Listening In: Matt Hammitt


WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’re listening in on my conversation with author, speaker, and the former lead singer of the Christian rock band Sanctus Real, Matt Hammitt.

MUSIC: [Chorus of “Lead Me”]

That was Sanctus Real’s song “Lead Me,” from the band’s 2010 album “Pieces of a Real Heart.” The song went to Number 1 on the Christian music charts and was nominated for a Dove Award. The songwriter and lead singer for that song and many others by Sanctus Real is my guest today, Matt Hammitt.

Matt Hammitt said that song reflected his struggle to lead his family while he was on the road more than 200 days a year with his band. In fact, he said it was ironic that a song about taking responsibility as a husband and father led to the kind of success that made it almost impossible to provide that kind of leadership in his own home. 

The result, as you will hear, is that he ultimately chose family over fame, quit the band, and entered a new season of life and ministry as a speaker and author. His first book, the one we’ll be discussing today, takes its title from the song. It’s called Lead Me: Finding Courage to Fight for your Marriage, Children, and Faith.

I had this conversation with Matt Hammitt at the annual meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters in Nashville, which took place during the last week of February.

So Matt Hammitt, welcome to the program. It’s great to be with you. 

MATT HAMMITT, GUEST: Thank you. It’s good to be here. 

SMITH: I’ve been an admirer of your music for many years. And now, I’m an admirer of you as a writer. And I think I shared with you before we got started here that I have to read a lot of books—get to read a lot of books. I love reading. I get to read a lot of books. But I will admit that some of them are compliance activities. I’ve got to read them because, you know, for my job or I’m going to interview somebody and I feel like it’s my duty to read the book. This one stopped being a duty and started being a blessing really quickly. I mean, you’re a writer, you’re a songwriter, but this is your first book. 

HAMMITT: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting. I was in Sanctus Real for 20 years and that’s all I really knew was the songwriting for the most part. And then over the years I started blogging and doing some articles here and there. And I just really discovered that I enjoyed maybe even as much. at times more, instead of packing a message into a four minute song, I realized how much I loved unpacking something. And so, I mean, that just has been an awesome opportunity to express my thoughts and what’s going on. Hopefully to help others however I can, by sharing my story. It’s been a great road for me. 

SMITH: Well, I wanted to ask you a question about the book just because it was fascinating to me and I loved the book and it is the latest thing. I mean, it’s the thing that we’re talking about now and you’re talking about now, but I do want to hear your story. Let’s go back to the beginning a little bit, but before we do, I wanna—inquiring minds want to know, the real hard-hitting question is how do you pronounce the name of your band? 

HAMMITT: [Laughter] Yeah, it’s so Sanctus Real. And the funny thing about that is we were 16 years old when we named our band, never thinking it would go on to be what it was. And our drummer came to us. He says, “Hey, I found this word Sanctus in a dictionary.” Now of course, now we know it was sanctus, right? Properly. Latin. But we were like, all we’d known was sanctified, sanctuary. You know, we were just a bunch of Protestant kids. We didn’t know. And so we told our drummer, cool, we love the meaning of it: holy, set apart. And then some guy was like, “Hey, let’s say you know, real, that we are authentic.” and so Sanctus Real it was. But the funniest part about that is that we took a Latin word and pronounced it like any American teenager who doesn’t know would. But then we also coupled it with an English word that could be Latin. So we’ve had so many people over the years think their name was Sanctus Real.

SMITH: Well, whenever I first discovered you guys—

HAMMITT: Which would be like the normal way of thinking for anybody who knows Latin. 

SMITH: Yeah. But it’s not. And so Sanctus Real was started whenever you, like you said, you were in high school.

HAMMITT: Yeah. 16 years old. And we started touring around like the region, which is Ohio, Michigan, Indiana for several years. 

SMITH: And a defining moment though for you guys was when you won sort of a battle of the bands kind of competition.

HAMMITT: Yeah. We were going to break up and we were, I mean, at the time we were like, you know, this thing can’t go on.

SMITH: Well, and also you were church kids, right? I mean, you were Christian school kids and, you know, this was a secular rock space.

