Time For Dangerous Music: My John Mark McMillan Interview

by Bobby Gilles

in Interviews,Music Business,Songwriting/Hymn Workshop,Worship Leading

John Mark McMillan perfoming live at Sojourn Church's music venue The 930 Listening Room

John Mark McMillan performing live at our church Sojourn's music venue, The 930 Listening Room

I first heard of John Mark McMillan a few years ago, shortly before we began singing his “Death In His Grave” and “How He Loves” in worship services at Sojourn. Since then, he’s become one of my favorite singer-songwriters. Songs like those mentioned above, and “Sheet of Night,” “Murdered Son,” “Seen A Darkness,” “Carolina Tide” and many more paint vivid pictures and tell gripping stories of love, murder, redemption, sacrifice and resurrection — just as the best folk music and hymnody have always done.

Songwriters, worship leaders, musicians and people of all stripes can learn much from John Mark McMillan. I’m thrilled to bring you this conversation we shared, as part of the My Song In The Night interview series.

Bobby Gilles: In the biopic No Direction Home, Bob Dylan calls himself a “musical expeditionary.” Even though he’s a highly original writer, he borrows from traditional folk ballads, the Bible, classic poems, blues standards and other material. You strike me, similarly, as being a “musical expeditionary,” eager to work with what’s come before. Is that a fair assessment?

John Mark McMillan: Yes, that sounds like something you could say about me.

Bobby Gilles: You’ve written before that the line “Death In His Grave” was inspired by the line from the folk song “Jesse James.”

John Mark McMillan: Yes.

Bobby Gilles: And knowing you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan, when I hear “Daylight” from your new record Economy, where you sing:

“We live on the edge of a darkness”

I think of Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge of Town.

John Mark McMillan: Yes. Here’s how that happened: lots of times when you’re writing songs and you get stuck on a word or phrase, what you need to do is just put in whatever words occur to you, then finish the first draft of the song, rather than just stopping because you’re hung up on that one lyric.  It’s like if you were building something, At first you want the “1000 foot view” of something and then you go back to the details later.

So very often I’ll have lyrics that I’ll plan to rewrite later. “Daylight” was like that. I thought, “It feels like I’m ripping off Springsteen,” because I’m very familiar with that album and song. But I got to the end of it and thought, “No, I really like this, even with the obvious Springsteen influence.”

Bobby Gilles: When I hear “The Living Ain’t Easy” from “Sheet of Night,” I think Gershwin:

“Summertime, and the living is easy …”

John Mark McMillan: I love doing that. I think language builds on itself so it’s fun to take language you’ve heard and use it in a new context.

Bobby Gilles: Let’s talk more about “Death In His Grave” because it’s such a huge song for us here at Sojourn, and so well written. This song – and all your writing – is brimming with rich poetic devices. Here, you’ve got “personification,” where the earth, sun and moon do things like “cry out for blood” or “turn their heads.” Then you’ve got lots of alliteration of that “D” sound: disfigured, disdained, daughters, dues, debt, day, and of course death.

Do you have formal poetry training, or a love for it? Does all this come from listening to great songs, or from your natural instincts?

Hands Raised as John Mark McMillan leads in worship at Sojourn Community Church in LouisvilleJohn Mark McMillan: It is just from listening to great songs. I would definitely benefit from studying poetry and literature. I’d like to go back and do that someday but most of my poetic instincts now are just from listening to great songwriters.

Bobby Gilles: My favorite line might be “On Friday a thief,” because it’s so much more powerful than “On Friday hung between thieves.” Did you catch any flack for that, from literalists saying, “Our Lord wasn’t a thief”?

John Mark McMillan: I’ve caught a little bit of flack, nothing major. Some people will pick apart anything, and find something they don’t like. It’s just a colloquial way of speaking, though. People like you to be super literal but the Bible itself uses all kinds of literary devices and colloquial language. Jesus did that all the time. And “Death In His Grave” is full of it.

Some people try to defend the line by saying “Well, he took all sin on himself so he was a thief as he hung on the cross.” If you have to do that to feel right about singing the song, that’s fine, but for me it’s just a way of expressing a truth – he was treated like a thief one day, and like a risen king the next day. The picture – the story I’m trying to tell – is in the contrast.

If you want to get literal he’s not really a king like some guy sitting on a throne in London – he’s much greater than that. We use the word “king” because we have a basic understanding of what that means, but his authority is far beyond that of any earthly king. It’s just a word we use to get close to the reality.

Bobby Gilles: Speaking of catching flack, you once wrote: “It’s time to write dangerous music. It’s time to take risks.” In your wildest dreams would you have ever thought that what many pastors or the Christian marketplace would consider dangerous or controversial would be:

 “Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss”?

John Mark McMillan: No, it’s funny because I didn’t think that was dangerous. That was just kind of a silly line. It was just a placeholder line because I didn’t know what to say there, like I was talking about earlier with “on the edge of a darkness.” And I ended up keeping the line because “How He Loves” is such a heavy song that I wanted to lighten the mood a little bit. But once the song got beyond my stream of influence I was surprised that people had such an issue with that line.

So it’s funny sometimes – I never thought of that line as controversial or dangerous, but then I’ve written other lines that I thought people would be offended by, and they don’t seem to notice.

Bobby Gilles: Your lyrics frequently say things that are unsettling – they may make “good church folk” nervous. Even something as simple as “God’s murdered son” rather than the words we use more often in the church, like “Crucified Son” or “Sacrificed Son.” Why do you do this?

