Mercurial and Mysterious; An Interview With John Mark McMillan

Singer/songwriter John Mark McMillan’s approach to his music goes beyond the normal standards.  One can say that it’s mostly in part due to his keen sense for finding peace and beauty within melodies and having a sharp poetic mind.  Nothing is off limits with McMillan when it comes to his lyrics; human experiences are primarily spotlighted within his songs.

It’s been over a decade now since McMillan released his first set of songs and there seems to be no end in sight for him.  Released in early September via his own label Lionhawk Records, Mercury & Lightning pushes the conversation forward incomes to express one’s emotions, feelings, and muses.  Recorded with good friend Gabriel Wilson and bandmate Jesse Proctor, McMillan looked to childhood influences to make up Mercury & Lightning.  Classic 80s rock and 90s R&B come together to make the songs modern yet ageless.  As for the album title, McMillan mentioned at press time that he took it from Roman mythology.  “Mercury is the god of financial gain, commerce, communication, travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery, and thieves”, says McMillan. “If something is hard to catch, understand or lockdown, it’s known to be ‘mercurial’ or ‘like Mercury.’  The story of the new record begins with a conversation about all the things we run after, give our lives to – even die for – that often seem so mercurial and mysterious.”

We recently caught up with McMillan to talk more about his career, the new album, and what other influences make up the musicians’ songwriting.

What led you to want to become a musician?

When I was about 15, my buddy Mark came over to the house one day with a Red Squier Strat and a Peavy Rage guitar amp. He could play all these songs off the radio and I was mesmerized. I wanted to be a part of that magic any way I could.

You just wrapped up a pretty lengthy tour in your hometown of Charlotte. What has it been like being on the road supporting the new music?

It was a blast. Honestly, I’m always a little nervous about how the audience will respond to the new music. I feel like the sound of my records change a lot from album to album, and this has been one of the bigger leaps. It was a bit of a relief to see people so excited about the new songs. It was also exciting to see crowds that were more diverse, and often a lot younger than I was expecting. I’m almost 40, and some days I wonder if I’m getting too old for this but then I look out in the crowd at all these college kids each night and figure… I guess I’ve still “got it”!

Mercury & Lightning reached the top spot on Billboard’s Top Christian Albums when it debuted.  This was your first time reaching that spot.  What did you feel when you heard that?

After almost 2 years in the studio, it felt great! At the same time, I’m trying to figure out what charts mean these days. It was a killer start, but I feel like it’s only the beginning. I think I’ll be even more stoked to see which songs from this record people are streaming in two years. It’s pretty fulfilling to make a big splash, but I’m hoping I can keep people interested for the long haul.

Do you feel that your music is fairly categorized as Christian music?  I hear so many different genres in your songs.

I’ve never really felt like what I did was “Christian music.” I mean, I get it… it’s the plight of all artists that people will inevitably see you differently than you see yourself. I understand why people would want to place me on that shelf I guess, but I just never felt like the music fit that space.   When I started independently, I released everything through the Alternative and Rock categories. But when I signed my first record deal, they asked me to move over to Christian and Gospel. At the time it seemed like a worthy compromise because they basically let me do whatever I wanted otherwise. After that, we stayed with the genre until this record. We made Christian and Gospel the sub-genre and went with Singer/Songwriter for the main classification. There’s still a massive faith/existential element to what we do, but maybe I’m just too idealistic or hard headed to admit that it has to be a niche audience. I just want to believe there’s more to us than that.

During the writing of your new album, you wrestled with an assortment of thoughts and feelings. Ideas of life that pulled on you in various directions. At the end of the writing process, did you feel that you had a clearer vision of life?

I think I’m just much more comfortable with not having all the answers. In the faith space, people seem to want a hardline statement about existential things, and I just can’t give that to them. However, I think this is great because it’s the way most people actually feel about life. If I’m honest, the process (which really began years ago) also fed me a healthy dose of humility that has allowed me to “see” people better. There’s a greater pull on me now to empathize with people and I think that’s a beautiful thing. Ironically, it’s a very “Christian” thing to sympathize and have compassion for people who are unlike yourself. It’s funny how a minor faith crises can make me more “Christian” in that respect than I was before.

Where did you record the new album at?

I recorded the record at Feng Sway Studios in Vancouver, WA, just outside of Portland, OR.

I saw that reading poetry by Dylan Thomas and novels by John Steinbeck were big influences during the writing of the new album.  What made you look to these as inspiration?

They were both big influences on my influences, so maybe I dug in because of that at first. Dylan Thomas’ imagery and phrasing is fascinating to me. There’s something about it that I find nostalgic. Maybe that’s because he’s been such a huge influence on so many writers that he worked his way into my life years ago before I knew who he was. But also there’s something really heavy and wild about his poetry when you get into it. It’s exciting and a little terrifying if I’m honest.

I thought it would be fun to read Steinbeck when we were on the road. I think he’s helped me understand a little bit more about America. I think it helps me understand a little more about why we are where we are right now.

Mercury & Lighting is your seventh album. Does it feel as if you are still searching for that perfect sound or do you feel like you have a pretty firm grasp of it?

It’s always a challenge. I feel like it’s a moving target. Even if we find it, it will be something else in months. It’s an evolving conversation for me.  It’s the most frustrating and exciting part of what I do.

What’s next for you? New music? More dates?

I’ve got a handful of dates we’re considering this spring. Possibly some European shows and maybe a college tour in the Fall. I think we’ll put out an alternate version of Mercury & Lightning next year – possibly in segments. Mostly I’m excited to work on new music and spend time with my family.

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