Breathe In, Breathe Out: MercyMe Releases Their First Album in Four Years … in a Pandemic!
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Fresh from the overwhelming success of the I Can Only Imagine movie that was based on the early life of MercyMe front man Bart Millard, the band was excited to get back in the studio to record the follow-up to 2017’s Lifer.
But then something happened. The coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, shutting down virtually every representation of normal life. But rather than ceasing the recording process of what eventually would become their twelfth studio album, the band decided to hunker down in their own studio, forging onward to take advantage of the extra time.
The multiple American Music Award, Billboard Music Award, and Dove Award-winning band ended up recording 40 songs which was eventually pared down to 16 for the final release of Inhale (Exhale). Highlights include the chart-topping hit “Almost Home”, “On Our Way” (featuring Millard’s son Sam Wesley), and “Say I Won’t”, a track that serves as a potent declaration of faith in the wake of tragedy.
I recently spoke with Millard and lead guitarist Mike Scheuchzer about how the pandemic influenced them to rewrite the entire album, why it serves a potent reminder that Jesus is still in control, and why they chose to record a disco-themed song with a legendary singer.
First off, how have you and your families, as well as the band, been making it through the coronavirus pandemic thus far?
Bart Millard: The album's kind of gotten us through this whole pandemic, literally. Our first single, “Almost Home” (from the album) is a year and a half old. It came out at the end of 2019 and the album was supposed to follow in the spring of 2020 but then the pandemic hit. And so, we kind of stopped everything and ended up slowing the process down just to finish the record, but also to have something to do during the pandemic. We ended up kind of rewriting a whole different album. (That is) something that definitely wouldn't have happened if the pandemic didn't take place. And so, we had a different album title. We changed it to Inhale (Exhale). We wanted this to be sort of a timestamp, just to kind of remember everything that we've gone through.
I've got to believe that when you're making an album, momentum is vitally important. You get on a roll in the writing and recording process and hopefully it just flows. But in your case, on this one, it was a shut down for a while. Did that play a big role in recording this one?
Mike Scheuchzer: I think it really did. Not only did we have this endless amount of time, there was no limit of time and no deadline really to deal with. Also, we actually have our own place to record. We bought a cabin back in 2018, just south of Nashville where we live. Then we converted it into a studio.
When everything got locked down and all the studios in the Nashville area got locked down, we didn't necessarily have to hit all those guidelines. We could meet what was comfortable for us and our production team, which was helpful because it allowed us to get in and work for well over a year on this album. And really, we just let the songs happen. Sometimes we'd work on a song for three months and then it didn’t make it on to the record. We'd write something else. That never would've happened if we had the constraints of a usual album situation.
If we can roll the tape back to the very beginning of when you set out to record this new album and then subsequently kind of redoing the whole thing, what was the inspiration or the catalyst for recording what would eventually become Inhale (Exhale)?
Mike Scheuchzer: Well, we were well overdue. Our previous record, Lifer came out four years ago. So, usually it's about an 18-month window between records. So, we were definitely late to the party on an album release to begin with, but we were ready to make music finally. We had the movie (I Can Only Imagine) come out, which was a really fun distraction. But we were ready to start making music again. And then, when the pandemic hit, we really felt like we had something to say too. Our songs have always been kind of what we were going through at the time, what we were experiencing. And now, it was what the entire world was experiencing. We were all going through this thing together for the first time in history.
Because of the delay in the album’s release, you guys ultimately wrote and recorded more than 40 songs. It must have been very difficult to pare these tracks down to what would become the final 16. How did you go about this?
Bart Millard: It's like giving up children is what it feels like. It was more challenging. In the past, if there’s 12 songs that are supposed to be on the record, we would maybe write 13. It was never really that hard. That's the way we've always done it. And all this time to have that many songs, we didn't even realize how stress stressful it was going to be until we got to the point of narrowing them down (to what would become the final album). We just kept writing and writing and (eventually) had to say, okay, stop writing. Let's start shaping this record. It was stressful, man. It was hard. Which ones do you pick over the others? And we kind of came to a solution that we may actually have three albums that are for the most part written. Our label is totally supportive of that if we want to release albums sooner than we normally would. Once we knew that the songs would have a home, whether it's on this record or not, that made it a little bit easier.
As you mentioned earlier, strangely, the first single, “Almost Home” has been out a year and a half already. I don't know if that's any sort of a record, maybe you should contact the Guinness Book of World Records about it. But seriously, what can you tell me about that song?
