For the People

John Mark McMillan takes residency in 'Borderlands'

Photo by Foster Addington

When I met with John Mark McMillan, I felt like I had a million questions for him. Lucky for me, he is as long-winded and loves a good chat just as much as I do. It seemed like we touched on everything, discussing his new album, Borderlands, highlights from recording it, and even shared some common ground, including our love for Reese’s and The Walking Dead. Without question – and his music corroborates this – McMillan is a passionate man; you can tell from the way he forms his answers.

What are some things that have encouraged you in your career, both initially and also as an evolving artist?
John Mark McMillan:  I think it’s always really been the same for me. It’s the people around me who have encouraged me, my wife, for sure, and different friends and different people at different times. I think music is a very personal thing, a relational thing. I think those people have really been what has kept me going and doing what I’m doing.

I actually almost quit about a year and a half ago. I think it was a really special group of people who kept me in the game, as far as my career goes. I’d say, people around me, friends, family.

Those relationships are pretty important (laughs).
Yeah, I’d say the same.

If you were to put a label on what type of music you write, what would that description be?
I don’t know. That’s really, really hard, because I don’t think about a style of music while I’m writing. I don’t think this is going to be rock or (that) is going to be something else. That is really hard. I know some of the cliché things. The truth is, I don’t really know what labels are out there, as far as what people are calling music. It changes all the time.

I think you could make up something, and they would accept it.
Yeah. You could say, “singer/songwriter.” Plus, I feel like the music I’m making is evolving so much, I don’t really know what to call it. I still feel that it connects on a heart level with more folk, as far as music in my mind, in my heart. Music by the people for the people, even though there may not be a whole lot of acoustic guitars, you know what I mean?

What are your favorite parts about working in this “worship style” genre?
I actually would not say that, really, because I don’t think of worship as being its own genre. I think people have made worship a genre. I don’t think my music sounds like (the music in) that particular genre. I think, on a heart level and in a real level, it is worship. I think all good music is some sort of worship, meaning that worship is basically the expression of a system of value.

People who are doing what they love, people who are writing music out of a pure place, are writing from a system of value. Usually, they’re valuing relationship. That’s why most songs are about human relationships. Or, it’s about things they love. It’s about politics, or about God. So, everything stems from a system of value.

I don’t really like the idea of a genre called worship because I think it actually limits what worship actually is. It’s not because it limits the music, but because I think it’s a very wrong idea. I think it’s a bad concept of the word worship. To limit worship, one, to just music, is bad. And number two, to limit worship to a very, very narrow style of music is even worse. I don’t identify with that specifically.

I would say I walk in and out of that a little bit. I’m not excluding myself from that. I just think that that’s such a tiny part of what I do. I wouldn’t call it worship music from a cultural standpoint. It’s definitely worship music from a theological and from a heart standpoint.

Yeah, I can see that.
The truth is, there’s maybe one or two songs that most people would consider sing-alongs anyway. It’s so funny that people know all those songs, but the greater body of my work is not those types of songs. They are works of worship, as I believe that everyone who’s really making good music is writing from that place.

Considering your first album and comparing it to the new one, how would you say your music has changed?
I don’t know. How has it changed? I think I’m definitely more comfortable as a singer. I’ve never been very comfortable as a singer. I feel like I’ve had things to say because singing was a means to an end. I enjoyed music. I wanted to write songs. I was a songwriter. Singer was a means to an end. Now, I think I really enjoy singing and have found a little bit of a niche. I’m comfortable and actually excited about it.

I think, melody-wise, we’ve grown a ton. I think the new album is more melodic. The vocal melodies are more melodic than anything I’ve ever done. Lyrically, it’s much more mature. I think that I’m saying things in more complete ways and that I’m saying things in ways that I wish I would have been able to back when I did that first album in 2004.

I think confidence and getting older really encourages all that. That’s awesome to hear.
Yeah. I think so too. I think there’s a real sort of lie that people buy into that says that you have to do your best work when you’re young. Number one, it’s just totally not true. When you look at – especially visual artists, composers, when you look at all of history – people do their best work when they’re older.

But for some reason, in rock and popular music, there’s this idea that people have to do their best work when they’re young. I think that that’s totally untrue. I think it happens a lot in rock music because people live such unhealthy lifestyles, they don’t have much to say later in life.

