Why contemporary Christian band MercyMe rewrote its most recent album during the pandemic

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It’s easy to see why MercyMe’s song “Hurry Up and Wait” became a fan favorite. 

© Provided MercyMe

The contemporary Christian band known for more than a few iconic hits (think “I Can Only Imagine”), struck a nerve with “Hurry Up” by channeling some of the angst and frustration that many people have felt during the COVID pandemic. Like always, the popular group kept their message spiritually focused and grounded in God’s word.

Bart Millard, MercyMe’s frontman, said the video for the song was fittingly made in the band’s cabin studio. It seemed to perfectly capture the “cabin fever” of the pandemic shutdown and the ways people tried to stave off a certain sense of isolation that they felt.  

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The Grammy Award-winning band plans to bring its Gospel-centered message to Oklahoma City as part of its “inhale (exhale)” concert tour. The group will perform in concert at 7 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Paycom Center in downtown Oklahoma City, with contemporary Christian recording artist Micah Tyler as special guest.

Millard recently discussed the band’s current tour, response to the album “inhale (exhale)” and how he has continued to move forward during the global pandemic. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.    

Q: How was the band able to write the latest album “inhale (exhale)” during the height of the pandemic?

A: It’s obviously been a strange season for everybody. It took us about two years to make this album and it usually takes us a few months. In fact, our first single “Almost Home” was released in fall 2019, and normally an album would follow a month or two later. We waited a year and a half before our album came out. So during that time when COVID hit, we just kept writing songs. It was weird to have an album complete before COVID and not look at what we were writing during that season, so the album changed completely, the album title changed. I’ve been doing this long enough so I would say albums are like timestamps in our lives, so I will always remember it because of when it was made through COVID. That’s kind of why we called it ‘inhale (exhale)’ because right now I feel like all we can do is breathe.

Q: How have people responded to the album’s music?

A: It’s been really awesome. In spring 2020, we had canceled our tour and were coming back home. Every artist that had canceled started posting these gut-wrenching performances on YouTube and social media. I was seeing 10 or 20 a day and everyone was saying we’re all in this together, and everyone was more emotional than the last. I said man, I don’t think I can cry anymore. So in the studio, that’s kind of why we starting writing again. We thought maybe we should start reminding people that there is a joy somewhere in this, knowing that we’re not in control. When we released the album, the response was overwhelming. Normally, you release an album and you’re touring already and you can get immediate feedback. But when you finish an album and you sit at home for another half a year, it feels like, you start trying to find out what people are thinking and the response has been awesome. The tour has been a long time coming. 

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Q: “Hurry Up and Wait” really seemed to resonate with fans because it was one of the hit songs of the summer. When I saw the video for the song, with you running around singing in a house by yourself, marking the days of quarantine, I thought you must have been in my own living room! I knew other people probably felt the same way. Why do you think that particular track resonated with people? 

© Provided Contemporary Christian band MercyMe will perform in concert on Oct. 28 in Oklahoma City as part of the group’s “inhale (exhale)” tour. its bring its

A: That was the exact time in spring, we realized we just need people to laugh and be able to dance. We had just finished recording the song, knowing the album wasn’t going to come out anytime soon. We begged the label, can we just get it out there in iTunes, Spotify, whatever, just to justify making that video. We have a cabin that we made into a studio and I kept saying I don’t know how many days I stayed in my pajamas and we started joking about it. I said we should make a video of me just going crazy by myself. Me and our camera guy that we’ve known forever, the two of us were just winging it. We were blown away by how it turned out and it was so much fun to make.  

Q: What is the premise of the single “Say I Won’t” which has also captured the attention of so many fans?

A: “Say I Won’t” was written during a time when Gary Miracle, our first merch (band merchandise) guy 20 something years ago who is part of the family, got really sick on New Year’s Eve 2019. He had an infection in his blood and went into a coma. His body started shutting down and they eventually had to take (amputate) his arms and his legs. Because of COVID, we had to watch from a distance and it was so hard. I already had the idea for “Say I Won’t” but the original idea was more of when you realize your identity in Christ and what you possess inside, that’s when you really start living. That’s where it started with the song but by the end, just watching Gary’s journey of being an overcomer, I said these two are connected. When we knew that was going to be the first single, the studio wanted to be able to tell someone’s story, something powerful because we knew we couldn’t tour. I called Gary and asked him what I thought and he was just in tears. He said ‘Man, we’ve been praying every day just to show us purpose in all this.’ It’s been awesome, the attention it’s brought. He would say he had a ministry dumped on his lap through all this, meeting so many people in the service, who’ve lost limbs, or people going through mental health issues and depression. It’s amazing to walk that journey with him.     

