Forget the popularity. You could keep the platform. And don’t even think of playing it safe. Caution and success were never part of John Mark McMillan’s heart or plan. In fact, despite the overwhelmingly positive receipt of 2011’s Economy, the worship leader was ready to walk away from it all, though not for reasons one might assume.
As with all musicians, logistics began to wear on him a bit. The line-up changes in his band were challenging and administrative meetings detracted from the art of it all, but it was the growing burden of touring that prompted John to think long and hard about his next steps. With a schedule that pulled him away from home, it was decision-making time. He knew he should either call it a day or give it one last shot.
He decided on the latter.
“Right after the Economy season, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” says McMillan on the heels of another new release entitled Borderland. “I almost quit. I nearly threw in the towel, to be honest, because it was such a difficult season. I was ready to be done, and it took me about a year before I was ready to go back to the studio.
“I spent a lot of time and thought that I had one more good shot at this before I take a break and raise kids. I know you can and should consider being an artist late into life, but I don’t want to be on the road when my kids are teenagers. I want to be a part of their lives.”
When McMillan first begins to describe Borderland, his description starts with the word, “difficult.” It’s a sign that McMillan had to fight for these songs—both for the inspiration within and the stamina to keep the industry momentum alive, a trend he believes will only intensify over time.
“This is the hardest project I’ve ever done,” says McMillan. “I don’t think things get easier as you go along. I think they get harder. You can’t resort to the same tricks that you did the first time. You have to think of new stuff to say and new ways to say it to keep things fresh, but I didn’t really know what I was going to write. When you start to have some level of success, you start to become responsible for other people. There’s pressure to want to continue in that sort of success to keep the machine alive and babies fed.”
Before Borderland developed, McMillan says he abandoned a more traditional worship project in favor of a blank slate. While he’s always going to write from a place of worship, McMillan needed a stronger connection to the music, and it was clear he was creatively caving to some of the pressures around him. It wasn’t until he set those songs aside and opened up the opportunity to write something new that he turned the corner.
“When I decided that I would record what I want to hear and say what I want to say, it clicked,” says McMillan with a laugh. “When I set aside that pressure, I ended up writing two or three worship songs. Apparently, I really do want to worship. It’s not something I have to do. When the pressure is gone, it’s what is actually in my heart. But I had to dig to get there.”
Track to track, Borderland resonates with a sense of worship, but also benefits from the creative freedom McMillan eventually unleashed. Thematically, he mines new territory on several songs, focusing on darker issues of identity (“Monsters Talk”) and mentioning potentially divisive subjects (speaking in tongues), a route McMillan had heretofore been reticent to broach.
“On Borderland, I referenced things that, in the past, I thought might turn people off,” says McMillan. “For example, I might offend both Christian and general market audiences with the notion of speaking in tongues, but I actually think it’s real.”
As the creative process evolved, however, that wariness dissipated as he realized that caution just isn’t his forte.
“It’s the worst idea for me to worry about trying to be safe,” he says. “I don’t compete in that world or on that level. People don’t come to me for safe.”
Throwing caution to the wind, in more ways than one, it’s clear the John Mark has not been called away from home to make songs that make the church feel good. He has been called, for this season, to challenge convention. He has been called to help the church journey to the edge of comfort, and then keep going.
Unconcerned with fame or celebrity, unaffected by a platform and uninhibited with the truth, John Mark McMillan couldn’t be more on-point. People don’t come to him for safe; people come to him for truth.
Borderland releases on March 4, 2014. Learn more at http://johnmarkmcmillan.com.