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Sarah McMillan. Wife to John Mark. Soon mother to Jude Williams. Master potter. Musician.
Ever since I started listening to Sarah’s music, I’ve found myself referring to her inadvertantly as “Sarah Mark McMillan,” but her music is nothing like her husband’s. Where John Mark’s music hearkens back to 90s alternative rock, Sarah’s goes a little further back… more toward the 1890s than the 1990s. Drawing on folk, roots, and country, with some bluegrass twang thrown in, Sarah’s songs put you solidly in a slightly modernized Pentecostal camp meeting from the early 20th century. It’s equal parts Enter the Worship Circle and O Brother Where Art Thou?
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.
Sorry for missing over a week on The Blah Blah. Between shoveling piles and piles of snow, moving into a new house, and the usual ministry stuff, life has been busy. And, man, do I have a lot to talk about…
So let’s get going. I’ve mentioned artist John Mark McMillan quite a bit on The Blah Blah, and just recently he proved himself to be just the awesome guy I figured he was by answering a few questions over an e-mail interview. Here is part one today, with part two coming tomorrow. Enjoy.
The Blah Blah: Who are you, in as many words and descriptives as you’d like to use?
John Mark McMillan: John Mark is a husband, a dad, a friend, and occasionally an enemy (but usually only with transportation personnel and aggressive sales people). He is a songwriter and a singer of songs. He has, at times, been considered an artist and would like to think of himself as an artist. Though his work is not always entirely original (and whose is?) he wants to expand the boundaries and explore the peripherals of what it means to be both an artist and a person who gives language to a community. John Mark is tall, loud and usually hungry. He adores his wife and baby boy. Loves to play music but loves listening to music even more. Has a strong distaste for pretense yet is occasionally pretentious. He enjoys controversy. He sports a beard because his wife thinks he looks to young without it. Though he doesn’t see what’s wrong with looking young.
TBB: Describe your style of music.
JMM: I would have to classify it as “Alternative”, or just plain “Rock” occasionally bleeding into the arenas of “Folk” , “Americana” or dare I say “Southern”. You may find my music on the rack at the store under the moniker of “Christian” or “Gospel”. Though I do profess to be an imitator of Christ and a purveyor of the Gospel thereof, I don’t think that the word “Christian” describes the sound of the music I write or music in general for that mater. So I personally wouldn’t say it’s “Christian Music,” but I’m not entirely offended by someone who would want to call it Christian music. I understand why they would.
TBB: How did you start doing music?
JMM: I started playing music when I was in my late teens. Mostly because I wasn’t good at sports and because my passion, drawing comic books, didn’t seem to impress the girls. So I started playing music for the shallowest of reasons and the truth was it didn’t really work. I never did impressed anybody. But I did discover that I truly loved playing music and especially writing songs.
When I was about 19 I was asked to play one of my songs at a large church conference. There were about 5000 people there and I was way under-qualified. Even at that time a few hundred people would have been quite intimidating. So, as you can imagine, I was incredibly nervous. I got up on the stage and pretty much froze. The background singers actually had to start the song for me. But I eventually fell in and when I got to the chorus the place erupted. It just about knocked me over. To hear 5000 people screaming lyrics that I wrote in my bedroom one lonely afternoon generated a feeling that I think only a handful of people on earth will ever experience. For just a few seconds I think that I actually stepped into a taste of the destiny that God had called me to. Needless to say I was ruined and I knew that I would spend the rest of my life writing songs, especially the kind that help people say the things that I think they really want to say.
TBB: What do you do when you’re not making music?
JMM: I like listening to and purchasing music, especially on vinyl. I also love going to shows whenever I can (I’m out of town a lot). I like to spend a lot of time with people. I really can’t think of many things that I enjoy more than to sit around and waste time with other human beings. Especially ones that I love or find particularly entertaining. I think it’s a very important thing to enjoy people, so I’ve made it a priority.
I really like gangster movies. I like to read, especially books about sociology and people. I’m really fascinated by the reasons behind why people do what they do. I also enjoy reading theology and apologetics by Lewis or Zacharias. I used to read the Lord of the Rings Trilogy once a year but now I just watch the movie (not quite the same but it works out better with my schedule).
TBB: I’ve definitely worshiped God through a lot of your songs, but only a few come across as “worship songs” per se – do you see yourself as a worship leader?
JMM: Sure, I totally do. But also beyond the Sunday morning choruses I want to write music that people want to sing everyday. I think that also could be considered worship leading, just maybe not in the traditional sense. I think whether you’re Bob Dylan or Lil’ Wayne, if you’re important to anyone as an artist, it’s because you help a group of people articulate something. I think the only real difference is what exactly we’re helping people articulate. The most common place for a worship leader to do this is in a church building on Sunday. I certainly enjoy doing that but I also want to have an effect on people beyond what they do inside of a building, when they’re out living their lives. I think real worship happens at work, at school, in the car or in the shower. It’s not something that stops after a service, though I do consider the service to be important as well. I don’t want to belittle that at all. I just like the idea of creating music that’s more than simply a platform for a message.
TBB: I’ve heard the story of the song “How He Loves” before, but for those who don’t know, how did that song come about?
