INTERVIEW: John Mark McMillan
After previously being signed to a major label, John Mark McMillan has decided to return to his indie-roots releasing his most important work of art to date independently via Lionhawk Records, a label recently founded by McMillan. McMillan has always defied easy categorization with his previous releases, but with Borderland, he throws you off just when you felt like you were figuring him out. This record is absolutely brilliant and will undoubtedly make some Top Album lists around the blogosphere at the end of 2014. I recently caught up with McMillan to discuss the shift of gears in his trademark sound, his influences in the creation of Borderland, and what the upcoming ANIMALS TOUR will look like. Oh, and the best part: You’ll never guess what he’s currently working on for his next project… Enjoy.-Luke Goddard, March 6, 2014 ________________________________________________________
The Blue Indian (Luke Goddard): Mr. McMillan, pleasure chatting with you. Boxers or briefs?
John Mark McMillan: Briefs.
TBI: [Laughs] Now that I’ve gotten that question out of the way, I’ll be serious. As you’ve seen, I tweeted asking fans what they wanted us to talk about. They know their JMM stuff, man! Before we get to some of those questions, how’s Sarah and the kids?
JMM: They’re great! Life’s a little insane right now cause the kids are little and full on, but it’s great.
TBI: I can imagine. Three kids now! Insane how time flies. This new record– Borderland— I’ve been stewing on it for a while now. It seems so carefully crafted. And we’re hearing a major change in sound, which will get to soon. Was every song written by you in solitude and then brought to your production crew in the studio or were some written on the fly while recording?
JMM: Most began in solitude. “Love at the End” began as a band jam. But most songs I brought in as melodic ideas and we went to work and I finished the lyrics as we went along.
TBI: It’ll be interesting to see how you bring this sound on tour. What will be band look like on the upcoming “Are We All Animals” tour?
JMM: Right now we’re talking about 6 or 7 piece band. Guitar, bass, drums, keys, aux guy, and possibly a string player. But a lot of the guys will multitask.
TBI: That should make for a great tour. Let’s do some Twitter questions. Fan @BrandonWilsman tweets: “Ask him why he switched up the band for this album? No Duke bros.”
JMM: I don’t know man. I just think all the old band guys were tired. It had been a long hard road and we’d all started families. Things got complicated. We reached a point where we knew things couldn’t continue the way they were. None of us questioned that something needed to change but it was a matter of exactly what needed to change. For a moment I almost quit music altogether. I obviously decided to keep going, but I think the guys were just tired. They didn’t have the fire for it any more and I don’t blame them. Years of driving in a van, eating McDonalds, and missing your family is tough. And I guess it’s even tougher when your supporting another man’s vision. I don’t really know where I lost them. I’m sure it was probably my fault but whatever reason was, I just didn’t seem to know how to get things back on track. I tried for a year or more, but in the end I knew that if we were going to succeed this time around, it would only be with people who’s hearts were with us. So, in the end, we agreed that everyone deserved to do something they loved. I just figured if they didn’t love what they were doing with me, then they needed to do something else.
I was obviously real bummed about it for a long time. But one day I realized that as hard as it was, it put me in a unique place. With no band or expectation I could make whatever kind of album I wanted to make. Not that i didn’t make albums I wanted make before, but my brain rarely thought outside of the context of a live band. All of a sudden I had no band and that was sad, but it gave me and unexpected freedom to create whatever sounds I wanted.
TBI: One of my favorite questions– fan @Hollenbach tweets: “JMM had a contract with a CCM company but returned to the indie side of production. Why? And what did his experience teach him?”
JMM: I returned to indie because I don’t feel like the culture of a large organization works for me. Not that I had any real problem with the guys I was working with, but there is a specific momentum with any large company that has to be acknowledged and accounted for. If that momentum isn’t flowing in the direction you feel called, then you find yourself swimming up stream. That can be super taxing and at the end of the day it can be hard to find the energy to put into the creative side of things.
I worked with good guys but at the end of the day my motive is not financial. That’s a conflict of interest with most companies. The truth is I don’t expect to sell a lot of records. As an indie that doesn’t matter. On a label it’s a huge problem. They look at you like you’re a failure if you only sell 15 or 20 thousand records. But as an indie it’s a decent living.
I learned a lot on the label. They were some super guys who taught me a lot about the business. I learned that music is real hard place to make a living and most signed bands fail. I learned to appreciate the opportunities I had because most of them don’t happen twice. Most of all I learned that love trumps money and that passion on a shoe string still wins.
TBI: Well, this record definitely exemplifies the freedom you must’ve felt from doing it independently. Fan @JohnandHammer tweets: “JMM had written a blog prior to this album about his wife informing him, he no longer used words like “me and I” in lyrics. He expressed that he wanted to personalize things again and not just technically write the “best” songs. My question is how did the creative process work to capture this [idea] on Borderland?
JMM: We had 1 real rule for the Borderland process:
Write whatever my ears wanted to hear. Lyrically or sonically. If I wanted to sing about speaking in tongues, relationships, The Walking Dead, or Jesus… Then done. If I wanted 2 drummers, a dulcimer, and a string section… Done.
