Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Economy of a Worship Leader: an interview with John Mark McMillan

How much ground can you cover in one short interview? Well, when it’s a chat with John Mark McMillan, the answer is ‘not enough.’ You get the sense that there’s so much beneath the surface; this man’s waters run deep. Even more intriguing, is how his music draws you into a different type of worship. It must be something about the union of his paper-thin vulnerability and roughly-hewn vocals reminiscent of a rock and roll legend. Here is the dialogue that left me wanting more…

John: So, let’s start with some background questions. Where are you from?

John Mark McMillan: I’m from Charlotte, NC. I was born here and still live here today.

JOHN: How long have you been doing music? Did you grow up in a musical home?

John Mark: My mom and dad messed around with guitar, but I don’t think they would consider themselves musicians. I grew up in a Christian home and went to church where music was played regularly. Honestly, I got into music to impress girls, because I wasn’t very good at sports, but I don’t think it really worked. I did [however] fall in love with music [in the process].

JOHN: So, are you married?

John Mark: Yes sir I am, and I have 2 kids.

JOHN: So music must have worked at some level…

John Mark: (laughs) Yeah, I don’t know if it was the music or what but… um, yeah (laughs).

JOHN: So with that in mind – how did you transition from being in music to impress girls to saying, I want to do something with this?

John Mark: I had friends who played and I thought, if they can do it, I can do it. So I picked up the guitar and started playing. But there wasn’t a particular moment or anything. [I was] like most young kids; they start playing music because their parents make them take lessons or they’re just kind of interested in it or in my case, because there are some musical friends around. It’s typically a discipline or something you kind of enjoy, but for me, I just really became enamored with music and the idea of making melodies – even just for my personal enjoyment. I just became really interested in music somewhere down the line – practicing, playing and writing songs.

JOHN: In your bio it mentions that you were influenced by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. What is it about those artists that resonates with you?

John Mark: I think a couple of things. One is the ability to tell a story – to write words that resonate with people. The second is their ability to speak to the sort of ‘common man’ – the average guy or girl. For some reason that idea of making music to connect with the common individual or to empower [them] is fascinating to me.  And they both have such an amazing ability to do that. So that’s really why I became enamored with those kinds of guys.

JOHN: You came out with a couple of independent records before you signed with Integrity Music. How was that transition for you?

John Mark: You know, when you’re independent your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. I was coming from a world where I could do whatever I wanted with the resources I had, into a situation where I had to bring a bunch of other people on board. The positive is that I actually had resources through Integrity [and could do things] that I hadn’t been able to do before. You have a bigger community of people to get work with, to get behind what you’re doing. I think the negative side is that you have to get all of those people behind you, and you have to have a lot of conversations about things that I used to just say, ok, I’m going to do this. That hasn’t been bad though – [Integrity] has been really good, that’s why I signed with [them] as opposed to other labels. They really seemed interested in letting me be myself and do what I wanted to do. They haven’t had major questions over lyrics, song titles, album covers or anything. They’ve never challenged me on any of that. They’ve been pretty cool on letting me do what I wanted to do. It’s a double-edged sword, ya know. You have a team behind you, but the negative side is that you have to work with a team (laughs).

JOHN: When the average person thinks of Integrity Music they typically think of Don Moen, Darlene Zschech or Alvin Slaughter. When you think of John Mark McMillan you don’t necessarily put him in the same lineup. Do you consider yourself to be a worship leader in the same vein as those other artists?

John Mark: Ya know, in a lot of ways I don’t know. In the world I came from a corporate worship world was – well, I just wasn’t really exposed to all of that stuff, to be honest. I didn’t really know much about all of those guys when I came on board. I’ve met a few of them and they’re all really great people, really sweet and talented. I didn’t really think about it that much. But in philosophy, yes, they want to connect the hearts of people to the heart of God. They want to give people a language to express the things they want to express – and that’s what I do. Stylistically we’re very, very different. So it’s yes and no. I think we’d sit down and have great conversations and be on the same page on most every issue, especially creatively. They’re very creative. I think sonically, lyrically, and in the way we do what we do, we’re very different, but in philosophy we’re the same.

