Innovator, creator & icon: A conversation with gospel music pioneer Carman

Four-time Grammy nominee and six time Gospel Music Award winning artist Carman was raised in a musical family, his mother was a child prodigy on the accordion. That gift for music was inside him but being a musician wasn’t his first choice of careers. He primarily wanted to be an actor and as a teenager, he studied in acting workshops and seminars in Philadelphia.

“Music was something I did on the side to make ends meet. I was a drummer actually,” Carman explains. “I was offered a job that paid 35 dollars a night but I had to be able to sing for the gig. So I started practicing singing so I could get that job and the 35 dollars.”

That started something inside of him and from there, he wanted to record.

“When I first became a Christian, I didn’t know what to do with myself artistically. That’s when I started to write songs. I wasn’t a songwriter before then. I couldn’t find music that was expressive in the way I wanted to express myself so I was writing out of desperation and frustration. I incorporated the acting and singing together in one product. Writing a song was, to me, like writing a script.”

Carman ended up creating a genre within the genre. His unique story-based anthems translated seamlessly into music videos that aired regularly on TBN, into live concert experiences with dancers and production elements not seen in other forms of gospel music, and eventually into feature length films.

“I was doing something that didn’t fall into any category – secular or sacred – which was odd. I still haven’t heard anyone else doing story songs or pictorial imagery set to music like what I was doing. It was its own little category.”

Doing something no one else was doing carved a niche for Carman within the Christian music market; the flip-side was that the CCM community didn’t know where to put his style of presentation and musical delivery.

“I didn’t get much airplay at all. Within the record labels, they categorized people. For example, they would think of Rich Mullins and his song “Awesome God” and he was then categorized as the man who sang big anthem songs. I was categorized as the guy who does the story songs with the devil,” he said. “I was told ‘music like this shouldn’t be sold in stores’ and that they didn’t understand what I was doing.”

Music execs might not have understood what he was doing, but his audience did. He sold more than 10 million records and holds attendance records for the largest Christian concerts in history, notably filling Texas Stadium with more than 71,000 attendees. The way he fused a diverse set of music styles with stories people could both relate to and cheer on made him one of the biggest artists in the genre.

“I think of that music in film terms. I have something I want to say and then I think how I should say it,” he said. “I start to dress the song in a style, a Latin style or hip hop style, whatever fits the way the message of that song should be told. It’s almost like you’re casting – the song is the script but it has to be performed out by the music. That’s the actor/theatre thing in me. The songs lent themselves toward theatre. When I was writing, I would write in such a way that if a kid could memorize that song, they could hold their own in a debate. It’s full of quotations and facts.”

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Carman in “The Champion”

The “actor/theatre” thing in him never dissipated and he eventually took to the big screen in the film “R.I.O.T.: The Movie.” Merging movies and music together as one, he wrote and funded the film independently. TV specials and more films followed, all of which enabling him to incorporate his love of theatre and acting with his specific brand of musical story telling. But in 2013, performing came to a halt when Carman was diagnosed with myeloma.

“It’s a different age,” he says of today’s social media culture. “People want to know the personal stuff. Posting about my diagnosis on Facebook was a way to share part of my life. Most people have had experience with cancer, with themselves or in their family. It resonated that it was a serious thing. I came very close to dying a few times during treatment. After chemo, you have no immune system and you’ve got nothing to fight anything off. People related to my honesty about it.”

Carman says the news of his health issues turned out to be a moment of rediscovery for the singer and his fans. The outpouring of support from thousands surprised him and pushed him to recover. In early 2014, within weeks of leaving the hospital cancer free, he was on the road in concert again.

“So many people believed for me and my healing. I now have an opportunity to sing for them again on tour.”

Today, his definitive style of visual/musical storytelling is brought to life with the help of large video screens to illustrate his stories. More than amorphous projections, he’s using technology to create the worlds, scenes and feelings sung about in his songs.

“People want to relive the experience that made them excited about you,” he said. “With a song like ‘The Champion,’ it was 8 minutes long. If I did that whole song now as it stands, I wouldn’t get the reaction out of it like when it was brand new. So I just try to do it in a fresher or upbeat way by adding stuff to the music and editing it down to the most interesting parts. I still do some new music, but the new stuff has to really be explosive to stand up next to their memories of my old stuff. That’s hard to do but I’m doing it and I’m happy to be doing it.”

For more and to find tour dates, head to www.carman.org

Interview by Ryan Brinson
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