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John Mark McMillan

For the release of his latest recording, Borderland, worship leader John Mark McMillan turned to Kickstarter to have the album fan-funded.'s Mark Rice caught up with John to discuss Borderland, some of the song meanings, worship leading, and the impact of his hit "How He Loves"...
This interview took place on: 3/6/14.

  • JFH (Mark Rice): So you started out as an independent musician for a while. You released your first album in 2002, and then signed with Integrity 2010, and now you are back to being independent. What were the biggest factors in the decision to go back to being independent, and how is it different this time around?

    John Mark McMillan: Well, indie just feels better. I don't think I was cut out for a big organization. Every organization has a momentum and if it isn't flowing in the direction you feel you want to go then it creates lots of pointless tension that really detracts from the creative process. So, yeah, I worked with great people who taught me a lot, but I just never felt at home.

  • JFH (Mark): I've heard you talk several times about the title of your album Borderland as a "place between places." Can you talk about how that theme plays out in the album and in life?

    John: I think we all walk lines between work and family, art and commerce, passion and survival, y'know? I think we all live in borderlands. Much of the album speaks to these places and the tension that we live with. Especially as a believer who often feels sorely out of place in both Christian and general market streams of music, I know what it's like to attempt to hold two worlds in the balance at once. However, many of these songs speak to both worlds - separately and at the same time, y'know? So, often the spiritual language is metaphor for the common and the common language is metaphor for the spiritual.

  • JFH (Mark): OK. So, what did you hope to accomplish on Borderland differently than your last several albums?

    Album Cover

    John: I don't know entirely what would be different. I mean, obviously it's different, sorta, 'cause I was in a different head space. I think that one thing we did, not that we didn't do this on other albums, but I was more confident with it this go-around. I decided that I was gonna make whatever kind of sounds I wanted to make. So, that's one of the amazing things about the Kickstarter, is there is no pressure. We can make whatever album we want to make. And, we technically could before, we just sorta had to explain ourselves, so that in itself creates all sorts of limitations, y'know. So sometimes you won't try things, thinking, "Oh, we spent all this time and this money on this, and people aren't going to like it." Y'know? So this go-'round really was whatever I wanted to do. So, I think that was different. I think whatever my ears wanted to hear, I didn't think too hard about what anyone else would think about it. I mean, I wanted other people to hear the music, I wanted it to mean something to other people, but I guess sorta finding the universal and the personal was what we went for this go-around. That was probably the most different. Also, it was a different band, and even a different kind of band this time.

  • JFH (Mark): [Different] than on previous albums?

    John: Yup, [different] than the previous albums, yeah. I really wanted to do something that really represented our live band. But I didn't have a live band when we started this project, so, we didn't have any sorta limitations. We could do whatever we wanted. We could bring in whatever we wanted, so we had multiple drummers, multiple bass players, tons of guitar players, y'know, lots of different people, and just whatever we felt we sorta went for.

  • JFH (Mark): OK. So, I wanna ask about the song "Guns / Napoleon." That one was my personal favorite. You used a lot of warfare imagery about surrendering -- was there anything specific that inspired it, and why the title? It's an interesting title…

    John: I mean, Napoleon sounds really cool. It works better than Genghis Kahn, y'know what I mean? *laughs* So, number one, aesthetic is always very important because it's a song. So "Napoleon" was just a great word, first of all, and the idea of the song -- it's a song about love, and the idea that real love is hard, but that is the best kind. I think real love requires surrender. All love requires surrender, ultimately. It is laying down who you are for the greater good, for the better, y'know? I think that song, the more I think about it, I think that song is about my daughter. She was kinda a surprise. And we were already in a pretty hectic place, y'know. I was traveling a lot, and we had, at the time, a three-year old and a newborn son, so life was really hectic and challenging, and then baby girl was definitely a surprise. So an already really difficult situation was made really, really hard when she stepped into the scene, y'know?

  • JFH (Mark): How old is she now?