I think I started thinking for myself again. It was nice not to have certain expectations this time. So the “I” naturally came back when I started writing about what “I” wanted and not what people expected.
TBI: One of my personal favorite melodies on the record comes on track 3, “Guns / Napoleon.” Fan @TimIsLiving tweets: “As someone who has studied the Napoleonic wars, I’m really interested in the story behind Guns / Napoleon!”
JMM: Napoleon is my daughter I think. It’s just about how love is hard and how love demands surrender. My daughter entered the picture very suddenly and forced me to change the way I live in order to grow up and be who she needed to me to be. It was tough because everything in me loved her, but it seemed like everything in me was screaming not to change. What I realized is that all the things we do to feel young make us old so fast. I have three kids now. I’m not in charge of my life because everything I do effects 5 of us. The real truth is that i was never in charge. I just thought I was. At the time it felt like i was being dethroned. But really I was just seeing the way things had been the whole time. “Love can break your bones”
The song is about Jesus too, but that’s the beauty of this album. Most of these songs have legitimate dual meanings, and the dual meanings speak to one another as well! Napoleon is Jesus and Napoleon is my kids. AND it’s Jesus teaching me through my kids. It’s both at the same time.
TBI: Fan @KHaleySheffield (who happens to be a really good photographer) declares you her favorite artist. She tweets asking for a “window into the process” you have to create such depth and rich imagery in your
lyrics. You get asked this a lot, but with anyone who follows your work, it is a staple question that just needs to be in any JMM interview. It’s the thing that probably grabs folks the most. During the writing process for this record, you tweeted (or instagrammed) pics of your “writing room.” You had a chalk board with phrases up– many of which I now hear on the new record. What was a day like in this room writing the new record?
JMM: Hard. Usually my best work happens first thing in the morning. I would try to take out my guitar and do nothing for the first hour but sing spontaneously. Then I would use the rest of the morning to push every other song a little further down the path. Afternoons are for admin cause nothing creative happens after lunch.
TBI: I gotta say, man– As a critic, for what I thought you’d majorly lack without James Duke’s slide guitar, which let’s admit, was a trademark of your previous work, you’ve completely blown my mind by making up for it with intoxicating melodies and a rich variety of instrumentation we’ve never heard on anything you’ve released. Relevant Magazine puts it perfectly when describing your sound:
“John Mark McMillan something of an anomaly. From the very beginning of his career, nearly a decade ago, his music has defied easy categorization.” Have you ever wrestled with being “business smart” in your songwriting for the sake of becoming wealthy in the CCM market? You know, releasing church hits?
JMM: I wouldn’t say I was tempted to do something to be wealthy, but I have been tempted to do things to pay the bills. But what I’ve realized these last couple of years is that Christian people don’t come to me for “safe” anyway. “Safe” doesn’t help me really. So there is very little temptation to be like the CCM world because I would be an absolute failure in that world.
TBI: What will separate this record from anything else you’ve done is the believer and non-believer and the “who cares” people will all dig it. Do you realize the rarity of this? In my opinion, the “CCM” community won’t know what to do with Borderland. With any ground-breaking work comes high praise and on the other side of the coin– heated criticism. You posted a pic to Instagram of a 2 liner iTunes review that was comical. The fella felt that what he’s heard so far of the new record is “weird,” “the words don’t make a whole lot of sense” and my favorite, he tells everyone they’re “much better off with Mercy Me or Casting Crowns.” Obviously, this is hilarious. But, on a serious note, are you affected by your fan’s perception of what you release?
JMM: Sometimes but not in that situation. I mean music is meant to heard so you want to know that people “get” you. But there are always haters or people who just don’t have a context. I think what bugs me the most is when there is no reaction at all.
TBI: We’ve all heard a lot of Springsteen and Dylan in your previous work. And while I know it’s annoying for an artist to hear people talk about other artists they hear in their work, it can also be seen as a compliment. I definitely hear some Arcade Fire, The National, Bon Iver, and even some Phil Collins. Does this surprise you?
JMM: Doesn’t surprise me at all. We definitely didn’t try to channel any of those guys. For the most part we were just trying to make sounds we like. I think The National reference comes from my low voice which Elijah (producer) has always loved. I think people say Bon Iver because of the layered vocals, which I’ve wanted to do for years. I just think he gave us permission to do it. We did try to channel Phil Collins though. I’ll own up to that one.
TBI: Ha! Tell us about Brady Toops. What factored into the decision making process to bring him on your upcoming tour as your opener?
JMM: I love Brady. I love his voice and his songs. Also he is an incredible hang. I knew it would make for a sweet night on and off the stage. And I know our fans will love him.
TBI: I always like to ask an artist to share with TBI’s readers something no one knows about what you’ll be doing next. Whether it be a surprise tour guest appearance, new project, etc. Give us something!
JMM: I’m writing a really tough, mostly non romantic Alt-R&B album about women: moms, daughters, sisters, lovers etc. I promise that’s not a fabricated answer.
TBI: What! Crazy. We’ll be watching for that. I enjoyed catching up. Let’s do another TBI Alley Session soon. You down?
JMM: For sure!
FOLLOW John Mark on Twitter: @JohnMarkMC
FOLLOW Luke on Twitter: @rlukegoddard