counselors in my life to say “help me wrestle with this.” And keeping myself surrounded by people who are not impressed with me as a celebrity but who care about my heart and my family and my faith and will encourage me in that.
You have also written songs for other Christian artists. Do you have a favorite?
I wrote a song with Mark Hall for the group Casting Crowns, a song called “Voice of Truth.” Mark came to me with the verses for that song when they were making their first album and said “I don’t know what to do with the choruses.” I wrote the chorus and I said, “What do you think about this?” And I love that song. He and I, in fact, toured together and whenever we get a chance we love to sing that song together.
You’re back on tour, still writing. Are you considering retirement anytime soon or do you have other plans?
Music, singing my songs, sharing my story, encouraging people, moving an audience with the music that comes out of me, is such a part of who I am it’s hard to imagine a day when I wouldn’t do that in some way.
With that, I would say that my wife would love it very much if I would begin thinking about something that maybe you would call semi-retirement. I feel like there’s a lot left to do and songs to write and life to live. I love writing with other people. I want to write a Broadway musical. My wife and I love doing things together. We’ve talked about doing a television program.
Unfortunately, I have lots of ideas still swirling around in my head that are probably gonna keep me active for as long as people will put up with me.