Bart Millard: It was written in 1898. No. (laughs) Initially, it sounds like another song about Heaven. It's about living. It's about persevering and getting through. And that kind of kicks off what this whole record is about. It's about life. I did an interview with Bill Gaither and he explained it best. He said, “There's such a huge corporate worship movement taking place. It's almost like its own genre now.” But I think we overlook what he calls vertical worship. There's vertical worship, and there's corporate worship. And he says the stuff that glorifies Jesus is the music about how we need to live, and how we get through. How do we love each other? How do we make it through this journey? He said, “I think you guys are just doing horizontal worship.” And I love that way of describing it because the way that we write, we try to be consistent, but music is changing. Literally, the corporate songs people are singing in the church are taking over the charts, which is amazing. But there's something about community, loving your neighbor, and just how to navigate through life that is a big part of how we write and why we write. And so, “Almost Home” was a little bit of a nod to everything that happened with Imagine, but a chance to address that it's about the journey.
Another song that you've already released is “Say I Won't”. I discovered recently that this has had a heavy presence on social media. I also understand that this song is sort of a declaration of faith and has a very personal element to it in regard to your friend, Gary Miracle. Could you talk about that just a little bit?
Mike Scheuchzer: Gary was our first ever merchandise guy, selling t-shirts and CDs at our concerts. He was probably the worst merchandise guy on planet earth. He was horrible. He didn't count out t-shirts. He didn’t keep inventory, but we just loved him so much. He's such a good guy. We kept him around way longer than we ever should have. Fast-forward, we stay friends all these years. We all grow up and he gets a real job. Then, on New Year's Eve of 2019, we get news that he's being rushed to the hospital with flu like symptoms and they don't know what's going on. It turns out he was going into septic shock. He died on the (examining)table and they had to revive him. He was in a coma for several weeks after that. And then he woke up to the news that he was going to be a quadruple amputee. They were going to take his arms and legs.
As far as the song, we had kind of already started writing it as one thing, and then it kind of became (something else). Bart always says it became kind of this Rocky anthem, an overcomer kind of song because of Gary, what he was going through, and the way he was handling it. It wasn't the end of the world for him. He was walking through this horrible tragedy and wasn’t allowing his circumstances to dictate where his hope was coming from. We're so grateful to get to help tell his story because at first, he wasn't really sure he was ready to share his story emotionally. And we just asked if there's a way we could help tell the story and maybe carry some of the load for him. We've just been honored to walk through this with him.
Now, I don't always equate MercyMe with disco. Just once in a while.
Mike Scheuchzer: You should see my sequined pants. (laughs)
Bart Millard: That was Mike. Not Bart. Make sure that's there.
As I was saying, I don’t always equate MercyMe with disco, but you had the opportunity to record a song called “Brand New” with Gloria Gaynor. She is known for several disco anthems including “I Will Survive” and “Never Can Say Goodbye”. How was it that the two of you came together to record this song?
Bart Millard: Well, Chris Stevens was the producer on that song. Chris is the king of funk and disco stuff. And he produced Gloria's gospel record that came out a couple of years ago. I had a chance to write and work with her on that. And so, we went to Chris and the first time we got together, we wrote this song. But we didn’t know if we could pull this off. I didn't want it to be a novelty (song). I want people to go, “Hey, that's actually played really well.” And so, we put it aside and then when the album was almost finished, we were doing the 30,000-foot view of what was needed (for the final release). We decided we wanted something that would make people dance at a red light when nobody's looking.
We were listening to what we recorded and about to send it to be mixed. And Mike mentioned, “Hey man, wouldn't it be amazing if we could have Gloria Gaynor (sing) on it?” And I was like, that would have been amazing. I'm like, wait, maybe we still can. That was on a Friday night. I texted and sent the song to Gloria and said, this is crazy. We have this disco song. It'd be amazing if you're on it, but we have to get it done by Monday. And she wrote back and said, “Oh my gosh, I love this song so much.”
She lives in New Jersey. So, she found a studio up there. We were on Zoom watching her do the vocal and kind of coaching her through it. It all happened really, really fast. I always say, it's almost like our street cred moment. When we share the record with somebody, we're like, “Gloria Gaynor's on there. Check it out.” I'm buddies with Joel Smallbone from for KING & COUNTRY and Zach Williams. I sent them the song early on and they both randomly said, “How in the world did you get Gloria Gaynor?” I was like, because y'all used up Dolly Parton! We had to find another icon because we can't “over Dolly” on radio. We had to find somebody that’s legendary.
Mike Scheuchzer: Dolly, if you read this, we would still like to work with you.
After people have listened to Inhale (Exhale) what would you like your audience to get out of the listening experience? What is your greatest hope for this record?
Bart Millard: We've said from day one and the reason it's called Inhale (Exhale) is that if people are able to take a deep breath and set aside the things that are weighing them down for 40 something minutes, however long the album is, be reminded of what matters, to not let fear consume them, and know that Jesus is still in control, even when sometimes it may not feel like it. If they walk away with that, then it's a hundred percent worth it. Like I said, this album has kind of become a timestamp for the season we've gone through. And I hope that people can look back on this season, regardless of how horrible it's been, and they could see that there is still hope.
To Purchase MercyMe's latest album, Inhale (Exhale):
Watch a Music Video for "Almost Home", the First Single from MercyMe's Latest Album, Inhale (Exhale):
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