HAMMITT: Totally. There’s a big mainstream rock station in Toledo that was holding this regional contest with, you know, I can’t remember how many it was over, you know, 70 to 100 mainstream artists from all over. And we thought, there’s no way we’re gonna win this thing. We put our song in there and we won. We came in number one and we were like, well, maybe we should keep going. It seems that not just in our bubble, right, and not just in our Christian music circle, but people outside of it seemed to really believe in what we were doing. And we thought, man, maybe this is an opportunity.

SMITH: So you’re 16 years old when the band forms, you kinda catch a break. You start touring regionally. Eventually—and we’re leaving out a lot of history. Let’s just stipulate for the record that folks can go read the book if they want to know more. But, you know, you eventually get a record deal. You moved to Nashville and ya’ll have a big career. Talk about that era in your life.

HAMMITT: Yeah. So it was really exciting, really crazy for a bunch of small town Ohio kids to, you know, start getting these doors open. It was amazing that Sparrow Records, you know, signed us and we started hitting the road in 2002. We did our very first tour with, it was actually our first tour, MercyMe’s first tour, Jeremy Camp’s first tour, TobyMac’s first solo tour. We all did it together and here we are with all these artists and we’re out touring. And it was just an amazing time. But as we moved into years of touring and as more and more albums started coming out and then in 2010 when our fifth album Pieces Of a Real Heart came out is when we really started seeing all the success that we had been working for and wishing for started coming to fruition. But that was also the time for me when my life as a husband and father was really in a formative period where that was when I was really struggling to navigate the tension between family dreams and career dreams.

SMITH: And I want you to talk more about that, but I want to linger just for a moment longer on that period between 2002 and 2010. You’re on the road, you’re, I dunno, 200-250 shows a year?

HAMMITT: Yeah, about 200 shows a year, sometimes more. And we’re, you know, for those first four years, my wife was with us, she was in the van sleeping. We couldn’t afford hotels at the time. So just van and trailer through the night, sleeping in the van, washing up in Walmart parking lots. 

SMITH: Well, and that’s the part I want you to say a little bit more about it because you all are starting, have some success. People know who you are. You’re on the radio and everybody thinks you guys are rock stars.

HAMMITT: Yeah, exactly.

SMITH: And it ain’t so glamorous, is it? 

HAMMITT: Yeah. It was not glamorous at all. I remember, you know, being on tour, the other artists who are bigger than we were and we would be up at 2:00, 3:00 AM in the morning just asking if we could use their bus driver’s hotel room to shower or, you know, it’s like just whatever we could do to survive really at that time. Even though we had songs on the radio, even though our career was building, we still at that time were really struggling to make a good living at it, you know? 

SMITH: Yeah. And there was a one particular story—You mentioned MercyMe. There’s one particular story. As you said, you were sort of chasing the buses. You guys were still in a van hauling a trailer—an old van, a broken down sometimes—hauling a trailer, chasing the buses to get to the next gig. And one time your van didn’t make it. 

HAMMITT: Yeah. So we had an issue, our van really, it tuckered out, man. It went up in smoke, downtown San Francisco. We ended up in what to us at the time felt like an almost impossible situation where we, you know, were totally broke and had no vehicle at that point. And just praying that God would help us figure out how do we continue on this tour. And when we finally made it to the next show, you know, the guys in MercyMe told us they wanted to see us for a minute. And at first I thought it was like, Oh no, what do we do? 

SMITH: You might get fired from the tour or something?

HAMMITT: I didn’t know what we thought. We just, we didn’t know, you know, but they came up and they handed us an envelope and at that time, God had really blessed what they were doing with I Can Only Imagine. And so they were just selling out, you know, they were doing very well. 

SMITH: Well, in fact, you mentioned in the book that they were not only doing big shows and getting the money from that and selling a lot of records and a lot of radio, but they were also selling sheet music and that was like amazing. 

HAMMITT: We used to watch these—we all know, these things cost one penny to print and they’ve got stacks of these things, selling them for a dollar. And they’re selling thousands of these things a night and they were just—actually it was funny, we always made that joke and I talk about it in the book. Like, thank God for sold sheet music because they came up to us and handed us an envelope with $1,000 in it. And it was people like that along the way who really stepped up to encourage us and show us love in real practical and tangible ways that a lot of times kept us going. 

