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Wednesday, September 03, 2014
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A Severe Mercy

A Severe Mercy

David Jenison

“My wife’s only brother, Chris, was killed in a car wreck on Jan. 3,” says lead singer and primary songwriter Bart Millard, sitting with his MercyMe bandmates backstage at the Charleston Civic Center. “Chris was the eighth person to pass away in a four-week period who was somehow connected to our lives.”

MercyMe’s new album, Undone (INO), had essentially wrapped by the time of the auto accident; but the group quickly recorded and included “Homesick,” a memorial inspired by this domino-like string of fatalities. Hitting the road in preparation for the new disc’s arrival, the six-member band took time in the Mountain State capital (Charleston, W.V.) to discuss the new album; yet Millard’s cell phone buzzes several times during the interview. He politely ignores the phone calls as he continues discussing the anguish of losing eight loved ones, all the while not knowing he’d just lost a ninth.

“I Can Only Imagine,” the group’s career song inspired by the death of Millard’s father, catapulted MercyMe into the mainstream in 2003, capping a series of successful runs for a song first released in 1999. “Imagine” made its debut on the group’s self-released disc The Worship Project, which went on to sell 60,000 copies and helped the group land a contract with INO Records. The song reappeared on its 2001 label bow, Almost There, on its way to winning a Dove Award for “Song of the Year” and turning MercyMe into Christian music’s fastest-selling new group that year. Remarkably, the band was already supporting its follow-up album, Spoken For, when Dallas’ Wild-FM spun the song as a gag to silence an eager fan who kept requesting it. One spin later, the station’s phone lines fired up, the song went to No. 1, and the “Imagine” radio wave began sweeping the FM dial from coast to coast.

Whereas “Imagine” paints a celestial portrait for those who have left us, “Homesick” addresses death from another perspective. Millard explains, “The difference with ‘Homesick’ is that it talks about those who are stuck around here after someone passes away. When you lose somebody, you learn what being homesick is really about. It’s a hard thing. It shapes who you are.”

The first loss came early this past holiday season. A friend five months pregnant with twins lost her babies; but with the pregnancy so far along, the doctors had to induce labor to remove the deceased infants. Millard, who sang “Imagine” at the babies’ funeral, went home that night and wrote the chorus to “Homesick,” though he couldn’t write much more. “I didn’t want to fake my way through it,” he says, explaining why he didn’t finish the song that night. “My dad passed away 13 years ago, and I just couldn’t recall what such a tragedy felt like.”

Throughout the month of December, the names of lost loved ones piled up as tragedy struck the families of band members, management and several hometown friends. The eighth casualty, thought to be the last, involved Millard’s 20-year-old brother-in-law. “Needless to say, what I didn’t remember came back quickly,” says Millard. “We finished ‘Homesick’ and sang it at Chris’ funeral.” After a pause, he adds, “We never meant to write a sequel to ‘Imagine.’”

A few hours after the interview, MercyMe takes the stage, performing favorites from its platinum-selling albums, Almost There and Spoken For (INO). Fanned across an enormous stage, the six members—Millard, guitarist Mike Scheuchzer, keyboardist Jim Bryson, bassist Nathan Cochran, drummer Robby Shaffer and six-string newcomer Barry Graul—deliver a multimedia concert experience sure to keep the most ADHD-prone kids engaged. Just under an hour into the set, the band leads into “Homesick”; and Millard breaks down. “I just learned a few hours ago that my uncle died,” says the singer from the stage, sobbing heavily.

Millard struggles to maintain his composure. He tells about the eight people he’s lost in the last few months and admits to the difficulty in accepting how yet another loved one could be taken. Having played such a major role in Millard’s childhood, the death of his uncle feels overwhelmingly raw. With his confession, the crowd waits for a spiritual spin; but Millard gives none. Instead, he says all he feels is “bitterness.”

