I started an over e-mail interview with John Mark McMillan yesterday over here, and today you get the second half.
The Blah Blah: Describe your process of writing songs. Where do most of your lyrics come from?
John Mark McMillan: For me it usually starts with sounds. I just begin to experiment with chords, sounds or words until something strikes me as interesting. Then I experiment more in that direction. I rarely sit down with a specific topic in mind. In fact I usually just kind of mumble to myself for awhile until I find a group of words that seem to be aesthetically pleasing or particularly powerful for some reason. I just kind of vamp until I like something I’m hearing, then I begin to pick it apart and ask myself what I’m trying to communicate.
That’s when I let myself get more intellectual with the song. At first I don’t question myself much because I don’t want to hold up the creative process, but eventually I have to ask myself where the song is going and begin to tighten it up, edit myself, and make these words and phrases into something cohesive.
I also journal alot without music. Sometimes I play with words and phrases all day long in my head. Turning things around and flipping them back and forth. I learned this from Kevin Prosch and I’ve heard that Dylan did this quite a bit. Sometimes it’s like a game to take regular words and use them together in different sequences to say different things.
At some point I’ll take my ideas to the band and often this is where they really begin to flesh out. The energy they create gets me excited about the ideas and new ones start to flow. Then they get excited and they come up with new ideas and we develop a kind of creative momentum.
TBB: I assume that you’d consider yourself to be a Christian – can you describe the process that God has used to bring you to Himself?
JMM: I grew up going to church. My dad, who is also one of my greatest influences, was and still is a Charismatic pastor. I actually enjoyed certain aspects of church when I was young. I liked seeing people and interacting with lots of other kids. I really liked the stories.
But as I got older something about the Christian culture just seemed to turn me off. Maybe it was the religious expectation or the lack of creativity in Christian environments but something just made me angry. I can’t give you one good reason for it but I became very angry at Christian people.
Even to this day certain aspects of Christian culture make me literally sick to my stomach, and I can’t tell you exactly why. I guess it’s because I’m really interested in the man Jesus and it seems to devalue him whenever people feel like they have to hype him up or help him out. Either he’s real or he’s a fairy tale. I think he’s real, and if I’m right then I don’t need to hype him up. If I’m wrong then no amount of hype in this world is going to make a difference. I think he’s an incredible person and most people would agree with me if they had the chance to be properly introduced.
So I guess you could say that things changed for me when I met the man Jesus as apposed to the idea or philosophy. There was a point when I told God that I wasn’t sure if I believed in him at all and that if he loved me the way people said he was supposed to love me, then to please make things clear or I was going to have to do something else. Not to give him some kind of weird ultimatum or anything. I just figured if there was any reality to what I said I believed then He would have to help me out.
God works in his own time, but things certainly changed from then on out. I think God was waiting for me to be honest with him and myself. He wasn’t offended. He already knew what I was thinking and far more about what was going on in me than even I did.
I think sometimes our idea of reverence can keep us from having a real relationship. As a whole, I believe that Christians have communicated very poorly to the rest of the world the real personality of Jesus. You can hardly have a conversation with someone about Jesus without insighting a riot because their idea of him is so skewed.
Unfortunately, I think its our fault. We’ve communicated Christianity as a performance-driven system of morality with a pretty superficial idea of reverence. I believe the major difference between Christianity and other major religions is the fact that it is not, in anyway, a performance-driven religion. I believe that the overall message of the Bible is this: being good doesn’t make you righteous. Abstaining from evil doesn’t make you righteous. On the contrary, we have been made righteous by the blood of Jesus. And only then, by realizing that he has made us righteous, do we have the ability to be good or abstain from evil. And even then it’s a process.
So I guess I realized that Jesus was not like the people who wore his t-shirt, but after that I was able to turn around and love those people too, even if I thought some of the things they did were a little silly. I do some pretty silly things myself.
TBB: If you could have any one of your songs heard throughout the world, which would you pick?
JMM: Probably “Ten Thousand” or “Skeleton Bones.” The answer to this question changes daily.
TBB: In a similar vein, what’s your goal as a musician?
JMM: As a musician I want to be good enough to the point where I don’t have to think about the music at all and I can communicate what I’m feeling as fluidly as if you and I were having a conversation on the phone.
TBB: What artists are you currently listening to?
JMM: I really love the Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, and My Morning Jacket. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Ryan Adams for years that I can’t seem to shake and which is probably a little too obvious. I’m always down for some Springsteen, and lately, believe it or not, I’ve been digging on some classic Guns’ N’ Roses and a little Thriller era Michael Jackson.
Right at this moment I really can’t stop listening to these guys out of central Kentucky called The Embers.
TBB: What books are you reading?
JMM: Right now just a book called The Black Swan, though I’m realizing it may be a little out of my league intellectually, but I hear Malcolm Gladwell is putting out a new book in a few weeks and I’ll be onto that one pretty fast. I’m sorry to say I’m not reading anything incredibly spiritual right now.
TBB: I’m pretty frustrated with most “Christian music.” What’s your take on the whole thing? What’s good? What needs to change?
JMM: I know we hate to think this way but ultimately Christian Music, like any other industry, is driven by a market. Christian publishers will only push the kind of music that they think their audience likes. Right now they seem to believe that Christians mostly want music that has a very clear utility, meaning that people know the exact purpose and place for the music inside of a specific model or program. So, often, if a song doesn’t have an obvious function or strict religious message then they don’t think it will be valued by the greater Christian population.
Personally, I think this mindset supports a pretty narrow creative environment at best. I think the only way for this to change is for artists to spend time and energy building new audiences and serving people who want more than just topical songs written to enhance sermons. I don’t have a problem with those kind of songs necessarily – there are just plenty of them and very few with what I would consider a massive amount of artistic integrity (though I’m sure you could find plenty of people who feel the same about my music).
It’s just so easy to fall into the standard sort of situation because the resources for those kinds of things are so readily available, much more so than for the typical or even above average general market band. I really don’t like to be negative or reactionary about all this but I certainly have strong feelings about it. It may be that all people really need is a vision for something new or different. I mean, you and I seem to want something different so there has to be people out there who feel the same way. Just someone has to be willing to take the risk.
TBB: Any final thoughts?
JMM: I think I wrote way to much…
Thanks, John Mark! Hope you all enjoyed the interview.