Charlotte singer-songwriter John Mark McMillan has been creating and releasing his blend of gospel, Springsteen, and Bon Iver-textured rock since the mid-2000s. Coming to prominence mainly in the worship music circles for his song “How He Loves” (covered by David Crowder Band and many others), McMillan continues to evolve past that song’s initial success and has been expanding his lyrical and musical prowess into dense, layered records such as 2014’s Borderland and this year’s Mercury & Lightning. His live show is just as dynamic with a supporting band that sometimes consists of six or seven other musicians.
Magic City Bands spoke with John Mark McMillan about the latest record, releasing records in the age of streaming, crowd-sourcing, success as religion and Portland’s Princess Bride-themed bar.
Magic City Bands: You released your last album, Borderland, in 2014 and an EP with your wife (Sarah McMillan) in 2015, You Are The Avalanche. When did you start putting together Mercury & Lightning?
John Mark McMillan: We started recording in December of 2015. We recorded “Wilderlove” as the first song for the record. After that, I went on a long tour with NEEDTOBREATHE (Tour De Compadres), so I had to take a big break from the studio because it was a seven-week tour. The studio was in Portland, so I had to spend some time with my family before and after that tour, so it took me out of the studio for about three months. Then, the producer had a baby and by that point, it was Christmas 2016. It took a long time because I could only go out there for a week or two at a time. I tried taking my family with me in the summer, but that was hard with three kids away from home. It was just a lot of chaos and didn’t get a lot of work done.
MCB: Can you talk about the second single you released, “No Country”?
JMM: It’s just a commentary on refugees, a song for the refugees, immigrants and homeless, whether physically or spiritually. It’s a first-person perspective from a refugee, but I sang it from my own perspective as if I was a refugee. Some more conservative people give me flack about it because they tell me that America is my country. But there’s a lot we can say about that. What is America? What does America mean? What is a country? Borders we draw with guns and blood to stake what’s ours, or is it something else? Is it an idea that is something more than that? All of that is subtly mixed in.
MCB: Another song that stood out for this particular political climate is “Gods of American Success.”
JMM: I tend to think that everyone has a religion. Nobody doesn’t have a religion. Religion is the practices that we build around the things we value and the things that we use to obtain some sense of control. The universe seems chaotic and we want to find some kind of control within the universe. We attempt to do that through power and money. The irony is those things have the potential to send a lot of people into chaos. The idea of “Gods of American Success” is speaking to the current climate in the United States and how we appear to worship money, power and fame. A good friend talks about “laying on the altar of the gods of American success.” He talks about how people give their lives and die for success. They do that because they think they will gain control. It gives them a sense of control, but it doesn’t work like that.
As a believer, the way I see it is that you accept the chaos on the outside and deal with the chaos on the inside. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, people try to say that he didn’t really mean that, but in fact, he did. It’s accepting the fact that there will always be people against you, but you deal with the chaos within yourself. You can’t fix them, but you can deal with you. Even in Christianity and the Church, we can sometimes mix the ideas of Jesus with this religion of success. I’m also poking at that in the song.
MCB: You also have two songs connected in the album: “Death in Reverse” and “esrevernihtaed.” What are the stories behind that portion of the record?
JMM: It’s kind of a turnaround moment. “Death in Reverse” is kind of a hymn, at least the chorus is, but the verses are about me growing up. I don’t know if you’ve had a friend like this, but I’ve had a few, where maybe they get divorced or they can never accept life as a certain way. Then they want to stay young. They have this idea that they want to stay young, but all the things they do to stay young age them significantly. You run into them a few years later, and they look so old, but they’re living like they’re 19 or 20. Living the hard life to save youth. The irony of that is if they would embrace aging and growing up, they would actually age more gracefully and would feel a lot younger.
MCB: Why did you choose to go to Portland?
JMM: There are several reasons I wanted to go there. Technically, it was in Vancouver, Washington, which is basically a suburb of Washington. I was doing the record with a really good friend of mine, Gabe Wilson, and he lives in Portland. He could have come anywhere to work on the record with me, but he already has a great studio. It just made more sense to go out to him. The location is awesome- super inspiring part of the world and United States. There’s just a lot going on there. The food is great. The scenery is gorgeous. It’s just a cool place.