Earlier, during the interview, the singer spoke openly about all the tragedies and tried to put them in a spiritual context. In this painfully personal moment onstage, however, not even his own music—which has helped millions cope with their own losses—could help comfort the singer’s sorrow. When the show ends, Millard quickly departs the venue. Four days later, he would help bury his mother’s brother, who died suddenly from a brain aneurysm.

n a brief follow-up phone interview days later, Millard reflects on the show in West Virginia, “Whether you are the most godly person or not, after a while you feel you deserve a break. I’m not saying that’s the right way to feel, but it’s the human side. That’s what hit me when I first heard the news. I felt like Job in the Old Testament saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ All these emotions went through my head—anger, grief and especially bitterness. ‘This can’t be happening after everything we’ve gone through.’ I kept thinking, ‘Why is it that all the good people are going through this?’ I’m talking about those who lost their lives and not just that they died but how they died. Even with all the right Sunday school answers, sometimes the best thing you can do is be brutally honest and say, ‘This hurts a whole lot and really ticks me off.’ God is big enough to handle it.” Millard also says that being home with his family has helped dramatically. He adds, “The best thing for me was to go home and be a nephew who lost his uncle, to hold my wife and son and cry for them and not worry about the next city on a tour. I’m still dealing with it. I’m dealing with a lot.”

Earlier in the day before the Charleston show, Millard referred to MercyMe as “the funeral band,” a reference to the number of people who have played “Imagine” at memorial services. Survivors find comfort in the song’s emotional theme, but the group’s sensitivity to such losses, sadly, comes from personal experience. When the singer mentions how Bryson lost both of his parents (His father, Dan, died Dec. 10 from congestive heart failure; his mother, Elizabeth, two years earlier), the keyboardist’s eyes dart downward as if he hopes he’s not asked to comment. Of course, “Imagine,” itself, arose out of the 1991 death of Millard’s father.

“My father’s death shaped everything I do in this band and not just because our ‘career song’ was written out of that experience,” says Millard. “It’s the way I relate to people, the way I do things, the way I approach things. At that age, watching my dad wither away made me grow up really, really fast. It’s probably the pinnacle of my life.”

The Texas-raised singer was just a high-school freshman when his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a disease with one of the lowest survival rates. Millard was 3 when his parents divorced and when his mother remarried and relocated to San Antonio, he and his older brother stayed with their father. During these years, the youngest describes his father as having “a really bad temper and being a really abusive guy. There was no ‘time out’ when I was growing up.”

During his own youth, Millard’s father became a huge football star in high school and college and thought he would be drafted into the pros. Instead, he found himself raising two boys and making around $26,000 a year building bridges for the highway department. “There was so much in my dad’s life that didn’t happen,” recalls Millard. “He had the whole ‘what if’ game the rest of his life.”

His older brother had already left for college when the cancer was discovered, so it was just Millard and his terminally ill father, who coped with it together each day. In their case, the sickness brought a change of heart. The once abusive father reinvigorated his faith and gained a whole new perspective. “My dad went from being the guy I was afraid I’d become to the person I most wanted to grow up and be like,” says Millard. “We went from a very strained relationship to becoming best friends.”

Because the cancer was slow growing, his father didn’t become seriously ill until his son’s senior year in high school. Every few months, he would spend about a month in the hospital; and, for the times he stayed home, Millard served as his primary caregiver. The family used Hospice and in-home nurses until an in-home nurse died in a car accident about a month into the care. Painfully affected by the death, Millard’s father didn’t want another full-time nurse, which meant even more responsibility would fall on his son’s young shoulders. “I had to start learning how to give him his shots in the middle of the night,” Millard recalls. “It was my senior year; but on weekends, I wouldn’t get to go anywhere. I’d be home, and every three hours I would give him shots that took 20 minutes to push through his IV. I was taking care of my dad as an 18-year-old. If the nurses moved him too much, he started crying and called for me. That’s something you don’t ever want to hear as a teenager.”

By the time he was a college freshman, his 320-pound father had withered down to 118 pounds. Throughout this time, Millard often used made-up words to avoid cursing, which eventually turned into a game between father and son. Millard would say one of these fake words, his father would accuse him of swearing, and the two would humorously go back and forth. Oddly enough, this game played a role in the last words Millard’s father ever spoke.

When their father had been in a semi-coma for two weeks, his older brother flew into town, thinking it would be the last time to see his father. Checking on his father one morning, Millard recalls, “His feet were cold, and it freaked me out; so I ran to get the nurse. When I turned to go out of the room, my sister-in-law screamed because my dad sat up and was reaching for me. I ran back over and took his hand. My brother came in and took his other hand. We were sitting there. This was it: the moment.”

