Across the Table with John Mark McMillan

JMMA blue glow hovers over the half circle stage where a fog machine casts a haze over the room’s building expectation. There’s a light crowd trickling in from a stormy evening in Chattanooga. It’s definitely a small, intimate venue for one of indie rock’s burgeoning artists: John Mark McMillan. There’s only one mic stand and couple acoustic guitars set against a wood slat backdrop. It’s certainly nothing like the Prophet Bar in Dallas, where John Mark remembers the crowd-on-fire electricity and a full band charging through the set list on all cylinders. The place is called vineyardchattanooga, and the red metal chairs only sit maybe three hundred deep. But the room feels right for this type of acoustic, intimate show. Tonight is more about dialogue, or as JMM describes it, “sitting across the table” with the artist, the songwriter.

I got the chance to chat with John Mark a couple hours before the show. He was chilled back in the chair, feet-up on the suitcase he carried in from the five-hour drive from his native Charlotte. It’s an in between time for John Mark in some ways. Seven days prior he released the joint EP You Are the Avalanche with his wife, Sarah. He spent much of the last year hustling on the “Are We All Animals” tour that took his band from Atlanta and San Fran to New York and Nashville, belting out tracks from 2014’s widely popular Borderland. And he’s gearing up for a fall release of a live album followed by another tour.

I sought to get a close-up of this hard-to-define, label-shedding artist. As he shared his perspective as someone who “sings/writes songs” (or so says the John Mark McMillan twitter page), he swapped a hard candy from the inside of one cheek to the other to keep that burly, yet falsetto-ready voice primed. We talked a bit about his latest release, the EP You Are the Avalanche:

“The original idea for it is that [Sarah] has all these songs she’s written over the years, and I wanted to help her do something with those. She’s sort of in babyland right now; we have three young kids. Her life is insanely busy. I really wanted to give her an outlet with her stuff. And so I thought, why not, let’s do a project together. She was game for it so we did the original tracking during Borderland Sessions.”

In a sonic sense, You Are the Avalanche continues the percussion-driven style of the aggressively unique album Borderland. Also, JMM worked with much of the same team to piece together both records. But the albums share an interesting contrast, a contrast that exists within John Mark himself:

“I’m a songwriter. And I write a lot of different kinds of songs, but I definitely do have a foot in with a gospel/worship kind of world. I connect with a lot of people that way. But really eighty percent of what we do, a lot of it has that similar conversation, but doesn’t sound like what people think of as traditional church music. The songs [Sarah] did are much more worship style songs. So [You Are the Avalanche] gave us an outlet to do that. We set out to do a whole EP of songs that have sing-able, anthemic choruses but approach it as artists.”

That approach. That implacable need for original artistry seems to be something that JMM wrestles with constantly. And as he puts it, a conversation unfolded and a discussion now exists between these two albums:

“I think there’s really a narrative in the records. With Borderland, the whole theme is that looking out for yourself is not really looking out for yourself. You actually are a much healthier person when you give up who you are and become interested in other people, you know. You sort of give up your rights to look after the rights of other people. Often times, things we do to survive end up killing the things we love or what we’re passionate about. So what’s the point? If you destroy relationships in order to have things or to have security what do you really have? You Are the Avalanche steps into a new part of the same conversation and says that friendship, fellowship, and intimacy are the greatest things. Borderland asks what’s worth living for. You Are the Avalanche answers with fellowship, intimacy, friendship.”

JMM recently founded Lionhawk Records in 2014. He describes coming along as a young artist trying to stay true to his own ideas about creativity, songwriting, and the craft of making music. He relates how it was a struggle to survive while living in a crevice somewhere between the worlds of church music and indie rock. “Ever since I was young I wanted to have my own record company,” says JMM. “I didn’t even know why.” The vision for Lionhawk is to serve as a platform to give songwriters a voice. Slowly and intentionally, Lionhawk Records will sign aspiring artists who don’t fit squarely into a certain place within those music landscapes.

“One time it just stuck,” he looked back. It took a few times trying to leave his job and pursue music and life as songwriter. So I asked him to pull out of the suitcase of his past experiences some words for young artists neck deep in the grind of trying to get their voice heard.

“I’ve told this to a lot of people; only a few have listened to me. If you want to be heard, do a hundred house shows. One hundred house shows. The hustle you need to make that happen, the experience you get, the people you meet, you will be a totally different artist on the other side. Few people listen to that because it’s hard to do a hundred house shows…but that’s the point.”

JMM has been a part of that songwriter hustle since the early 00’s. He’s seen the indie scene evolve for more than a decade. He laments some recent developments in the production side of making music.

“Now everyone wants it to sound good on an iPhone. So people are mixing for the phone in a lot of ways. I still imagine songs being listened to loud in the car or on a sound system. Right now there’s a lot of musical wallpaper. I miss songs. There’s a lot of vibe out there now but not necessarily a lot of songs. I’d like to see more songs. I was really glad to see Beck win the Grammy this year. He’s definitely a songwriter, there’s plenty of vibe in that album, but it’s still mostly songwriting.”

For JMM, a song isn’t the wallpaper. It isn’t the setting. It isn’t the vibe or the atmosphere or even the feeling. Songs, writing, artistry is that engaging conversation, that sharing of a close place between people, that ping of a raised glass at the table.

So that blue glow shifts to a golden hue, and John Mark McMillan’s tall frame walks onto the stage. He strikes the strings with a match stroke while his clacking heel keeps quick time. It’s a foot stomp tune. There’s an honesty about the way the set list unfolds. In that stripped-down, acoustic scene, the character of the artist is served a little raw. Subtle imperfections in the performance seem to highlight an authenticity about the man behind the microphone. And gathered around this songwriter’s table stands a mixed bag of Chattanooga twenty-somethings, nine to fivers, and local kids, all glad to share in a song about something real.

-written by Kyle Barfield