SMITH: You’re listening in on my conversation with Matt Hammitt. Matt Hammitt is the co-founder and former lead singer of the band Sanctus Real, which produced 11 albums while he was with the band, and received two Grammy nominations and 7 Dove Award nominations. He’s won 3 Dove Awards, including the Dove Award for Modern Rock Album of the year for its 2005 album “Fight The Tide.” 

I’m Warren Smith. More with Matt Hammitt, after this short message.

Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith, and today you’re listening in on my interview with Matt Hammitt.

His new book is Lead Me: Finding Courage to Fight for your Marriage, Children, and Faith.  

Let’s get right back to our conversation.

So Matt, you have this period from 2002 to 2010—more or less—where you guys are just on the road and it’s a hard slog, but you’re married, as you mentioned, your wife is traveling with you. What happens around 2010? 

HAMMITT: Yeah, so 2010 I’ve got this—there’s two things. I’ll say. Number one, I had this little song that I had written out of the struggles in my marriage called Lead Me that I didn’t want to share with anybody but the band heard it and the label heard it and said, man, you’ve got to share this song with people. So that was one of the leading tracks off our fifth album. At the same time, well one month after Pieces Of a Real Heart, our fifth album with Lead Me on it, came out my wife and I went for a 21 week ultrasound for our third baby. And we found out that day we were having our first boy, which was so exciting, but we also found out that our little boy only had half of his heart. That was definitely a defining moment for us as parents to move into such an uncertain season, health related, with a child that we couldn’t even really tangibly help because he was still in my wife’s belly. And so it was like just from April to September—while this record had just come out, while we’re starting to see more success than we’ve ever seen behind some of these songs. I’m like trying to figure out how my wife and I are going to care for a child with special needs and knowing that I’m going to be spending all kinds of time in the hospital and going through multiple open heart surgeries after this child is born. And so, you know, I’m trying to really process the fact that everything I’ve been chasing in my career is kind of happening, but things in my personal life feel a little bit like they’re crumbling all same time.

SMITH: Your child, your son’s name is Bowen. 

HAMMITT: So, we named him Bowen because it means small, victorious one. And we really, I mean we just, it was our way of claiming, saying like, Hey, this is his, he’s got a small heart. But his story will be victorious. It’s God’s story. You know, one thing I always mentioned to people, and I am going to throw this in there because you know that I do a lot of pro-life work and I’m really passionate about life—

SMITH: Actually, I was going to ask you about that. So I’m glad you’re throwing it in there. Because you were tempted—

HAMMITT: One of those things was we had—there were two doctors in particular up in Toledo. We were seeing specialists before we went up to Ann Arbor to have Bowen who multiple times were telling us like that we would be selfish to have this child telling us the right thing, the kind thing to do for our family, for our kids would be to terminate our pregnancy. And, you know, naming him Bowen really was kind of a way for us, I think it was a little bit of defiance as a father for me. Cause I’m like, no, he, this is, I don’t care if it’s a moment or a lifetime. This child is precious to us and this story will be worth something, you know, it’s God’s story that he’s writing through a viable life. And so that was a hard time. It was a beautiful time, but also a hard time because, gosh, anybody who’s been through that medical stuff knows it’s just, it can be, it’s hard.

SMITH: So, Bowen was born.

HAMMITT: Yeah.

SMITH: And I mean, it was touch and go for awhile, right? 

HAMMITT: Yeah, it was, I mean, five days after he was born, he had his first open heart surgery. There was one moment the night of his first surgery when we got called at 2:13 AM—I’ll never forget the time—because his heart stopped beating and we ran to his room and we had a moment where we—not a moment, it was 45 minutes where we literally were reaching through the chaos to just hold his feet and pray for him because he had arrested and they didn’t think they were going to get him back. And 45 minutes, this nurse actually had her fingers between the open walls of his chest, just pumping his heart between her fingers to keep him alive. And at some point they pulled us away. I knew what that meant. I just prayed some desperate prayers of a father. And by the grace of God the nurse came back in and told us that they had stabilized him, that his heart was beating again.

And in that moment—you know, so it was these crazy moments and there was more than one there. He had a major stroke and that heart attack. And it was like, there were all these moments where we just didn’t know.