I think that there’s this sort of youth culture built up around music toward honoring youth above wisdom, I think has sprung from sort of just that system of value. I think that the best work comes later in life. I definitely expect that and hope for that.

That’s awesome. I’ve been listening to all of your records. There is a definite maturity throughout the (body of work).
Yeah. Thank you.

Can you tell us, what is Borderland?
Borderland is a place between places. Two neighboring countries are not friendly with one another. There’s this area as border that neither one of those countries takes responsibility for, just a borderland. To me, borderland, it describes me, I think. I’m not always sure where I belong, as an artist for sure. My popular songs are, like you said, songs that have become popular in the cultural worship sphere. … That’s a small part of what I write. And (even) then, I don’t exactly fit in. We’re a little odd sometimes (in the worship space), but we’re also odd outside of it. I’ve always felt a bit like I live between those two worlds, where I tap into both of those worlds, but neither one of those are home for me as an artist.
When you’re young you grow up and you sort of take on the ideas that surround you. Dallas Willing says, “When you’re young, your teachers choose you, but when you’re mature, a mature person will choose their teachers, because you’re always being taught.” Everyone has a teacher whether that teacher is a celebrity or the teacher is your friends, your peers, an actual teacher or someone around you.
When you’re young, your teachers choose you, so you believe certain things. Then you reach a certain age when you have to decide for yourself what you are really going to believe. I do not doubt my faith or Christianity. I haven’t had those seasons where I struggle with my faith, but—

We all do.
Everybody does, and I actually think those seasons are important. If you don’t struggle with it, then do you really believe it?

If you don’t have those seasons, then how can you learn and grow in your faith?
Yeah! Absolutely. I’ve definitely been in the season when I’m trying to decide what part of my views do I want to continue with and what do I believe as a grownup. I’m 33, I think (laughs).

(Laughs) Oh gosh.
I still feel like I’m 18 most of the time, but I’m finally starting to feel like a grownup and realizing I have to. I can’t allow my teachers to choose me anymore. You know what I mean? I need to choose my teachers, and I need to figure out what I believe for myself. Often, that world, that borderland world, I think we all live there, pretty much all the time to be honest.

It is a continual thing; it’s continually growing, continually redefining who we are based on our life experiences. That’s kind of the idea of Borderlands. It’s a lot about growing up, about choosing love over what’s easy and comfortable because, ultimately, loving is the hard decision.

Loving is the hardest thing but the better thing. When you’re young, you think love is exciting, (and it is). You feel like love is easy and it’s what comes natural. The truth is love is actually the greatest thing and it is exciting, but it is also the hardest thing, too, choosing the hard road over the easy for the long term. So a lot of those themes are on the album too. You can see that from the picture of Borderland.

For this album specifically, where did you draw your inspiration from?
What’s really funny is I’ve always been a big Springsteen fan, and the last couple of years I’ve really enjoyed Justin Vernon’s stuff. I listen to a lot of girl singers, too. I know it came out a couple of years ago, but Florence and the Machine – her last album. I’m constantly listening to different things. I like the folk guys. I really enjoy the Fleet Foxes and My Morning Jacket.

This album, I really didn’t consciously bring any influences into it. There were times we referenced from the early U2 stuff. Although, I don’t know I hear any of that on the album, really. I will say we did reference Phil Collins a lot when we were tracking the drums. So, I’ve enjoyed Phil Collins. We’re trying to go in a little bit of a different direction on this album, try something brand new.

Honestly, most of the influences for this album were the people around me, though, the individuals and not the famous, established artists. There’s a girl – her name is Molly Skaggs. She’s a really incredible piano player. I wrote a lot of the songs on the acoustic guitar. Then we drove up to where she lives, and she tracked all her piano parts. She really left a mark on the album. Then we deleted my acoustic parts and we built things off of her piano parts.

There’s another guy in town named Al Sergel. He’s one of the greatest drummers. We brought him in on top of the piano stuff. So we built most of the album – or a good chunk of the album – off of what those two folks brought to the table.

Those people are just as important as Springsteen or Bon Iver or U2 or whoever it is. Those people are just as important and just as influential on the music we make, maybe even more so. I really just allow the people in our community to be the people who define the sound that we make.

