You know that feeling when you pull away from your house, drive down your street, and then you suddenly remember something you’re going to need real bad? So you turn around and pull back in the garage, dog wondering why you’re back so quickly because she barely had a chance to close her eyes, and then try the whole leaving thing again.
Well, this recently happened to me. But instead of being down the street, I was 30,000 feet in the air, and somewhere over New Mexico. I was on my way to Whistler, British Columbia. A beautiful mountain village about 1½ hour north of Vancouver—in metric that’s about 90 minutes.
But I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be let into the country, because it’s not like I forgot my contact case, or a hairbrush. I had forgotten my passport. Not usually one to panic, I waited until we landed in Las Vegas for a brief layover and then hit the internet to see if I could find out exact details about border crossing. The best information I could find was from the Canadian Border Patrol—sounded credible enough. They said, officially, you don’t need a passport to get into the country, but you do need one to get out. The catch is, you need to prove your U.S. citizenship. All I had was my driver’s license and my Starbucks card. Not quite enough.
We decided to give it a try—surely they’d have some kind of computer system that can look up citizenship, credit score, horoscope sign—it is 2010, for Pete’s sake. Not so fast, Yankee.
While most people simply flash their credentials and drive on through, we had to pull over, park, and go inside to meet with somebody official. I explained the problem, trying to appear willing to work with them on whatever they needed. The officer asked me what I did for a living (singer), and what was the purpose of the trip (fun). And then we waited as they walked away with my driver’s license and my friends’ passports. And waited.
We wondered if they were just watching us to see if we got squirmy. Perhaps I was, but it wasn’t anything a trip to the bathroom couldn’t take care of. We also figured they were wanting to make us feel as inconvenienced as possible, just so this wouldn’t ever happen again.
“Mark Smeby?” the Canadian patrol officer announced across the lobby. Of course, I didn’t hear it, because I was just finishing up in the bathroom. So she waited. As I jogged across the lobby, I thought, “This is just like at a restaurant, where you wait and wait for your food to come. And then you go to the bathroom, and the food comes. Cool.”
The officer asked, “So how much money do you have.” Do Canadians think all Americans are rich? I wondered.
I said, “On me?”
“No, how much money do you have access to.”
Ah, drugs. They’re concerned about me buying drugs. I answered, detailing my bank account contents.
She hemmed and hawed. Did she think I have too much or too little money? Then came the clincher.
“Ok, now sing the National Anthem.”
My mouth dropped open. “For real?” I asked.
“Yes, you said you’re a singer right?” She suddenly turned into Simon Cowell, in a weird nightmarish version of Canadian Idol.
And then I thought about baseball. How one of my dreams has always been to sing the National Anthem at baseball stadiums across the country. If I had to pick one, it would of course be in Minnesota before a Twins game. Joe Mauer would come up to me after and say, “Wow, I’ve never heard anyone sing the National Anthem that good. You wanna be friends?”
Next thought: “Really? My first time ever singing the National Anthem is going to be in this dumpy, DMV-like place, for this few people? And to top it off, Canadian people! Not like I had planned, God. Not like I had planned.” I sensed God chuckle ever so slightly.
I decided that if this was going to be my first time, I was going to sing my heart out—a sort of karmic audition for future sporting events. Could I be as awesome as I had pictured myself being?
Joe Mauer, if you can hear me, here goes.
Picking a note out of the air, I tried to remember the first word. And then the next word. This continued, wondering if the last word I sang would be the last one I remembered. I also kept wondering if I had started too high, cause, you know, this blasted song gets really high at the end. But I kept singing, scared to death. I’ve never sung for my life before, much less my vacation.
It was a bit like downhill skiing, where you start off at the top, knowing you’re going down the dang mountain, but you have no idea exactly where you’re going to go and what you’re going to encounter along the way. The same exhilaration, mixed with the same “I’m gonna crash and burn any second,” was exactly what I was feeling as I sang.
Singing mostly with my eyes closed, due to intense concentration, I would occasionally take a peek to see the reaction around me. The interrogating officer had a smile on her face, and had a friend come stand by her. Other officers came from around corners, also smiling. I’m so happy they were enjoying themselves. Even if this was some kind of sick joke, I was going to make the most of it, and sing at the top of my lungs. I wanted people in Nanaimo to hear me. They probably appreciated my chutzpah. I appreciated them appreciating my chutzpah.
My friends, as well as my new uniformed Canadian friends, met my big finish with great applause. They slid my driver’s license and my friends’ passports across the counter saying, “All Americans know the National Anthem.” I smiled back and nodded, though it’s not true. “You’re never going to forget your passport again, will you?”
“Absolutely not.” I shook each of their hands, thanking them, just like I would as the players came out of the dugout, as I walked off their field. A strong performance from a rookie on foreign turf. I breathed sighs of relief for the next 30 minutes.
