Over two thousand years, men and women have responded to God's invitation to grace, all as part of the Body of Christ; the church. To accept the revelation that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of mankind; that He paid the price for all of humanity's transgressions, and that this gift of reconciliation with God is made for all to receive freely through the cross. As part of the body, each person's response is lived in a way as unique as the individual. Yet, despite the distance of time, culture, and ethnic origins, each call is connected in common struggles and themes, chief of which is, as Jesus says in the gospel of Luke, to "pick up his cross and follow me"... to empty oneself and be filled with that beautiful grace... to be 'empty and beautiful'.
For singer/songwriter/worship leader Matt Maher, there is nothing more special about his call than anyone else's, and like those before him, he is trying to live that same call, as his 12-track Essential Records debut album's title says, to be made Empty & Beautiful. Maher breaks open these two simple words on the project, in songs that are both corporate and reflective; driving and soft; each one telling the story from a different perspective. Empty & Beautiful was co-produced by Maher and Jeff Thomas, except for, "As It Is In Heaven", which was produced by Ed Cash (Chris Tomlin, Bebo Norman, Bethany Dillon).
Born and raised in Newfoundland, Canada, Matt grew up in a strong culture compromised of two elements: music and tradition. "Music is part of the fabric of the culture there, similar to places like Louisiana or the Appalachian mountains; and over the years, not just Celtic music, but music of every kind. "I grew up listening to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem every Saturday, rain or shine. My dad would cook while listening to Willie Nelson or Frank Sinatra. My cousins, who lived next door, listened to everything from Broadway to British Rock, like the Beatles and The Who." Early in life, Matt's parents realized his talent for music and started him in piano lessons. He quickly absorbed as many musical styles as possible, playing in concert and jazz ensembles, singing in choir, and even playing in a high school garage rock band.
Matt's collegiate years began while he was still in Newfoundland. At this time, life lessons abounded, and most of them were difficult ones. In 1995, Matt's parents divorced. His mother, an American citizen, decided to move back to the United States to be closer to her family. After careful consideration, Matt decided to move with his mom. "I remember realizing in my heart that I was going nowhere, and quickly. I had made some poor decisions during college. I was a very sensitive soul. During those years, it's easy for people and life to break your heart. I knew I needed a new start, so I moved to Arizona with dreams of becoming a film-scorer." Matt assumed a brief stay in Arizona would help him adjust to American life, but God had different plans.
"I had been raised believing in God, but music was my religion in a way. Once high school came, I stopped going to church. I would pray at night before I went to bed. I had a Bible in my room and would read Genesis and Revelation, because I was fascinated with how we got here, and how we're going out, but that was all. My relationship with God was not very strong. I knew He was real, I just didn't know how much He loved me."
Matt started attending church with his cousin and her friends, looking for deeper answers and friendship. This is where he witnessed a church youth group for the first time. What Matt found was something more than friends - he found Jesus Christ.
While attending his new church in Arizona, Matt was approached by the youth pastor and the music director to help out. "They both saw something in me that I didn't see, and I know it was God leading me closer to Him. Within two months, I was led to accept what Christ did for me on the cross, and to respond in serving Him in my new church community." During this time, Matt restarted work on his music degree and received a scholarship from the Jazz Department at Arizona State University, where he studied Jazz Piano.
After a few years, Matt was led to another community, St. Timothy Catholic Community in Mesa, Arizona, where he has been since. While being mentored by Dove Award-nominated songwriter and artist Tom Booth ("I Will Choose Christ," "Nothing Is Beyond You"), Matt met and worked with several artists along the way, including Israel Houghton, Kathy Troccoli, and Rich Mullins, whom Maher credits with helping him land his job at St. Tim's.
Matt shares, "Rich and Tom were friends, and Rich wanted to do a performance of his musical "Canticle of the Plains" at St. Tim's. Rich asked Tom to cast it. Tom called me and asked me if was interested. I said, 'Uhh, sure,' at that point having no idea who Rich was. This was a major turning point for me. I couldn't get over this guy; he was so real, yet he loved God so much, but without all the superficial piety." Matt's character, Ivory, was a piano player who made his living playing at a hotel saloon, a job Maher knew well. He paid for his first three years of college by playing piano in a hotel in his hometown. This series of events, like many others to follow, helped deepen Matt's commitment to Christ. A few years later, another movement became more present - modern worship music.