How does it feel knowing you and your album had so much support behind it? Borderlands was fully funded through Kickstarter in 30 days.
That feels amazing. Honestly, that was such a great lift. A whole team got so excited during that season when we were raising the money, because you could just feel the energy from the people. It got everyone really stoked to go back to work and really make this (album) rule.

It’s awesome when people are so hungry for your music, and they love it, and they feel such a connection with it that they’ll back it with their earnings and stuff to make it happen.
As an artist, it’s easy to doubt who you are. An artist goes through these seasons where people are more interested in you, and then they’re more interested in other people. You make an album. How long does it stay in your CD player or your phone? You wonder, “Well, are we done? Is it time to pack it up? Is anyone interested in what we’re doing anymore?”

You want to say you do it for you, but truthfully, you do it for a community of people. We make music to connect with people. That’s why music was created. That’s why we make music, that’s why we always have, that’s why we always will. You want to believe that people are hearing the music that you’re making. Otherwise, what’s the point?

When the Kickstarter thing did so well, all of a sudden, the whole team was like, “Man, this is going to be really good. People really are excited about what we’re doing. We’re not living out here in outer space.”

It’s like you’re not alone. Other people are going through it, too.
If someone else hears and feels the way you feel, as human beings, that’s what we’re constantly striving for – to be known by others. Music is just another opportunity to do that. If you feel like nobody’s listening, it definitely affects the kind of music that you make. When you feel that community and that energy behind it, it definitely does something for the songs you’re writing.

Is there any motivation you had for releasing Borderlands without a label?
I’ve got a lot of friends who are on labels. I know a lot of good people who work for record labels. I know a lot of good record label guys. For me, this was so in the cracks. Not that we’re a crazy-super-ultra-creative type of band, but we just don’t fit. And the labels have a very specific way of doing things.

Oh yeah, they do. They know what works. If your music doesn’t adhere to that, they want to change it.
Yeah. They’re all amazing guys who love music. They’re definitely not dumb. They listen to amazing music and they have really great opinions on music, but at the end of the day, they’ve got to make money for their bosses and if they’re not quite sure what to do with you, it’s awkward. Personally, I’m just flat out not going to make music I hate. Even if that’s one song for the radio, if I don’t like it, I’m just not going to do it. I’ve worked too hard, too long. … That bums me out. There are a lot of good bands on the labels, so I’m not putting them down, but there are certain things that, due to the music that I make, would really bum me out. I just can’t wake up and go to work for that. I just can’t do that every day.

You want your music to represent you and speak about you and not have to answer to anyone else about it. Not explain yourself or anything.
Totally. The truth is, most Christians don’t listen to Christian music. There are a lot of Christians who do – Christians (who) are still very relevant to millions of people – but if you were to take the group of people that don’t listen to it, it’s much greater than the people that do.

Just like you were saying earlier, worship is any genre, anything. Music is so universal now, you can make any song into a worship song or a love song.
I think millions of Christians, and also people who aren’t sure who they are, need certain conversations about God. I feel like they don’t connect with the conversations of popular Christian music. Somebody has to serve those people. I know a lot of those people. For me, that’s what I’m passionate about: giving a voice to those people who just don’t quite know who they are.

Would you say this album came together easily?
No, it was really hard.

This is the hardest album I have ever made, and they’re all hard. They’re all so, so, so hard. This was the hardest. By far the hardest.

I think it’s because we were at a point where we either had to reimagine what we were doing, or (decide if it) was time to pack it up and play music for our families and people in our neighborhoods and in our own cities, do some conferences or whatever, which wouldn’t be necessarily a bad thing. I just didn’t want to feel defeated. I didn’t want to pack it up. I feel like I couldn’t do it.

We knew that it was time to reimagine what we do. That’s the reason. It’s so hard to reimagine. What’s worked in the past, we made some rules that we could not… I tried not to use any of my old metaphors. We tried not to use guitars the way we had in the past. We tried not to copy popular music the way we had, and not fall back into our old tricks. We found it’s really hard to come up with new tricks.

Oh yeah, especially in music.
Yeah, it is. I don’t know if they’re new for everyone in the world, but they’re definitely new for us. Also, how to do it in a way that was authentic. It’s easy to hear another band and say, “Well, I want to sound like them.” That’s easy. You say, “Well, the drums sound this way, the vocals sound this way and the guitars sound this way.” That’s easy. Any engineer can hear another band and know what to do to (replicate the sound). It’s a lot harder to do it in a way that sounds like you.