JMM: Several years ago my best friend was killed in a car accident. I learned about it while I was in Jacksonville, Florida, working in the studio. I was pretty devastated as you can imagine. I woke up the next day and wrote that song. I had a couple lines of the song before he died but I felt like the song was supposed to be for him so I sat down that morning and finished it.
The song is basically about dealing with the anger of his death and how I was pretty tempted to believe that God didn’t love us but that even in this death I can see that God does. I guess my question was if God loved him then why did he die, and the answer, I believed, was that he died because God loved him and wanted to be with him. It’s a difficult conclusion to come to and I’m not sure most people who sing the song completely understand where I was coming from when I wrote it, but I’m glad it’s touching people.
In fact I receive messages pretty regularly from kids who have battled with depression and suicide who tell me that the song actually turned them around and saved their lives. So I would never complain, and after all, I think a song can have more than one meaning.
My friend was actually in a prayer meeting the morning before he died and told the Lord that if his death would shake people up then he would give his life. I don’t entirely understand the implications of this prayer, but I do believe that the effect this song has had on people is part of a promise that the Lord made when He took my friend’s life.
There are kids who are alive now because they heard that song and that’s the only explanation I have for it. Just the facts. I don’t understand how all that works theologically. I just know that’s the way it is.
TBB: One of my favorites of your songs is the song “Closer.” Any interesting stories about that song?
JMM: This is just a really honest song I wrote one afternoon. I wrote a good bit of Song Inside the Sounds in the midst of some pretty serious pain. I’ve done this song in church pretty often.
Theologically I’m not really sure that we’re really supposed to beg God for anything. Sons and daughters don’t beg. I was just in a place of such turmoil that I felt like I needed more than good stories and chicken soup for the soul. I needed a living person. So often we equate Christianity down to good vibes and what I needed was a person. The truth in the song is that Jesus is a person not just a good bedtime story.
TBB: How does your new album The Medicine compare to The Song Inside the Sounds of Breaking Down?
JMM: Not sure entirely. They seem to be two different animals really. While I was recording The Medicine people would ask me if it sounded like Song Inside The Sounds or if it was much of a departure. I always told people that it was pretty similar, but the truth was I hadn’t listened to Song Inside the Sounds for years until recently. When I did put the old album back on I realized that the two sounded totally different.
Recording can play tricks on you. I remember much more of what things sounded like in the process than the actual final product sometimes and it’s hard to get those things out of my head. When I think about the albums, I tend to think more about the 6 months I spent recording them rather than the 60 minutes that actually reach the general public. As far as I could tell, the process for each seemed similar enough. It was the same group of musicians and the same producer. I just assumed they would turn out similarly. But nope. They sound totally different.
In the three years between them I’m pretty sure I grew a ton as a writer and as a singer and the rest of the band grew as well. I had a more focused idea of what I wanted to accomplish this go around and we focused less on studio production and more on live performance this time.
It’s really funny to me when people say they think The Medicine sounds so much more polished because we purposely let things hang loose from a performance side of things in ways we never would have done before. We certainly had a bigger budget and it’s certainly bigger sonically. But we let it all hang out to the point where we wondered if people would find it a bit too indie.
TBB: Speaking of your new album, I really enjoy the song “Ten Thousand.” What’s the idea behind that song?
JMM: “Ten Thousand“ uses a number as a vehicle to tell a story from the perspective of a kind of old revelator. I incorporated lots of imagery picturing both death (rivers run red) and resurrection (graves yawning). At the time I wrote this, and much of the album, I was somewhat fascinated with the idea of death and resurrection representing two sides of the human experience. In this particular situation it’s not, so much, a Biblical presentation of resurrection but a picture of death and resurrection in everyday life. But that certainly isn’t an unbiblical concept.
TBB: What about the song “The Medicine?” I can venture some guesses, but I’d like to hear the “official” meaning…
JMM: “The Medicine” is a song about how we, as humans, like to self-medicate and how, often, the things we do to avoid pain are the very things that bring us pain.
I remember what it was like when I was young and trying to run from loneliness. I used to have this stone in my chest that I just couldn’t shake and it was the worst at night when I had to be alone with my thoughts. So what you do is keep yourself busy with anything you can find so when you lay down, you’re out cold.
Dealing with heartache is such a painful process, but it doesn’t have to be as bad as we make it. I see people I love and I want to reach out and save them from all the agony they’re experiencing, but sometimes you just have to watch them go through it and its heartbreaking.
TBB: Which of your songs is your favorite to play?
JMM: In church I love to play “Skeleton Bones” because I love to hear people sing the chorus. I think I wrote it with the idea that lots of people would have to sing it together for it to really have the desired effect. Also I love to hear people sing words that you don’t generally hear in church worship.
In a club situation, I like to play “The Medicine” because it’s just such a beautiful greasy ruckus.
… OK, you’re probably overloaded already. Come back tomorrow for part two!
This came out a while ago, but I just re-found the link, so check it out.
You can download the Summershine album by Vigilantes of Love for free by clicking here. I don’t know a whole lot about Bill Mallonee and his band, but I’ve been listening to him for a little while now. The band is sort of americana, folk, and country, mixed with REM-style college rock.
Summershine was released in 2001 and sounds a little dated but it’s still good. Definitely worth a free download.
While you’re at it, check out some of Bill Mallonee’s new songs on his MySpace. Some good stuff if you like classic indie americana.