MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard almost quit the band, but instead reinvented the group's style
Posted in , Mar 10, 2015
If you grew up listening to Christian rock music, chances are a few songs from the band MercyMe have a spot on your most-played list. The Texas-born group features lead singer/songwriter Bart Millard and band members James Bryson, Robby Shaffer, Nathan Cochran, Michael Scheuchzer and Barry Graul, who have been cranking out hits and collecting fans since they combined their talents back in 1994. Twenty years, eight studio albums, eight Dove Awards and numerous Grammy nominations later, the band is still making music and continues to dominate the charts.
Their latest album is all the more significant thanks to its tumultous beginnings. Before production began, Millard made the difficult decision to step away from the band, which could have been the end of the road for fans of their music. Instead, walking away led to the creation of a new album, Welcome to the New, which has garnered two Grammy nominations, debuted No. 1 on the Billboard Christian Album charts and helped reinvent the veteran group’s sound.
Millard spoke with Guideposts.org about how close he came to leaving the band, the message behind this new album and why he’s having more fun than ever praising God through song.
Why did you want to make this album?
After [the album] The Hurt & The Healer, we kind of hit a wall. I grew up in a somewhat legalistic church and it taught me that faith is enough, but here’s three more things left just in case. There’s always things left to do to be closer to God. You start a band and do all this stuff to try to please Him and I just hit a point where I thought “Man, I don’t think I can keep up.” It felt like my family life was hanging by a thread. There had to be more to it.
While writing The Hurt & The Healer, a friend of mine came back into my life. We hadn’t seen him in a long time and one of the things he said to me that really stopped me in my tracks, he said “Hey, you guys work really hard but in case you’ve forgotten, there’s nothing you can do to make Christ love you any more than He already does, so maybe you just need to stop and just rest in the finished work of the cross.” No one’s ever told me to stop before, they’ve always said to try harder. It took a couple of years to understand what that meant and I really thought, at that time, that MercyMe was coming to an end. I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. Literally stop and just take it all in.
At that point, my wife and I had kind of jokingly said we stopped caring what people thought, what radios thought, what labels thought, and we just decided not to keep up with this image and focus on our fellowship with Christ. The second that MercyMe stopped being my identity, instead of quitting, I started falling back in love with it. About that time we had gone back in the studio and started making this new record and that’s the message, from beginning to end. Hence the name Welcome to the New. We wanted the message and everything to be different. We said, what’s the [album] we’d love to make, whether it ever gets played on the radio or not? So we just started making that and luckily people are okay with it.
One track on that album that’s very personal for you is “Dear Younger Me.” Can you talk about why you wanted to write that song?
Over the years, my wife and I have gone through grief counseling. Her brother was killed back in 2004 and we probably never dealt with it the proper way, so we went to grief counseling a few years ago and one of the first things the counselor said to me was “We need to go back into your childhood and unpack that." I grew up in a pretty abusive situation. My father was a very abusive person until he was diagnosed with cancer my freshman year of high school. When he came to know Christ [after his diagnosis] he became one of the godliest men I’ve ever know. But there’s a lot of damage done, a lot of feeling like it’s your fault. In counseling, one of the things she said was that, "If you ever want to know what you would’ve been like in a healthy family and a God-like environment, just look at your son Charlie." I started thinking, If I could sit with the 8 year-old version of myself, what would I say to him? It was one of the hardest songs I’ve ever had to write. A lot of people carry those issues with them, they carry that guilt and shame around their neck like it’s part of them. That one is particularly special because of the response that we’ve had. I’ve gotten emails from people saying, "This has broken me free of something that I’ve carried a long time," so, that’s really cool.
Another song that’s getting a lot of attention is “Shake.” It has an old-school sound that’s completely different from anything you guys have done in the past. Why make that the first single?
When I almost quit the band, the guys were like "Let’s try to fix what’s broke." We cut our shows in half and just [changed] everything to where it wasn’t overpowering our lives. I figured I’d take a break and maybe do a solo record a few years down the road. I wanted to make music that was different, that has an old-school vibe and felt current at the same time, so they were really good sports to chase that rabbit with me. When we finished The Hurt and The Healer, we thought we’d take two or three years off. We were on the road doing some shows and we started goofing off, messing with some songs and [there was] this track that ended up being “Shake.” We started writing to it and it was so different. I loved it, the guys were into it and I made the mistake of sending the demo to a label. They really wanted us to make a record but didn’t want to push the issue so I feel like they kind of leaked the song on YouTube, just putting it out there and it got a huge response, so they were like “Hey, we won’t talk about the record but at least make a video for this song and put it out there. If you’re going to take a two-year break, let’s give them something.” So we did the video in October last year and after it got all that attention we were like “Well, we’ve gotta make a record now.”
I know you grew up Baptist. There’s no shaking it in a Baptist Church.
[Laughs] Part of the idea of the song was, if you’re ever able to know who God is and understand who you are in Christ, it’d be really hard to sit still. We’re not dancers, but it was just polar opposite of the stuff we were known for or the stuff we even write. That’s just how I felt spiritually and still do. It’s fun to be able to do it for this long and in a way feel like you’re just getting started as far as creativity. It renewed what we’re doing. I think it was U2 that said “being in a band is like being in the mafia, the only way you get out is if you die.” I tend to believe that’s what it’s like.
Was being the leader of a Christian rock band what you always wanted to do?
I dreamed of being a singer, but I never really had a plan. My goal was to be a pastor at church and when I went to college, I moved to Florida, went to school and worked at a church there. I was already singing some but just tracks for the church. I thought “Man, if I could just get a job and have that outlet to make music on Sunday mornings, I’d be good to go.” At some point, Mike [Scheuchzer] and I were like “Can we really do this and avoid getting real jobs?” So we just took that semester off in college and tried to do it and never looked back. People always ask, “How can I do what you do?” Don’t take for granted where God has you. People always say it’s just a stepping stone for something bigger, but whether you’re singing for 10,000 or 10, you have to look at it as God has raised you up for this moment, that’s why you’re here. If you don’t, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t continue or if the opportunities don’t come your way.
What have you discovered about your faith thanks to your years with Mercy Me?
After I turned 40, that’s when it started to sink in who I am in Christ. I worked really hard for a long time to make sure God was okay with me. I’ve always felt I’ve spent most of my life doing these “good” things to make sure I was right with God and now everything that I do is with the understanding that I am right with God and it’s way more fun.