    John: She is one-and-a-half, right now. Almost two. So, she made life more challenging than it was already, but also, she's also the best part of life. So my kids are the hardest part of life and the best part of life at the same time, y'know what I mean? And that's what it means to love, is laying down who you are, laying down your rights for something better than your rights. So that's kinda the idea. And there is obviously a Jesus parallel there. Teach me to love through her, so you can apply that there to him, obviously, but, that's another one of those borderland things that speaks to both worlds.

  • JFH (Mark): How about the song "Love At the End?"

    John: Hmm. To me, "Love At The End" is a group of words that sound really cool…

  • JFH (Mark): Yeah, that's true!

    John: There's meaning in there for sure, but it's not super linear. It's more abstract. The song itself is more about the aesthetic of the words, but I never try going into a song with a message, or try to express a message, as much as I'm trying to capture moments, y'know? So, that whole moment, I think, is about, sort of this apocalyptic type of thing, and there's a lot of negativity, I guess. If you were to ask someone, "Give us ten reasons why things are getting worse in the world," they can, but if you ask, "Give us ten reasons why things are getting better in the world," most people can't. Especially being a believer, I get really bummed off about people who talk about how bad things are. Y'know?

  • JFH (Mark): Yeah, I do know.

    John: It really doesn't help people complain about the president. It doesn't help. It just doesn't help. People get angry about all sorts of things, but my whole thing is, "yeah, things are bad, maybe they are real bad, but there's also a whole lotta good." And I'd rather celebrate the good in the midst of turmoil. You can tell everybody how bad things are, but it doesn't change anything. So "Love At The End" is sort of that whole idea of, sort of speaking to that sotra cultural thing. That make any sense?

  • JFH (Mark): Yeah, and you know, I completely agree with you! That's one of those things that gets me also. Just how people focus so much on THAT stuff. Yeah.

    John: Well, it becomes their identity.

  • JFH (Mark): It does! It really does.

    John: People telling other people how bad they are doing. But, Jesus rarely did that. He did that some, but he rarely told people what they were doing wrong. As much as he called them to something higher, he created a hunger in them for a better life. Much more than how he condemned the life they had, y'know? [The Bible] says he didn't come into the world to condemn the world, but that through him they might see a better way. They might have eternal life, y'know? And that really bums me. I think most people, even people who are not believers would actually be very interested in what Jesus had to say if we didn't make Jesus sound like such an uninteresting guy. 'Cause there were REALLY bad things going on in Jesus's day, and he didn't talk about them. Y'know, they wanted him to talk about Caesar, they wanted him to talk about Rome, they wanted him to talk about political things, and he's like, "Why? That's not what I came to do." Anyways, so I have those kinda thoughts sometimes.

  • JFH (Mark): What about "Heart Runs?"

    John: It's definitely sort of a meditation on Psalms, I believe it's 42?

  • JFH (Mark): Pslams 42, yeah that's what you wrote in your song commentary.

    John: Yup *laughs*, yeah, it's really sorta a meditation on that Pslam. I really think that everybody really loves Jesus, but they just don't know it. I think everybody really wants Jesus, everyone desires Jesus, everyone desired the things that he offers, when you break it down. Like life without fear, a life without worry, a life where you are not comparing yourself to other people, a life of confidence, a life of love, and security, and, y'know, everything he offers is what every single person wants. And I believe everybody in the world basically wants the same things. The differences between us as men, women, black, white, different religions, whatever, the differences between us are the differences in the ways we go about things, or the way we attempt to go about those things. But I think, basically, we all want the same. I think Jesus offers us what we really want, and I think if you don't realize that, it's cause you don't really realize what he's offering. I don't always wake up every day and think, "Oh, Jesus, you're everything I want," but I know deep down that what I really want is only found in fellowship with him, and that's kinda the idea of that Pslam.