SMITH: Well, you know, when I read that passage, I mean, my heart broke and also at the same time just couldn’t imagine. I mean, I was reading it and I was imagining it because the words were on the page and I could process what was going on. But on the other hand, I couldn’t, as a father of four myself, especially that image of—

HAMMITT: Tit was the craziest thing.

SMITH: Squeezing the heart, the little baby heart between her fingers.

HAMMITT: It was a crazy, really crazy, crazy thing to see as parents. I never imagined that. I never really understood how violent it could seem to save a life. And to kind of be thrown into that. I mean, I’m grateful they let us be at his bedside to pray for him. Cause I mean that’s a scene, you know, no parent want regardless of what age their kid is, wants to see a child in that situation.

SMITH: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean just to keep people from being too much in suspense. After multiple surgeries and many months—

HAMMITT: Yeah. So two open heart surgeries within the first six months of life, and then we enjoyed a season that was relatively quiet with his health. He still had some issues, but they were under control. And then we finally had a third open heart surgery last July and now Bowen is nine. So three open heart surgeries later, he’s still with us. I’ll never forget the words the doctor spoke after his first cardiac arrest that just, I don’t know, he looked at me and he said, “Hey dad, you still got a kid in there.” That’s how I say it. Nine years later, we still got a kid in there. We’re so grateful.

SMITH: Well, and I’ve met Bowen and, in face, I’ve heard the two of you sing together, perform together. At least by all accounts—let me say it another way, at least from where I sit, looking at the two of you perform, I mean, a beautiful young man. Talented, got a great voice. Any residual effects that you can tell? 

HAMMITT: We keep our eye on it. He still struggles a little bit with a few things just in terms of his blood oxygen levels. And, you know, there’s those other few little things, but honestly, for what he’s been through and for the condition he has, he’s just doing incredible. And so we’re blessed beyond anything we could’ve imagined.

SMITH: You’re listening in today on my conversation with Matt Hammitt.

I’m Warren Smith. We’ll have a few final thoughts from Matt Hammitt, when we return.

[Break]

You’re listening in on my interview with Matt Hammitt. Matt Hammitt left the band Sanctus Real in 2015, and for the past five years has been speaking and writing. He is a part of the FamilyLife speaker team, and he tours with Kirk Camaeron’s Living room Reset events. He also writes regularly on marriage and family issues for Fox News, Focus on the Family and Family Life Today.  

Let’s get right back to our conversation.

So, Matt, Sanctus Real takes off, Bowen comes along, you have all these challenges there. You know, it’s around 2010 but you’ve got medical bills, you’ve got three kids now, you’ve got responsibilities, and so you really can’t leave the road, can you?

HAMMITT: Yeah. You know, it was a time when we had taken those months off to be with Bowen, as you said, and to provide for my family, I had to get back on the road. And not to mention we’ve had this—now we have two number one songs in one year. There’s a song called Forgiven before Lead Me. Both songs went number one. We’ve got every artist in Christian music offering to take us on the road. Winter Jam tour, you know, wanting us to co-headline and be part of that. And, man, it was just all the opportunity was there and all the need was there. And the great irony of this story is that the very song that I had written as a declaration to be a more present husband and father, the success of that very song is what took me away from home even more.

SMITH: And so what happened?

HAMMITT: Yeah. So over the course from 2010 to 2014 I learned some really hard, crushing lessons about the man that God wanted me to be versus the man that I was. Never for lack of good intentions, but it was my embrace of the good intentions, really, my inability to see reality as opposed to my good intentions. It was almost like I was trusting my internal dialogue and my own imagination of the man that I wanted to be, or I envisioned myself being, that I was accepting that that was who I was. When in reality, my wife was more lonely than ever. My kids needed me more than ever. And—

SMITH: And you were lonely on the road, too.

HAMMITT: I was, absolutely. We went through just, I mean, and people can get in there and so it’s almost a hard thing to mention briefly, but I think it’s important. One of the lessons that I learned personally that I think I had to learn before God launched me into a marriage and men’s ministry was boundaries.