That’s why it took us almost a solid year. We were in the studio for almost a solid year working on this album. We did everything the hard way. We created reverb out of the room and didn’t use digital effects, all that kind of stuff.

Would this be, like, a more stripped-down album? Everything’s going back to the basics. Everything’s harder. You’re not doing things that you’re used to.
No way. There are some songs that had over 300 tracks on this album.

Definitely not stripped down. In fact, it’s definitely the other way around. The Medicine was a very stripped-down album. It was mostly two guitars, bass, drums and occasionally different instruments. This album is actually much bigger. We have strings and horns. We’ve got two drum kits for at least half the songs. This is a much bigger album than anything we’ve ever done.

What are the highlights from the recording process, the memories that stick with you?
I remember tracking the piano with Molly in the beginning. We just went up. A lot of the songs, I didn’t even have the lyrics finished. A lot of the songs weren’t even finished. She started playing and she wanted to know what each song was about. I would talk to her about what the song was about, even though it wasn’t finished. She wanted to catch the spirit of the song. That was definitely a highlight.

Then hearing Al, the way he played the drums. At first, we broke him down to just a kick, snare, and a tom. That’s all he had. He’s one of the greatest drummers and we only gave him three drums. He had to play every song with just three drums.

Then we went back and put a second drum kit on top of everything. Just hearing how inspiring he was on three drums, with almost no vocals and no instruments, it was unreal.

It’s crazy how people have talent like that (laughs).
I know. We just feel a gift in those two people. There are a lot of highlights. Like I said, we spent a whole year on the album. For me, another highlight was actually finishing the album.

Hearing the finished product?
Yeah. Finally, after a solid year of work.

I can’t imagine.
I thought we were never going to get done. Writing the lyrics was so hard this time. I didn’t know what I had to say, what I wanted to say.

Do you ever think that the lyrics you want to write are too heavy or risky?
No, I never did. I never thought they were too risky. In fact, I would like to be even more risky. They say that risk is a reward. What do they say about risk and reward? The greater the risk, the greater the reward.

I think that’s why music needs to be risky. It’s because if the idea of music is to communicate and create great conversations around this sense of value, then the more risk that’s involved, it communicates the greater value. If music has very little risk connected to it, it communicates very little value, in my opinion. I think there always has to be some risk. I’d like to take more, for sure.

If there were one thing you want your listeners to take away from the album, what would it be?
I don’t know. I just hope they hear me. I hope they can see themselves in the music that I make, and somehow we can have a conversation together across the airways and across space and time.

I really would love for there to be something timeless in the conversation that it wouldn’t just be about right now. It wouldn’t just be about trendy. I would hope there would be something they could take away in that conversation that would last a whole life.

Every band has things that they do while they’re on the road, how do you keep yourself entertained?
Oh gosh. We do different things. We play games. For a while we had this game where we made this ball out of gaff tape. When we got out of the van, you could throw it at somebody, but if you threw it at them and you missed, they got to throw it at you and you had to stand still.

Kind of like in Wall Ball where you have to let them tag you hard with the ball?
Yeah! And every show we would wrap up gaff tape and it got bigger and bigger and bigger and you wouldn’t believe it got to the point where we stopped because it got to where the ball got to be as heavy and hard as a baseball. People were, like, bleeding.

Yeah, so we stopped that at one point. We have open conversations, music, that kind of stuff that keeps us going. We all like “The Walking Dead.”

Oh, yeah. It came back on last night; I felt like I waited forever for the midseason premier. Do you remember your first show you performed?
Yeah, I do. My first show was at a teeny little club in Charlotte. We only had a handful of songs. I remember feeling awesome. I’ve played shows with other people, but as far as me being the singer and writing all the songs, it was probably early 2000, 2001 or something. I was 21, 22?

Wow. That’s neat. Now you’re 33 and you’re here. That’s cool.
It is.

What’s your favorite city to visit when you’re on tour?
My favorite city? I really like Charleston, South Carolina. I like the culture and the food. I like the beach. I like the Southern vibe. I also really love Seattle. I really love Portland. I love New York. Those are some of my favorites.