John Mark McMillan: Think about it in any other context but the church. The word “crucified” would be so much heavier than “murdered.” It’s so much more disturbing than “murdered.” But like you say, we’re so used to saying “crucified” in the church that we can become immune to it. I used “murdered” to bring out the truth of the situation a little more.  “Murdered” paints such a real picture of what happened. And it’s actually called a murder several times in the book of Acts.

Bobby Gilles: Even with that intentionally jarring lyric, “Murdered Son” is a strong congregational song. It seems to me that you’ve got more strong worship songs on Economy than ever before – anthemic choruses and very colorful but direct lyrics. Is that by design?

John Mark McMillan: Absolutely.  I tend to be abstract in my lyrics and use a lot of words. So as a songwriting challenge I decided to be more concise and use fewer words, to cut out the fat. I wanted to bring the bare truth to the table.

Some of the songs I’m writing now are more abstract than ever but for the Economy album it was very fun to test myself. If you look at Springsteen’s music, he’s such a writer for the people, the common man.  I wanted Economy to be like that, an album for the common man.

Bobby Gilles: Many people who have followed you for a while were afraid that we’d get a more sanitized or watered-down John Mark McMillan when you signed with Integrity Music, just in the sense of an indie artist joining a major label, but that’s clearly not the case. Does Integrity “get” you?

John Mark McMillan: They do get me. Record companies are all different and have their personality and things that they do best. They have a momentum behind a certain thing. At Integrity there’s a momentum behind corporate worship songs – the songs people sing together in church. Integrity is really good at that and they’ve done that for years.

It’s more of a challenge for them to do much with the other songs I do, but still they understand me. They’re very good people and very smart, and they have a lot of experience.

Bobby Gilles: Going back to the things that can make the Contemporary Christian market uncomfortable, you’ve talked before about how it’s not just the lyrics. There’s a prevailing aesthetic that says “Get to the chorus within 30 seconds, set the mix at certain frequencies,” and things like that. What is your view of how music and lyrics should work together to set tone or draw us into the story?

John Mark McMillan in concert at The 930 Art Center's Listening Room in Louisville, KYJohn Mark McMillan: If I want to write and sing about something then I want people to feel what I’m feeling in the moment I wrote it. The words and the music have to work together to create that vibe, that overall experience.

There is a certain thing that people are looking for in worship music. A lot of the popular “worship world” follows the business model, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” There is a certain thing that works so people just want you to do that so they have the best chance of being successful.

So for instance, there are certain things that some record companies may want you to do in order to get you on the radio. Radio stations don’t necessarily tell you what to do, but they only put certain things on the air, so record companies will say “Well, we need to do this, this and this to get on the radio.”

After awhile you have to be careful about putting the cart before the horse. If you’re just driven to do whatever it takes to get on radio or whatever other benchmark you use to feel successful, then you’ll end up listening to your music, saying “I thought there was something here that I was excited about but now it is such a Frankenstein: we removed this to reach this demographic, and we did this to be accepted over here, and we shortened this …” 

And you feel like, “I don’t even recognize what’s left.”

Bobby Gilles: So how do you combat that?

John Mark McMillan: I want to be proud of my work. If I can be proud of my work and reach certain demographics, that’s great, but more than that I want to be able to look back and be satisfied in the work I did. And people who have been at this a long time have told me, “Every time I made a decision just to try to reach this-or-that market, I always regretted it.” The stuff that they hold close after the years is the stuff where they stuck to their guns creatively.

Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “The medium is the message.” Christian music and the church as a whole could pay attention to that. We forget that the words are the last little piece of the message. The real story is told in the things you do and the way you do it.

I could write a song that talks about God being infinitely creative, and sing lyrics like “How creative you are, God.” But if the music sounds exactly like everything else, then I am saying a true thing but I am making light of that by expressing “God is not creative enough to do anything new in my music.”

It’s not just about the words. It’s about the way you do what you do. I want to put everything into my music so that the music and the lyrics tell a story together — the same story.

All photos courtesy Chuck Heeke (John Mark McMillan in concert 4.13.2012 at The 930 Listening Room, Sojourn’s music auditorium)


caroline cobb April 26, 2012 at 6:36 pm

This is so great! Love John Mark McMillan – especially his lyrics and the way he expresses old truths in new ways. Thank you for providing this, Bobby & Kristen!

Jeremy Taylor June 23, 2012 at 6:24 pm

After being asked what he thinks about Christians who are critical of his music, JMM replied, “My ultimate goal isn’t to be theologically correct, it’s to express a pure emotional, um, work. You know? A piece of art to express something purely. Whatever’s inside of me will come out in that expression.” Here’s the interview on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X23eL0rlZdM
Isn’t that philosophy of songwriting what is really dangerous? Especially if these songs are being used in churches for congregational worship? What are your thoughts?

Bobby Gilles June 26, 2012 at 12:59 pm

I think it would be a dangerous philosophy for a lot of writers to have, if their goal is to write for the church. And of course even if we’re not writing specifically for the church, our theology always matters. What we believe and love about God is the most important thing. And of course that’s where it gets tied in with emotions. Perhaps I shouldn’t try to put words in JMMs mouth, but having talked with him and having heard or read lots of interviews (and knowing his background in the church) I think that what he’s saying when he talks about theology in song is that he’s not trying to write a dry theological treatise that rhymes and is set to music. He’s pouring out his heart. That’s his own primary goal, but he believes the theology that comes out in that is correct because of what God has taught him and how God has led him.

Having said that, it’s not a quote I’d make, myself, as someone who is purposefully writing songs for Christians to sing together as they worship God, and as someone who is trying to equip other songwriters in the local church to do so.

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