We had someone was older than me on the road during this time when I’m facing all this grief, Sarah and I are grieving separately. We’re fighting. I’m away more than ever, even though I’m singing Lead Me every night. And there’s a person that worked with me who was older, I felt I could trust. It was a female. I began developing just this codependence. It wasn’t a physical affair, but it was a codependent friendship where emotionally I began relying on this person to fill my tank. They’re telling me all the things I want to hear, how great I was, and I wonderful I was, and listening to all my woes. And it was like, you know, I realized in that over the course of time especially with my wife saying, Hey, this seems unhealthy to me. And I’m like, this is great. This is a blessing. This is someone who’s pouring into our business and pouring into me.

And over the course of time, what I realized is that I was basically—we all have this well of cherishing love that is meant only for our spouse and so many times we can poke holes in the lining of that and leak that out in other places. Whether that’s, you know all different sorts of in career affairs or financial affairs or ways that we give our heart to other things that drains the well of love that’s meant for our spouse.

And so that was another hard lesson that I learned, just the damage that even caused in my marriage and, man, there were so many lessons like that that you can read them—again, people can read about it in the book. I can’t go too deep right now, but it basically came to a point where I had to make a decision. I had to put a stake in the ground and I had to decide is it my career or is it my family?

SMITH: Well, you ultimately—let’s, again, just fast-forward through a lot of stuff. And you ultimately decided your marriage and family should take priority. But I want to pause on that moment for a bit because there were—these were guys that you had traveled with since you were 16 years old. These were guys that you were the lead singer, you were a key songwriter in the band. Making that decision, it’s one thing to make it for yourself, but you were going to have a pretty seriously negative—potentially negative impact on their lives as well.

HAMMITT: Absolutely, yeah. So I just worried, you know, I was like, I felt sick. These are guys I was best friends with. These were guys that I’d done life with, that I did music with, and I was the front man. I was the face of the band. I was the primary songwriter. And I thought to myself like, I don’t want to cripple these guys in any way by leaving. And, yeah, I had an interesting moment and I don’t talk a lot about this moment in the book, but for me there was a personal moment where I realized that God was speaking to my heart and he was saying, do you think you’re the only child of mine that I love? And I realized in that moment like, this is not about me. God loves all of us equally. And obviously certainly—

SMITH: He would care for them.

HAMMITT: Yeah. He would care for them as well as he would care for me. And that this isn’t just for me, even though I’m the conduit of this change.

SMITH: So you ultimately left the band. About five years ago at this point?

HAMMITT: So it was actually—yeah, almost. I made the decision in fall 2014, my last year was 2015 with the band.

SMITH: But you were able though, I mean the relationship with the guys you ended well. Y’all had kind of a farewell concert back home.

HAMMITT: We did a farewell tour. I mean, man, don’t get me wrong. It was hard and there was feelings to sort through, obviously, of trying to tear something apart that’d been going for 20 years and they were understandably upset at times. But, man, God really kept those relationships and healed with things that needed to be healed. And just a couple of weeks ago even, you know, I was out with the guys just hanging out like it was old times, you know, like God’s really kept those relationships together.

And especially in moving into this season a few years later now it’s like, you know, you can kind of reconnect and realize what you most loved about each other to begin with. And it’s been a blessing for both of us. They’ve moved on, they’ve actually had some success more recently with with radio and songs on KLove again and I’ve got the book and some things I’m working on. And you know, it’s been neat to be able to now move into a season where we can support each other.

SMITH: Yeah, yeah, that’s really a remarkable part of the story because a lot of bands don’t end well.

HAMMITT: That’s true. That’s true. Our problem—and I do write about this in the book—that our biggest issue, people want to know what was the dirt. And I say, well, honestly, we didn’t fight enough. Like sometimes things are probably too unsaid. We probably could have stood to share our feelings a little more. And I think we’re actually moving into a season now where we feel a little more liberty to do that.

SMITH: Yeah. I’m just wondering—and I want to talk about what you’re doing now. You mentioned the book and some other things and I want to get to that, but I’m a big music fan and I’ve studied a lot of bands over the years and you know, they don’t always end well, number one. And sometimes they break up acrimoniously. Sometimes they break up just because nobody cares anymore. And you guys went through a season of that yourselves where you were playing arenas and then all of a sudden you were playing halls where there might be 20, 30, 40, 50 people and you thought you might end then, before you kind of had a resurgence.

