Mark Schultz finds freedom and creativity in solitude.

After his last record, Song Cinema, released two years ago, Mark Schultz decided it was time for a break. Not just a little vacation, mind you — a sabbatical during which Schultz re-evaluated his life and his mission. Six months later, he emerged with a new focus for both his life and his songs.

“After the last record, I felt I needed to take time off, and that was a soul searching time for me,” says Schultz, noodling with the fax machine at his Nashville, Tenn. home while we talk by phone.

As the fax blasts its cacophony in the background, he relates what he learned during his time away. “I had the chance to go deep and look at all I have been through — places I have been broken, places of strength.”

Schultz took his break in the mountains of Canada. “That was awesome — just to slow down, be up in mountains and relax,” he says. “My life for the longest time was about being around people. This was my first time being alone for like six months. It was terrifying for someone who likes to be around people and make people laugh.”

He says he spent his time thinking and praying about the relationships in his life. But he felt God saying to him, “Before you deal with that, check under your hood, fella. Learn about yourself.”

“What I have learned about relationships is that you can’t ask someone else to validate you,” he explains. “You have to be validated by God, and that frees you up to give to them.”

Part of that freedom means stepping out of the comfortable role of funny man — the center of attention. Schultz recalls praying, “‘I know you have a purpose for me.” And God told him, “You’re funny, but you hide behind that. You’ve got a message. Go share it.”

And what was the message? A simple question: What are you going to do with your time?

“That was so motivating to me,” Schultz explains. “All these songs born out of that question: What will you do with the time you have left? It feels like I have written a record for where I am in my life.”

That record is the just-released Stories And Songs, Schultz’s third for Word Records. One track on the record draws its title from that question, while several others deal with it indirectly — from the tearjerker ballad, “Do You Even Know Me Anymore,” to the funny, Queen-influenced epic, “Running to Catch Myself.”

One significant difference in making Stories And Songs was working with veteran producer Brown Bannister. The change made a big impact on Schultz, judging by the enthusiasm with which he speaks of their studio time.

He recalls the joy he felt while driving down the road and listening to rough mixes of songs. “I had to call Brown and say ‘I’m here crying and listening to the songs.'” In the studio, Schultz would get so excited about the music, he would “jump off the couch and hug Brown and the engineer. There’s nothing better than that.”

Despite notable song co-writes with Chris Eaton and Cindy Morgan, Schultz wrote the bulk of the record himself. He explains how the time off recharged him, and influenced the lyric writing on the record.

“I have got to have a lot of down time — time to live life — to ride my bike and jog and hang out with people and . . . go to the Grand Canyon, go on mission trips, fast,” Schultz says. “All my stories are about life. At some point, I have got to stop writing about it and start doing it. And then songs start flying out of me.”

Songs such as “Child of Mine,” a power pop tune in the vein of “I Have Been There” or “I Am The Way.” The lyric, “You are a child of mine / Born of my own design / And you bare the heart of a life,” were written to a friend struggling with self-doubt. But they also have meaning for Schultz himself, who was adopted.

“I think I have always thought, ‘Gosh, I want my parents to be happy with me.’ I don’t want them to feel like they made a bad choice in adopting me,” he says. “Down deeper than that, there’s only one person I need to get the validation from, and that’s God. That’s the only person I have to worry about letting down.”

And that realization has impacted Schultz’s songwriting. “That has freed me up so much,” he says. “I’m free to write from my heart when I’m not trying to impress people, but instead (I wrote) from deep-soul satisfaction of pleasing God. With this album, I wasn’t writing to please people; I was writing from what I felt was the realest part of me.”

“Letters From War,” though timely today, is actually about his grandfather’s letters home to his mother during World War II. “My great grandma lived to be 100 years old, and when she passed away, we found these letters she wrote to her son, my grandpa,” Schultz says. The song depicts a soldier “who’s brave and courageous and a mom who’s at home praying that he’ll make it home alive.”

“Closer To You” is another favorite that ties back to his “Big Question.” It’s about the life and death of a 31-year-old woman from his church. “She got cancer, and she was dating a minister at the church,” he says. “He was with her all the time, and when they found out she just had a month left, he proposed.” The couple married two weeks before her death. “Closer” is about both of them walking through the experience in faith.

In the emotion-filled ballad “Do You Even Know Me Anymore,” the scene shifts to an absentee father coming home to find a distant wife and son already grown, and he prays for another chance to connect with them. Musically akin to “He’s My Son,” its message is “slow down.” Make the most of your time. Don’t look back on your life with regret.

“Living well for me means continuing to live slowed down, to walk and talk with God and not feel like I need to be the center of attention,” Schultz says. “God’s saying, ‘You have been in the center of attention. It’s time to slow down and spend time with me and enjoy the richness of life — you’re so busy, you’re missing the whole journey of it.'”

Copyright © 2004 Christian Music Planet, used with permission.

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Beau Black is a Fort Worth, Texas-based freelance writer and an English instructor at Weatherford College.

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