Eight-time Grammy nominee, born in St. John’s but now calls Nashville home, Christian music chart-topper Matt Maher talks career successes, the origins of his faith and prioritizing family.
Matt Maher, it could be argued, is the most decorated artist ever interviewed by The Newfoundland Herald.
That’s a lofty statement, but his resume, which includes a whopping eight Grammy nominations, including three during 2016’s ceremony, speaks for itself. Now in the midst of what he calls his first two months off in nearly 10 years, the St. John’s born Christian music chart-topper made time to catch up with The Herald, by way of his home in Nashville, Tennessee.
Delving down memory lane, Maher shared some of his Newfoundland lineage, and the storybook-esque tale of how his parents, one Newfoundlander and one American, got together.
“My dad grew up in Argentia,” Maher shared. “When the Americans showed up they moved his family to Freshwater, Placentia. My dad lived there his whole life. My mother was American and they actually met on the base in Argentia. My mom was in a folk choir that got a USO grant and were touring naval bases. They came to the one in Newfoundland and my dad saw my mom sing and the rest was history. My mom moved to Newfoundland and I was born here and lived here until 1995, so almost 21 years.
“I came back every summer for the first five years,” he recalled. “Pretty much half of my life was spent in Newfoundland. It’s not just childhood years, but my early formative years as a young adult. I went to MUN for three years and have a ton of friends still there. My family is there, my dad is there. I try to get back. The last time we were back was two years ago. We visited my dad and family and brought two of our kids. We haven’t been back with the third, but we will, I’m sure of it. My wife and I both love Newfoundland and talk about that we’d love to have a summer home there. I always say Newfoundland is one of the world’s best kept secrets. More and more people are finding out about it. It’s such a special place. I’ve travelled a lot, and there really is no other place like it in terms of the combination of the hosptality, culture and beauty of it. It’s rare that you go to a place where every person is just as beautiful as the scenery, and it really is the case in Newfoundland. It’s just such an amazing place. I’m looking forward to bringing my kids there and having them experience the heritage that they’re apart of.”
Saints and Sinners
Maher’s eighth studio album Saints and Sinners, was released to critical and commercial fanfare in March of 2015, becoming Maher’s highest charting album on the Billboard 200, and earning him three Grammy nominations, an honour which is not lost on the humble father of three.
“Getting nominated is honestly a reward itself I think,” Maher shared. “The thing about the Grammys is that it’s all people, creators and people invested in the music industry. It’s not a fan award. Those are great as well, but what’s unique about the Grammys is that it’s other creators sort of acknowledging the hard work that you put into your music. It’s producers, engineers, musicians and people who work at record labels, the kind of thing where they all know how the sausage gets made. They understand the label and effort. People just know what they like, but sometimes the long hours and the labouring of music goes into it. So getting nominated is a huge honour.
“I think every time you make a record there’s a certain amount of the personal, and there’s a crucible that every artist has to go through where you have to walk through your own self-doubt,” Maher adds. “There’s a chart of an artist where it goes from the best thing I’ve written to ‘I’m not sure how I feel about this,’ to ‘This is absolutely the worst thing I’ve ever written,’ back to ‘Oh this actually isn’t so bad’ and then back to ‘the best thing I’ve ever done.’ You kind of osculate when you go through that. To me this record goes through that and it’s a labour of love. Moving to Nashville after being in Arizona for 18 years and realizing that I’d gone through a lot of life changes. As an artist all of that stuff is the stuff from which you draw inspiration. The birth of two children, getting married and then moving and buying a house in Nashville, it was all very much a labour of love, and in the process of that a lot of those songs came out of that time. It feels a little more personal than any other project. The fact that it’s been so well received is an affirmation of all of that work.”
Maher can’t confidently put a stamp on where and when his faith in God first emerged in his life, but he attributes much of his spirituality to his Newfoundland roots, and particularly his grandmother.
“People ask me, ‘Where did your faith come from?’ I don’t know, but on my dad’s side it came from my grandmother, because she had to raise nine kids by herself and she went to church every single day living in Freshwater,” Maher recalled. “She used to pray over me when I was a baby, that God would keep me safe and that I would live up to the dreams that God has for my life. I would say a big part of my faith comes from Newfoundland. I think it takes a tremendous amount of faith to live in a place where the summers are so beautiful and the winters can be so incredibly harsh. Also, just the livelihood of Newfoundland fishermen. The idea that people literally went out into the North Atlantic, which takes audacity, but also takes a certain amount of faith.”
The Perfect Stage
Maher noted that Newfoundland and Labrador has the perfect stage to find the next great Christian artist.
“I think more than ever before, live music is alive and well,” he shared. “One of the things that was instilled in me growing up in Newfoundland was supporting local music. I think of MusicNL and all of the work that they’ve done in terms of advocating for musicians, and even the ECMAs… A lot of people wonder if a city like St. John’s will grow over the next 10 years, and I think there could be some great opportunities for faith-inspired music to come out of Newfoundland. Honestly, what’s needed now is solid people. It’s that question on what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Does Christian music inspire Christian faith, or is it the other way around? Is it people serving the poor and being a good witness of their faith that actually inspires a young musician to write a song about their faith. I would say for me it’s definitely the latter.”
For Maher, in the wake of his third child, a period which he affectionately referred to as ‘a fog of new parenthood,’ he is content to enjoy his remaining weeks home with his family, before the call of touring ushers him back. Those are the roles that come first after all: father, husband and family man.
“I think the two months that I’ve had home have been a really good break. I’ve just tried to be present with my family as much as possible,” Maher shared. “Touring for the foreseeable future is part of what I do. I don’t have the luxury of staying home for six months. Hopefully I will. Hopefully six weeks of that will involve my family and I being in Newfoundland. I’ve been trying to use my time more wisely on the road, so when I’m home I can goof around with my kids and relieve my wife so she can catch up on some much-needed sleep.”