By Robert Ham
He refers to it as “the song” or even more vaguely as just “a song” that he wrote. But if you know the name John Mark McMillan, you know that “the song” he’s referring to – “How He Loves” – has quickly become one of the most revered worship songs in the world, and has been recorded by luminaries such as David Crowder, Todd Agnew, and Flyleaf.
In spite of the song’s successes and his rabid fan base, McMillan has largely flown under the radar of the contemporary Christian music world. This will likely change for the 30-year-old singer/songwriter with the upcoming release of his third album The Medicine. It is his first album to be released by a major label (Integrity/Columbia), a move that will likely find him an even bigger audience for his potent blend of pop smarts and folk/blues grit.
We caught up with McMillan before a tour stop in Seattle, Washington. Sitting in a local coffee house, nursing a cappuccino, he spoke about his still-young career, the move to a major, and the still-debated issue of David Crowder changing the lyrics of “the song”.
How did you get started playing music?
My dad had a storefront church near Charlotte and they’d have musicians there, people coming in and out. Afterwards, I’d get them to show me some chords. I was terrible at sports. I was not very attractive to the girls. I thought I’ll learn some music and play some chords and maybe the girls will notice me. It didn’t really work but I started to fall in love with sounds. Later on, I really fell in love with songwriting. I came across Dylan and Springsteen and started to really enjoy the kind of things they had to say. More than what they said. It was what they did, the way they gave the average person a language. If you listen to Springsteen, he’s singing about regular people the things they go through and the things they do. I love that.
Did you always imagine you’d be a worship singer/songwriter or did you ever think, “Maybe I could be Springsteen”?
I sing about Jesus because I like the story and I know what it’s about so writing worship music came naturally at first but we played other venues for a while. But the church thing started to take off, when I wrote a song that a lot of other people started singing. It came more naturally so we ended up doing a lot more of that kind of stuff.
How has that felt having people latch on to this song and watching your career grow from where you started from and where you are now?
It’s been great. It’s been real interesting with the song. Because I grew up in church but I was never connected with any sort of mainstream Christian music. I probably couldn’t tell you four or five of the biggest artists even right now. It’s been really crazy how big that song’s become. A lot more conservative type folks listen to the music, which is cool. But people ask me questions about stuff that no one had really questioned before as far as how you do things. People have these super traditional mindsets in these areas where they might expect me to act a certain way and do certain things but I’ve never had that pressure before. It’s kind of a weird thing about the way I write songs. People feel like you have to write about certain things and do it a certain way or it’s wrong. I never wanted to be a Christian artist. I just wrote what I was thinking about and what I was feeling. People aren’t used to hearing different kinds of songs connected to the same things.
It’s interesting that you said that because I was chatting online with my sister today, and I told her who I was interviewing and sent her a link to your web site. I mentioned after the fact that you were a Christian artist and she said that she would never have guessed that based solely on your music.
I never thought the word “Christian” described the music really well. Maybe I’m crazy maybe I just think more of myself than who I really am. But I’m not sure my music fits with what you would consider Christian music. I have a real problem in the airport people ask what kind of music I play. I’m trying to figure out what to call it. I did an interview on TV and I told them I think I’ll call it gospel rather than Christian music.
How has it been now that you are transitioning to a major label from releasing things on your own? Do you feel any friction concerning not wanting to label yourself as a “Christian artist”?
There’s definitely a little bit of that friction. Before when I was just independent, I didn’t have to label myself as anything. I’d just put the stuff up on iTunes and sell it at shows. I don’t really understand what world my music exists in. But I had an issue with being part of the Christian organization with the music. After a while, I realized the huge proportion of my market were believers. And it took me about a year to sign with Integrity maybe because of that I didn’t sort feel like I fit with the vibe of the company overall. But there are some really great people on the team. They spent a year to convince me they really wanted to try something different and they really do. They’re really taking a risk that a lot of other Christian companies would have taken.
Christian music is heavily driven by Christian radio, and they have specific things like certain frequencies that they want you to mix your song. They want it this length. They want the chorus to come in within 30 seconds. They want it mixed a certain way they want certain frequencies within the mix and I just don’t like that sound at all. Many of the other labels said, “You can do what you want with the album, but let us mix two or three singles and produce them for the radio.” Integrity hasn’t asked me to do any of that. They’ve let me do the songs the way I want. They’ve been super cool and understanding of what I want to do. I’m really blown away at how much they’ve been willing to take risks in those areas.
Has anything from the record made its way on to Christian radio?
They’ve serviced it to radio and some stations have picked it up, but none of the big ones. I think their view is that there’s not really a big radio home run on this album. They’ve put a little energy into radio but they haven’t pushed it. I think they’ve known that I’m not super excited about radio.
Are you worried that you are going to get any pressure from them for the next record to move in that direction and cater it toward the bigger marketplace?
There’ve been nights that I’ve laid awake thinking about that. They say that they’re not going to do that. I know the label is a business and they exist to make money. They want to make your audience bigger one way or another. But I’m cool with that. That’s part of the reason I came to the label. I want to grow our audience too. I don’t feel like they’re going to do it. I just won’t do it. I think they know that. I can do a lot of things but I just can’t do something that I don’t believe in. I don’t think I can hear my song mixed a certain way and be able to live with myself. I don’t need the money that bad. It’s not like we’re making that much money anyway. Most artists get into the business when they’re 18 or 19. I’m 30 and I just now signed a record deal. I took the long road and I’m willing to stick with it.
You posted something on your blog recently encouraging songwriters to make “dangerous music”. What did you mean by that?
