Bart Millard is the singer/songwriter with the Christian worship band, MercyMe. While so much more than "one hit wonder," as the band has accumulated multiple Billboard Christian Songs chart toppers and 8 Dove Awards, this act will always be most associated with its monster hit, "I Can Only Imagine." In addition to the group's initial independent release of the song on its 1999 The Worship Project album, this song - that lyrically attempts to picture heaven - has also been covered by Amy Grant, Wynonna Judd and Jeff Carson, who took it to the top 50 of the country chart. Not surprisingly, it earned Millard a Dove Award for Songwriter of the Year in 2002.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts)
What you may not realize about MercyMe, though, is that this band has released 13 studio albums and has been making music together since 1994. Songs like "Word of God Speak" and "You Reign" are fixtures of Sunday morning church services. Millard has also released two enjoyable solo albums, Hymned No. 1 and Hymned Again, which find the talented singer taking fun liberties with familiar church hymns, putting them in completely new contexts.
: You've been singing "I Can Only Imagine" for over a decade now. With it, you grapple with the prospect of seeing Jesus face-to-face for the first time, which is a daunting task. Have you settled what you are going to do, say, if the Rapture happened today and you reached Heaven's shores?
: No, I don't think I really know yet. I think it's scary to talk about us falling on our face, but I don't know. I'm not sure what it's going to be like as far as that goes, and our first response. My thought is that my jaw will be dropping - I'll be speechless will be my first thought. But I guess we'll have to wait and see.
: Have you had any theologians or people that think they know try to correct you and say, Well, Bart, here's what's going to happen?
: Early on we had a couple here and there. But nothing ever really serious, or like they were offended or anything like that.
: It's really interesting, I was thinking about that song, because at my church we sang that during the altar call last week, and I thought, wow, how appropriate, you know? It must be amazing to have a song like that that just touches such a nerve with people. When you write songs, do you feel almost like in some cases that God really is sort of speaking through you and that it's not really you that's creating it?
: Yeah, I definitely have those moments where I don't know - sometimes it's God and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it's way more obvious. There are probably three songs in my career that were written in 10 minutes or less and I felt like I was a spectator watching the song being written, it went so fast and with no mistakes and stuff like that.
So it's rare to happen that way. I've had some songs that have taken two years to write, and looking back at these songs that are two years old, it's definitely still a God thing, but it's different. Something had to simmer. At times it was though my life needed to catch up with what I was writing.
But there are these moments where it's just like lightning in a bottle and you're like, man, there's no way I could have pulled this off. God just kind of used me in a big way. You write 'em and say, Man, you have something special. You don't know what that means as far as the grand scheme of things. But on those three songs that I was talking about, they impacted me almost immediately.
It's all you can go by sometimes, your instincts. I just felt like we had something and regardless of whether it sold records or even went to radio, I just knew it was one of those moments that I wouldn't forget.
: What are those three songs?
: "I Can Only Imagine," "Word of God Speak," and "The Hurt & The Healer."
: Oh. And "The Hurt & The Healer" is the title cut from the new album?
: So what inspired that song? That seems like there must have been some pretty heavy stuff going on to come up with a song like that and an album title like that?
: Yeah. It was written a few weeks after my cousin, who was a firefighter in Dallas, was killed in the line of duty. And I found myself speaking at the funeral. Just a few minutes before I got up to speak, I realized, Man, I've got to stand here and explain to 3,000 firefighters how somehow God is still in control. And there was this overwhelming feeling, because at the time, I wasn't quite sure myself, to be honest. I remember getting up there, and what kept going through my mind is, Man, I felt like I had as many doubts as they have, but somehow I'm able to stand here and speak truth.
It was just that moment of, I don't have it all together, but the truth remains the same. If I were to ever wait until I had my life lined up and perfect to be eligible to stand at a pulpit and speak the gospel, I'd never get a chance to do it. So I kept praying before I got up there with God, We don't need an encounter with you, we don't need our paths just
to cross, but we need a full blown collision to where we just live one and the same; we're so mingled and intertwined. And I don't know if that was pain we needed, or just acknowledging that we're in the middle of it.
That thought stayed with me for a while, and probably two or three weeks later we were starting a tour. It was the first time I really found myself by myself during the season. I was sitting in the arena on one of the first tour dates, and I just fell apart. I pulled my iPhone out, started talking lyrics, and 10 minutes or so later I was done. I was freaking out, because it went so fast. I started texting all the guys different lines, going, Man, this is stuff is just rolling out of me.
It did come out of a really difficult time, and I'm just hoping that it connects with people that are going through similar situations.
: I noticed that a lot of your songs are collaborations. Do you write as a band, do you bring the songs to them and have them add their parts?
: No. That kind of came about on purpose. When "I Can Only Imagine" blew up, I ended up being isolated as far as everybody wanting to talk to me, because I wrote "Imagine" versus merging me to the band. I was in a band for a reason: to have the camaraderie, to go through this together. So it got really tough. I don't know if it got tough for them, but it got tough for me. You know, hey, you've got to do these interviews, the band's going to go over here. I'm like, Man, we
did it, we stay together.
So I made sure it never happened again by changing the way we write songs. Instead of me bringing an idea to the table and them adding music to it - almost like, Okay, the melody's there, let me assign the chords that go with it, which really isn't writing music that much - we will go in the studio and create the music first together, and then it's kind of a weird thing. I think it's awesome; it's a bigger challenge for me. But you get in the studio, you start, Well, man, I think the verse should be something like this, it should go this long. You kind of go by feel. Okay, feels like we should go to the chorus, what should the chorus be? We'll hash something out.