HAMMITT: Yeah, yeah. Totally. Yeah. Right before Lead Me came out, we had our fourth record. It was kind of really was a big wave. We were doing really well. Then all of a sudden there was this moment where I almost left in 2008 because I remember I had this moment I write about where it’s like, I’ll never forget being in this gymnasium where just like, nobody’s there and I’m thinking nobody cares anymore. It was so hard to move on at that point. At that point though, I really felt like God was still speaking to me that he wasn’t quite done yet there and now I know he had more to teach me. But yeah, there definitely were those moments where we’re like, man, this is over. And I think, you know, without some of the success of that fifth album, you know, it all would have maybe been over before that, you know? 

SMITH: Well I asked that to kind of ask this: From where you sit now, looking back on it, I mean, you got to at least at some level think, man, what a blessing that was. What an amazing experience to go from with a group of guys 16 years old to the top of the Christian music industry. And, you know, I mean that’s not like the Eagles or Elton John, but still, I mean, you’re playing to big crowds and big people and I’m assuming making some real money at that point. A lot of bands never get that far. The vast majority of bands don’t get that far.

HAMMITT: Yup. It’s always easy for us to look up on the ladder, right? Like who’s ahead of us? And a lot of times we don’t look back and go, wow, look what we had the privilege of doing that so many people wish to do and don’t get to. I try not to take that for granted. I really do. And I do look back. Sometimes people ask me, do you want it back? Some people want that. Do you want that back? And I look back and I think, man, I just try to celebrate the moments that we did have. But the joy now, like I look at even the coolest moments of being on stage in front of tens of thousands of people or Grammy nomination or something that whatever would be an exciting moment, you don’t define yourself by, but you try to celebrate. I look back on that and I think, man, it still doesn’t compare to just like the joy that I get now of knowing this human relationship I have now with my wife and kids just being home and being present and, you know, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but I still look back on those moments with great gratitude.

SMITH: So Matt, let’s pivot in our conversation just a little bit. What are you doing now? Tell talk about that. I mean, obviously you got the book and we’ve been talking about that the whole time. A lot of what you shared with me are stories that are in the book, but you’re also engaged in family and marriage ministry.

HAMMITT: Yeah, absolutely. So when I left the band, I had no idea what I was going to do. I just like literally was like, okay Lord, use me however you want. I put together a conference that I did for men for the first year . We did about a half a dozen of them. They were awesome. Got to just share my story with other guys and hear how they were struggling and encourage each other. But at the end of that first year in 2016, Kirk Cameron called me and Bob Lapin from Family Life called. And so Kirk wanted me to do a marriage and parenting event called Living Room Reset with him. You know, Bob wanted me to speak for the Family Life weekend, remember team. And so it was like doors just started opening. They weren’t doors that I had to kick down or, you know, a lot of times when we’re trying to chase our success we’re always trying to push things into existence, you know, and it can be hard, but this was kind of like a surrendering of God, you do the work. That’s what made it so sweet was that he was opening the doors and now that’s primarily what I’m doing is writing. Now obviously with this book and I’m doing a lot more articles now for different family organizations and then also people ask me to sing Lead Me, of course, and sometimes will ask me to do some worship and sing a couple of their songs, but primarily people are wanting me to speak on some of the issues that I write about in the book that I think everybody feels that the heart of marriage and family. 

SMITH: So, at the end of the day how do you want your life to be remembered? How do you want—do you kind of view everything that you’ve done leading up to this and this is really finally your life’s work or is it all of a piece?

HAMMITT: I think I’ve got a lot of books waiting to be written. I’ve got several drafts and ideas already of other books and ideas that I feel like I really want to be able to encourage people mostly with issues that I think people—we all struggle with. In terms of you know just identity and faith and family. And so I’m working on some other book things. I’ve got other musical ideas. I’m still writing for other artists who are on the radio. My wife and I just did a documentary called Bowen’s Heart. It’s going to sound design this week, which is really cool. It’s going to be done soon. I’m doing all the music for that. So I think it’s kinda like wherever I can use my gifts of words and music season to season, I’m not really sure what that looks like in balance per se, but I know that that’s my call from this point forward, that wherever God calls me to use those gifts in a context that still builds my family and others, I’ll just keep using them.

SMITH: Matt, thanks for being on the program. It’s great to chat with you.

HAMMITT: Absolutely. Thank you. Warren.


(Photo/Matt Hammitt)

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