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Well Mercy Me, Children!

Well Mercy Me, Children!

John J. Thompson
Friday, December 09, 2005

If you were one of Christian music’s all-time biggest artists and you decided to “reinvent yourself,” would you publicly initiate that with a Christmas album? Or if you wanted to record a concept album calling the church to love the “least of these,” would you do that with a Christmas project? If you’re MercyMe or Steven Curtis Chapman, the response to these questions is, “Why not?” And hey, while they’re at it, they might as well do a Christmas tour for the first time, right?

Two of the biggest names in Christian music, Steven Curtis Chapman and MercyMe, are doing everything in their power to get fans into the spirit of Christmas as each has recently released a brand new collection of holiday tunes. Together they have announced a special “Christmas Tour” in the tradition of previous events by luminaries such as Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. For MercyMe, the diversion serves as a portent of things to come for the band and its next studio release, while for Chapman, the return to Christmas themes offers a chance to delve deeper into his increasingly important passion for family and ministry.

Rocking Around The Christmas Tree

For Bart Millard and his four-time platinum band MercyMe, several great reasons emerged to offer up a collection of Christmas songs this year. No. 1: “We love Christmas,” Millard says. “We absolutely love it.” In fact, the new record, The Christmas Sessions (INO), does not mark the band’s first attempt at holiday fare. “We did a couple of tracks for different things over the past few years, such as the WOW Christmas record and things like that. We enjoy visiting these traditional hymns and songs and changing them up a little bit. We had so much fun doing it that we found ourselves wishing we had a Christmas record of our own.”

The opportunity for MercyMe to do exactly that presented itself this year. “We hit a point after the release of Undone when we wanted to take some time off from the next big release,” says Millard. “So this whole year came wide open. We thought, ‘If we’re ever going to do a Christmas record, now is the time to do it.’” The band began tracking last Christmas and put the finishing touches on the record this summer.

While in many ways The Christmas Sessions seems like the next logical step for the band, there is more to this little stocking stuffer than meets the eye. “It’s also a little bit of a foreshadowing,” Millard confides. “We were a rock band when we started 11 years ago. But we kind of became the ‘adult contemporary poster child’ when ‘I Can Only Imagine’ took off. We’ve wanted to gradually play more rock music than we have in the past, without shooting ourselves in the foot.”

In a practical way, the familiarity of the Christmas genre is allowing MercyMe to stretch its musical identity even before its next studio album (due in April). “The Christmas Sessions is the most ‘rock’ album we’ve done,” Millard explains. “It has all kinds of stuff on it, but we didn’t have to worry about which direction we went. We just made the record we wanted to make. It’s kind of a sign of things to come.”

Having the legendary Brown Bannister (Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman) at the production helm only adds to the intrigue. For while The Christmas Sessions certainly delivers on the promise of its title (including a stealth collaboration with Amy Grant on MercyMe’s version of “Silent Night”), the music definitely reaches farther into the rock category than people are likely to expect from MercyMe or Bannister, who will also produce the band’s 2006 release. “We said [to Brown], ‘We want to be a rock band, and you want to be a rock producer, so let’s just prove to people that we can do this.’”

Though certainly not the first rock record in Bannister’s repertoire (Consider his recent work with The Afters or White Heart’s now classic rock & roll triumph Freedom, just for starters.), The Christmas Sessions may be quite the Christmas surprise to some listeners. The departure is not too radical, though, for either band or producer, and the results are encouraging on both sides. “We got to the point,” Millard adds, “where we either become old hat, or we reinvent ourselves in a sense and do the music we’ve always wanted to do.”

The risks have paid off in the form of one of the freshest-sounding Christmas records released in the Christian market in years. “It’s true to say this is really the best album we’ve done—whether Christmas or not. I’m really proud of it,” says Millard. “It may be odd to have traditionals such as ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Rocking Around the Christ-mas Tree’ side by side with ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,’ but for whatever reason it seems to work. If you have a pulse and live in America, both those sides are a part of your background.”

MercyMe hopes that The Christmas Sessions may provide yet another oppor-tunity for it to connect with main-stream radio. “The Christian market is probably our biggest priority,” Millard muses, “but making relevant music that finds its way to the mainstream is also a big deal to us, especially when we have the opportunity with a label like Sony saying, ‘Make the record you want to make, and we’ll try to sell it as much as we can.’ It’s kind of like walking a tightrope.”

All He Wants For Christmas

Veteran Christian artist Steven Curtis Chapman is definitely no stranger to Christmas music. In 1995, eight years into his career, he released the ambitious and sweeping holiday classic The Music of Christmas. Since then, he has appeared at Disney’s Epcot Center for its annual Christmas program and on several Christmas television specials. Hallmark licensed several songs from The Music of Christmas and commissioned the recording of several new songs for its annual limited-edition Christmas CD in 2003, and he has appeared on numerous special seasonal compilations. While this constant involvement in all things Christmas certainly inspired Chapman to revisit the holiday theme, his increasing focus on adoption provided the true reason this season.

