Gospel According to Matthew

The Good Lord Willing, Songwriter Matthew Levine Plans to Spread the word of Baha'i

Levine spent $5,000 to record "Forever Will Stand." His motivation for investing that kind of cash was not exactly clear. He felt no one would buy the song or even listen to it, since airplay certainly was not an option. Says Greg Ives, who produced "Forever Will Stand" and met Levine through the Baha'i community: "He was committed. Committed to excellence and wrote good songs and wrote what he believed was good rather than trying to write what was popular at the time. If something was marketable, that was great with him. But that wasn't his [priority]."

Having no outlet, Levine entered the song in contests around Hollywood; he figured his tune at least might get an audience there, particularly since it was well recorded. But, he says, "I knew people listened for production. Not song quality."

All the while, Levine was touring and playing firesides across the globe. He met his wife, Jia-yi Cheng, in Pennsylvania and, a year after marrying in 1996, relocated to Houston, where she would teach at the University of Houston. The couple has a daughter, Dana, who is almost two years old.

Cover art for Matthew Levine's various spiritual projects.
Cover art for Matthew Levine's various spiritual projects.
Cover art for Matthew Levine's various spiritual projects.
Cover art for Matthew Levine's various spiritual projects.

Levine once again began submitting the song to contests after receiving a letter in 1998 from his mother, who resides in Newport Beach. In it was a John Lennon Songwriting Contest ad ripped from the pages of Rolling Stone and a note promising to cover the $150 shipping costs and entrance fee. Levine entered. He discovered he was a finalist and soon began entering other contests. Like JLSC, the contests all had respectable reputations and all employed professional gospel performers and producers as judges. Finalists in JLSC, for example, have their material listened to by CeCe Winans, an international gospel superstar.

"I remember Matthew, and he was quite a go-getter," says Steve Cahill, president of Songwriters Resource Network. "I will say, as a general comment, we see so many well-intentioned and talented people come through here....And heaven helps those who help themselves. We encourage everybody to keep knocking on doors. It's an achievement, but do you expect someone to come up to you and say, 'Hey, do you write songs?' "

Aside from entering contests, Levine has been quixotically trying to get his music recorded or published. Adding to Levine's obstacles is the fact that he believes the gospel industry is one of the most difficult genres to break into as a songwriter. Church choirs and performers typically pen their own material, he says.

But Sam Harris of Pure Platinum Music Group, a local gospel label that has experienced some degree of national success, disagrees. He says: "There are a lot of gospel writers out there who aren't performers. It just depends on what you have, what form the song takes." To strengthen his point, Harris says that outside writers penned nearly half the songs on the Reverend Paul Jones's Pure Platinum CD, I Won't Complain, which, according to Southwest Wholesale, has been a steady seller since its release in 1991.

"We have writers we work with," continues Harris, himself a performer. Other Pure Platinum artists include Reginald Dees, Jennifer Cobbs and 'N Phocus. "A writer hears a voice he likes, he writes a song for him. Or a singer likes a writer and wants to sing his songs. It's a combination of both."

Levine says no one in Houston -- that he knows of -- has heard his award-winning song. Which is okay by him. "The music business in Houston is nonexistent," he says. "Unless you're in rap, it's mostly people trying to make it." In fact, Levine says, trying to find a "decent" lead singer in Houston is a hellish undertaking. And it will be a cold day in hell before Houston-based gospel publishers see any of Levine's music at their doorsteps.

But Levine doggedly is trying to market his song by other means. He has sent copies of "Forever Will Stand" to BMI and the Dove Awards, the Grammys of gospel. "I don't expect to hear from them," he says, sighing. If these futile attempts prove anything, it is that Levine enjoys the chase.

Levine's short-term goal is to get his songs recorded and to the marketplace. "I have a family to support," he says. "I can't have the free time to write without making money. Right now, I'm riding the wave of the gospel tune."

E-mail Anthony Mariani at anthony.mariani@ houstonpress.com.

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