When a graceful single on MercyMe's nearly three-year-old album, Almost There, unexpectedly became a smash hit on the mainstream airwaves in Dallas, nobody was more surprised than the musicians themselves. The song was "I Can Only Imagine" and it has now won several accolades including two major 2002 Dove Awards. Penned by MercyMe singer Bart Millard, who was named ASCAP's 2003 Christian Music Songwriter of the Year, the song deals openly with themes of faith and the afterlife and continues to climb the charts at radio stations across the country.
With the surprise success of "I Can Only Imagine" outside the Christian market, Texas-based MercyMe has done what virtually no other Christian band has done before -- crossed into mainstream music with a song that is overtly Christian. The band fuses influences ranging from ELO to U2 with songs that are memorable and strong -- catchy pop compositions with a purpose. Moving effortlessly between graceful pop and august rock, the quintet cultivates a sound that combines adroit playing, powerful vocals, clever arrangements and meaningful lyrics.
MercyMe's Bart Millard spoke recently with Playback about his band's success, hard work and enduring faith.
Are most of your songs collaborations or do you bring your completed songs to work on with the band?
Most of them are collaborations. There are a few songs I have written by myself, but unless an inspiration really hits me I prefer to write with the band.
Is "I Can Only Imagine" one of those songs you wrote by yourself?
Yeah, that's one of my inspiring moments. I've probably written 10 songs in my life just by myself. But that just happened to be one of those songs that really connected with people and literally changed everything for us.
Was it one of those experiences where the words and music just came together?
I had the idea for several years. After my dad died of cancer I used to write the phrase "I can only imagine" on anything I could get my hands on just thinking about him being in a better place. He died in 1991, and it wasn't until 1999 that we decided to put it to music and try to make a song out of it. It was one of those things that had been in my heart for so long but it only took about 10 minutes to write the lyrics and melody.
Would MercyMe like to be remembered more as a popular band with good songs or as a Christian band conveying a message?
More than all the mainstream stuff, I'd like to write songs that almost work like hymns so that generations to come will be singing the songs in churches. That would be a dream come true because no matter how many times the music fad changes, hymns -- songs that have been around for thousands of years -- never change. People know and sing them, and they do some good in people's lives.
When you first started to receive attention outside of the Christian scene, what was the reception like?
We had a preconceived notion that the response would be very strange. We thought, "We don't belong here." When it started taking off, we were freaking out as much as the mainstream DJs were that it was working. Probably the biggest blessing I've received through this whole thing is the incredible support that mainstream has had for the song. We're foolish to think that only Christians listen to Christian radio and we're foolish to think that no Christians work in the mainstream market.
There's obviously been an assumption in mainstream music that people don't want to hear anything different.
Regardless of what the message is, it's just a good song. If you're writing good music, you have a chance just like everyone else. Don't throw us a bone and play the song to clear your conscience -- play the song because it's a good song! That's where we want to be. We don't want any special favors. Don't do it for us because you think we have a hotline to God or whatever... we just want to write good music and play it!