"I was in my last year of college, unsure of what to do next, when I heard the songs of Delirious? and songwriters like Paul Baloche and Darrell Evans, as well as the Passion movement. This stuff blew me away. It was in those simple expressions that I realized my desire to do the same thing." Maher took a full time position at St Tim's, and started writing songs for his church.
Ten years and many songs later, Maher is now travelling full time as a "Musical Missionary," and is still involved in local church ministry at St. Timothy Catholic Community, as well as helping out with the young adult ministry at All Saints Newman Center, on the campus of Arizona State University. "You have to stay rooted in community if you want to lead and write for the Church. That is where your songs come from - from your relationship with Christ, with your immediate family, and the family of believers."
Besides serving with organizations like Worshiptogether.com, Spiritandsong.com, Passion, Youth Specialties, and Adore Ministries , Matt is a contributing artist for Life Teen, a high school youth movement that helped lead him to Jesus; his songs are being sung by the church around the world. A number of Matt Maher-written songs have been recorded by other artists, including "Your Grace is Enough", a song for the church originally recorded by Maher's good friend, Chris Tomlin; "Unwavering", a reflection on the Beatitudes (recorded prior by Bethany Dillon); "For Your Glory", a new testament response to the book of Ecclesiastes (recorded by Phillips, Craig and Dean). Other songs include "As It Is In Heaven", a song based on the Lord's Prayer, originally written by Matt, now re-worked with acclaimed producer Ed Cash; and "Great Things", a look at the song of Mary, the Magnificat. "I'm always looking in for biblical songs for the church, and here you have this amazing prayer song by the first human being to accept Jesus Christ into her being; a 14-year old girl who literally carried God in her womb. Amazing."
Matt continues, sharing his inspiration behind the song "Empty & Beautiful". "'Hold fast to the confessions you have received,' Paul says to Timothy. When you read all of Paul's letters, you see the transformation of a man into a follower of Christ: 'I've kept the faith. I've fought the fight. I've finished the race.' You see the truth of God, despite the reality of Paul's humanness. It's the miracle of grace being revealed," as the chorus to the title track illustrates:
You fought the fight in me
You chased me down and finished the race
I was blind but now I see
Jesus, You kept the faith in me
"In life, we end up having to empty ourselves to achieve that which is beautiful," Matt says. "If you don't, you never really get made beautiful. It's a weird dichotomy, especially in the world we live in because there's so much focus on beauty. The whole idea of having to empty one's self to achieve beauty is completely counter cultural, but that's what happens-marriage, service of the poor, sharing the beauty of the gospel. That's what Christ calls us to do, and I hope these songs will help inspire people to follow Jesus in that way."
The Band (As told by Maher)
In 2005, after 10 years of living in Arizona and being involved in local ministry, I started saying yes to different requests from around the country (and some other countries as well) to travel and play - at concerts and at events, leading worship.
I had been praying all year that God would bring the right group of musicians together with me to enter into this endeavour. Kenny and I had known each other for several years (my cousin had lived with his family for some time, and i watched him grow into his gifts over those 10 years), but the rest was at the end of that summer, i was at an XLT* (the first one of that semester) in Phx. That particular week, my drummer and bass player were both gone....for good. The drummer was discerning joining a monastic order, and the bass player went off to medical school...
Enter Dan and Kemi.
Dan Hinze and I met in 2000. We tried jamming together once. It was a terrible experience for both of us, lol... we just did not mesh together at all... 4 years later, I need a drummer that night. A friend recommended Dan to me, so I called him two hours before when I needed him, and he showed up...
Kemi Ndolo moved to Arizona to go to school. At some point someone handed him a bass guitar and had him come play bass on a retreat with high school teens. The story goes...
"Hey man, is so and so here?"
"Um, what are you doing?"
"you wanna come play bass?"
"i don't know how"
"I'll tell you about it on the way up"
So that was Kemi's intro to bass playing. And that night, he showed up to play with two month's experience...
So we played at the XLT that night, and during the final song, i looked around at the 3 other lads playing music with me, and heard in my heart, "here's the band you've been praying for"...
the rest is still unfolding!