With his boys in hand, the father’s breathing slowly began to stagger. “He would exhale; then about 30 seconds later, he’d take another breath. The time between breaths kept getting longer and longer. All of a sudden, I got so anxious I yelled at the top of my lungs, ‘D--- it! Breathe!’” Suddenly, the breathing started to pick up, at least momentarily. “My dad turned, looked at me, smiling, and said, ‘I got you.’ After that, he closed his eyes and passed away.”

Among so many tears, Millard had to laugh. Though his older brother didn’t know the reason for the laughter, he later said it helped him feel that everything was going to be OK. Shortly after, Millard wrote the lyrics to “I Can Only Imagine,” even though the song would not be unveiled for many years. Remarkably, the song might never have surfaced if not for a conversation late in the illness. With his own sports-related dreams falling flat, the father always criticized Millard for pursuing music. Millard says his father thought it was a joke.

“Right before he passed away,” the son recalls, “my dad said, ‘Whatever you do, just be passionate about it. Don’t go for the 9-to-5 just because you have to. Whatever makes you happy, whatever fulfills you, do it.’ I’ll tell you, that was just what I needed to hear to stay broke for another six or seven years doing the band!”

From such a compelling back story, it’s easy to see how Millard became such a prominent frontman. He wears his emotions openly, whether from the stage or in his songs. After the success of “Imagine,” Millard stood out as both the singer and songwriter, and more attention started gravitating his way rather than to the group as a whole. Surprisingly, the band seems unaffected. “One guy has to be the voice, and Bart is the perfect example,” says Cochran. “We can all speak for the band, but we have that one guy who really connects with the crowd for all of us. It’s like that in most bands.”

Scheuchzer adds, “When it first started changing, it was a little culture shock; and we had to get used to it. Ultimately, each person has his place. Like the body of Christ, not everyone has to be the head of the body. Not everyone has to be the voice.”

Specifying some of the shifting scenarios, Millard remarks, “It gets weird when someone asks me to sing on an album or make an appearance without the whole band. I didn’t sign up to be a solo act. We’re learning that we have the option to say that the band is available but not me alone. We are finally learning to say, ‘No.’ We like to say we were in ‘promotion mode’ for so long, but now we’re in ‘protection mode.’”

Following such a wildly successful run in 2003, MercyMe had several new dynamics to work through in approaching Undone. The band was given substantially more resources to make the new album, arguably because the label hopes to ride the buzz into a new hit single. Other Christian acts have landed mainstream hits, and sometimes that one taste can leave a band sour at having to settle for anything less. Whether the band thought “Imagine” was a fluke or its priorities simply stretch higher than FM glory, MercyMe stands out as one of the few crossover successes to stick with its previously established approach to lyrical content, concerts and interviews. “When a song like ‘Imagine’ gets played in Dallas because someone dared them to play it, we’re sitting here scratching our heads like everyone else,” admits Millard. “So what do you do now? What can we do? ‘Imagine’ is what we stood for, and we aren’t going to change if the next single doesn’t get embraced because it’s ‘too godly.’” Cochran adds, “We are called to be worship leaders. The mainstream stuff is nice icing on the cake, but that’s not the whole picture.”

“We’ve been missionaries to the mainstream, but the church is still our home,” continues Millard. “We’re going out to share the gospel; but if we lose sight of where we came from, we might as well hang it up.”

Though “Homesick” carries a similar theme to the band’s smash hit, Undone’s first single will actually be “Here With Me,” a mid-tempo worship song with a Coldplay musical vibe. The song, written by Millard and outside writer Dan Mukala, puts faith front and center, so the band clearly remains committed to its stalwart spiritual message. Still, Undone does reflect some firsts, such as working with outside songwriters, employing the London Symphony on four songs and actually writing and recording the music before penning any of the lyrics. As far as putting the music first, Millard notes, “Instead of my words swaying the music, lots of what they [the band] did gave me a canvas with which to write. We’ve been making records for 10 years, so anything that sparks creativity, whether it’s a stretch or doing things backwards, is very much welcomed.”