JOHN: So do you consider yourself to be a worship leader?

John Mark: I do, and I have a couple of things to say about that. The first is that I have done and still do what people consider to be a worship leader’s job. You stand on the stage and play sing-alongs before the guy that speaks gets up at whatever fellowship you attend or whatever community you’re involved in. I do that and I love doing that. I think on the broader scope, it’s like there are two words for worship that overlap in places but are different things. There’s sort of a biblical term ‘worship’ that music can be a part of but is actually a small part of, and then you have this sort of cultural phenomenon of worship which is the musical portion of a gathering. I am involved in and I love being part of the musical portion of the gathering, but also in my mind I think if you’re a janitor you should also be a worship leader in the way that you’re a janitor. If you’re a CEO you should be a worship leader in the way you lead your company, ya know? So for me, I consider myself a worship leader in both of those regards.

JOHN: Let’s talk a little about your song “How He Loves.” It was from an independent record first, and then you put it on The Medicine, right?

John Mark: Yeah, Integrity really connected to me through that song. I actually recorded and released The Medicine independently before I signed with Integrity though. So when I signed with them I told them, I want to put The Medicine out [through the label]. They asked me to put “How He Loves” (the version from the old album) on it and I said no. So then they asked if I might re-record it. I thought ok, it’s a good opportunity for people to connect with it because people know that song. So we recorded it in a way that I thought sounded a little more like the [new] album.

JOHN: When you saw the song was being recorded by other artists and sort of taking on a life of its own, how did you react?

John Mark: I was excited, I thought it was great.

JOHN: So The Medicine has a black and white cover and there are certainly some elements of death, sin and darkness. Economy isn’t a direct opposite, but there seem to be lighter moments. Was there some transition going on in your life that this reflects, or is that just the shape of the songs?

John Mark: I think it’s more the shape of the songs. The concept behind The Medicine was death and resurrection. Those references come right out of the Bible, because resurrection only makes sense in the light of death. There’s still some of those references on the new album, but we’ve kind of moved on (not that I’ve moved on from those ideas but), to more about everyday life. I was thinking more about people when I was writing it, I mean, specific people in my life and those around me. I thought of it more as a here and now album, [whereas] The Medicine was more of a contemplation about death and resurrection.

JOHN: This next question may seem random, but there’s a method to it... Do you fear anything?

John Mark: (laughs) Do I fear anything? Yeah, I fear lot of stuff, but I try and overcome my fears. I mean, I know biblically that I shouldn’t and I know the way I’m supposed to feel, but you’re human. You fear being unsuccessful, being irrelevant, being alone. You fear sometimes maybe you’ve poured your life into the wrong thing. Those aren’t things that haunt me on a daily basis though.

JOHN: You said the word ‘haunt.’ That’s one of the things that brought me to ask that question, because there is an element to your music that sounds kind of haunting. Pleasantly haunting, if that makes sense.

John Mark: (laughs) Yeah.

JOHN: What would you say is the main theme behind the “Economy” CD?

John Mark: If there’s a theme behind the album, it’s the economy of life and death, light and darkness, the economy of relationship and what it means to face many of these issues together as people.

JOHN: If there is one song that makes a statement about who you are, or what you’re about, which one would it be?

John Mark: That song would have to be “Seen a Darkness” the last track on the album. It’s also the song that inspired most of the rest of the album.

JOHN: Let’s finish out with a few lighter questions (laughs). What records are you currently listening to?

John Mark: I’ve been listening to The National (High Violet), Bon Iver (Bon Iver) as well as some Paul Simon, M83, and Peter Gabriel.

JOHN: Coffee or Mountain Dew?

John Mark:
Definitely a coffee man. Espresso – cappuccinos, lattes, stuff like that. [I’m] not a big sugar guy.

JOHN: And what books are you reading?

John Mark: A couple of books by Frances Schaeffer and I just finished William Golding’s classic, Lord of the Flies. I know it’s kind of dark but there’s a great message in it. Plus, I missed out on reading a lot of the classics in school so I’m trying to catch up.

JOHN: That’s a noble reason, for sure. Well John Mark, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat today. I look forward to catching up with you again sometime soon.