More than 25,000 people have sent emails and letters to Matthew West, sharing their life stories with him.
The singer/songwriter from Downers Grove has sifted through nearly all of them. The stories that moved him he turned into songs. Those songs became albums. And West's latest story-filled album, "Into the Light," is a nominee for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album at Sunday night's Grammy Awards.
Winter Jam 2013 Tour SpectacularWhat: Concert of contemporary Christian music, including Grammy-nominated Downers Grove native Matthew West, TobyMac, Newsong and RED.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23
Where: Sears Centre, 5333 Prairie Stone Parkway, Hoffman Estates
Tickets: $10, at the door only
Info: (847) 649-2222 or searscentre.com
"When you write (people's) stories, it brings other people into the light. There's a healing effect that can take place when we all kind of step into the light with our stories, even the not-so-good parts," said West, 35, the son of the Rev. Joe West, the longtime (and recently retired) pastor of Hobson Road Community Church in Downers Grove.
"Some people say, 'I don't even want you to write a song about my life. I just wanted to tell someone about this.' I sense there's a greater purpose here than songwriting. That's why I'm going to continue down this path," West said. "It's about more than just music at this point. And it should be that way, anyway."
West could win two Grammys this weekend -- he's also nominated for Best Contemporary Christian Music Song, for "Jesus, Friend of the Sinners," which he co-wrote with Casting Crowns' Mark Hall. He's been nominated for Grammys twice before but has yet to take one home.
Unlike many songwriters who write about their own experiences, West draws inspiration from real-life stories of God working in people's lives.
Over the years, a few suburban people have been the subjects of West's songs. The title track of "Into the Light" is about a Northwest suburban woman who was in a violent marriage (he didn't want to identify her further) and found the courage to escape with her kids in the middle of the night during a rainstorm.
"The next morning, the sun was shining and they took a walk. She was wondering how she was going to carry on with life, now that she was living in a shelter. Imagine how scary that is. But then her son drew a picture with a bright sun on it and she knew she was going to be all right," he said.
Stories like these have changed West's life and his creative process.
"It's even changed how I look at my audience every night," he said. "I used to walk out and see a crowd full of faces, but now I see stories. I write my songs with those people in mind."
As a kid growing up in Downers Grove, West was more into sports than music. While he was a star athlete at Downers Grove North High School, West's parents and teachers always encouraged him to sing. But he kept his passion for music a secret.
In church, he'd quietly listen as his mom sang harmonies and he learned how to do it from her. Like other teenagers, he listened to pop music on B-96 and oldies on Magic 104.3, but also liked inspirational Christian music by DC Talk, the Grammy Award-winning Christian rap trio.
In college, West realized his future was in music. Once he started writing songs, it wasn't long until he landed a songwriting contract in Nashville, where he now lives. He sings and performs, but songwriting is his passion and he's written songs for Rascal Flatts, Michael W. Smith, Billy Ray Cyrus and others.
"As an artist, you only get to do a record every couple of years. A songwriter can write songs every day. Now I get to do my own projects, and then give songs for an artist to make," said West. "If I write 60 to 70 songs a year and they don't get to be heard by the world, what fun is that?"
Regardless of whether he wins his first Grammy Sunday night, West's future looks bright. After finishing his 115-show tour (Winter Jam Tour Spectacular 2013, which comes to the Sears Centre Feb. 23), he'll release a new book and movie -- both based on fans' stories.
He still collects stories on the "What's Your Story" section of his website, matthewwest.com. He says as long as people keep writing their stories, he'll keep reading them.
"I'm on an exciting journey," West said, "and I think we're going to continue to inspire people."
-- Jamie Sotonoff
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.