What I was talking about there was this idea that the church has become too safe in a lot of ways. You read the Psalms, which is based on musical worship and has become the model for what we do. There are issues that they deal with that most churches won’t even touch. 20% of the songs in there are the happy and joyful. Those are the only songs that the culture of church wants to have anything to do with. The other 80% of Psalms – the angry Psalms, the sad Psalms, the Psalms that question God – the church won’t deal with it. If you want to question the existence of God and the goodness of God, they don’t want to hear it. But it’s in the Bible. Some of the most revered people in the Bible had moments where they questioned God where they had to search out those kinds of things. They were angry or they cursed people. I feel like its time for worship people to explore some of those and feel comfortable exploring those things. To write music that isn’t so safe and it maybe not be dangerous for people outside of the church.
The reason I asked that is because of David Crowder’s version of “How He Loves” and his changing the lyrics of the song because it was bothering people in his church. That really goes against this idea of making “dangerous music.”
It totally does. With Crowder, he called and asked to change the line. He said, “Can I change this one line?” And I said, “Why do you want to change it?” He said that a huge group of people that need to hear the song would never hear it because of this lyric. That’s the thing about Christian radio. There aren’t “rules” that say they won’t play it, but I know they won’t play it. So I assumed that’s a major reason that he changed it. And I got to the point that there was so much heat on the song and so many people doing it. And I know the label talked about other people doing that I wasn’t very excited about it. I thought it was just a matter of time before somebody changes that line. I like David and I thought if it’s going to be someone it might as well be him. I never knew it was going to be a single. I thought it was going to be on the back half of his album. But, lo and behold, it’s maybe the biggest single he’s ever had.
We actually worked together a little bit on the song. He had a couple of things that didn’t really work. And he came up with the “unforeseen kiss” and I said, “Well, let me try this.” And he said, “Well, I’ve already recorded it.” [laughs]
My community my small core audience was so fired up about it a lot of them got really angry saying bad things about David Crowder. I wrote a blog post because I didn’t want Crowder thinking that I supported the mean things they were saying about him. Truthfully, if I’d written that song now, I’d have written it totally different. Not just that line. I never thought that was an incredible line anyway, but I guess the fact that people said I couldn’t do it made me want to do it even more. I kind of want to put something in every worship song that makes someone uncomfortable. I want to make them a little bit nervous. I get excited about that. Because it makes them think about what’s going on instead of going through the motions.
The story behind “How He Loves” is a very emotional one [the song was inspired by the death of one of McMillan's close friends]. How does it feel to perform that song or to hear others play it? Is it hard to hear or play considering the emotions that are tied up with it? Or has enough time passed that you can just focus on the more positive side of the song?
It’s been close to eight years now since my friend died, so you have moments where you’re back there in the beginning. But for the most part I’ve grown from that. It’s obviously a really painful experience. Over the years, you learn to grow and process it. So I don’t always feel that. Sometimes I still do. Sometimes it’s there. I get excited about the song when I hear other people sing it. When we’re at a show or a worship event and I hear people sing it back to me, it takes me back there and makes me feel that thing again. The good part of what I felt. It was a comforting thing to write that song. I don’t know why it is but whenever I’m feeling really far from God and really disconnected, something about me going back to that painful experience, I feel like a person again because I can hurt over that experience. That might sound kind of morbid, but something about pain that brings you into reality. I have to believe this is temporary and there’s more to life. I go back there sometimes on stage. Literally, the first year and a half that I sang the song, I couldn’t get through it. I got to the point that that was the song everybody wanted to hear, so I had to learn how to do it and disconnect myself a little bit. Every now and again, I go back to that place. It’s hard not to. I think that’s what people really want. They want to feel like we’re singing something that we’re really connected to. I know that’s what I want from the people that I listen to.
What inspired the song “Skeleton Bones’?
I hadn’t written anything in along time when I wrote that song. I decided I’m going to sit on the porch tonight and I’m going to write something. My wife was pregnant with our first and only boy, and I was watching the process…that there was nothing there and then this person is there and is more there every day. And I saw that as a picture of resurrection: something coming out of nothing. And I feel like nothing a lot and I have this hope that something’s going to come from me. But seeing this thing come out of nothing, I started to contemplate on resurrection and the resurrection in me, and how if the same power that raised Jesus from the dead dwells in us, it gives life to our mortal bodies. I got this resurrection theme and I started to sing about the dead and the living, Ezekiel 37 with the dry bones. I saw me as one of the dry bones. Then I saw the people around me. I really believe there’s so much more for every single person then they even believe for themselves or want for themselves. And a lot of that is found in resurrection. I started singing about the dry bones in Ezekiel coming to life when the prophet speaks to them. It’s a really gross thing. These dead bodies stand and they come to life and become this mighty army. I saw that in me, singing to the skeleton as singing to myself, to the nothing, to the dead. To become something and come alive. I saw this bones come together as something greater than themselves. I saw that as being in worship too, connecting with God to become more than a human, something bigger.
How have your wife and extended family felt watching you play music and become a popular artist?
They love it. My wife is a singer. If she were more interested in it she’d probably be doing what I’m doing. We toured together for five years. She’s part of the band and still a huge part of what we do. She’s just more excited about being with the baby. She’s loves to write and loves music but she gets really burned on traveling. I think she’s starting to get a new wind on her music too. It’s been a challenge balancing family and the road. I’m still learning. If she ever told me – if things were getting weird or not working – “I wish you would just quit”, I would do it [snaps fingers] like that.