I’m going to say this: My favorite city probably ever is Queenstown, New Zealand. I’m going on record for that. That’s my favorite city I’ve ever visited on tour.

You’ve got to tell us why.
Number one: It is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It’s on this lake, this huge lake, and it’s the bluest lake you’ve ever seen. It’s so blue it looks fake. The town is built around this lake.

New Zealand, as a whole, has incredibly kind people and they all want to help you, and they all want to talk to you. The people are amazing. It’s such a laid-back town. A lot of people are into hiking, snowboarding, into those kinds of sports and things.
They go off and do their adventures during the day, then come back at night and they’ll all hang out and talk. There’s a lot of that kind of stuff to do, but there’s this huge mountain that hangs over the lake. If you remember the mountain from “The Lord of the Rings,” the Mountains of Mordor – they look scary in “The Lord of the Rings,” but in real life, they’re actually gorgeous.

There’s this big mountain range called “The Remarkables,” and they are on the other side of the lake. Google Queenstown, New Zealand. You’ll know exactly why it’s my favorite. A close second to Queenstown would be San Francisco. I love San Francisco. Those two are my favorites.

What do you think your greatest opportunity has been so far in your musical career?
There’s not one that is more important than another. I think the greatest thing has been all the people I’ve been able to meet along the way. I get to travel. I have amazing friends in some other places I would have never met if I didn’t do what I do for a living.

There are some amazing friends in California that I would only get to see if this was my job. I would never have met them otherwise. That’s the greatest opportunity that has been to meet all these people.

What type of music do you listen to? Anyone in particular that influences you?
I really listen to all kinds of stuff, it just depends what mood I’m in. I like oldies. I like R&B. I don’t listen to a ton of hip-hop; there are times when I might listen to some. I really enjoy it, but the negativity gets tough after a while.

I listen to country. Honestly, when I’m in my car and I’m tired of what’s on my phone, I just put on a country station. I’m sort of done with the pop stations right now in my hometown. I just listen to down Country just because it’s easy.

I love Bob Marley. I might listen to Bob Marley in the winter. Most people only like to listen to reggae in the summer, but I like it all year. It’s huge variety. I’m a huge fan of Springsteen. I really love Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel.

Do you have any guilty pleasures like TV shows, or books, or movies maybe?
I like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, especially in the (morning). That’s when I do the Reese’s. Those are the best.

They are! Oh man!
I actually don’t get to watch a lot of TV, because my three kids dominate the television. So most of my TV watching has to do with—

Yeah. Most of it has to do with “Dinosaur Train.”

Can you give a random fact about yourself that not many people know of?
I really like Diet Pepsi (laughs).

Diet Pepsi?
Yeah, I love Diet Pepsi. I had to stop drinking Diet Pepsi because I’ll get two 24 packs, and I’ve had days when I didn’t realize it but I drank the whole case of Diet Pepsi.

Oh man. Why can’t the things that are unhealthy be good for you?
For real.

What are you most excited about for John Mark McMillan’s future?
I am excited to go out on the road with the band. We’ve spent the last year in the studio working on these new songs and this new sound. The album’s coming out, but at the same time, we’ve been building a new band, too.
All the guys in the band, we haven’t really been out that much as a full band, so everyone is chomping at the bit to get out and play. I’m way excited for the spring tour. I’m putting more into it than I ever have, and it’s going to be a huge band. Everyone really loves each other.

Some of the guys in the band are my best friends. We have so much fun. I’m way excited for that. Way, way excited. I’m also just excited to see what this year holds for the family and me. I’m excited to see my kids grow another year. My baby girl is starting to talk, and I’m excited to have some conversations with her.

The other thing I’m really excited about is while we were doing this album, I also tracked five or six songs with my wife that she and I co-wrote that we’re singing on together, the same studio, same group of musicians, everything.

This album is actually five more songs – that aren’t on the album – that we need to finish. So I’m excited to finish those songs that I wrote with my wife.

Lastly, if the fans wanted to help you out in any way, what could they do?
Just let people know, real basic, share what we’re doing with their communities because we’re not on any major labels. Everything we do depends on word of mouth, on people being excited. So if they love it, share it. That helps us more than anything. More than anything else they can do, they can just share the music.

John Mark McMillan was posted on March 3, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by .