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Leeland: Going the Wrong Way at the Right Time

By Chris Carpenter Program Director NASHVILLE -- Baytown, Texas based Leeland has had its hands full since the release of their debut album “Sound of Melodies” in 2006.  Just a few months removed from rehearsing in a local funeral home the five members found themselves standing on the red carpet at the 2007 Grammy Awards as nominees in the Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album category.

Non-stop touring across North America, Japan, and Western Europe as well as opening for Casting Crowns over the last nine months has made this quintet seasoned industry veterans even though no band member is over the age of 24.

With their latest album “Opposite Way” quickly climbing the charts it easy to believe that Leeland is contemporary Christian music’s next “big thing”.  Despite a dizzying degree of success in such a short amount of time the band remains humble and focused on their calling; to win as many souls to Jesus Christ as possible. Program Director Chris Carpenter recently sat down with the Mooring brothers, Leeland (lead vocals, guitar) and Jack (lead guitar), Jake Holtz (bass), Mike Smith (drums), and Matt Campbell (keyboards), to discuss their relationship with mentor Michael W. Smith, why God has blessed them beyond measure in such a short amount of time, and what makes their heart beat for the lost.   

Congratulations on your Dove Award nomination for Songwriter of the Year.  Your songs obviously stand out to people and the voters of the Gospel Music Association (GMA).  What do you think sets your music apart from other artists?

Jack Mooring: As an artist it is sort of surprising even as a new artist when you find out that people, the general public of the industry likes your music.  It is kind of a surprise at first.  I guess what makes our music stand out is the presence of God that people experience in the songs. 

Leeland Mooring: The songs we write are the songs that we think matter.  On our records are songs that have come out of prayer and those intimate times with the Lord.  We hope that in those songs that there is also a lot of Biblical truth.  We hope that when we write lyrics they really stir up a passion to get closer to God.

I understand Michael W. Smith has been sort of a songwriting mentor to you folks.  You can’t really pick someone much better than that to guide you along.  What types of advice does he give you?

Leeland Mooring: One thing we have noticed is that in artists who have stuck around for a long time, they have really good integrity and really good character.  That is one thing that Michael has really been teaching us – that is character.  He tells us we need to have the right heart and having a ministry heart more than a rock star heart.

On your Web site there is a section where each one of you discuss being nominated for a Grammy and how you all were sort of shocked by it.  Why do you feel that way?

Jake Holtz: A couple years before the nomination we were literally unknown and practicing in a funeral home.  Just to know God brought us to that point so quickly was just so crazy.  It was our first record.  We were just hoping that people would like it.  We certainly weren’t expecting a Grammy nomination. 

Critics have called your music “passionate, progressive, and worshipful”.  That is what the critics say.  How would you describe it?

Jack Mooring: I would agree.  We love those adjectives.  We grew up in the church and our heart has always been worship.  That is kind of who we are.  When you come to our show it is like … we have tried to do the whole rock band “let’s jump around and entertain everybody” but it never really worked.  When we get up on stage we just want to be genuine.

The new album is called “Opposite Way”.  What is the major theme of the record?

Leeland Mooring: One major thing that we saw from traveling a lot before we went into the studio was a huge hunger in our generation to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  What bigger thing to be a part of than the Kingdom of God.  The album and song encourages people that it is ok to go the opposite way from the world.  It is ok to run to God.  You might look stupid or be alienated from some friend but when you go after God there is no better choice you can make in your life.  We believe that God is raising up a new type of worshipper that isn’t afraid to run the opposite way for the Lord.

In talking to some industry types this week about you guys, many have said that you are a typical group of young men in their early twenties.  But even though you are young your songs contain wisdom that cross over many generational boundaries.  Do you feel that is an accurate assessment?

Jake Holtz: I think the reason people think that is all of us have a tremendous support group of people around us that keep us humble and where we need to be in the Lord.  Also, being on the road you need to stay in the presence of God to keep refreshed and remain in that place because once you get out of the presence of God you just get so tired and weak. 

Mike Smith: I think it stems from the fact that Jack and Leeland’s parents are pastors, my parents are pastors, Jake’s mom is on staff there, Matt’s parents are actively involved in church.  I think that has helped a lot in our songwriting.  Don’t get me wrong, we are still young guys who like to have fun and act or age but …

How is the new album different from your first album, “Sound of Melodies”?  That record was successful in its own right, as it received a Grammy nomination.  How do these two differ?  How are they the same?

Mike Smith: I think a lot of it is just a maturing over the last year and a half from being on the road and just seeing different things.  Just being a part of different churches and atmospheres.  I think that was a lot of the content and then just musically getting tighter.  We have also tried to be more creative (on this record).

Jake Holtz: This record was a lot of fun but it was also scary because a lot of people like our first record.  There was a feeling that we better not mess it up on the new record.  The second one comes so quick because you are so busy with that first record.  Then the new comes – bam!  As musicians and songwriters – I remember being kind of scared and just leaning on God thinking, ‘Lord, you are going to have to do this because I’m not that good.’

You have been out on the road with Casting Crowns for several months on your most recent tour.  You couldn’t ask for a better group of people to share the stage with.  What sort of influence have they been for you?

Matt Campbell: They are a very giving group of people.  At the level of success that they have they could be totally different but they are very humble.  They have kind of taken us under their wing and helped us out a lot.  We have a time every day where we have a Bible study with the whole tour.  To see them have that be a part of their tour is inspiring but it is also something that we will do.  It is kind of setting a precedent for a lot of tours to take time out to put God first because that is why you are there.  For us, that is something that we really need.

You folks have had a pretty high degree of success in a short amount of time.  A lot of bands play out for ten years before they even get their first record deal.  Do you think this early success has helped you as a band or has it hurt you?  I say this because you can look at that from a couple of different ways.

Jack Mooring: A little over two years ago we were rehearsing in a funeral home in a small Texas town.  We weren’t signed.  God has taken us here so fast but in a sense I think that is good because – I think that if we had been around for 15 years busting our behinds trying to make it all happen we would have the temptation to think our success was because of us.  In other words, we worked hard enough to make it happen.  Since this has happened so quickly we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that it’s God.

Leeland Mooring: If everyone has their 15 minutes of fame and everyone has that period where all eyes are looking at you and giving you praise, at that moment what do you do?  Do you give all the glory to God or do you take some for yourself?  That is one thing that has been a little bit scary for us.  But the fear is kind of good.  It is kind of a fear of the Lord type of thing.  Whenever anyone talks about how good we are I just keep saying, “Praise God” when they are saying it because it is nothing but the hand of God that has brought us here.

Final question.  What has God been showing you lately?  What is He teaching you?

Jake Holtz: Lately, we have all been just staying in the presence of God and resting in His presence and His Word.  That is the place you get refreshed.  Each night you can just keep going out there and play and not get sidetracked.  It is easy to get sidetracked on stage and think, ‘I’m tired.  Right after the show is over I am going to bed.’  But when you are in the Word and you are praying and focusing on God throughout the day, when you get up there to play you are focusing on God again.  You are so refreshed.  You want to see people get blessed and God do something awesome in their life.

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