I have to believe there is security camera footage of this whole ordeal floating around somewhere on the Internet. A kind of Border Patrol Candid Camera—something created to pass time on cold snowy nights after the poutine has all run out.
If anyone does find this footage, please send it to Joe Mauer. I’m sure he and (Canadian) Justin Morneau would get a good laugh out of it.
“Don’t forget this one…” The muffled sound of music plays in the background.
“Which one?” I ask, not able to discern a melody. She can’t remember the title, but she will.
My sister, Jody, sings along with the music in the car, “Call me from this boat, I wanna walk on the water.” It’s my song about wanting to escape from the doldrums of life, into something more fantastic. There’s got to be something more, kind of thing.
“Oh yeah, I love that one,” I reply.
Jody and I try to talk on the phone every Friday morning on her way to work, me on my way to a weekly meeting with some guys. It’s our regular time together. And it’s usually therapy for one of us.
“But my favorite is still ‘hold onto me forever, and I’ll hold onto you,’” more singing. That someone would actually like my music enough to consider one a favorite is mind-boggling to me. But I don’t have the average sister.
Throughout most of the Nashville years, she has been a steady source of encouragement to me about my music. She keeps old cassettes I’ve sent to her over the years, and plays them in her car. Or jams along to the tunes in her basement music room. She makes me think there’s actually value to some of my songs, when it seems like no one else in the world cares. I have always believed what my sister said because she was older, which meant wiser.
Besides, she was always the more talented sibling, the leader. I was the follower, the imitator. They say I didn’t even talk until I was three; Jody simply did all the talking for me. I watched her to see what I should do, what I should be. She sang, so I wanted to sing. She was a writer, so I wanted to write. It’s like growing up in a house with a great chef; you kind of automatically have the desire to cook, as well.
When I discovered acting, and then later, singing, I found what I thought was my voice. People would watch and listen to me up front, and then they’d applaud. They appreciated what I did. They liked how I made them feel. Which made me feel valuable and important, even if I was merely reciting someone else’s words. I was the tool for someone else’s message.
I knew that if I really wanted to have a voice, I would have to learn to write, so I could sing my own words, pronouncing my feelings at the top of my lungs, thereby validating them, perhaps by sheer volume.
Little did I know, but a town driven by songwriters would be the absolute best place for me to learn the craft. In Nashville, they say, “It all begins with a song.” Hundreds of people spend hours upon hours digging for gold in tiny writer’s rooms with out-of-tune pianos, keys drenched with spilled coffee.
They say you have to write a lot of crappy songs before you write one really great song. Most people don’t have the tenacity to write a bunch of bad songs, they simply think they are the exception; that perhaps they’ve struck gold with the very first handful of songs they’ve written. That’s been my problem. It’s a kind of like falling in love with the idea of being in love, even though you don’t really like the other person, yet. Not that I have any experience with that.
I have considered many of the songs I wrote early on to be “great,” simply because I was so blown away by the fact that I wrote them. Now I tend to look at those early songs as “not quite finished.” To an undiscerning ear, the song might sound great, but it would never be able to be recorded by another artist for a variety of reasons. Not commercial enough, too personal, too boring, too emotional…I’ve heard it all, trust me.
I had to figure out who I was writing for. I decided it was me.
Yes, it’d be great to write for other people, to have really famous people sing my songs, but even better for me to have a cadre of tunes that provided glimpses into my own story, songs that communicated places of hope, desire, brokenness, determination, devotion, etc. If I could effectively communicate my story, allowing other people to see themselves in my story, bringing them pieces of hope and encouragement, then I believe I’d actually be a success.
There’s a desire deep in my bones for my life to be special. To be amazing. To be a person of impact and influence. But there’s also a feeling, almost as deep, that I’m incredibly inadequate. That I’m average, mediocre, and basically silly. So life becomes a balancing act—attempting to live each day with the weight of both sides pulling on me. Many days it pulls me into lethargy; a dragging, of sorts, into nothingness. My safe place. A place where I justify not doing anything, as a kind of artistic prison.
The way out? For me, it’s gratitude. And listening to my sister’s voice.
I packed a sandwich for the trip, but had to stop and get some fries and a diet Coke for accompaniment. It’s better that way. It’s only a three-hour tour from Nashvegas to Louisville, just long enough to make a couple phone calls and get through three CDs. Haven’t heard Breathe’s “Hands To Heaven” for a while, so I enjoyed that. Would love to cover that, as well as “Somewhere Out There,” perhaps with Natalie Grant playing the Linda Ronstadt part, for the forthcoming Pilgrim Man CD.
Last time I pulled into Dover Chapel, the town was covered with ice. This is the church used in “The Perfect Gift,” you know, the one that put up the Nativity scene that I had ordered taken down? I was wondering if the real-life church would have an actual Nativity scene set-up, with maybe a sign declaring, “As seen in the feature film THE PERFECT GIFT” for those who drove by. No such luck.
