When Steve Angrisano was in high school, he dreamt of becoming a singer or actor on Broadway. But instead, he did something he never imagined was possible – he became one of the highest-selling Catholic musicians in the world.
The 48-year-old singer-songwriter returned to Australia last month, only six months after attending the Catholic Youth Festival in Melbourne.
It was Angrisano’s second visit to Perth, and he told The Record he felt right at home Down Under.
“Just the humour and the way that I go about things, I feel that I don’t have to change anything to come here, it’s sort of a natural fit for me,” he says.
“Perth is beautiful and… I don’t know if it’s a function of being a little bit further away from the cities of Sydney and Melbourne, but I think there’s a genuineness and a friendliness to the people that I really enjoy when I come here.”
During his whirlwind three-day Perth visit, Angrisano hosted several workshops with musicians, youth leaders and teachers, as well as performing at Aranmore Catholic College in front of an enthusiastic young crowd.
The event brought back memories for the musician, who first became interested in the idea of uniting his love of music with his love of God at a similar event when he was a student.
“When I was in high school, I went to a concert like the ones I do now for the first time,” he says. “It was the first time I had seen people use the gifts of speaking and singing for spiritual purposes and it really changed my life, to hear people sing about God and talk about God in their life.”
Angrisano says the experience “planted a seed” in his mind of a desire to be part of something similar, and to be able to Go Make a Difference – the title of arguably his most popular song.
Since picking up the guitar as a 12-year-old, Angrisano has always enjoyed music, but even he admits he never thought he would make a living out of it, travelling around the United States and internationally for more than 20 years.
“When I graduated from university, I took a job at a parish and did ministry with the young people,” he says. “I didn’t see myself travelling around like this. If I wrote a song, it was because I was doing a retreat for Grade 7 students and I needed a theme song, so I wrote one. I never imagined other people would ever sing it.”
Angrisano says his breakout year was 1993, when he went from being a little-known artist who performed as a hobby to suddenly embarking on a full-time music career.
That year, Pope John Paul II travelled to Denver for the fifth World Youth Day, and Angrisano was asked to sing at the official opening of the event. Later in the year, he wrote the theme song for the US national youth conference.
“Those two experiences in particular – singing on the stage at the Papal welcome and writing the theme song for the conference – were huge for me,” he says.
“Suddenly there I was in front of all the youth groups of America and it led to me getting very big, so I left the job at the parish.”
But youth ministry has followed Angrisano wherever he has gone, making his performances more of a faith experience than just a regular concert.
“One of my favourite things about doing the kind of thing that I do is it’s very much like we’re experiencing it together,” he explains. “We laugh together and we sing together and maybe even cry together a bit, but it’s more an experience than just a music concert.”
As such, the American sees his music as merely a tool to strengthen the faith of others.
“I think the evangelisation is the most important part of what I do, and bringing faith to be more alive and more real in the life of a young person,” he says.
“The stories that I tell and the music that I sing really is just a means to that end, as opposed to an end in themselves.”
But there are times when Angrisano’s musical genius captures the emotions imbued in a specific event or circumstance far better than could be done via any other medium.
In 1999, Angrisano was living in Colorado when the world was shocked by the tragic events of the Columbine High School massacre, when two senior students shot dead 13 students and staff.
You Are My Child (Amber’s Song), which Angrisano rarely performs, was written as a tribute to one of the survivors of the tragedy. It remains one of Angrisano’s favourite songs.
“Amber was actually a foster child, she’d been taken out of a dangerous environment where there were a lot of drugs in her family and given to a foster family for a safer, better life,” he recalls. “Then the shooting happens at this nice suburban school and she nearly died, and she was very, very depressed.”
With the support of a strong group of Catholic friends, including Angrisano, Amber recovered and “is doing wonderfully today”. Angrisano and his wife, Jenni, are even godparents to Amber’s baby.
As for his own family, the Angrisanos have three children – Julia, 22, Joshua, 19, and Joseph, 12. Although their guitar-playing dad is on the road for as much as 45 weeks a year, Angrisano’s children enjoy being a part of his work.
“When my youngest son was four or five years old, I bought a CD and it was sitting on the kitchen table,” Angrisano begins. “He said, ‘Look, it’s daddy!’ and he picked it up and he saw that it wasn’t me and he said, ‘Oh no, that’s somebody else’s daddy’. He didn’t know that every daddy doesn’t make CDs, so they’re very accustomed to it and in many ways I think we’ve embraced it.”
Steve and Jenni will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary later this year, and the musician says he’s immensely grateful for the sacrifices his wife has made to allow him to pursue his music career.
“I couldn’t do it if Jenni didn’t believe in it and have faith that what we’re doing is what, as a family, we’re called to do by God,” he says. “I think she has the harder job of helping three kids to grow up during the time that I’m not home.”
Angrisano says he normally spends about four days on the road at a time – the exception being his three-week trip to Australia, which he says is simply because “it’s so far away”.
When he’s home, he takes a keen interest in what his children think of his music, even if it isn’t always positive.
“I don’t consider it a good song unless at least two out of three of them think it’s good,” he says.
“They’re brutally honest, they’ll say ‘That’s a good song dad’, or ‘Oh no, that’s bad, don’t do that’.”
Angrisano’s eldest son appears to have inherited his dad’s love of music, and even had a part to play in his latest album, A New Day.
“Joshua’s a little bit of a musician himself, so for my last CD I sent him first all the songs that I wanted to put on the CD,” he says.
“I honestly think he’s one of the reasons why it’s my favourite CD because I really think we made good choices on the songs.”
A New Day is Angrisano’s seventh album, and was released in November 2013. He says he’s very excited about it.
“I used different people for this record and I think it was a lot more representative of me and a lot more acoustic guitar driven,” he says.
Only time will tell if his new album will reach the heights of previous recordings, but one thing is certain – Steve Angrisano will continue to inspire Catholics through his music for many years to come.
“I’ll continue to do what I do,” he says. “I love writing music that the Church can sing because when we are singing and praying as one, that is what gives me the strength to live my faith. It’s very rewarding.”