Matt Stell’s No. 1 smash, “Prayed for You,” has turned into country’s newest song ready-made for marriage proposals and weddings. But when Stell himself sings it, he embraces a different message. To him, the song says, “If you persevere long enough, good things happen.”
Heard that way, the song has become its own self-fulfilling prophecy.
Stell’s career has taken off along with his debut single, giving him the life he’s been working toward since moving to Nashville five years ago: a record deal, a Grand Ole Opry debut, supporting act on an arena tour (Chris Young’s), and soon, his own headlining tour.
On Tuesday, he got to celebrate it all at a No. 1 party for “Prayed for You.”
“This is the dream,” the 35-year-old Arkansas native told PEOPLE before the celebration. “Getting to do radio shows and travel the country because people want to hear a song that I wrote and sing — it’s just absolutely a dream come true.”
But as much as Stell has welcomed his career leap, the changes in his life have arrived at a furious pace, most obviously in terms of time commitments. Since the single was released to radio last December, he’s spent weeks at a time on the road to promote his music on radio and to perform. And, he confirms to PEOPLE, that his time away from home has taken a toll on his personal life — and “unfortunately, my upcoming wedding and that relationship [have] dissolved for the time being.”
Stell became engaged to Sophie LeBlanc, his girlfriend of almost six years, during a trip to New Orleans last December, and they had set a wedding date for next month. Acutely sensitive to the personal nature of the decision, Stell said, “I try to keep private as much of that aspect of my life as I can because, not only is it my business, but it’s somebody else’s business. I don’t want to give any kind of one-sided answer on anything like that, just out of respect for all parties involved.”
Still, Stell did reveal that LeBlanc “spearheaded” the recent decision, though he said, “I can’t say that I wasn’t sort of relieved a little bit.”
“There’s no hard feelings,” he added. “It’s the opposite, you know. We both want each other to be happy, and right now that means that it’s not together.”
Clearly, Stell is now laser-focused on stoking his career ambition — an ambition that ignited during his college years as he taught himself to play guitar. He spent several years honing his songwriting and performing skills before taking the Nashville plunge in 2014, intent “to sign a publishing deal to write songs and make little weird records of my own. That was the path I saw.”
But two years later, with no opportunities in sight, he and LeBlanc spent a month on a medical mission trip to Haiti, and Stell hatched a Plan B: medical school. He was actually weeks away from relocating to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to enroll in the Harvard University Extension School’s pre-med program when he finally got his Nashville break, catching the attention of publisher Ash Bowers, who signed him to a deal. Plan A was instantly back in play.
A year later, he sat down with Bowers and Allison Veltz Cruz to co-write “Prayed for You.” Cruz was actually the one with the idea. Days before, she had met the man she’d eventually marry; their connection, she believed, was the result of her active prayer life. She walked into the songwriting session with a snippet of lyrics that turned into the last lines of the chorus: “It’s hard to imagine, bigger than I could fathom / I didn’t know you from Adam but I prayed for you.”
“So we sort of used that as a point of departure,” Stell recalled at a news conference before the No. 1 party, “and we wrote a song about a character that’s a lot like me that’s way luckier than he deserves, not only in relationships, but just in life in general.”
At the press conference, Cruz said her husband now “likes the fact that Matt sings him a love song.”
Stell laughed. “Yeah, I wrote a love song about Allison’s husband!” he joked.
In fact, from social-media comments and meet-and-greet chats, Stell has discovered his listeners have a wide range of interpretations of who — or even what — exactly was prayed for.
“A lot of times it will be a relationship,” he said, “but sometimes it’s dealing with family stuff or stuff at work, having kids, completing something difficult, like school or a promotion. The fact that folks have identified that and latched on to it, I’ve thought is pretty special.”
Who does Stell feel he’s singing the song to?
“Everybody that it matters to,” he told PEOPLE. “The fact that folks want to hear this song and it means anything to them, that’s why I want to sing it. That connection that I’m able to make with the song is the whole reason that I do this. That’s the motivation, and honestly it always has been.”
Stell is now wrapping up his tour with Chris Young, and his 24-date headlining tour kicks off on Jan. 24 in San Diego. His followup single, “Everywhere But On,” will be released for radio play on Dec. 2.