Charlotte native John Mark McMillan is heading off on his first legitimate headlining tour this Spring accompanied by friends and band mates All The Bright Lights.
We caught up and talked to him about balancing family and touring, his latest release The Medicine and what he would like to change about the music industry.
DS: Tell us a little about the latest album The Medicine. It’s a re-release with 4 new songs correct?
Well the album we are touring on right now is a re-release. We have a new album that we are releasing in September, but the album we are touring on right now we released independently a couple of years ago and then we signed a record deal about a year ago and re-released it in July with four new songs on it. It’s funny though, because we recorded it so long ago, but it’s been so well received several years later. So I guess that means we’d done something right.
DS: Was it weird recording new songs and putting them back with the old ones?
It was a little weird, but after I recorded the album I had a couple of songs that I had been working on that I kind of finished up after we were done that I was like “Man, I wish that could have been on there.” Especially the song “Carolina Tide” where I thought that would fit on The Medicine so much more than it would on the next album, just because of the subject matter and the feel of the song. I was like this song belongs on The Medicine, so it gave me an opportunity when we re released the ablum to go back in the studio. So that was cool. I feel like most of those songs feel like they belonged on The Medicine, but that one for sure.
DS: It’s rare that you get second chances like, so I guess it worked out like it was supposed to work out.
Totally. It is rare that you get an opportunity to do that.
DS: Tell me about some of the guys in your band and the guys that recorded on the album. Is it the same guys on both?
For the most part they are the same. And on the new album, they are all on the new album. But the guys in my band are Lee Worley who plays drums. He grew up in Charlotte like I did, he was born downtown at the same hospital actually. James and Jon Duke, James Duke plays guitar, Jon Duke plays the bass. They are both from Jacksonville, Florida and James moved up here about 10 years ago, maybe seven or eight years ago. Then Jon moved up here a little more recently. They have their own band called All the Bright Lights and they are opening the shows. They are all really good guys, they’re my friends.
Everyone in the band has families now, everyone in the band has kids. In fact Jame’s wife has a kid on the way, they have a little girl too, actually in just a few weeks. So we’re swinging the first leg of the tour, coming back to Charlotte and taking a break before we pick up the Northeast leg of the tour.
DS: I bet that makes touring a lot more relaxed and fun.
Well that’s kind of the way I like it. I guess I’m a solo artist in some ways, well I’m marketed as a solo artist in that we don’t have a band name, but in my heart I want to think of what we’re doing as a band. And the guys contribute heavily to everything, especially on the creative end.
DS: Listening to the new songs like Skeleton Bones and listening to All the Bright Lights stuff I can definitely hear the influence.
For sure. James especially, well not James especially, but James has played with me for the longest of the three so James always brings a unique vibe. The other guys obviously do to. Lee has this super incredible feel that he plays on the drums unlike a lot of drummers. And the way Jon thinks about playing bass seems a lot different than how other guys play bass. Like he’s not trying to play the guitar on the bass, but he thinks very melodically on the bass.
DS: So when you released the album two years ago were you expecting to get signed and for it to take off or did it kind of come out of nowhere?
Well it kind of came out of nowhere. We got to where we could make a living without any sort of label, but then it kind of peaked in a way. So you either connect to a greater community or you stay where you’re at. We had learned how to build, so we had built something for five years. So it was just the next album that we thought we’d release independently so we never thought we’d release it on a label. We kind of liked that, because I liked not having too many opinions. It’s just a band and a producer and when it’s done we put it out, we don’t have to wait. The new album is basically done and it won’t be out until September. Last time we got the CD’s in the mail and we released it. We reached the point though, where we needed to grow in a significant way if this was going to work. We knew it was time to take a leap, we just didn’t know what that leap was.
The labeled we signed with has more of an independent deal, even though it has distribution through Columbia. It’s connected to a major, but it operates much more like an independent. So if like the president of the indie company is cool with it, we can do it. We don’t have to have like a million people on board to make something happen, like majors and super majors are.
DS: It keeps the trust there and keeps a sense of control to have it like that.
It totally does. Because we were so successful independently we already had a vision and we already had a model that worked. So they look at it more like they are just expanding our preexisting business. As long as we have a vision and know where we want to go, they kind of let us do it.
DS: Who were some of your favorite local bands in Charlotte growing up and who are some to look out for now?
You know what’s weird. I didn’t know a ton of local bands growing up. I think the Charlotte music scene has really sort of developed in the last five years. Thinking back, maybe I just wasn’t in those sort of streams when I was younger.
We definitely had Public Radio, I guess they’ve been around awhile. Even before that Mark Mathis solo stuff has always been great. I guess they’ve around for about ten years now. I’ve actually played with Mark some.
DS: You don’t have to leave it local, who influenced you more as a songwriter?
I guess growing up in the nineties some of my earliest influences were bands like Counting Crows, Pearl Jam, that whole grunge thing in high school. People that more influenced my writing are more Springsteen and Dylan. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more appreciative of the classic stuff.