Another major change is the inclusion of a sixth member, guitarist Barry Graul (Jaci Velasquez, Whitecross). The new six-stringer remarks, “We first met on ‘Festival con Dios’ when I played with tobyMac, and we did the ‘Go Show’ tour together when I played with Audio Adrenaline. The relationship developed from there. At the time, I was tired of just being a sideman. I wanted to be a part of something, and MercyMe gave me the opportunity.”

“The five of us have done this for so long,” says Bryson, “that with a new member, it’s suddenly like starting over. Barry is a breath of fresh air. Plus, he’s older than me; so I’m no longer the oldest guy in the band.” Cochran jokingly adds, “It’s great because Barry allows us to park closer at grocery stores, gets us the senior discount at Denny’s and buys us movie tickets at a cheaper rate!”

With Undone, the MercyMe guys also took the time to define who they really are and what they do. Is MercyMe a rock band, a worship band, a crossover act, a church act, and how should all this affect where it goes from here? “We always say we are a rock band, but ‘Imagine’ is the poster child of adult contemporary music,” laughs Millard. “We are worship leaders first and foremost, but part of our calling is to broaden the definition of worship. We are trying to show worship as a lifestyle and as relevant on mainstream radio.”

Looking at the big picture, “Imagine” is the first contemporary worship song to crack Top 40 radio since Sister Janet Mead’s double-platinum selling version of “The Lord’s Prayer” in 1974. MercyMe’s success provides fresh inspiration for other worship groups; but, for some, witnessing this success can muddy one’s priorities. “There is nothing worse than an unsettled worship leader!” says Bryson, inciting the entire band to laugh. “It’s true, man. We get it all the time. ‘What I’m doing now is just a stepping stone to something bigger.’ Well, if you don’t think the 10 people you play for are just as important as the five thousand we play for, you aren’t going to get any bigger.”

Shaffer adds, “People will say, ‘I just want to be doing what you’re doing.’ They don’t get it. They are doing what we’re doing. We are all leading worship. They think there’s something bigger for them, and there may be; but the chances are it won’t come across their path before they are content with where God has them at that time.”

When MercyMe speaks of making the most of each level, it comes from not taking the express elevator to the top. In fact, the guys jokingly call themselves “the longest overnight success ever,” a comment reinforced by the fact that Undone is actually their ninth album. In its decade together, MercyMe tackled every opportunity, tried every angle and slowly grew into a group prepared for a larger stage. Millard, who started the band with Bryson and Scheuchzer, remarks, “Our goal was just to be a worship band, but we didn’t really understand why. Back in 1994, there was no label putting out worship records unless you were a worship leader. We thought maybe we could make a decent living doing church camps; but bottom line, we just loved what we were doing.”

The band recorded its first independent, Pleased to Meet You, the year they started; but MercyMe soon chased the myth that a band must move to Nashville to land that ever-elusive recording contract. “We moved to a place called Inglewood; and, if you lived there, you’d understand why we called it ‘Inglehood,’” says Bryson, who’s ironically sporting a Nashville t-shirt. “There were gunshots, police helicopters and liquor stores as far as the eye can see.” Regretfully, the time spent in Music City yielded no fruit. Cochran notes, “When you move to Nashville looking for a deal, you basically come across as desperate.” MercyMe eventually headed back to Dallas to join a ministry there. Mark Matlock, who took over a ministry Dawson McAllister started, recruited the band to travel with him to student conferences, youth conventions and other events.

During this time, MercyMe gained huge coast-to-coast exposure while continuing to self-release albums like Traces of Rain Volumes 1 & 2, The Need and The Worship Project. The band was just finishing up its sixth independent album, Look, when the record labels first heard “I Can Only Imagine.” The band was signed soon after.

After years of diligent effort, MercyMe can say the roads-less-traveled took the band to a plateau it never imagined. Only when the guys gave up on Nashville did the band land a record deal. Only by focusing on the Christian market did they land one of the biggest crossover hits in Christian music history. More than anything, MercyMe’s journey inspires faith and hope, two virtues Millard surely needs in his days of mourning.

In the end, it was the unexpected twists and turns of the band’s journey that inspired the new album title, Undone. Millard concludes, “We had our plans for what we were going to do; but when the bigger picture happened, all of our plans came unraveled. We don’t know what tomorrow will hold. When you make your own plans, you suddenly find yourself undone; and that’s exactly where God wants us in the first place.”

 
 
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