Singer-songwriter John Mark McMillan found himself stymied creatively when working on his last album toward the end of 2015. He had more questions than answers and for someone known in large part for Christian songs such as “How He Loves” and “Heart Won’t Stop,” that might be perceived as a problem.
“I didn’t know what kind of record I wanted to make,” he explained during a recent phone interview during a tour stop in Greer, South Carolina. “It’s an interesting and difficult time to be a believer . . . and it was a super confusing time in my life.”
Rather than wait until the uncertainty cleared, McMillan, 38, decided to wrestle the questions. “I didn’t want to generate a bunch of answers for people, but wanted to spend time with the questions I had.”
Wrestling with “Mercury & Lightning” found the singer-songwriter struggling with what values to live by in today’s age. “Like mercury, there are things you can’t catch — money, fame, power, beauty, control. We have an American success religion and you have to wonder: At what point does it stop? What are the kind of things we value?” he said.
“Mercury & Lightning” — one a shape-shifting substance, the other a phenomenon impossible to predict — apparently found listeners also “living inside the questions” as their response landed McMillan atop iTunes’ Singer-Songwriter Chart when it debuted. It’s the latest demonstration of his continuing audience appeal measured these days in large part by music streaming traffic. The native North Carolinian presently enjoys a half million monthly streams on the music streaming service Spotify and his songs have tallied some 40 million Spotify streams.
The data collected by Spotify shows McMillan has surprising pockets of fans, with Los Angeles and Seattle joining a more predictable Christian/rock base in Atlanta, Dallas and Houston.
McMillan still considers himself a Christian believer, although he noted he has fewer answers as a thirtysomething adult and parent of three children than he did a decade or so earlier as a single young adult.
“(As parents) we feel out of control all the time,” he said. “Children are not like pets. We have three kids from the same two people and they’re so insanely different.”
McMillan and his six-piece group, presently touring with the bands The Brilliance and Lapeer, have about two weeks of touring left before a Thanksgiving break that brings him home to his family.
The months ahead will keep him busy in work with his recording label Lionhawk Records, writing new songs and creating an alternate version of “Mercury & Lightning” with new acoustic and orchestral arrangements and collaborations with other artists.
There’s a bit of uncertainty in all that, but there’s the regular unpredictability of touring and live performance, he said. McMillan’s live shows often are open-ended, depending on audience feedback and response for their completion. “My guys have a lot of fun . . . (but) we’re a blank canvas. It’s kind of the crowd to fill that in. What’s going to be the big moment of the night, we never know it,” he said. “We don’t know what personality the crowd is going to give it.”