“I was out of my mind just writing really fast,” says Bart Millard the lead vocalist and primary songwriter for MercyMe in describing the creation of the band’s new CD Coming Up To Breathe. The native of Greenville Texas says, “This album was probably the easiest CD to write when all is said and done. We locked ourselves in a studio up in New York for about a month. All of a sudden the lyrics just came out very quickly. I was really pleased with what was coming out.” Millard recalls going into the studio with lyrics for virtually none of the songs and emerging about a week later with words for all of the tracks.
MeryMe Keyboardist Jim Bryson who joined in the conversation says, “This is the very first time that we have written every song on the album. This is something (in which) we have a lot of stake and time invested in.”
Millard uses an analogy from his childhood to compare his songwriting for Coming Up To Breathe with his past compositions, “When I was growing up we had this front living room which was never to be played in or touched. It had the perfect carpet and the perfect furniture. You never could go in there because that was just in case somebody dropped by for a visit. You would visit in the really nice room when the rest of the house was in shambles. I used to write that way. I would take all of the really, really good stuff, the spiritually deep, emotional stuff and let people see that. If it was shallow or fluffy I would throw that away because I never wanted people to see that part of me,” he says. The affable lead vocalist/guitarist continues, “On this record we pretty well put everything that I wrote on the record. Nothing was hidden, nothing was thrown away.” He says the songs that didn’t make the CD are being used as exclusive tracks for different outlets.
Millard observes, “In some places (on Coming Up To Breathe) we go deeper than I ever have before. In other places it is about as shallow as a kiddie pool. That is who we are. We’re not always serious, not always deep. We just felt it was really important to show our personality on this record and I think we did.”
While Millard writes all the lyrics the other band members contribute musically to the creation of the songs. It may be something as simple as Floridian guitarist Mike Scheuchzer coming up with a riff. The song that really thrust the group into the spotlight was the hit “I Can Only Imagine” from their 2001 CD Almost There. The song not only attracted a following in Christian music circles but became a beacon of hope for those who heard it played on general market radio stations.
In answering my question concerning why he thought “I Can Only Imagine” had such a broad base appeal Millard says, “I’m not really sure. The only thing that I can think of is regardless of whether you go to church and whether you are a Christian or not everybody wonders at some point in their lives what is next.” Millard continues, “When you lose somebody you always hope there is something better for them and some greater place that they can go to. Maybe (it’s due to) the way the song is written because it doesn’t shove anything down your throat. I am just wondering like everybody else when I get to heaven and see you how in the world am I going to respond.”
Millard says the song “I Can Only Imagine” has generated a lot of email and snail mail for MercyMe. “People email me and say, ‘I don’t believe in God but I can’t stop listening to this song because I started wondering what if I am wrong. What if all of this does turn out to be the truth then what am I going to do?’ Whether they like it or not and believe it or not they can’t stop listening to it. It provokes a thought that I guarantee you every single one of us has (experienced). What happens after all of this? I don’t know if we will know the real answer until God finally fill us in,” says the singer.
In an indirect way the response to “I Can Only Imagine” gave rise to the 2006 song “Hold Fast” from the new CD. “We have become that band, especially because of “I Can Only Imagine” that people will make a point of finding us and telling us what they are going through. As ministers we love it. I was thinking for every person that does get to us there are hundreds that never tell us what is going on,” says Millard. He then quickly makes the point, “Not that it really matters if they tell us but I started thinking about all of the people who are hurting that never tell anybody. The whole idea of the song (“Hold Fast”) was just to get across a message to those people that they are not alone. (We want them to know) whatever you are going through hang on because help is on the way.” He draws an analogy, “I have referred to it in the past as putting a message in a bottle, throwing it out in the ocean and seeing who gets it. It’s not to anyone specifically but then it is to everyone. If you are out there in any kind of a struggle hopefully you can latch onto this song and realize it can only get better. It’s just a song of encouragement.”
Still referring to “Hold Fast” Millard says, “I think the song rocks.
Musically I really like where it goes. It is really creative. It was just one of those moments that when we were writing and coming up to the progressions we knew we had something special.”
MercyMe’s tour schedule in support of Coming Up To Breathe isn’t as aggressive as some of their other CD release tours. The more relaxed schedule is due in part to the band being more established but equally significant is the fact several of the band members now have children. The most recent editions are to the Bryson and Millard family with baby boys being born in the first part of 2006. As the band and their families have matured there has been a concentrated effort made to find a balance between family life and touring. Earlier this year the band members took from January to Easter off so they could be with their families.
Bryson says that being a father to three year old Riley has been both a learning experience and provided an opportunity for reflection upon his own childhood. He tells me when Riley brings in pictures from Sunday School it causes Bryson to reflect back to the teachings he received from Sunday School teachers. “It is a neat refresher course,” says Bryson. Being Riley’s dad also puts Bryson under a new kind of spotlight one that he is still getting accustomed to. “I really have to watch (what I do) because he picks up on things. It looks bad when a two year old does (some of those things) but you don’t think twice about it when an adult does (the same thing).
Growing up as the son of a Southern Baptist minister in Missouri Bryson’s Christian education started right away. “I literally grew up in the church. I had a key to the church. I was up there 24/7 with the youth group or my friends or whatever,” he says. “(My parents) led by example more than anything. By far my parents were my biggest influence,” Bryson says. He often draws upon lessons his parents taught him and passes them on to his own children.
Copyright © 2006 Joe Montague, exclusive rights reserved. This material may not be redistributed without prior written permission from Joe Montague. Joe Montague is an internationally published freelance journalist / photographer