John Mark McMillan explores art forms and lingering questions of faith with atmospheric songwriting
Songwriter John Mark McMillan refers to himself as an “amateur believer,” applied to both his Christian faith and musical career. McMillan told American Songwriter the phrase brings a lighthearted approach to the idea that everyone’s an expert, or an influencer in their line of work or field of study. McMillan says the more he learns the less he knows, and he’s truly not an expert believer nor an expert songwriter.
Driven by curiosity rather than perfection, McMillan says he uses songwriting as a way to continue figuring things out – both spiritual and personal, many times deeply interwoven.
The meaning he hopes to touch on with a song exists before the words are laid on the page. It often begins with openly saying “I don’t know why I feel this way,” McMillan says.
“The song is me trying to articulate that ‘thing,’ and the reason it’s important to be an amateur is because if I ever feel like an expert then I don’t have the opportunity to discover something new,” McMillan says.
Songwriting is always trying to discover something new, McMillan continues, with a bit of mystery lingering in every piece of work, similar to faith.
“I want to say by nature, if you know something it’s not faith,” McMillan says. “Faith works in that part of the world that you don’t know. For all human beings there are parts of life that we feel like we understand, and there are parts you understand less. Then there are things we don’t know.”
Although one may have an idea of what’s going to happen tomorrow, it’s not guaranteed, McMillan notes. But still, we get out of bed, and we live life in a way that assumes some good from the world.
When he songwrites, he doesn’t know what the final product will be, but still, he creates music, McMillan says. “I consider songwriting to be an aspect of faith. I walk into a room with nothing, or with just a handful of ideas…and I sit down, and when I leave the room I have this thing that didn’t previously exist.”
“We reach into the unknown and literally pull something out. With creativity, we reach into our mind and heart and bring something out,” McMillan says.
In a world where the Christian music industry is severely market driven, ideas can be dumbed down sometimes, and get boring, McMillan notes. When worship music in particular is just driven by the market, it can start to feel like the industry itself is telling individuals what to say or think about God. But it doesn’t have to be tied to financial demands, McMillan says.
“My idea was, I’m gonna take worship music as a genre and try and treat it like it’s art,” McMillan says. “I want to take it as a grid or as a base and I want to try and see if I can make art within these certain rules, but I found pretty quickly that it was hard to do. I started having ideas that didn’t work within that form, so I slowly started moving away from this idea of writing corporate worship songs and treating it like art, and I got more interested in the art and hopefully allowing the art to be worship.”
He wants songs to be an experience, McMillan explains, with a lot of his artistry consisting of just trying things and learning as he goes along, shifting as his environment shifts. Each album has come from a different vantage point, with the latest release, Stabal Session (Live), rendering a particular attitude because of the location it was recorded.
The album was tracked at a live show in the U.K., during a previous tour, featuring songs from multiple stages of McMillan’s artistry. A small room, live-streamed, focused on recreating the original attitude of each track, McMillan explains the final release was meant to bring back the memory of a live experience and showcase the unique instrumentation.
Peopled With Dreams, released in February 2020, was sonically inspired by a lot of R&B music, and lyrically meant to remind listeners of where he stands as an artist, and essentially as human in a constantly changing world and perspective.
At the end of it all, when music is released into the world and left up to interpretation, McMillan says he hopes listeners can see a rawness that comes with admitting some lack of understanding, and portraying that through lyrics and sonic choices. This reality, according to McMillan, inspires trust, rather than demoting it, or making it unstable.
“I am not an expert at faith but I want you to know that I care about you, that I’m a believer, I may be a confused believer at times, but I’m a believer and I want to be a part of your world,” McMillan says, referring to what he wants to tell listeners. “It was me kind of stepping back into faith and saying ‘I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to walk into this with you guys, if you guys are willing to.”