“At Christmastime,” Chapman explains, “I become more and more aware that there are 50 million orphan kids in the world who wake up Christmas morning, and all they want is a family.” Chapman’s passion for adoption goes back approximately five years to when his then 13-year-old daughter Emily convinced him and his wife to consider adopting a child from China. Since then, the Chapmans have adopted three girls from China and become advocates and ambassadors for adoption both in the United States and beyond. In 2001, they were named an “Angel in Adoption” by the Congressional Coalition for Adoption for their advocacy and exceptional contribution toward the issue of adoption. Hence, Chapman sees the season as an especially opportune moment to raise the issue with the public.

“Christmas is a time when people’s hearts are particularly open to think outside their own little circle. If there’s a way I can make mention of that at Christmastime, when people are thinking about gift-giving and all of that, this might be a great time to remind people of this issue and invite them to respond.” Chapman has been doing just that on his recent tours, raising over $2 million toward adoption grants and orphanage support both in America and overseas. This passion for adoption forms the basic character of his new Christmas collection All I Really Want for Christmas.

The adoption theme starts with the album cover, which includes the first of the three adopted daughters in the Chapman family: Shaohannah. The little girl, nicknamed “Shaoey,” opens the album with a reading of the Biblical account of the birth of Christ. She makes additional cameos as well. “Putting Shaoey on the cover with me and having her make a couple of appearances added that element of her story and the story of adoption into this context,” Chapman explains. “It isn’t the first thought you have with a Christmas album, but for me it totally makes sense.”

The familial feel of the album extends into the music as well, with Chapman mostly foregoing the grand sounds of his Christmas album of a decade ago in favor of simple, homespun arrangements, instrumentation and production. “When I made my first Christmas record,” the artist recalls, “I honestly approached it as if it would be the only Christmas record of my career. You don’t know how many of these you’re going to do in a career because you don’t have any idea how long that career is going to last. So I said, ‘Let’s do it right—pull out all the stops.’ We had the London Symphony and the American Boys Choir and went to extremes to make it huge and epic.”

Though the newest material on All I Really Want for Christmas was produced by Ed Cash (Chris Tomlin, Bethany Dillon), Chapman’s long-time producer Brown Bannister helped get the ball rolling with the five tracks originally recorded for the now out-of-print Hallmark album. “Brown and I got together to cut those songs in a very organic way—in many ways, the antithesis of how we did the first one. This was just about getting some players sitting around, getting some cocoa going and a fire burning, and letting the music happen.” Contributions by Shawn Pelton (longtime drummer and percussionist for Shawn Colvin), Jerry Douglas and Vince Gill added to the laid-back sound, successfully creating the “homey, organic vibe” Chapman wanted.

The musical and emotional centerpiece of the album is the title track, an original song called “All I Really Want for Christmas,” that imagines the Christmas Eve prayer of millions of children around the world who desire a family more than any toys or treats. The issue seems constantly in the forefront of Chapman’s mind. “In the United States right now, there are half a million children waiting for adoption—150,000 of them are in foster care available for adoption right now. There are another 50 million in the world, and research is saying that number will be 100 million in 10 years because of AIDS. This is a huge need, and we (the church) need to respond. It’s a huge invitation we have. It’s a privilege. This is our privilege. We’re not going to let anyone else take it away. We’re going to be the first to show up and say, ‘This is something we will respond to.’ God wants to reveal himself to His people. That’s why he says, ‘Go where you’ll find Me, go minister to the least of the least. What you do for them you’re doing for Me.’”

Coming To A City Near You?

Chapman will take this message to the streets on the upcoming “Christmas Tour” with MercyMe: a tour that almost didn’t happen. Chapman and MercyMe both finished major tours this spring, wiped out and in need of a break. But they knew of each other’s plans for a Christmas release this fall, and the idea of a joint tour came up. Through a series of phone calls, Millard and Chapman first explored why the idea of another big tour didn’t make sense before eventually talking themselves into it. “Steven has never done a Christmas tour,” Millard said, “And of course, neither have we.” Chapman had some specific questions in mind. “Is there something that can be accomplished by combining our efforts that couldn’t be accomplished individually?” he wondered. “I told Bart that adoption was a major priority for me, and he told me they have their Go Foundation (thegofoundation.com), and they wanted to support this. The more we talked about what we might be able to accomplish, the more we talked ourselves into it.”

The 21-city tour, which kicked off the day after Thanksgiving in Charlotte and wraps Dec. 20 in Indianapolis, is guided more by overall goals and “vibes” than traditional management positioning and staging. “We’ll do some stuff together,” Millard says, “and some stuff apart. The idea is to give people a moment to have a great feeling about Christmas. We’re going to have a great time on stage, not taking ourselves too seriously but definitely offering a worship moment, too.”

Chapman agrees. “We’re leaving egos at the door. First of all, if there is a star of this show, it is the Savior who has come to save us. It is Jesus, not us. That’s great because it’s Christmas, and the whole focus isn’t about our music but about the message. If there is a second star of the show, it is going to be orphans and those who are going to be spending this Christmas needing family and what we can do about that. Thirdly… Oh, yeah–it’s MercyMe and Steven Curtis Chapman.”

While the details had yet to be hammered out at press time, the guiding principle is a cooperative, homey effort where the artists share the stage throughout the night. Chapman and Millard are confident of one thing: It will be a special event. “I think we’re just going to let it be what it is,” Millard says. Chapman adds, “I really have a sense that it’s going to be something truly unique.”

 
 
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