We try to make something without even lyrics or melody that is musically interesting. If we can get there, and then hopefully not mess it up by the melody and lyrics, we'll be in an okay spot. So I usually take all the music and I'll get off by myself or go home and then I'll start to write the melodies and write the lyrics.
Sometimes there will be a melody as we go, just so I have an idea, but then I'll finish the songs up. So we do it backwards than what most people probably do. The main thing was just to make sure it remains a band as far as writing and everything else. So on a song like "The Hurt & The Healer," that was one that I wrote in ten minutes or so, but the bottom line is MercyMe wrote the song.
We just don't have any desire to be singled out like that, and are more focused on the ministry of MercyMe than on our individual accomplishments.
: I see. Well, the other song I wanted to make sure that I talk to you about was another one that coincidentally we sing in our church all the time. And that is "Word of God Speak." Do you remember the circumstances that inspired that song?
: I do. We were doing church camps at the time. We'd just wrapped up our first album and we were working on the second album, which "Word of God Speak" is on. But we had a lot of prior commitments we had to fulfill of doing church camps. It's a real busy, incredibly busy summer of stuff we had booked before we ever signed a record deal.
So we would find ourselves living in host homes and doing all the kind of stuff we'd done for years to make ends meet. We were doing a church camp in Jekyll Island, Georgia. And we're trying to finish the record at the same time. Our producer came out and we were trying to get work done during the day when we were off the stage, because we were in a time crunch. I was getting real frustrated, because the timeframe and then having to do it in a hurry, it just started to feel like every song sounded exactly the same.
It would be real frustrating. I remember going to bed, just kind of down about, Man, this is not going to work out. I fell asleep somewhere along there, and then probably about 3 or so in the morning I woke up and I grabbed my journal - my pad and paper that I always keep next to me - and just started writing the first verse and part of the chorus. I went back to sleep and barely remember even doing that.
There really is a not-so-scary family campground called Jekyll Island. Located midway between Savannah and Jacksonville, GA it consists of miles of barrier island beaches and dune lines edging woodlands. There, nature lovers can go dolphin-watching, take sea turtle walks or bird-watch.
In fact, I woke up the next morning, I packed everything up, I think it was the last day of camp, and we left. Then it wasn't for a month or so later when we were actually wrapping up the album. We got to the end, it was the 11th hour, and our producer and myself both are like, Man, it's missing something. Maybe something to tie the album up. I don't know what it is.
I had this kind of nagging feeling, like, Man, there's something that I did a few weeks ago. So I started flipping through the journal and found this verse and a chorus and was flipping out, like Oh, my gosh, I barely remember doing this.
So I was sitting there going, this is it. I wrote the second verse real quick, and then we sang it right there with the piano and the vocal. And other than the strings that were added to it later on, the vocal and the piano were coming back nice, without any changes or anything. And then it was like Okay, now we're done, now we're finished. So it was a pretty cool deal. I don't think it's ever happened like that before, but I'm glad that it did happen.
: That's interesting. So you had this creative nagging that wouldn't let you move on until you got it out of your system?
: Yeah. It was all the frustrations that I went to bed with: I just don't have anything else to say, I'm so tapped out, everything sounds the same. And it was this realization that maybe God wants me to stop saying anything and have him speak for a moment. So yeah, it had been in my heart when I went to sleep and when I woke up it started going to town.
: I've noticed that on some of your solo albums, you've covered hymns. And so I'm curious if there are there any particular hymn writers that have inspired you as a songwriter?
: Gosh, probably my favorite would be Fanny Crosby, and Bill Gaither. But, you know, Fanny Crosby has written some unbelievable songs. I don't know a lot about all of them. Fanny's got a catalog that feels like it's 10 miles long. And I kind of grew up as a kid with the Bill Gaither "I Am A Promise" and little kids' songs. It wasn't till later I realized that he was a hymn writer. I remember sitting in church bored through the service, I started flipping through a hymnal and I was like, Oh, my gosh, Bill Gaither's in here. I had no idea.
Fanny Crosby was an American Methodist rescue mission worker, poet, lyricist and composer. As an adult, she wrote such church favorites as "All the Way My Savior Leads Me," "Near the Cross," and "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour," even though she went blind as an infant.
So I would say those two are probably the most influential. But Fanny Crosby's pretty special to me. We played in New Jersey outside of I think it's Ocean City, New Jersey, where she would go. She wrote a lot of massive hymns. I remember when we were in New Jersey and we were probably an hour out, and I was interested enough in Fanny Crosby and what she did, that I took a drive out to this place. And it's a pretty amazing little scene where there's this great revivalist who plays the turn of the century. All of the tents and the church have been left as a historical site, so it can't be torn down. So the whole revival setting still exists. All the tents are like wood frame with canvas over them, and they're now like rented out vacation homes. You can rent a tent like you would a hotel room.
So to walk through there, this blast from the past, and see where she walked when she wrote "This is My Story," or "Blessed Assurance" and stuff like that, it was pretty cool. It got to me more than I thought it would. I'm just fascinated with her as a writer, for sure.
: Do you feel comfortable being grouped in with the great hymn writers? Because your songs, let's face it, have become like modern hymns. Is that comfortable to you?
: No. It's not. I mean, it's a huge honor if that ends up being the case, but I wouldn't say it's comfortable at all. I think that, myself included, there's something lacking in songwriting now. I don't know if it's a sense of reverence. The simplicity about a lot of the hymns, I still see myself going, Why can't we go to that? Not the exact same style, obviously, but just stop and see a lot of these songs and the way they say things. I can't imagine being in the same category with a Bill Gaither or a Fanny Crosby or anybody like that.
But yeah, if anybody says that, when this is all said and done, it would be one of the biggest honors to be bestowed upon me.
September 4, 2012. Get more at mercyme.org.