  • JFH (Mark): OK, well I was gonna ask about "Tongues of Fire," but you already kinda covered that before…

    John: *laughs*

  • JFH (Mark): But we LOST that! (Interviewer's note: this interview took place over Skype, and the interviewer's computer unexpectedly shut down partway in, losing part of the original recording of the interview in which this song was discussed in passing)

    John: Yeah, well, I can talk about that again if you want to, probably a shorter version… "Tongues of Fire" is just about looking back at your life and looking back at when you were young, idealistic, and sorta like how much you've matured, and realizing how idealistic you were, but also realizing, "I've learned a lot of things with my head, but it hasn't necessarily equated to a better life." That knowledge has not necessarily made my life better. "Tongues of Fire" could be a married couple looking back at their marriage when they were younger. It can be friends looking back at what they did when they were younger. Or it could be a believer looking back at the way he or she believed when they were younger. Y'know, sorta picking that apart, and "Tongues of Fire" can be passion, it can be dreaming out loud with your friends, it can be making out with your wife, any of those things, y'know? But I think they all sorta represent the same things and come from the same place. And that's another borderland thing where the spriritual speaks to the natural and vice versa.

  • JFH (Mark): OK, two-fold question. To lead that off with just a short story. So after you released "Future / Past," one of my friends on the worldwide social networking system commented that he thought it was "even better than 'How He Loves.'"

    John: Yeah?

  • JFH (Mark): So, I know that song is particularly meaningful to you, but I'm wondering if it's ever annoying to you that it kinda overshadows the rest of your work. And secondly, kind of in a different vein, do you ever think ahead of time of writing songs that are destined for congregational worship, like "How He Loves" or "Future / Past," or does it just kinda fall into place?

    John: Wow, that's a lot of questions there. First of all, I don't consider "How He Loves" to be my best song by any stretch of the imagination. So, it wouldn't hurt my feelings to hear someone say that any song I have is better than that one. I wrote it ten years ago. So, y'know, it's a ten-year old song, and I feel like every song on this album is better than "How He Loves," personally. But, y'know, a song is a song, and words like "better" and "worse" don't really... well, it's a matter of an opinion. But, in MY opinion, every song on this album is better than "How He Loves." Every song on Economy was better than "How He Loves," y'know. Not because "How He Loves" is a bad song, but just because it is an old song. It's where I was at that time. As a writer, it doen't mean that that song isn't important, or that it's not a great song, but, like I said, it's work I did ten years ago. And there is definitely meaning in it. But there's that whole experience that is all over The Song Inside The Sound of Breaking Down and The Medicine. So, "How He Loves" isn't the only song that speaks to that situation. So, yeah, I get a little annoyed that song seems to overshadow my work, but I feel like the people who really stick with me understand the rest of it. And, I always meet those people who only know "How He Loves," and they get really confused by the rest of the music. But the thing about "How He Loves," was that, nobody, no churches, they woulnd't sing that song for years, y'know? Like five years! So, I never thought of it like, well, we played it at our church, but we didn't think about what other churches would do. I mean, I knew it would work because it worked for us, but at the time, it didn't sound like "congregational worship" when I wrote it. A lot of people said when I wrote it, that churches would never play the song. So, now, I guess you've heard it so much that when you think about it and you think about me as a writer, you think I write that kinda music, but remember, at the time, that's not really what it was.

    Um, I don't think so much about, or I don't use the word "congregational" very much, because, well, it just a big word, a big "Christian" word that means a group of people, y'know? So, I write songs sometimes, for different sized crowds of people. Sometimes I write songs where I envision a drummer, or I envision more different instruments, and sometimes I write songs where I envision more vocals, more singers. So, I look at it like, sometimes the crowd completes that band. So, I generally don't think much about "congregational worship." I think that is real limiting, and I think, from a perspective, from a Christian or Biblical perspective, I think we are given much more permission in that area than we take. And I think it stems from a poor way of thinking. With that said, I'm not against it; I love to do it, I love to be part of groups of people singing and valuing the things they value and love, and I love to give people a voice for those kinds of things, but I don't think so much about writing "church music."

    John Mark McMillan's latest album, Borderland is available now wherever music is sold!

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