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Q: What about the song “Almost Home” which seems to have multiple meanings? It could seem to imply that people can draw comfort from the idea that the health crisis will be over at some point. 

A: “Almost Home” was written long before the pandemic. There was already a sense of division before the pandemic. We were already in a tough spot, I felt. It did come from a time where I felt if there was ever a time to rally the troops, if you will, and to say there has to be something bigger in control, there has to be hope. If we don’t have hope, we’re in trouble. So that’s where I got the idea. I remember being a kid going on trips and I would ask are we there yet. When we were going to Disney, I would do it with excitement and when we would come home, I asked if it was out of desperation — I just wanted to be in my bed. That’s the idea: Don’t give up yet, the finish line is there. We’re almost there. So yes, it definitely still applies to the pandemic, but I had no idea when we wrote it. 

Q: You have quite a few guest artists on this particular album — . Gloria Gaynor, from the disco era, for the song “Brand New;” Gary LeVox from Rascal Flatts for “A Little Love;” and your son Sam Wesley for the track “On Our Way.” How did those collaborations come about? 

A: My son, he goes by his middle name because he’s trying to find his own lane. I totally get it. He’s opening for us on this fall tour. It’s nuts to think he was born and I brought him home from the hospital the week “I Can Only Imagine” went to No. 1 back in 2002 and now he’s 19, opening for us. It just means I’m old! I realized that he’s super talented and I’ve encouraged him to write with people since we live in Nashville. He brought the chorus (for “On Our Way”) to me. He wasn’t writing it thinking of an artist. He was writing it for somebody, but didn’t know who. I told him I’m not doing this because you’re my son — I love this song. I wanted Sam to do a demo so the studio could see what the song could be. They loved it so we kept him on it.

As far as Gary from Rascal Flatts, he has a studio about an hour or so away. Our studio is about 10 minutes from his house so our place became an escape for a lot of people. When I first met him, he said “I’m singing on your next album.” I said whatever you say. I got nervous thinking we don’t have a song worthy of Gary LeVox’s singing voice. Then we came up with this love song. We said ‘Gary would you take a stab at this?’ and it’s like it was made for him. It’s such a fun song to do. 

With “Brand New,” we were trying to make a song where you would hopefully get caught at a red light alone dancing because it makes you want to move. We thought you’re either going to laugh at a disco song or laugh with it. You’re not going to hate it. We were nervous and the guitar player Mike said what would solve all this is if we got Gloria Gaynor, the queen of disco music, to sing on it. I had a chance to work on Gloria’s gospel album a few years ago and we’ve become dear friends. I reached out to her and sent her the song. She said she was all in. She was such a great sport. She is so awesome and she has so much energy. She’s all in. When we got it back and got it all mixed, I thought this is one of my favorite moments of my career — I did a disco song with Gloria Gaynor!

Q: What can people expect from the concert?

A: My son Sam Wesley and Micah Tyler are the two opening acts. We’ve done about 10 shows over the summer just kind of testing the waters. The enthusiasm of people who feel like they have been locked up has been crazy. This is going to be a massive celebration of just being together. This is the biggest production we’ve ever done. I think it’s going to be an emotional evening. You’re going to laugh and cry and everything in between. I’m just so excited. You never know what the crowd is going to be like but I feel like I do know. Everywhere, we’ve gone so far, people are so energetic and so engaging and so happy to be there.

Q: I can’t let you go without asking what are some of the ways that have helped you get through the pandemic?

A: Eating more food! I’ve put on the COVID 20, I think! You know, we intentionally stretched our album out to have a sense of normalcy and a place to go work in the studio. That is the second thing that got me through.

It was my family, first and foremost. When it first hit, I think we all thought this will be over in a few weeks. I don’t remember exactly when it sunk it that we were in it for the long haul, but whenever that moment was is when I kind of acclimated to being home with my family. My wife and I have five kids. I realized that it may not be over as soon as we think. Hopefully, we’ll never go through this again. I started to thinking Lord willing, I’ll never have this moment with my wife and kids at the age they are to where the world has pushed pause — there’s no deadlines waiting for me, nothing, so I’m going to take advantage of it. I’m being brutally honest when I say that there were days when the most important thing when I would wake up was what flavor of ice cream am I going to eat with my 12-year-old daughter. And I was excited about it!  

MercyMe inhale (exhale) concert

When: 7 p.m. Oct. 28.

Where: Paycom Center, 100 W Reno.

Cost: $22 to $150

Information/tickets: (8000 653-8000; www.ticketmaster.com.                                

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Why contemporary Christian band MercyMe rewrote its most recent album during the pandemic

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