I’ll be doing a concert in their morning service tomorrow, and then singing “Emmanuel” prior to a screening of the film in the evening. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be here, and get to share some of my tunes with these amazingly kind people.
I’m listening to a station that just might play my Christmas song, “Emmanuel (You Are With Me)”. Honestly, it’s a weird feeling thinking your song might come on, and then realizing it probably won’t. And trying not to be resentful of the others who do get their songs played on the radio. The more effort that is made to get my song played on Christian radio, or to get some press coverage for the movie – and the more walls we hit – people saying no, or just not saying anything at all – the more challenging it is for me not to get frustrated. It’s easier to not go after something, and simply live in the fantasy of what might happen. But putting yourself out there for people to say “this is of value to us” or not…is a crazy way to live.
I’m reminded that I can’t let any of my self-esteem or identity be found in who likes me and who doesn’t. Which is fine, because Joe Radio Programmer isn’t rejecting me, per se—he just doesn’t think he can hold/increase listeners by playing a completely unfamiliar song from a completely unknown artist. Makes sense to me! What’s really even more amazing is when someone DOES take a chance by playing my tune! I’m blown away there are stations playing my song—that those programmers are taking a chance with an unknown song and artist.
Ultimately, I know my song has already been, and will continue to be encouraging to some people. I already know that for a fact. To think that the impact of my song should be THIS big…or this big…is selfish, and oddly enough, me trying to tell God how useful I want to be.
Here’s my simple Christmas prayer: God, I trust you are using my song just as You’d like. I’m thankful to have played a small part in bringing hope to someone who may be hurting this Christmas. But hope doesn’t come from Mark Smeby. It can only come from You. I surrender my desire to have my song be really popular. Even though I desire to have this curious moment create more opportunities for me, I can trust You are the provider of all my future opportunities, and not the radio chart. Thanks for reminding me you are in control of your world and your work. It’s better that way.
I thought it was time for an update. There’s been so much going on lately, it’s hard enough for me to keep track of it all. More than anything, I want to say a giant THANKS for the support and encouragement from you all!
CLANCY – this awesome faith-based family movie is being released around the country via DVD on Oct. 20. It’s a great adventure-driven relationship story with powerful themes of forgiveness, faith, sacrifice, and redemption. Oh, and it features my song “Precious Memories” – available now on iTunes, or watch the music video on YouTube. You can also hear the whole soundtrack for Clancy on iTunes, as well.
THE PERFECT GIFT – my motion picture acting debut! Releases on DVD Nov. 3rd, with a limited (teeny-tiny) handful of theaters showing it, as well. A few TV networks will be showing it, too (details TBA). A heartwarming Christmas film that will be around for many years to come, The Perfect Gift explores the Culture vs. Christmas war that always seems to strike up around the holidays. I play the leader of a local ACLU-type group who tells a local church they have to tear down the Nativity scene they’ve put up in their front yard. Yes, I’m the bad guy. But I play him with such charm and passion, I’m certain you’ll love hating me. The Perfect Gift also features my tune, “Emmanuel (You Are With Me)” – more below on this one. Again, this is a Kelly’s Filmworks production – my friends Jefferson and Kelly up in Louisville are amazing and really appear to want to help the people around them succeed more than themselves. I’m thankful to be around them and the beneficiary of much of their generosity and love.
EMMANUEL (YOU ARE WITH ME) – Kelly’s Filmworks has agreed to hire radio promoter Mark Giles to work my tune to 1200 radio stations around the country for this upcoming Christmas season. I’m blown away by this!! This could be a huge thing for me, or it could be a small thing. It’s impossible to know exactly what is going to happen. My hope is that people will love the song, and especially find encouragement in the message. I wanted to write a song that acknowledged how Christmas isn’t always the happiest time of the year. For some people who are alone or hurting, it’s a very painful time. This song goes there – and then invites God to come into that place. I’m also blown away by my co-writer and producer Tim Brown who has gone above and beyond with his work on this tune, as well as shooting the music video for the song. Just this week, we added live drums, more guitars, and will (unbelievably!) be adding a full orchestra to the track next week! WOW!
I’m convinced that success happens when God places people around you who have a greater vision for your possibilities than you do. For anything to happen in this Industry you have to have champions-people who believe in you more than you do yourself, and then actually work to help you succeed. I’m so thankful for so many people like this in my life.
I’ve also recently had really interesting acting auditions for parts in a new Disney film called Secretariat, a Robert Redford film about the Abraham Lincoln assassination trial, as well as a FOX TV show called Past Lives. I haven’t gotten any of these, but I’ve had a blast at least getting to put my name in the hat. Honestly, in spite of all the hundreds and hundreds of opportunities I been rejected for, I’m still surprised at how it stinks so much – especially when it seems like it’d be a really good gig. Still, I have to trust there’s a greater plan at work, or else I’ll go even more bonkers.
More to come….