MCB: I think people forget about that vast scenery because all they know about Portland comes from Portlandia.
JMM: Yeah, the show is surprisingly accurate. It’s so funny how much like Portland it is.
MCB: What was the most unique business you saw there?
JMM: There’s a Princess Bride-themed bar in one of the neighborhoods that has food and drinks named after the characters. It’s a trip.
MCB: You’ve done crowdsourcing before for your last album. Why did you decide to that again for this new record? Do new fans come into the picture at all for that?
JMM: I feel like most of the people who supported the campaign were existing fans. Kickstarter was a place to raise money for Borderland. PledgeMusic was not used to raise money for the record as much as it was to give people an experience. It’s challenging to make money playing music. Sales are not your major source of income anymore; they’re one of the major sources of income, but not what they were. So you’re trying to figure out other ways to compensate for the loss of those sales. Streaming compensates some, but definitely not for what it was. You spend a little more time on the road.
The PledgeMusic idea was to give an experience that you offer to people early in the process. You give people a window into the recording process and people really love that. I don’t think people thought this record was going to take so long; I didn’t think it was going to take so long either. Maybe some people thought they were buying something that was coming out in a few weeks, but I think most people enjoyed what we did for the most part. We got a lot of great feedback.
MCB: You mentioned streaming and Spotify. What is like releasing a few songs, one at a time, and then putting the album out in full?
JMM: Because people have so much access to music now, people rarely listen to a whole record now. If you pay for it, you’re definitely going to give it a full listen. Even if my favorite bands put out a few new songs on Spotify, I listen to them and love it, but then I want to listen to Miles Davis or something else right afterwards. We have a billion options at our fingertips. You have to release things in small portions because that’s how we consume things now. We did five singles this time, but next time, I might even release more than five singles. I might even release the whole album as singles before releasing the whole package. People are listening differently. In fact, I’m going to re-release all of the songs on Mercury & Lightning next year as new versions, and I’ll probably put them out in four or five-song chunks along with some extra material. I think people really enjoy hearing alternate versions or acoustic versions of songs they already like. The idea of a static album is almost over. Songs need to be alive and change more.
MCB: You put out three videos by Jared Hogan that flow together well. Where did the idea for that series come from?
JMM: He did videos for “Wilderlove”, “No Country” and “Mercury & Lightning.” Once we got to the last video, we realized that things tied in visually such as the white guitar. We didn’t mean to do that in the beginning, but it happened that way so we tried to tie them together as a trilogy. But I had so much fun with those videos.
MCB: What’s the significance behind the cover art and the album title?
JMM: The cover photo is of Mercury or the Greek god, Hermes. He’s the god of finances, borders and highways. He’s the god of negotiation, a slick-tongued, trickster god. He’s the god of money, power and the spirit of the age. It goes along with the success religion of “Gods of American Success.” He subtly speaks to those ideas. The title of the album represents the things you can’t have. You can’t put your hands around them and catch them, but they’re exciting and powerful. You want to have them, but you can’t.
MCB: What are some of the new songs that have gone over well in a live setting?
JMM: The title track goes over really well live as does “Wilderlove” and “Nothing Stands Between Us.” “Enemy, love” might be our favorite to play live.
MCB: “King of My Heart” has become really successful this year along similar lines as “How He Loves.” Have you been surprised by that?
JMM: The funny thing is that is my wife’s song. I had just wanted to do something with her. So we recorded it on the EP and she sang it on the live record (2015’s Live at the Knight). And I’m shocked at how it’s been received. It’s her song. I just sing the bridge. I never even play that song without her though. It was really awesome, but totally unexpected.
John Mark McMillan plays The Healing Place Church in Trussville (5709 Trussville Clay Road) on Thursday, November 15. Tickets are $21 at the door. The Brilliance and Lapeer will open. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 7:30.
Live photo by Jonathan Kemp. Portrait by Bliss Kaufman.