DS: The working class kind of stuff?
JMM: Exactly, I love that vibe.
DS: What’s your favorite Ryan Adams record?
JMM: Well…I know what I’m supposed to say is that Heartbreaker is my favorite album. But it’s a tie between Heartbreaker and Cold Roses.
DS: Okay that’s fair.
JMM: Heartbreaker is just such a great album. I guess the two things about those two albums, more than any other Ryan Adams is, well I dont know there’s probably not an album I don’t like. I’m not sure what I think about the new b-sides.
DS: Do you like Ryan Adams or Whiskeytown better?
JMM: That’s tough. I like the later Whiskeytown stuff, that’s really really good. But the early Ryan Adams stuff is also really really good. I think Whiskeytown was really Ryan Adams anyway, from what I hear. Especially later on. Towards the end I think that almost everybody quit, so it really was him.
DS: I think that technically that last Whiskeytown record came out after Heartbreaker. I didn’t notice that until years later.
JMM: I’m like most people, I didn’t actually pick up Heartbreaker until after Gold came out. I think the thing with Heartbreaker and Cold Roses now is that they are two full albums that I would not skip through a single song on the album. I think that’s unbelievable. Most bands, I feel like I may like 4 songs.
DS: Cold Roses, him making a double album like that is kind of crazy to even think about and how good it is. But for Heartbreaker there were holes in that album for me for a long time, where it took time to grow on me.
JMM: There are some super chill moments on Heartbreaker. The thing I love about Heartbreaker is that it’s so stark, how sometimes it’s almost just a vocal and a couple of strings on a guitar.
DS: Well tell me a little about your songwriting process. Do you just write a ton of songs or is it more of a process where you work on one song for a long time?
JMM: I’ll usually work on several songs at one time. I just have all of these ideas sort of floating around all together. I’ll work on something for awhile, then get bored with it and try something else. One night I might have five ideas then they all end up on five different songs. Sometimes I’ll have like half of a song or verse and it will just kind of sit in my journal or on my phone for sometimes a year or two. And sometimes I’m just not writing anything and I’ll look back and think something is awesome and then I’ll have another idea for it. Sometimes I actually have two ideas and think what am I going to do with this and then realize that the two ideas actually belong together. So for me I just try to find a place where I can write and ad lib honestly. And then at some point everything kind of clicks. It’s a way to hone in on a feeling.
I usually don’t write super topically. I usually don’t take something and write about it. I usually start writing and find out that when I start writing with no purpose I end up seeing a reflection of what’s going on in me.
DS: I always wondered, I know you’re labeled as a Christian artist, but as a songwriter do you go in to writing a song thinking, man I have to write a faith based song, or is it kind of something that just comes out whether it comes out being what it’s “supposed” to be. Do you feel pressure having to write about a certain subject?
JMM: Nah I don’t really. I know there are several things that people are expecting of me, but I don’t think too much about that kind of thing. I think that they are going to get something good either way. The reason I write those kinds of things is because they are a part of me. I just try to write about what’s going on with me.
I’ve realized that if I can be honest with myself, its funny, because when I try to write a song for other people it doesn’t work. When I write a song that connects with me as a person, those are the songs that really connect. I think it’s because a lot of people feel the same way about a lot of things as I do. I feel that other people can find themselves in that too, because it’s coming from a real person and not from where this is what I need to do, or what I’m, supposed to do, or what I’m supposed to say. So they can see a person in it and identify with it.
DS: As a listener you definitely feel when people are being real and honest and when something is being forced upon you.
DS: Last question, one thing you could change about the music industry today?
I wish that the music industry would stick with artists longer, and be more interested in developing the artist long term, rather than trying to get as much money out of an artist as they can from the get go. It’s like, especially with a lot of major labels, if you aren’t making money right away, they are almost done with you.
We don’t have as much debt, because we are on somewhat of an indie label where they do things a little differently. They have to look at you as some sort of investment, not that we have to make money right away, but they have to hope that they are going to make some kind of money. But like back in the day, both Dylan and Springsteen, both of their first albums completely bombed. In fact, Springsteen, I think his first two albums bombed, then the third album was Born to Run.
DS: But what would have happened if they dropped him?
Exactly. if Springsteen or Dylan were out today, I don’t know if they would have made it. Like if they didn’t have people stick with them and develop them as artists.
DS: It’s like they expect a lot at first from your first album, and then the second album they tell you to do it again, and if you don’t you’re pretty much gone.
JMM: Totally, they expect you to know who you are immediately. A lot of these kids get signed at 18, 19 years old and they don’t know who they are, they don’t know what they have to say. They’re very talented but…
DS: But a lot of the time they are still playing the songs that they wrote when they were 16 or 17. And by the time that first album comes out those songs are really old and they’ve moved on to new songs. It’s kind of like with The Medicine where you want to focus more on the new songs, but you have to kind of work towards that.
JMM: Exactly, for sure.